Fifty years ago today I was a runny-nosed first-grader squirming in Mrs. Bramlett’s dusty classroom at Umphrey Lee Elementary School in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. About an hour and a half after lunch we were told the president had been shot and killed, the victim of an assassin’s bullets in downtown Dallas.
Even though the perpetrator was still at large, we were abruptly released from school and told to go home. In those days, most everyone had a mother to go home to, so sending hundreds of young children home wasn’t viewed as much of an inconvenience. Nowadays, of course, the school would have rightly gone into lock-down mode.
So I walked the three blocks to my family’s modest ranch house, even as Lee Harvey Oswald was gunning down Officer J.D. Tippit less than two miles away. Through many tears, my mother could be heard asking, “Why did it have to happen here?” during that fateful weekend.
But something else occurred that day that transcended everything — something with implications far greater than watching Jack Ruby fire a round into Oswald’s stomach on live TV with my parents.
Given my personal connection to the assassination, it’s not surprising that I developed a lifelong interest in it. When the Warren Commission issued its findings less than a year later, my family got a copy of the report and kept it right in our living room. We pored over it and took the commission at its word. After all, there could be no greater beacon of integrity than a panel chaired by a sitting chief justice of the United States, right?
But the more I looked into it, the less the commission’s insistence that Oswald acted alone made any sense. By nature, I’m a cautious person — one not prone to believing in bizarre conspiracies and half-baked theories. The evidence that Oswald was involved in the assassination is overwhelming. He is the only employee of the Texas School Book Depository who fled the building and multiple witnesses saw him shoot Tippit 45 minutes later.
Yet the Warren Commission report hinges on the so-called single-bullet theory — the idea that one unlikely shot went through the president’s back and neck and then traveled into Texas Gov. John Connally’s torso, wrist and leg. But if you believe the occupants of the presidential limousine itself and if you view the Zapruder film, such was obviously not the case.
Connolly is on record as saying after he heard the first shot that hit the president, he turned to his right toward the depository and the sound of the rifle. At that time, JFK was already struggling and clutching his throat with both hands. But the governor was unaffected. By his own testimony, it was not until Connally turned back toward the center of the vehicle that he was pushed back into the arms of his wife by the force of the shot that hit him. So common sense and direct witness accounts tell us JFK and Connally weren’t hit by the same bullet.
It is at that point that the commission’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone simply falls apart. There must have been at least four shots fired that hit: 1) JFK in the neck; 2) Connally in the torso; 3) JFK in the head, and; 4) the curb near the triple underpass. We can only guess why the commission discounted Connally’s testimony.
But I suspect the commission either felt the American people, in the immortal words of Jack Nicholson, couldn’t “handle the truth,” or that the truth might have started an international crisis. Either way, it’s clear the commission’s objective was never to get at the truth, but rather to do what FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wanted it to do — namely pin the blame solely on Oswald as quickly as possible.
At least three organizations had powerful motives to kill JFK: the Mafia, which helped engineer JFK’s election but which saw more prosecutions against it by the Kennedy Justice Department than all previous administrations combined (and, of course, it didn’t help that JFK was sleeping with a mobster’s girlfriend); the CIA, which was threatened by JFK’s desire to break it up into smaller pieces and thus weaken it considerably; and the anti-Castro Cuban exile community, which resented the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion and thought JFK was softening his stance on communism in Cuba.
The CIA and Mafia theories always made the most sense to me. Ruby had mob ties and probably owed the bad guys a favor. Oswald, on the other hand, defected to the Soviet Union and married a Russian woman. After declaring he didn’t like the U.S.S.R. anymore, Oswald was allowed to be repatriated into the U.S. It’s difficult to imagine why federal authorities would allow a character like Oswald back into the country unless he was an intelligence operative — perhaps a double agent with valuable information about the Soviet regime.
No, unless more documents are declassified as scheduled in 2017, we may never know the truth. And that gets me back to what changed this country on Nov. 22, 1963. It wasn’t the lost hope of a young president who might have resisted the escalating military involvement in southeast Asia brought on by his predecessor, or moved more aggressively to further the cause of civil rights. No, we lost our collective ability to trust our government to be straight with us.
The Warren Commission gave rise to a whole new generation of Americans who, with some justification, don’t believe a word the federal government tells them. From Vietnam to Watergate to the 9/11 truthers, the grievous affliction we suffered 50 years ago endures to this day. And it’s a loss I’m sure JFK would consider more severe than his own murder.