He died this month 46 years ago. The assassination was pinned on a crazed gunman, though so many wanted him dead.
On the morning of 22 November 1963, on their way to catch a flight to Texas, John F Kennedy told his wife Jacqueline: “Jackie, if someone wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it.” Hours later, he was dead. Lee Harvey Oswald, a left-wing nut, had fired thrice from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository. The second bullet hit Kennedy in the neck, and the third on the back of his head, spattering his brains on Jacqueline’s lap.
Nearly 50 years after Kennedy’s assassination, hardly anyone is convinced that Oswald was acting alone. The fact that Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby, a small-time Dallas nightclub operator (and who, some researchers have alleged, had Mafia connections) while he was being taken to court, deepens the suspicions. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, was clear that no one must believe that this was not just a gunman gone crazy. He told a journalist that if Americans believed that Cuba or the Soviet Union was behind the killing, the world could be looking at a nuclear war, with at least 40 million casualties. The Warren Commission, set up to investigate Kennedy’s murder, gave a clean chit to everyone except Oswald.
But could it have been only Oswald? What are the chances of a man scoring two bullseyes out of three from the sixth floor of a building, aiming at a moving car? Many eyewitnesses claimed they saw a plume of smoke from a ‘grassy knoll’ on the other side of the road, as if there was another shooter there, but this was brushed aside.
And it’s astonishing how long the list is of people who had a vested interest in Kennedy’s death. One, Fidel Castro, who Kennedy saw as a huge communist threat. Kennedy had authorised an assassination attempt on Castro. This was goofed up, but it is possible Castro came to know of it. Even if he had not, there was enough bad blood. Kennedy agreed to another hare-brained CIA plot of arming and training anti-Castro Cubans living in the US and sending them in to conquer Cuba. When this rag-tag lot landed on the Bay of Pigs’ beach, they were slaughtered by Castro’s soldiers. The CIA pleaded for air support and troops, but Kennedy refused. It was massive egg-on-the-face for the CIA, so even the US’ premier intelligence agency had a motive for revenge on Kennedy. As did the anti-Castro Cubans whose brothers and cousins had been butchered, and who felt they had been led up the garden path by Kennedy.
Kennedy had also made a bitter enemy of Soviet boss Nikita Krushchev. When Soviet nuclear missiles were detected in Cuba, Kennedy gave the Soviets an ultimatum: withdraw the missiles or prepare for Armageddon. An hour before the deadline, the Russians blinked, a massive public humiliation. Krushchev had enough reason to want Kennedy dead, even if it would be just a private pleasure.
The Mafia had enough reason to see the back of Kennedy. The Mob had lost huge investments in casinos in Havana, when Castro outlawed gambling. They had been lobbying politicians and government agencies for an invasion of Cuba, financed by the Mafia. After Kennedy’s handling of Bay of Pigs, they knew that as long as this man was in charge, their assets in Cuba were dead.
J Edgar Hoover, the legendary FBI chief, hated Kennedy’s guts for his stand on civil rights. Hoover was a racist right-wing nut who spent much time and effort recording Kennedy’s sexual escapades. Every month, he would send documents or recordings of these to Bobby Kennedy. “It’s pure blackmail,” Bobby told a friend. But the Kennedys did not back off an inch on their support for uniform civil rights, infuriating Hoover and his right-wing cohorts. On the morning of his death, a Texan right-wing paper called Kennedy a ‘Communist’.
So, left or right, domestic or international, federal agencies or organised crime, almost everyone seemed to have had a motive. It was the question of who would get to him first. And catch hold of Lee Harvey Oswald as the stupid fall guy.
Sandipan Deb is an IIT-IIM graduate who wandered into journalism after reading a quote from filmmaker George Lucas — “Everyone cage door is open” — and has stayed there (in journalism, not a cage) for the past 19 years. He has written a book on the IITs.