Americans still drawn to tragedy

Just before the first shot, John and Jackie Kennedy and John and Nellie Connally. Photo: Dallas...
Just before the first shot, John and Jackie Kennedy and John and Nellie Connally. Photo: Dallas Morning News

Ron Palenski took a break from sports business on a recent trip to Dallas to look at a story that continues to fascinate and intrigue Americans. 

In the land of the gun, there's one story that won't go away. Every morning, crowds of people wait patiently for the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas to open. In blocks of 20 or so, they're allowed up to the sixth floor of what used to be the Texas School Book Depository building.

From 10am to 4pm, there's a constant flow of people, young and old, attracted to the building by a gun crime that was said to have changed America forever.

It was from a sixth-floor window of the depository, a warehouse for school text books, that Lee Harvey Oswald shot then United States president John Kennedy, on November 22, 1963.

Kennedy was the fourth American president to have been assassinated, after Abraham Lincoln (1865), James Garfield (1881) and William McKinlay (1901). None of the other three led to so many inquiries and so much enduring speculation.

The sixth floor still has the appearance of a warehouse but added to it are various artefacts and story boards related to Kennedy's brief presidency and violent death. Oswald's eyrie is presented as it was said to have been that autumn lunchtime when he pulled the trigger three times on the Italian-made Mannlicher-Carcano bolt-action rifle he had bought by mail order. Cartons are stacked as if to conceal a gunman waiting at the window, just as they were at the time.

The view from the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository. Photo: Getty Images
The view from the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository. Photo: Getty Images
Visitors cannot see the window or look out of it and get the view that Oswald had. For that, they must go up the stairs to the seventh floor and look out of the corresponding window. There's nothing else up there. The morning I was there, I waited patiently while teenage boys from a school group mock-fired pretend guns from the window, one of them calling it an easy shot.

The museum presents the Kennedy story matter-of-factly and objectively. It reports the findings of the 1964 Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone and that one shot missed, one penetrated the bodies of both Kennedy and the Texas Governor, John Connally, and the other blew most of the right side of Kennedy's head away.

But it also notes that in 1978, a House of Representatives investigation into the killings of Kennedy and Martin Luther King found there was evidence of a fourth shot and that Kennedy was killed "probably" as the result of a conspiracy.

And it records, too, some of the many conspiracy theories that have never allowed the story to die: the Secret Service, the FBI, the CIA, the Mafia, the Russians, the Cubans, the left wing, the right wing, Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson ... all have been blamed at some time or another. For a time, one poll in the 1970s said that 80% of Americans believed Kennedy was killed as a result of a conspiracy. That fell in the 1990s but by 2013, it was back up to 61%, probably because of social media.

A man holding the rifle used by Lee Harvey Oswald after the assassination of the president John F...
A man holding the rifle used by Lee Harvey Oswald after the assassination of the president John F Kennedy. Photo: Getty Images
Educational institutions encourage study of the assassination. One community college - a sort of halfway house between school and university - in Michigan offers its students the opportunity of staging a mock trial of Oswald, as if he hadn't been killed by Jack Ruby two days after the assassination.

On the day I was there, a teenage student from Iowa was visiting with her mother. They were equipped with cameras and tape measures and studied in laborious detail the crucial path of the presidential motorcade as it turned from Houston St into Elm and headed through Dealey Plaza towards the triple underpass. On the right of the motorcade was the much talked-about "grassy knoll", the name given by a Secret Service agent to the gently banking lawn flank of the plaza. This area, most conspiracy theorists believe, was where a second shooter was. It was to Kennedy's right.

The information available at the museum is comprehensive. Outside, unofficial information is also available. Enterprising men known as panhandlers approach individuals and groups and tell them their version of events for a price. I paid $5. They point out things the museum doesn't: crosses painted on the gentle slope of Elm St that mark where the presidential car was when each of the two shots hit; a picket fence behind which a second shooter was said to have hidden; where other various conspirators were standing when the motorcade came by.

President John F Kennedy delivers a speech at a rally in Fort Worth, Texas, several hours before...
President John F Kennedy delivers a speech at a rally in Fort Worth, Texas, several hours before his assassination. Photo: Reuters
Hundreds of books purport to tell what really happened in Dallas that day or ask questions that do not appear to have answers. Facebook has spawned a growth of groups dedicated to perpetuating one conspiracy or another.

President Donald Trump's release of assassination documents, and the promise of still more, set off a frenzy of renewed speculation. It is known and conceded that agencies, especially the FBI and the CIA, obfuscated and withheld evidence from both government inquiries. The difference of opinion is why they did. One view is they did so to protect sources or methods of operation or simply not to embarrass themselves; the other is they withheld evidence because it would incriminate them.

No credible investigator has been able to find, let alone sustain, even circumstantial evidence pointing to anyone other than Oswald. Evidence that has at one time or another suggested someone else could have been involved in the killing - such as a motorcycle transmissions tape that convinced the House committee there was a second shooter - has proven to be misinterpreted.

It is a compelling truism that events that do not happen cannot leave any evidence.

If Oswald was not the "patsy" he claimed to be, the question of why he killed Kennedy is the most difficult to answer. Indeed, it is impossible to answer; it is possible to only speculate, and there has been speculation since his arrest in the Texas Theatre just over an hour after the killing. The Warren Commission's conclusion remains as valid as it ever was: "Many factors were undoubtedly involved in Oswald's motivation for the assassination, and the Commission does not believe that it can ascribe to him any one motive or group of motives".

Lee Harvey Oswald in police custody in Dallas following assassination of President John F Kennedy...
Lee Harvey Oswald in police custody in Dallas following assassination of President John F Kennedy. Photo: Reuters
He had demonstrated his dislike for American society by moving temporarily to the Soviet Union and, just as temporarily, renouncing his American citizenship; he was said to be committed to Marxism and communism; he was said to have had difficulty establishing meaningful relationships with people; he reputedly acted precipitately without much regard for consequences.

"Out of these and the many other factors which may have moulded the character of Lee Harvey Oswald there emerged a man capable of assassinating President Kennedy."

The "why" can never be known and because it cannot, people who want an answer have invested the great American tragedy with a range of unproven, and probably unprovable, conspiracy theories.

Perhaps the best answer was offered by William Manchester, who was the Kennedy family's preferred author to chronicle the assassination. He wrote Death of a President. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times in 1992, Manchester wrote that he shared the yearning of people who desperately wanted to believe Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy.

"To employ what may seem an odd metaphor, there is an aesthetic principle here," he wrote. "If you put six million dead Jews on one side of a scale and on the other side put the Nazi regime - the greatest gang of criminals ever to seize control of a modern state - you have a rough balance: greatest crime, greatest criminals. But if you put the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn't balance. You want to add something weightier than Oswald. It would invest the president's death with meaning, endowing him with martyrdom. He would have died for something. A conspiracy would, of course, do the job nicely. Unfortunately, there is no evidence whatever that there was one."

Ron Palenski is a Dunedin journalist and author.

Comments

In 1968, year of the M L K and Robert Kennedy killings, even the young in NZ thought there was something very wrong with America. It has gotten so much worse.