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President Kennedy Conspiracy Theories

November 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST


JIM LEHRER: This Saturday will mark 40 years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. We look at why so many Americans now, and through the years, do not believe the official word that he was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, one man acting alone.

With us now are NewsHour regular and presidential historian Michael Beschloss; Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania; Robert Thompson, director of the Newhouse School, a public communications center for the study of popular television at Syracuse University; Henry Graff, Emeritus Professor of History at Columbia University– he was also a member of the Kennedy assassination records review board appointed by President Clinton; and Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.

Mr. Newport, you just completed a new poll on what Americans believe about the Kennedy assassination.

What did you find?

FRANK NEWPORT: The same thing we’ve been finding now, Jim, for about 30 years. The American public thinks it was a conspiracy. Three quarters of Americans in poll after poll, year after year continue to tell us that they do not believe that one man, Lee Harvey Oswald, did it alone. He was part of a conspiracy.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. What kind of conspiracy do they believe it was?

FRANK NEWPORT: Well, that’s what’s tricky. We keep looking at the data. There have been some open-ended questions in the past where people have asked, “well, who was it?” And we get a lot of “don’t-knows. So this year we actually gave people a list of the usual suspects and we included the Cubans and the Soviet Union and the CIA and Lyndon Johnson, because that theory has come up more recently and some others.

The two that come up at the top of the list are the CIA and the Cubans. But just about a third or a little more than a third of Americans choose either of those and it’s even lower percentages of those who think it was a conspiracy says it was any of the other. So we don’t know. They don’t think Lee Harvey Oswald did it alone, but we’re not sure that the average American, and I think your experts probably will tell you the same thing, nobody knows who it was. They just don’t think it was Oswald alone.

JIM LEHRER: Now you say it’s held pretty steady during the years. But right at the beginning, right after, in 1963, it was different, was it not?

FRANK NEWPORT: It was different but still suspicious. Gallup went into the field right in November, 1963. Dr. George Gallup was there, he asked this same question that we’ve tracked over the years and it was 52 percent who believed it was a conspiracy then. So not as high as it was now, but at least in our Gallup tracking in the month and the years right after that, Americans were already suspicious. Then after I think the Jim Garrison report and some other things came out, it zoomed up and has stayed high, as I mentioned, year after year, decade after decade since that point.

JIM LEHRER: Now, in 1976, it was 81 percent. Does that tie in to any particular event in 1976?

FRANK NEWPORT: Not that I’m aware of. I think that just happened to be another year where Gallup asked the question. This isn’t like presidential… we don’t ask it every year. I think we just came back into the field and asked it and lo and behold discovered that it had gotten high at that point and stayed that time every time we decided to ask it since, it remains at that height.

JIM LEHRER: Okay, Robert Thompson, you’ve tracked this on a different point. What’s your explanation as to why, so many – two thirds of the American people consistently through the years believe it’s a conspiracy?

ROBERT THOMPSON: Well, I think first of all, it’s this great story and you’ve got one suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald and he disappears, he’s killed, he’s eliminated, so this enormous shadow of doubt is cast over the entire story with no real evidence to take it away. And to some extent, it’s become the one last great American mystery.

I mean in so many ways, the mysteries we used to talk about keep going away by technology. We found the “Titanic,” they used raid or to determine there’s no monster in Loch Ness. This is one of those things that can continue to sort of be the stories around the cultural campfire. And also, our literature, our movies, have taught the new generation of people who don’t know anything, have no memories of this, Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK,” Don DeLillo’s book “Libra.” Most kids now learn about the JFK assassination not through documentaries about the historic period, but through documentaries, the unsolved mystery and through movies and literature about conspiracy theories.

JIM LEHRER: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, do you agree? Or what would you add to the causes?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I would add that there needs I think for humans to have a sense of proportion between cause and effect. Here’s a world-shattering event, and it doesn’t seem to make sense to people that this single insignificant individual could create that much of havoc in the world community. I think if you put that together and then say, “and there are some unanswered questions,” as there almost always are when there’s human tragedy, the unanswered questions feed the need to find a sense of proportion.

