JFK Conspiracy Theories Will Never Die

Thinking about the Kennedy assassination becomes a way to think about how things could have happened differently in a way that serves our own political agenda

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President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline and Texas Governor John Connally ride in a motorcade from the Dallas airport into the city, shortly before the President's assassination, on Nov. 22, 1963

If you could settle the question with a national vote, there would be no doubt that a conspiracy killed John F. Kennedy. Two weeks after the shooting, a Gallup poll showed 52% of Americans blaming a force larger than Lee Harvey Oswald for the President’s death. Half a century later, a new Gallup poll puts the number at 61%. Earlier this year an Associated Press survey said the number was 59%, while a Public Policy Polling effort said it was a more modest but still substantial 51% — not far at all from those initial results in 1963.

Those numbers may sound surprisingly high, but by other years’ standards they’re actually low. A decade ago, an ABC News poll had 70% of the population believing there was more than one man behind the slaying. When ABC posed the same question in 1983, the number was 80%. In 1994, the sociologist Ted Goertzel suggested that belief in a Kennedy conspiracy has “increased as the event became more distant.” For a while it did, but then it reached a peak and started sinking.

So there are two trends that cry out to be explained here. Why are Kennedy-assassination theories still so popular, and why are they less popular than before?

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The simplest answer would go something like this: people rejected the lone-nut theory because they were persuaded by its critics, and then they started shifting away from the conspiracy stories when they re-evaluated the evidence. But plenty of high-profile crimes have left loose threads and open questions without attracting such intense doubt. And while some high-profile arguments against the conspiracy theories have appeared in the past couple of decades, notably Gerald Posner’s book Case Closed and Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, it is far from clear that their arguments have reached a large portion of the population, let alone convinced them.

Something more is at work here, something larger than the evidence that Kennedy was or wasn’t killed by a conspiracy. And that something is the mark his death left on the country’s psychic landscape, a scar so deep that millions of people feel the need to look for that evidence in the first place. Other events that provoke conspiracy theories usually fade away. (Only a niche concerns itself with whether Arthur Bremer acted alone when he tried to kill Alabama Governor George Wallace.) Kennedy, by contrast, keeps commanding America’s attention. And that reflects something more than the death of a President.

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The bullets that killed Kennedy were the opening shots of the ’60s. The two decades that followed the slaying saw a bloody war, a wave of riots, several more assassinations, and all kinds of social upheaval: a cascade of unnerving events ranging from the Nixon crimes to the Jonestown massacre. Thinking about the Kennedy assassination frequently becomes a way of thinking about how things could have happened differently. Maybe you imagine a country without so much instability and change; maybe you imagine a country where social change had a friend in the Oval Office. Either way, the killing is perceived as a turning point.

I recall a conversation in college in which a friend identified JFK as his favorite President. It was a strange choice for him: Kennedy was a Cold War liberal, while my friend was an antiwar radical who loved to mock center-left Democrats. But it wasn’t, I realized, the actual historical Kennedy Administration that he was praising. He was imagining what a Kennedy who survived Dallas might have done: withdrawing from Vietnam, scattering the CIA to the wind, becoming a great domestic reformer. Believing in a conspiracy theory meant believing in an agenda the conspirators wanted to prevent; and the agenda my friend imagined was one he preferred to the real-world records of all the other Presidents.

Most Americans don’t share my friend’s politics, but they share his gut feeling that the assassination was a moment when history pivoted in a new direction. In 1999, a Gallup poll found 50% of the country declaring Kennedy’s demise one of the most important events of the century — a higher percentage than picked the Great Depression, the Vietnam War or the fall of the Berlin Wall. This year Hart Research released a survey that showed 61% of the country agreeing that the assassination “changed America a great deal.”

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If that’s why JFK’s death has such a hold on the country, then I have a guess as to why the public’s belief in a conspiracy might be fading. That era that seemed to begin in 1963 has ended, and as it fades, the passions around the assassination have cooled. This isn’t a generational thing so much as it’s an intensity-of-memory thing: the assassination just doesn’t loom as large as it used to, so the drive to explain it isn’t as intense.

In the Hart Research study, Americans old enough to remember the shooting were more likely than younger Americans to “strongly agree” that Oswald acted alone; they were also more likely to “strongly agree” that a conspiracy might be responsible. Younger respondents were more likely to pick one of the “somewhat agree” options. If you were alive at the time, evidently, you’re more likely to care enough to have a firm opinion.

Needless to say, just because the numbers have sunk this far doesn’t mean they’ll keep sinking. Sometimes an event has such an impact that it persists in our cultural memory even after the people who remember it have all died: the sinking of the Titanic, say, or the death of Jesse James. The Kennedy killing might be like that, living in our legends long after its cultural context is forgotten. Or perhaps it will keep fading, dimming ever smaller until one day, years from now, more Americans accept the findings of the Warren Commission than reject it. To the extent, that is, that they even remember what the Warren Commission was.

Walker, managing editor of Reason magazine, is the author of The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. The views expressed are solely his own.