Each fall for 40 years we have remembered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. This year's decennial anniversary, however, may well be remarkable for what will be missing: myriad articles and discussions debunking the Warren Commission's conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
With time, the conspiracy theories that have been offered to explain Kennedy's death have unraveled, and widespread public doubts about the commission's findings have subsided.
There are reasons for this. Most of the plots spun to explain Kennedy's death involved vast government agencies, organizations and groups and suggested that many people were in on the schemes. Yet not one credible witness has ever surfaced. The release of previously classified documents has revealed nothing that reasonably could be used to support a conspiracy theory. And reputable scholars, such as Gerald Posner, and subsequent scientific findings have supported the conclusions of the Warren Commission.
Finally, it seems the conspiracy theories just became too outlandish even for a gullible public. Oliver Stone's 1991 motion picture, "JFK," is an example. The Kennedy assassination conspiracy it portrayed involved the interplay of a gay underground, the FBI, the CIA, the military, President Johnson, state officials and local police. Other conspiracy theorists even pointed to all of us on the Warren Commission, including Chief Justice Earl Warren.
For many years, it was hard to accept the possibility that a man who commanded one of the most powerful nations in the world could be struck down by a single individual who commanded nothing. But lately, we have come to grips with that idea too. The Oklahoma City bombing is one tragedy that taught the American public that a vast conspiracy is not necessary to inflict great pain on an entire nation -- all it takes is one or a few deranged individuals.
That the Kennedy conspiracy theories flourished at all represents a disturbing and unhealthy aspect of our society. Historians someday may find the reaction to the assassination as interesting as the actual events of November 1963. It's a phenomenon that one historian has referred to as part of "the paranoid style of American politics." Thus, over the years, various theories attempted to explain the assassinations and assassination attempts on our leaders.
For example, the sole assassin of President McKinley was falsely assumed to have been an agent of anarchists. And President Lincoln's assassination was blamed on his successor, a Cabinet member, and even the Jesuits. Notwithstanding overwhelming evidence of a lone gunman, rumors continue about wider plots in the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The commercial marketplace can take some blame for the propagation of these theories. For years, publishers clamored for conspiracy theory books. Television programs featured just about anyone who purported to have information on a conspiracy.
There were hundreds of publications, assassination study bureaus and a ready supply of conspiracy evangelists on the lecture circuit. These profiteers saw a chance to tap into a public that was ready, even eager, to consume such ideas.
But although unfounded conspiracy theories may offer tantalizing, entertaining and satisfying explanations, they can also do great harm. They place innocent people in the path of cruel accusations. They threaten to distort history. They lead to the belief that we are all powerless in the face of some secret government or operation capable of killing our leaders. And, in providing easy explanations, they subvert rational and productive analysis.
That publishers and movie moguls can convince people to accept far-fetched and bizarre explanations for the John Kennedy assassination means you have to wonder: What will they get the people to believe next?