On the sixtieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, former White House correspondent Paul Brandus takes an in-depth look at the seemingly unconnected events that led to that afternoon in Dallas, Texas. He explores the troubled and broken life of Kennedy’s killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, and challenges six decades worth of conspiracy theories––none of which have been proven.
In the series premier, we recap the basic events surrounding President Kennedy's assassination. We’ll discuss the formation of the famous Warren Commission, its findings — and highlight the one thing about its report that's often overlooked.
Buy the book Countdown to Dallas: The Incredible Coincidences, Routines, and Blind "Luck" that Brought John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald Together on November 22, 1963here.
Here comes the first car with Police Chief Jeff Curry and Sheriff Bill Decker. And here is the President of the United States. And what a crowd, what a tremendous welcome he's getting now. And there's Jackie. She's getting just as big a welcome. And the crowd is absolutely going wild. This is a friendly crowd in downtown Dulles as the President and the First Lady pass by.
On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy rode in an open car through the streets of Dallas, Texas. It was a quick visit. He hadn't even been in town for an hour when his limo, a 1961 Lincoln Continental DC Tags GG300, turned right from Main Street onto Houston Street. To the left stood a small park, Dealey Plaza it was called. It was a beautiful day, and as the Lincoln moved down the street, gleaming in the midday sun, it was impossible to miss, looming dead ahead, a red brick seven-story building. The sign above the main entrance, which stood at the southeast corner of Houston and Elm Streets, read, Texas School Book Depository. The time: 12: 30 p.m.
The President's car is now turning onto Elm Street, and it will be only a matter of minutes before he arrives at the trademark.
An hour later, in a hospital classroom, Assistant White House Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff, his eyes glistening in red, made this stunning announcement.
John F. Kennedy died at approximately 1 o'clock Central Standard Time today here in Dallas. He died of a gunshot wound in the brain. I have no other details regarding the assassination of the president.
It has been 60 years now, three-fifths of a century. Most Americans alive today weren't even born, and yet the killing of President Kennedy so long ago continues to cast a shadow over our culture, our politics, and more. But what really happened? Not just on November 22nd, 1963, but in the days, weeks, months, even years before this event, this event that sent shockwaves around the globe.
I'm Paul Brandus. You're listening to the premiere episode of Countdown to Dallas, my podcast series based on my book of the same title. First of all, why another look at the Kennedy assassination? After all, it's not exactly untrod ground. There are thousands of books on JFK, his presidency, and its sudden and tragic end. On the big 50th anniversary in 2013, there was a high tide of books, TV shows, panels, and remembrances about that awful day. But history is never static. It is always moving forward as more details are uncovered. There are still books being written about the murder of Abraham Lincoln, for example. And so it is with the death of JFK.
The story needs a freshening up because since that 50th anniversary, a great deal of new information has been made public. Most of it has come from the US government. Since July 2017, for instance, the National Archives released in several batches tens of thousands of pages of documents, many from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In the episodes ahead, we're going to explore this treasure trove of documents, but — and this may be even more important — we're going to take a closer look at things that are sometimes overlooked, misunderstood, or taken out of context. Things like the history of presidential security and the attitude of presidents themselves towards their own safety. Also, things like Cuba and Vietnam, and later we'll explore the broader matter of conspiracy theories themselves.
It's not just the Kennedy assassination, but everything from Pearl Harbor, the moon landing in 9-11, even the 1997 car crash that killed Princess Diana. We Americans love our conspiracies. We're going to explore why this is so.
Now, you can't talk about the assassination of President Kennedy without talking about the Warren Commission. There's one key thing that conspiracy buffs, and perhaps the American people at large, have never quite gotten about this. I'll explain that in a second.
One week after the assassination, the new president, Lyndon Johnson, held this phone call with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. They spoke about a blue ribbon panel to investigate Kennedy's murder. The first voice we hear is the White House telephone operator telling Johnson that Hoover is on the line.
Yes. J. Edgar Hoover on 2192.
Are you familiar with this proposed group that they're trying to put together on this study of your report and other things, two from the House, two from the Senate, somebody from the court, and a couple outsiders.
J. Edgar Hoover:
Well, I haven't heard of that. I've seen the reports on the Senate Investigating Committee that they've been talking about.
