I’ve been studying the John F. Kennedy assassination for more than 50 years. I have more than 50 books on the life, administration, and shocking death of President Kennedy in my personal library. I’ve also traveled to where Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and have visited The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza where Oswald fired the fatal shots.
About 40 years ago I concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald (1939–1963) was the lone assassin and that there was no conspiracy. In my view, the 1964 Warren Commission Report (WCR) got it basically right: one man, one rifle, three shots.
Why do I bring up this topic on my Reflections blog? One of the values I’ve tried to model and teach others is the need to apply careful reasoning in all of life. For Christians, this goal is especially worthwhile. Loving God with all our minds (Mark 12:30) is what I refer to as an intellectual virtue. A skeptical world watches as we reason through defenses of the Christian faith. A misstep there or on any topic, for that matter, erodes our credibility.
The 60th anniversary of the JFK assassination affords all of us the opportunity to use our minds to the glory of God. Not everyone will agree with my thoughts on this tragic event, but I hope you’ll consider the reasons for my conclusion. In this brief article, I offer a way of thinking through this historical event that has been shrouded in conspiracy for 60 years.
When I first watched the Zapruder film, the 26-second home movie that captured the assassination, it looked to me that at least one shot hit the president from the right front in the direction of the grassy knoll, which caused his body to move violently “back and to the left.”1 However, the physical evidence of the John F. Kennedy autopsy photos clearly indicated that the president was hit twice from the right rear, consistent with Oswald’s shooting from the southeast sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Moreover, on photographic examination of the Zapruder film, the president’s head initially moves forward. The later movement back and to the left was likely caused by the bullet hitting the president’s head causing his back muscles to tighten, which moved the body backward.
Oswald’s rifle was found on the sixth floor with his palm print discovered on it. The boxes near the sniper’s nest (southeast corner of the sixth floor) also had Oswald’s fingerprints on them. Three spent rifle shells were found in the sniper’s nest and the bullet and bullet fragments found in Kennedy’s limousine matched ballistically and exclusively to Oswald’s rifle. An eyewitness sitting directly across the street from the Depository had also seen Oswald on the sixth floor at the time of the shooting. Oswald was also the only employee of the Texas School Book Depository to be absent at a roll call after the assassination.2
But what ultimately weighed heavily on my conclusion was studying the life of Oswald. While you wouldn’t know it from all the conspiracy voices over the last six decades, Lee Harvey Oswald was actually much more like the school shooters of the last couple of decades than like the spy Jason Bourne.
Like so many of the deeply disturbed school shooters, Oswald grew up without a father and was placed in juvenile detention at the age of 12. A psychiatrist assessed him as “emotionally disturbed.” He attended 12 schools in his youth and, as a young teenager, pulled a knife on his half-brother and sister-in-law.3
Oswald had demonstrated violent tendencies seven months before murdering the president. Oswald’s wife, Marina, said he attempted to assassinate a former Army general named Edwin Walker.4 His shot at Walker narrowly missed and this incident was connected to Oswald only after Kennedy’s death. Journalist and historian Priscilla Johnson McMillan—who worked for Kennedy in the early 1950s and later worked as a journalist—interviewed Oswald when he defected to the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. She called the Walker shooting “the Rosetta stone of the Kennedy assassination.”5
Three Shots in the Plaza
For decades people have wondered how Oswald was able to fire three shots with his World War II-era Italian bolt-action Mannlicher-Carcano rifle and murder President Kennedy and seriously wound Texas Governor John Connally in a span of about six seconds. But assassination researcher Max Holland makes a persuasive case that the first shot came much earlier than initially thought (perhaps even prior to the Zapruder film), so Oswald had about eleven seconds to fire three shots.
