A History of Assassination Literature
From the Introduction
to Art Simon’s Dangerous Knowledge: The JFK Assassination in Art and Film,
(Endnotes to be added later)
Long before the release of the Warren Report in September
1964, the history of JFK’s assassination was being constructed by the media,
especially the print media. Although occasional questions were raised about the
commission’s procedures, doubts as to the level of involvement of its
celebrated members or concerns about possible links between Lee Harvey Oswald
and agencies of the U.S. government, the vast majority of mainstream news
reports conformed to a story originally circulated by the Associated Press and
United Press International. That story, constructed within an hour of the
assassination, parts of which would remain intact in the official government
version, maintained that three shots were fired at the presidential motorcade,
all three coming from the Texas School Book Depository building to the right and
behind the president and all three fired by a single assassin named Lee Harvey
Oswald. The alleged assassin was apprehended one hour and twenty minutes later
in the Texas Theater. However, the account given in early press releases,
stating that the first shot hit Kennedy, the second hit Governor John Connally,
and the third hit Kennedy again, would be changed in the version offered by the
Warren Commission in September of the following year. Forced to account for one
bullet’s totally missing the motorcade and for the time constraints imposed on
Oswald’s alleged firing by the evidence contained in the Zapruder film, the
commission amended the initial accounts and concluded that one bullet passed
through the bodies of both Kennedy and Connally. This would come to be known as
the magic bullet.
Media attention then quickly shifted for a time from the logistics of the shooting to the background of the alleged assassin. Oswald was labeled a Marxist and a psychopath whose brief residence in the Soviet Union and alleged political affiliations with pro-Castro Cuban organizations were promoted as signs of implicit guilt. In December 1963 and January 1964 the FBI report on its investigation, as well as the work-in-progress of the Warren Commission, were leaked to elements of the mainstream press, and it was duly reported that both official groups were concluding what had so far been put forth as the correct version of events: the lone assassin theory. Time magazine declared that there was “little doubt of Oswald’s guilt,” and in February 1964 Life magazine pictured Oswald on its cover with the tag “Lee Oswald with the weapons he used to kill President Kennedy and Officer Tippit.” Indeed, three months earlier, on the very day that Lyndon Johnson appointed the Warren Commission, Life published in its November 29 issue a photograph taken from the window on the sixth floor of the School Book Depository. Under the photograph, the magazine’s text declared that this was the site from which the assassin had fired the fatal shots. Life seemed in a particularly good position to construct a history of the event, for it had in its possession the best photographic evidence: Abraham Zapruder’s twenty-six seconds of film. The magazine had purchased the film from Zapruder for an estimated $150,000 and thus had exclusive publication rights to it. It had taken only a couple of months for the journalistic community to convict Oswald despite the lack of any thorough or coherent reconstruction of events.
This conviction, however, did not go totally uncontested. Two books released in 1964, Joachim Joesten’s Oswald: Assassin or Fall Guy? and Thomas Buchanan’s Who Killed Kennedy? were the first book-length studies of the case issued prior to the release of the Warren Report. Perhaps more important from the long-range standpoint of commission criticism was a series of articles which began appearing in liberal or left-wing publications during 1965. Vincent Salandria’s articles for the January and March issues of the magazine Liberation raised serious questions about the medical evidence reported by the Warren Commission. Also in March 1965 Harold Feldman’s article “Fifty-Two Witnesses: The Grassy Knoll” appeared in Minority of One. Analyzing eyewitness accounts of the shooting found in the Warren Report’s twenty-six volumes of evidence and testimony, it produced quite a different account of what happened in Dealey Plaza. Witnesses told of shots from in front of the president and of smoke, possibly gunsmoke, rising from an area near the grassy knoll. A year later, also writing in Minority of One, Salandria revealed that the FBI’s departmental investigation had reported, contrary to the commission’s conclusion, that the nonfatal bullet that had struck Kennedy in fact had not exited his body. Within a year, the government’s investigation had been soundly criticized, its investigation made to appear a composite of contradictory reports.
These and other early alternative analyses reveal several crucial aspects of the assassination debates. First, many of the initial counterinquests to critique the government’s version had to rely solely on the government’s published evidence as a source for their own investigatory work. It soon became clear that the massive Warren Report was a text that critics would have to construct and simultaneously deconstruct. The report ran to almost 300,000 words—only a summary of twenty-six volumes containing some 20,000 pages of testimony—yet it was still an incomplete record, its immensity standing as a bulky monument to the elusiveness of historical experience. It thus fell to independent investigators to complete the government’s work. The twenty-six volumes of evidence and testimony had no index until 1966 when Warren Commission critic Sylvia Meagher constructed one, a task that took her over a year. Prior to her work, much of the evidence, especially that which contradicted the commission’s conclusions, was buried in the narrative chaos of the unindexed volumes.
Much of the assassination critics’ early work was thus absorbed in textual analysis of the government’s documents. From this they learned that, of the over four hundred persons present in Dealey Plaza the day of the assassination, only around ninety were asked to give testimony. Their first look at the Zapruder film, as reprinted in Volume 18 of the commission’s exhibits, suggested to them that Kennedy’s head had been thrown violently backwards upon impact of the fatal bullet, a reaction that might point to shots coming from the front rather than the rear of the limousine. Critics further discovered that, as published in Volume 18, the two Zapruder frames immediately following the head wound had been printed out of sequence. That is, frame 315 had been printed as coming before frame 314, thus possibly giving the wrong impression as to which direction the president’s head had moved following impact. These points only begin to hint at the problems uncovered by the first generation of critics, but they suggest the areas of inquiry in which persons without any official investigatory status engaged.
