Where do JFK assassination theories fit in today’s conspiracy landscape, and why is this relevant?
Updating a conspiracy as “American as apple pie.”
The idea that there was a complex plot behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy is likely the largest and most enduring conspiracy theory in American history. Kennedy was killed while riding in an open top limo in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, and the US government’s official conclusion on the matter was that Kennedy was assassinated by a disaffected former Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald, who killed Kennedy according to the mechanisms of his own political calculus.
The general public, however, almost immediately believed that some kind of assassination plot was afoot and that, at the very least, Oswald was the fall guy in a much larger conspiracy. At one point, polls showed that at least 80 percent of Americans believed there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, and the case continues to be a source of fascination and investigation almost sixty years later.
Today, conspiracy theories occupy a much more prominent belief in mainstream politics than ever before. Prominent members of the political establishment — including President Donald Trump — retweet increasingly obscure conspiracy theorists and base important decision making on the idea that a sinister “Deep State” is looking to undermine the Trump administration and promote a left-wing agenda that destroys America.
The Kennedy assassination, a monumental event and conspiracy “as American as apple pie,” of course factors into the narrative of modern conspiracy belief. But what is interesting is how the interpretations of the event have changed. As wacky as some of the theories may be, many early JFK conspiracy theorists endeavored to get to the bottom of the alleged plot behind the assassination as a way to expose secret government doings that were predicated on the very real and verifiable actions that the US government was taking against its own citizens at the time. Today, however, the Kennedy conspiracy is used to promote an interpretation of American history and current events that is not only at odds with what Kennedy stood for but does the dirty work of the very institutions early Kennedy conspiracy theorists tried to warn us against.
Examining the evolution of thought about the JFK assassination is useful in understanding how conspiracies evolve, why they catch on, and how they can be co-opted and used in a way that is much more inimical to our day-to-day life and societal well-being than anything the so-called Deep State could put into place. As such, it’s worth exploring how JFK assassination conspiracies fit in today’s political landscape and what the assassination means almost sixty years after it happened.
The genesis of Kennedy conspiracies
According to a Gallup poll conducted over the week following Kennedy’s assassination, 52 percent of respondents said they believed Kennedy was killed as part of a broader conspiracy. It’s not hard to imagine why, as the hunger for answers to traumatic events is a basic part of human psychology. Seeing a president gunned down in public is certainly horrific, and it was understandably difficult to believe that a single person could be responsible for carrying out an event with far-reaching global consequences.
The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, commonly known as the Warren Commission, met for the first time in early December 1963 to investigate the assassination and was comprised of a bipartisan selection of government officials, Representatives, and attorneys. The Commission released a 26-volume collection of its findings in September 1964, including transcripts of interviews with witnesses and ballistic reports, which supported the conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin (and that Jack Ruby, who in turn killed Oswald two days after Kennedy was killed, had likewise acted alone). But far from allaying questions about Kennedy’s death, the government’s official report on the matter only stoked further allegations that there was a conspiracy and/or cover-up.
Depending on who you ask, Kennedy was killed by pro- or anti-Castro Cubans, the CIA, organized crime, Texas oil barons, or Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and those are only the primary culprits. Other alleged plotters include the Secret Service, George HW Bush, the Israeli government, and even aliens (or at least the idea that JFK was killed because he was probing the CIA about a UFO coverup). All told, prominent researcher, lawyer, and conspiracy critic Vince Bugliosi estimates that 95 percent of books published about the assassination promote the idea there was a conspiracy, with at least 42 groups, 82 assassins, and 214 people accused of being directly involved in some capacity or another in Kennedy’s death.
