Today is the 52nd anniversary of the murder of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. I’ve had in interest in “the case,” as it’s called by the afflicted, for over twenty years now, ever since I saw Oliver Stone’s film as a teenager. And though I haven’t been actively pursuing this obsession for quite a while, every year around this time my interest gets piqued by some new book or article or tv special, and I hear that radio man’s voice, trapped in time repeating endlessly like Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence:
It appears as though something has happened in the motorcade route. Something, I repeat, HAS HAPPENED in the motorcade route.
There have been thousands of books written about the case, and there will probably be thousands more in just the next few years, since self-publishing technology seems to be a perfect fit for the kind of guy who wants to propound a theory about the Kennedy assassination. I myself have probably read over a hundred books on the subject. I don’t know what it is – I guess you have to be the sort of person who’s drawn to puzzles. When I saw David Fincher’s Zodiac, I started tracking down books about that case as well, so maybe it’s just in the genes.
It would be impossible to give anything like a comprehensive overview of all the mysteries, disputed facts and competing theories in the case. And I could easily write a tongue-in-cheek article profiling all the ridiculous theories that have been put forth over the years, such as that the limo driver turned around and shot JFK in the head with a revolver, or that the man holding the umbrella on the roadside was actually holding a CIA dart gun which he used to inflict Kennedy’s throat wound. But the problem with laughing at the nonsense conspiracy theories is that it tends to carry over into a blanket dismissal of the more credible evidence that something more than just one lone nut with a rifle killed the President that day.
One’s interpretation of what evidence is credible and what evidence is not is inevitably subjective, to a degree. This is compounded by two other factors. First, the crime was never properly investigated. One of the earliest and most tenacious researchers, the late Harold Weisberg, made this point again and again: all the institutions that should have functioned to either prevent or properly investigate a crime like this failed. All of them. We now know that, within hours of the killing, federal authorities were dealing with rumors and stories suggestive of a communist conspiracy involving either Cuba or the Soviet Union. Lyndon Johnson made the decision – either in good faith or bad – that this event should not be the beginning of an all-out nuclear war, and so the official story should be that Oswald did it alone with no help from anyone, regardless of what the truth may be.
But we also now know that most of the early evidence suggesting a communist conspiracy was bogus. Some of it was made up post facto by anti-Castro people trying to use the assassination for their own political purposes. Much more nefariously, some of it was placed in Oswald’s CIA file only weeks before the assassination, so that it would be there waiting when the time came.
The second problem we encounter in trying to evaluate all the conflicting data in the JFK case is that we are dealing with the world of espionage, i.e., lying. I can’t recall where I read it, but a researcher was talking to an intelligence guy about the case, and the agent said, “The problem with people like you is that you believe what you read in government documents.” The “craft of intelligence,” as Allen Dulles called it, is a world of smoke and mirrors, of deceit and dissimulation. The notion that everything which appears in CIA files should be taken at face value is beyond ridiculous. When the Warren Commission asked CIA director John McCone if Lee Harvey Oswald had ever had any relationship with the agency, McCone said something like, ‘Well, we checked all our files and we have no record of any such thing.’ Well, then, that clears that up, now doesn’t it?
A lot of conspiracy theories focus on the actual shooting, and argue that there had to be more than one rifleman. Defenders of the lone assassin theory have responded with some pretty impressive rebuttals of those theories. It would seem that either the evidence we have is legit and Oswald really did shoot Kennedy all by himself, or else a lot of that evidence is fake, in which case who the hell knows what really happened. But regardless of which scenario is the truthful one, the strongest evidence for conspiracy has not come from a ballistics analysis, but from an analysis of the person of Lee Harvey Oswald.
For a twenty-four year old loser and loner, the guy sure got around. He joined the Marine Corps at age 17. While serving, he learned to speak and read Russian. Then he ostensibly left the Marines and defected to the Soviet Union. Incidentally (and this gives me a way to make this post somehow relevant to a blog that’s supposed to be about China) I was reading the recent book by China expert Michael Pillsbury called The Hundred-Year Marathon and came across this passage:
From 1960 to 1962, thousands of pages of classified Soviet documents had been secretly photographed with a Minox camera in a series of operations that the CIA called IRON BARK.