The people doing the digging were not, for the most
part, experienced in working with government records, but ordinary folk who
simply wanted to know what had happened. Perusing the twenty-six volumes, we
found accounts of what was seen and heard in Dealey Plaza mentioned nowhere in
the Warren Report.
The process was slow and laborious, like learning the names and locations of numerous extra on a huge movie set. Though the FBI could easily have made a complete compilation while memories were still fresh, this was not done. Consequently. the historical record was pitifully incomplete.
Motivated by a range of factors—grief, skepticism, confusion—a network of unofficial investigators, journalists, and what would become known as assassination buffs began collecting newspaper articles pertaining to the assassination. As contradictions and complexities grew, so did their research into the case. In a June 1967 article on “The Buffs” for the New Yorker, Calvin Trillin wrote:
By the first week in February , Shirley Martin, a housewife who then lived in Hominy, Oklahoma, had driven to Dallas with her four children to interview witnesses. Lillian Castellano, a Los Angeles book-keeper who thought that reports on the wound indicated that the President must have been hit from the front, had studied a picture of the Dealey Plaza area, discovered what seemed to be a strategically placed storm drain in front of the motorcade, and called that fact to the attention of a local news commentator, The Los Angeles Times, the Warren Commission, and anyone else she could think of who might be investigating what had happened.
Within months, this circuit of critics had privately assumed the
responsibilities of the federal government in a series of independent and
concerted efforts which ultimately resulted in a full-scale attack on the
official account of the president’s death. In the process, the role of author
and interpreter of history became the focus of a protracted struggle. Certainly
this struggle was not new. Certainly individuals—among them, historians and
journalists—had long before constructed historical records outside of or in
conflict with state practices. But rarely had such a debate over issues of
historiography—questions of method or claims to authorship or problems of
interpreting evidence—been waged so publicly, nor had its ideological tenor
been so dramatically demonstrated across a diverse range of public media. The
assassination debates forced into the nation’s headlines the crucial questions
later articulated by Michel Foucault: “what is an author? what are the modes
of existence of this discourse? where does it come from; how is it circulated;
who controls it?
An inquisition into the government’s methodology was an immediate by-product of the earliest independent research. In this category the most notable works were Edward Jay Epstein’s Inquest and Harold Weisberg’s Whitewash. The former, begun as a master’s thesis at Cornell University, conducted a study of the Warren Commission’s procedures and argued convincingly against the image of a thorough and efficient official investigation. A number of mainstream publications were moved to credit Inquest, and their sanctioning of Epstein’s work appeared to signal improving conditions for Warren Commission critics. Yet the mild acceptance of Epstein’s book can probably be attributed to its limited scope. Epstein was, for the most part, content to critique the processes of the commission and did not seek to indict the integrity of its members or argue for any countertheory of assassination. Indeed, in his introduction to Inquest, journalist Richard Rovere commended Epstein for not taking part in the “shabby ‘demonology’” of the other critics who argued that the commission had intentionally suppressed evidence.
Weisberg’s Whitewash can be neatly juxtaposed to Epstein’s book. Weisberg was clearly one of those “demonologists” to whom Rovere referred. Employing the commission’s records against itself, Weisberg argues in this, the first of his many books on the assassination, that Oswald could not have committed the crimes of which he was accused. But, unlike Epstein, Weisberg could find no one to publish his research, no one to confer on it even the look of scholarship. After a fourteen-month period and rejection from sixty-three U.S. publishers, Weisberg produced the book himself, admitting in its preface that the work appeared in “the least desirable of all forms.” He was referring to the typewritten appearance of the manuscript, a form that, however undesirable, aptly characterized the marginalized status of Weisberg’s work.
The alternative voices were indeed marginalized during the two years following the assassination, for despite the development of the buff network and the appearance of articles in left-leaning journals, the overwhelming tendency of the mainstream press was to support the Warren Commission’s conclusions. Support came in many forms. As mentioned, periodicals with a wide circulation hammered home the lone gunman theory months before the Warren Report was released. When the report was released, Life, Newsweek, Time and the New York Times hailed its findings. In its issue of September 28, 1964, the New York Times printed a forty-eight-page supplement carrying the report and subsequently collaborated with two other publishers to issue it in both hard and soft cover. In the introduction to these editions, journalist Harrison Salisbury wrote: “No material question now remains unresolved so far as the death of President Kennedy is concerned. The evidence of Lee Harvey Oswald’s single handed guilt is overwhelming.” In December, the newspaper copublished an edition entitled The Witnesses, a selection of testimony from the commission hearings. For its part, Life turned over editorial space to state authorship in its issue of October 2, 1964, running a story entitled “How the Commission Pieced Together the Evidence—Told by One of Its Members,” Congressman Gerald Ford. Like Salisbury, Ford concluded that the commission’s case was airtight: “there is not a scintilla of credible evidence to suggest a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy. The evidence is clear and overwhelming. Lee Harvey Oswald did it.”
