The conspiracy theories thrive

The granddaddy of all conspiracy theories has re-emerged with the release of most of the National Archives’ final trove of records about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His death and the investigations that followed were simultaneously some of the most secretive and public events in modern history:

Lee Harvey Oswald

Immediately after the shooting, a witness told reporters that as shots rang out, he saw a rifle extended and then withdrawn from a window on the fifth or sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Lee Harvey Oswald, a former Marine, was quickly identified as the assassin. He had become “a changed man with a new and bewildering personality” when he returned to the U.S. in 1962, according to his wife, Marina, whom he married in Russia. He was shot dead by Jack Ruby while in police custody on Nov. 24.

The Warren Commission

A week after Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon Johnson convened a government body to investigate, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Many of its findings, like the infamous “magic-bullet theory,” have been contested. Ultimately, the commission ruled that Oswald had acted alone. The commission, saying that the “‘publicizing of unchecked information had led to ‘myths’ and ‘distorted’ interpretations,” also tried to discredit the multiplying conspiracy theories behind the assassination. It didn’t work.

Investigated again and again

At least two more official federal government panels convened in the 1960s and 1970s to relitigate the shooting. In 1969, Attorney General Ramsey Clark appointed four medical experts to re-examine scientific evidence, in part as a response to an investigation by the New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison. Clark’s panel backed the Warren Commission’s assertion that only two bullets had killed the president. In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations released a report saying that untold conspirators had probably participated in the killing, citing newly uncovered evidence and scientific advances. According to the committee, Oswald fired three shots and an unidentified person fired one shot from the grassy knoll in front of the president’s limousine. The committee cited witnesses in its findings of a second gunman, including, “a police officer who said he heard a shot from the knoll and ran immediately toward it. There he encountered a man who said he was with the Secret Service and displayed a badge. … A check of the placement of Secret Service agents, however, disclosed that none had been in the area of the knoll.”

“JFK” and rewriting history

In 1969, a jury took only 50 minutes to acquit a man named Clay Shaw of conspiring to assassinate Kennedy. The Oliver Stone movie “JFK” in 1991 re-imagined both that 34-day trial and the extensive investigation by Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney. Garrison accused anti-Communist and anti-Castro extremists in the Central Intelligence Agency of plotting the president’s death to thwart an easing of tension with the Soviet Union and Cuba, and to prevent a retreat from Vietnam. The film renewed calls for answers but was criticized as a rewriting of history. A year after it was released, the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act passes. The law mandated the release of all the government archives on the assassination within 25 years, by Oct. 26, 2017.

Case closed?

Thousands of records have been declassified since. Some files detailed the president’s plans to exit the conflict in Vietnam; others showed how Fidel Castro feared the U.S. would retaliate against Cuba after the assassination. The release of the final papers may only fuel more conspiracy theories, as did the first set of files, made public in 1993.

New York Times