I wrote this essay on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s murder, in 2013, for the London Library magazine. On the 57th anniversary, it remains relevant.
If you are of a certain age, you will remember. It was 50 years ago, 22 November 1963 and, with respect to Philip Larkin, a moment more influential than the Beatles’ first hit. We were sent home from school that Friday afternoon; President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been killed in Dallas. We watched Sunday’s live television news coverage as Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin, was gunned down by Jack Ruby. Life magazine declared Oswald guilty, its cover showing him posed with rifle and Marxist pamphlets. JFK’s Camelot, the 1,000 days of the New Frontier, the ‘best and brightest’ in his service, the beautiful wife and children, had been struck down by a misfit would-be communist defector. Everything seemed open and shut.
The commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren endorsed that simple explanation. But rather than calming the nation, the Warren Report raised more questions than it answered. Over the past half-century, the debate has become a mire of investigation, speculation and disinformation, with more than a thousand books written on the subject, some utterly bizarre. Were shots fired from an umbrella? By a gunman from a nearby manhole? By a Secret Service agent? Are some of the crackpot theories published deliberately, to discredit serious research? In the movie JFK, the director Oliver Stone put Winston Churchill’s words into the mouth Joe Pesci, playing David Ferrie, the bizarre pilot who was likely part of an assassination conspiracy: ‘It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.’
The literature of the Kennedy assassination has appeared in three waves, each reflecting the tenor of its times. The first was a reaction to the Warren Report of 1964. The second was inspired by the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) investigation, begun by the US House of Representatives in 1976.. The third was prompted by Stone’s film, released in 1991. Now, the fiftieth anniversary of the killing has inevitably prompted more writing, including a great deal of material published electronically. Much of it is simply rehashing the work of others, sometimes indiscriminately; approach it with care.
The Library’s collection of assassination material is limited, though the official version is well represented. The US government printing of the Subject Index to the Warren Report and hearings & exhibits (New York 1966) would be a difficult and frustrating place to start especially without Sylvia Meagher’s Accessories After the Fact (1967), which is not in the collection, but is based on her cataloguing the evidence buried, un-indexed, within the Report’s 26-volume appendix. Meagher’s title reflects the reaction of that first wave of books to the Warren Report, the two most important being Mark Lane’s Rush To Judgment (1966) and Harold Weisberg’s Whitewash: The Report on the Warren Report (1965). Lane was a lawyer appalled by the Dallas investigation; he wrote an article about it and ended up being hired by Oswald’s mother Marguerite to represent her dead son. Weisberg was a former Congressional researcher who kept chickens on his Maryland farm, and whenever his work was derided he would be called a ‘chicken farmer’. A Haverford College professor, Josiah Thompson, spent so long analysing the forensic evidence for his groundbreaking Six Seconds In Dallas: A Micro-Study of the Kennedy Assassination (1967) that he gave up academe, and became a private detective.
The first researchers were described as ‘critics’ because they were really investigating the anomalies and questions left unanswered by the Warren Report, which seemed to be designed to validate the theory of the lone, crazed assassin, Oswald, firing three shots from the Texas School Book Depository. Testimony that didn’t fit that scenario was dismissed, overlooked or discounted — from the dozens who rushed up the grassy knoll, from where they were convinced shots had been fired, to Texas Governor John Connally, seated in front of Kennedy, who insisted he and the President were hit with separate bullets, which would invalidate the ‘magic-bullet’ premise, of one shot that went through both Kennedy and Connolly and caused multiple wounds in both men, before the second, fatal bullet also fired by Oswald, from behind, though Kennedy’s head was snapped backwards forcefully by its impact. Then there was the enigma of Oswald himself, the Marxist Marine with Intelligence training, who defected to the Soviet Union and returned with a Russian wife at the height of the cold war without attracting the negative attention of the US government. Oswald showed an uncanny ability to turn up in two places at once, and to agitate on behalf of communism and Cuba, as he did publicly in New Orleans, while surrounding himself with fervent anti-communists. The Warren Commission simply ignored the mafia, who had ample reason to want Kennedy dead; Jack Ruby’s mob connections, which went back to his childhood, were swept aside, and the possibility he knew Oswald before he assassinated him was yet another unexamined loose end. Ruby died in jail, before telling what he called the real story; in his two-volume work, Forgive My Grief (1966–7), Penn Jones, editor of a local paper outside Dallas, catalogued the unusual number of suspicious deaths of assassination witnesses. It was fertile ground for the roots of conspiracy.
