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Assassination of JFK

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Assassination of JFK

In the year 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated to the horror of the American people. When JFK rode through Dallas in that motorcade, polls showed almost 80% of Americans believed that their government was trustworthy. Within a few years, conspiracy theories about government involvement in the assassination eroded that trust on a national scale. People's faith in government died along with Kennedy that afternoon.

The Year of JFK's Assassination

Kennedy had no reason to expect anything unusual on November 22, 1963. His arrival in Dallas, Texas, went according to plan. Let's walk through the day of the assassination.

JFK's Reason for Being in Texas

In the 1960 presidential election, the Democrats won Texas. By 1963, there was heavy disagreement between the more liberal and more conservative ends of the Texas Democratic Party. Kennedy had gone to Texas to reestablish unity in the party before the 1964 election.

Assassination of JFK, Photograph of President John F Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally in a motorcade in Dallas TX November 22 1963, StudySmarterJFK and the governor of Texas, Wikimedia Commons.

Assassination of JFK: Route through Dallas

Since the visit was largely political, a parade route in Dallas was part of the journey and it was well advertised days in advance. It was planned to be broadcasted on national television and other media. Many people were lining the streets to get a look at Kennedy. The president would be driving by slowly through the avenue.

Assassination of JFK: Location of the Crime

The President and the governor of Texas waved to onlookers from their convertible. When they arrived at Dealey Plaza, three shots rang out. They had come from the Texas School Book Depository building.

The Grassy Knoll

Due to confusion, the police first rushed to search a patch of grass for the shooter. This became known as The Grassy Knoll. Later, conspiracy theorists would claim it was the spot of a second shooter.

The assassination of JFK: Lee Harvey Oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald was an enigmatic figure who has caused much debate. His own words contradict the official version of the events but he did not live long enough to defend them. Mainstream historians believe him to be the sole individual responsible for Kennedy's murder.

Assassination of JFK, Mugshot of Lee Harvey Oswald taken by Dallas Police, StudySmarterLee Harvey Oswald the next day of the assassination of JFK, Wikimedia Commons.

Who was Lee Harvey Oswald?

Oswald led a troubled life. When he was a teenager, he was placed in juvenile detention and diagnosed as emotionally disturbed. He joined the Marines at seventeen but was court-martialed and jailed. After leaving the Marines he defected to the USSR, where he married and had a child. His family returned to the U.S. in 1962.

Assassination of JFK: Oswald's Capture

Lee Harvey Oswald was quickly identified as a suspect when his supervisor at the book repository reported him missing right after the shooting. Later that afternoon, a police officer stopped Oswald three miles away. Oswald shot the officer and fled, sneaking into a movie theater. After the theater called the police, Oswald was arrested in a violent confrontation.

Assassination of JFK: Oswald's Death

Oswald stated that he was only a patsy. Two days after his arrest, he was taken for transfer to another jail. While walking to the car, a man named Jack Ruby shot and killed Oswald. Ruby stated that his reasons were his being upset over the death of JFK and not wanting Kennedy's wife to have to deal with a trial.

Patsy: A person who is easy to manipulate or blame.

The Media and the JFK Assassination

The television media coverage of JFK's death would change how news was delivered. This was the first time television channels halted regular programming to deliver continuous live coverage of a news event. It set a standard that would be used in future events. Also, the decision of Walter Cronkite to report directly from the newsroom changed the look of the news from the decorated sets that had been used previously.

Assassination of JFK: Media Coverage of Evolving Theories

In the beginning, the media reported that Oswald had killed Kennedy. By the mid-1960s however, ideas of conspiracy theorists were published in popular, mainstream magazines. Books about the theories made it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. These conjectures developed by researchers working in their basements and then networking made it into the mainstream of American consciousness.

