Conspiracy Theories

Shooting Down the Conspiracy Theory

The House Assassinations Committee and the Warren Commission are both wrong. There is no need to invoke a conspiracy to explain what happened in Dealey Plaza. A historian—and eyewitness—recreates the events of November 22, 1963.


Over the years a large number of Americans have come to believe that a conspiracy was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The conspiracy theorists who emerged after November 22, 1963, and reached a high point in the several years after the publication of the Warren Commission Report late in 1964 have never retreated from their views. Their lobby played a significant role in pushing for the reopening of the investigation by the House Select Committee on Assassinations several years ago. Although the committee has not yet issued its complete report—the 40-some volumes of hearings and exhibits will far surpass the 27 published by the Warren Commission—statements already made by some of its members suggest the general direction of its analysis—much of it quite different from the interpretations arrived at by the earlier Warren Commission. Which investigative body is closer to the mark? Or is neither close enough?

The House committee has concluded that "the Warren Commission failed to investigate adequately the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President" and, more sensationally, that Kennedy "was probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy." These are, to say the least, serious charges, demanding that the assassination be discussed while, one hopes, the committee is still deliberating over the evidence and compiling its report. One "rush to judgment" was quite enough!

Many specific issues are involved in a complex historical event such as the assassination. It is incumbent upon the historian to explore four fundamental questions: what? how? who? and why? Though all are interrelated, the last is, without doubt, the most important. Interestingly, it has received less attention from the Warren Commission, its defenders and critics, and the recent committee than might have been anticipated. Of course, it cannot be addressed without a scenario—what happened in those six seconds—providing answers to the first three questions. And on this there is vast disagreement. Detailed examination of all the scenarios that have been put forward would easily fill several volumes, and some of them are so inane as to defy rational comment. But what can we make of the several alternatives offered by the Warren Commission and now suggested by the House Committee?


Whatever else one may think about the inadequacies, failures, and even errors of the Warren Commission, it was forced, by the very nature of its charge, to develop a scenario of what occurred. As it turned out, the commission offered three and, in effect, concluded that it was unable to settle on any one of them. Of course, this lack of finality on a crucial issue gave the critics a field day.

With few exceptions, the critics have seldom felt any need to develop a comprehensive scenario about what happened in Dealey Plaza. In order to sell books, it was only necessary to raise questions about specific pieces of data—never mind what was neglected nor whether the pieces selected might contradict one another and undercut the building of a coherent picture of what happened. And they were helped along by the fact that for certain people, including many intellectuals, the appeal of the conspiracy theory of history is almost addictive.

The several assassinations of the 1960s, the pursuit of the war in Vietnam including efforts to cover up bombing, atrocities, events in Tonkin Gulf, etc., and culminating in Watergate—all involving agencies of the government functioning in secrecy—have greatly heightened the sense of conspiracy. Among the "lessons" of Vietnam and Watergate, apparently, is the implication that suspicions about the Kennedy assassination as a conspiracy are also correct.

But what are the lessons to be drawn from Watergate? Surely one is that carrying out a conspiracy is a terribly difficult operation. In looking back on Vietnam, what is amazing is the extent to which the publication of secret materials such as the Pentagon Papers confirmed the criticisms of opponents of the war that were made at an earlier date, usually by comparison and analysis of data from various governmental sources. I.F. Stone became famous using this technique, which might be called "the Izzy Principle." A close corollary is "the Jack Anderson Principle," derived from the fact that the politics of bureaucracy demands deliberate leaks as a means of subverting opposing policies.

The "Plumbers" and the Watergate break-in were results of these bureaucratic leaks aimed to defeat the Nixon administration's pursuit of its policies. There will inevitably be a "Deep Throat"! The tenacity of the leaker is amazing. Far from being hot-shot investigators—as Barry Susman, the editor above them, revealed in his book on Watergate—Woodward and Bernstein were frequently at a dead end, discouraged, and ready to give up. It was Deep Throat who, at each of these times, urged them on, tossing in new pieces of data to further the investigation. Deep Throat was determined to have them succeed, in spite of themselves, and surely ought to have shared in their investigative awards.

