While the effect of the assassination of John Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963 on American politics and public policy can be debated endlessly, there is no doubt that the shooting had an enormous effect on the American psyche.
It was, first of all, simply shocking. The assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley were, to the average American, ancient history. More recent attempts on Roosevelt and Truman had never really penetrated mass consciousness. Assassinating presidents was, in the mind of the average American, something that simply “didn’t happen.”
The shock was exacerbated by the medium of television, which had by 1963 achieved nearly complete penetration of American households. For the first time ever, the three national broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) went to wall-to-wall coverage, cementing in American perceptions the idea that something momentous had happened.
Events that transpired in the few years after the assassination reinforced, in American popular perceptions, the idea that the Kennedy assassination marked a kind of watershed, a turning point after which the nation lost its innocence. The preceding “happy days” of the 1950s, in which Americans used a relatively tranquil time to attended to their personal lives and ambitions (education, marriage, family, home ownership) had been enriched (but not displaced) by a sense of purpose and idealism under a charismatic new president, John Kennedy.
However, in the years immediately following the assassination, several developments suggested that life in America would become more fractious and turbulent. The Cold War, which the United States had fought with relative success (Berlin Blockade, Korean War, Cuban Missile Crisis) took an ugly turn in the morass of Vietnam. A non-violent civil rights movement, which could claim the support of greater numbers of Americans, was displaced by angry black militants advocating violence and by urban riots. A truculent counter-culture attacked virtually all traditional American values.
The causal connections here, if any, are murky and questionable, but the psychological resonance of the murder of John Kennedy was huge. And for this reason, the historiography of the assassination is massive, highly controversial and highly contentious. We are not dealing here with a mere historical event. We are dealing with an iconic part of American culture.
From the standpoint of the Dallas Police, the crime had been solved in little over an hour. Kennedy had been shot at 12:30 p.m. (CST), and shortly before 2:00 p.m., Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested in the Texas Theater in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas for the murder of Officer J.D. Tippit. When Oswald was taken to police headquarters downtown, it was discovered that he worked at the Texas School Book Depository, from which several witnesses said the shots that killed Kennedy had been fired. He had also gone missing from the Depository. Further investigative work that weekend by the Dallas cops and the FBI seemed to cement the case against Oswald: he owned the rifle that had allegedly shot Kennedy, for example.
But officials in Washington knew that questions would arise. Communist media outlets were claiming that right wingers (and not the leftist Lee Oswald) had killed Kennedy, and Cuban exiles in the United States were claiming that Oswald shot Kennedy at the behest of Fidel Castro. Both claims were, from the standpoint of Washington policy makers, explosive. Thus Lyndon Johnson appointed The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, which quickly because known as the Warren Commission, after its chairman, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. The ostensible purpose was to provide a full and comprehensive account of the assassination, and thus to dispel rumors and speculation, as well as preempt other, perhaps irresponsible, investigations.
But for those who believe the assassination was the result of a coordinated cabal—conspiracists, for short—the purpose was to cover up a conspiracy which Washington policy makers either knew about or strongly suspected.
The Commission first met in December of 1963, and, after months of frantic work, submitted its Report in September of the following year. Universally derided by conspiracists, it is in fact a remarkable achievement, given the time available. It is, first of all, quite readable, in spite of being a government report. It is also comprehensive, dealing with a wide variety of issues with a bearing on the assassination, right down to a meticulous analysis of Lee Oswald’s finances. It is also scrupulous in dealing with evidence, being frank about contradictions within the historical record.
. . . for this reason, the historiography of the assassination is massive, highly controversial and highly contentious. We are not dealing here with a mere historical event. We are dealing with an iconic part of American culture.
But it also has limitations. Obviously, it could not address conspiracy theories and arguments that surfaced in the years and decades after it was issued. But it suffered from one Commission blunder. After some initial resistance from the Kennedy family, the Commission decided against demanding to see and analyze the photos and x-rays taken at Kennedy’s autopsy at the Bethesda Naval Hospital. These materials were (and still are) the definitive evidence on the nature of JFK’s wounds. In their absence, the Commission had to rely on witness testimony and an autopsy report that was, in some respects, inaccurate. This set the stage for decades of controversy about the wounds – was Kennedy shot from the front, or only from the back? – that has continued to this day.
The first two books claiming an assassination conspiracy came from European leftists: Joachim Joesten’s Oswald: Assassin or Fall Guy? (1964) and Thomas G. Buchanan’s Who Killed Kennedy? (1964) But these books, coming before conspiracy thinking had picked up steam, and published by rather marginal publishers, had relatively little influence.
The same cannot be said for Edward J. Epstein’s book Inquest (1966). The volume did not so much argue for conspiracy as critique the process by which the Commission reached its conclusions. Epstein portrayed the Commission as driven more by a political imperative (quell conspiracy talk) than by a pristine concern for truth. The tone was fairly moderate, and the book had a mainstream publisher (Viking).
Other volumes followed in short order. Particularly important was Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment (1966). Lane critiqued the Report from both the Warren Commission record and from his own interviews. His volume was a best seller, although it was and remains highly controversial. The book (and his personal appearances in venues, especially colleges, across the country) were effective largely because very few in his audience would bother checking out the sources he cited, some of which he distorted and misrepresented. Later, in the 1970s, Lane was making conspiracy claims to the House Select Committee on Assassinations regarding the Martin Luther King shooting. The Committee did have the resources to research his claims, and they chastised Lane in the following terms:
Many of the allegations of conspiracy the committee investigated were first raised by Mark Lane, the attorney who represented James Earl Ray at the committee’s public hearings. As has been noted, the facts were often at variance with Lane’s assertions. . . . In many instances, the committee found that Lane was willing to advocate conspiracy theories publicly without having checked the factual basis for them. In other instances, Lane proclaimed conspiracy based on little more than inference and innuendo. Lane’s conduct resulted in public misperception about the assassination of Dr. King and must be condemned. (House Select Committee Report, Page 424, footnote 16)
Conspiracy theories continued to gain reputability in the middle 1960s. One of the most important volumes was Josiah Thompson’s Six Seconds in Dallas (1967). Thompson avoided any specific theory as to who killed Kennedy and why. Rather, leveraging his access to the famous Zapruder film of the assassination, which he had due to his work for the film’s owner, Time-Life, Inc., Thompson claimed to have found evidence of four shots fired at Kennedy that day, including one from the famous Grassy Knoll, which would have had to be fired by someone other than Oswald. Thompson’s research, although hardly air-tight, was seemingly meticulous, and Thompson debunked a number of wilder conspiracy claims. The fact that an abridged version of the book appeared in the Saturday Evening Post demonstrates that conspiracy theorizing was becoming relatively mainstream by the middle-to-late 1960s.