And the proportion we look for is in the expected places. What were the big world forces operating then? Well it must have been the anti-Castro Cubans, or it must have been the CIA, or it must have been the mafia. Remember, this is a time of “let them come to Berlin.” This is a time of bear any burden, pay any price. The world scale in which Kennedy was acting was very large, and that this single insignificant person could create this kind of disruption in the world order just doesn’t seem to make sense. That feeds all these alternate explanations.

JIM LEHRER: And that also, with what Mr. Newport said, that there’s no one conspiracy theory — it’s all divided up. It’s not so much that they believe a certain thing; they just do not believe he could have done it alone, and that’s what you’re saying, too, right?


JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Mr. Graff, you also, in addition to being a professor, et cetera, you also have lifted some papers — the Kennedy Assassination papers. What do you make of this, based on what you know about it, why do you think people still believe it’s a conspiracy?

HENRY GRAFF: I think that people have looked at the history as it’s unfolded since the Kennedy assassination, and they saw those other assassinations, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, then came the awfulness of Watergate, then came the Vietnam War. Things have turned bad for America. And people now look back on the Kennedy years as somehow a golden age. The most beautiful head in the world was blown open, a head that was destined to be on coins and on postage stamps, and it was gone, it became the lost Camelot. And we look back on that period with great longing.

I must also say that the whole business of not trusting the United States government lies at the root of some of the concern that we have not been told the truth. I served, as you said, on the Kennedy assassination records review board. I was appointed with four others by President Clinton. And that board was created by the first President Bush at the behest of Congress. He signed the bill shortly before he left office, calling upon this body to collect all of the evidence. It was a response to the Oliver Stone movie, which, it was said, had persuaded 85 percent of the American people that they had not been told the truth and that, indeed, Kennedy was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy inside the government.

We, our board, put together four million documents. They are now in the National Archives. And I must say conspirators don’t leave a paper trail. We know, I think with certainty, that I believe there was a lone gun man, his name was Lee Harvey Oswald. There was no shot fired from the grassy knoll. We do not know who might have put Oswald up to this act, but we are certain that, if there is a conspiracy, we are not going to be able to find out what it was. And we will continue to worry about what happened, just as there is new material every year on the Lincoln assassination, on the Garfield assassination, on the assassination that produced the First World War, the assassination of the Austrian couple at Sarajevo.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Michael, this is a mystery that will never be solved, this will go on and on as Mr. Graff says?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it will. And you know, the other thing I think my colleagues have done a very good job of explaining a lot of the reasons. But I think part of it is who Oswald was. This wasn’t just some guy who was connected to Kennedy’s assassination by physical evidence. Pretty quickly, even as early as November 22, that day, this was a guy… you know, the first thing that Americans fund out about him, who was he? He was someone who had defected to the Soviet Union, had come back to United States.

That doesn’t happen very often, it sure didn’t in 1963, had been campaigning for Fidel Castro’s Cubans — Fair play for Cuba Committee, so even Americans who were pretty trusting in 1963 by Frank Newport’s poll, 52 percent of them felt that there was a conspiracy. One who agreed was Lyndon Johnson privately. He saw this evidence, Johnson was sort of conspiracy minded in nature, he always said the shortest distance for him between two points was always a tunnel. This is the way he thought. He felt that that meant that there was a conspiracy, he felt that that was a worry because the Americans would demand, if they thought the Russians or Cubans were behind this, that he go to war against those countries, there could be 100 million people killed.