To satisfy some of the points raised by the conspiratorialists, the Kennedy assassination would have had to be a very complex conspiracy. One little item suggested in their agenda—the planting of exhibit 399, the so-called magic bullet found on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital—would have required extremely difficult planning and operations. So the question is, if such a relatively uncomplicated conspiracy and cover-up as Watergate came unraveled so easily, how could such a complex conspiracy as the Kennedy assassination have been kept so well for so long? This seems never to have bothered the critics.

With little hard evidence for an interpretation of their own, the conspiratorialists have demanded proof at a level, or beyond, what might be expected of an experiment in inorganic chemistry. But no event in the realm of human action can be so neatly tied down. Further, even in the physical sciences, perfect predictability is no longer expected. In explaining human events, one can do no better than to seek the most economical explanation that seems to confirm the most significant evidence, while contradicting as little as possible, if anything.


Any investigation of what happened in those six seconds in Dealey Plaza must begin with the hypotheses offered by the Warren Commission late in 1964. In the first weeks after the assassination, and with the Zapruder film available, an explanation of the event seemed easy enough. The President had been hit in the neck by the first shot; the second had hit Governor Connally; and the third had mortally wounded the President in the head.

But Warren Commission investigators concluded that it could not have happened this way. There was ballistic evidence for only two bullets within the presidential limousine—that found on Governor Connally's stretcher at Parkland Hospital, which had fallen out of his clothes; and the various pieces in the car, some of which had even cracked the windshield and all deriving from the bullet that had fragmented as it shattered the President's head.

The commission had no choice but to reject the initial, simple hypothesis. Yet, astonishingly, it is resurrected in Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald, a recent addition to the literature by Edward Jay Epstein, long-time student of the assassination and the work of the commission. Says Epstein, without any further explanation, "It can be concluded that Kennedy and Connally were hit by two separate bullets and that a third bullet then hit Kennedy." Such a statement must boggle the minds of commission defenders and critics alike, and it makes one wonder where Mr. Epstein has been all these years.


Having ruled out the three-bullets/three-hits scenario, the commission suggested three alternative hypotheses; each involved one bullet missing and the so-called magic bullet hitting both the President and the Governor (see chart). Although there is really nothing very magical about this shot—in fact, it could not have been otherwise—the commission's alternatives did raise a severe problem of another kind, the time gap between the reaction of the President and that of the Governor. The pros and cons of each alternative were discussed, but the commission reached no decision about which of them was most likely. This indecision; the interval in reaction time between Zapruder frame 225, when Kennedy emerged from behind the road sign already reacting violently to a wound while Connally did not until—he himself estimated—frame 234; the testimony of some witnesses of more than three shots coming from other directions, such as the grassy knoll; and the President's lurch backward after the head shot all proved a fertile ground for the critics in the years that followed.

Few of the critics offered a complete scenario about what happened. One of those who did was Josiah Thompson, a philosophy professor at Haverford College. He wrote of three assassins, firing not only from the Texas School Book Depository but also from the grassy knoll in front of the limousine and from the Dal-Tex Building in the rear. To assess all of these criticisms would be a book or more, and some are simply unanswerable within the realm of human logic, such as a study, privately printed, which suggested that Secret Service Agent Roy H. Kellerman, in the left front seat of the car, was the assassin. I have not seen a theory insinuating that Mrs. Kennedy was behind it all so that she could be free to marry Aristotle Onassis, but given the atmosphere that has surrounded the assassination, it is not out of the realm of future possibility.


While not at ease with the Warren Commission conclusions because of the reaction-time gap, I assessed the three hypotheses. About alternative one, I wondered how the assassin could have missed with the first and closest shot, for which he had ample time. I rejected alternative three from my own experience in Dealey Plaza, because I had rounded the corner of the monument immediately after the head shot and had heard no further shot. Like the Connallys, I had heard the first two shots closely bunched together, with a much longer interval before the third. If any of the commission's alternatives seemed plausible, despite the reaction gap, it was the second one, which suggested that the assassin had squeezed off a very hurried second shot that missed the President's car.

