An Access Advertising EconBrief:
On the 50th Anniversary, Should We Believe In a Kennedy Assassination ‘Conspiracy’?
As November 22, 2013 came and went Americans were deluged with replays, reminiscences and reinvestigations of the Kennedy assassination. The file on America’s most celebrated murder has never gone cold, even after fifty years. Although nobody was ever tried, let alone convicted, of the crime, the identity of the perpetrator is not the burning unresolved issue. The question is: Did he act alone or as part of a conspiracy?
For decades, the American consensus has remained solid. Since 1967, polls have continually recorded a majority of respondents voting for conspiracy. The affirmative side has crested as high as 80%; it is currently at low tide at just over 60%.
The intellectual Establishment, consisting of mainstream liberalism and the print and broadcast elite, is even more firmly convinced. It has closed ranks against the conspiracy hypothesis. That party line has been summarized by author Gerald Posner in his 1995 book, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing President John F. Kennedy. In this view, conspiracy proponents willfully ignore reality.
As might be expected, the version of this refrain offered in “JFK, 50 Years On,” a sidebar in the current issue of the prestigious British weekly The Economist, is notable for its hauteur. “…The various alternative theories: that [Kennedy] fell victim to multiple gunmen, elaborate plots involving the CIA, the Mafia and who knows what other shadowy groups…have [been] painstakingly debunked…The ‘magic bullet’, modern ballistics show, behaved normally. Nothing interesting happened on the grassy knoll. And the idea that Dallas, the ‘city of hate,’ was somehow collectively to blame, is absurd… Yet still the conspiracy theories live on…” In other words, no issues of fact remain unresolved. Only one rational conclusion is open to us.
The Economist would have us believe that 61% of the American public is off its rocker. Anniversaries are traditional times for stock-taking, so why not step back and survey the panorama of evidence?
What’s in a Conspiracy?
The abuse of language may be the most unfavorable trend underway in modern-day society. The word “conspiracy” means only the conjunction of one or more people met to contemplate commission of a crime or wrongful act, but its connotations have come to include secrecy, power and authority. The term “conspiracy theory” has acquired a pejorative cast, drenched with improbability, complication and covert motive.
The lurid manifestations of Kennedy conspiracy have assembled rotating casts of conspirators in wildly varying scenarios. Their only common factor has been multiple individuals striving to kill the President. In the days immediately following the assassination, the most popular scenario involved a KGB plot to kill JFK. The visceral logic behind this reaction was that the Russians were our implacable Cold War enemy and might well hope to benefit from the confusion and dislocation of an assassination. This is now the least popular of all conspiracy theories, probably owing to the absence of any discernible attempt by Soviet Russia to capitalize on the crime.
Lee Harvey Oswald had hardly been pronounced dead from the gunshots fired by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby when left-wing attorney Mark Lane emerged as the primary ventilator of conspiracy hypotheses. The gravamen of his charges was that Oswald was an innocent man being railroaded by a manipulated justice system looking for a fall guy. Lane hinted at dark, sinister forces lurking in shadows, pulling strings. When the Warren Commission was appointed by President Johnson to investigate the investigation into the President’s murder, Lane was the only outsider invited to testify.
Mark Lane played the role of ambulance-chaser in the Kennedy assassination. He established himself in the role of professional skeptic within days of the murder, rounding up every witness whose testimony cast doubt on the accepted version of events and presenting their evidence in the most conspiratorial light possible. Following the release of the Warren Commission’s report in September, 1964, Lane published a book (Rush to Judgment) criticizing both the Commission’s methods and its final product. He also became instrumental in promoting alternative assassination scenarios, such as one in which the perpetrators were right-wing oil plutocrats and rogue elements of the CIA. A movie (Executive Action) starring front-rank Hollywood stars Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan propounded this thesis.
Lane sounded the keynote for the steady flow of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories over the last 50 years – books and movies taking a left-wing conspiracy line toward the Kennedy assassination. Most of them have begun by exposing the shortcomings of the Warren Commission and its investigation. The most important taxonomic distinction separating them has been their attitude toward John F. Kennedy and his administration.
