A half-century ago this week, America was horrified and sickened. A dynamic young president was brutally shot to death beside his lovely wife in a motorcade. Nearly all retirement-age people remember exactly how they heard the news, and where. It was a dismal and depressing time.
Although the prestigious Warren Commission found that assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was a solitary extremist, a plague of questions and conspiracy theories persist. For example, Secretary of State John Kerry told Tom Brokaw in an NBC documentary set for Friday night:
"To this day, I have serious doubts that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I certainly have doubts that he was motivated by himself .... It is totally appropriate for a country like the United States to open up the files on whatever history can be shed light on."
During an interview with television host Charlie Rose, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said his father had been "fairly convinced" that Oswald had accomplices -- perhaps "rogue CIA."
While some conspiracy theories are outlandish, others by serious scholars are disturbing. Examples are books such as JFK and the Unspeakable and Oswald and the CIA. They say the Warren Commission concluded that the killer acted alone, because focusing on his links to Russia and Cuba might have triggered nuclear war.
Worse, they imply that some hawk-minded U.S. spy operatives were so consumed by Cold War hostility that they wanted to eliminate Kennedy, who was becoming a peace advocate. Oswald was their stooge, these voices say.
Oswald was a U.S. Marine with security clearance who worked on U2 spy plane missions in Japan in the late 1950s. He studied Russian, perhaps on his own. He was discharged by the Marines on a pretext that he needed to care for his ill mother -- but he immediately went to Russia and sought to renounce his U.S. citizenship.
The conspiracy books question: Was he a genuine defector, or a double agent sent by U.S. spy agencies?
After the U.S. Embassy in Moscow helped him return to America with his Russian wife and baby daughter, various anticommunists helped him get jobs in New Orleans and Dallas, including one at the infamous Texas Book Depository.
While in New Orleans, Oswald was a "Fair Play for Cuba" activist -- but his pamphlets bore the address of an anti-Castro operative with FBI connections.
Just before the JFK assassination, Oswald went to embassies in Mexico City seeking help in moving to Cuba. After the murder, the CIA secretly taped a phone call from a "Lee Oswald" to the Russian embassy about his trip -- but voice analysis showed that the caller was someone else. The identity of the fake caller remains a mystery.
After the tragedy, both the CIA and FBI denied any link to Oswald -- but future President Gerald Ford wrote a 1965 book saying the FBI had paid Oswald $200 a month as an informant and gave him code number 179.
A follow-up congressional inquiry in the 1970s concluded that Kennedy was "probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy." Congress passed the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 mandating that all files must be opened by 2017. So far, about 5 million pages have become public -- but the CIA still conceals about 1,000. Lawsuits are in progress to force disclosure.
All these stubborn questions linger, as America marks the 50th anniversary of the grim 1963 tragedy.