With those doubts in mind, I continued to study the event and use it in teaching a history methodology course. As I examined each of the volumes produced by the critics, in the light of what I had heard and seen that day, all seemed considerably more far-fetched than the alternatives put forward by the commission. This is not to say that the analyses, both by critics of the Warren Commission's conclusions and by many who defended it, added nothing to our knowledge of the event. On the contrary. Perhaps the most important development was that a number of medical researchers, including some forensic pathologists hostile to the commission's findings, were allowed to examine the films and x-rays taken at the time of the President's autopsy.

A certain congruency did begin to emerge. Studies by John Lattimer, essentially a defender of the commission's findings, and Cyril H. Wecht, a long-time critic, agreed that all of the shots had come from the rear. This autopsy analysis undercut the elaborate physics data put forward by grassy-knoll theorists such as Thompson based upon the backward thrust of the President's head. I had, myself, run over near the grassy knoll area immediately after the shots because from that elevated view one might view events in the motorcade, which had turned north toward the hospital after going through the underpass. Needless to say, I observed no assassins!

Hindsight was making it clear that the commission and those associated with it had made a number of errors of judgment, many of which had opened the doors to a flood of criticism. One such was Navy Commander Dr. James C. Humes's burning of his autopsy notes. Studies like Epstein's initial one had exposed the intense political pressure under which the commission had labored in trying to publish its conclusions prior to the 1964 elections. From the standpoint of good historical research, these pressures and the handling of data left much to be desired.

Some of the errors, however, were inexcusable under any circumstances. Perhaps the worst, seized upon by the critics, involved the artist's sketches of the President's wounds, published by the commission. The indicated angles of the bullets made it difficult to understand how the shots could have come from the sixth floor of the Depository as argued by the commission. It was later revealed that these had been made without the artist having seen the autopsy materials and working instead from necessarily vague instructions from the commission staff. Contrast the sketches with those made by Dr. Lattimer (see page 21). The commission was in many ways its own worst enemy!



Now the question is, Will the House Select Committee on Assassinations do any better? It became evident in the initial hearings during August 1978, involving James Earl Ray and the assassination of Martin Luther King, that the committee did not share the conspiratorial views of attorney Mark Lane—once the defender of Oswald's innocence and recently lawyer for Ray, the latter now claiming to be innocent—or of black militants like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, arguing that Ray should have a new trial. A great deal of evidence shot Ray's allegations full of holes, while a polygraph test indicated that he had acted alone in killing King.

A number of important new pieces of evidence, along with some old, were introduced during the September hearings dealing with the assassination of President Kennedy. Some of it related to "neutron activation analysis" of bullet fragments, especially exhibit 399, the nearly whole bullet found on the stretcher of Governor Connally. This "magic bullet" has long been a prime topic for the conspiratorialists.

One view has been that the bullet was actually taken from the President's stretcher and planted on Connally's. The ballistic evidence flatly precludes this possibility. But suppose it was? Where, then, are the fragments that must also have existed from the wounds inflicted upon the Governor? That would, indeed, have been a "magic bullet," for it would seem to have disappeared!

Was the bullet planted by conspirators? We must consider whether that is the most economical explanation of the data—remembering that this is only one of a number of like actions that would have to have been carried out if a conspiracy did indeed exist.

The conspirators would have had to obtain beforehand a number of such spent bullets fired by Oswald's rifle. That is not, in and of itself, an insuperable difficulty. Then, agents would have had to be planted at each of the possible hospitals, even if fairly certain that the limousine carrying its wounded occupants would head for Parkland Hospital. The conspirator at Parkland would then have had to slip the bullet onto a stretcher so that it would later be discovered.

But, whether he slipped it onto the President's or the Governor's stretcher, how could he be certain the wounds would be compatible with the remains of such an almost whole bullet? Indeed, much of the discussion of conspiracy has stemmed from the fact that the severity of Connally's wounds seemed to many to belie the possibility of so little apparent damage to the bullet. If, then, the bullet was a plant, the conspirators went to enormous lengths and considerable risk—simply to create problems for themselves.

