I have been a student of the short lives and terrible deaths of John and Robert Kennedy for many years, at least since my late teens when the Zapruder home movie of the JFK assassination was first shown on national TV. That was 1975, a full 12 years after the event. (Impossible that such a lapse in time between the commission of a crime and the national airing of such key evidence would ever take place today.)
In the years since then, I have recalibrated my opinion of JFK numerous times, particularly in the wake of the sensational and tawdry revelations of his reckless sexual behavior. How, I wondered, could a man who was so admirable in some respects be so fundamentally flawed in others? How did he reconcile his contradictions to himself much less to the others around him? Did he, to cite one egregious example, realize how much he endangered his presidency (and possibly his life) by having a sexual relationship with a woman (Judith Campbell) who was also the mistress of Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana?
At the same time, I have never forgotten his (and his brother Robert’s) handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event which stands in sharper relief, as each year goes by, as the heartstopping moment when we stood at an abyss of our own making, at a precipice to which the logic of the Cold War at its most paranoic height had brought us. For several days, we were closer to catastrophic nuclear war than we had ever been before or have been since. Almost all of JFK’s civilian and military advisers were pressing him hard for an air attack and a sea invasion of Cuba, yet it wasn’t until nearly 30 years later that former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara found out from his Cuban counterparts that the Russian missiles were not only in place but were armed and ready. In addition, he learned that the Russians, far from having just support personnel on the ground, had more than 40,000 troops in place to meet an expected invasion. The conclusion is inescapable that an assault on Cuba would likely have triggered the use of nuclear weapons and an unstoppable escalation toward all-out nuclear war, with appalling and irretrievable consequences for civilization. Literally the only forces standing in the way were John and Robert Kennedy on the one side, Nikita Khrushchev on the other, and a handful of intermediaries who enabled back-channel communications that led to a peaceful resolution of the crisis. I shudder to this day to think how differently things might have turned out had Nixon gotten those 300,000 votes and been sitting instead in the president’s chair in October 1962.
Of course, everyone’s impression of JFK, everone of my generation or older at least, is hugely affected by the gruesome manner of his death 50 years ago, on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas. I have been to Dallas twice (each time with my wife to meet and bring home an adopted child) and on both occasions took the time to visit Dealey Plaza where Kennedy was killed. As with so many occasions in life when one finally sees in person something that was only imagined, I was struck by how small the “killing zone” really was. The distance from the corner where Kennedy’s motorcade took the slow turn from Main onto Elm to the area near the railroad underpass where Kennedy’s life ended with a bullet to the head seemed impossibly short for something so big in its historical effect and its implications.
But I get ahead of myself, because it is precisely the argument about the significance of the JFK assassination, or lack thereof, which has been waged ever since. I have been struck in recent weeks by the re-emergence of a familiar pattern of media coverage about the JFK assassination: the Warren Commission conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone (and that his killer Jack Ruby was similarly unaffiliated) is treated as received wisdom too obvious to belabor and those who don’t believe this are mocked and ridiculed. I watched the other day as a young TV anchor challenged Oliver Stone with an unmistakable smugness as to whether he “really believed” that JFK was killed by “more than one man.” To Stone’s credit he kept his cool in the face of the interviewer’s withering condescension. I came away convinced that this TV “personality,” like so many before her, had spent zero time reading about the assassination and was merely parroting a long-standing and comfortable establishment consensus that dictates that the mere act of questioning the Warren Report is simply “not done,” certainly not in respectable circles.
I have read about, and witnessed, similar periods of media laziness about the JFK assassination: in 1963-64 when the trail of possible conspiracy was hot but almost no one in the American media bothered to follow it; in 1967, when many observers first began to raise serious questions about the evidence; in the period 1975-79 when the momentum of Waterage-era revelations of CIA foreign assassination plots, domestic malfeasance by the FBI, and the national viewing of the Zapruder film, led to a Congressional re-investigation of the JFK and Martin Luther King murders and tentative verdicts of conspiracy in both cases; and in 1992 when Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK” re-energized the assassination debate. In each period, representatives of the government and media establishment roared forth in high dudgeon that “conspiracy-mongers” were distorting history and indulging in fantasies on a par with UFO sightings.
