The fifty years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy have done little to quell the public's interest or skepticism about who killed the president.
In 1964, a year after the president's death, the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, better known as the Warren Commission, concluded that Kennedy was killed by a single gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, who acted alone and not part of a conspiracy.
In 1978, however, another government committee, the House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations, found that in addition to Oswald, there likely was a second gunman who fired at the president's motorcade. The commission concluded that the gunmen were part of a "conspiracy," without determining exactly who was behind it, opening the door to five decades and a cottage industry of theories.
According to a 2003 ABC News Poll, 70 percent of Americans believe Kennedy's death was "the result of a plot, not the act of a lone killer." Fifty-one percent believe Oswald did not act alone, and 7 percent believe Oswald was not involved at all in the assassination.
In the years since Kennedy's death more than 2,000 books have been written about the assassination, many of which espouse one or more conspiracy theories.
In no particular order and with no endorsement, here are five of the most popular Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories.
The Soviets seem like an obvious choice if you're looking for a dark hand behind Kennedy's assassination.
Proponents of the theory point to two pieces of evidence. First, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were engaged in a bitter cold war. Conspiracy theorists allege that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was so embarrassed by having to back down following the Cuban Missile Crisis he ordered the hit on Kennedy.
The other compelling piece of evidence is Lee Harvey Oswald's connection to the USSR. Though a former marine, Oswald had twice visited the Soviet Union with his Russian-born wife Marina. Both the Warren Commission and the House Committee on Assassinations found little evidence to support a Soviet-backed operation, but one former KGB agent came out years later to say the Russians played a role in the plot.
This much we know is true, the CIA had contacts with organized crime families to discuss assassinating the president. Only the president was Cuba's Fidel Castro, not Kennedy.
The mob was heavily invested in casinos and other lucrative investments in Cuba before Castro's communist revolution, according to one iteration of the theory. Kennedy botched the Bay of Pigs invasion, ending any hopes of American organized crime returning to Cuba and enraging the mafia.
Furthermore, the mob did not like Kennedy's crusading younger brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and hoped the younger brother would lose his influence if his brother was killed.
One version of the theory has the CIA, who had already contacted the mob about killing Castro, asking the mafia to carry out the Kennedy hit. In another version the mob is paid to kill Kennedy by anti-Castro Cubans.
Many proponents of this conspiracy theory point to Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner with known mafia connections, who killed Lee Harvey Oswald two days after his arrest.
The Warren Commission cleared the mafia from involvement in any such plot. The House Committee on Assassinations found that the mafia was not involved in a conspiracy, but did not rule out that individuals with mob ties were part of the plot.
Given that U.S. agents tried to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro numerous times, the theory goes, Castro decided he would repay the honor and try to assassinate Kennedy.
Perhaps the most famous proponent of the Cuban theory was President Lyndon Johnson, the man who would succeed Kennedy following the assassination.
"Kennedy was trying to get to Castro, but Castro got to him first," Johnson told ABC News in 1968.
Both the Warren Commission and the House Committee on Assassinations cleared the Cubans of any involvement and when Castro was interviewed by Bill Moyers in 1977 he called the theory "absolute insanity."
Who had the most to gain from killing Kennedy? Lyndon Johnson, the man who became president.
The gist of the theory is that Johnson was motivated by ambition and received help from members of the CIA and wealthy tycoons who believed they would profit more under a Johnson administration.
According to one version of the theory, Johnson was aided in the plot by another man who would become president, George H.W. Bush, a burgeoning CIA official who happened to be in Dallas on the day of the assassination.
In nearly every theory that involves American conspirators, be they wealthy industrialists or tough-as-nails mafiosi, one group is routinely represented – the CIA.
The Central Intelligence Agency is an easy boogeyman. Its workings and agents are a secret to most Americans, and the agency in the 1960s had a reputation for high-level political assassinations.
One theory suggests that Oswald was a CIA operative and agents tampered with his FBI file before and after the investigation to make it appear he was a communist and lone wolf.
In its 1978 report, the House Select Committee on Assassinations found that there was no indication that Oswald "had ever had contact with the Agency."
Describing someone as a “conspiracy theorist” is usually meant as an insult, suggesting tin-foil hats and babbling rants on late-night radio talk shows. But when it comes to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the list of important, seemingly credible public figures who count themselves as conspiracy theorists is long and impressive.
Fifty years ago this coming week, the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the panel led by Chief Justice Earl Warren and better known as the Warren Commission, published an 888-page final report that identified Lee Harvey Oswald as the sole gunman in Dealey Plaza and said there was no evidence of a conspiracy, foreign or domestic.
Those findings were meant to put an end to the swirling conspiracy theories about the president’s murder. Yet the theories persisted. Americans had difficulty accepting that the most powerful man in the world could be brought down by a troubled young man wielding a $21 mail-order rifle. And in the wake of the Vietnam War, Watergate and so many other scandals and national tragedies that followed the assassination, people grew increasingly skeptical that the government could be expected to tell them the truth. By the late 1960s, opinion polls showed that most Americans had rejected the findings of the Warren Commission’s report. An April 2013 poll by the Associated Press found that 59 percent of Americans believed there was a conspiracy in Kennedy’s death.
The bold-faced names among the conspiracy theorists have included the president who established the commission. Lyndon Johnson said in the final years of his life that he believed that the Warren Commission was wrong and that Cuban leader Fidel Castro was behind the assassination. Another surprising conspiracy theorist: the slain president’s brother, former attorney general Robert Kennedy, who publicly supported the Warren Report even as he told friends and family he was convinced that Castro, the Mafia or even some rogue element of the CIA was responsible for his brother’s death. Last year, Secretary of State John Kerry told a television interviewer that “to this day, I have serious doubts that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.”