For roughly three years the politics of affirmation held out over the politics of critique. But it is important to note that the historiographic struggle that had been launched, the public debate over the politics of interpretation, was not confined to contest between the mainstream powerhouses of American publishing, in concert with the government, and the occasional leftist muckraker. Rather, the details of the assassination debates permeated every journalistic genre, its subject matter appropriated by a range of specialty publications. The debate over the conduct and findings of JFK’s autopsy was sustained in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the American Journal of Physics. The psychology of the case was considered in such periodicals as Journal of Personality and Psychiatric Quarterly, the latter reporting on the reactions of “emotionally disturbed adolescent females.” Warren Commission procedures and conclusions were analyzed in scores of university law reviews, supermarket tabloids, and local newspapers throughout the country. And the various print media accounts were constantly tracked in Editor & Publisher and Publishers Weekly.
Then in late 1966 and throughout 1967 the public print debate underwent a transformation, a crucial phase in its history characterized by growing public interest in the arguments of the Warren Commission critics. The general acceptance of Epstein’s efforts in Inquest played a role in this, as did the appearance of Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment in 1966. By this time Lane had been on the case for three years, and much of his public exposure (and self-promotion) had come by way of the campus lecture circuit. His book, in essence a defense brief for Lee Harvey Oswald, relied heavily on interviews with eyewitnesses who were either never called before the commission or whose testimony about possible gunmen on the grassy knoll contradicted the evidence privileged by the Warren Report. Though widely criticized by the popular press at the time and subsequently assailed by other critics for its own omissions and contradiction, Lane’s book was enormously influential, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for six consecutive months.
1967 brought the publication of the two most thorough attacks on the commission until that time: Sylvia Meagher’s Accessories After the Fact and Josiah Thompson’s Six Seconds in Dallas. Meagher had been carrying out a sophisticated attack on the commission for several years, primarily in Minority of One, and her book’s merciless refutation of commission findings became a model for subsequent critics. Thompson’s work, much of it devoted to a detailed analysis of the physics and logistics of the shooting in Dealey Plaza, came from a somewhat more inside position. As a consultant for Life, Thompson had access to the magazine’s original print of the Zapruder film as well as to the color transparencies produced from it. Over the course of repeated viewings, he began to construct an alternative theory of assassination. Thompson’s hypothesis of a three-assassin conspiracy found a trace of mainstream acceptance when an excerpt of his book ran as a cover story for the December 2, 1967, Saturday Evening Post. Its cover headline declared: “Major New Study Shows Three Assassins Killed Kennedy.”
The Post’s declaration was perhaps not as daring as it might seem, for at the end of the previous year Life claimed to have had a radical change of opinion. Its cover story for November 25, 1966, called out: “Did Oswald Act Alone? A Matter of Reasonable Doubt.” Life had asked John Connally to review the Zapruder film, and the then-governor of Texas repeated his claim that he and Kennedy, contrary to the commission’s findings, had been hit by separate bullets. The magazine did allow a rebuttal in the same issue from commission member and magic-bullet author Arlen Specter, but the editors now appeared little convinced by his defense of the Warren Report. The article concluded with the magazine suggesting that a “new investigating body should be set up, perhaps at the initiative of Congress.” In fact, Life had planned to undertake new research efforts of its own, and the November 25 issue was to be but the first of a series of investigative reports. Ironically, the editors of Life’s sister publication, Time, chose their issue of the same date to question the efficacy of further assassination probes. Noting “there seems little valid excuse for so dramatic a development as another full-scale inquiry,” Time referred unflatteringly to commission critics as “hawkshaws,” “amateur Sherlocks,” “cocktail party dissenters.” and a “cult of parlor detectives.” The two magazines eventually found common ground, and the planned Life series was killed.
The New York Times began and then aborted its own investigation in late 1966 under the direction of Harrison Salisbury. Permission to travel to North Vietnam to report on the war in Southeast Asia took Salisbury from the assignment, and the project was scrapped by the beginning of 1967. However, the Times saw fit to comment on the emerging skepticism surrounding the Warren Commission’s work. Its remarks warrant a close reading because they aptly characterize a position staked out by elements of the mainstream press at the time. In an editorial headlined “Unanswered Questions,” also from November 25, 1966, the paper commented:
There are enough solid doubts of thoughtful citizens, among the shrill attacks on the Warren Commission, now to require answers. Further dignified silence, or merely more denials by the commission or its staff, are no longer enough.
We have come to this conclusion not because of any of the specific charges brought by the dozens of books, TV shows and articles about President Kennedy’s assassination but because of the general confusion in the public mind raised by the publication of allegations and the many puzzling questions that have been raised.
Since the whole purpose of the commission’s appointment and mission is being eroded a little at a time by the clamor, it would seem the commission itself has the most to answer. Certainly, it should be given a chance.
Its members and staff, in varying degrees, of course, have full knowledge—or should have—of the investigations, evaluations and decisions that went into the report. Until they have spoken, the demands for special Congressional committees, foundation studies and inquiries by prestigious people seems premature.