So when he appointed the Warren Commission to investigate this thing, he appointed it, but quietly told the members, “I sure hope you’re going to come up with a verdict essentially of a lone gunman, because if you don’t, it’s going to be terrible for this country.” And they did. You know, Frank Newport was actually…

JIM LEHRER: Do you think they did because Lyndon Johnson told them to?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think that there was certainly a feeling that it was a patriotic thing to close this and say that there was a lone gunman, not to open the possibility that Americans might want a war against Russian and Cuba. The other thing is this: That investigation was flawed. You know, you were asking Frank Newport why in, 1976 it spiked up to 81 percent, people thinking there was a conspiracy. That was just after most Americans discovered that John Kennedy’s people had tried to kill Fidel Castro and that fact had not been told to the Warren Commission. Therefore, you figure it was a flawed investigation and that shoots arrows in the direction of a conspiracy, which I agree with Henry Graff, there’s not the solid evidence to prove.

JIM LEHRER: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Mr. Graff mentioned JFK, the movie by Oliver Stone, and a lot of people have given him credit — that movie credit for keeping this conspiracy theory alive, particularly among people who weren’t around in 1963. Do you buy that?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: There’s something very powerful about the visual dramatic image incarnated in a coherent narrative that is a film. And so I think, yes, it helps create a sense of reality that you don’t really have when you read the books and the documents that are the discrediting documents, the documents that discredit those theories. But I think we also have to give some credit to the history channel with the series “The Men Who Killed Kennedy.” We are certainly played out in dramatic form a lot of these hypotheticals very, very recently.

JIM LEHRER: And Michael, I mean the Lyndon Johnson people have really been outraged by that because one of their segments makes this… follows up on the Oliver Stone point that Lyndon Johnson was involved.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That’s right. And you know, Stone’s film came out in 1991. His argument that it was CIA maybe in conjunction with Lyndon Johnson probably one of the least plausible explanations of who might have killed John Kennedy, yet there was an ABC poll this week that found that four out of ten Americans have seen that Oliver Stone film. That’s going to have a much greater impact than a book written by an historian who follows a little bit more orthodox laws of evidence.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Newport, does your organization plan to continue to do these polls every ten years or so?

FRANK NEWPORT: Oh, indeed we will. We did in ’83, ’93 and we’ll do it again. One thing is…

JIM LEHRER: Why? Why will you continue to do it? Why is it important?

FRANK NEWPORT: Well, its like why do you climb Mt. Everest for George Mallory – because it’s there, because this is a fascinating public opinion topic that shows like yours are devoting ten minutes to. That’s why we poll, because we try to find out what’s interesting to the public. And Kennedy, I have to say we just asked who’s the greatest president of all time and I think Michael will blanche at this, Kennedy 17 percent tied with Abraham Lincoln in the eyes of the public. So I say he’ll blanche because I don’t think historians agree that JFK was the greatest president in the United States history. The public is fascinated with John can he be Kennedy.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And your poll who is found roughly the same result, Kennedy at the top for the last 20 years or so.

FRANK NEWPORT: That’s right. And by the way, Kennedy had the highest average job approval rating while he was actually in office of any president in Gallup history, so it’s not all retrospective. People loved the guy while he was in office, they love him now.

JIM LEHRER: Robert Thompson, do you think this is an important issue that will remain important as it is today?

ROBERT THOMPSON: Well, I think it will, both in history and in fiction. I think the ambiguity of this story has become the muse for a whole new type of programming. This is the inspiration for shows like the “X-Files”.” This is the ultimate X-File.

JIM LEHRER: But, Mr. Graff, from your point of view, the file is closed, the issue is dead, right?

HENRY GRAFF: I think that we are at the high point of interest in the Kennedy assassination right now. I think at the 50th anniversary, many of the people who were contemporaries will be gone, and most 40th anniversary memorials or celebrations are the high point. And so I disagree with our friend from the public opinion poll. We’ll have some other things. History has a way of swallowing up events. I remember teaching the Lincoln assassination at Columbia just about the time of the Kennedy assassination, and I was aware that that, too, finally had taken its place in the dusty realm of documents and is less interesting, less important today than it was at the time.

JIM LEHRER: All right. I invite all five of you to return ten years from tonight, and we’ll talk about, Mr. Newport, if you’ve done your poll, we’ll talk about it again. Is that a deal?

FRANK NEWPORT: It’s a deal.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you all very much.