And this month, on the eve of the report’s 50th anniversary, the roster of seemingly credible Americans willing to identify themselves as Kennedy-assassination conspiracy theorists has grown to include someone from within the Warren Commission itself: Charles N. Shaffer Jr., a former Justice Department prosecutor who served on the investigation’s staff in 1964 (he says he was dispatched by Attorney General Kennedy as “Bobby’s spy”) and went on to a headline-making career as a Washington-based criminal defense lawyer.
In interviews I have been conducting for a new edition of my 2013 book on the assassination, Shaffer told me there probably was a conspiracy in President Kennedy’s death, which makes him the first commission insider to say so publicly. He said he has no doubt that Oswald was the lone gunman in Dealey Plaza. Nor does he question the single-bullet theory, developed by the commission’s staff, which holds that one bullet passed through the bodies of both Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally. But he now suspects that the assassination was the work, ultimately, of organized-crime figures who somehow manipulated Oswald into gunning down the president in Dallas on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, and then directed strip-club operator Jack Ruby to silence Oswald by killing him two days later.
“The Warren Report was an honest report, based on what we knew at the time,” Shaffer said. “But nothing should have been written in stone. There were later developments that convinced me that maybe we missed something.”
Shaffer, who maintains an active legal practice at age 82 and is perhaps best remembered in Washington for his defense of White House counsel John Dean during Watergate , said he has long been troubled by disclosures about possible Mafia involvement in the assassination. He said he was struck in particular by the account of mob lawyer Frank Ragano. In his 1994 memoir, Ragano wrote that Tampa-based crime boss Santo Trafficante confessed to him in 1987 that he and Carlos Marcello, the mob boss of New Orleans, were responsible for the assassination. According to Ragano, the dying Trafficante uttered the words: “Carlos messed up. We shouldn’t have killed John. We should have killed Bobby.”
Shaffer, who also defended powerful organized-crime figures, knew Ragano. He said he always thought the account seemed credible: It made sense that Trafficante and Marcello would have wanted revenge for the Justice Department’s aggressive prosecution of mob figures during the Kennedy administration, and they would have been in a position to order Ruby, who had a history of low-level ties to organized-crime figures, to kill Oswald. “If you credit what Ragano says, there was a conspiracy,” Shaffer said. “It sounds right.”
The mob theory has long been a popular one among conspiracy theorists, although other former commission staffers, as well as Ragano’s family and a number of independent researchers, dismiss it. Howard P. Willens, a senior member of the commission’s staff, told me he is convinced that Shaffer, a close friend, is wrong. “No number of commonly held suspicions amounts to one fact,” he said.
Burt Griffin, a retired Ohio judge who also served on the commission’s staff and was responsible for investigating Ruby’s background, said he, too, is certain there was no Mafia conspiracy. “I’ve tried to keep abreast of the allegations that the Mafia was involved in the assassination,” he told me. “It’s nonsense. Zero evidence of any contacts with Oswald.” Critics have suggested that Ragano made up his story to sell books or as an act of vengeance against his former client.
Still, the fact that a Warren Commission staffer is now challenging the investigation’s central findings creates another dent in the commission’s already damaged legacy — and will only add to the skepticism that the truth about the assassination can ever be known.
Warren bears much of the responsibility for his commission’s failures. Years later, he would admit that, in his own mind, he ruled out a conspiracy within days of the president’s murder. As a result, he frequently blocked staff lawyers from pursuing lines of investigation that might have pointed to co-conspirators.
Shaffer said he believes that Warren’s biggest blunder was his refusal to allow Ruby to testify in Washington. Ruby consistently denied involvement in a conspiracy, saying he had loved the slain president and murdered Oswald on impulse. But in a face-to-face meeting with Warren in Dallas in June 1964, Ruby, who was seen by psychiatrists at the time as delusional, if not clinically insane, pleaded to go to Washington because “I want to tell the truth, and I can’t tell it here.” Warren refused, saying he worried for Ruby’s safety in the capital. Shaffer said the decision was “ridiculous” and meant that the commission missed a “golden opportunity” to see if Ruby was prepared to expose a conspiracy.
For my book, I spoke to the surviving members of the commission’s staff and then pursued the leads they hadn’t been able to follow — because Warren resisted or because, it is now clear, evidence had been hidden from them. I was never swayed by the theories of a mob plot, if only because it seemed so unlikely that the Mafia would enlist such pathetic misfits as Oswald and Ruby in the crime of the century. I was much more intrigued by evidence — denied to the commission’s staff — suggesting that Oswald had talked openly about his plans to kill the president and that he may have been promised help if he were ever able to succeed. Much of that evidence involves his mysterious visit to Mexico City several weeks before the assassination, when Oswald, a self-proclaimed Marxist, was apparently trying to get a visa to defect to Cuba.
Both the CIA and the FBI had Oswald under surveillance in the fall of 1963. But they withheld information from the Warren Commission about how much they knew about him before the assassination. The CIA never told the commission about its plots during the Kennedy administration to assassinate Castro — plots that the Cuban dictator discovered, giving him an obvious motive to kill Kennedy. The FBI destroyed evidence before it could reach the commission, including a handwritten, apparently threatening note that Oswald delivered to the bureau’s field office in Dallas in early November 1963. On the day Oswald was murdered by Ruby, FBI agents in Dallas, fearing that the note would be seen as evidence that they had been aware of the danger Oswald posed to the president, shredded the piece of paper and flushed it down a toilet. Its exact contents remain a mystery.
So the Warren Commission record is incomplete. And conspiracy theories are likely to plague us forever.
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