On the 22nd of November 1963, twenty-four-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald went to work at the Texas School Book Depository, in Dallas. He had been working there for about a month, and his supervisor thought that he was doing a good job so far. But that would be the last day that Oswald’s co-workers would see him there; because that day he had a mission to accomplish that would change his destiny forever: he was going to kill the president of the United States of America; he was going to kill Kennedy.
But who was Lee Harvey Oswald? And why did he want to kill Kennedy? Was he a lone wolf, or was he taking someone else’s orders? Well, not all of these questions have a straightforward answer. Lee Harvey Oswald was born in New Orleans in 1939, and he wasn’t exactly born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father had died two months before his birth, and his mother was a distant, egocentric woman who was uncapable of showing love for her children. Oswald was raised in an unstable environment. Maybe that’s why he became an introverted, temperamental kid who suffered from a severe lack of affection and rejected authority. According to the psychiatrist that treated him in his childhood, Oswald had passive-aggressive tendencies with schizoid features, and he tried to compensate his frustration fantasising about wielding immense power.
After a difficult adolescence, where he was sent to twelve different schools, Oswald decided to join the Marines. It was during this period when he learnt how to shoot. Oswald became a good shot, but he still had trouble accepting authority. Due to his rebellious behaviour, he was court-martialled twice. In these years, Oswald developed an interest in politics and started reading about Communism. He even learnt a bit of Russian. Oswald was so fascinated with the Soviet Union that he decided to give his life a change of direction: at nineteen, he left the marines and moved to the Soviet Union, hoping to become a Soviet citizen. Once there, his citizenship application was denied, but he was offered a job in Minsk (in present-day Belarus), which he accepted.
the SOVIET link
But Soviet life wasn’t as exciting has Oswald had expected. The boredom of daily life and the lack of entertainment options made him reconsider his decision of moving to the USSR. Finally, after two years living in Minsk, Oswald decided that he had had enough, and he went back to America along with his wife, Marina Prusakova. The couple had met in 1961, they had married and they had been parents to a daughter. Now, the three of them were about to start a new life in Dallas.
Oswald had left the Soviet Union behind, but he hadn’t abandoned his ideology. Early in 1963, he purchased a revolver, a rifle, and a telescopic sight through mail. In April, ex US Major General Ewin Walker, an well-known anti-communist, was shot in his own house. Someone had fired at him through his window. Although Oswald was never charged for this murder attempt, he was the number one suspect. Soon after that, Oswald contacted the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a pro-Fidel Castro activist group based in New York. He decided to set up a branch of this organisation in New Orleans, and later he travelled to Mexico City. Apparently, his plan was to obtain a visa to travel to Cuba, and then go back to the USSR. But, after a few days of bureaucratic procedures, he was denied the visa. In the meanwhile, FBI agents in Dallas found out that Oswald had been in touch with the Soviet embassy in Mexico. Suspecting that he could be a spy working for the Soviets, they decided to keep an eye on him.
the dallas trip
In the Autumn of 1963, John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been the president of the United States for almost three years, and he was preparing for his next presidential campaign. He hadn’t officially announced his candidacy yet, but he was expected to do it soon, and he was confident that he would be re-elected. In November, Kennedy started to plan his campaign schedule. The president was especially interested in obtaining good results in Texas and Florida, so he decided to visit these two states on that same month, to start planting the seeds of the victory that he hoped to reap. Kennedy was worried about not having enough support in Texas. The Democrat party there was in constant tension due to infighting, and Kennedy thought that his presence in Dallas would help to clean the air and bring the Democrats together. The president also knew that a small but vociferous group of extremists was causing trouble in Texas and would probably try to draw some attention during his visit. But he wasn’t too worried about this. Kennedy seemed to be happy to leave Washington and spend a few days giving speeches and shaking hands. Plus, his wife would be by his side during his tour. This was going to be Jacqueline Kennedy’s first public appearance since their baby son Patrick died in August of that same year. The Kennedys were recovering from that blow, and this tour would cheer them up.
