I keep reading JFK assassination books, even though Kennedy’s always dead at the end and they never magically tie everything together in a satisfyingly byzantine 72-way global conspiracy involving the CIA, United Fruit, Castro, the Cosa Nostra, the Freemasons, and Hank Scorpio (if only). A death squad of Corsican hitmen hired by the CIA or organized crime? Oswald as a double or even triple agent? LBJ ordered Kennedy killed to ensure continued war in Vietnam? Yes, yes, and YES PLEASE. Sign me up. The real problem, since I’m afflicted with a bit of a Fox Mulder hero-worship complex, is that as much I enjoy the conspiracy theories, I’m becoming a lone-nut believer. Sorry, Fox.
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Gerald Posner’s Case Closed is one of the canonical entries into the “Oswald-did-it” oeuvre. In conspiracy accounts, Oswald is usually treated as a paper cut-out, a hapless and agency-less automaton around which gears of history turn, a pliable dullard guided into place by invisible hands (less commonly, he’s an intelligence agent posing as a radical Marxist; in either case he has no motivations of his own). Case Closed stands out for treating Oswald as a real person, one with beliefs and motivations and agency. This view does much to explain a motive for Oswald killing Kennedy—an important part of the story that either gets treated in overly broad terms or is simply lost altogether in detailed examinations of physical evidence.
In Posner’s portrayal, Oswald is an intelligent but socially inept outcast, looking for fame and attention and sure he deserves it, but unsure how to get it. While Oswald’s Marxism was probably genuine (he was advocating for racial equality and reading Marx as a teenager, and I don’t think the CIA recruits that young), it also reminds me of the way some people care more about the obscurity of their favorite band than the band, and won’t stop talking about it. Marxism made Oswald special and unique and cool, and so he cared as much about being a Marxist as Marxism itself.
Through that lens, it’s easy to see his confusion and anger when people find him affected and off-putting rather than engaging. He’s either ignored or feels ignored, but very sure that he shouldn’t be: the US doesn’t care when he defects to Russia, the Soviet Union mostly ignores him once he’s there (and it’s not the utopian worker’s paradise he expected), no fanfare awaits him when he returns to the US. No one joins the local Marxist groups he forms and national leaders brush him off. All that anger and disaffectedness at not being somebody comes to head in April 1963 with an assassination attempt on segregationist general Edwin Walker.* Seven months later, he kills Kennedy (maybe). Conspiracy theories focus on grand motives rising from national politics and ideologies, but personal motivations seem just as plausible: he felt ignored and socially impotent, and didn’t like how Kennedy treated Cuba. Maybe that’s enough?
*Edwin Walker was a radical anti-Communist, right-wing extremist, and complete raisin cake who either was or should have been the basis for General Ripper in Dr Strangelove. Fired by Kennedy after distributing anti-Communist propaganda to his troops, Walker became a speaker/politico, giving Christian, segregationist, anti-Communist, anti-gay (and presumably anti-fluoridation/pro- “precious bodily fluids”) speeches and running for governor in 1962 (he lost). He later led/instigated anti-integration riots at Ole Miss that culminated in arson and multiple murders, making this 100% engaged-with-reality statement to the madding crowd: “This is the conspiracy of the crucifixion by anti-Christ conspirators of the Supreme Court in their denial of prayer and their betrayal of a nation.” RFK, then attorney general, was so incensed that he ordered Walker arrested for sedition and insurrection, and committed to an asylum for evaluation; he was released after five days and never charged. His star thus blemished, Walker faded into political obscurity, but was—of fucking course—arrested twice in the 1970s on (ahem) “public lewdness” charges. No word on whether he used the “wide stance” defense.
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Is personal motivation enough? The case against Oswald is actually much stronger than most people assume: the three shots occurred in 6 to 9 seconds, which is perfectly do-able. Some people did think shots came from the grassy knoll, but virtually no one reported shots coming from more than one location—which would be odd if there were two shooters. The “magic bullet” did not have to stop in mid-air and take a right turn, nor did it cause seven wounds and emerge unscathed (see below).
That said, there’s still a lot of weird shit. Witnesses hearing shots from the grassy knoll, Parkland doctors who recall massive damage to the back of Kennedy’s head, and those little hints of Oswald’s potential intelligence connections, which are the real eyebrow-raiser. The CIA, FBI, and KGB all deny an Oswald connection, but it’s sorta hard to take denials at face value when the CIA’s official “strategy” memo for answering Oswald questions involves the phrase “carefully worded denials”.
