For decades, John F. Kennedy’s assassination was shrouded in paranoia and mystery. Even after documents from the investigation began to be parceled out by the National Archives, which will drop the final files this week, conspiracy theorists insisted that we weren’t getting the whole story and that somebody, somewhere, had to be behind the murder of a President.
But who? Discarding the theories involving aliens and pyramids or even a second gunman (which forensic science and simulations ruled out), there are some suspects for whom one may be able to at least assemble a credible theory. Although in many cases, “credible,” as we’ll see, doesn’t mean “likely.” Especially when half the supposed suspects think somebody else did it. Let’s discuss some of these theories and why they just don’t fly.
- The KGB: Pretty QED, right? Lee Harvey Oswald’s sympathies towards Cuba were fairly well-known, and in fact, he may have even discussed his plans with Russian agents, something the CIA was overly eager to hide. But like any action, you have to ask the simple question “Why?” It wasn’t like Lyndon B. Johnson was a Communist sympathizer. Why risk starting a nuclear war for benefits that are, at best, unclear?
- The CIA: To be fair, we know the CIA is dirty, due to revelations various illegal operations it engaged in around the Kennedy era and beyond. And even Lyndon Johnson supposedly thought maybe the CIA had something to do with it. And it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the CIA knew about Oswald. But if the CIA wanted Kennedy out of the way, why not simply ruin him? Kennedy was hiding his medical history, his extramarital affairs, and even more that would disgrace any sitting President. Why go to all the trouble when mailing a photo or two would do the trick?
- The Mafia: If you want a guy whacked, you call the Mob, right? Not helping matters is that the CIA has admitted to working with the Mafia in the past. Supposedly, the Mafia was upset with how Kennedy handled Cuba, and the fact that Robert F. Kennedy went after the Mafia didn’t help matters. But again, what benefit was there to killing the President? What did the Mafia gain? If the Mafia was going to assassinate any politician in 1963, it would be John L. McClellan, who a month before the assassination ran the Valachi hearings, which dragged the American Mafia out of the shadows. They had bigger concerns than the President and his brother.
- The Military: This theory hinges around the Vietnam conflict. The military wanted war, the military-industrial complex wanted the tax dollars paying for war would put in their coffers, and Kennedy proved with the Cuban Missile Crisis that he was this soft Harvard boy. Thus, he had to go. The first glaring problem with this theory is that American involvement in Vietnam dated back to well before Kennedy got near the White House. The second is that Kennedy had absolutely no problem with sending men and material to Vietnam and even publicly defended the “domino theory” that justified the war on national television. Vietnam was a problem that Kennedy inherited, really, and while he may not have wanted war, it seems more like wishful thinking that he could have prevented the conflict.
- Lyndon B. Johnson: Johnson, as this theory goes, “disliked” the Kennedys and was afraid that he’d be dropped from the 1964 ticket. Hence, Kennedy had to go, and if that pleased Texas’ powerful oilmen, so much the better. And to be fair, Johnson’s vice presidency was about balancing the ticket and he was largely powerless as Vice President. But if he had been dropped, he likely would have gone back to his previous job, United States Senator, which he was so skilled at he’s been called Master of the Senate. Or he could have run against Kennedy in 1964. Again, why go to the trouble where there were so many other easier options?
- The Secret Service: The theory here is less that the Secret Service actually killed Kennedy and more than they just didn’t care. And, unlike a lot of suspects, there’s some truth to this one. Since the ’90s, it’s become clear the Secret Service’s mistakes contributed directly to Kennedy’s death. But all evidence points not to malice but bungling, and then bungling the attempt to cover up the bungling. If the Secret Service can’t hide the fact it destroyed documents, how could it hide an internal plot to kill the President?
- Fidel Castro: Supposedly, as this theory goes, Fidel Castro ordered Oswald to kill Kennedy as retribution for the CIA’s many, many attempts to kill the Cuban dictator. But it’s not clear that Oswald was ever taken seriously by the Cubans, let alone given access to Castro himself. Keep in mind, this would be an act of war, and a direct military assault would have easily overwhelmed Cuba. Besides, if you ordered a guy killed, would you volunteer to be interviewed by a federal commission investigating the crime?
- Cuban Exiles: A theory Donald Trump espoused on the campaign trail, supposedly Cuba’s exiles were furious Castro hadn’t been killed and supposedly killed Kennedy in retaliation. But while Oswald was well known to the Cuban community, there simply hasn’t been any evidence anti-Castro groups were involved, let alone any credible motive.
The fundamental problem with JFK’s assassination is that there’s much we simply will never know, and there’s plenty that sounds credible. Perhaps Oswald spitballed his plans, and those who heard them, whether Cuban agents, KGB operatives, or Mafia underlings, wrote him off as a braggart. Maybe he pitched somebody his plan and they gave him the “go-ahead,” assuming nothing would come of it.
In the end, people’s willingness to embrace conspiracies comes down to them wanting to believe somebody’s in control. The idea of a shadowy conspiracy is comforting because we can spot and root out the players, bringing them to justice. The idea that the fate of the human race can hinge not on master plans or brilliant designs, but one bullet fired by one nobody is much scarier. Far better to believe somebody’s running this circus, no matter how evil you think they are.