A light rain was falling on Fort Worth, a city 32 miles away from Dallas, in the morning of the 22nd of November 1963. But the weather didn’t discourage the thousands of people that were waiting for the Kennedys at the carpark of the hotel where they had spent the night. The president came out to greet the multitude and give a little speech. He praised the people of Fort Worth, he thanked them for being there, and he joked about his wife, saying: “Mrs. Kennedy is organizing herself. It takes longer, but, of course, she looks better than we do when she does it”.
Kennedy also talked about the country’s need for being “second to none” in defence and in space, for keeping its economy growing, and for “the willingness of citizens of the United States to assume the burdens of leadership”.
The crowd reacted with a warm, sincere round of applause, and the president reached out to shake the hands of his smiling admirers.
The presidential party took a plane to Dallas. Half an hour later, the Kennedys disembarked and went to greet the crowd that had gathered nearby to show them their support. The first lady was given a bouquet of red roses. Then, the couple got in the open convertible where the Texas Governor, John Connally, and his wife Nellie were waiting for them. It was no longer raining, so the driver had left the car’s plastic bubble top off. By the way, the car was a Lincoln.
The presidential party headed to the Dallas Trade Mart, where President Kennedy would give a speech. The limousine was followed by ten more cars that transported senior officials of the government, like Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and some secret agents, local authorities, and journalists.
The visit of the Kennedys was quite the event, and the locals were visibly excited about it. Some two hundred thousand people gathered along the almost ten-mile-long route that the motorcade would go through. The procession advanced slowly, and the crowd cheered at the president and the first lady, as they waved and smiled back. The Governor’s wife, who was sitting in front of Jacqueline Kennedy, turned round and said: “Mr President, you certainly can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you”.
A proud Kennedy answered: “No, you certainly can’t”.
"I love you, Jack"
At noon, the car turned from one of the main streets in the city centre to continue through Elm Street, passing by the Texas School Book Depository building, where Lee Harvey Oswald worked. Then, a shot rang out. President Kennedy was hit in his neck. Seconds later, another bullet hit the president again, this time in his head. Jacqueline Kennedy declared that, in that precise moment, she could see her husband’s skull. Then, she took him in her arms and said: “Oh, my god, they have shot my husband! I love you, Jack”.
The president was immediately taken to the nearest hospital, as was Governor Connelly, who had also been wounded in the attack. Kennedy was breathing with difficulty, he had spasms, and his face was blueish white. His eyes were open, and his pupils dilated. First, the doctors intubated his trachea. Minutes later, they tried to find a femoral pulse, unsuccessfully. In a desperate attempt to help him breathe, they performed a tracheotomy and gave him hydrocortisone. Then they inserted tubes in his chest to allow for drainage of blood and air, and they gave him cardiac massage. A femoral pulse was detected at some point, but not for long. After a few minutes of no neurological, muscular, or cardiac response, the doctors concluded that there was nothing to be done to save the president. The neck wound was treatable, but the shot in the head had been fatal. About half an hour after the attack, Kennedy received the last rites and was declared dead.
trying to act natural
After shooting Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building, Lee Harvey Oswald tried to push his way through the crowd in the streets. He took a bus and went back to the guest house where he had slept the night before. After a while, he went out and bumped into police officer J.D. Tippit. Tippit had been alerted of the attack, and he knew that the main suspect was a young white man of thin complexion and military looks. When Oswald saw Tippit walking towards him, he sensed the officer had recognised him, and he didn’t think twice: he shot him with his revolver. Tippit died minutes later.
Oswald continued walking down the street, trying to act natural. But when he heard a police siren nearby, he failed to conceal his agitation. Increasingly besieged, Oswald sought shelter at the Texas Theatre building. But the ticket clerk was suspicious of him, and he called the police. When the agents arrived, Oswald tried to resist, to no avail. It was the beginning of the end for Lee Harvey Oswald.