All this raises the question: are these “plot holes” sinister, or are they mistakes, malleable and fallible memory, and the same weirdness that would pop up when putting that big a magnifying glass on any event? Oswald used fake names, fake addresses, and PO boxes, usually for no ascertainable reason. Maybe he was an intelligence agent, or maybe he was really self-involved and wanted to take on the trappings of spycraft. Are the CIA/FBI covering up that Oswald worked for them, or saving face because they dismissed him as a slack-jawed yokel and he ended up offing the president? Egotism, stupidity, bad memory, and self-preservation can explain a lot (sort of a variation on Hanlon’s razor). Then again, maybe he was an agent; this shit is infuriating.
The problem is that most assassination books start with a theory, or even just a motive, then lay out the confirmatory evidence. It’s in our nature to avoid the things that might prove us wrong, and there’s so much evidence that nearly any argument can be plausibly made, if the data are cherry-picked properly. What’s ignored tends to be more important: grassy-knoll conspirators, for example, tend to ignore the question of where a shot from the knoll ended up. Witnesses appear years later or change their stories decades after the fact or give contradictory statements. Posner, like most, is too quick to dismiss evidence that doesn’t fit his narrative, but he’s to be commended for looking at the whole of witness statements, identifying when they change, and placing more emphasis on early statements rather than later ones. As an erstwhile brain scientist, this is exactly how it should work: memory is not a tape recorder; it’s fungible and reconstructive and changes over time and as we recall events over and over. Rather than assuming a person’s confidence means their story is more likely true, we should actually expect people to be fuzzy on the details. Multiple witnesses agree that Oswald brought a package with him to work on the day of the shooting; they don’t agree about its exact size or how he carried it. That’s not sinister, it’s almost exactly the type of detail we should expect to be misremembered in eyewitness testimony.
Whether one thinks these “coincidences” and plot holes are mundane or sinister, there is something, I think, to the idea that the Oswald-did-it story means ignoring the smallest amount of evidence. There’s something also to the fact that there is no single coherent, unifying “conspiracy theory”, but instead a loosely-connected set of suspicions, many of which contradict each other. There’s something to the idea that whereas most early conspiracy theories pointed to the Zapruder film as the “smoking gun” of conspiracy, the debunking of that evidence now leads to assertions that the Zapruder film has been altered.
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I find myself caring less about the who and why of Kennedy’s death, and more about why it inspires such a proliferation and permanence of conspiracy theories. He was dead less than a month when defense-attorney-cum-conspiracy-wonk Mark Lane penned an article hinting at conspiracy; the first pro-conspiracy book followed just five months later. Fifty years and eleventy corbillion conspiracy theories later, why do they stick around? William Manchester famously said that conspiracy theories help to balance a scale that has a “nobody” like Oswald on one side and someone of JFK’s standing on the other. So maybe it’s that conspiracy theories help give his death meaning. Maybe it’s because there was a conspiracy. But I also think four events “conspired” to keep JFK conspiracies at the forefront of public consciousness:
1. The Zapruder film was withheld for several years, leading some to believe it contained critical evidence of multiple shooters.
2. New Orleans DA Jim Garrison brought conspiracy charges against businessman Clay Shaw in 1967. Though hagiographized in Oliver Stone’s JFK, Garrison was essentially a professional crazy person with a vindictive streak; a colleague impugning his investigative skills said Garrison “couldn’t find a pubic hair at a whorehouse during rush hour.” At one point Garrison called the assassination a “homosexual thrill killing,” and no, I don’t know what that means either. The evidence against Shaw was so nonexistent that Garrison gave up, stopped going to court, and made his underlings finish the case.
3. A House committee investigating the assassination in 1979 suggested a “probable conspiracy” in JFK’s death. That conclusion has lingered, but was based entirely on an acoustical analysis of a police recording, purportedly demonstrating with “95% certainty” that a fourth shot was fired from the grassy knoll. That recording was later shown to have been taken after the assassination and not even in Dealey Plaza. In conclusion: never, ever, trust a scientist who claims 95% certainty on anything, including the laws of thermodynamics or whether the sun will rise tomorrow.
4. Stone’s JFK was released in 1991. It’s one of my favorite movies but it’s also wildly inaccurate. Still, awesome movie…Gary Oldman is great.
Assassination books are a “buyer beware” situation. I recommend reading Case Closed for the pro-Oswald account, the re-released Not in Your Lifetime for the conspiracy side (and if you want to go the whole nine yards of tinfoil-hattery, Crossfire). Then, try not to think about how we might not know the whole truth about one of the most well-documented and over-analyzed events of the last century and try to move on with your life.