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America's Enduring Conspiracy Theories

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fifty years later, a majority of Americans still believe that more than one man was involved in the JFK assassination. What explains the tenacious nature of this belief?

Whether it’s a second shooter on the grassy knoll, inconsistencies in the Warren Commission investigation, or the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, Americans are still drawn to conspiracy theories surrounding the death of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago. But what contributes to the durability of these conspiracy theories? Certainly their plausibility has something to do with it. But like a good conspiracy theory itself, there’s more to it than the immediate explanation.

In the days following President Kennedy’s assassination, the National Opinion Research Center was in the field polling a stunned nation. The pollsters found that suspicions of a larger conspiracy were prevalent even in November of 1963. Seventy-two percent of respondents told NORC pollsters that they were “pretty much convinced” that Oswald was the man who shot the president. But in a separate question, 62 percent agreed that “other people were involved” in the assassination. Only 24 percent thought it was the work of one shooter.

In the intervening 50 years, pollsters have continued to survey Americans about the Kennedy assassination and alternative explanations for it. The latest survey was conducted by Gallup earlier this month. They found that 61 percent agreed that more than one man was involved in JFK’s death. And while that belief isn’t as strong as it used to be (in March 2001, 81 percent told Gallup that others were involved), conspiracies about JFK’s death are widely believed.

Forty-two percent of those polled said it was likely that people in the federal government knew about the assassination of President Kennedy in advance.

In fact, alternative explanations for JFK’s death remain the most believed conspiracy theories in the country. Among other conspiracy theories, 21 percent of Americans told Public Policy Polling in 2013 that they think aliens crash landed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and that the federal government covered up the event. In a 2008 CNN/Essence Magazine poll, 33 percent of Americans agreed that a larger conspiracy was involved in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. More recent conspiracy theories don’t draw as many believers. The last time CNN updated its question on President Obama’s birthplace, 17 percent of Americans thought that Obama probably or definitely was born in another country.

Several factors contribute to the staying power of JFK conspiracy theories. First, every good conspiracy needs a villain, and there’s no absence of them when it comes to JFK’s assassination. In 2003, Gallup asked about possible parties who may have worked behind the scenes. Fifteen percent thought the Cubans were involved, 15 percent the Soviet Union, 34 percent the CIA, and 37 percent the mafia. Eighteen percent thought JFK’s vice president Lyndon B. Johnson was involved.

Second, many Americans aren’t satisfied with the information they have about the events of November 22, 1963. In a 2012 U.Va./Hart Research Poll, around three-quarters agreed that there were still too many unanswered questions surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. The presence of so many questions leads many to conclude that information is being actively kept from them. In 2003, the last time ABC asked about this possibility, 68 percent agreed that there had been an official cover-up. Conspiracists frequently frame their interest as seeking to answer unresolved questions. The Kennedy assassination provides such questions in spades.

Third, government mistrust animates views about a conspiracy. Fox News asked in 2003 if the government should reopen an investigation of the assassination. Only 20 percent wanted the government to open the files again. It’s unlikely that people are ready to put their unanswered questions to rest though. Rather, they probably don’t trust the government to run the investigation. In a 2007 Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll, 42 percent of those polled said it was likely that people in the federal government knew about the assassination of President Kennedy in advance.

The presence of so many questions leads many to conclude that information is being actively kept from them.

JFK conspiracy theories provide a window into the pervasive mistrust Americans hold toward the federal government. And while that mistrust is particularly high at the present moment, it has been a constant presence since at least 1963. Some of that mistrust likely manifests itself in the belief that the government conspires and operates with malevolent intent. At the very least, many believe the government is hiding something.

Fourth, Kennedy’s legacy remains a powerful animating force for alternative explanations to his death. Kennedy is frequently considered one of the greatest modern American presidents. Even immediately after the assassination, that view was prevalent. In NORC’s 1963 survey, 50 percent said Kennedy was one of our two or three best presidents, 28 percent better than average, and 18 percent about average. A U.Va./Hart Research poll asked people in 2012 about the best presidents since 1950 and found that Kennedy ranked third, behind Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. For the Kennedy generation (those age 55 and over), Reagan and Kennedy were at the top, followed by Clinton.

It’s trite to say that conspiracy theories reveal something about those that believe in them. But it’s true, in a sense. The Kennedy assassination taps into several anxieties, impulses, and fears that run through the country, which partly explains the durability of conspiracy theories 50 years later. The belief that there was more than one shooter on November 22, 1963, illustrates how untrusting Americans can be when they believe they don’t have all the facts, particularly when the government is involved. Will Americans ever be satisfied with an explanation for the events that caused President Kennedy’s death? Probably not.

Andrew Rugg is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg contribute “Public Opinion on Conspiracy Theories” and “J.F. Kennedy’s Life and Legacy.” Lee Harris explains “The Trouble with Conspiracy Theories” while Michael Moynihan contributes “Graft Paper.” Michael Barone writes “How JFK's Assassination Changed American Politics” and “The Obama-Kennedy Connection.” Mark J. Perry describes “The 1960s and President Kennedy’s Successful, Supply-Side Tax Cuts.” James Pethokoukis shares “Bernanke’s Message Today to Inflation Conspiracy Theorists” and “Debunking Inflation Conspiracy Theorists One Blog Post at a Time.

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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