Another important book from the late 60s was Sylvia Meagher’s Accessories After the Fact (1992 [reprint of 1967 original]). Meagher (pronounced “marr”) subjected the evidence produced by the Warren Commission and included in the famous 26 volumes of documents and testimony to detailed scrutiny, highlighting anomalies, inconsistencies and contradictions. Whether her work constitutes a meticulous critique or tendentious nitpicking is a matter that divides conspiracists and lone assassin theorists. Meagher, for example, stressed the fact that the Warren Commission never adequately explained how Oswald might have obtained the leather sling attached to the supposed murder weapon.
Are the anomalies, inconsistencies and contradictions a tale-tale sign of covert shenanigans, or are they a normal part of the historical record?
In evaluating Meagher (and more recent volumes in the same vein such as Gerald McKnight’s Breach of Trust ) the question is: how messy do we expect the historical data to be, if subjected to minute scrutiny, in the absence of a conspiracy? Are the anomalies, inconsistencies and contradictions a tale-tale sign of covert shenanigans, or are they a normal part of the historical record?
In early 1967, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison indicted local businessman and civic activist Clay Shaw for conspiring to murder John Kennedy. The case created a firestorm of media attention, which lasted, at various levels of intensity, until Shaw was acquitted by a New Orleans jury in March, 1969.
It might seem that the Garrison case would be a huge boon to conspiracy thinking, but in fact the results were more complicated. In the first place, conspiracy-oriented researchers were divided about the Garrison investigation, with a large number of well-established ones claiming that Garrison had indicted Shaw on the basis of very weak – bordering on nonexistent – evidence. Author Sylvia Meagher said that as the Garrison investigation unfolded, it “gave cause for increasingly serious misgivings about the validity of his evidence, the credibility of his witnesses, and the scrupulousness of his methods” (1992, 456-457). Harold Weisberg, an icon among conspiracists for a series of self-published books, said that as an investigator, Jim Garrison “could not find a pubic hair in a whorehouse at rush hour” (Anson, 1991). Anthony Summers, who published the important book Conspiracy in 1980 (see below) wrote that the Garrison probe was “a grotesque, misdirected shambles” (1989).
The mainstream media agreed with these critical assessments, and the effect, for a few years, was to discredit conspiracy theories about the assassination.
Harold Weisberg, an icon among conspiracists for a series of self-published books, said that as an investigator, Jim Garrison “could not find a pubic hair in a whorehouse at rush hour.”
Books critical of Garrison written at the time of the trial include Edward J. Epstein’s Counterplot (1969), Milton Brener’s The Garrison Case: A Study in the Abuse of Power (1969), and James Kirkwood’s American Grotesque (1970). All three give vivid accounts of the twists and turns in Garrison’s frequently revised and ever-changing case against Clay Shaw.
But Garrison got a rehabilitation of sorts in Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK which presented the New Orleans district attorney as a hero beleaguered by the forces of the status quo. Stone’s movie accepted all the essentials of Garrison’s case – showing Shaw conspiring to kill Kennedy for example – and embraced (anachronistically) many conspiracy claims made in later years. JFK: The Book of the Film (Stone, 1992), has both the script of the movie JFK, and a wide-ranging collection of reactions to the movie, both pro- and con.
There remains a cadre of researchers who are staunch defenders of Garrison. Perhaps the most comprehensive defense of the New Orleans DA comes from James DiEugenio, whose book Destiny Betrayed has recently been released in a revised and updated version (2012). DiEugenio believes not only in a JFK assassination conspiracy, but in a massive conspiracy to undermine the Garrison probe. Officials in the federal government, journalists who were critical of Garrison, and people who worked on Garrison’s staff and defected are all believed by DiEugenio to have been recruited and tasked to undermine the controversial prosecutor. Another defense of Garrison is Joan Mellen’s Farewell to Justice (2005). Mellen differs from DiEugenio on a number of specific issues, but agrees with him that Garrison was on the right track, and was undermined by various forces with an interest in concealing the truth.
Of the books critical of Garrison, the best and most recent one, which makes use of primary sources released since 1990, is Pat Lambert’s False Witness (1999). Lambert painstakingly reconstructs Garrison’s case piece by piece, showing how it developed as early testimony (which failed to implicate Shaw in any conspiracy), was “improved” by coaching the witnesses (although the coaching may have been unintentional) until they gave the testimony presented at trial. Yet even that testimony was so unconvincing that the jury acquitted Shaw in under an hour. One juror said that it would have been quicker, but some jurors had to go to the bathroom.
In one sense, the 70s and the 80s were the Golden Age of conspiracy literature. Conspiracy authors had had ample time to collect data and refine their arguments. Investigations like that of the Church Committee and the House Select Committee on Assassinations had produced a large amount of material that could be interpreted as supporting conspiracy theories. If neither turned up any “smoking gun” showing a JFK conspiracy, they turned up considerable evidence of misdeeds by U.S. government security agencies, which supported the idea that such agencies might have had a hand in Kennedy’s murder. And conspiracy books sold well, their popularity being both the result of the widespread belief in a JFK conspiracy, and conversely a cause of it.
. . . they turned up considerable evidence of misdeeds by U.S. government security agencies, which supported the idea that such agencies might have had a hand in Kennedy’s murder.