Well, we think if we don't have… I don't want to get by just with your filing your report.
J. Edgar Hoover:
I think it would be very, very bad to have a rash of investigations.
Well, the only way we can stop them is probably to a point of high level and to evaluate your report and put somebody that's pretty good on it that I could select out of the government and tell the House and Senate not to go ahead with the investigation. Because if we got there, it would get a bunch of television going and I thought it would be bad.
They discussed names and came up with six men, two from the House, two from the Senate, a former CIA director, and one of Washington's so-called wise men, the term given to a high-level official who had served in a variety of government roles over the years. But who would lead this distinguished group? Johnson twisted the arm of Earl Warren, the distinguished Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Over the next 10 months, the Commission gathered a mountain of evidence, including the testimony or depositions of 552 witnesses and more than 3,100 exhibits, some 16,000 pages in all. In September 1964, their work was finished.
Almost exactly ten months after the fateful November 22nd, the seven members of the Warren Commission, headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, come to the White House to give to the President the results of their painstaking investigation into the determinable facts of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The report's conclusions are well known. Here's how it was reported in a newsreel back then:
The report's 300,000 words trace the facts and, without prejudging, the implications of that day that started so brightly and ended so blackly at high noon on the streets of Dallas. Through questioning of every possible witness and restaging of the events of the morning drive, the commission reports that the fatal shots that entered President Kennedy's head and throat were fired by Lee Harvey Oswald, from the Texas school book depository, acting solely by himself and that there was no conspiracy either foreign or domestic.
The report also had plenty of criticism.
The commission finds some inadequacies in security measures that might have saved the president's life had there been more liaison between the FBI and the Secret Service.
And what about the shooting two days after the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner with ties to the mafia?
In the circumstances surrounding the shooting of Oswald two days later, it found the Dallas police and the press sharing responsibility for the breakdown of law enforcement.
At the time, most Americans accepted these basic conclusions, but some observers sounded a note of caution. Just four days after the assassination, one of the most prominent journalists in America, Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times, who had been given the assignment of leading that paper's probe into the crime, wrote, and I quote, The echoes of this killing will resound down the corridors of our history for years and years and years. It is so strange, so bizarre, so incredible, so susceptible to legend-making. It matches Lincoln's assassination and may well have equal public effects.
And after the Warren report was issued, another prominent journalist, Walter Cronkite of CBS, often called the most trusted man in America, said this:
There will forever be questions of substance and detail raised by amateur detectives, professional skeptics, and serious students as well.
They were right. Both Salisbury and Cronkite knew that the assassination, so shocking, so shattering, so unbelievable, would spawn decades of questions, decades of doubt, no matter what the official findings were. This has certainly been the case, and over the decades, an endless parade of books, TV shows, movies, and more have looked at the assassination from every conceivable angle, trying to pick apart the Commission's findings.
Today, a majority of Americans think there was a conspiracy, a contradiction of the Warren Commission's findings. But here's something that most conspiracy buffs overlook. The Warren Commission did not rule out a conspiracy. It left that door open, albeit just a crack, by saying only that it could not find clear and verifiable evidence of one. In its report, it says on page 21, item 9, quote, the commission has found no evidence that either Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby was part of any conspiracy, domestic or foreign, to assassinate President Kennedy, unquote.
This does not rule out a conspiracy. It says only that the commission could not find one. It adds in subsection A, quote, the commission has found no evidence that anyone assisted Oswald in planning or carrying out the assassination. And in subsection B, quote, the commission has found no evidence that Oswald was involved with any person or group in a conspiracy to assassinate the president. And finally, in subsection c, quote, the commission has found no evidence to show that Oswald was employed, persuaded, or encouraged by any foreign government to assassinate President Kennedy or that he was an agent of any foreign government.
Again, there could have been a conspiracy, the commission only says it could not find one. The door was left open just a bit for others to find one. So here we are six decades later, and again, after countless books, TV shows, and whatnot, still no, and these are the operative words, no conclusive, verifiable proof of one. Doesn't mean there wasn't one, but so far no one has been able to present conclusive and verifiable proof that there was.