“Eleven seconds to fire three shots is akin to all the time in the world,” Holland said. “There’s no longer any question of how it was so difficult to do and how he pulled it off.”6
Computer animation supports the single-bullet theory7 which is the Warren Commission’s thesis that one bullet (CE 399) hit both Kennedy and Connally. It’s been duplicated by using lasers and been reenacted with riflemen shooting into dummies with bodies that were made to resemble human flesh and body parts. So we may now refer to the single-bullet theory as a fact that has been supported by careful reenactment.8
New Challenge to the Theory
However, a recent book by former secret service agent Paul Landis, who was riding on the running board of the vehicle behind the presidential limousine, has led to new questions about the single-bullet theory. Landis now says he found a largely intact bullet (apparently CE 399) in the bloody back seat of the president’s limousine near where Kennedy was seated instead of near where Governor Connally was seated. Landis said he put the bullet in his pocket and later placed it on Kennedy’s gurney instead of another gurney (possibly Governor Connally’s).
Yet, while some people claim that this new testimony supports a new bullet and, therefore, possibly a second assassin, Landis’s story doesn’t square with what he said and wrote in official secret service reports just after the assassination. With the story coming 60 years later, it’s been questioned by fellow secret service agent Clint Hill, who heroically climbed on the back of the presidential limousine in an attempt to protect the Kennedys during the assassination. Hill was asked by Landis to endorse his book but Hill declined because he said there were problems with the accuracy of some of Landis’s details.
The memory and testimony of a man now 88 years old and coming 60 years after the fact raises questions about the credibility of such a story. But let’s give Landis the benefit of the doubt and assume his report is accurate. His account could still be consistent with the Warren Commission’s finding that one bullet wounded both Kennedy and Connally. How so? When the presidential limousine arrived at Parkland Memorial Hospital just minutes after the shooting, the limp bodies of the two men were in very close approximation to each other (the Connallys in the front seat and the Kennedys in the back seat were a mere 18 inches apart). John Connally’s six-foot-four body had to be removed from the limousine before the president’s body could be removed and placed on a hospital stretcher. It’s possible that in all the frantic excitement and rush, the bullet that had superficially lodged in the governor’s thigh was dislodged and ended up in the back seat when Connally was removed from the car.9
Concerning Oswald’s responsibility in the assassination, famous trial attorney Vincent Bugliosi marshals 53 pieces of evidence pointing to Oswald’s guilt.10 Bugliosi affirms that it is beyond reasonable doubt that Oswald acted alone.
Neither Oswald nor Ruby Were Conspirator Types
But even if Oswald was the assassin how do we know he didn’t have help? The following quote by Howard P. Willens (who served as assistant counsel to J. Lee Rankin of the Warren Commission) reflects Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren’s reasoning about Oswald’s lone involvement in the Kennedy assassination:
In his memoirs, Warren wrote that Oswald was incapable of being the key operative in a conspiracy, and that any high-level government conspiracy would inevitably have been discovered.11
Oswald and the man who killed him, Jack Ruby (1911–1967), were both independent and deeply disturbed people. No organization (organized crime, CIA, KGB, pro- or anti-Castro Cubans, etc.) would reasonably select either man to carry out a professional assassination attempt or to silence the assassin. But again, like the many school shooters who are also deeply troubled, Oswald and Ruby were capable enough to act out violently, given the opportunity.
If you read the WCR12 you’ll discover that Ruby arrived in the Dallas jail (Sunday, November 24, 1963) just moments before he shot Oswald with his revolver (at 11:21 AM). Just minutes before (11:17 AM) he had sent money via Western Union to one of his nightclub employees. The Western Union office was across the street from the jail and Ruby had stood in line waiting to be assisted. He even left his beloved dachshund, “Sheba,” in his parked car. Professional hit men don’t operate that way. He stumbled upon the opportunity to get close to Oswald and shot him out of compulsion. Moreover, if Oswald had to be rubbed out to keep from revealing a conspiracy, then so did Ruby as well as the man who would have to kill Ruby, and so on. But where does this chain reaction reasoning end?
As Warren noted, a governmental plot to assassinate the president would have had to involve a fair number of people. But the greater the number of people involved, the greater the chance someone would reveal the secret.