Early theories tended to accept the sanitized, even hagiographic, portrayal of Kennedy in vogue immediately after the assassination. Jacqueline Kennedy’s invocation of Camelot as a metaphor for her husband’s tenure struck a sympathetic chord with public and press, and pro-Kennedy conspiracy theories depicted him as the innocent victim of evil forces. Malefactors included Texas oil men (H.L. Hunt was a recurring cast member), renegade CIA men (ironically, onetime CIA head Allan Dulles was often fingered despite his membership on the Warren Commission; after Watergate, E. Howard Hunt eventually replaced Dulles as the renegade of choice) and a host of lower-level figures in the government national-security, military and espionage bureaucracy. Perhaps the most popular motive for murder was Kennedy’s purported intention to reverse policy by ending U.S. military involvement in South Vietnam, thereby thwarting the intentions of the CIA and the military-industrial complex.
In the mid-1970s, however, unsavory details about the Kennedy Administration’s activities – ranging from election fraud and bribery to complicity in the assassination of North Vietnamese Premier Diem to recruitment of Mafia figures to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro – emerged and changed the structure of Kennedy assassination theories without affecting their basic conspiratorial nature. Since a traditional homicide investigation begins by seeking suspects who possess “motive, means and opportunity” to commit the crime, revisionist conspiracy theories sought more plausible perpetrators than disgruntled oil executives who feared suspension of the oil-depletion allowance. Now a whole roster of characters with full-blooded motives for murder stepped onto the stage.
The Mafia wanted Kennedy dead because he and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, had doublecrossed the Mob. They had received Mafia help in getting elected and half-hearted Mafia aid in efforts to kill Castro, but repaid the Mob by redoubling government efforts to jail them. Castro wanted Kennedy dead for reasons of self-defense and/or revenge, because Kennedy was trying to kill him. (“U.S. leaders should think that if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe,” Castro was quoted as saying by the Associated Press on September 8, 1963.) Lyndon Johnson wanted Kennedy dead because the Kennedy Administration was launching a full-scale investigation of Johnson’s self-dealing activities. These particularly included his acquisition of lucrative local broadcast-station monopolies in Texas, as well as other fraudulent and criminal acts. Johnson’s political career and reputation were teetering on the brink of destruction; only rapid elevation to the Presidency could save him.
The problem with all the resulting theories was not in coming up a person or persons who might have a plausible motive for desiring Kennedy’s death. The problem was actually building a chain of evidence that could convict them, either literally or figuratively. Time after time after time, superficially reasonable hypotheses fell apart upon close examination or investigation. Again and again, individuals actually confessed to the crime or complicity in it – only to have their stories discredited by meticulous investigators.
Meanwhile, some of the most implausible details in the conventional narrative, notably the single-bullet hypothesis as an explanation of wounds suffered by both Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connolly, acquired credibility over time thanks to extensive testing by ballistics experts and researchers.
As popular forms of conspiracy theories gradually lost cachet and credibility, the theories became more convoluted and esoteric. The apex in this trend was surely reached with the publication of Matrix for Assassination: The JFK Conspiracy in 2009. In the course of nearly 400 soft-covered pages, author Richard Gilbride develops a conspiracy theory so far-reaching that it envelops Nazi super-weapons developed near the end of World War II, alien landings at Roswell, New Mexico and the murders of Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe and noted gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. The book names those people directly involved in the Conspiracy itself; they include members of the Mafia, the Dallas Police Department, the FBI, the CIA, the Military and the “World Elite;” it also includes inhabitants of Dallas, New Orleans and the state of Texas at large and Cuba. The list of names exceeds 150 (!). An even larger list of names is provided of those participating in the Coverup. And readers whose initial reaction is hilarity should be warned that this document is presented with a straight face and surprising confidence – considering that the basic hypothesis is preposterous on its face.