But there were other trends that tended to “muddy the waters” and undermine the coherence of the case for conspiracy. Witnesses had begun to come forward with interesting and seductive stories that implied a conspiracy. In some cases, these purported witnesses came “out of nowhere.” Other witnesses had been around since 1963, but by the 1970s and 1980s, their stories had gotten much “better.” Being seduced by one or more of these questionable claimants was a chronic failure of conspiracy authors in those latter decades.
Further, many years of research and investigation had turned up data implicating many different groups in the assassination. Evidence that the CIA killed Kennedy was added to evidence that the Mafia killed Kennedy, which was added to evidence that anti-Castro Cubans killed Kennedy, which was added to evidence that Texas oil millionaires offed the president. A few stray volumes blamed Castro or the Soviets or the Secret Service. Rather than converging on a conspiracy solution to the case, the body of conspiracy literature became more and more divergent, with an ever increasing number of theories and suspects.
Rather than converging on a conspiracy solution to the case, the body of conspiracy literature became more and more divergent, with an ever increasing number of theories and suspects.
More judicious volumes were produced by Henry Hurt (Reasonable Doubt, 1986) and Anthony Summers (Conspiracy, 1980). Both books are loaded with evidence that might indicate a conspiracy, and neither author tries to put all the evidence together to produce a coherent theory. Both authors, however, accepted at face value the testimony of grossly unreliable witnesses. In Hurt’s case it included the testimony of Dallas sheriff’s deputy Roger Craig, as well as that of Robert W. Easterling, who claimed to have been personally involved in the assassination conspiracy. Craig had begun to claim to have seen a Mauser (and not Oswald’s Mannlicher-Carcano) recovered by police on the sixth floor of the Depository, and to have seen a bullet in the grass on the Dealey Plaza infield. But his earlier testimony (as well as photographic evidence) flatly contradicted both claims. Easterling’s story, which contained many implausible elements, seemed to have been put together from reading conspiracy literature. In the case of Summers, one suspect witness was a woman named Delphine Roberts, who, in the 1970s, started claiming to have seen Lee Oswald in the offices of New Orleans detective Guy Banister. Again, this claim was absent from her earlier testimony.
An extremely useful volume that appeared in the late 1980s is Jim Marrs’ Crossfire (1989). It is useful not because of high scholarly standards or because it propounds a coherent conspiracy theory, but because it collects a very large amount of conspiracy evidence and conspiracy arguments in one place. Marrs is also a primary source for the several witnesses whom he personally interviewed – witnesses who either came forward years after the assassination (such as Beverly Oliver and Ed Hoffman) or who were known in 1963, but changed their testimony in later years (Jean Hill). The book was one of the sources for the movie JFK.
The 70s and 80s saw a renewed interest in the medical evidence about Kennedy’s wounds. Conspiracists reiterated and built upon two issues that had been raised in the 1960s. The first involved the wound to Kennedy’s throat. The Warren Commission’s single bullet theory required that this be the exit wound left by a bullet that entered Kennedy’s back and then went on to wound Governor John Connally, riding in the jump seat of the presidential limousine. But conspiracists noted that medical people in the emergency room at Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy had been rushed after the shooting, first thought the wound was one of entrance.
Another issue involved a large gaping wound in Kennedy’s skull. Multiple witnesses gave testimony that could be interpreted to show that the wound was in the back of Kennedy’s head, suggesting not a shot from the School Book Depository but rather from the grassy knoll.
Groden and Livingstone’s High Treason (1989), while offering a farrago of conspiracy arguments, placed special emphasis on the medical evidence, and particularly witness testimony about the nature of Kennedy’s wounds.
Multiple witnesses gave testimony that could be interpreted to show that the wound was in the back of Kennedy’s head, suggesting not a shot from the School Book Depository but rather from the grassy knoll.
A much bolder thesis about Kennedy’s wounds was offered by author David Lifton in the 1980 best seller Best Evidence. Lifton argued that all the shots that hit John Kennedy were fired from the front. How, then, would conspirators conceal the fact that no shots came from the Depository, the location of designated patsy, Lee Oswald? Lifton claimed that Kennedy’s body was stolen from Air Force One (the president’s plane) at Love Field in Dallas, taken to some location where the wounds were altered – his body mutilated to make it appear he was shot from behind – and then delivered to Bethesda Naval Hospital for the autopsy.
Lifton’s theory has found only a few supporters. Critics have claimed that what he did was (in social science terms) fit the model to the noise and not the signal. For example, one witness claimed that Kennedy’s body arrived at Bethesda in a plain “shipping casket” and not the fancy coffin (an Elgin Britannia) in which left Dallas. Another witness claimed the body arrived in the autopsy theater at Bethesda in a body bag, and not wrapped in sheets, as it had been when it left Parkland Hospital. The obvious inference is that it had been mutilated and then, rather than being returned to the original wrapping and casket, packaged differently for delivery to Bethesda. Yet multiple witnesses also reported that the body arrived in the autopsy theater wrapped in sheets, and in a fancy, expensive casket.
One of the ironies about the renewed emphasis on the nature of Kennedy’s wounds is that it came in the wake of a very thorough assessment of the medical evidence by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s. Fully aware of the controversies surrounding the wounds, the Committee recruited nine of the nation’s top forensic pathologists to study the evidence. Correcting the error of the Warren Commission, the Committee’s Forensic Pathology Panel had full access to the autopsy photos and x-rays. The panel agreed with the general conclusions of the Bethesda autopsists: two shots had hit Kennedy from behind, consistent with a shooter in the sniper’s nest in the Depository. No shots hit Kennedy from the front (7 HSCA 75-137).
The Panel did, however, point out a number of errors and omissions on the part of the autopsists. Neither of the two principal pathologists was a forensic pathologist, as opposed to an ordinary hospital pathologist. People in Kennedy’s entourage (and indeed Jackie Kennedy herself) had chosen the site of the autopsy, in apparent ignorance of the demands of a forensic autopsy.
The panel agreed with the general conclusions of the Bethesda autopsists: two shots had hit Kennedy from behind, consistent with a shooter in the sniper’s nest in the Depository. No shots hit Kennedy from the front.
