WHO KILLED JFK?
We examine the fresh evidence about that fateful day in November 1963
Everyone ‘knows’ who shot JFK, but is the story really that simple? Nige Tassell examines the classified files released by the US late last year for clues that might identify whether anyone was pulling the strings in the shadows
It is history’s ultimate murder mystery, one that – nearly 55 years on – has never been satisfactorily solved. At 11.38am local time, on 22 November 1963, Air Force One landed at Love Field in Dallas. On board was US President John F Kennedy, visiting the Texan city in an attempt to boost his popularity in the state ahead of the presidential election the following year. Less than an hour later, a bullet had shattered both skull and brain. But the identity of who actually fired the fatal shot – and their motivation for doing so – has been the subject of deep conjecture and study ever since.
During 2017, more than 30,000 government documents concerning the assassination were released into the public realm, either in full or redacted form. While they added more detail to the debate and filled in a few blanks, they didn’t join the dots to present an indisputable explanation. The case is still not closed, the fog surrounding the tragedy still thick. But while the perpetrator and their cause continue to be speculated upon, the raw events of that fateful November day are burned onto the collective retinas of a nation.
The president was in Texas for political reasons. In-fighting within the state Democrat Party found Kennedy and Vice-President Lyndon B Johnson adopting a united front to stymie this bleeding wound, caused by a conflict between two key Texan Democrats – Governor John Connally and Senator Ralph Yarborough. The Democrats’ hold on Texas was flimsy and fragile. Kennedy, despite having the Texan Johnson as his running mate, had taken the state by fewer than 50,000 votes in the 1960 presidential election. “If the governor and the senator didn’t agree to a truce soon,” observed William Manchester, author of the seminal The
Death Of A President, “the national ticket wouldn’t stand a chance there next fall. No party writes off 25 electoral votes, so both Kennedy and Johnson were going down to patch things up. They had to make a major production of the trip.” In the end, it became a major production of an assassination.
IN THE LION’S MAW
Kennedy knew the risk. Dallas had a reputation for political violence, and the previous month, Arkansas senator J William Fulbright had directly advised Kennedy to remove it from his five-city Texas visit. “Dallas is a very dangerous place,” he warned. “I wouldn’t go there. Don’t you go.”
Fulbright wasn’t the only one to feel this way. When the Secret Service had driven the motorcade route four days earlier, local operative Forrest V Sorrels realised the high-rise architecture of downtown Dallas rendered those in the motorcade “sitting ducks”. Some 20,000 windows overlooked the route, 20,000 potential sniper perches that even the best efforts of the intelligence community couldn’t completely defend against.
Kennedy’s popularity in the city was exceedingly low. The local paper, the Dallas Morning News, was particularly vicious when it came to stirring political discontent and extremism. Its proprietor, Ted Dealey, had already addressed Kennedy at the White House a couple of years before in words of the barest candour. Dealey told the president what was required at that time was “a man on horseback to lead this nation, and many people in Texas and the Southwest think you are riding Caroline’s tricycle”. The implication was far from disguised. Texas saw JFK as a soft-touch East Coaster, the family man, the liberal, keen to thaw the ice of the Cold War.
Even if, when waking up in a Fort Worth hotel room on the last morning of his life, Kennedy didn’t believe he was entering a cauldron of distrust and hate,
“KENNEDY’S POPULARITY IN THE CITY WAS EXCEEDINGLY LOW”
page 14 of that day’s Dallas Morning
News told him otherwise. It was a fullpage advertisement, its headline ironically welcoming the president to Dallas before asking a dozen questions of him, including one that suggested he was in collusion with the Vietnamese Communist Party. “We DEMAND answers to these questions,” it read.
After the 13-minute flight from Fort Worth to Dallas, Kennedy and his wife Jackie assumed their seats in the Lincoln Continental convertible that would take them on a circuitous route through the city before a lunch engagement at the Dallas Trade Mart. Sat in front of them were Governor Connally and his wife Nellie. The rain of that morning had disappeared and the sky was now a perfect blue. Had the inclement conditions continued, the Lincoln’s roof would have been in position, quite possibly averting the tragedy to come.
As the motorcade made its way into the city, the response of the citizens of Dallas seemed warmer than expected to an under-fire president. Not that Kennedy, the decorated war veteran, was allowing himself to get rattled by any danger. At the junction of Lemmon Avenue and Lomo Alto Drive, he ordered the car be stopped, then got out and casually greeted some schoolchildren. By the time the motorcade reached Main Street, the downtown crowds started to seriously thicken.
Main Street took the procession on an arrow-straight course through the heart of the downtown area, before the cars at the front of the 17-vehicle procession turned right onto Houston Street and then negotiated a sharp, 120o corner onto Elm Street. At this point, as it made the tight turn in front of the Texas School Book Depository, the motorcade reduced its speed to little more than walking pace.
Conspiracy theorists later pounced on this slight detour as being deliberately manufactured so as to bring the motorcade within shooting distance, but it was actually out of necessity. Had they continued on Main Street, a traffic island would have blocked their passage up onto the highway and towards the Trade Mart for that lunch reception.
Now out of the canyon of skyscrapers and into the sunshine, the motorcade was greeted by much sparser crowds, onlookers dotting the open, grassy areas of Dealey Plaza. Then, on the stroke of 12.30pm, came the first bang, thought by most bystanders to be one of the motorcade’s vehicles backfiring. But it was a rifle shot. It missed, ricocheting away from the president after hitting a tree. The second bullet found its mark, passing through Kennedy’s neck and windpipe, then exiting his throat, after which it wounded Governor Connally. It caused Kennedy to lurch forward, his hand on his throat. Then came the third bullet, a devastating shot that caused immense head trauma.
The reaction was instant. The crowd hit the ground as if levelled by a sudden wind, while Secret Service agents rallied to the president’s car. One – Clint Hill – leapt onto the Lincoln’s boot as it accelerated away. Jackie Kennedy climbed out of her seat and towards the back of the car, either to assist Hill or to retrieve a portion of her husband’s skull. Two cars back, Vice-President Johnson’s own security detail instantly covered the second-incommand. Meanwhile, the president’s Lincoln was speeding off towards the highway. Six minutes later, it arrived at Parkland Memorial Hospital. Had he been a mere civilian, Kennedy would have been declared dead on arrival. It would be another 24 minutes until a Parkland physician called his death.
The manhunt was on and it wasn’t long before an employee of the Texas
Placard-waving with protesters mingle well wishers waiting for JFK’s motorcade Anti-Kennedy leaflets were distributed around Dallas ahead of the president’s visit All smiles earlier in the day, Kennedy leaves a theatre in Fort Worth
Kennedy in the motorcade next to his wife Jackie; seated in front are Governor John Connally, who would be severely wounded, and his wife Nellie