Most significant of all, how could the conspirators know the configuration of the spent bullets in the limousine? Suppose everyone had agreed that three shots were fired and that the remains of more than half of three bullets had been found in the car. Then the discovery of a bullet at Parkland would have made it certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a conspiracy was afoot—the very thing the conspirators would have wished to avoid. It is difficult to believe that, lacking immediate knowledge of the wounds and disposition of the bullet fragments in the car, they would have gone to such lengths and risk. Such is the kind of answer that could have been offered to the magic-bullet speculations even before the House committee's work.


Now, however, thanks to the committee, we have the definitive answer through neutron activation analysis. For many years the critics have demanded such tests of exhibit 399. It turns out these were done in 1964, but the results were kept secret by the FBI because the technology of 14 years ago left some doubt about the conclusiveness of the tests. Dr. Vince P. Guinn, a University of California nuclear chemist, recently performed neutron activation analyses on CE399 and various fragments, and his test results were confirmed by independent consultants employed by the House committee. The results:

• All the bullet fragments found in the limousine or the victims came from just two bullets—one that wounded both men and another that hit the President in the head and killed him.

• The so-called magic bullet found at Parkland Hospital matched tiny fragments taken from Connally's shattered wrist.

• CE 399 and the other fragments contained a very slight amount of antimony, as did the unfired bullet left in the chamber of the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle in the Book Depository, and it is "extremely likely" that all were from the same batch of ammunition.

• This level matched that found in the bullet fired at General Edwin Walker at his Dallas home in April 1963.

Also during the September hearings, the committee again heard testimony from the Connallys, a report from a team of forensic experts about the possibility of the "single-bullet" theory, and the presentation of a possible scenario by a space engineer and a photo analyst.

As they did when interrogated by the Warren Commission, the Connallys again maintained that the first two of the shots were bunched close together while there was a longer interval before the third, and final, one. The former Governor repeated that he was hit by the second shot (which he didn't hear) after hearing a first shot; exclaiming, "No, no, no"; and turning to his right in an effort to see the President. The greatest difficulty with any of the Warren Commission scenarios was still presented by the testimony of Mrs. Connally. She agreed that her husband was hit by the second shot, but when she turned after the initial shot she saw the President already reacting to a wound. This would appear to raise questions that could not be answered within the Warren Commission model, even assuming a delayed reaction by the Governor.

The tape of the shots, recently discovered by the committee, would appear to confirm the Connallys' view, shared by my own recollection, that the first two shots were closely bunched, a mere 1.6 seconds apart. It is interesting that in his analysis written in 1969, Col. William Hanson suggested this precise figure, that a rifle could easily be fired in that time span, and that the Warren Commission averaging of 2.3 to duplicate the hits was simply based upon faulty logic.

At the same time, eight different forensic pathologists told the House committee that they agreed with the "single-bullet" theory offered by the Warren Commission. Only Dr. Cyril Wecht, a long-time critic of the commission, dissented from this opinion; even he agreed, however, that all of the shots seem to have come from the rear.

Finally, Tom Canning, an engineer, and Calvin McCamy, a photo analyst, presented to the committee a scenario similar to the Warren Commission's first alternative—a miss on the first shot, the second hitting the President in the neck and entering Governor Connally, and the third hitting the President in the head. Using a copy of the Zapruder film that had been enlarged, sharpened, and stabilized, the two men traced the trajectories to the sixth floor of the Depository. Fitting in with this scenario was evidence by other experts that, if the iron sights on the rifle had been used at that short distance, it would have been possible to fire the rifle considerably faster than the average of 2.3 seconds once estimated by the Warren Commission. A second shot might follow closely upon the first without indicating a second assassin.

Given the introduction of all this new evidence, but without a final report from the committee, we might speculate about whether the data produced thus far are likely to still the criticism that has surrounded the findings of the Warren Commission all these years. It seems clear that some of the critics and the media will continue to write about the assassination, whatever happens, simply because there is money in it. Still, this scenario does not fit certain pieces of information that have to be given some consideration.