Of course, if the autopsy photos and x-rays were somehow faked, forged, or tampered with, they would provide a very misleading picture of the wounds. The House Select Committee, aware that such claims were already rife among conspiracists, had top photo experts, radiologists, and forensic anthropologists examine the materials for evidence of fakery. The experts had access to pre-mortem photos and x-rays of Kennedy in order to determine whether the person in the autopsy materials was indeed John Kennedy. He was, and there was absolutely no evidence of fakery.
The assassination literature of the 1990s was dominated by two themes. First, the medical evidence continued to be analyzed with an eye toward revealing a conspiracy, and second, the famous Zapruder film of the assassination was alleged to have been faked, forged, or altered.
Just as the Warren Commission had offered its account in 1964, and the House Select Committee on Assassinations produced its own review in the late 1970s, another government entity jumped into the fray in the 1990s. The Assassination Records Review Board was charged not with determining whether a conspiracy killed Kennedy, but merely with the task of overseeing the release of remaining government records relevant to the assassination. In principle, any government agency with any records relevant to the assassination was required to release them unless the Board, made up of historians and archivists, agreed there were good reasons to withhold them. The Board often required a document to be released, but with “redactions” – the blacking out of names, sources, and sometimes entire paragraphs (ARRB, 1998).
The project turned up no “smoking gun” indicating a conspiracy, but rather a good deal of material that conspiracy authors deemed suspicious or questionable, and possibly indicating some sort of conspiratorial reality underlying the events surrounding the assassination.
Many of the witnesses, when confronted with the autopsy photos and x-rays, declared that what they were seeing was at odds with what they remembered from November 22, 1963.
One particularly important area investigated by the Board was the medical evidence. A staffer named Douglas Horne was a disciple of author David Lifton, who believed the extant autopsy photos and x-rays were faked or forged. The Board interviewed several witnesses to Kennedy’s treatment in the emergency room of Parkland Hospital and to his autopsy at Bethesda. Many of the witnesses, when confronted with the autopsy photos and x-rays, declared that what they were seeing was at odds with what they remembered from November 22, 1963.
There are two conflicting interpretations of this testimony. One was offered by Dr. Jeremy Gunn, executive director and general counsel of the Board. He told an audience at Stanford that:
The last thing I wanted to mention, just in terms of how we understand the evidence and how we deal with what we have is what I will call the profound, underscore, profound unreliability of eyewitness testimony. You just cannot believe it. And I can tell you something else that is even worse than eyewitness testimony and that is 35 year old eyewitness testimony.
I have taken the depositions of several people who were involved in phases of the Kennedy assassination, all the doctors who performed the autopsy of President Kennedy and people who witnessed various things and they are profoundly unreliable (Fair Play).
Gunn’s interpretation was also incorporated in the Final Report of the Board:
The deposition transcripts and other medical evidence that were released by the Review Board should be evaluated cautiously by the public. Often the witnesses contradict not only each other, but sometimes themselves. For events that transpired almost 35 years ago, all persons are likely to have failures of memory. It would be more prudent to weigh all of the evidence, with due concern for human error, rather than take single statements as “proof” for one theory or another (ARRB, 1998. p. 124)
Horne, in contrast, believed the testimony proved that the autopsy photos and x-rays were forged, and that there were two separate post-autopsy examinations of Kennedy’s brain: one of the president’s real brain (which showed a conspiracy), and another of a substituted brain (which did not). Horne’s theories are detailed in his five-volume work, Inside the Assassination Records Review Board, published in 2009.
Central to the post-1990, post-ARRB debate on the assassination has been James Fetzer, formerly a professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota in Duluth (and recent proponent of 9/11 U.S. government conspiracy theories). Fetzer edited three volumes of essays by various authors (1998, 2000, and 2003), making a variety of conspiracy claims, but heavily centered on the ideas that the Zapruder film had been altered, and that the autopsy photos and x-rays had been faked, forged or tampered with. (Interestingly, the Assassination Records Review Board, aware that the authenticity of the Zapruder film was an issue, retained long-time Kodak scientist Roland Zavada to examine it, as the film was shot on Kodak stock. Zavada concluded the film was authentic.)
Their general methodology involved looking for things they found puzzling or didn’t understand in the materials, and concluding that those items constituted evidence of fakery. This methodology has an interesting implication: the less competent one is, the more evidence of fakery one can find.
In spite of the subtitle of his 1998 work Assassination Science: the Experts Speak Out, none of his authors addressing technical subjects had any credentials or professional standing in the areas in which they wrote. Their general methodology involved looking for things they found puzzling or didn’t understand in the materials, and concluding that those items constituted evidence of fakery. This methodology has an interesting implication: the less competent one is, the more evidence of fakery one can find.
General works holding that Oswald was the lone assassin are much less numerous than volumes supporting a conspiracy theory, but there have been several. Some were published in the 1960s, but they generally added little to the case that the Warren Commission made against Oswald as the lone assassin.
The most useful general works contesting conspiracy theories are Gerald Posner’s Case Closed (1993) and Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History (2007). Of the two, the Posner book is by far the more readable. It offers a well-crafted defense of the lone-assassin theory and refutation of conspiracy theories – at least as they existed in 1993. The Bugliosi book is huge, totaling 1,648 pages, augmented by still more material in an accompanying CD. It contains a very large amount of material debunking not only prominent conspiracy theories but also quite marginal ones. Bugliosi’s tone in dealing with conspiracy theorists is rather harsh, and perhaps a bit off-putting. Nevertheless, the book is essential for any collection of JFK assassination books, perhaps more as a reference volume than as a narrative account.
None of the aforementioned works primarily makes a case against a particular group or groups in a JFK conspiracy, limiting themselves merely to arguing for some conspiracy (on the basis of, say, four shots in Dealey Plaza or alteration of the photographic evidence), or presenting evidence against a wide variety of different groups. But some volumes do “name names” and implicate a particular group or individual.
One popular target is the Mafia, and figures like Carlos Marcello (Mafia boss in New Orleans) and Santos Trafficante (Mafia boss in Tampa) are frequent suspects. Important volumes in this genre are David Scheim’s Contract on America (1988) and John Davis’ Mafia Kingfish (1989).