But that's not the only criticism of the Warren Commission. In their haste to finish their report, they failed to interview people who might have been able to shed more light on the assassination. That's a fair criticism. They missed some key individuals. This opened the door to accusations of a cover-up, perhaps though haste or bureaucratic sloppiness could also have been factors. As I mentioned, the commission did interview 552 people and gathered more than 3,100 exhibits. Judge for yourself how and why they missed others.
On top of this, over the years, other potential clues have vanished. Philip Sheenan, Author of A Cruel and Shocking Act: A Look at the Forming of the Warren Commission and its Work, spoke with CNN on the 50th anniversary of the assassination.
My big sort of takeaway is just how much of the story has never been told and how much evidence about the assassination has been destroyed over the years, you know, or covered up.
Again, judge for yourself whether this is haste, bureaucratic incompetence, or something else. In any case, the Commission left the door open, as I mentioned, for future historians, future investigators; and here we are, 60 years later, and that door remains open. There are plenty of theories, but still no conclusive proof to counter the Commission's central finding. I've noted criticism of the Warren Commission, but what about criticism of all the conspiracy buffs?
Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye. The District Court of the Northern District of Texas sitting in Dallas, the Honorable Lucius D. Bunton, Judge presiding.
In 1986, two of America's most accomplished lawyers, the legendary prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and an equally legendary criminal defender, Jerry Spence, held a mock trial of Oswald for British television. This was a legal clash of the titans. Over the course of his career, Bugliosi had won 105 out of the 106 cases he tried. But Spence, who was defending Oswald, had an even better record. He had never lost a case, not as a prosecutor, nor as a criminal defender.
It had a real Texas judge, a real Texas jury; actual co-workers of Oswald, including the man who drove him to work on the morning of the assassination, testified. So did cops in the Dallas motorcade, among others.
If you haven't seen this trial, the closest thing to a real trial, the trial Oswald never got, it is riveting. It lasted for days before the jury of Oswald's peers, Texas citizens, delivered their verdict. Here's Lucius Bunton III, District Judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas.
Lucius Bunton III: I have a note here which reads as follows, “Your Honor, we have reached a unanimous verdict dated November 22, 1986”, signed Jack Nelson, foreperson. Mr. Nelson, have you reached a verdict?
We have, Your Honor.
Lucius Bunton III:
If you would, please, if you'd just hand it to the marshal. All right, counsel, if you would please, if you'd please stand. I'll ask Mr. Nelson, if he would, to please read the verdict.
Verdict. We, the jury, find the defendant Lee Harvey Oswald guilty of the offense charged in one of the indictment.
Bugliosi's conviction of Oswald was only the beginning. He would spend the next 20 years writing a sweeping book on every conceivable aspect of the assassination. The book, 1,600 pages in all, is called Reclaiming History. After it came out, Bugliosi, in 2007, said this,
There's no credible evidence that the CIA or mob or any of these groups was involved in the assassination, nothing. I told the jury in London, I said, you know, folks, I'll stipulate that three people can keep a secret, I said, but only if two are dead. And here we have a situation, we're close to 44 years later, not one word, not one syllable has leaked out. Why? Because there's nothing to leak out.
Secondly, all there is is this naked speculation. Secondly, there's no evidence that Oswald ever had any association or connection with any of these groups.
To all this, conspiracy buffs say, well you have to read this book or look at this website or go down this rabbit hole or look at the shadows in this photograph, then you'll understand. And yet, after all this time, here we are and the story keeps coming back to one man, Lee Harvey Oswald. Just who was Lee Harvey Oswald?
I'm just a patsy!
Just a patsy, he claimed, on the night of the assassination. But why take his word for it? Over the next few episodes, we'll take a deep dive into the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, starting in 1939 when he was born, all the way up to the day of Kennedy's assassination.
All I ask is that you set aside any preconceived notions and keep an open mind.
In our next episode: the childhood of Lee Harvey Oswald. If you like this podcast, check out my bestselling book of the same title, Countdown to Dallas.
Sound from the PBS program Frontline, British Pathe Newsreels, CBS and CNN, and the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. Our editor and producer, Erin Lann. Audio engineer, Sean Rule-Hoffman. Executive producers, Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando. I'm Paul Brandus. Thanks so much for listening.