The sad or comical aspect of this 50-year-long tale of blithe establishment dismissal is that it takes very little digging into the historical record to realize that the JFK case is shot through (sorry, no pun intended) with so many unlikely contrivances, so many accumulated coincidences, and so many purposeful or accidental destructions of the evidence that it makes one dizzy with incredulous disbelief. I read one commentator the other day who said that he judges the Kennedy assassination by the law of “Occam’s razor”: the easiest and most plausible solution is that Oswald acted alone. In fact, to anyone who has read even a modicum of the literature on the subject (and I exclude a giant stack of crazy stuff that is indeed on a par with UFO sightings), the idea that Oswald (and Ruby) acted alone is on the other side of Occam’s razor, the side of great unlikelihood.
Consider these “Mount Everests” among the molehills and mountains of JFK assassination evidence:
- Oswald, who allegedly shot at the JFK motorcade from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, was seen by multiple witnesses 15 minutes before and two minutes (!) after the assassination in the second floor lunchroom. In the encounter with a uniformed policeman a mere two minutes after he allegedly killed the president, Oswald was neither obviously winded or rattled, despite the reality that he would have had to hide his weapon and race down four flights of stairs.
- The weapon with which Oswald was alleged to have shot Kennedy twice and Governor Connally of Texas once in a mere six and a half seconds (give or take a second) was a creaky Italian bolt-action rifle of World War II vintage which had a telescopic sight that was so poorly attached and aligned that it had to be realigned and shimmed before it could even be test-fired by investigators.
- In the immediate aftermath of the shots in Dealey Plaza, photographs and witnesses attest that a large number of people rushed up the grassy incline (famous forever afterward as the “grassy knoll”) toward what they believed was the source of at least some of the gunfire. This location was in front of the Kennedy limousine, rather than the Depository building which was behind it.
- Riding in the motorcade car immediately behind the presidential limousine were JFK’s closest friends and White House advisers Kenneth O’Donnell and Dave Powers. Both of them were military veterans and both firmly believed they saw and heard gunfire coming from the grassy knoll. This remarkable testimony emerged in the memoir of the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who recounted hearing it from O’Donnell and Powers at a party in the late ‘60s. When an incredulous O’Neill challenged O’Donnell that O’Donnell had testified to the Warren Commission that he believed all of the shots came from behind, O’Donnell explained that Warren Commission lawyers argued he had to be mistaken and, not wanting to cause more pain to the Kennedy family, he told the Commission staffers what they wanted to hear.
- At least a couple of witnesses, one of them a Dallas County deputy sheriff, testified to the Warren Commission that upon reaching the stockade fence atop the grassy knoll they were confronted by a man who displayed Secret Service credentials and prevented them from going any further, yet the Secret Service has adamantly maintained that there were no agents stationed in Dealey Plaza or left behind when the motorcade rushed to the hospital.
- The Parkland hospital doctors and nurses who attended the moribund JFK universally described him as having a large wound in the back of his head, with cranial bone shattered outward and cerebellum (lower brain) tissue visible through the hole, which would strongly indicate a shot from the front. This wound, according to the testimony of one of the doctors, Robert McClelland, at first went unnoticed by the other doctors busy trying to save Kennedy’s life until McClelland, who was instructed to hold Kennedy’s head, notified the others of the gaping wound that he could feel with his hands. This is jarringly at odds with a seemingly larger wound seen hours later across the top of Kennedy’s head at the autopsy at Bethesda Naval Center in Maryland. And it completely contradicts autopsy photos and X-rays that show no damage to the back of Kennedy’s head whatsoever. These facts, along with others, have given rise to the darkest of speculations but we don’t even need to go down that road to appreciate the significance of the Parkland testimony. Along with the evidence of a rear exit wound in his head was a small wound to this throat that the doctor at a press conference after Kennedy’s death unhesitatingly referred to as an “entrance wound.” Unfortunately, that wound was obliterated because doctors performed a tracheotomy over it while trying to save Kennedy.