The Warren Report was accepted immediately by the mainstream media; and when the word conspiracy is suggested, its proponents can be held to an impossible standard. Those who doubt Lee Harvey Oswald was the gunman, or acted alone, are first dismissed as crackpots, then expected to defend every crackpot theory of the assassination — and there are dozens of them — as well as every other conspiracy theory extant. The theorem appears to be, if any conspiracy can be shown to be absurd, all are invalid. Meanwhile, even as various ‘official versions’ of other major world events are proven one after the other to be lies, a long line which proceeds through real conspiracies such as Watergate to Iran-Contra to Saddam’s WMDs to illegal surveillance, each is similarly dismissed as a well-intentioned mistake, an unfortunate coincidence, or an exaggerated misunderstanding, this requiring each next official version to be accepted at face value.
In what now seems an instinctive recognition of this burden of proof anomaly, early fictions approached Kennedy’s murder metaphorically: Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), Loren Singer’s The Parallax View (1970), and Winter Kills (1974) by Richard Condon, author of the The Manchurian Candidate (1959), whose stand-in for Kennedy is assassinated on the orders of his mob-connected father. In fact, the idea of a conspiracy was nothing new: a Kennedy-like President had been overthrown by a military coup in the 1962 novel Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. Ironically, the movie of the book was made with Kennedy’s co-operation, overriding protests from the Pentagon; it would not be released until 1964.
The assassination has been examined in court only once, when New Orleans District Attorney James Garrison prosecuted a local businessman, Clay Shaw, director of the International Trade Mart, as part of a conspiracy to kill the President. Garrison got involved when he investigated Oswald’s time in New Orleans. His investigation received no co-operation from federal authorities and was undermined actively by some of them. His media portrayal was so negative he received, in a landmark court decision, a half-hour right of reply on national television. A similarly negative depiction, however, dominates novelist and playwright James Kirkwood’s book American Grotesque (1970), which cast the trial as a persecution of Shaw because he was gay.
But Garrison did manage to show the Zapruder film in court. Abraham Zapruder’s home movie of the assassination was purchased by Life magazine immediately after the killing, and just as promptly locked away. When Life printed stills from the film, frame 313, showing the impact of the fatal shot on Kennedy, was included out of sequence, making it appear that Kennedy’s head was driven forward, not back, by the impact. A similar honest mistake occurred when the stills were reprinted in the Warren Report. To anyone viewing the film it is obvious that the fatal shot forced Kennedy’s head backwards violently, and frame 313 shows the impact spray at the front of the head, while the supposed point of entry in the back remains untouched. The best early work on the Zapruder film was done by Robert Groden, whose two illustrated volumes, The Killing of A President (1993) and The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald (1995) remain valuable reference works.
By the early 1970s, despite polls already showing a majority of Americans doubted the Warren Report, conspiracy theories might well have been forgotten were it not for Richard Nixon (who was in Dallas himself on the day of the assassination) and the Watergate scandal. In the wake of this, three separate government investigations probed America’s intelligence services; one of them, the House of Representatives’ Pike Report, included the revelation, as shocking in 1975 as it was again this year, that the National Security Agency was spying unlawfully on the communications of American citizens. The House refused to issue this damning report; it was leaked to the reporter Daniel Schorr and published in The Village Voice. But rising distrust of government prompted Congress to form the HSCA, and a second wave of assassination literature, which studied conspiracy on a wider level, followed. Key books were Robert Sam Anson’s They’ve Killed the President: The Search for the Murderers of John F. Kennedy (1975); Carl Oglesby’s The Yankee and Cowboy War: Conspiracies from Dallas to Watergate (1977); and Government by Gunplay: Assassination Conspiracy Theories from Dallas to Today (1976), a collection of essays edited by Harvey Yazijian and future Clinton aide Sid Blumenthal. An important later addition on the same theme was Peter Dale Scott’s Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (1993), which now suffers from the profligate use of the term ‘deep state’ by all sorts of crankpots for all sorts of reasons.
