There is no doubt about what happened in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963; President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. When it comes to the who or the how, though, the majority of Americans remain skeptical about the official narrative. The broad belief in some conspiracy theory regarding his death tells us that it’s quite mainstream to have at least some “fringe” convictions.
There has never been a time since the assassination when more than half of Americans believed the “lone gunman theory”: that 24-year-old Soviet sympathizer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone to take down the President of the United States, before nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot him two days later in grief. According to Gallup, which has been tracking public opinion since that day in 1963, 61 percent of Americans believe that others were involved in a conspiracy to kill the President. That’s more than twice the number of people who know what Janet Yellen does or who is in charge at the Supreme Court.
Conspiracies are secret plots put into motion by shadowy groups at the expense of the common good. “At their core, conspiracy theories are about power and truth,” said Joseph Uscinksi, co-author of “American Conspiracy Theories.” “Who has power and what are they doing with it?” Other conspiracies have captured some imaginations, from Illuminati lizard people controlling our government to the faking of the moon landing, but none have such enduring power or broad appeal as the Kennedy assassination.
“Americans had a lot of trouble believing that the most powerful, most glamorous man in the world could be brought down by a pathetic guy with a $21 mail-order rifle,” Philip Shenon says. Shenon wrote “A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination,” which tracked the history of the Warren Commision. “It was easier for people to believe that history could be changed by evil men lurking behind closed doors.”
President Lyndon Johnson called for the Warren Commission to investigate what happened that day. It did little to stymie the shadowy theories. The Commission depended on information from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Neither were forthcoming, and in some instances they willfully destroyed information. In one a case, a detective with the Dallas field office of the flushed a bomb threat sent by Oswald before the assassination down the toilet, allegedly to avoid criticism that the tragedy could have been avoided. But was it incompetence or a conspiracy?
The events of Watergate, the revelations of the Church Committee, and the discovery of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (known as COINTELPRO) the following decade solidified Americans’ belief that the government lies to the public. “There was a suspicion that the government was doing things they shouldn’t be doing,” says Uscinksi. So then why not JFK too?
This broad consensus might also have to do with the ability of this particular conspiracy to adapt to particular partisan beliefs. “People love murder mysteries, and this was a murder mystery with the ultimate cast of characters,” says Shenon. “There are an unlimited number of suspects in this crime.” Some of these suspects include the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro, the mafia, the military-industrial complex, the intelligence communities, Lyndon Johnson, and even aliens. The president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, believed there was a conspiracy afoot, and current Secretary of State John Kerry last year said he has doubts about whether Oswald acted alone.
“There’s money to be made from conspiracy theories,” Shenon says. He notes that it started with Mark Lane, who wrote the first JFK assassination conspiracy theory book in 1965. In general, people sold a lot more books when they peddled conspiracies than when they rehashed the official narrative. Modern-day conspiracy theorists like Glenn Beck and Alex Jones know this well, raking in multi-millions each year.
All of these ingredients make for a potent conspiracy theory that continues to thrive more than half a century out, but throughout history Americans have depended on this kind of thinking to explain events and justify actions.
Take, for instance, the Declaration of Independence. Uscinksi points out, we founded our nation on a conspiratorial hypothetical: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”
Since then, history shows a lot of politics driven by conspiracy, from the Anti-Masonic Party to Benghazi. Uscinski and co-author Joseph M. Parent believe that the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories is not related to your political beliefs. “The conspiracy dimension,” or how likely you are to think powerful groups covertly undermine all the good, exists on separate spectrum from your political ideology.
Joni Ernst, now Senator-Elect of Iowa, said during the primary that she believes in the Agenda 21 conspiracy. Agenda 21 is a non-binding United Nations action plan from 1992 that calls for more sustainable development. Or, if you believe conspiracy theorist-extraordinaire Glenn Beck and friends, Agenda 21 is a way to create a one-world government using bike lanes.
Liberal news outlets couldn’t believe that the media didn’t focus more on Ernst’s conspiratorial leanings (which she toned down during the general election). Considering how widespread the distrust of government is, who knows if more focus on it would have changed the results. Perhaps, there is a conspiracy afoot.
Rachel Kurzius is an associate producer on The Agenda, a political talk show broadcast on Sirius XM Progress, and a theater critic for the Washington City Paper and The DCist. She is always dreaming of egg sandwiches. Follow her on Twitter @curious_kurz.