The dual position straddled by much of the press is
captured in the extraordinary second paragraph of this editorial. The Times,
reluctant—indeed unwilling—to give credit or credence to commission critics
or assassination buffs, nonetheless articulated a position clearly persuaded by
the accumulated strength of their arguments. The paper was quick to draw a
distinction between the so-called public mind and the dreaded “books, TV shows
and articles” that had been instrumental in the construction of the “public
mind.” Published allegations and puzzling questions appear to have an
invisible source, one that the paper was unable to recognize amidst the
“general confusion.” The editorial called not for a new investigation, that
being the cry of the “shrill attacks,” but for a clarification from the
commission as to its decision-making procedures. But a curious phenomenon
accompanied this call. In a chronological breakdown, the editorial was written
as if the Warren Commission were still at work, as if the investigation were
ongoing. The last paragraph cited above ended: “The Warren Commission itself
is composed of leading members of Senate and House and responsible citizens,
headed by the respected Chief Justice.” Yet the commission had released its
report to the public over two years earlier, its official investigation long
since ended. It might thus be argued that in a rather strange way the commission
critics had been so successful at perpetuating what had (and perhaps should
have) been the government’s investigatory efforts that the Times
unconsciously legitimized the critics’ work by speaking of the commission’s
investigation in the present tense. Effacing the critics by denying them any
role in their viewpoint, the editors succeeded at becoming lost in their own
ellipses; 1964 and 1966 become, if not interchangeable, then at least somewhat
collapsible. The editorial’s demand for answers combined with its reservations
about the premature nature of a new inquiry amounted to a call for procedural
closure. As the assassination case grew more complex during 1966 and 1967, this
was perhaps the only kind of stopgap request that was at all fit to print.
Although a Louis Harris poll taken in 1967 found that 70 percent of Americans still believed Lee Harvey Oswald was guilty, 54 percent now though the Warren Commission had left “a lot of unanswered questions about who killed Kennedy.” Amid growing public skepticism and increasing criticism of the Warren Report in mainstream publications, William Manchester’s The Death of a President was serialized in Look and sold as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Manchester was the only assassination author to have access to and approval of the Kennedy family, and the conclusions he offered essentially agreed with the Warren Commission’s findings.
Far more important to the course of the assassination debates, however, was the news of an emerging investigation being undertaken by the district attorney of New Orleans, Jim Garrison. Garrison charged Clay Shaw, a prominent businessman and director of the New Orleans International Trade Mart, with taking part in an assassination conspiracy with several anti-Castro Cubans who were former CIA agents. Although the trial did not get under way until February of 1969, Garrison had as early as 1967 set about publicizing his investigation and enlisting the eager assistance of assassination critics. His efforts were accorded sympathetic press coverage, most notably Ramparts’ issue of January 1968. But as media scrutiny increased, the flimsy nature of Garrison’s case and the questionable legal tactics he employed were slowly revealed. Attacks on the New Orleans investigation came from traditional Warren Report defenders like Time and Newsweek as well as from critics Meagher and Epstein. Garrison succeeded in getting the Zapruder film exhibited in the courtroom, and his Cuban conspiracy leads would be pursued by subsequent researchers. But Shaw’s acquittal, after the jury deliberated just fifty minutes, along with the overall ineptness of Garrison’s investigation, for the most part succeeded in undermining the general credibility of assassination conspiracy theorists, setting back efforts to renew either state or federal government inquiries. The New Orleans debacle continued for some time as both an embarrassment and a cautionary reminder for commission critics. Garrison, himself subsequently acquitted of federal bribery charges, helped perpetuate the media-manufactured image of the assassination buff as paranoid self-promoter in search of political ghosts. In the shadow of the Garrison trial, the early 1970s contributed little in the way of assassination literature, and what quiet dialogue did continue circulated through more specialized publications. Magazines such as Computers and Automation applied computer technology to the photographic evidence, and information was regularly published for the buff network, such as the list of the secret Warren Commission documents deposited in the U.S. Archives.
However, this retreat did not signal wholesale retirement for assassination critics. Indeed, the murders of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., served to fuel the passion and frustration of critics displeased with the official government handling of both cases. One direction they took was to organize the loosely connected network of part-time investigators, writers, and researchers who had independently amassed files of documentation. In 1968 attorney and former Senate committee counsel Bernard Fensterwald formed the Committee to Investigate Assassinations (CTIA). Intended as an agent for the pooling of assassination research, the interviews and randomly collected clues, the leading theories and thousands of press clippings, CTIA also sought to lobby for new congressional action.
More grassroots in its formation and activities was the Assassination Information Bureau (AIB). Officially incorporated in 1974, the AIB had its origins several years earlier in the activities of journalist Bob Katz. Katz, working through correspondence with Richard Sprague, a New York computer analyst, and with graphics assistance by Robert Cutler, initiated a set of presentations entitled “Who Killed Kennedy?” After some successful local appearances in the Boston/Cambridge area and through the arrangements of a Boston booking agency, Katz, now joined by several other Cambridge-area researchers, delivered his presentation at college campuses across the country. When not on the road, the AIB outlined a political agenda for citizen action, a program designed to pressure a new congressional investigation, which included information packets with text and slides for community organization around the topic of political assassination. Despite their investment in grassroots efforts, the AIB saw success in terms of federal government action. In an article from 1975, the AIB stated: “It was, and remains, the contention of the AIB that private citizens could not themselves answer in full the question of who killed JFK—and indeed we should not be in a position where it is even our responsibility.” Among the AIB’s most significant achievements was “The Politics of Conspiracy,” a three day conference held at Boston University in January 1975 where over 1,500 people heard presentations from some of the most well known assassination critics.