Belief there was a conspiracy was sustained throughout the succeeding decades. In 1975, Abraham Zapruder’s infamous film of the assassination became public and reignited interest in the case. The House Select Committee on Assassination was formed in 1976 in response and endeavored to reinvestigate the deaths of JFK and Martin Luther King. In 1978, the House Select Committee determined that Oswald was indeed likely an agent in a broader conspiracy, but the Committee didn’t offer any specifics as to the nature of the plot or who had put it in motion. This conclusion, put forth by an official government body, stoked further public sentiment that something untoward had happened, leading to the historically high percentage of Americans — 80 percent — who believed there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy.
Oliver Stone’s blockbuster movie JFK hit theaters in 1991, and though it has been said that “80 percent of the film is in factual error,” interest in the assassination was so high that the government passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which declassified scores of documents related to the assassination. In April 2018, a further 30,000 pages of documents were made public. There was no smoking gun, so to speak, in these papers, no hidden memo that definitely proved the guilt of a specific person or group, but the releases did confirm some minor plot points, such as proving that people alleged to be CIA agents were in fact CIA agents. Another document release is scheduled for October 2021, but most assassination scholars agree there won’t be any substantial revelations in what remains.
The evolution of conspiracy thought in the United States and how the JFK assassination figures in this evolution
It was totally inevitable that notions of a conspiracy theory would arise following the assassination of a sitting president. The emergence of conspiracy theories is a predictable response to explain major events, and conspiracies have abounded as long as there have been human societies, transcending cultures, ideologies, geographies and eras. The burning of Rome in AD 64 was said to have been carried out by Nero on purpose (with Nero in turn blaming the fire on Christians), South African theorists hold that the real Nelson Mandala died in 1985, and the Nazi party came to power on a platform almost completely based on the conspiracy theory that Jews and other groups were somehow conspiring to undermine the Aryan race.
Conspiracy theories have likewise been present and popular in the United States since the country was founded. (And even before, if you count allegations of women consorting with Devil and practicing witchcraft in New England.) Conspiracies reached new heights of prominence in the 1950s with the extreme paranoia that Hollywood and the US government were infiltrated by communists. These theories developed not just in response to the alleged threat of communism but as a natural consequence of our cultural upbringing. As one observer put it, conspiracy belief reflects “an All-American attitude — a belief in individualism, distrust of authority. And together those things translate into a desire to avoid being controlled by large secret forces.” The distrust of these large forces informs not only the Kennedy conspiracy theories but those that shape conspiracy thought today, from the idea that the government orchestrated 9/11 to the notion that the Deep State is installing 5G towers to activate the microchips secretly injected into us as part of a vaccine for COVID-19.
Kennedy was assassinated during one of the most tumultuous times in US history, amid the civil rights movement, Cold War paranoia, and profound changes to social mores. Kennedy was said to be taking positions on important social issues of the day that were out of step with others in the government and the representatives of industry that held tremendous sway over our elected officials. The idea of brokering peace with the USSR, for example, would hurt the profits of those who would profit from an ongoing war, and so these profiteers were willing and able to squash whoever or whatever was detrimental to their cause, up to and including the President.
As such, Kennedy’s assassination was taken by those on the left that the American government was an agent of the capitalist status quo, whose dirty work was carried out by organizations such as the CIA and FBI. The colonialist invasion that led to the Vietnam War underscored this perception, as did the extensive infiltration of civil rights organizations by the CIA and FBI, which included blackmailing prominent leaders and violent suppression of social justice movements like the American Indian Movement.
The 1980s brought with it a resurgence of American patriotism and celebration of capitalism with the Reagan administration. But there was still a healthy fear that the CIA and other secretive government agencies were wielding an unsettling amount of unchecked power, given the clandestine CIA-orchestrated coups in Central America, all of which are a matter of historical record and are discussed at length in braggadocious memoirs of the generals and officers involved in carrying them out. Once again, Kennedy’s murder seemed to underscore the narrative that the nation’s political elite were working in conjunction with the military-industrial complex to line their own pockets and solidify their own power.