It just so happens that this is the exact time period that Oswald was in Russia, and it just so happens that a Minox spy camera was among his possessions after the assassination. That’s not proof, but it is suggestive.
When Oswald came back from Russia, he risked being prosecuted as a traitor. But he wasn’t. The State Department allowed him to bring back his new Russian bride (this was back before you could order them through the mail, though you could order firearms that way, as Oswald is alleged to have done) and they even lent them traveling money. The only way this makes sense is in one of the following scenarios: Either Oswald wasn’t a real defector and so his handlers made sure he wasn’t prosecuted; or he was a real defector, and so either the FBI or the CIA decided to hold that over his head and use him for their own purposes after his return.
Some of the most important evidence to emerge in recent years concerns the Cuban groups that Oswald was involved with before the assassination and their relationships with the FBI and CIA. In the summer of 1963, Oswald was running around in New Orleans making a big scene with his one-man Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Professor David Kaiser argues that this may have been part of a COINTELPRO operation designed to discredit the FPCC, which it certainly did whether Oswald intended to or not.
At the same time, Oswald was also involved with an anti-Castro group called the DRE – Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil. One of the most important pieces of evidence to emerge in recent years concerns the CIA agent who was in charge of the DRE, his role in the assassination investigation, and possibly his role in the assassination itself. Journalist Jefferson Morley should have gotten high honors for his work on this story. But it’s a curious truth of the world of journalism that anyone who goes near the JFK assassination gets decanted from polite society.
Another strong piece of evidence pointing to a conspiracy is the testimony of Antonio Veciana, the leader of another anti-Castro group, which was also directed by the CIA. Veciana testified that he saw Oswald in September, 1963 meeting with Veciana’s CIA handler, whom he knew by the name of Maurice Bishop. Investigator Gaeton Fonzi – who recently had the distinction of being posthumously ripped off by Bill O’Reilly – looked into Veciana’s story and developed a very strong suspicion that “Maurice Bishop” was none other than CIA agent David Atlee Phillips. Veciana, perhaps out of fear or perhaps out of respect for his former ally, wouldn’t confirm the identification – until last year. In another story that should have gotten way more attention than it did – which was none – Veciana made an extensive statement on the case, which can be seen here. The late Mr. Fonzi’s memoir of his experience working for the House Select Committee on Assassinations is essential reading.
If you’ve come this far, then you seem to have some interest in “the case.” Maybe you had it before, or maybe I’m the one that’s got you started. Regardless, I’ll close this post with a list of recommended reading and viewing, in addition to what’s already been mentioned. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Not In Your Lifetime by Anthony Summers – Probably the single best overview of the case, which admirably balances skepticism and open-mindedness.
Oswald and the CIA by John Newman – An exhaustive study of Oswald’s CIA files and an exploration of his possible relationship with the agency, written by a former military intelligence analyst who knows his way around the National Archives. Newman eventually concluded that James Jesus Angleton – a fascinating character who was brilliantly portrayed by Michael Keaton – was very likely responsible for manipulating Oswald’s CIA file in the weeks before the assassination.
Deep Politics and the Death of JFK by Peter Dale Scott – A serious, scholarly study that is not for beginners. Professor Scott is the master of exploring the web of connections that exists below the surface of the everyday divisions between the government, organized crime, corporate power, paramilitary groups, and others whose actions have a definite impact on American and global politics. Kevin Costner playing Jim Garrison in JFK says that to study the Kennedy assassination is to go “through the looking glass,” where black is white and white is black. There is probably no better guide to that weird world of espionage and intrigue than Professor Scott.
JFK by Oliver Stone – The key to appreciating Stone’s film for what it is lies in his statement that he was engaging in myth-making, creating a counter-myth to the lone assassin myth. The film can be criticized for taking liberties with the facts of the case, or for making a hero of controversial figure Jim Garrison, but its great strength is its portrayal of the assassination and Garrison’s ill-fated investigation as a Shakepearean tragedy, which touched a very deep nerve in the American people, and left a wound which arguably has never really healed.