The Kennedy Question

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I was nearly a decade from joining the ranks of God’s creation when President John F. Kennedy took his untimely leave. As a result, I have no real perspective on that horribly remarkable day in the history of not only the Nation, but the world. While many of my generation will point to the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger as “our JFK assassination” and although anyone with a soul has the images of 9/11 burned into his memory, I have a sense that Kennedy’s assassination has a unique place in the uglier chapters of the American story.

When I ask my parents to talk about that day, their voices have neither the pure sorrow of people discussing the Challenger disaster, nor the outrage that we all feel when recalling 9/11. Instead, they take on oddly hushed tones similar to veterans reliving combat. I have long thought that my younger-generation compatriots and I simply cannot relate to the experience of that dark November day. By the time we came of age, the world of television, followed by the Internet age, had inured us to much of the shock factor of catastrophes. Those who remember the Kennedy assassination firsthand were the first to confront such horrors without any sort of filter. In fact, Jack Ruby’s execution of Lee Harvey Oswald was the first-ever killing televised live.

It’s the uniqueness of the Kennedy assassination that, therefore, commands so much attention. Add the fact that apparently no one on the planet has an identical theory about the specific events of that day, and welcome one of the few unsettled long-term debates that hasn’t become a crushing bore.

Lest you think I’m about to launch into another entry on the endless list of long-winded Kennedy assassination theories about which their proclaimers are absolutely convinced, fret not: I don’t know who killed Kennedy. And I’m beginning to suspect we may never really know. However, I do have some doubts about a few of the more prominent possibilities.

Sam Giancana and/or the Mafia did it.

It’s not that I don’t think Giancana and the mob hated Kennedy the way I hate cancer. By their own standards, they doubtless though they had good reason. Giancana and his La Cosa Nostra buddies reputedly provided invaluable assistance to Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential election; their “voter recruitment” efforts in places like Chicago and West Virginia may well have been the difference between a Kennedy victory and a Nixon victory. In return, Kennedy sicced his brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, on them like a dog on a wounded quail doused in bacon grease. And I suspect Giancana was less than thrilled about Kennedy’s rumored dalliances with Giancana’s own reputed mistresses, Marilyn Monroe, Judith Campbell Exner and Phyllis McGuire. While it is possible the mob of the 1960s could have pulled off killing the President, the likelihood that they could have kept that quiet for five decades is slim. These are guys who roll on each other to shave a couple of years off the dime upstate for RICO; I doubt they could sit on the crime of the century for half that century. And though Giancana might personally have had the contacts to hire a Presidential hit, the low number of people willing to try, able to succeed and capable of keeping the secret is probably fairly low. That translates to big money, and Giancana couldn’t have moved that kind of cash without raising eyebrows on both sides of the law. And I have never accepted the idea that mob killed Kennedy out of retribution for the loss of their assets in Cuba. For one, Cuba was coming apart at the seams before Kennedy was in a position to do something worthwhile about it. For another, Kennedy’s obsession with trying to kill Fidel Castro ran a close second to his obsession with the fairer sex.

The Kennedy fixation on Castro brings us to the next theory I think misses the mark:

Fidel Castro did it.

Putting aside the fact that Castro was a Marxist monster, even someone who isn’t a blight on the history books would grow tired of constant attempts on his life. The fact that none of them succeeded would hardly mitigate the endless fear, much less the added headaches, of a top ranking on the CIA’s most-wanted list. And the abortive Bay of Pigs assault doubtless soured Castro’s mojito. Nonetheless, if the Cubans of the 1960s were in any way involved in the assassination of Kennedy, they participated only as subcontractors. At that time, Cuba was little more than a tropical colony of the Soviet Union, a cheap communist knock-off of Miami. If Castro and his Cuban comrades played any part, it was only at the behest of their masters:

The Russians did it.