Another variation on the theme of a Mafia conspiracy is David Kaiser’s The Road to Dallas (2088). Unlike most conspiracy authors, Kaiser believes that Oswald shot Kennedy, but that he did it at the behest of the Mafia, anti-Castro Cubans, and right-wing political forces. In spite of his good credentials as a mainstream historian, and his sensible treatment of several issues, Kaiser falls into the trap common among conspiracy authors: acceptance of grossly unreliable witnesses that support his theory. For example, he uses the testimony of John Wilson-Hudson to tie Jack Ruby (who shot Oswald in the basement of Dallas police headquarters two days after the Kennedy assassination) to Tampa mob boss Santo Trafficante. Wilson-Hudson claimed to have seen Ruby visiting Trafficante in Cuba’s Trescornia prison – the sole witness to make such a claim. But the CIA had judged Wilson-Hudson “mentally unbalanced” and “likely [to] be [a] psychopath.” (McAdams, 2008). These assessments are from years before the assassination, when the Agency would have had no JFK related reason to try to discredit this witness.
Kaiser also ties Jack Ruby to gun-running plots using the testimony of John Elrod, who claimed to have been Lee Oswald’s cellmate in the Dallas Police lockup. In reality, Oswald, the prisoner of the century, was held in a solitary block of three cells, isolated from every other prisoner, and under constant watch.
It is difficult to pick out one or a few books that blame the CIA, since a majority of conspiracy books implicate the Agency to some extent. But Mark Lane’s Last Word: My Indictment of the CIA in the Murder of JFK (2011) is as good a volume as any to get an overview of this line of argument. A very different volume that includes the CIA among the conspirators but offers a much bigger, grander vision of covert forces shaping history is L. Fletcher Prouty’s JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy (1992). Prouty was the model for Oliver Stone’s “Mr. X” character (played by Donald Sutherland) in the movie JFK. Many of the things Mr. X says are verbatim quotes from Prouty. Lyndon Johnson, the most obvious beneficiary of the assassination, naturally is near the top of the list of suspects, usually in the company of his Texas friends and cronies. A recent volume in this genre is Blood, Money & Power: How L.B.J. Killed J.F.K. by Barr McClelland (2003). Craig Zirbel’s The Texas Connection (1991) likewise firmly pins the blame on LBJ. And of course, Oliver Stone’s JFK clearly includes Johnson among his rather extensive circle of conspirators.
It is difficult to pick out one or a few books that blame the CIA, since a majority of conspiracy books implicate the Agency to some extent.
Few authors blame the FBI for actually staging the assassination, but virtually all conspiracy theorists blame the FBI for supposedly covering up a conspiracy, pointing out that the Warren Commission was heavily dependent on the Bureau for investigative work. Some authors claim that the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover knew beforehand that the assassination was imminent and failed to stop it. Mark North’s Act of Treason (1991) is the most important work making that argument.
Since the culture of conspiracy theorists leans to the left politically (although rather idiosyncratically left) books blaming communists are relatively rare. But such volumes do exist. Khrushchev Killed Kennedy, by Michael H. B. Eddowes (1975), is a good example of this rather obscure genre. According to Eddowes, the real Lee Harvey Oswald, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, was replaced by a look-alike Soviet agent who returned to the U.S. in 1962, and eventually assassinated Kennedy. A recent and interesting work implicating a communist government is Brian Latell’s Castro’s Secrets (2012). Latell doesn’t claim that Castro engineered the assassination, but rather that the Cuban dictator knew that Lee Oswald was going to shoot Kennedy, welcomed the assassination, and did nothing to stop it.
How we view Lee Harvey Oswald is an absolutely central issue in this case. For conspiracists, Oswald is pretty much a cipher: a bundle of contradictions whose life was full of spooky and suspicious occurrences that imply covert connections with various security agencies or other sinister groups.
Since the culture of conspiracy theorists leans to the left politically (although rather idiosyncratically left) books blaming communists are relatively rare.
Lone assassination theorists present a much more coherent picture of a man who was a misfit and malcontent, striving for the acknowledgment he thought he deserved, but lacking the human capital to advance through normal means and thus pursuing a series of schemes to achieve recognition. Important works in the genre are Priscilla McMillan’s Marina and Lee (1977), and Jean Davison’s Oswald Game (1983). McMillan’s work is heavily based on extensive interviews with Oswald’s wife Marina, and gives a very detailed account of the trials of a wife living with a husband who beat her, and engaged in a variety of questionable projects, including one terrifying attempt to assassinate right-wing retired General Edwin Walker. There are, of course, large risks in relying too heavily on the testimony of one single witness, but McMillan was knowledgeable about all the sources regarding Oswald’s life.
Jean Davison wrote a detailed portrait of Oswald, and supplied a theory about Oswald’s motivation. Davison suggests that Oswald had gotten wind of U.S. plots against the life of Castro, and shot Kennedy as a self-appointed defender of the Cuban revolution. The theory is speculative (as any theory about Oswald’s motivation must be) but plausible. Among the books mentioned above, both the Warren Commission Report and Posner’s Case Closed have detailed and compelling accounts of Oswald’s life, character and personality.
If Oswald looked like precisely the sort of person who might kill Kennedy as a deranged lone nut, then he was also precisely the right sort of person to be made into a patsy by conspirators.
The picture of Oswald presented by authors like McMillan, Davison and Posner has great psychological force in convincing readers that Oswald was a lone assassin, but ironically, the picture of Oswald presented by such authors is perfectly consistent with conspiracy theories. If Oswald looked like precisely the sort of person who might kill Kennedy as a deranged lone nut, then he was also precisely the right sort of person to be made into a patsy by conspirators. Thus, believing these authors should convince the reader that Oswald could have been the lone assassin, but does little to rule out conspiracy theories.