Though it was primarily conservative politicians and the ultra-wealthy organizing and profiting from the “interventions” in other countries, a few events reinforced belief in right-wing conspiracy circles that the government was out to undermine the Constitution and patriotic Americanism as well. The incidents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 and Waco, Texas in 1993, in which law enforcement and federal agents responded with dramatic force against American citizens, seemed to underscore this idea, and these beliefs overlapped with those held by a robust, violent, and clandestine white power movement, whose members committed acts of terror in protest of the idea that the government was purposefully working to the disadvantage of America’s white population. The 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was said to be a direct attack on the federal government for exactly this reason, and other enormous events — like the epidemic of mass shootings that began with the Columbine massacre in 1999 (and the characterization of these events as “false flag operations”) — seemed to assure believers that sinister secret government forces were at work destabilizing American society for tyrannical ends.
The idea that the US government is up to no good isn’t inherently aligned with a specific point of view, but it has been predominantly right-oriented conspiracy theories (or right-wing interpretations thereof) that have had the most traction in the current era. This has come thanks in part to the attention given by President Trump to conspiracies, who began trafficking in conspiracies before his tenure in office with the claims that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Trump’s rhetoric caught on with the current of racist rage at the first Black president and in response to widespread changes in our cultural consciousness, including advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, #MeToo, and other ideas perceived to be odds with the homogeneity of “traditional” America. This was either very calculated marketing move on Trump’s part or a fortuitous accident that was subsequently exploited, but the idea that there were unamerican conspiracies at work helped drive Trump to victory.
Conspiracy theorists (or “intellectual freedom fighters,” to use term they sometimes use for themselves) are no longer necessarily the stereotypical tin-foil-hat-wearing alien-believers but are more mainstream observers who might not have previously dabbled in conspiracy but who are now so consumed by partisan fears that they latch on to any evidence, real or perceived, that seems to prove their way of life is under attack. Studies have shown that it’s rare for someone to believe in a single conspiracy, and people keep making these connections until their worldview is a tapestry of secret plots and evil cabals.
Thus today’s conception of a Deep State: it’s not enough to recognize that the government is undeniably working on behalf of the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else, or that corporations wield almost unchecked power at the expense of the people actually doing the work for them. Instead, today’s conspiracy theorists prefer to believe it’s a consortium of the Illuminati, Masons, vaccinations, LGBTQ+ activists, Democrat-led pedophile rings, ANTIFA, Marxists, satanic celebrities, and crisis actors working in conjunction to carry out the agenda of the Deep State.
Putting aside for a moment that Kennedy would almost certainly be derided as an agent of the Left today, Deep State conspiracy theorists have grandfathered in JFK’s assassination as an early example of the Deep State’s plan. After all, what could be greater confirmation of sinister machinations than the assassination of a sitting President?
Some thoughts on the enduring nature of JFK assassination conspiracies and their influence on how we consume information
Almost one in nine American Presidents has been assassinated. Abraham Lincoln was killed in 1865, James Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1963, all by firearms, with a few dozen additional unsuccessful assassination attempts made on a further fifteen Presidents. The Lincoln assassination is of course an embedded part of our cultural history, given his iconic stature and the enormity of the Civil War, but the assassinations of McKinley and Garfield are hardly commented on or even remembered today, let alone that they were killed for the benefit of some underground government waiting to take over the world. And there is little debate about the reasons for the attempts on President Ronald Reagan’s life in 1981 — most agree that it was the work of a deranged individual who claimed he was trying to impress Jodie Foster, and nothing more. Contrast this with Kennedy assassination, with thousands of books, TV shows, and articles dedicated to the most obscure aspects of the assassination. Indeed, it is almost impossible to talk about the assassination without also acknowledging the conspiratorial element. So why have Kennedy assassinations theories endured while others have fallen into total obscurity?
Part of it could be that the Kennedy assassination was recent enough that people who remember when it happened. Belief in a Kennedy conspiracy doesn’t require pronounced beliefs in other conspiracies, or even personal political convictions on the matter, instead being like our interest in true crime movies and books. Whether we like it or not, murder and assassination and political intrigue are subjects that are flat out interesting and entertaining. Something of the magnitude of the Kennedy assassination, with its many weird angles and unusual characters, is a real-life mystery that is simply interesting to think about.