Over the next hour after the murder, the people of the United States of America received the sad news of the death of President Kennedy. Amidst the commotion, Dallas was still on the alert, as the murderer was on the loose. In his flight, Oswald had been careless: he had left bullet cases near the window from where he had shot the president, at the Texas School Book Depository building. Later, a rifle was found nearby. When the police interrogated the employees, they said that only two people were missing in the moment of the attack; one of them was Oswald, who had been seen before the shooting on the sixth floor. The police thought they had enough proof to call him a suspect, and they circulated Oswald’s description, which helped agent Tippit and the ticket clerk recognise him.
Vice President Johnson feared that the USSR was behind Kennedy’s murder. In the middle of the Cold War, Johnson was worried that the attack was just a taste of what the Soviets were capable of doing to destabilise the American government. In order to guarantee a quick, effective power transition, Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One, the presidential plane that was also transporting Kennedy’s corpse. Jacqueline Kennedy stood by Johnson’s side, with her pink jacket and skirt still spattered with blood. Governor Connally had to stay in hospital. He had been severely wounded and needed to undergo surgery several times, but he survived.
When questioned by the police, Lee Harvey Oswald claimed that he was an innocent man being used as a “patsy”. He requested to be represented by the attorney of the US Communist Party, but he finally didn’t need his services. Oswald spent two days and two nights in a cell, and on the morning of the 24th of November he was going to be transferred from Dallas City Hall to the county jail. Numerous journalists and camera crews were there to broadcast the event live. Oswald was walking out of the building, surrounded by detectives, and then he was shot in the abdomen.
The shooter was Jack Ruby, a familiar face around the police station who often got into trouble. After being shot, Oswald winced in pain and immediately fell to the floor. Before passing out, one of the detectives asked him if there was anything he wanted to tell them, but he shook his head. Oswald was taken to the same hospital where the doctors had tried to save Kennedy’s life. Like the president, he would die from his wounds soon after.
The shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald was registered by Guinness World Records as the first known human killing seen on live TV. And, even though many people celebrated his death, the truth is that this new crime entangled the case even more. Ruby declared that he had killed Oswald for what he thought was a noble reason: to spare Jacqueline Kennedy from having to testify at the trial against her husband’s assassin. In March 1964, Ruby was formally accused of murder and sentenced to death, but six months later, the verdict was annulled on the grounds of illegal testimony. A new trial was allowed, but it was never held: Ruby died from a pulmonary embolism, three years after the killings of Kennedy and Oswald, and at the same hospital where they had died.
A CONSPIRACY IS BORN
JFK was dead, but his legend had just been born. For his funeral, the protocols for the funeral of the first assassinated American president, Abraham Lincoln, were followed. Around two hundred and fifty thousand people paid their respects to Kennedy’s casket at the Capitol, and on the 25th of November there was a funeral parade throughout the streets of Washington DC. After the funeral mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, the youngest of the Kennedys’ children, John Kennedy Jr., saluted his father’s coffin, as a farewell sign. He was three years old. Many newspapers published the heartbreaking image on their front pages, as the nation said goodbye to President Kennedy.
In the months that followed Kennedy’s assassination, the idea that a communist conspiracy was behind the crime started to gain strength. The new president, Lyndon Johnson, was convinced that there was some truth in this, but he didn’t want to take drastic measures and risk an open conflict with the Soviet Union or Cuba. In order to clear doubts and move on, Johnson created a commission to evaluate and verify the events related to the deaths of Kennedy and Oswald. The commission was known as the Warren Commission, after Earl Warren, the president of the Supreme Court of the United States, and the person in charge of the investigation. The commission spent ten months examining Kennedy’s autopsy report, FBI documents, physical evidence, testimonies, image analysis, and scientific reenactments, among other elements. The final report concluded that Oswald had acted alone, and that he had fired three shots, hitting the target twice. But this conclusion didn’t convince everyone: many people thought there had been a second shooter. Warren Commission defended the hypotheses that the first bullet shot had pierced Kennedy’s neck, entering through his nape and exiting through his throat; then, it had passed through Governor Connally’s shoulder and wrist, finally hitting his thigh. But this theory was dismissed by many doubters too. They found it so bizarre that they referred to it as the “magical bullet” theory.