The Skeptics Revived
By the time of the B.U. conspiracy conference, the question of who killed JFK had reemerged on the national agenda, and commission critics had gained new momentum. Indeed, a number of factors mark 1975 as a watershed year for the investigation. Commenting on a three-day assassination seminar at the University of Hartford, the New York Times noted that critique of the Warren Commission “is said to be the hottest topic on the college lecture circuit.” The topic had most definitely returned to the newsstand and bookstore. The most significant titles were Robert Sam Anson’s They’ve Killed the President and the paperback edition of Thompson’s Six Seconds in Dallas. Anson had been writing about the assassination for several years, his most important articles appearing in New Times, for which he was a national political correspondent. His book both neatly summarized the salient features of the case up to his writing and argued for consideration of a Cuban/CIA/Mafia conspiracy. The release of Thompson’s book was significant for the legal victory it represented. In 1967 Life had sued Thompson, Bernard Geis Associates, and Random House to prevent publication of the book with reproductions of the Zapruder film, charging that Thompson had in fact stolen parts of the film. Denying the charge, Thompson had his book published that year with charcoal reconstructions of the key Zapruder frames. Eight years later, after a victorious suit against Time-Life, Thompson saw his book reissued with reproductions from the Zapruder film.
A number of magazines also turned their attention back to the case. Detailed studies appeared in Rolling Stone and New Times, and many of the arguments pro and con conspiracy were briefly summarized in an issue of Skeptic. In its September 1975 issue, the Saturday Evening Post devoted its cover story to the commission critics, profiling nineteen of the leading assassination researchers and printing a brief “Bibliography for JFK Buffs.” It was at this time also that assassination literature found its way increasingly into soft-core pornographic magazines. The interconnections between the assassination debate and issues of pornography will be taken up in a subsequent chapter. For now it is worth noting the appearance of numerous articles, both multipart series and forums, in magazines such as Penthouse, Playboy, Swank, Gallery, and Playgirl.
The Zapruder film’s appearance in Thompson’s reissue and Anson’s book was accompanied by widespread screenings elsewhere. AIB college presentations had been supplemented by fifth- and sixth-generation bootleg prints. But in 1975 Robert Groden, a New York photo optics expert, completed years of working with Zapruder’s film, producing a high-quality, image-enhanced print with crucial sections, primarily frames of Kennedy’s head wounds, slowed and magnified. Groden’s print was exhibited at the AIB Boston conference in January 1975 and then on March 6 and March 27 of that year, for the first time to a national audience, on the ABC broadcast “Goodnight America” with Geraldo Rivera. Groden would later show his print to federal lawmakers, testify before the Rockefeller Commission, and serve as a consultant to the House assassinations committee.
The exhibition of Groden’s print aided researchers and intensified calls for a new investigation. In October 1975, the New York Times reported that Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania had publicly declared that the Warren Report was “like a house of cards; it’s going to collapse.” The paper then noted that two congressional committees, the Senate’s Schweiker-Hart Select Committee on Intelligence and the House’s Edwards Committee, would be opening inquiries into federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies’ performance during the Warren Commission’s investigation. The Times piece was characteristically schizophrenic on the subject, labeling critics a “curious mixture” of dignified doubters and an “irrational enclave.” Nonetheless, by December 1, 1975, the Times was again moved to editorialize on the persistent skepticism concerning the commission’s findings. Hoping for a “restoration of the government’s reputation,” the paper called for a congressional investigation to lay “out all the now-sequestered evidence” and to “establish the extent of the cover-ups.” As with its editorial of November 25, 1966, cited above, the Times withheld credit from commission critics: “The most powerful arguments for doing so [reopening the case] come not from any of the veteran assassination buffs, but emerge from the secret recesses of the FBI and the CIA themselves.”
In fact, the House, Senate, and Rockefeller Commission inquiries into the activities of the FBI and CIA reflected, if not directly followed, the broadening focus of Kennedy assassination critics. Furthermore, these inquiries marked various points where the overlapping terrains of the assassination debates and other political debates became especially obvious. Clearly the JFK inquests always shared a relationship with adjacent political issues, most notably the cold war questions circulating around Oswald’s identity and his ties to Cuban interests, the Soviet Union, and various FBI contacts. But whereas during the early and mid-1960s the government sought to suppress these questions, by the mid-1970s, it sought at least in part to expose the connections between conspiracy speculations surrounding the assassination and the more widespread activities of American intelligence organizations.
Indeed, three years prior to the new congressional action and prompted in no small measure by the revelations of Watergate, writers who had focused primarily on an alleged Dallas cover-up expanded their research and widened the scope of their critique. Staking out this broader arena, the AIB noted in one of its position papers:
The discoveries set in motion around Watergate and the great aftershocks of Chile and Cointelpro have crystallized public awareness of the realities of power politics in the United States. We are at one of those moments when a providential convergence of events opens a window and shows us the treacheries involved in the struggle for state power. It is more possible today for masses of Americans to understand the need for a new framework of political thought which coherently situates these murders in an overall perspective on American politics during the Cold War. “Who Killed JFK?” ought to be a leading slogan of the whole Bicentennial period.