First, it does not, of course, conform to the testimony of Mrs. Connally. That this is the case was indicated by the Governor when he appeared recently on the Dick Cavett Show; it was his wife's recollection of the event, he said, that really raises questions about the conclusion reached by the Warren Commission. Second, there is Agent Kellerman's testimony that he heard the President utter, "My God, I am hit," immediately after the first shot, at which time he turned to see the President moving his hands upward toward his neck and head. (The President could not have so spoken after a neck shot damaging his larynx.) Third, there is still the question of the time between the obvious reaction of Kennedy and the earliest point at which a reaction to a wound can be observed with respect to Connally. Finally, there is the question how the assassin could have missed at such a close distance.

Consider the last point. If he used the iron sight for a quick second shot, it is difficult to believe the assassin would not have used the telescopic sight for the first shot, for which he patiently waited while the limousine approached him down Houston Street and then made the turn onto Elm. At one point, labeled Position A by the commission, the distance between the rifle in the window and the President is only about 91 feet, or only slightly more than 30 yards, so that the image in the scope is very large. Why the assassin did not fire at this point must forever remain conjecture. Perhaps it was because he wished all his shots to be clear of the oak tree that blocked his view—from Zapruder frame 166 through 210 the commission estimated, with a gap in the foliage at frame 186, during which the President was briefly exposed.

Although CBS News years ago argued for such an early shot, a considerable amount of evidence would suggest otherwise. As he went behind the road sign after Zapruder frame 193, for example, the Governor had not as yet made any sort of movement to turn toward his right to look at the President in response to the sound of the first shot. A really early shot, which was not indicated by any witnesses, if a hit, would have meant a rather long delayed reaction by the President and an incredibly long one by the Governor.

If the first shot was a miss, at whichever of these early Zapruder frames it is estimated, then such a miss must have been caused by the bullet being deflected by the limbs of the oak tree partially blocking for a moment the assassin's view. This must be the case, because, when one says "miss" with respect to this first shot, it is important to remember that this does not mean a miss of just the President and the Governor, but of the entire limousine. It is simply inconceivable that, unless he hit the tree, the assassin with a 4x scope, or even iron sights, could have missed the car at a distance of anywhere from 138 to 176 feet and then have made the two subsequent, incontrovertible hits from a longer distance. None of the news reports indicate at which specific frame Canning and McCamy believe the miss-shot to have occurred.

While it is impossible to dismiss altogether the first-shot-miss notion, I have always had some reservations about it. First, the rather light foliage on the oak tree when the FBI filmed it in full bloom in the spring of 1964 might not deflect a relatively heavy bullet of medium speed such as the 6.5. Second, in viewing the FBI film in the National Archives, it did not seem to me that the assassin's view was obstructed nearly as much as suggested by the Warren Commission. Third, as noted some years ago by Edmund Cooper Johnston, the FBI photographer was far to the left of the window, although we cannot be certain that the assassin was so positioned. If one moves several feet to the right, the number of frames upon which the limousine is exposed is greatly increased.

From the above, the reader may have concluded that the recent House committee was on the whole building a single-assassin, nonconspiracy theory that might fit the essentials of the Warren Report—despite some criticisms of the Warren Commission's work now acknowledged even by such members as Gerald Ford, who was angered by the new evidence suggesting that certain data were withheld from the commission. Insiders had been aware that deep divisions existed within the committee with respect to those who believed in a conspiracy and those who did not. And any illusion of unity or consensus was shattered by the announcement of December 31 that there was the probability of a conspiracy.

The major piece of data for this assessment was the tape recording of the shots made from the radio inadvertently left on by a motorcycle policeman. On this tape a fourth noise is heard almost immediately after the third shot, which is an interval after the first two, bunched shots. This has revived the whole grassy-knoll scenario. Dallas police have recently said that Officer H.B. McLain's cycle was not near the scene as claimed by the committee, but was more than two miles away. On February 8, the Denver Post reported the existence of a new film of the event taken by Dallas resident Jack Daniels. If, as rumored, the grassy knoll is clearly visible, this may settle that controversy as well as locate Officer McLain's cycle. This question must await further evidence and analysis.

But it is difficult to conceive of the grassy-knoll assassin. There is no real evidence of one from any extant picture and, most importantly, no ballistic evidence in the car of a frontal hit. Unlike the rear, it is a poor position from which to ambush the car, and when I rather immediately ran up the knoll to see from that vantage point what was going on in the motorcade, I saw no evidence of anyone fleeing the scene. But here again, we must ask of this supposed fourth shot, which I suspect was some other noise, how could the assassin have missed the entire car at such a close range? If he missed, the bullet would have hit across the street just about where I had fallen to the ground after the third bullet. I experienced no such explosion.