Regarding Ruby, there was speculation that he was part of a plot and that he had killed Oswald so that he wouldn’t expose his co-conspirators. There were also rumours that linked Ruby to the Mafia. But the Warren Commission concluded that, although he was involved in some dirty business, he wasn’t connected to any organised crime nets.
Far from bringing closure to the mystery of Kennedy’s death, the report published by the Warren Commission fuelled all kinds of conspiracy theories. Many of them focus on Cuba. According to one of the most popular hypotheses, the Cuban government was the intellectual author of the crime, a claim that Fidel Castro rejected. Another theory maintains that the crime was perpetrated by anti-Castro collectives that were upset because Kennedy hadn’t supported the Bay of Pigs failed invasion. These theories are rooted in Oswald’s interest in visiting Cuba, and in his contact with pro-Castro organisations. Another theory —that involves Ruby in Kennedy’s assassination— suggests that the Mafia wanted to eliminate the president as a response to the efforts of his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to eradicate organised crime. And some even assured that it was Lyndon Johnson himself who orchestrated the murder to clear his own path to the presidency.
In 1975, twelve years after Kennedy’s death, the footage of the moment of the assassination started to be examined again. The images seemed to indicate that one of the bullets had been shot at Kennedy from the front, and not from the back. This meant that Oswald could not have acted alone. The theory shook the case again. At the same time, news that the CIA had hidden information from the Warren Commission came out. The House Select Committee on Assassinations was created then to clarify the facts. After analysing the proof, the committee concluded that the implication of the USSR or Cuba in the murder could not be proven; but it revealed some new, crucial evidence: a sound tape recorded by the microphone of a policeman showed that there had been four shots; three of them had been fired by Oswald, and one more was fired from Dealey Plaza. Based on this acoustic proof, the committee confirmed that there were two shooters and that the assassination had probably been plotted. Still, some critics doubted the reliability of the evidence, and the credibility of the committee ended up compromised.
The release of Oliver Stone’s film JKF, in 1991, raised a new wave of speculation about the case. Then, the US Congress created the Assassination Records Review Board, an independent body that analysed, declassified, and published millions of secret documents written by the Warren Commission, the FBI, the CIA, and others, about Kennedy’s murder. The board also passed a law stating that all the documents related to the case would be declassified in twenty-five years. In 2017, when the deadline was near, then-President Trump effusively anticipated the great disclosure. But then, the CIA and the FBI requested the White House to eliminate several hundred documents in the interest of national security. Trump reluctantly accepted, but about two thousand and nine hundred unseen documents were still released. One of those documents suggested that Oswald was planning to flee to the Soviet Union after the assassination, and that he had travelled to Cuba to get the paperwork for the trip done. There is another document that contradicts the Warren Commission, assuring that Jack Ruby was in Dealey Plaza when the shots were fired; if this was true, the theory that connects Ruby to the Mafia could gain prominence. In the following years, the US government continued to declassify documents, and in late 2022 the White House declared that ninety-seven per cent of the documents of the case were now public. Experts and historians will need several years of study of these documents, though, before they can reveal all the secrets they hide.
Seventy years later, Kennedy’s assassination continues to spark interest, as some conspiracy theories are revived on a cyclical basis, and some new ones emerge. The US government has been trying to transmit a feeling of transparency about the case for decades, commissioning new investigations and declassifying documents. But every new investigation carried out has found thousands of critical voices eager to question every little detail of every possible theory. What is certain is that Kennedy’s assassination, the most famous political crime in the 20th century, is and will remain an endless source of doubts, controversy, and speculation.