The Kennedy assassination has become America’s real-life version of daytime soap opera, with increasingly outré plot twists required to hold our attention. The words “conspiracy theory” have entered the national vocabulary as a figure of speech used to characterize a tenuous hold on reality. Given this, is The Economist right to look down its editorial nose at our stubborn refusal to accept the conventional narrative? Is the conspiracy consensus irrational?
Famous Believers in Conspiracy Theory
The foregoing narrative history of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory is not a proud chronicle of intellectual triumph. Thus, it may come as a shock to learn that adherents to conspiracy theory have not all worn tinfoil hats and drunk tainted Kool Aid. The lineup of conspiracists is both celebrated and distinguished, including many of the principal players in the Kennedy assassination drama.
Jacqueline Kennedy, the President’s widow, did not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the President. It seems that she assumed from the outset that multiple perpetrators were behind the assassination. When offered the opportunity to remove her blood- and brain-soaked garments soon after the assassination, she declined by replying, “No. Let them [sic] see what they have done.” Apparently her prime suspect as leader of the plot was Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, someone she disliked even more than had her husband.
Johnson himself is on record as stating his belief that Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy. “He tried to get to Castro and Castro got to him instead,” Johnson insisted in a confidential interview.
Johnson was not alone in fingering Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro as the mastermind behind the Kennedy assassination. The U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Thomas Mann, immediately told local CIA station chief Winfield Scott after the assassination that Castro was the likely instigator. Castro’s impetuous personality and Oswald’s suspicious visit to the Cuban embassy in Mexico City a few months before the assassination were the main grounds for Mann’s suspicions, but others emerged soon after the murder occurred. Mann received information about payoffs to Oswald by the Cuban government and about recorded telephone conversations between Cuba’s president and its ambassador to Mexico in which Oswald’s name came up. When an FBI supervisor was sent to Mexico to investigate Mann’s discoveries, both Mann and the supervisor became convinced that the investigation was being sabotaged in order to prevent the truth about Oswald’s trip to Mexico from coming out. The apparent reason for this sabotage was to deflect possible calls for war against Cuba, which might lead to nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union.
The most prominent conspiracy believer of all was Robert Kennedy, the slain President’s brother and Attorney General, later to become Senator from New York. His son has recently revealed RFK’s refusal to accept Oswald as lone assassin. Numerous sources have recounted the devastating effect produced on RFK by the assassination, noting particularly the apparent guilt felt by the Attorney General. Two likely sources for this guilt suggest themselves. RFK may have suspected the Mafia of killing his brother in retaliation for his (RFK)’s relentless pursuit of the Mob despite the Mafia’s cooperation with the Kennedy Administration in hatching and executing plots to kill Castro. Another possibility is RFK’s guilt at having encouraged his brother to assassinate Castro, only to watch him pay the price when Castro survived the plots and retaliated by launching a successful one against JFK.
Still another distinguished adherent of conspiracy was Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, a member of the Warren Commission. When the time came to file the Warren Commission’s final report, Russell showed up at the Commission meeting with a written dissent in hand. Earl Warren insisted that the Commission’s ultimate report should be the unanimous product of its members. Eventually, enough modifications and other hedges were made in the majority report to satisfy Russell’s conscience and the Warren Commission’s report was issued unanimously. But Russell’s long-hidden written dissent survives. Russell did not see a clear-cut case against any individual or group in the assassination, but he did not believe that the Warren Commission had made the case for a lone assassin beyond a reasonable doubt.
The One Undisputable Conspiracy
There is one conspiracy that fifty years of research, leaks and confessions have indisputably established. That is the conspiracy to hide the truth from the American public. This has been a conspiracy of information rather one of physical deeds. It is a conspiracy of investigation rather than assassination. It is important to distinguish this conspiracy from the various conspiracy theories referred to above. The existence of the conspiracy of investigation has no necessary connection with any conspiracy of assassination. That is, the actions of powerful people to prevent us from learning various facts relating to the assassination do not definitely prove that Oswald did not act alone, nor do they definitely establish the presence of a second shooter in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963. What this conspiracy does show, though, is the underlying grounds for American belief in a JFK assassination conspiracy.