If Lee Oswald shot Dallas Police officer J.D. Tippit, it is easier to believe that he shot John Kennedy, too. The logic here is far from iron-clad, since some conspiracists believe that Tippit was a conspirator tasked with eliminating the patsy Oswald. More plausible, perhaps, is the notion that Oswald did not shoot Kennedy but inferred he was the designated patsy and killed Tippit to avoid arrest (and nearly certain execution).
Not surprisingly, virtually all conspiracists reject the idea that Oswald shot Tippit, and virtually all general conspiracy books argue that Oswald was framed for the murder. On the other side, Dale Myers’ With Malice (1998) deals exclusively with the Tippit shooting and argues for Oswald’s guilt. This is by far the most detailed and meticulous treatment of the issue.
If the Warren Commission’s version of the assassination required Oswald to be a “lone nut,” it also required Jack Ruby to be a lone nut. Conspiracists reject this interpretation, and see Ruby as having killed Oswald at the behest of conspiratorial forces, typically the Mafia. Most conspiracy books (especially those fingering the Mafia) develop this case at some length, but the most important single volume on this theme is Seth Kantor’s Who was Jack Ruby? (1978). Kantor was a Dallas reporter who actually knew Jack Ruby.
If the Warren Commission’s version of the assassination required Oswald to be a “lone nut,” it also required Jack Ruby to be a lone nut.
A very different view of Ruby comes from Gary Wills and Ovid Demaris in their Jack Ruby (1968). Based on extensive interviews with people who knew Ruby, Wills and Demaris portray him as a hapless, emotional schlemiel who could, in turns, be either extremely compassionate or wantonly brutal. They are firmly in the camp of people who believe that Ruby acted from personal anger, and was not the pawn in any sort of conspiratorial game.
The list of possible motives for a conspiracy to kill Kennedy is quite long, but a prominent one is the idea that Kennedy was killed because he had decided to withdraw American troops from Vietnam, in effect ceding that nation to Communist control. This alleged decision presumably angered a variety of people in American society, including many in government (especially the military and the CIA), and private sector interests that were part of the Military-Industrial Complex. Fletcher Prouty propounds this theme, as does James Douglass in his JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters (2008). Douglass presents Kennedy as a former cold warrior who had begun to reject cold war thinking and seek détente with the Communists, which included withdrawing from Vietnam. Douglass has some difficulty dealing with Kennedy’s very hawkish statements about Vietnam (which extended right up until the day he was shot) and numerous hawkish actions. Kennedy, for example, approved Operation Ranch Hand, which sprayed chemical defoliants over the Vietnamese countryside, and he increased the number of American military advisers in South Vietnam from under 700 when he came into office to over 16,000 by the time he died.
Douglass presents several witnesses who claim that Kennedy had decided to get out of Vietnam, but this testimony all comes from friends or close associates, and it appeared years after Kennedy was assassinated, and after the Vietnam War had fallen into serious disrepute. But in an April 1964 oral history interview, the president’s brother Robert flatly denied that Jack had any intention of pulling out (McAdams, 2009).
Many important historical events have iconic photos associated with them (Iwo Jima and Pearl Harbor, to name just two), but in no other historical event are photos and movies such important evidence of what actually happened. For the Kennedy assassination, the most important example is the Zapruder film. It is included in many video documentaries, and is easily accessible on the Internet, but perhaps the best source for viewing it is the DVD “Image of an Assassination” (MPI Home Video, 1998). Also valuable is Robert Groden’s “JFK: Assassination Files” (2003), which includes not only the Zapruder film but virtually all extant films of the motorcade in Dallas. It also includes various versions of the films: zoomed in, slowed down, and even a bad multi-generation copy of the Zapruder film that researchers relied on for a decade after the shooting before better copies because available.
Many important historical events have iconic photos associated with them (Iwo Jima and Pearl Harbor, to name just two), but in no other historical event are photos and movies such important evidence of what actually happened.
While Groden is a conspiracist, viewers will notice that the three films that show Kennedy being hit in the head (Zapruder, Nix, and Muchmore) show his brain matter being blown upward and forward, contradicting the theory that the back of his head was blown out. Also, sequences from amateur films of the motorcade show John Connally riding well inboard of Kennedy in the limo. This would be a necessary condition for a single bullet to wound both men (the famous single bullet theory) without having to “zig and zag” in mid-air.
Groden also produced The Killing of a President (1993). This large format volume is a treasure trove of photos relevant to various aspects of the assassination, including the motorcade, the autopsy, the medical evidence, and a variety of conspiracy theories. This book has come out in a great many versions and permutations over the years, often with some photos omitted – the result of Groden’s rather casual attitude toward copyright laws. The original 1993 version is well worth finding. Groden’s other large format volume, The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald (1995) is equally fascinating for any assassination buff. It is replete with photos of Oswald, from childhood to autopsy, and of various people who interacted with Oswald. As with his other works, Groden’s claims on various factual issues are unreliable.
High scholarly standards, however, are exemplified by Richard Trask’s Pictures of the Pain (1994). It focuses on photographers (both professional and amateur) who shot photos of Kennedy’s trip to Dallas, and presents not only a good sampling of photos, but very extensive background on the context of the photos. Some of the material decisively debunks certain conspiracist claims, including stories that the rifle recovered in the Depository was a Mauser and not Oswald’s Mannlicher-Carcano, and reports that a bullet was discovered on the infield of Dealey Plaza by various police officers.
The history of the Zapruder film is the subject of David Wrone’s The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination (2003). His fine-grained account of how the film was shot, copied for the Secret Service, sold to Time-Life, and eventually acquired by the U.S. government is valuable as a counter to Zapruder-film alteration theories. The second half of the book offers a conspiratorial account, much in the mold of late conspiracy writer Harold Weisberg.
The concept “science” carries with it several assumptions about scholarly rigor and objectivity, so naturally those writing about the assassination are drawn to the use of “scientific evidence” to shed light on various issues surrounding the assassination. Some issues do turn on hard scientific analysis. The handwriting evidence that tied Oswald to the 6.5 mm. Mannlicher-Carcano that purportedly shot Kennedy is one example. The ballistics evidence that showed that the spent cartridges found in the sniper’s nest matched Oswald’s rifle to the exclusion of all other weapons also fits in this category. In addition, two bullet fragments found in the front seat of the limo after the shooting, as well as the highly controversial Commission Exhibit 399 (which the Warren Commission believed was the single bullet) matched Oswald’ rifle, also to the exclusion of all other weapons. All of this evidence, put on the record by the Warren Commission, was confirmed by independent experts working for the House Select Committee.