Are we then back to square one, destined to have a continuing controversy led by politicians seeking publicity, publications seeking sales, and an additional lobby of conspiracy theorists—much of whose identity, and even some income from foundations, writings, etc., depends on pursuing the notion of a conspiracy theory?

It is interesting that for some years there has existed a nonconspiratorial study that appears to solve the crime from within a different framework from that suggested by the Warren Commission and that fits all of the data that I experienced that day in Dallas. It is a study by retired Air Force ballistics expert Col. William Hanson—The Shooting of John F. Kennedy: One Assassin; Three Shots; Three Hits—No Misses. What has amazed me is the way his book has been virtually ignored by the media and even a so-called scholarly bibliography put together by a professor at Wisconsin. Conspiracy buffs simply don't wish to discuss it, and many I have spoken to have not even read it. Governor Connally has a copy and, if he bothered to read it, would find most of his own questions answered by the analysis. The House committee was sent copies and then asked for additional ones. It will be interesting to see whether it offers in its final report any detailed comment on the Hanson hypothesis, simply mentions it, or ignores the study as virtually everyone else has.

It would be impossible to summarize here what it took Hanson a book to do. Essentially what he does is to break free of the assumption upon which most of the writing, of critics and defenders alike, has been based. This is the notion that Kennedy's initial reaction was to a neck wound. But what if his reaction was to a ricocheting bullet that had inflicted a head wound later obliterated by the massive head wound at frame 313? (See chart.) Such occurrences are not uncommon, according to experienced ballistics experts.


This would fit the testimony offered by the Connallys, as well as Agent Kellerman's that the President had said he was hit. In his testimony Kellerman indicated that the President had his hands up to the side of his head at a point at which he was screened from Zapruder's camera by the road sign. It was the second bullet that went through the President's neck and then wounded Connally. Far from being a magic bullet, the slowing down caused by the flesh of Kennedy's neck probably saved the Governor's life and kept the bullet from fragmenting when it hit his bone. The President's already weakened scalp cover thus took a more severe wound from the head shot, and the jet-propulsion at that weakened point explains the backward thrust many at one time attributed to a shot from the front, but for which there is no ballistic evidence.

But the strongest piece of evidence comes from Mrs. Kennedy, who testified that she turned to her right after hearing a noise and the Governor's shout.

And all I remember is seeing my husband. He had this sort of quizzical look on his face, and his hand was up, it must have been his left hand. And just as I turned and looked at him I could see a piece of his skull and I remember it was flesh colored. I remember thinking he looked as if he had a slight headache. And I just remember seeing that. No blood or anything.

Mrs. Kennedy was describing the scalp, which is flesh-colored, and not the white bone of the skull. But the important thing is the wound at this very early point in time. She could not have meant the head wound from the much later third shot, which induced massive splattering of blood, brain, and bone, much of which was all over her; nor could she have been referring to a neck wound.

If we are looking for the most economical explanation that fits the accumulated data, Colonel Hanson's analysis fills the bill. Of course, many people are clearly more interested in a conspiracy theory per se than in a theory accounting for the facts.

The notion of conspiracy is in many ways an evasion of detailed causal analysis. Conspiracies have occurred and will, no doubt, continue to do so; but this is no justification for becoming emotionally addicted to such explanations to the exclusion of more extended and complex analyses. William Appleman Williams observed in The Contours of American History that such addicts "seem to have confused consciousness of purpose with conspiracy. Now neither contingency nor madness is absent from history, but the vast majority of significant figures on the stage of history act consciously and purposefully (if usually routinely) within their conceptions of the world. Hence to assert, or assume, that the choice of interpretations lies between irrationality, chance, and conspiracy is to distort the nature of history almost beyond recognition. History written from that point of view becomes little more than a bag of tricks dumped upon the living."

William Marina is a REASON contributing editor and teaches history and business at Florida Atlantic University. He is writing a book on the Kennedy assassination.