JFK's Many Lives and Deaths—40 Years Later

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One important reason is that in the last decade, a wealth of new material has become available, including official documents, diaries, and especially secret White House tapes. The tapes especially have led to dramatically improved evaluations of Kennedy's performance throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis, arguably the most dangerous moment the world has ever known. They reveal not only how close civilization tottered on the brink of nuclear annihilation, but also how masterfully Kennedy managed the crisis, refusing the military option to embrace the diplomatic solution.

Criticized for his initial reluctance to strongly support civil rights, Kennedy did eventually turn about and declare it a pressing "moral issue." He died soon thereafter, but much of the landmark civil rights legislation passed during the Johnson administration had its roots in Kennedy's term.

In foreign affairs he preferred projecting American ideals, through such institutions as the Peace Corps, to projecting military power. Yet his reputation has been mired in the Vietnam quagmire—perhaps unfairly so. Kennedy did increase the number of American military "advisors," but apparently was drawing the line at combat troops, and may—no one can be sure—have been intending to pull out altogether.

And that, according to Hollywood screenwriter and director Oliver Stone's 1991 film, JFK, was the reason the military conspired in his murder.

Blur Analysis

The circumstances of Kennedy's death have generated far more speculation than all the achievements or shortcomings of his life. Thousands of books, articles, and web sites have attempted to solve a longstanding mystery: Who really killed JFK?

Despite the 1964 Warren Commission, which concluded Lee Harvey Oswald did so unaided, most people have agreed with Jacqueline Kennedy when, after the shots first rang out, she reportedly exclaimed, "Oh God, no, they have shot my husband!"

"They," of course, implies conspirators. In a recent Gallup poll, a whopping 75 percent of Americans believe Kennedy's death was the result of a conspiracy, although not necessarily one as vast and far-reaching as that depicted in Oliver Stone's JFK, in which a whole shadow government is implicated.

The more plausible conspiracies include pro-Castro Cubans retaliating for Kennedy-inspired CIA plots to assassinate Fidel; anti-Castro Cubans avenging Kennedy's supposed betrayal of their cause at the Bay of Pigs; the Mafia, furious at the administration's crackdown on its activities; rogue elements in the CIA; or some mixture of all of them. Lee Harvey Oswald, the original lone gunman, is in some versions merely an accomplice, and in others an innocent patsy.

There are many self-styled "assassination researchers." Among them, blur analysis has become a fine art. Sharp eyes have pored over grainy photos of those historic moments, and wherever they have spotted blurred ambiguities, imagination has been swift to follow.

In some photographs, researchers have detected a man apparently holding an open umbrella—which, of course, they suggest must have fired a poison dart, striking JFK and paralyzing him for the benefit of snipers. In other pictures, vegetation on a grassy knoll apparently is concealing some of the dozens of sharpshooters various researchers claim to have identified. One smudge is explained as the pistol with which the president's limo driver shoots Kennedy before—a blink of an eye later—he will resume his duties behind the wheel.

In the vast structure of conspiracy, no detail, no blade of grass, is inconsequential. "Everything adheres," writes American author Don DeLillo in Libra, his novel on the assassination, and it all amounts to "the Joycean book of America…the novel in which nothing is left out."

The touchstone common to all sides in the debate is the famous Zapruder film, the ultimate home movie. Only 26 seconds long, it is a mere bit of celluloid wrapped around a tiny plastic spool. It now lies in a vault in the National Archives, purchased by the government in 1999 for $16 million dollars (U.S.), making it perhaps the most valuable piece of film in the world.

Watch it yet once more. The cars roll by in the bright afternoon. The president lifts his hand to wave. The smile, the wit, the charisma are still intact. The roses, emblem of martyrs, are beside him. Believe it or not, someone has seriously conjectured that what is about to happen was secretly planned by Kennedy himself. Aware that he was dying of Addison's disease, he instead preferred to stage his own gory exit, sacrificing himself to ensure his enduring hold on our memory.

John F. Kennedy as ultimate conspirator. That may be the strangest twist in the mythmaking that for 40 years has been fashioning so many of his lives and deaths.

Mark Jenkins is a National Geographic Society historian and archivist.

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