The clinching proof of the investigative conspiracy comes with the recent publication of A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination, the inside story of the Warren Commission’s work by reporter Philip Shenon of The New York Times. Shenon was exhorted to tell this story by surviving members of the Warren Commission’s staff of young investigative lawyers. From Shenon, we learn that:
The Warren Commission members delegated virtually all investigative duties to their staff of young lawyers. According to some staffers, this meant that Warren Commission members were not well versed in the details of the case, and could not stay in close touch with it.
The Warren Commission members were prevented by Earl Warren from seeing the autopsy photos and films. Proof of a second shooter would establish a conspiracy. Results of the President’s autopsy are crucial to establish presence or absence of this proof. Recently, testimony by doctors at the autopsy has raised the possibility that bullet fragments were present in the President’s brain. These would indicate the likelihood of an explosive bullet, unlike the ones used in Oswald’s Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. The entry wound from a rear-entry shot to Kennedy’s head could be consistent with a bullet from Oswald’s rifle – or, alternatively, with one from a different rifle. These are the sorts of evaluations that make the autopsy photos and results vital to investigators.
But the autopsy photos and results were never shown to member of the Warren Commission; instead, Commission members were shown drawings intended to convey the same basic information. This decision was made by Earl Warren; an action for which “I take full responsibility,” as he put it. It was made over the strong objections of staff lawyers such as David Belin and Arlen Specter. Warren cited the gruesome nature of the photos and the adverse effect their release would have on the Kennedy family and the nation. Belin was “offended that the chief justice seemed more determined to protect the Kennedy family’s privacy than to allow the Commission’s staff to have access to vital medical evidence.” According to Shenon, Belin felt that the Kennedys “were being treated as if ‘they were some sort of an elite, similar to the nobility of an eighteenth-century European monarchy.’” Belin pointed out that there was no similar censorship privilege over autopsy photos given to Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit’s widow.
Warren gave the autopsy photos to Robert Kennedy. Earl Warren, a longtime Democratic governor and leading figure in the party, was a wholehearted admirer of President Kennedy. At this temporal remove, we cannot determine if his action was taken out of delicacy – or out of fear for what careful examination of the autopsy photos would show.
The original autopsy notes and original draft of the autopsy report were burned by the military pathologist in charge of the autopsy on the night of the autopsy. He said that his decision was influenced by the President’s blood staining the documents, which he feared would cause them to fall into “the hands of ghouls.” He later admitted that this decision was a mistake. the same pathologist also ordered the sheets covering the President’s body removed and laundered upon presentation of the President’s corpse at the autopsy. This precluded study of the sheets for investigatory purposes. All of the pathologists appointed to conduct the autopsy were relatively inexperienced Navy surgeons, rather than top-rank forensic pathologists.
The Warren Commission received a tip from a highly placed source in government (the state attorney general of Texas) that Lee Harvey Oswald had been a paid informant for the FBI. In a deposition to the Warren Commission, J. Edgar Hoover denied this. The problem with this denial was explained to the Commission by one of its members, former CIA head Allen Dulles. Hoover, he pointed out, was accountable only to the President. He would not feel compelled to admit to the Warren Commission anything that he (Hoover) felt would compromise national security or national welfare. Publicly, Hoover strongly denied that the FBI had been delinquent in its duty by failing to pay special attention to Oswald prior to Kennedy’s visit to Dallas. But privately, declassified FBI files show, Hoover considered FBI performance shoddy and reprimanded some 17 FBI agents and supervisors for failure to flag Oswald as a security risk.
Lee Harvey Oswald advertised his intention to kill President Kennedy to the FBI, the Soviet embassy and the Cuban embassy. Oswald’s handwritten threat to kill the President was shredded and flushed by FBI agents after the fact, apparently to avoid having to reveal it to J. Edgar Hoover. Educated conjecture is that Soviet officials considered Oswald a crank and ignored his threats. The reaction of Cuban officials is much less certain.
On the night of, and the night after, the assassination, Oswald’s wife and mother burned photographic evidence that might have pointed to his guilt or complicity. Neither the FBI nor the Dallas police forestalled these actions. The photographs showed Oswald holding a rifle and bearing a holstered pistol.
