JFK assassination: Gen Y students weigh in during new class

By Linda Weiford, WSU News

StrattonPULLMAN, Wash. – From the grassy knoll in Dallas to the wheat-covered hills of the Palouse, President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 remains a whodunit that stumps the old and young alike.

Or maybe not.

Though Kennedy’s shooting is one of the “greatest mysteries of all times,” according to a Washington State University historian who teaches a popular course on the event, his students say it’s not such a mystery after all.

Pondering the evidence – or lack of – are WSU historian Scott Stratton, front and center, flanked by a group of students from his “50th Anniversary of the JFK Assassination” class. (Photo by Linda Weiford, WSU News)

Scott Stratton instructs the history class, “50th Anniversary of the JFK Assassination,” which he created and taught for the first time last spring. He presents students with a history capsule of that era along with Kennedy’s triumphs and failures.

He then narrows the focus to a sunny, Nov. 22 afternoon when a festive motorcade carrying the president and wife Jacqueline wove through downtown Dallas. Supposedly, three shots would be fired.

By day’s end, “our country would be vastly different than it was at sunrise,” said Stratton who, though only a year old, grew up in the shadow of the assassination.

National nightmare revisited

Because most students weren’t alive when Kennedy was shot, “I wasn’t sure if they’d comprehend its significance,” said Stratton. “Here we are a half-century later and there’s an avalanche of new books, TV specials, movies and documentaries about the assassination.

“Would students understand the intense interest?” he wondered. “Would they care? I wasn’t sure.”

But deep into the fall semester class, it’s clear that they do. After reading assigned books that address different viewpoints on Kennedy’s slaying, after poring over the 888-page Warren Report that concludes Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and after role-playing as members of the Warren Commission on one side and skeptics on the other, “it’s been a huge eye-opener for me,” said student Maegan Wright.

“Until I took this class, all I knew was some guy had shot Kennedy. End of story,” she said. “But now I can see why there’s been so much controversy about it and why people are skeptical.”

Somebody, somewhere

How skeptical? A recent poll by the Associated Press and the public opinion research group GfK reveals that nearly 60 percent of Americans believe the assassination was part of a conspiracy and 24 percent think Oswald acted alone.

President Kennedy and wife Jacqueline at the start of Dallas parade route on Nov. 22, 1963.

Though Stratton has his own theory, “I don’t tell my students what it is,” he said. “They have to formulate their own conclusions and then present them in a research paper at the end of the semester.”

Of the 30 students who handed in papers last semester, only one concluded that Oswald had acted alone, said Stratton. This semester’s papers aren’t yet due, but students interviewed during a recent class said they don’t buy the government’s version of what went down.

Somebody, somewhere, knew something, they said.

“I just don’t buy it. There are far too many coincidences and inconsistencies for the government’s explanation to be believable,” said Kevin Fisher.

“I find it really hard to believe that Oswald shot the president without anyone’s help, knowledge or encouragement,” added Jenna Crain. “When you go over the evidence – and what about all the evidence that was withheld or destroyed? – it seems pretty impossible.”

Teetering credibility

Even if Oswald was the lone gunman, the consensus is that he didn’t act alone. Among the litany of red flags students cited:

• Some 400 death threats had been made on Kennedy in the few weeks leading up to his murder. Yet security in Dallas seemed surprisingly lax, with only two dozen guards escorting the motorcade and a decision made to let the president ride in a convertible.

• In 1964, the Warren Commission concluded that Oswald acted alone out of political passion, firing three shots from the window of a building where he worked. However, in 1978, the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that Kennedy “was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.”

• Oswald, the man allegedly at the center of the crime, was being investigated by the FBI prior to the shooting, it was later learned. A bureau investigator told the Warren Commission that after the assassination, his superiors ordered him to burn a hand-written letter that Oswald had mailed him earlier that year. Why?

• A pathologist at Bethesda Naval Hospital burned Kennedy’s original autopsy notes because they were stained with Kennedy’s blood, he said in a 1996 deposition. That information had never before been shared. Why not?

• For three decades, the government refused to release thousands of classified documents related to the shooting – until the release of Oliver Stone’s blockbuster film, “JFK,” prompted passage of the JFK Records Act in 1992.

Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald point-blank in the basement of Dallas police headquarters.

• Two days after Oswald’s arrest, as authorities escorted him through a police headquarters basement to be transported to a county jail, a nightclub owner named Jack Ruby stepped from a group of reporters and killed Oswald with a revolver. Ruby claimed that he did it to spare Jacqueline Kennedy the distress of a trial.

“Unbelievable,” said student Carolin Luppens. “Some guy just strolls in and shoots the man who assassinated the president of the United States and he says it was to protect the feelings of the president’s wife? No way. I think it was to silence Oswald who said he had been set up.” (To hear Oswald, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rBDihVHfMI)

Even if the assassination wasn’t part of a broader plot, at the very least government agencies covered up multiple blunders, said student Sebastian De Bont.

“The whole story is so bizarre,” he said. “You know that saying about how history repeats itself? In this case, I really hope not.”



Scott D. Stratton, WSU Department of History, 509-335-3354, sstratton@wsu.edu

Linda Weiford, WSU News, 509-335-7209, linda.weiford@wsu.edu