Some critics saw in the Watergate cover-up a reflection of the same
explanations used to defend the commission’s work a decade earlier. The
refrain of concerns about national security and the sensitive operations of
intelligence were once again raised to guarantee federal silence about possible
government wrongdoing. Assassination theorists thus began to see their efforts
against the wider backdrop of conspiracy and state-sanctioned criminality. Their
public discussions began to include the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr., and
Malcolm X and scrutinized the FBI’s Cointelpro operations, the secret
counterintelligence programs mounted to undermine the Black Panthers and the
work of the New Left. Moreover, attention turned toward elaborating the perhaps
conspiratorial interrelationships between covert government operations, foreign
politicos, and organized crime. These investigations repeatedly revealed the
joint involvement of CIA or former CIA operatives, former members of the Batista
government ousted by Castro in Cuba, and figures prominent in the world of
organized crime. What slowly emerged was a bureaucracy of criminals whose
activities included foreign and domestic narcotics sales, campaign financing,
money laundering (in Cuban exile-owned Florida banks through which funds for the
Watergate break-in were funneled), and the attempted overthrow or assassination
of foreign heads of state. The result, a criminal musical chairs with the same
players—E. Howard Hunt, Frank Sturgis, Bebe Rebozo, Richard Nixon, and a score
of top and second-echelon mob figures—with a twenty-year history of covert
activity, led assassination critics to argue that the conspiracy and cover-up
they identified with the Dallas killing was not some phantasmagoric exception to
government affairs but conduct more like business as usual.
The House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) was established in September 1976 with a four-part prescription for investigation:
1. Who killed Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.?
2. Was there evidence of a conspiracy in either assassination?
3. What was the performance of government agencies in protecting each man?
4. With respect to cooperating with earlier investigations, was there a need for new legislation regarding assassinations?
In his introduction to the HSCA, Chief Counsel G. Robert Blakey, while
noting the lobbying efforts of assassination critics, credited the Senate Select
Committee on Intelligence and its report of April 1976 with supplying the
impetus for creating the HSCA. But the thirteen years of persistent
investigation by the private network of assassination critics was in large part
responsible for this new congressional probe. The critics’ efforts, combined
with the general criticism of American policies and institutions and the erosion
of public confidence in government affairs fueled by the antiwar movement and
the Watergate scandal, had served as catalysts for the government-sponsored
self-critique of the mid-seventies.
What, then, were the critics’ major accomplishments? Assassination critics did not solve the case or uncover incontrovertible evidence pointing to the guilty parties. They did, however, call into serious question the efficacy of the government’s work, exposing its imprecise methods and the general negligence of its investigation. They democratized the inquiry through demands for access to classified material and forced the most powerful news media to reconsider their blanket endorsement of the government’s discourse, whether cloaked in the rhetoric of national security, the authorial privilege of those sitting on the commission, or the sanctity of federal law enforcement agencies. Assassination critics wondered in print and on the airwaves whether sectors of the government were not in fact the source of criminality—either through obstruction of justice or, according to some, through orchestrating the assassination itself.
More specifically, commission critics appeared to create reasonable doubt about the guilt of Lee Harvey Oswald. They made a strong case that three bullets could not have been fired by one man in the firing time established by the Zapruder film and still account for the wounds and the bullet that missed. They established a range of contradictions and errors in the official autopsy. They gave voice to dozens of eyewitnesses who were not granted space in the Warren Report and whose observations did not corroborate the commission’s findings. They brought forth evidence of Oswald’s contact with the FBI prior to the shooting, as well as his possible links to anti-Castro Cubans, and linked Jack Ruby with key organized crime figures who had both motive and means to assassination the president. Amid these and many other questions, the HSCA undertook its study with the eager assistance of some of the most visible assassination researchers.
Yet the mild government self-critique sustained by the HSCA and the pronouncements of its Final Report hardly suited most critics. That report, issued on July 22, 1979, offered a contradictory interpretation of the considered evidence, one that both affirmed much of the Warren Report yet took issue with its primary conclusions. On the one hand, the HSCA concluded that “the Warren Commission conducted a thorough and professional investigation into the responsibility of Lee Harvey Oswald for the assassination.” But it also stated: “The Warren Commission failed to investigate adequately the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President.” Indeed, despite the overwhelming degree to which its report supported the Warren Commission’s findings, the HSCA concluded that, based on the available evidence, “President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.” The crucial evidence for the HSCA, uncovered by three Dallas-based assassination buffs, was a recording of Dallas police radio transmissions in Dealey Plaza the day of the shooting. Acoustics experts called in by the committee conducted recordings during a reconstruction of the assassination in Dallas and compared their results with the tape from November 22, 1963. They concluded that four shots were recorded on the original police dictabelt and that the third shot most likely came from the grassy knoll in front of the presidential limousine. However, the HSCA was unable to identify any of Oswald’s alleged coconspirators. Furthermore, it sought to counter other conspiracy theorists by concluding that the available evidence negated suggestions that anti-Castro Cubans, organized crime, or elements within the U.S. government were involved in the assassination.
The House Select Committee on Assassinations was the last of the government-sponsored probes into JFK’s death, but it did not mark closure for the debate. Warren Commission critics continued their research in two directions: one focusing on the alleged involvement of organized crime, the other on complicity of U.S. agencies, the FBI and Secret Service. G. Robert Blakey and Richard Billings’s The Plot to Kill the President in 1981 and then David Scheim’s Contract on America in 1989 put forth the mob thesis. Blakey, who had been chief counsel and staff director for the HSCA, and Billings outlined the government’s covert employment of major crime figures in various plots to overthrow Castro. Involved were kingpins Sam Giancana, John Roselli, Santos Trafficante, and Carlos Marcello. The theories vary somewhat, but the general outline follows this pattern: the mob had worked in various ways for John Kennedy during his run for office and then during his administration. It had rigged the election results in Chicago and in Texas to assure his victory, and it believed he was an ally in mob efforts to oust Castro. By some accounts, the most important factor was that his friends in organized crime had afforded the president a steady supply of women, many of them Hollywood hopefuls. What angered mob bosses was that the president had paid these favors back with a weakening commitment to Cuba and a full-scale Justice Department attack on organized crime led by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Lee Oswald, whose bizarre life had brought him into contact with various New Orleans racketeers, was set up to take the fall, his silence guaranteed by a contract with long-time petty hood Jack Ruby.
