John F Kennedy assassination: Memories of a dark day in Dallas which changed course of history

As the Presidential motorcade moved into Dealey Plaza, the Secret Service agents travelling with President John F Kennedy could have been forgiven for sighing with relief. They were surely heading to a place of greater safety, as they left behind the towering skyscrapers of downtown Dallas that could have offered a hiding place for snipers. Surrounded by cheering crowds, the motorcade was heading towards a tunnel which offered shade and protection.

As the open limousine carrying the Presidential party moved at a sedate pace through Dallas, all seemed to be well. In fact, Kennedy must have been pleasantly surprised by the warm reception, in a city which had been a hotbed for hostile right wing politics. Nellie Connally, the wife of the Texas Governor, turned and said to the President: “Mr Kennedy, you can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you.” Kennedy replied: “That is very obvious”.

What happened next was captured by the journalist Theodore White: “He (Kennedy) had just turned easily but with grace and precision as was his style to wave at the Texans who cheered him, when the sound rapped above the noise. It was a blunt crack like the sound of a motorcycle backfiring..followed in about five seconds by two more; then suddenly the sniper’s bullets had found their mark and John Fitzgerald Kennedy lay fallen, his head in his wife’s lap.”

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Sixty years on, Kennedy’s assassination has not lost its power to shock, not least because it was a crime captured on film; by local businessman Abraham Zapruder who has the doleful honour of creating the most infamous home movie in history.

US President-elect John Fitzgerald Kennedy alongside first lady Jacqueline Kennedy delivers his victory speech, on November 9, 1960 at the National Guard Armory in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)US President-elect John Fitzgerald Kennedy alongside first lady Jacqueline Kennedy delivers his victory speech, on November 9, 1960 at the National Guard Armory in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
US President-elect John Fitzgerald Kennedy alongside first lady Jacqueline Kennedy delivers his victory speech, on November 9, 1960 at the National Guard Armory in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

According to the official narrative, it was a crime solved in a matter of hours. The assassin was named as Lee Harvey Oswald, who, the prosecution case states, had assassinated the President by firing from the Texas School Book Depository Building, where he was an employee. A rifle and cartridge cases were found on the sixth floor of this building, which overlooked the motorcade’s route. Oswald was arrested following the murder of police officer JD Tippitt, who had been shot in a residential neighbourhood of Dallas, just 45 minutes after Kennedy was assassinated. Oswald was charged with the murder of Kennedy and Tippitt but never stood trial. On November 24, due to an incredible lapse in security, Oswald was shot dead by nightclub owner Jack Ruby as he was led to a car which would have taken him to the county jail.

In 1964, the Warren Commission, which had been established by President Lyndon Johnson, to get to the truth of what really happened in Dallas, concluded that Oswald acted alone, presumably because he craved notoriety. It was an answer that many found unsatisfactory, not least because of the evidence that there was more than one gunman at large on Dealey Plaza that day, with a number of witnesses stating they believed shots had been fired from a grassy knoll overlooking the motorcade’s route.

In his book Not in Your Lifetime: The Assassination of JFK, Anthony Summers states: “Sixteen people in or outside the Book Depository, behind the President, suggested that some shooting came from the knoll. About a dozen people were on the grassy knoll when the President was shot, and almost all believed some of the gunfire came from behind them, high up on the knoll itself.”

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Another factor which troubled sceptical observers was the apparent absence of a thorough investigation into Oswald’s background and his potential links with co-conspirators. Oswald, who claimed he was a ‘patsy’ in the hours following his arrest, seemed to be a character plucked from a John Le Carre novel. He was a former member of the US marine corps who had travelled to the Soviet Union in 1959 where he stayed for more than two years, apparently behaving like a traitor and defector. After marrying a Soviet woman and becoming a father, he returned to the US and settled in Texas. Earlier in 1963, Oswald had been based in New Orleans where he got involved in a confrontation with Cuban exiles as he handed out leaflets in support of the Cuban leader – and arch enemy of Kennedy – Fidel Castro, which the local police believed might have been staged.

Is it possible that anti-Castro campaigners drew Oswald into a plot to kill the President, leaving him to shoulder all the blame? Or did the Mafia kill Kennedy because his administration was clipping their wings? In the late 1970s, the US House of Representatives voted by a large majority to establish the House Assassinations Committee and reopen the case after concerns were raised about potential mafia involvement.

To quote Anthony Summers: “The House Assassinations Committee report said Mafia members may have been involved and Chief Counsel Robert Blakey went further in a book published two years later. The evidence he wrote, “established that organized crime was behind the plot to kill John F Kennedy. While conceding that others may have worked alongside the mobsters, he did not waver in that view in the years that followed.”

Robert Dover, Professor of Intelligence and National Security at the University of Hull, has an intriguing answer to the question of whether Oswald killed Kennedy

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He said: “We’re forced to say ‘yes’, in the absence of a credible single alternative story. But, and it is an important but, it seems a real stretch to suggest that Oswald was alone in this conspiracy unless it turns out he was a highly trained special forces soldier, with a particularly strong sniper’s sense of location, conditions and timing.

“The Warren Commission was accused of not pursuing the idea of a conspiracy in the assassination or who in domestic politics or international politics would have good cause and the organisation to carry out such an act. For example, JFK’s alleged connections to the peripheral players in organised crime were entirely ignored.

“There was further criticism about the speed at which the Commission reported, and that it was very dependent upon official government sources and analysis and that it did not extensively question the frailties in the handling of the official autopsy, which is widely accepted to have been unideal. All of these criticisms have obviously lent fuel to the conspiracy theories which have been circulating since JFK’s death.”

Professor Dover said it was very unlikely that Oswald could have mounted this assassination on his own.

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He added: “The maxim of follow the money that came from the Watergate Scandal suggests that investigators should have been focusing a little more on organised crime, and the defence industrial base who had just been told of JFK’s cuts to the defence budget, which were immediately reversed by his successor. This is purely circumstantial, but would have been worth a look, even if just to exclude it, at the time.

Professor Dover said that Kennedy’s death happened so long ago,that the implications for international relations if it transpired he had been killed by a foreign agent are negligible.

He added: “If, though, it was proved that he was killed by a government insider, then that would make his assassination a coup d’etat which would be significant for the way America views itself. This death has been poured over – forensically – so many times, it seems very unlikely that new evidence will come to light that conclusively answers it.”

Dr Rachel Williams, Lecturer in American History at the University of Hull, added: “The fact that so many people still believe in the conspiracy suggests that people find it difficult to deal with and to accept random, uncontrollable events.

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“It’s scary to think that one guy with a gun can derail the entire course of American history by taking pot shots at a car. Maybe it’s more comforting for people to find alternative explanations that assert a sense of control on the world.

“The principle of Occam’s razor suggests that the simplest explanation for something is most likely to be the correct one; so I tend to side with the original conclusion that Oswald shot Kennedy, and that he acted alone.”

“As long as there are people who refuse to accept the Warren Commission’s conclusions, then there will always be a sense of mystery surrounding it, and a sense that there is something to solve.This is exacerbated by the slow drip of declassification and digitisation of files relating to the assassination.”

Dr Williams believes Kennedy’s death could be framed as a “loss of innocence” for the US..

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She added: “Just a decade later we get the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, which has a devastating impact on Americans’ trust in government. In my view, the seeds of that mistrust are sown earlier, perhaps we can see Americans’ quest for “the truth” about Kennedy’s death, and the suspicion that the CIA were somehow involved, or that the government is executing a cover-up, as part of a larger trend of Americans losing faith in their politicians.”

The flickering flame above President Kennedy’s tomb is a poignant symbol of a lost age.