Conspiracy theories never seem to go away. Especially the ones that are said to involve clandestine plots of the United States government. It seems that many Americans believe high-level members of the federal government have been involved in such things as assassinations, cover-ups, and secret societies.
Conspiracy theories, like all theories, need to be thought through critically and dispassionately. As Christians, we have a duty to pursue truth. However, in a fallen world truth is not always easy to discern. Nevertheless, as creatures made in God’s image, we possess the ability to reason through explanations carefully and discover truth. I hope to illustrate this idea in consideration of conspiracy theories.
I have written on conspiracy theories before and some of the introductory principles I share here have been derived from an earlier article that can be accessed here: “Thinking through Big Government Conspiracy Theories.” In this article we will look at what is known as the granddaddy of all conspiracy theories.
JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theory: Widely considered the greatest conspiracy theory of all time, a Gallup poll taken in 2001 reported that 81 percent of Americans believed there was a conspiracy behind the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. Though by 2018, the number had dropped to 60 percent. As the decades pass without verification of an actual conspiracy, I expect the numbers to continue to drop. Some of the most common highly speculative scenarios propose that top officials of the American government were engaged in a coup d’état to kill President Kennedy (see, for example, Oliver Stone’s 1991 conspiracy classic film JFK).
Why do these alternative explanations remain popular? Here are a few reasons:
(1) Sometimes conspiracy theories prove, in fact, to be true. History indicates that people have plotted to carry out illegal, subversive, or secret plans. For example, it was proven in a court of law that a small group of individuals conspired to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
Also, members of the US government are not immune from the possibility of engaging in conspiracy. Former President Richard Nixon later acknowledged that he knew much more about the Watergate break-in than he initially expressed. So conspiracy theories, even those involving the American government, should not be rejected a priori (prior to reasonable analysis).
(2) I also think conspiracies are popular because, as human beings, our knowledge is limited. There are things we don’t know and at times it irritates us.
(3) Additionally, conspiracies can serve to “even things out.” It is hard to balance how a person as inconsequential as Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, could murder someone as consequential as President John F. Kennedy. But a clandestine conspiracy involving powerful figures would help even the odds in an otherwise implausible scenario.
Yet most conspiracy theories—particularly the big ones like the JFK assassination—haven’t received the critical analysis they deserve by the American populace. Let’s look next at some online engagements I have had in discussing the JFK assassination.
Debating JFK Assassination Theories Online
I asked the following question on social media recently:
Do you agree with the Warren Commission finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin of President Kennedy? Yes/No/Unsure?
To clarify the question, the Warren Commission (1963–1964) found that Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy and they found no evidence of a conspiracy, either foreign or domestic. See the Warren Commission Report (WCR) online.
Here are three (paraphrased) responses to my question followed by my replies:
Respondent #1: The answer is No! Former President Lyndon B. Johnson told newsman Walter Cronkite in a 1969 interview that he always suspected an international conspiracy was involved and he didn’t believe the WCR. LBJ said, “They did the best they could.” The FBI and police never investigated the case properly and they did not do their job to protect JFK or Lee Harvey Oswald, who was shot by Jack Ruby two days later. It was the most pathetic and laughable example of law enforcement. They had hot leads they never followed up on and lots of evidence and witnesses were ignored and excluded, planted, and altered.
Me: Thanks for your answer and comments. Just a few points for your consideration:
(1) The one-volume, 888-page WCR summarizes the findings of the 10-month investigation. It is accompanied by 26 additional volumes of evidence. Trial attorney Vincent Bugliosi called the Warren Commission the most comprehensive investigation of a crime in all of history.1 I don’t think anyone can have an informed opinion about the commission’s findings without having read the report. Have you read it?
(2) Lyndon Johnson was merely expressing his personal opinion on the event and, according to his biographers, LBJ had a tendency to be rather paranoid. He personally appointed the individual members of the Warren Commission and said he had confidence in their judgment.
(3) Oswald was in custody about 90 minutes after the shootings of Kennedy and of officer J. D. Tippit. It was actually pretty efficient police work by the Dallas Police Department.
(4) It wasn’t the FBI’s job to directly protect Kennedy; that’s what the Secret Service does. But the Warren Report critiqued the FBI, the Secret Service, and the Dallas Police Department and made strong recommendations for improvement.
(5) Virtually all the objections to the lone gunman theory are addressed in the WCR and those that are not have been addressed in books by Gerald Posner2 and Vincent Bugliosi. I think the WCR is an impressive piece of law enforcement and legal investigative work.
Respondent #2: The House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978 concluded that there was a conspiracy. Yet the term “conspiracy theorist” is still a derogatory term today. It would seem like those who said so were vindicated, right?
As far as the assassination itself, I think there were two totally different bullets involved. The headshot fragmented—doing huge and visible damage we are all familiar with from the Zapruder film. The neck shot “magic bullet” was a totally different sort of ballistic—a fragmenting bullet couldn’t have survived several reentries.