The HSCA concluded the ‘likelihood’ of a Kennedy conspiracy, but was notably reluctant to blame anyone but the Mafia, as detailed in The Plot to Kill the President (1981) by HSCA chief counsel G. Robert Blakey and Life journalist Richard N. Billings, one of the men who had bought the Zapruder film. Committee investigator Gaeton Fonzi detailed the derailing of other avenues of HSCA’s investigations, and of its original chief counsel, Richard A. Sprague, in The Last Investigation (1993); Fonzi attributed Sprague’s removal to his insistence on establishing and investigating the involvement of the intelligence community in the assassination. The HSCA hearings prompted more suspicious deaths, most notably mobsters Sam Giancana, killed before he could testify, and Johnny Roselli, found floating in an oil drum in Miami’s Dumfoundling Bay the day before he was due to make his second appearance before the committee.
Oswald’s interface with the intelligence community features in the two best novels written about the assassination.
Often labelled ‘the American Le Carré’, Charles McCarry was a former spy, and his Tears of Autumn (1975) links the killing to the CIA-backed assassination of South Vietnam’s President Diem, while Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988) shows a typically obsessive DeLillo protagonist endlessly researching the ultimately unknowable: “Think of two parallel lines … One is the life of Lee H. Oswald. One is the conspiracy to kill the President. What bridges the space between them? What makes a connection inevitable? There is a third line. It comes out of dreams, visions, intuitions, prayers, out of the deepest levels of the self. It’s not generated by cause and effect like the other two lines. It’s a line that cuts across causality, cuts across time. It has no history that we can recognize or understand. But it forces a connection. It puts a man on the path of his destiny.”
The recently published new edition of Not In Your Lifetime (2013, originally 1998)
by Anthony Summers, began life as Conspiracy, published in 1980. It was the best single-volume study to date, a compendium bolstered by prodigious original research, and has gone through five updates, including as: The Kennedy Conspiracy (1989). Summers has streamlined his theories over the years, but still suggests that Kennedy’s killers were a mix of the Mafia, disaffected CIA agents and Cuban exiles. All three groups had reasons to want Kennedy out of the way, interests which coalesced around Cuba, where the mob has lost its hugely profitable casinos and whorehouses, while the CIA and Cuban exiles wanting to eliminate the communist Castro felt betrayed by Kennedy in the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The official investigations in the 1970s revealed that the CIA and Mafia had indeed worked together, not least to assainate Castro. Even Lyndon Johnson had complained about the ‘goddamn Murder Incorporated’ the CIA was running in Latin America. Summers suggested that Murder Inc. had come home.
That view of conspiracy was somewhat at odds with those who suggested the assassination was, in effect, a coup sponsored by the military and the CIA. David Lifton’s Best Evidence: Disguise and Deception in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy (1981; updated 1988) examined JFK’s autopsy, not carried out by forensic specialists at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, but by military doctors at Bethesda Naval Station, and concluded not only that evidence was faked, but that there were two separate coffins shipped from Dallas to Bethesda. The alleged motive, detailed best in John Newman’s JFK and Vietnam (1992) and Oswald and the CIA (1995), was the military’s fury at Kennedy’s reluctance to pursue the Vietnam War and his willingness to sign a nuclear treaty with the Soviets. Such a conspiracy would have required organisation high up in the military command, though of course we cannot overlook many actions which might be attributable to the post-facto tendency of bureaucracies like the CIA and FBI to cover up rather than reveal their own mistakes or embarrassing secrets. The cover-up can often take the form of conspiracy itself.
Newman was an adviser to Oliver Stone on JFK, which sparked the third wave of assassination literature. Based on Garrison’s experiences, with Kevin Costner playing the DA and Garrison in an ironic cameo as Earl Warren, the movie began attracting mainstream denunciation even before filming was finished. Stone brought the two conspiracy strands together: on the ground the mix of oddballs, former spooks, Cuban exiles and mobsters suggested by earlier research, and behind the scenes the military coup which is revealed to Garrison by the mysterious ‘Colonel X’. ‘X’ was based on Fletcher Prouty, a former Air Force intelligence liaison to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and author of two books, The Secret Team: The CIA and its Allies in Control of the United States and the World (1973) and JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy (1992).
