Today marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's tragic death in Dallas, Texas, and astonishingly enough, Americans have lingering doubts about the official explanation from the Warren Commission. The fact that Americans question the official narrative isn't the surprise here – I'm more fascinated that Americans still intently believe there was a conspiracy behind Kennedy's death.
A recent Gallup Poll revealed 61% of Americans believe Kennedy's death was due to the work of more than Lee Harvey Oswald. So why do we believe this when the evidence points to the conclusion that only Oswald was involved in Kennedy's death?
1. The turbulent nature of the 1960s— The assassination of Kennedy took place when Cold War tensions were high, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining serious momentum, Vietnam was becoming a significant foreign policy problem, and the Counterculture was forming (among other problems).
President Kennedy's time in the White House afforded him many opportunities to make enemies. The Soviet Union was a primary antagonist, and Kennedy had strained foreign relationships with other Communist proxies, such as Cuba and Vietnam. Oswald's connection to both the Soviet Union and Cuba only fueled the speculation that he had been prompted to kill the president.
Southerners were none too fond of the president for his support of civil rights legislation or his willingness to involve federal authorities in making certain black citizens were treated with equality (i.e. the Freedom Rides). Many of these Southerners felt betrayed by the liberal Democrat who had picked a Texan as his running mate.
Also, conspiracy theorists like to point out the federal government's crackdown on organized crime as a potential motivator for Kennedy's death. Criminal elements were known to have aided Kennedy's campaign efforts, only to have the Kennedy administration push them away.
Why we ought to ignore these 'red flags': Some of the 'culprits' can be ruled out easily. Cuba's Fidel Castro had too much to lose by prodding the United States. Their culpability in killing Kennedy would have been the ideal pretext for the United States to topple the communist regime.
Soviet archives later revealed genuine shock from Khrushchev and other high level Communist party leaders in Moscow. Their ideology was vastly different, but state sponsored assassinations considering Oswald's overt link to the Soviet Union would be vastly underestimating the aptitude of our Cold War foe.
The mafia angle doesn't seem to make much sense either, considering the removal of the president would only create an even greater problem for organized crime. Attorney General Robert Kennedy would have been a more ideal target for organized crime to send the appropriate message to the administration. Additionally, the mafia would likely not have used Oswald to carry out a hit, considering his instability (and organized crime hits traditionally have been conducted in a more up close and personal manner).
2. Jack Ruby— Much of the conspiracy could have been avoided if not for one quirky Dallas strip club owner. For reasons that are still not entirely clear, Jack Ruby shot Lee Oswald as he was being transported from the Dallas Police Headquarters. The entire scene was captured on national television within 48 hours of Oswald's apprehension, which only created even wilder speculation. Many Americans concluded that Ruby was sent by someone to permanently silence Oswald. Ruby's death from cancer not even four years into his sentence prevented any further answers about his involvement.
Why we ought to ignore this 'red flag': Ruby was known to Dallas police because many of the city's officers frequented his strip club. In turn, he was often at the city's police headquarters, which is why no officers paid much attention to Ruby when he was at the station the day of Oswald's transfer. Jack Ruby's access to the police station wasn't the result of any mob connection, as many contend, but instead because he was a known quantity.
The idea that Ruby was conducting a favor for the mafia doesn't hold much weight either, considering Ruby had only passing connections to any known 'gangsters' and several who knew Ruby commented on his genuine anger and grief at the news of the president's death.
3. The movie JFK: Oliver Stone probably did more to further conspiracy theories than any other incident in the five decades since Kennedy's death. Stone's movie centered around Jim Garrison, a district attorney in New Orleans, who prosecuted one Clay Shaw for his involvement in a conspiracy against the president.
Stone's flair for film making convinced audiences that the information put forth in JFK was true. Moviegoers believed they had the inside scoop on the biggest scandal in American history. Stone himself later stated that his film was intended to be a "counter-myth" to the myth asserted by the Warren Commission. Essentially, Oliver Stone is telling us that he made things up.
4. The truth is scary: Americans can't swallow the idea that someone as insignificant as Lee Oswald could plan and kill someone as important as the President of the United States.
Oswald was neglected as a child, dropped out of high school, failed as a Marine, and his life was unremarkable at best. In fact, his only skill was marksmanship. If someone of such little regard can carry out a plot against the most power figure in the world with no help, then none of us are safe. It shatters the idea that we can somehow create a stable place to live in an otherwise tumultuous world. If the president isn't safe from a man like Oswald, then how can we ever sleep comfortably at night.
Americans have to believe Oswald was only a bit player in a conspiracy. And we will twist the unclear information into the conclusions that make us feel a little better about the world, as if we can control some measure of our environment.
However, the truth frightens us. The notion that Oswald acted alone scares us. And the idea that we are not in control? Terrifying.