KENNEDY and ASSASSINATION
CONSPIRACY THEORIES: DOUBTS REFUSE TO DIE
by Bob Dudney
Special to the Times Herald
Editor's Note: Bob Dudney, a former reporter for the Dallas Times
Herald, has written hundreds of articles about the investigation
of President Kennedy's assassination. He has covered
congressional inquiries on the subject, has interviewed dozens of
people connected with it, and has examined thousands of
The shots fired in Dealey Plaza on a sunny Dallas day 20
years ago still reverberate in a bizarre way: the belief that
President John F. Kennedy's assassination resulted from a
There is a deep, almost theological assumption by some
Americans that the President was the victim of conspirators who
still roam at large. The conclusion is strange because there is
no solid evidence to support it--and significant reasons to
believe it is false.
There is no denying the difficulty of accepting the Warren
Commission's verdict on the events of Nov. 22, 1963--that a
down-and-out, 24-year-old ex-Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald, with
no outside assistance, murdered the most glamorous, powerful man
in the world at the time.
But no matter how strong the unwillingness to believe, the
evidence in the case demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that
there was no plot. Undermining the scores of conspiracy theories
that have cropped up over the years are three crucial factors:
- The scientific, eyewitness and medical data establishing
that Oswald shot Kennedy.
- The absence of uncontroverted evidence linking Oswald to
- The lack of evidence to suggest that Oswald was
unwittingly manipulated by others.
So long as these elements remain unshaken, claims that a
sinister plot was afoot that November day will amount to nothing
more than speculation.
Nevertheless, theories about the active involvement of
others in the assassination thrive and multiply. Their
proponents--some skilled and some not, some sincere and some not
--have produced dozens of books, films and articles that purport
to reveal the "full" treachery of events in Dallas two decades
In fact, from the volume and variety of conspiracy theories,
one might conclude that the possibility of a conspiracy had never
been officially probed. The theories discount thousands of
documents and millions of investigative man-hours devoted to that
question by the Warren panel, the FBI and the CIA in 1963 and
1964; the Rockefeller Commission in 1975; the Senate Select
Committee on Intelligence in 1975 and the House Committee on
Assassinations in 1977-1978.
The list of "suspects" the theories implicate is extensive.
Among them: The Soviet KGB; anti-Soviet exiles; Fidel Castro;
pro-Castro Cubans in the United States; anti-Castro Cubans;
loyalists of slain South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem; right
wing fanatics; left wing Marxists; the Mafia; rogue Texas oilmen;
labor unions; Southern white racists; the Dallas Police
Department; the CIA; the FBI; the Secret Service; the Chinese
communists; reactionary Army officers; and Jewish extremists.
But it is not enough to demonstrate that some group stood to
benefit from the murder. Theorists must establish participation
of two or more people in the murder. This they have not done.
Each theory alters the nature of Oswald's role in the death,
but the possible changes are necessarily limited. The principle
Oswald is innocent: Adherents of this contention maintain
that law enforcement officials--cynically or through honest
error--settled on Oswald as the assassin even though there was no
reliable evidence against him. They say Oswald could have
exonerated himself at a trial had he not been killed by Dallas
nightclub owner Jack Ruby.
Challenging this theory is an abundance of evidence.
Scientific testing and physical evidence found at the scene show
that shots were fired at Kennedy's limousine from a sixth-floor
window of the Texas School Book Depository building.
Oswald worked in the building at Elm and Houston. He was
seen leaving it shortly after the shooting. Crates were found
stacked by the sixth-floor window as an apparent gun brace.
Oswald's fingerprints were on the crates. The morning of the
assassination, Oswald was seen carrying a long, paper-wrapped
object into the building. Wrapping paper found near the window
bore Oswald's fingerprints.
A rifle was found hidden between boxes in the building. A
bullet and the bullet fragments removed from Kennedy, Connally
and the limousine ballistically matched the rifle. Oswald's palm
print was found on the rifle. The rifle, purchased from a Chicago
mail order house, had been shipped to a Dallas post office box
rented by Oswald. A photograph showed Oswald holding a rifle
identical to the one found.