Me: I appreciate your answer and comments. Here are a few points for you to think about:
(1) Actually, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA: 1976–1979) did not vindicate the conspiracy view of President Kennedy’s assassination. Near the end of the committee’s investigation, they were about to announce that they were in full agreement with the Warren Commission’s findings when they were presented with apparent audio evidence of the assassination. The claim was that a motorcycle tailing the president’s limousine had its radio on and had recorded four shots at the time of the assassination. Trusting this evidence, the HSCA concluded by a narrow margin that there probably was a conspiracy behind Kennedy’s assassination. However, that’s not the end of the story. Later, the audio evidence was presented to the National Academy of Sciences and was thoroughly refuted. It was determined based on the motorcycle’s position during the assassination that the recording of noises came several minutes after Kennedy’s limousine had left Dealey Plaza. The noises on the tape were not gunshots.
(2) The chief counsel for the HSCA, G. Robert Blakey,3 is probably the most qualified specialist who affirms a conspiracy (see The Plot to Kill the President). He was also a personal friend of Robert Kennedy. Blakey believes that the mob had a hand in killing the president. And yet his own specialist on mob activities rejected his view, saying that no reasonable person would pick the unstable Oswald and the equally unstable Ruby to carry out a hit on President Kennedy and then eliminate the assassin. I would add that Oswald was such an idiosyncratic character that he wouldn’t work with anyone on anything, and his $20 rifle was reliable but not a weapon a professional hit man would use. I’ve read a couple of Blakey’s books and have heard him speak and, while I respect him, I just don’t find his theory convincing.
(3) The Warren Report’s ballistic analysis showed that bullet fragments from President Kennedy’s head and the intact bullet that was recovered and caused the wounds to both Kennedy and Governor Connally (single-bullet theory) came from Oswald’s rifle to the exclusion of all other rifles (see WCR). Moreover, the single-bullet theory has been duplicated by using lasers and reenacted with riflemen shooting into dummies with bodies that were made to resemble human flesh and body parts.4 So we may now refer to the single-bullet theory as a fact that has been supported by careful reenactment.
(4) I don’t rule out conspiracies a priori. There was a conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln and a conspiracy behind Watergate. But conspiracy claims must be analyzed very carefully to see if they have true explanatory power and scope (see my article: Logic 101: Five Ways to Think through Conspiracy Theories, Part 2 (of 12)).
Finally, the Warren Report findings are available online. If you haven’t read the single volume I encourage you to do so (Warren Commission Report).
Respondent #3: I most definitely do not believe Oswald acted alone. But I have not read the WCR. However, I think you’ve made some unreasonable assumptions.
(1) You’ve determined that no one can possibly have a valid objection to the WCR unless they have first read it in its entirety. I think you know that this is unreasonable. I am well familiar with their conclusions and do not find that they entirely satisfy all of the discrepancies involved. For example, I didn’t need to read every written work by Joseph Smith to conclude that he was a heretic and to ably mount an apologetic against Mormonism.
(2) You proceed (rightly or wrongly) from the premise that the WCR represents the entirety of all that may be known—i. e., evidence, testimonies, FBI and CIA files, etc.—when it simply does not. One of the late Senator and Warren Commission member Richard Russell’s chief complaints regarding the conduct of the Warren Commission was the selective exclusion of leads, evidence, and testimony that might jeopardize their pre-conclusions that there was no conspiracy. They sought no other gunman and Oswald was their man. Russell contested the findings then, all of which attorney Mark Lane also criticized in his book Rush to Judgment. Further, in the 1970s, the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations called into question many of the WCR’s conclusions based on the fact that they did not possess all relevant information available at the time. Needless to say, the WCR is not the infallible “canon” regarding this most tragic event in our nation’s history. It’s only a part of the body of evidence, much of which is still sealed away under the pretense of “national security.”
Me: Thanks for your answer and your comments. Here’s my response for you to ponder:
It is of course your prerogative to disagree with the findings of the Warren Commission. But logically, for your case to have validity, it needs to interact with the official report. Why? Because you’re rejecting the conclusions of the report itself and the report contains the official legal record (evidence, eyewitness testimony, arguments, etc.). Also, the House Select Committee on Assassinations relied heavily on the Warren Commission. Mark Lane’s major conspiracy theory book Rush to Judgment interacts with the WRC. Thus, I think to give it due diligence, you need to review the official record. All of the additional studies and information you note above rely on the record you admit you have not read. Even most of the objections you raise have been addressed in the single-volume report that you haven’t reviewed. Thus, with all due respect, your research flaw is that you have read various critics of the WCR but not the actual report itself. That is a common mistake some conspiracy-oriented people make.
So it’s possible you are unconvinced because you need to do more study.
Big government conspiracy theories run rampant and have only increased in circulation in light of the pandemic. Some conspiracies have been shown to be true so we ought not reject them a priori. But alternative explanations need to be submitted to rigorous rational analysis. Part of that analysis—and our duty as Christians—involves investigating original sources. I hope you found this article stimulating.
Reflections: Your Turn
Have you read any books or seen any programs on the JFK assassination? If so, how would you answer my question above? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment.
• See my article The JFK Assassination Plus 50: The Five Most Interesting Books on President Kennedy’s Death and the conspiracy-oriented books highlighted in the article above.
Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org
Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007).
Gerald Posner, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (New York: Doubleday, 1993).
Bill Rockwood, “Interview: G. Robert Blakey,” Frontline (PBS), November 19, 2013.
Eric Bland, “Tech Puts JFK Conspiracy Theories to Rest,” NBC News, November 13, 2008.