Given Kennedy’s rather contentious relationship with then-Soviet dictator Nikita Krushchev, the Soviet’s increasingly erratic saber rattling and the backdrop of some of the hottest days of the Cold War, leaving the Russians off the list of suspects would be foolish. In addition, Kennedy’s failures in places like the Bay of Pigs disappeared behind his resounding victories in Berlin and — most glaringly — the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy captured the world’s attention with his unblinking resolve in the face of a communist empire that grew like shower mold through the darker corners of the planet. The fact that the young, telegenic Kennedy made Krushchev look like Elmer Fudd doubtless added an extra bitter mote to Krushchev’s borscht. But while Krushchev might have been outwardly bombastic, the fact that he quailed before Kennedy at each turn — combined with what appeared to be a somewhat reformist heart (at least compared to his predecessor, the almost incomparably monstrous Josef Stalin) — leads me to believe that he lacked the killer instinct necessary to carry out such a world-shaking crime.

Lee Harvey Oswald did it.

There is no doubt in my mind that Oswald fired at — and likely hit — Kennedy from his perch in the Texas School Book Depository. There is, furthermore, no doubt in my mind that Oswald was an absolutely willing participant in the assassination. But the idea that Oswald acted alone seems almost ludicrous to me. While Oswald was certainly a good shot (he demonstrated marksmanship skills during his tenure in the Marine Corps), he was not the steely-eyed sharpshooter of legend. According to at least one of his fellow Marines, a man named Nelson Delgado, Oswald was far from perfect on the rifle range. And the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository under what must have been almost intolerable stress is as far a cry from the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro as a mail-order surplus Mannlicher-Carcano 91/38 is from an M14 being maintained by a Marine. Those who hold to the “lone gunman theory” give Oswald a great deal more credit than I expect he deserves.

Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover did it.

Hoover hated Kennedy, clearly had some bats in his own belfry and surrounded himself with fiercely loyal — and dangerous — acolytes. Hoover also knew who Oswald was, thanks to Oswald’s Cuban and Soviet travails. And Hoover collected secrets the way fat people collect calories. Hoover could easily have ordered, cajoled and/or blackmailed all the players he needed for Dealey Plaza. However, Hoover was also unapologetically patriotic. I possess lingering doubts that Hoover would have conducted such a direct assault on his homeland.

Thus, the question that has burned in our imaginations for a half-century: Who did it? If I’m right (and I’ll gladly admit that there’s no reason to think I’m any more so than anyone else), then Oswald was a participant in a larger conspiracy. Presuming such a conspiracy did exist, then its masters must have been capable of not only planning it and carrying it out successfully, but controlling players like Oswald and others without any of them revealing their involvement. In 2013, such a secret would be impossible to keep under the blanket. Even in 1963, the secret would have required a very small group of people who were almost supernaturally loyal. If Oswald was a player, then Ruby’s actions make sense if viewed as an effort to tie off a loose end. Ruby’s own terminal disease further fits that theory. But who stood behind him?

I’m left with only a few possible perpetrators. Those with means, motive and opportunity are: the CIA, rogue elements inside the KGB, Vice President Lyndon Johnson or some combination thereof. While a case could be made for any or all of them, it occurs to me that it doesn’t matter. Kennedy has been gone for 50 years. Those passing years have only muddied the waters surrounding that terrible day. If anyone who knows the truth behind Kennedy’s assassination is even still alive, I doubt he would suddenly resolve to unburden himself after all this time. Even if someone did, I’m not sure he’d be believed.

Kennedy was a deeply flawed man, and a far from imperfect President. But he died far too soon, and in far too cruel a manner. Perhaps his greatest legacy is America’s survival of his final day, and the days which followed. I seriously doubt we’ll even know this whole story. I also doubt that it actually matters anymore.

–Ben Crystal

Personal Liberty

Ben Crystal

is a 1993 graduate of Davidson College and has burned the better part of the last two decades getting over the damage done by modern-day higher education. He now lives in Savannah, Ga., where he has hosted an award-winning radio talk show and been featured as a political analyst for television. Currently a principal at Saltymoss Productions—a media company specializing in concept television and campaign production, speechwriting and media strategy—Ben has written numerous articles on the subjects of municipal authoritarianism, the economic fallacy of sin taxes and analyses of congressional abuses of power.

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