Why has the Assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 been so controversial?

The thirty-fifth president of the United States was shot in Dallas in 1963 on the 22 November at around 12:30 pm. That single sentence is the most that Americans and historians from across the political spectrum can agree on in 2014, which in itself offers the outline of a suggested answer to the question of why the assassination was controversial. Unlike the previous assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, the assassin was not seen and did not identify himself or themselves during the shooting. Subsequently, out of the Warren Commission’s partial investigation, the internal Secret Service and FBI investigations, the three Congressional Investigations (the Pike Committee, Church Committee and Committee on Assassinations), the Assassination Records Review Board, and the notorious Garrison investigation by the District Attorney of New Orleans, only the Warren Commission identified one assassin to the exclusion of all others. Shortly after the killing itself, President Johnson was informed by the head of the FBI, J.Edgar Hoover, that there was insufficient evidence to convict the chief suspect, and this conclusion was agreed by Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, who called for an effort to calm the public by identifying one single assassin without delay in 1963, shortly after the death of Lee Oswald.

The reasons for the failures of the majority of investigations rest upon different assessments of evidence. These have, over the years, been based on the byzantine and elaborated presence and absence of various sorts of evidence, whether forensic, circumstantial, or testimonial. The problems have been compounded by a pattern of obfuscation on the part of the Kennedy family, the FBI, the CIA, the Armed Forces, the official media, and various politicians of influence or power, each of whom may have had reasons of their own to muddy the waters in numerous and overlapping ‘cover ups’. Things have not been helped by a suspicious pattern of deaths amongst key witnesses and investigators which seriously undermined attempts in the 1970s to get to the bottom of the issue.

Murders which involve such complications are apt to become ‘parlour games’ which amateur sleuths are keen to solve and which often sponsor small industries long after the case has become capable of solution. Such has been the case, for instance, with the affair of the Princes in the Tower, or the Ripper Murders of 1888. Even the Mad Gasser of Mattoon has had his or her day. The Kennedy assassination, however, has over time become a sort of ongoing Dreyfus Affair, in which the splits and reformations of politics and society that took place in the ‘short sixties’ from around 1964 to 1969, leading into the disillusion and stagflation of the seventies, have been injected. There is hardly an aspect of the affair that does not relate to somebody, whether it is women who feel ignored, small-time men who dramatize their lives, small businessmen who made it big in some tragic way, politicians who feel that great aspirations ultimately fail, cynics who have come to believe that everything is about sex or money, or the free and easy corruption of many police forces before the advent of DNA testing and serious public defence.

More seriously, the assassination and the subsequent failure of what might be termed political ‘due process’ have been a theme to which historians, investigators and those interested in an amateur way have continually returned. The treatment of Kennedy’s body and of evidence in general by the Secret Service, for instance, was illegal from start to finish. Texas (and at that time therefore, American) law was ignored, autopsies were botched, cars were washed, suits cleaned, witnesses suborned and evidence generally tainted or suppressed. Until 1975, when a copy of the infamous ‘zapruder film’ was shown on network television, the media generally colluded in these distortions, even to the point of making things up (such as Kennedy’s behaviour within his limousine). The threads left unravelled in the original Kennedy case were, at the time but with greater effect after 1967, pulled to reveal governmental collusion in foreign murders, coups d’etat, a programme of Caribbean terrorism, and criminal activity which extended to elaborate connections to organised crime. An enormous amount of documentary and testimonial evidence was revealed by researchers and investigators into the assassination which, though not relating directly to the events in Dallas, had the effect of proving that a sort of underwater and deeply sinister superstructure existed beneath the white iceberg peaks of American efforts in the Cold War.  These were, apparently, enough to convince leading politicians such as Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Hale Boggs (himself a member of the Warren Commission) and Mike Mansfield, amongst others, that not only had Kennedy been killed as a result of a domestic political conspiracy, but that the consequences of revealing it would be devastating to the American national security regime. Again, these are not speculations but facts, confirmed in transcripts and recordings of telephone calls, testimonial evidence, and public declarations by senior politicians.

The Kennedy Assassination has also proven a useful ‘watershed’ for those who have sought to suggest that the American state, or the quality of being American, changed in some fundamental way in 1963. It came before the Vietnam War, inflation, fiscal deficits, and the culture wars, and immediately after the peak of American influence, glamour—and adjusted GDP—in 1962. Subsequent allegations about drug-taking in the Kennedy white house, or corruption, or sexual promiscuity, have not dimmed the association of America’s youngest elected president with the idea that things could have been better. There is, again, a core of truth in the argument that Kennedy in 1963 was prepared to take decisions which, if followed through, may have avoided some of the traumatic events of the 1960s and 70s.