But there is, in this case, something we might call “buff forensics” – forensics principles and evidence concocted to reach a particular conclusion.
But there is, in this case, something we might call “buff forensics” – forensics principles and evidence concocted to reach a particular conclusion. Often, this sort of bogus forensics has been produced by conspiracists. The movie JFK, for example, breathlessly explains that Oswald’s rifle, recovered after the shooting, was never tested to see whether it had been fired that day. Unfortunately, no test exists that will determine whether a rifle has been recently fired (Lundquist, 1962, 628).
Sometimes, however, buff forensics has been created by lone assassin theorists. One important volume that includes both solid science and buff forensics is John Lattimer’s Kennedy and Lincoln (1980). Lattimer’s shooting tests showed that a wound like Kennedy’s neck wound can look like an entrance wound when it is shored by something that prevents the exiting bullet from pushing the skin outward until it tears open, producing a nasty-looking “stellate” wound. Apparently, Kennedy’s shirt and tie shored the wound and caused the bullet to punch through leaving a relatively clean hole, looking much like a typical entrance wound. The House Select Committee’s Forensic Pathology Panel accepted Lattimer’s view that the observed throat wound could have been a wound of exit (7 HSCA 95).
Lattimer also set out to explain why Kennedy’s head (and indeed his entire upper torso) lurched back and to the left when the final shot struck him at Zapruder frame 313. Conspiracists have long interpreted this to be the result of a direct transfer of momentum from a shot fired from the grassy knoll. Lattimer claimed, and supported with experiments, the idea that a “jet effect,” wherein the brain matter blown forward from Kennedy’s skull created an equal and opposite reaction, caused this. The problem, of course, is that bullets can’t throw people around. While a bullet from the grassy knoll could not have thrown Kennedy bodily backward and to the left, neither could a jet effect that had, at absolute maximum, the same amount of kinetic energy as the bullet which caused it. The back and to the left movement was almost certainly caused by a neuromuscular spasm (Rockefeller Commission, 1975, 262-263; 1 HSCA 383-427; MythBusters, 2005)
The House Select Committee, which itself did excellent scientific work on several fronts, also produced one important piece of buff forensics. It concluded, on the basis of a recording of a Dallas police radio transmission, that four shots were fired in Dealey Plaza, including one from the grassy knoll. When this finding was subjected to peer review by a blue ribbon panel under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, it was debunked. The impulses that the acoustic scientists thought were gunshots were apparently not, the open microphone which supposedly picked up the shots was not even near Dealey Plaza, and the supposed “shots” actually happened about a minute after the actual shooting in Dealey Plaza (National Academy Press, 1982).
Sometimes a name will pop up in the context of the assassination, and one will want to know who it is and how the person is (supposedly) relevant. One can easily Google any name, but the results can be a morass. In this circumstance, Michael Benson’s volume Who’s Who In The JFK Assassination: An A to Z Encyclopedia (2003) can be invaluable. Entries exist for almost every figure thought to be a suspect, the vast majority of witnesses, and other related figures. Benson lists, for example, all eight of the individuals whom conspiracists have claimed to be among the “three tramps” arrested in the area of Dealey Plaza in the wake of the assassination. It also lists the three people who actually were the tramps.
From the perspective of the history “mainstream,” the JFK assassination is a bit of a scholarly ghetto. Many of the people writing on it are not historians, and among the historians who do write about it, virtually all are niche specialists in the subject. Mainstream biographies of Kennedy virtually all deal with the subject briefly and summarily.
From the perspective of the history “mainstream,” the JFK assassination is a bit of a scholarly ghetto.
Partly, this appears to be because most scholars accept the claim that Oswald was the lone shooter. In this telling, the assassination becomes a random event — one with important consequences, to be sure, but not one with causes that evoke the drama and importance claimed by conspiracists. Further, historians are often interested in broad subjects, such as the nature of presidential leadership, how presidents affect the political culture and outlook of the nation, and such. Many are simply not inclined to get “down in the weeds” and deal with the minutiae that constitute the case against Oswald, and indeed the case for conspiracy.
Robert Dallek, for example, flatly states that “Oswald fired three shots from the sixth-floor window of the Depository building . . . .” (2003, 694). He labels Gerald Posner’s book Case Closed as “authoritative,” and believes that “none of the conspiracy theorists have been able to offer convincing evidence of their suspicions . . . .” (2003, 699).
Michael O’Brien, while not fingering Oswald, adopts the Warren Commission’s shooting scenario (with three bullets) and further accepts its description of Kennedy’s torso wound in his very brief treatment (2005, 903-904). Richard Reeves is downright cryptic. He says only “[a]t approximately 12:30 (CST) he [Kennedy] was struck by two bullets fired by an assassin” (1993, 662). That Kennedy was hit by two of the three bullets fired is consistent with the lone assassin scenario, as is his use of “assassin” (singular).
Herbert Parmet devotes considerably more space to the subject, and gives an account of various conspiracy theories, but concludes that “[a]lthough two decades have passed, there is still no tangible evidence that demonstrates that, however flawed the Warren Commission’s investigation may have been, its conclusion was wrong” (1983, 343-349).
James N. Giglio is rather an exception here, dealing with the issue at length, and giving a sympathetic account of various conspiracy arguments (1991, 277-281). He concludes that “the available evidence favors a conspiracy,” but adds that “it would be difficult – if not foolhardy – to define its specific nature” (280).
Predictably, the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination in 2013 brought forth a large number of volumes. Most rehashed old theories, or presented testimony of somewhat marginal witnesses. Two significant volumes, however, came from people with good mainstream credentials – Larry Sabato (University of Virginia political scientist) and Philip Shenon (former New York Times investigative reporter).