Proponents of this theory retort that all of the evidence
was fabricated and put credence in Oswald's post-arrest
declaration that he hadn't killed anyone.
But claims that the incriminating rifle photo was doctored--
with Oswald's head superimposed over another man's body--were
dispelled by Marina Oswald's confirmation that she took the
picture. And claims that Oswald's rifle was planted in the room
after the assassination were refuted by ballistic tests that
showed it fired the deadly shots.
Given the problems with claims of planted evidence, some
theorists have argued that there must have been a "planted
Oswald," or Oswald impersonator on the scene. This contention,
however, has been difficult to reconcile with the Oswald
fingerprints and palmprints found on the evidence.
Two years ago, conspiracy theorists, successfully pressed
for the opening of Oswald's grave to show it contained an
imposter--probably a Soviet agent. Subsequent examination,
however, determined the body was the "real" Lee Harvey Oswald.
Oswald had accomplices: Faced with the weight of evidence
indicating Oswald's guilt, quite a few conspiracy theories have
contended he was only one of those involved.
Some theories assert that a person or persons helped put
Oswald in position to shoot the President. They leave unexplained
why Oswald would need such help. As an employee of the book
depository, he had easy access to the building. After the
shooting, according to witnesses' testimony, he sought no help in
fleeing and left downtown Dallas by city bus and then a taxi.
Moreover, it would seem unlikely that accomplices could have
helped get Oswald a job that put him on the motorcycle route.
Oswald got his job at the depository on Oct. 15. White House
planning for the President's motorcade route did not begin until
Nov. 4, and the map of the route was not published until Nov. 19.
Somewhat more credible is the contention others provided
secret financing, planning, direction or encouragement for the
murder that Oswald carried out.
In this scenario, the chief suspect over the years has been
the Soviet Union. After all, Oswald defected to Russia in 1959.
He married a Russian woman, Marina Prusakova, in 1961. He was a
vociferous Marxist. Even after he returned to the United States
in June 1962, Oswald had several fleeting contacts with Soviet
However, no evidence of Soviet complicity has been found.
Investigators who combed Oswald's effects discovered no
unexplained funds, no code books, no messages--nothing to suggest
a Soviet hand in Oswald's actions. Also, had Oswald been
recruited as a Soviet agent, the Russians would not have been
likely to allow him to defect, as he did--thereby exposing his
relationship with them.
The other top suspect has been Cuba. Oswald admired Fidel
Castro; he was a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in
the United States; he visited the Cuban embassy in Mexico City a
few weeks before the assassination, seeking a travel visa to that
country. Because the CIA was backing assassination plots against
Castro at the time, some speculate that Castro may have
retaliated through Oswald.
But, as with the theory of Soviet involvement, there is no
evidence. At one point, there did appear to be some. A young
Central American informant told U.S. authorities he saw Oswald in
the Cuban embassy, talking to two other men, one of whom was
conversing in Spanish. Later, he said, Oswald supposedly received
$6,500 to kill an important person. Under questioning, however,
the informant admitted he had never seen Oswald and had
fabricated the transaction, wishing to stir up American hatred
for Castro's Cuba. Subsequently, he retracted his retraction.
Finally, he failed a lie-detector test. Anyway, Oswald did not
Another account suggesting possible Cuban involvement was
provided by a Cuban exile who testified before the Warren
commission. She said two Hispanic men and an Anglo man they
identified as "Leon Oswald" came to her Dallas apartment 28 days
before the assassination. She said they spoke vaguely of Cuban
revolutionary plans before she turned them away. She identified
Oswald in television film as the man she had seen, but federal
investigators said they do not believe it was him. They said they
believe that at that time, Oswald was traveling from his New
Orleans home to Mexico in his quest for a Cuban entry visa.
The most publicized theories involving Oswald accomplices
are those that have featured other gunmen.