Criticism of government law enforcement agencies, especially the FBI, had been part of the anticommission literature since the assassination. David Lifton’s Best Evidence culminated this critique with a sincere yet bizarre and frequently confusing indictment of the Secret Service in 1981. Lifton laboriously detailed the development of his investigation over a fifteen-year period, which focused on the president’s autopsy. Examining the evidence supplied by doctors’ testimony, the autopsy and x rays of Kennedy’s body, and reports compiled by various government bureaus, Lifton argued that the president’s body had been surgically altered sometime between his arrival at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas and the official autopsy conducted at Bethesda naval hospital in Washington, D.C. This alteration, he suggested, was the most efficient way for a Secret service-engineered conspiracy to cover up the “best evidence” and lead all subsequent investigations down the wrong path.
The Thirty-Year Debate
For the most part, then, the assassination literature of the eighties turned away from the mechanics of Dealey Plaza to consider other aspects of the alleged conspiracy. The evidence of photos, acoustics, and eyewitnesses had for now been exhausted of their capacity to supply researchers with anything new. Perhaps, believing that logistical analysis of the shooting either had been sufficiently discussed in other works or had reached an impasse, assassination critics focused on those aspects of the case that, even twenty years later, were still unfolding.
Yet the release of Oliver Stone’s JFK in December 1991 returned attention to the specifics of the shooting while simultaneously insisting on a theory of conspiratorial motive. What is ironic about the impact and the overwhelming public discussion generated by JFK is that its narrative put forth the six-shot “secret team” thesis, long believed by some critics to be the least credible of propositions. Furthermore, its story centered on Jim Garrison and the New Orleans conspiracy trial, perhaps the single most undistinguished moment in the history of the investigation. Stone’s film resuscitated interest in critiques of the magic bullet theory and, as Chapter 10 will discuss, returned to a reliance on the epistemological certainty of filmic evidence. Moreover, it presented JFK as dove rather than as cold warrior, a reading of Kennedy’s foreign policy to which liberal conspiracy theorists clung, insisting that escalation in Vietnam was a product of the assassination and the work of Kennedy’s successor. JFK served to introduce yet another generation to many of the issues surrounding the assassination debate. It is significant within the scope of this chronology because it is the only commercial film to propel the investigation further and to highlight, if not generate, additional critical literature.
Stone’s film also generated considerable backlash; the mainstream press met its release by telling readers that the film was not to be believed. Indeed, while breathing new life into assassination inquiries, JFK’s all-encompassing conspiracy theory brought sharp skepticism back upon itself. By the thirtieth anniversary of JFK’s death, a curious situation had come to characterize the assassination debates. Warren Commission critics found themselves working together in an atmosphere of renewed energy, an atmosphere of well-attended semiannual conferences, a growing list of new publications, and the release of previously classified government files. And yet their public identity was coming under renewed indictment from the airwaves and pages of the major media, in large part due to the publication of Gerald Posner’s Case Closed. Touted as the book that “Finally proves Who Killed Kennedy,” Case Closed relied less on brilliant analysis than on shrewd timing. With its release conveniently coinciding with the media-saturated anniversary, Posner’s book was granted breakthrough status when in fact it frequently reiterated analysis that had circulated for years. Posner summarized various interpretations of the Zapruder film, arguing that, contrary to the readings offered by conspiracy critics, the visual evidence showed that Lee Harvey Oswald had ample time to fire three shots and inflict all the wounds. Posner attempted a theory-by-theory rebuttal of thirty years’ worth of anti-Warren Commission literature and was granted considerable media approval for his efforts. Armed with Posner’s book, the mainstream press could strike an investigatory pose while embracing the Oswald-as-lone-assassin theory.
Indeed, the nineties’ version of the critical duality articulated during the sixties by the New York Times editorials was enunciated most clearly by Newsweek in its issue of November 22, 1993. There had been a cover-up, the magazine told its readers, but not the one Warren Commission critics had suggested. “The real cover-up,” to borrow the article’s headline, was that “the U.S. government did not try very hard to unearth the truth about the assassination of JFK.” Implying that this was somehow an original thesis produced after considerable research by themselves, the Washington Post, and CBS, the magazine suggested that it was the “frenzied week” of high-level government scrambling that “led to 30 years of conspiracy theories.” As for arguments generated by Warren Commission critics, the magazine psychoanalyzed these as the products of children in search of “a grander design” to compensate for the notion that one man could force such tremendous “historical transformation.” Although assassination critics could take heart that the case remained on the national agenda, not since the days of their earliest efforts had they also been subjected to such widely circulated ridicule.