A Terrible Happenstance of History
I can understand how people can wonder how someone as inconsequential as Oswald could murder someone as consequential as the President of the United States. But the events of that dreadful day made it possible that one person could carry it out. Kennedy’s motorcade just happened to drive by the place where Oswald had been working for about five weeks. That there would be a motorcade through Dallas was decided just before Kennedy traveled to Texas. And the motorcade route itself was revealed in the local Dallas newspapers only a couple of days before the assassination. Therefore, there wasn’t sufficient time for a vast conspiracy to be planned and carried out.
It is reported that Oswald once told one of his fellow marines that he wanted to do something that people would be talking about 1,000 years in the future. Unfortunately, the assassination of the president may be that “something.” Holland described Oswald as a “politicized psychopath.”13 I think it’s an insightful description.
History matters and events attributed to large and complex conspiracy theories need to be carefully thought through. As Christians, we strive to know the truth and to pass it on to others. Even if you disagree with my conclusion about who killed JFK, I hope you’ll consider reviewing the resources provided below.
- For the government investigation that concluded that President Kennedy had probably been killed by a conspiracy, see the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA: 1976–1979).
- For perhaps the most reasonable conspiracy perspective, see Bill Rockwood, “Interview: G. Robert Blakey,” Frontline (PBS), November 19, 2013. As the chief counsel for the HSCA, G. Robert Blakey is probably the most qualified specialist who affirms a conspiracy. See his book The Plot to Kill the President.
- For a recent book by one of the original JFK assassination researchers who affirms a conspiracy, see Josiah Thompson, Last Second in Dallas.
- For a defense of the lone gunman theory, see Gerald Posner, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK.
- For another work supporting the lone gunman theory, see Larry M. Sturdivan, The JFK Myths: A Scientific Investigation of the Kennedy Assassination.
1. The phrase “back and to the left” is used almost universally by JFK assassination researchers as evidence from the Zapruder film that the president was struck by a bullet from the right front, which implies a second assassin. Here is the line used in the famous 1991 conspiracy movie JFK directed by Oliver Stone: “The sixth and fatal shot—frame 313—takes Kennedy in the head from the front. This is the key shot. The president going back to his left. Shot from the front and right. Totally inconsistent with the shot from the depository. Again . . . back and to the left . . . back and to the left . . . back and to the left . . . back and to the left.”
2. See “Warren Commission Report Chapter 3,” National Archives, JFK Assassination Records, last reviewed August 15, 2016.
3. See the Wikipedia article on Lee Harvey Oswald and the Warren Commission Report, “Appendix 13: Biography of Lee Harvey Oswald,” National Archives, JFK Assassination Records, last reviewed August 15, 2016.
4. Dave Roos, “Before JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald Tried to Assassinate a Former Army General,” History, updated September 19, 2023.
5. Bill Rockwood, “Interview: Priscilla Johnson McMillan,” Frontline, PBS, November 19, 2013.
6. Max Holland, “The Zapruder Film Reconsidered,” YouTube, December 11, 2015.
8. Eric Bland, “Tech Puts JFK Conspiracy Theories to Rest,” NBC News, November 13, 2008.
9. This explanation was proposed by JFK assassination researcher Gerald Posner: “‘Case Closed’ Author Separates Truth from Fiction in Latest JFK Assassination Bombshell Report,” NewsNation with Elizabeth Vargas, YouTube, September 11, 2023; “Gerald Posner Explaining New Revelations in the Kennedy Assassination,” Michael Smerconish, YouTube, September 11, 2023.
10. Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), see “Summary of Oswald’s Guilt,” 951–69.
11. Earl Warren, The Memoirs of Chief Justice Earl Warren (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 2001), 364–67.
12. See “Appendix 16: A Biography of Jack Ruby,” National Archives, JFK Assassination Records, last reviewed August 15, 2016.
13. Holland, “The Zapruder Film Reconsidered.”