Book Article

JFK 50 Years Later: The Conspiracy Theory That Just Won't Quit

Historians believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, but most Americans think he had help from the Cubans, the Russians, or the CIA; on the anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death, a handful of books try to set the record straight

"Those who were alive in the fall of 1963 shudder at the mere mention of the date." Or so writes James L. Swanson in End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy — though some readers may shudder when they picture all those baby-boomer jowls set aquiver. Still, point taken. For Americans, November 22 is the grimmest date outside of December 7 and September 11. Swanson says he finds it hard to believe it's been 50 years, but the publishing business can't afford such sentimental incredulity: His is one in a slew of books, both kitschy and compelling — sometimes between the same covers — timed to come out on the 35th president's golden necroversary.

Predictably, we've got nostalgic photo books and studies of such marginal Kennedyana as his thumb-twiddling years in the Senate. But most readers still want a whodunit: According to a recent poll overseen by University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, 75 percent of Americans are skeptical of the Warren Commission's 1964 conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald did the shooting on his own lone-nut initiative. So even defenders of assassination orthodoxy are wise to make their books seem creepy-deepy. In Dallas 1963, a well-researched study of the crankish political environment into which JFK ventured on his last morning, Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis speak of the "swirling forces at work" — yet if Oswald shot the president, as they maintain, all this swirling obviously stirred up nothing more significant than bad vibes.

The Day Kennedy Died: 50 Years Later LIFE Remembers the Man and the Moment also casts a skeptical eye on conspiracy theories (the hill of beans they don't amount to occupies 13 pages) and says it's only "controversy" itself that "swirled — and continues to swirl." This coffee-table book recycles much of the magazine's classic photojournalism, including stills from the Zapruder film, for which LIFE paid $150,000 in 1963. But the motorcade down memory lane takes a few new detours. We get to see frame 313, the head shot — as if we hadn't seen it in Oliver Stone's JFK — and we have reminiscences from the likes of Maya Angelou, Bill O'Reilly, and Barbra Streisand about where they were on what's called, inevitably, "that autumn day." Their alibis seem airtight.

Sabato's own contribution to this fall's bounty, The Kennedy Half-Century, analyzes JFK's presidency and its impact on the nine presidents who've followed him. He devotes more than a quarter of his book to a fair-minded summary of conspiracy theories — to the mysteries and anomalies that engendered them, and to the cynical post-Vietnam, post-Watergate mindset in which they've flourished. Sabato ultimately finds the case against Oswald "overwhelming," but he admits, in a nuanced double-negative, that "the chance of some sort of conspiracy...is not insubstantial." So who might have helped or encouraged Oswald? Sabato's not guessing, but he claims the CIA isn't telling all it knows. And New York Times reporter Philip Shenon's A Cruel and Shocking Act reaches a similar conclusion. Despite the obligatory come-hither subtitle — The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination — it's a judicious account of the Warren Commission, as recalled by the lawyers who did its legwork. Shenon too believes Oswald did it, but claims that "senior officials at both the CIA and the FBI hid information from the panel," apparently hoping to conceal what they'd known about him, and "important witnesses...were ignored or threatened into silence."

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