Despite his dismissal by the media, JFK: The Book of the Film (1991) by Stone and Zachary Sklar is a remarkably balanced volume that refutes accusations of the filmmakers’ ignorance of history. There are many reasons to disagree with some of its theories, but the impact of the film forced the passage of the JFK Records Act (1992), which released a mass of previously classified documents to researchers, simultaneously providing a wealth of new information, and more layers of contradiction and confusion.
The Establishment response to the film was Gerald Posner’s Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (1993), a prosecutor’s selective brief against Oswald and in defence of the Warren Report, which was highly publicised and generous praised in the mainstream, who ignored widespread criticisms of its flaws, most notably from the irascible Weisberg,
who published Case Open the following year. Even Norman Mailer called Posner only ‘intermittently reliable’, but nonetheless used Case Closed as the basis for his biography Oswald’s Tale (1995). For Mailer, Lee’s unhappy marriage to the Russian beauty Marina saw him shoot Kennedy in a fit of frustrated jealous envy; the handsome President who had what Oswald was denied by his own wife. In 2007, former Los Angeles District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi published Reclaiming History, a 1,612-page work, with footnotes on CD, which recapitulated Case Closed but also added frequent attacks on the more absurd conspiracy theories, as well as ad hominem denigrations of many of the more serious Warren critics. Bugliosi also produced a condensed version of his book, Four Days In November (2007) which gives his version of the assassination in narrative form, and served as the basis for the2013 film Parkland.
The most significant new fiction came from James Ellroy, chronicler of America’s dark underbelly. Ellroy never sees America as innocent; looking at JFK’s presidency he said the ‘real trinity of Camelot was look good, kick ass, get laid’. His conspiracy, as laid out in The Cold Six Thousand (2001), oozes with the sleazy reality of mobsters, ex-intelligence agents,
Howard Hughes and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. A decade later, Stephen King’s 11–22–63 (2012) dismissed doubters of the official verdict as being unable to accept Kennedy’s death as an act of random absurdity. Like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, King sent a Maine schoolteacher back in time to stop Oswald. The time-travel story is better than the Oswald aspect, but he presents a brief but powerful imagining of the butterfly effect of Kennedy’s survival in an alternate universe, where small acts have unforeseen consequences. King concludes: ‘It was almost certainly Oswald. You’ve heard of Occam’s Razor, haven’t you? … all things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the right one.’
But what is simple about Oswald? His portrait as detailed by Warren, Posner, Mailer, Bugliosi and King is itself the most convincing proof that he was uniquely qualified to become someone’s perfect patsy. Ray and Mary LaFontaine’s Oswald Talked: The New Evidence in the JFK Assassination (1996) makes a strong case for Oswald as a failed government informer, ripe for the set-up.
And, in 2008, James Douglass’s JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters put forward the strongest case yet for a conspiracy, including details of an earlier, similar plot derailed only by the President having cancelled a trip to watch a football game in Chicago. Douglass’s research in Dallas neatly marries conspiracies large and small. His ‘unspeakable’, in the end, is simply ‘The emptiness of the void, the vacuum of responsibility and compassion, it is ourselves.’
Should the actual gunmen still be alive, and confess publicly to their crime, at this point it’s unlikely they would be believed. Warren’s defenders would dismiss them, and many conspiracy believers might conclude they were yet another late attempt at disinformation. But most of the protagonists of the story are dead, and 9/11 has become the ‘Crime Of the Century’ for new century, as Anthony Summers says, replacing the assassination as ‘a new milestone of national trauma.’ We may never know the truth. Meanwhile Oswald’s ghost remains in death what he most likely was in life, a patsy who reminds us that history is not random, but it may be beyond our control. As Don DeLillo wrote, in an essay while researching Libra:
‘The valuable work of theorists has shown us the dark possibilities, prodded us to admit to ourselves the difficult truth of the matter. No simple solution, no respite from mystery and chronic suspicion. Conspiracy is now the true faith.’