The Test Ban Treaty, for instance, was referred to as early as the Spring of 1963 as the beginning of ‘d├ętente’ both by Alec Douglas-Home and Kennedy himself, at least according to Thurston Clarke’s work, JFK’s Last Hundred Days. A group of individuals as diverse as Robert MacNamara, Generai Giap, Jean Daniel, Nikita Khruschev and even Fidel Castro have testified to their belief that Kennedy’s withdrawal of 1000 advisors from South Vietnam and his opening of communications with Havana signalled that Kennedy was not going to fight a war in Vietnam, and that he was not going to continue the isolation of Cuba. Indeed, in the Congo, as in Algeria (or even in his meetings with Edward Gullion in Vietnam in 1951), Kennedy seems to have evinced an emergent policy of engaging with decolonised regimes and third world nationalism without concern for the outward appearance of socialism. The evidence is not therefore speculative, but both documentary and circumstantial, that Kennedy was at odds with what might be called the ‘national security nexus’  or ‘national security regime’ in 1964, and as time as gone on and Americans have learned or perceived that, they have become more suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his death. In 1964, when the Warren Report was published, there was deep suspicion of its findings on the part of a minority, according to the Gallup Organisation. This minority grew into a vast majority as time went on, lending some credence to the idea that the combination of revelations about the assassination itself, and also the worsening of economic and diplomatic conditions since 1963, strengthened the controversies which flowed around the killing.

The Kennedy Assassination of 1963 is also a convenient historical watershed in American trust in experts and authorities, which are not necessarily the same thing. After 1963, a combination of factors in American society, such as the expansion of university education, the effect of the Vietnam draft on middle-class views of military leadership, the embarrassment of Keynesian economists in the face of stagflation, and the emergence of a courtroom-based civil rights agenda, all caused Americans to take sides in disputes and to be suspicious of experts, This somewhat intoxicating cultural mood, which was linked to the rise of anti-medical ‘new age’ medicines as well as to the fad for jogging, dieting, and individualising and controlling private space, led to an almost automatic distrust of people with whom those of self-generated opinions disagreed. Americans found themselves forced to ask whether they trusted the police, army, administration, congress, banks, or academic commentators or not. As time wore on, scandals, evidence of police and administrative corruption, and the publishing industry reinforced this process. People began to battle over terms—‘conspiracy theorists’ became either demonised, ridiculed, or embraced for instance. In the long run, this was a return to form, given the robust and often vicious politics and rhetoric of the first hundred years of the republic, but for many it proved deeply unsettling. In such a context, serious people, such as Theodore White, could compare the Kennedys (or rather, John and Robert) to the Graachi, romantically described as the last hope of Roman republicanism in the face of incipient Empire. Language became deranged and the murder in Dallas became an ur-event to the point that many became frightened to refer to it at all given the passions on both sides.

There were and are clearly two sides in the Kennedy assassination dispute. Many of the early ‘pro-conspiracy’ researchers, for instance, were marked by an emotional attachment to the case, into which they had projected various personal griefs. However, as the American mainstream media has become in effect a series of interlinked corporate entities, major television networks and newspapers have grown demented in their determination to dismiss theories of conspiracy outright. This process, which is a curious one, can be seen through the five decades from 1963; careers have been made or broken on the basis of whether one was prepared to come to a conclusion which mirrored that of the government and senior figures of influence, or whether one was prepared to mention and investigate ‘Dallas’ or for that matter the RFK assassination of 1968. All else has been fair game; Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Clinton White House, Benghazi, even ‘Jimmygate’ or the bizarre allegations of the ‘Dark Alliance’ reports detailing CIA connections to crack dealing have had their day. Dallas, however, seems to retain a neurasthenic quality similar to the effect of asking about Freemasonry in the London police. It has acquired a quality of social disgrace amongst the media class.

None of which fully explains the myriad reasons why the murder has become controversial. The ultimate answer, which has not yet been written, would probably summarize as follows; ‘the details of the killing are distorted, evidence has been botched, removed, or destroyed, a series of contradictory official explanations have been proffered by people who clearly do not believe them, the circumstances help explain traumatic later disasters, and the growth of new media as well as proven scandals have turbocharged the debate about a fascinating series of events and characters in Dallas on the cusp of America’s peak power’. Such an intriguing historical vortex is known in polite society as a ‘controversy’.