The fact that Kennedy didn’t survive also plays into it. One study from 1979 expands on the idea that people use conspiracies to explain outsized events and found that people are more prone to ascribe conspiratorial motivation if a person dies but are less likely to do so if someone shoots and misses or the President is shot but survives. This rationale can be explained partly a matter of logistics — a well-organized group (such as one with the power to organize a conspiracy) is more likely to be than a lone individual, and so it follows that a larger group had to be behind the killing of Kennedy. Relatedly, the situation could be emblematic of the “Zeigarnik effect,” which posits that interrupted tasks are remembered better than tasks that are completed. “Oswald’s death not only denied him his day in court, but it also denied Americans the sense of closure that can accompany a public trial,” Ryan Kellus Turner writes in an article for The Conversation. “The presentation of evidence, the examination of witnesses, the deliberation of a jury, the rendering of verdict and the exhaustion of post-conviction remedies are all important elements of closure.” There the assassination hangs, a question mark that itself isn’t fully etched into the air.
Interestingly, however, a 2017 poll suggests that belief in a conspiracy to kill Kennedy is at a historic low, with approximately 61 percent of respondents believing a plot was afoot. Of course, “historic low” is a relative description, as more than half of almost every demographic believes there was a conspiracy. (The poll also found that belief Oswald was the lone gunman has grown by over 20 percentage points in the past two decades.) Interpreting this poll, researchers postulate that it could be that so much time has passed that the interest is waning, that “conspiracy theorists’ inability to provide proof has hurt their appeal to the public, [or that] recent computerized evidence seeming to prove Oswald acted alone has gotten through to Americans.” (It should be noted that conspiracy belief is typically higher among the Black community given the violence, collusion, and experimentation 100-percent verifiably carried out against People of Color throughout the entirety of American history.)
The decrease in belief in JFK conspiracies is also likely because people not prone to hardcore conspiracy belief are wary of being associated with the frankly off-putting weirdness of today’s serious conspiracy believers. It’s one thing to entertain plausible theories about the very real assassination of a President, but it’s another altogether to dox and harass survivors of school shootings because you think mass shootings are fake events orchestrated by the government and carried out by crisis actors.
But even though belief in JFK theories may have appreciably waned, serious conspiracy belief has grown overall, with believers more entrenched than ever in their beliefs now that they have mainstream political attention and an active audience in the White House. The recent rise to prominence is built on the same mechanisms driving old-school belief in JFK assassination theories combined with the technology-driven possibilities inherent in modern society. Not only do believers feel they possess esoteric knowledge that unlocks some of the world’s mysteries, but the internet provides an immediate, worldwide audience for their beliefs. They are now able to integrate themselves into the story by disseminating their own theories and seeing the effect on the larger story in real time. It’s a type of historical fan fiction, as one writer called it, and one that thrives on the believers’ sense that they are a crucial part in uncovering the mysteries.
But while JFK assassination theorists are at least forced to reckon with hundreds of thousands of pages of actual evidence and reports — and if one good thing has come out of conspiracy belief, it’s researchers’ dedication to getting documents released— today’s conspiracy theorists are able to pick and choose what they want to believe from an infinite amount of information that is impossible to verify. It doesn’t matter, for example, that QAnon, one of the most high-profile and influential modern conspiracy movements, got its start on a web forum known for its extreme trolling or that other widely-held conspiracy pillars have been proven to be outright fabrications traceable to a single source. All that matters is that a source provides the “evidence” and affirmation they need to make sense of the world.