The American People's Reaction to the Assassination of JFK

The reaction of the American public to the JFK Assassination was largely grief and shock. Due to the new method of live television coverage, people gathered together publicly to watch information unfold. Some people even wept in public. Rooted for generations in the American psyche, it was an event many Americans would recall remembering and retold where they were when they first heard.

The Warren Commission and the Assassination of JFK

Days after the assassination, the new president proposed that Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren, head a commission to investigate the assassination. The committee included members of both political parties and other government leaders. The president and others believed that a quick decision, determining the assassination to be the act of "a lone nut" instead of a large communist conspiracy, would avert potential nuclear war with the USSR. The commission also discovered that Oswald had made a previous failed assassination attempt on a retired U.S. Army General.

Assassination of JFK, A single frame of the Zapruder film used by the Warren Commission, StudySmarterStill of the Zapruder film with JFK limousine at Dallas, Wikimedia Commons.

The Zapruder film

It is the most comprehensive video of the event even though it's less than 27 seconds long. It was captured by an amateur, Abraham Zapruder, a Ukrainian-born American. Because the press was waiting at the motorcade's destination, it is the most complete media account of the assassination of JFK. It consists of an 8 mm Kodachrome film and it was used as evidence during the Warren Commission hearings.

Assassination of JFK: The Warren Commission Report

When the Warren Report was released to the public in September 1964, it stated that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted as the lone gunman in the assassination. Several members of the committee, President Johnson, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy would all at some point be skeptical of the Warren Commission's methods and findings. It was later found to be missing a great deal of embarrassing information from JFK and the government.

Assassination of JFK: The Autopsy

Kennedy's autopsy was rushed at the request of his family. Kennedy suffered from several diseases and the family did not wish that discovery to tarnish his image as a strong and youthful president. An effect of the haste was that the autopsy report the FBI filed did not mention an exit wound from the bullet. The exit wound had been destroyed when doctors performed surgery trying to save JFK's life.

The Magic-Bullet Theory

One of the debates is about how only one bullet caused all the wounds to Kennedy and the Texas Governor. There were several exit and entrance wounds. Critics call this conjecture "the magic-bullet theory." They used the FBI report, which missed one of the exit wounds, to claim a second bullet fell out of Kennedy's body at the hospital and, therefore, it must have been a second shooter. However, this is due to an error in the FBI report. The positions of the two men in the car can be aligned so that a single bullet trajectory accounts for all their wounds.

Assassination of JFK: The "Benign Coverup"

It is now recognized, even by the CIA's Chief Historian, that federal agencies did conceal some embarrassing information from the Warren Commission. The CIA held back that it had attempted to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro, so the commission would not consider that as a possible motive. Also, J. Edgar Hoover, obsessed with the public image of the FBI, tried to put forth the idea of Oswald as an unpredictable "lone nut." This was to protect the FBI from being considered incompetent or negligent because they had long been aware of Oswald as a suspicious character and knew he worked along the motorcade route.

The Conspiracy Theories about JFK's Assassination

Oswald was a mysterious character who had been quickly murdered. Witnesses did not agree on what direction the shots came from. Americans were in disbelief that their leader had been murdered. Several more high-profile assassinations would follow. This all converged to create a variety of conspiracy theories for which the assassination would be remembered.

Assassination of JFK: A New Kind of Conspiracy Theory

Previous conspiracy theories generally centered on outside groups, such as communists infiltrating the government. JFK conspiracy theories changed things by centering around the government itself being capable of sinister acts. Previous conspiracy theorists had often been elites in power like senator Joseph McCarthy. An effect of the JFK assassination was the rise of average people searching through documents and recordings, drawing conclusions, and publishing popular books to spread their ideas.

Assassination of JFK: Victims of the Red Scare

Although most Americans trusted the government was working in their best interest, some Americans' lives had been negatively impacted by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and loyalty boards during the Red Scare (an anti-communist policy and propaganda of the time). These individuals were already suspicious of the government and many became the first JFK conspiracy theorists. Ironically, the actions of HUAC and others are what led to these individuals working to undermine trust in the government.