- The FBI, after a remarkably brief investigation, released a report in early December 1963 declaring that Oswald had fired three shots, one hitting Kennedy in the back, the second hitting Governor Connally in the back, and the final shot striking Kennedy in the head. The bullet hole in Kennedy’s back wasn’t found until the autopsy at Bethesda and was reported to be about 5-6 inches below his right shoulder. This matched exactly the holes that can be seen in photographs of Kennedy’s shirt and jacket. But then two unexpected developments upended the FBI’s confident conclusions. One was the testimony of Dealey Plaza bystander James Tague who reported being hit by concrete thrown up by an additional, errant bullet. The other was careful study of the Zapruder film, which showed Connally clearly reacting to being hit a mere 1.6 seconds after Kennedy’s reaction to a shot he received in his back (or possibly his throat), too soon for a single shooter. In order to keep the number of shots to three and the number of assassins to one, the Commission was forced to attribute all the wounds to Kennedy and Connally to two bullets, one of which obviously hit Kennedy in the head. Thus was born the “single-bullet” theory which explained that Oswald’s second shot, after he missed with his first, entered Kennedy’s back, came out his throat and then went on to shatter ribs and other bones in Connally. This “magic bullet” was found in almost perfect condition on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital. The first argument against this implausible scenario, driven as it clearly was by a need to fit a predetermined conclusion rather than drawn from the weight of evidence, is that the back wound was lower than its supposed exit from Kennedy’s throat, a physical impossibility. Thus supporters of the Warren Commission have had to argue that the autopsy was inaccurate in its original location of the back wound and that the holes in Kennedy’s jacket and shirt could be attributed to the “bunching up” of his garments as Kennedy waved from his seat to the crowd, despite the fact that no photography or video shows Kennedy’s jacket to be visibly bunched. As for the shirt, Kennedy was a meticulous dresser who wore tailored shirts unlikely to ride up even if his jacket did. The second argument against the single-bullet theory is Governor and Mrs. Connally’s insistence, to their dying days, that they heard the first bullet strike Kennedy and had time to turn around to look at the president and turn back before a shot hit Connally. As anyone who has had the misfortune to have been hit by a bullet can attest, you never hear a shot that hits you, you feel it. Connally, an experienced hunter, says he heard the Kennedy shot, then moments later felt a separate bullet that knocked the wind out of him. This testimony carries great weight and has to be written off, as with so many other inconvenient facts, as mistaken or a conspiracy clearly existed.
- All of the inconvenient facts of the physical evidence pale, though, to one’s reaction on first viewing the Zapruder film and the shot that entered JFK’s head and immediately ended his life. It is intriguing to contemplate that had Abraham Zapruder not shown up that day in Dealey Plaza, the plot to kill JFK (assuming it existed) would never have been suspected or certainly would have been much easier to obfuscate. The Zapruder film undeniably shows, at frame 313, Kennedy being hit in the head and thrown violently against the back of his car seat. The “Occam’s razor” interpretation of this visual evidence is that he was hit by a bullet coming from in front of the limousine. Experienced gunmen and scientists alike will tell you that the law of the conservation of momentum dictates that a body will travel in the direction from which it is hit. Instead, Warren Report supporters have resorted to elaborate, and again implausible, theories about “jet effects” and muscular spasms. Of all the arguments that strike a reasonable observer as insulting to the intelligence, this one insults the most, which is undoubtedly why the Zapruder film was not shown for 12 years after the fact and then only through the determined efforts of photographic researcher Robert Groden, who convinced Geraldo Rivera to devote a portion of “Good Morning America” to letting the American people see the evidence for themselves.
Along with the cascade of big and small anomalies in the physical evidence in the JFK assassination, there is the sheer unlikelihood of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald as portrayed by the Warren Report. The report would have us believe:
- That Oswald, who served as a Marine radar operator at an air base in Japan from which the CIA ran its top-secret U2 spy flights over the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, was able to defect to the Soviet Union (without any visible means of financial support), announce to the American consulate that he wanted to renounce his American citizenship and intended to divulge important military secrets to the enemy, and was then two years later allowed back into the United States without ever being prosecuted. In fact, the CIA said it never even bothered to interrogate (or debrief) him (though there is plenty of subsequent evidence that they did).
- That Oswald was a devoted Communist and Castro supporter, even though much evidence points to his associating with anti-Castro activists, particularly during the three months that he lived in New Orleans in the summer of 1963. In fact, one of the most damning pieces of evidence that to this day has never been explained, is that he stamped on the pro-Castro leaflets he distributed in New Orleans the address of a building that housed former FBI agent Guy Banister, who was a rabid anti-Castroite and known to be working with the CIA in its campaign of sabotage against Cuba. Banister’s secretary has testified to author Anthony Summers among others that she saw Oswald numerous times that summer in conversation with Banister and in the building that housed Banister’s anti-Castro operations.