The media landscape has changed as well thanks to the internet, with an equally loud voice for every possible view. “We are no longer arguing a partisan battle over the interpretation of a common set of facts, but over facts from our own realities that both represent and lead inexorably to our own point of view,” writes Ethan Zuckerman in the MIT Media Lab’s Journal of Design and Science. Conspiracy ringleaders appeal to the same mechanisms that have always driven conspiracy thought, and their influential platforms and the willingness of their followers to believe them has only given them more social and political weight. But the goofiness of their beliefs ceases to be funny when the real-life vectors for conspiracy belief are not eccentric goofballs but the most powerful men in America, and even less so when the paranoia driving conspiracy belief manifests itself as actual state policy designed to crush the opposition as mercilessly as possible.
What does this mean today?
The US government likely could have done a better job of preempting the explosion of JFK assassination conspiracies by being more forthright about the scope of their investigation and their discoveries from the beginning. But then again, the JFK assassination was so monumental and so complex that notions of a conspiracy would arise even if the investigation was the most transparent possible. It’s quite possible there actually was a plot to kill Kennedy, but it’s also quite possible that one maniac did something so outsized that even irrefutable proof of his lone guilt wouldn’t change anyone’s mind. (Perhaps he yelled “I’m a patsy!” at reporters when he was arrested simply to cause confusion and set the stage for doubt about his guilt.)
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, where early Kennedy conspiracy theorists tried to link government encroachment on basic civil rights with Kennedy’s assassination (albeit in often sloppy, roundabout ways), Kennedy’s assassination today is framed as part of an alleged movement against traditional America, who use long-running Kennedy conspiracy to build on a valid distrust of government and mutate it to play on the most paranoid aspects of our individual and social consciousnesses. This isn’t to say that the government or media shouldn’t be questioned and taken to task — they absolutely should, always! — but we should also scrutinize the extreme over-reliance on our own narratives, trust in our own judgement, and bias when conducting research and how this influences our own worldviews.
The apocalyptic nature of conspiracies is a fantasy that’s easier to confront than our own detrimental behaviors. Somehow it is easier to believe children are being sold in filing cabinets though an industrial office supply website than it is to confronting, for example, the eons of patriarchal attitudes and ingrained misogyny that lead to sexual abuse. Similarly, you don’t need cabals of Illuminati elites to prove the rich and powerful collude, all you have to do is the unsexy work of going through business records to prove that — surprise surpise! — billionaires are ripping off the rest of us in totally state-sanctioned ways.
If there was a conspiracy to kill JFK, it was because his policies were perceived to be threatening to the business interests of run of the mill powerful people. And the same thing is happening today, it just happens that the President is unapologetically sympathetic to the cause of the billionaire. (This is perhaps an even higher level of achievement for the wealthy than the killing of a president who stood in their way). All the super-rich need to hold on to this newfound power is a loyal cadre of disenchanted followers to spread enough paranoid delusion about the “homosexual agenda” or the communist motivations of Black Lives Matter to distract us from the fact that we’re living under a plutocratic, increasingly authoritarian regime doing exactly what conspiracy theorists have always feared:
The current administration has stacked its cabinet with family members, business associates, and representatives of the multinational corporations and financial institutions maligned by those supposedly fighting against a world run by the “elites,” the President and his family have funneled campaign funds into their own businesses again and again, unmarked federal troops are using legal loopholes to abduct protesters across the country, judges rules that demonstrators can be detained indefinitely, obvious agent provocateurs of unknown provenance are attempting to incite further unrest, churches and the Catholic Church continue to benefit from tax breaks while receiving billions in federal aid and exert enormous influence of national politics, to say nothing of the fact that the Supreme Court has routinely made it difficult to hold police accountable for their actions, which allows police officers to kill more than a thousand people per year with impunity. The landscape of modern conspiracy has no real interest in truth, equity, or freedom but merely pays lip service these honorable notions to justify benefiting from the same system they bemoan was behind the assassination of an American president. Again, you don’t need reptilian overlords or chemtrails to usher in the New World Order, you just need people who feel victimized by people who don’t look and think exactly like them.