Predictably, the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination in 2013 brought forth a large number of volumes. Most rehashed old theories, or presented testimony of somewhat marginal witnesses.
Sabato’s book – The Kennedy Half-Century (2013) – is about much besides the assassination, but his several chapters on the assassination are a good, balanced primer on the issue. Sabato believes that Oswald shot Kennedy (and also Officer Tippit), but presents evidence (which he doesn’t claim to be terribly strong) that others may have conspired with Oswald. Sabato’s judgment on the large issues is quite sound, but he does accept some conspiracy-book factoids.
Shenon’s book (A Cruel and Shocking Act ) is critical of the Federal agencies connected to the assassination, and of the Warren Commission itself, although like Sabato, he believes Oswald shot Kennedy (but was perhaps egged on by Cuban Communists). Generally balanced and informative, the book is sometimes unfair – claiming that the FBI somehow should have known that Oswald was potentially violent and warned the Secret Service, for example.
The JFK assassination is peculiar among historical events in that a very large number of primary sources are available online on websites that allow searching for particular text. The real treasure trove of such resources is found in the Mary Ferrell Archive (http://www.maryferrell.org/). The secondary articles on this site have a strong conspiracy bias, but the primary sources are invaluable. The site contains all 26 volumes of Warren Commission exhibits and testimony, and all twelve appendix volumes of the House Select Committee. Added to this is a very large collection of CIA and FBI files, files from the Garrison investigation and the Assassination Records Review Board, and much else. One has to pay to fully access this archive (limited access is free), but the cost is well worth it. Any educational institution can buy an institutional membership for a reasonable price. Other less extensive (but often very useful) archives can be found at Hood College (The Harold Weisberg Archive, http://jfk.hood.edu/), and Baylor University (http://www.baylor.edu/lib/poage/jfk/), which has materials from many researchers).
The most comprehensive repository of assassination-related documents exists at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland (http://www.archives.gov/research/jfk/search.html). While the National Archives has digitized only a tiny proportion it its massive collection of assassination documents, the vast majority of these materials have digital Record Information Forms (RIFs), and these forms can be searched in various ways (keyword, date, originating agency, etc.) With the RIF, any document can be ordered from the Archives. While, for the professional historian, this is no substitute for sitting in the Reading Room of the Archives and going through documents (or often, reference copies) box by box, it’s a good way to start even a scholarly project, and typically more than adequate for a student paper.
For an historian used to reading mostly reliable monographs on non-controversial subjects, or indeed volumes taking one side of an historical debate obscure to the American public, the literature on the JFK assassination can seem like a cross between an insane asylum and a carnival sideshow. Large issues and strong emotions are involved. Many conspiracists believe that the U.S. government was hijacked by a coup d’état on November 22, 1963, a coup which a massive array of powerful forces in American life have continued to cover up. Some lone assassin theorists accuse conspiracists of undermining the foundations of the Republic with their irresponsible conspiracy theories. Genuine unanswered questions and difficult judgments in interpreting sources exist alongside theories that virtually all historians would find absurd.
For an historian used to reading mostly reliable monographs on non-controversial subjects . . . the literature on the JFK assassination can seem like a cross between an insane asylum and a carnival sideshow.
For the historian as researcher, the opportunities for further investigation are limited. Virtually all the relevant documents have been released. Virtually all witnesses have been interviewed, and any testimony from witnesses that differs from previous testimony – or any testimony from newly appearing “witnesses” (many of whom are questionable) – would be highly suspect. The case for Oswald as a lone shooter has been ably laid out, and essentially all the conspiracy theories with any modicum of plausibility have been proposed.
However, for the historian as teacher, this is a fertile field. In the first place, getting students to think it important is an “easy sell.” Secondly, the issues that arise in all historical inquiry are present here, but often in very sharply etched form. A lot of witness testimony is available, and witnesses often contradict other witnesses (as well as hard evidence, such as the Zapruder film). Bureaucratic documents relevant to the case are numerous and readily available. There are multiple possible interpretations of any known fact, as well as plenty of room for debate as to what is a fact. Some evidence is more reliable than other evidence, and some ways of explaining the evidence more plausible than other ways. Opportunities for debate, discussion and analysis abound. This writer’s own recent volume (2011) takes this approach.
The fact that the assassination is an iconic part of American culture has been a bane for research, as theories have often been the result of the social biases of the researcher. Further, incentives to come up with a new interpretation, theory or “spin” on the data are large. Beyond a certain point, this begins to muddy the water badly.
But this same iconic status is a massive advantage in teaching, and ought to be leveraged whenever appropriate.
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Benson, Michael. Who’s Who in the JFK Assassination: An A-to-Z Encyclopedia. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Pub. Group, 1993.
Brener, Milton. The Garrison Case: A study in the abuse of Power. New York: C. N. Potter, 1969.
Buchanan, Thomas G. Who Killed Kennedy?. New York: Putnam, 1964.
Bugliosi, Vincent. Reclaiming History: the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007.
Commission on CIA Activities. Report to the President. New York: Manor, 1975.
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Davis, John H. Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989.
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DiEugenio, James. Destiny Betrayed: JFK, Cuba, and the Garrison Case. 2nd ed. New York: Skyhorse, 2012.
Douglass, James W. JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008.
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Epstein, Edward J. Inquest: the Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth. New York: Viking. 1966.
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McKnight, Gerald. Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 2005.
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Wrone, David R. The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK's Assassination. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.
Zirbel, Craig. The Texas Connection: the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Scottsdale, Texas Connection, 1991.
 Buchanan, although living in Europe, was an expatriate American.
 An arguable exception to this generalization is the House Select Committee’s “acoustic evidence,” which will be discussed below.
 Of course, for some documents the text is unclear, and the OCR is therefore poor, and thus the search function is less effective.
 Indeed every individual can get up to 100 pages of documents for free.
 An arguable exception is documents that journalist Jefferson Morley is attempting to get from the CIA. See: http://whowhatwhy.org/2016/02/04/breaking-news-list-of-withheld-jfk-assassination-documents/