- That Oswald’s supposed visits to the Russian and Cuban consulates in Mexico City in September 1963, evidence which was so damning in the initial rush to judgment about Oswald’s motive after the assassination, were never recorded on camera even though the CIA was known to be closely spying on and recording events at both consulates at this most perilous height of the Cold War. The CIA has said that its cameras were not working during Oswald’s visits and that audio recordings from inside the consulates were destroyed as a “matter of routine” shortly before the assassination. Yet a memo written by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover a couple of days after the assassination reported to President Johnson that FBI agents in Dallas had listened to CIA audio recordings of “Oswald” from the Mexico City period and concluded that they were not the voice of the man they were then interviewing in Dallas. This memo, like so much else that didn’t fit, was omitted (or never shown) to the Warren investigators.
The “Occam’s razor” interpretation of all of this evidence is that Oswald, or someone purporting to be him in the case of Mexico City, was a low-level intelligence operative who was run into the Soviet Union as part of a “false defector” program. Logic would also dictate that the easiest way to resolve the riddles of New Orleans and Mexico City is that Oswald was being used to further anti-Communist operations against Cuba and the Soviet Union, whether by the CIA, military intelligence, the FBI or all three. One doesn’t have to believe that these organizations were involved in a plot against JFK to believe that their involvement with Oswald, to whatever degree it existed, would lead them to panic after he became the prime suspect in the assassination.
If there are Rosetta Stones in the case for a conspiracy to murder JFK, they would boil down, for me at least, to three pieces of evidence:
- The aforementioned encounters by a civilian witness and by a Dallas deputy sheriff with a fake “Secret Service” agent in the moments after the assassination. I challenge anyone to describe an innocent way to view this incident, rather than as the presence of a potential conspirator in the area where many believed shots came from moments before.
- The “Odio incident,” which the Warren Commission was very concerned to rebut in the waning days of its investigation. In brief, a Dallas resident named Sylvia Odio, whose father was an anti-Castro activist then in prison in Cuba, reluctantly and fearfully testified that she and her sister were visited in late August 1963 by three men, two who professed to be Cubans and one they said was an American identified as “Leon Oswald.” They were purportedly seeking Sylvia Odio’s (and her father’s) support for their anti-Castro efforts and after a short while departed, leaving the sisters frightened and confused by the encounter. What made the story so ominous was Sylvia Odio testifying that one of the Cubans, named “Leopoldo,” called her a couple of days later and asked what she thought of the American. She hesitantly demurred, not knowing what he was getting at. Then “Leopoldo” said that the American was somewhat “crazy” and that the American talked about the need to kill Kennedy and his willingness to do the deed. Sylvia Odio first divulged this story, in private to her therapist and in a letter to her imprisoned father, in the days BEFORE the assassination. Then on the day of the assassination when the sisters saw Oswald on television they recognized him as the American who had visited their home in late August. If one accepts their story, and no investigation, including the Congressional effort in the late 70s, has impeached their credibility, then it is impossible not to surmise that Oswald was being manipulated, whether wittingly or not, by some group or organization to take the blame for the assassination weeks in advance of the event.
- Most important, the murder of Oswald by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby just two days after the assassination reeked of a purposeful silencing of a conspirator who couldn’t be allowed to talk. That impression, widespread around the world immediately afterwards, has only been strengthened by revelations in the years since of Ruby’s long association with Mob elements in Chicago, Dallas and New Orleans and by evidence that he was in telephone contact with criminals who were associated with the Mafia and with Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa in the weeks leading up to the JFK murder. At the risk of overdoing the “Occam’s razor” analogy, the simplest way to view this event is not that Ruby without any help managed to get past police security and shoot Oswald because he wanted to spare Jackie Kennedy the ordeal of returning to Dallas for a trial, the laughable explanation that nevertheless remains the official one. It is that the murder of Oswald was exactly what it appeared to even the dimmest observers the day it occurred: a rubout of an accomplice who could not be allowed to tell authorities what he knew.
As much as I admire Oliver Stone for doing more, with his movie “JFK,” than anybody else to dispel the fog of official denial and obfuscation surrounding the Kennedy assassination, I find it hard to attribute the Kennedy assassination to a large, all-encompassing conspiracy at the highest reaches of government. The most obvious argument against it is, again, Occam’s razor: such a complex conspiracy would necessarily involve many “moving parts” and many people who couldn’t all expect to remain silent for five decades afterward.
