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JFK in the limousine before his assassination

5 conspiracy theories about the assassination of JFK

Image: JFK riding in the presidential limousine moments before his assassination | Public Domain

To mark the 60th anniversary of his assassination, Kennedy explores the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. This series takes an intimate look at JFK's early years, his time in World War II, his journey onto the political scene and the dramatic twists and turns of his presidency. Kennedy starts Tuesday, 28th November on Sky HISTORY.

Who shot JFK? The official narrative states that it was an angry young misfit named Lee Harvey Oswald, who fired the fatal shots as President Kennedy drove past in an open-top limousine on 22nd November 1963.

However, many refute this ‘lone gunman’ explanation, believing either that Oswald wasn’t the only shooter that day, or that he was an entirely innocent ‘patsy’. According to conspiracy theorists, the real culprits behind the murder of John F. Kennedy were one or more of the following.

1. Cuban exiles

In 1961, the Kennedy administration approved the Bay of Pigs invasion – a covert attempt to topple Fidel Castro’s troublesome left-wing regime in Cuba. Backed by the CIA, a brigade of anti-Castro Cuban exiles mounted the assault, but it turned out to be a crushing failure, with much of the invasion force imprisoned or killed.

Kennedy himself was personally blamed by many Cuban exiles, since the president – keen to maintain plausible deniability over US involvement – had refused to provide crucial air support during the invasion. Some conspiracy theorists believe a contingent of anti-Castro Cubans, seeking revenge for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, orchestrated the assassination, perhaps in collaboration with disgruntled CIA agents and/or mobsters.

An alternative theory is that pro-Castro Cubans conspired to kill Kennedy in an act of Marxist aggression against the West. Some believe that Lee Harvey Oswald, a lifelong Marxist involved with the pro-Castro 'Fair Play for Cuba Committee’, may have been part of such a conspiracy. This possibility made an unlikely resurgence in the media in 2016, when Donald Trump referred to a tabloid story alleging that the Cuban father of Senator Ted Cruz had been an associate of Oswald’s – a claim that’s never been proven.

2. The CIA

Could the Kennedy assassination have been an inside job orchestrated by the CIA? Conspiracy theorists point to the friction which developed between the president and the intelligence agency after the Bay of Pigs catastrophe. Kennedy was allegedly so furious with the Agency’s handling of the operation that he vowed to ‘splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds’.

Kennedy also fired the long-serving CIA boss Allen Dulles, prompting some to suspect Dulles of being the vengeful mastermind behind the assassination plot. Another CIA name in the frame is E. Howard Hunt, perhaps the single most notorious US intelligence agent of the 20th century.

As well as being involved in secret operations like the Bay of Pigs, Hunt later worked as a ‘fixer’ and political saboteur for President Richard Nixon, doing time in prison for his role in the Watergate burglary. Hunt has long been suspected of being one of the snipers who shot Kennedy, and his own family have even claimed that the elderly Hunt made a ‘deathbed confession’ that the CIA had indeed planned the assassination.

3. The Mafia

Alleged JFK sniper Lee Harvey Oswald was himself shot dead, live on television while being escorted out of a police station a few days after the assassination. His killer was Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who claimed he’d done it because he was horrified by Kennedy’s murder and wanted to spare Mrs Kennedy the trauma of a trial.

However, many conspiracy theorists believe Ruby was actually a Mafia hitman who’d killed Oswald to prevent him from spilling the beans on the mob’s involvement in the assassination. There are a few key reasons why theorists believe the Mafia took out JFK.

One was anger over Kennedy’s actions during the Bay of Pigs, and the failure to get rid of Castro (the mob’s lucrative operations in Cuba had been scuppered by Fidel Castro’s left-wing revolution and they were keen to see the back of him).

Another reason was the mob’s outrage over the exploits of Robert Kennedy, who’d been mounting an aggressive crackdown on organised crime since being appointed Attorney General by his brother. Bobby’s anti-mob crusade was apparently seen as a personal betrayal by the likes of Chicago Outfit boss Sam Giancana, who’d allegedly used his influence to help get Kennedy elected in the 1960 presidential election.

4. President Lyndon Johnson

One of the more outlandish suspects named by conspiracy theorists is Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president who was sworn in as the new Commander-in-Chief on that day in Dallas.

Johnson was certainly one of the most ruthless and cutthroat politicians of his age. This, coupled with rumours that Kennedy was poised to drop Johnson as his running mate in the 1964 election, has led some theorists to believe the power-hungry Texan orchestrated the assassination in collaboration with super-rich Dallas oil barons who were displeased by Kennedy’s tax reforms.

5. Clay Shaw and the New Orleans conspirators

Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK popularised a longstanding theory put forward by former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. Namely, that a cabal of right-wing, anti-Castro, CIA-affiliated activists, motivated by their belief that Kennedy was soft on Communism, plotted to kill the president.

Chief among Garrison’s suspects was a much-loved New Orleans businessman and author, Claw Shaw. In 1969, Shaw – described by one commentator as ‘the unlikeliest villain since Oscar Wilde’ – became the only person ever to be arrested and charged in connection with the JFK assassination. However, the trial did not go Garrison’s way.

Relying on highly questionable witness testimony and producing no tangible evidence connecting Shaw with any conspiracy, Garrison’s team failed to convince the jury, who took less than an hour to find Shaw not guilty. Although the Clay Shaw/New Orleans theory has been widely panned by prominent JFK conspiracy theorists, it still looms large in Kennedy lore, largely thanks to the power of Oliver Stone’s film.