The recycling of imagery and arguments occasioned by the release of JFK and the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination draws attention to a crucial characteristic of this subject matter: its cell-like quality, its propensity to be transformed and constantly reconfigured. This quality has constantly, and perhaps ultimately, frustrated critics and the wider public in their attempts to narrativize and lend coherence to these historical events. Let me be more specific. The assassination debate has expanded and contracted throughout its thirty years as texts of all kinds have become available for analysis. Myriad factors have contributed to the sense of flux surrounding the assassination debates: the release of the Warren Commission’s documents to the public, the sealing of evidence donated to the National Archives by the Kennedy family; the purchase and limited publication of the Zapruder film by Life magazine, the sale and exhibition of bootleg copies of the film, the report issued in 1968 by a special medical panel appointed by Attorney General Ramsey Clark to review the sealed autopsy photos, the revelations concerning secret government activities reported by various congressional committees, and perhaps most importantly, the steady release of classified government materials made possible by commission critics’ persistent use of the Freedom of Information Act.
And there is more: the untimely deaths, especially within the first five years, of a number of potentially crucial witnesses or interested parties, the discovery of the Dallas Police’s dictabelt with the recording of the shots; the circulation and analysis of the hundreds of photographs taken just before, during, or after the shooting; and the ever-mounting and often contradictory personal testimony of a variety of individuals, from autopsy doctors to hospital personnel to sources within organized crime. As the years passed and the assassination texts multiplied or were resituated, subsequent critical studies were forced to summarize (or attempt to summarize) the debate’s ever-shifting signifiers. Approaching the various books and articles about the case became a matter of wading through a network of direct or implicit cross-references to other significant texts, both literary and photographic. By the late seventies, a general index to the assassination literature was almost needed even for initiated readers to engage with the discussion. This complexity perpetuated a process that seemed to take critics further and further from the assassination itself, such that much of the literature ultimately appears to map not so much the event itself as the surface of its representation.
This persistent yet haphazard development of the investigation reflects one of its fundamental tensions: its simultaneous movement toward and denial of closure. Both defenders and critics of the Warren Report sought a solution to the crime and an end to the debate; they sought the kind of narrative closure that could transform the assassination into a coherent event and a knowable history. But for commission critics this desire was complicated by efforts to deny closure. They refuted arguments that insisted the murder had been solved, even resisting while building upon the alternative conclusions put forth by other critics. Their repeated scrutiny of the photographic evidence and their constant struggle with the government over the declassification of documents, while ultimately aimed at closing the case, engendered a position that was suspicious of endings and encouraged postponement.
The investigation’s tendency to expand and contract, as well as its internal tensions around closure, demand a self-consciousness with respect to my own work. This chronology of assassination literature is already a slip in the direction of seamlessness. My account is constructed as a partial map because the assassination debates are so densely layered that some contours need to be sketched at the outset. But even these contours are too distinct; the mapping process is at once accurate and misleading. Somehow the reader needs to keep this in mind: the ebb and flow of critique and defense, of investigation and analysis, was neither smooth nor precisely patterned, and the topic I am isolating was not made up entirely by the public appearance of various texts.
Indeed, the debate circulated and intensified in private, the range and complexities of the literature matched by the scope and varied involvement of its readers. Individuals came to these works at different times, through softcover editions years after the release of the hardcovers, for example. The appearance of certain books or articles at a certain time did not mean that public opinion or involvement ran parallel to these publications. It is essential to any elaboration of the assassination debates to note the debates’ more private components, their life among the unpublished, their impact on individuals for whom the aftermath of the assassination became everything from a weekend hobby to a full-time obsession.
Like other groups engaged in acts of social contestation during the 1960s, assassination critics and buffs established and worked though local channels, challenging and appropriating roles traditionally left to official public agencies. Some left the professions for which they were trained or modified their occupations to study the assassination full or part time. Others became amateur researchers into the activities of government agencies or trained themselves in media analysis so as to better critique the government’s version of events. In so doing, these individuals and groups struggled along different fronts than other political movements during the period. Yet, like those other movements, assassination critics did seek a reversal of forces, did struggle over the positions that underwrote political power. The assassination debates, defined once again, appear as more than the sum of a set of texts, verbal or imagined, but as something less stable or unified; they are a series of shifting arrangements and positions, textual, personal, temporal, political. My own language here is clearly influenced by Foucault’s discussion of “effective” history, and it is useful at the end of this introduction once again to consider the assassination in the context of his remarks:
An event, consequently, is not a decision, a treaty, a reign, or a battle, but the reversal of a relationship of forces, the usurpation of power, the appropriation of a vocabulary turned against those who had once used it, a feeble domination that poisons itself as it grows lax, the entry of a masked “other.”
The active quality of Foucault’s language—reverse, usurp, appropriate, turn against—should condition our understanding of the assassination debates. So, too, should his shift in focus from a single agent—decision, treaty, battle—to wider fields of activity, such as forces, power, and the uses of vocabulary. The debates cover an ever-growing range of practices and histories. Had the government’s account of the assassination gone uncontested and all the subsequent questions never been raised, the case would still have involved a complex process; multiauthored in its codification in image and narrative; still constituted by gaps and silences; circulated by the entire field of ideological state apparatuses. The commission critics, however, splintered the forces that mediated the event and the government’s account of it. They elevated this process to a level at which its mechanisms of construction, its gaps, silences, contradictions, and representational strategies, became acutely visible. They thereby subjected this history to a radical re-visioning.