But if one separates the motives for the crime from the motives for the coverup, the Kennedy assassination falls into place much more easily. One can quite plausibly imagine a conspiracy involving a small band of Kennedy’s most determined enemies, drawn from the Mafia, who clearly had a motive to eliminate JFK, and CIA agents who were working with the Mafia to eliminate Castro and felt betrayed by events at the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis which they blamed on Kennedy’s “cowardice.” Perhaps these conspirators drew on the services of anti-Castro Cubans who shared their hatred of Kennedy or maybe just on hired guns. One can also easily imagine that influential elements in the military and intelligence establishments might have gotten wind of possible plots against Kennedy in the months and weeks ahead of the assassination and, out of hatred for Kennedy, did less than they might have to warn him. Leaders of the CIA such as Allen Dulles, who was fired by JFK after the Bay of Pigs, and counter-espionage chief James Angleton, openly detested Kennedy. The antipathy between J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI and John and Robert Kennedy is also well documented. Both J. Edgar Hoover, as the head of the investigation into Kennedy’s death, and Allen Dulles, as a leading member of the Warren Commission, were well placed to make sure that no serious investigation of Kennedy’s death occurred.
An amazing historical consensus has begun to emerge in recent years, from conspiracy and no-conspiracy believers alike, that John and Robert Kennedy were, perhaps as early as the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs but certainly no later than the conclusion of the missile crisis, in a state of undeclared war with their own military and intelligence establishments. The Kennedy brothers, ardent Cold Warriors during the 50s, had begun to turn against the logic of the Cold War in the wake of the civilizational close call of the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK declared his intention to withdraw from Vietnam after his re-election. He negotiated an above-ground nuclear testing ban with Soviet Premier Khrushchev and successfully shepherded its passage in Congress. In the last months before his death, he began tentative but real back-channel discussions with Castro toward a rapprochement between the United States and Cuba. And he delivered a “peace speech” at American University in Washington, D.C. in June 1963 that today appears as significant and wise as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Among the statements Kennedy made in that speech:
"What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war."
"Today the expenditure of billions of dollars every year on weapons acquired for the purpose of making sure we never need them is essential to the keeping of peace. But surely the acquisition of such idle stockpiles -- which can only destroy and never create -- is not the only, much less the most efficient, means of assuring peace."
"First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man."
“In the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."
One would have to immerse oneself in understanding the all-enveloping fear and paranoia of the Cold War to understand how threatening these statements were to the “military-industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned about (but did nothing in his presidency to forestall) and which has profited enormously then and since from a state of near-perpetual war. For Kennedy to argue that the Cold War could be settled by compromise and peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union was tantamount, for the U.S. military and intelligence agencies, to treason on the part of the chief executive. Did they collude in his murder? I doubt it. But did they rejoice in his murder? Yes, I believe they did, along with all of Kennedy’s other enemies, including the Mafia and the anti-Castro Cubans.
The conspiracy to cover up the true facts of the JFK assassination proceeded from numerous motives. For Lyndon Johnson, it was the fear that the truth might lead to nuclear war with the Soviets and, as he argued to Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, the deaths of “40 million Americans.” For Robert Kennedy -- who suspected on the day of the assassination that his brother was murdered by a collusion involving the CIA, the Mafia and the anti-Castro Cubans -- it was the guilt that the multifarious plots involving all of those parties in the war he directed against Castro might have facilitated his own brother’s murder. For the FBI and the CIA, it was the institutional instinct for self-preservation in the wake of realizing that their association with Oswald (however malign or exculpatory it might have been) would destroy them if discovered.
Fifty years later, the CIA is still withholding from disclosure more than 1,100 documents related to the Kennedy assassination (a revelation we owe to former Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley who continues to sue the CIA for their release). We should be outraged by that. If Oswald was the lone assassin we have been led to believe, what is the possible reason for withholding these records?
Finally, in assessing John Kennedy after all these years, I am filled with admiration that he saved us from our own worst instincts at our moment of greatest peril -- what wisdom and cool judgment enabled him to face down all of his advisers during the Cuban Missile Crisis? I am troubled and humbled by John Kennedy’s example that no man (or woman) is without contradictions that defy easy explanation. And I grieve for the fact that John Kennedy’s greatest weakness may have been that he fatally underestimated his many enemies.