The CIA concealed information from the Warren Commission concerned Oswald’s trip to Mexico City and his visits to the Russian and Cuban embassies. Immediately after the assassination, the CIA provided the Secret Service with reports on Oswald’s trip to Mexico City, including details of his visits to the Russian and Cuban embassies. But these reports were never provided to the Warren Commission and the Secret Service declined to forward them, saying that they would have to come from the intelligence agency. Eventually, in the course of obtaining these reports from the CIA, staff lawyers learned that the agency was withholding copious material on Oswald’s actions in Mexico City. The Commission was assured that it had all documents possessed by the CIA, but staff lawyers became increasingly doubtful about the agency’s motivations and honesty.
Earl Warren prevented staff lawyers from interviewing Mexican embassy official and suspected Communist Silvia Duran about her rumored sexual relationship with Oswald. Staff lawyers were furious about being prevented from interviewing Ms. Duran by Warren, who insisted that since she was a Communist, her testimony would be valueless anyway.
In the years since the assassination, various Mexican and Cuban sources have come forward to say that they saw Lee Harvey Oswald at a party in Mexico also attended by Castro sympathizers and Communist operatives. Information has also surfaced linking Oswald with payments made to him by the Cuban embassy, perhaps in response to his promise to kill President Kennedy. This information was apparently known to the CIA but withheld from the Warren Commission. It formed an important part of an exhaustive CIA summary on Oswald prepared by the agency’s Mexico City station in 1968 and recently declassified. Among the many tantalizing tidbits in the document was the revelation that Oswald had been on a CIA “watch list” since his 1959 trip to Russia, despite his almost total anonymity at that point. Among other members of the list were men like Martin Luther King and Hubert Humphrey; all were subject to illegal personal surveillance.
The Rational Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy Theory
The rational view of conspiracy theory in the Kennedy assassination is that the American public has been systematically denied the complete truth. This seems incredible in view of the voluminous expenditure of time, resources and effort on the subject. Yet the record is now clear that officialdom had obscured the truth from the beginning, even if we are not completely sure why they have done so.
It is possible that governments lie to the public for reasons that are, on net balance, salutary. If the conspiracy of silence and/or misdirection in the Kennedy assassination was intended to prevent Americans from forcing war with Cuba and indirectly triggering nuclear war with Soviet Russia, for example, we could not condemn this action out of hand. (We could, however, doubt both its premise and the good faith of its proponents.) Another possible motivation might be to conceal the fact that President Kennedy’s fatal wound came from a Secret Service agent whose attempt to return fire against the sixth floor of the Texas School-Book Depository was aborted by his limousine’s sudden stop and the unintentional discharge of his rifle. Again, this might explain both otherwise-inexplicable physical evidence and the cover-up – or not. The real issue, though, is less the good faith of government than the accuracy of the assassination hypothesis being debated, and that accuracy can only be gauged by scrutiny of evidence and information heretofore unavailable.
The implicit position taken by the mainstream press and intelligentsia is “the only rational position is one that agrees with ours.” This would make sense only if they were in possession of all objective facts pertaining to the case. That is obviously not so. The implicit position taken by the American public is something along the lines of “we cannot be certain that our view is correct because we are pretty sure we don’t know many relevant facts; the fact that information has been concealed from us is evidence of conspiracy, which may or may not pertain to the assassination itself.”
It is particularly ironic that the recent commemorative proceedings revived ancient condemnation of the “paranoid right wing” by political scientists like Richard Hofstadter, because Kennedy conspiracy theories have been the primary province of the left wing. It is the left that has produced the zaniest conspiracy scenarios. Still, it is also the left that has voiced the most stringent criticism of the Warren Commission – criticism that is now vindicated. The mainstream press and foreign commentators like The Economist are shortsighted in focusing only on the unlikelihood of any given assassination theory and overlooking the informational conspiracy that has denied us the full (or fuller) truth. In this case, it is the relatively unsophisticated public that is acting rationally and the media elite that is irrational.