Assassination of JFK: A Left-Wing Conspiracy

The JFK assassination was originally taken up as a left-wing cause. Some believed that Kennedy had been killed by the CIA for opposing the Vietnam War and hostilities with the USSR. The truth was that Kennedy was an avid cold warrior, even approving assassination attempts on Fidel Castro in Cuba.

Assassination of JFK: Jim Garrison

Jim Garrison was a district attorney in New Orleans when Kennedy was killed. Shortly before the assassination, Oswald had lived in New Orleans. Garrison looked into the matter and became a champion of conspiracy theorists. He would turn out to be a left-leaning version of Joseph McCarthy, going too far in his accusations and discrediting himself.

Assassination of JFK Photograph of Jim Garrison StudySmarterJim Garrison participated in the conspiracy theories, Wikimedia Commons.

Assassination of JFK: Clay Shaw

Clay Shaw was a man who was accused by Garrison of being involved with the Kennedy assassination conspiracy. Initially, Garrison tried to blame it on Shaw's sexuality, claiming it was a conspiracy of homosexuals who were jealous of Kennedy's masculinity. Later, Garrison conformed to popular conspiracy theories and claimed Shaw was acting as an agent of the CIA. Ultimately, Shaw was acquitted of any charges.

The Effect of the JFK Assassination

The greatest effect of the JFK assassination was the rise in conspiracy theories and loss of trust in government. Despite the enormity of the event, it is only a part of a larger trend in political assassinations and questioning government that occurred at the time. It also changed how Americans received important news. Due to public concern, the U.S. government would conduct more large investigations of the assassination into the 1970s and Congress would pass an act to release documents related to it in 1992. Some of the documents remain sealed still, which serves to keep conspiracies alive to this day.

Assassination of JFK - Key takeaways

  • JFK was assassinated on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, TX, by Lee Harvey Oswald.
  • The assassination of JFK set a precedent for future news coverage on national media.
  • JFK's assassination was investigated by the Warren Commission.
  • The Warren Commission Report named Oswald as the lone shooter.
  • An effect of the JFK assassination was the rise of many conspiracy theories, mainly that the CIA was involved.
  • After the JFK assassination, the American people started losing faith in the government.

Frequently Asked Questions about Assassination of JFK

The assassination of JFK made Lyndon Johnson president and was a part of loss of public trust in government.  In the USSR, Soviet leaders and public newspapers maintained the belief that Kennedy had been killed by a rightwing conspiracy due to his improvement of US and Soviet relations. Leaders around the world addressed their countries to express shock and mourning. The first television broadcast from the United States direct to Japan was intended to be a message from Kennedy that evening.  Instead, live broadcast of his assassination coverage was shown.  

The Warren Commission was established to investigate the assassination of JFK.

John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

Lee Harvey Oswald was accused of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy paved the way to make Lyndon Johnson president. The event reinforced public distrust in government and its institutions.

Final Assassination of JFK Quiz


Who shot JFK?

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Lee Harvey Oswald

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Where was JFK assassinated?

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Dallas, TX

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​What commission looked into the JFK assassination?

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The Warren Commission 

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Which prosecutor tried to pursue conspiracy charge in the death of JFK?

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Jim Garrison

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What end of the political spectrum first accepted JFK conspiracy theories?

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What was different about JFK conspiracy theories?

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The government itself was evil

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What precedent was set by the JFK assassination?

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How the media covers breaking news events 

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Why was the popularity of JFK conspiracy theories important?

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They showed a general loss of public trust in government 

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What happened to Lee Harvey Oswald after he shot Kennedy?

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He was murdered by a private citizen

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Oswald said he was a "patsy", what does this mean?

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He was easy to falsely blame  

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What did Oswald NOT do before the JFK assassination?

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Go to China 

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What did the CIA have to hide from the Warren Commission?

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They attempted to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro

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