These various versions have assassins firing from other
windows in the depository building; from the Dal-Tex building;
from sewer drains, a grassy knoll near Dealey Plaza, the railroad
bridge over Elm, Main and Commerce streets and the Dallas County
Courthouse roof; and firing with silencers or automatic weapons.
The arguments surrounding these claims:
- One-man, one-bullet: The first shot that wounded Kennedy
in the neck did not also hit John Connally, as the Warren
Commission concluded. Rather they were struck by individual
bullets simultaneously, requiring that there be two shooters. A
team of experts, including a National Aeronautics and Space
Administration engineer, conducted an exhaustive study of this
question in 1978. The panel's conclusion: It is not only
possible, but almost certain that Kennedy and Connally were hit
by the same bullet.
- Filmed accomplices: Photographs of Dealey Plaza taken at
the time of the assassination show a dim form behind a wall on a
grassy knoll to the right and in front of the presidential
limousine. However, investigators found no spent cartridges,
weapons or footprints in this area. A panel of photography
experts concluded in 1978 that the images on the film were
Films and photos also show a man in Dealey Plaza opening and
closing a black umbrella. Conspiracy theories suggest he was
signaling gunmen or that some weapon was hidden in the umbrella.
But at a hearing of the House Assassinations Committee in 1978, a
mild-mannered Dallas insurance worker identified himself as the
mysterious "umbrella man" and said he was only trying to harass
- Head movement: The famous Zapruder film of the
assassination clearly shows President Kennedy's head lurching
backward when it was struck by the fatal gunshot. If the shot had
come from behind, conspiracy theorists reason, the impact would
have driven the President's head forward. Nonetheless, a panel of
medical experts concluded in 1978 that Kennedy's head wounds were
caused by a shot from the rear. Moreover, a panel of
wound-ballistics scientists concluded that the backward motion
was caused by the sudden tightening of the President's neck
- Tape-recorded sounds: Sound transmitted through the
microphone of a motorcycle patrolman in the motorcade, and
recorded at Dallas police headquarters, shows four noise
"spikes." At the behest of the House Assassinations Committee in
1978, three acoustical experts conducted three test gunshot
firings in Dealey Plaza, compared the sounds and concluded it was
95 percent certain that four shots had been fired. The Warren
Commission had concluded that no more than three shots had been
fired from the window. The source of the previously unknown one,
the acoustical experts said, was the grassy knoll area.
The finding was the first scientific evidence supporting a
conspiracy theory and stirred an uproar. But it, too, was later
discounted. Twelve experts assembled by the National Research
Council reviewed the tapes and concluded the "spikes" were
actually recorded about a minute after the assassination.
The Assassinations Committee also grappled futily with the
prospect of a likely colleague for Oswald. "The question is with
who," said one member of the now-defunct committee. "If there's a
conspirator, then who could it have been? We asked ourselves over
and over: What associates did Oswald have, where was there
evidence of conspiracy? We found none."
Oswald was manipulated: These theories suggest that Oswald,
and perhaps other operatives, were unknowingly influenced in
There can be only one reasonable candidate to mastermind
such a project--the KGB. It would have been the only organization
with the scientific means and the extended access to Oswald. Even
some Warren Commission lawyers and CIA members briefly toyed with
the possibility. Because Oswald spent some time in a Soviet
hospital while residing in Russia, there was the suspicion he
might have been brainwashed.
Once again, the problem is that there is no evidence to
suggest Oswald was brainwashed. Moreover, the CIA believes KGB
"mind conditioning" techniques at the time were primitive.
Surely, it is impossible to rule out the prospect of a
conspiracy in the assassination. The Warren Commission itself did
not do so. "Because of the difficulty of providing negatives to a
certainty," the panel said, proving there was no conspiracy
"cannot be established categorically." However, the panel said,
"if there is any such evidence it has been beyond the reach of
all the investigative agencies and resources of the United
Twenty years later, that is still the case.