JFK, again

I've found myself recently reading four of the best of the vast JFK assassination literature. Two were specifically written for last year's fifty-year anniversary. Vince Palamara's excellent history of the Secret Service has recently been supplemented by his damning indictment of the Service's behaviour on 22 November 1963, and McBride's 'Into the Nightmare' (an Editor's attention-grabbing title if ever there was one) is in fact a judicious study by a man who, when young, skirted the heady heights of Wisconsin's political nomenklatura. Those two books are amongst the best of some six hundred or so, a good many of which I've read, which, along with the six official investigations and numerous private ones leave us with a fairly clear picture of the possible resolution of what lazier writers might call the 'Dallas mystery'. Either Oswald shot Kennedy, or the Secret Service did, or the CIA acting with Cuban exiles did. There have been other theories; the mafia, communists, Castro and so on, John Kerry and Lyndon Johnson subscribe to the latter. A growing, and in my view highly questionable number, implicate Lyndon Johnson. For reasons I'll go into later, I think that that is, really, wishful thinking rather than anything grounded in fact.

The third book on my list is Gaeton Fonzi's account of his time as a Congressional investigator. Fonzi was critical to the efforts of the last, and one of the most thorough, investigations of the three murders of Dallas (Kennedy Tippit and Oswald), which found for a conspiracy. His book notes his feeling that the investigation of the seventies was derailed, and shut down before the vital connection of elements of the CIA with Cuban exiles could be formally made. Fonzi is also famous for his reformulation of Penn Jones' old point that the murders were not really a mystery, but solved fairly early on by the likes of Mark Lane and Josiah Thompson; 'we know who killed Kennedy, why don't you?'.    It's a salutary reminder that of six investigations--by the FBI, the Secret Service, the Warren Commission, the Church Committee, the House Select Committee, and the Assassination Records Review Board of 1992--only one, the Warren Commission, ever came to a clear conclusion that Lee Oswald killed both JFK and JD Tippit. It did so, as we now know, by bending or ignoring testimony, displacing or twisting evidence, and deliberately restricting investigators.

The fourth book on the list is John Armstrong's strange, long, Harvey and Lee. It builds on Richard Popkin's sixties insight, and on FBI files from the early sixties, which suggested that there were at least two people using Lee Harvey Oswald's name up to 1963. It can be incontrovertibly shown that this was known before the assassination. The level of detail in Armstrong's work, which dates from the early nineties is profound, and easily tops that of Vince Bugliosi's prosecution brief of Oswald. This is not least because it acknowledges some of its own deficiencies. Armstrong believes that Oswald was one of a number of documented 'projects' of the Cold War spy agencies which swapped names and bodies for clandestine purposes. The thesis certainly resolves a great many questions about the strange past of Lee Oswald, and the confusion of the investigating agencies in the immediate aftermath of one of the Oswald's deaths. It's purpose is to impose a narrative upon contradiction, however. There were plenty of Oswalds in 1963; Thomas Valee, Donald House, John Masen, and Billy Lovelady spring to mind, and it may well be that any of them could have been made to seem strange. It's not fair to Armstrong and Popkin, however, to say that they simply deploy the usual run of the mill circumstantial evidence, hearsay, and evidential sleight-of hand; in fact, the work (which is privately available and took me some time and money to get hold of) is a fairly substantial work of scholarship.

So; four stories, each tending to suggest that the thirty fifth president of the United States was killed by his own people. McBride even draws attention to the curious ambiguity of Kenny O'Donnell, a recently lionised JFK crony, in the whole affair. I think that the forensics case is literally unanswerable, because the chain of evidence is so broken and was so confused that only the basics now remain. John Kennedy was hit several times by bullets probably fired from several directions; his head exploded and sent pieces everywhere; the Governor of Texas was hit by what he (and his wife) insisted were separate bullets; security was terrible at best and sinister at worst; Kennedy's autopsies were botched, possibly deliberately; JD Tippit was killed in odd circumstances by bullets which may have come from different guns; Lee Oswald was effectively 'framed' in a panic for a variety of separate and possibly honourable reasons by the Kennedy, Johnson, FBI, CIA, Dallas, and Secret Service crowds; and the American media have uselessly and counter-productively reified the official story of this mess for decades.

And that's all we definitely know. There are things which we can conclude, and testimonies, high-level opinions and confessions abound, but they aren't definite. The more interesting question to me, as both an historian and a misplaced academic lawyer, is why.

Why should be read in two ways; why was Kennedy killed, but also why are people still interested in the killing? The murders of Dallas have become a synedoche, Dreyfus-like, for everything after. For some, 12:31 on November 22nd, 1963, was the ur-event of the West's decline into a sort of corporate military-media reef within which we have been entangled. For others, it was the moment chaos broke through an era of cheap oil and postwar balance to leave social disruption in its wake. Usually, in the Kennedy books as we should call them, there is some reflection like this, plus a reflection on the author's own grief, or on traumas in the author's own life. I find a lot of this sentimental and ahistorical. It's ahistorical because things never happen that simply, and every moment is a watershed. Besides, when has the West not been the entity that sacked Constantinople so the Doge could get his trade monies? It's never just been that but it always has had as one of its core characteristics a certain well focussed and monied corruption. The Chinese and Koreans built a culture around the ideal of the teacher, and their civilisations still reflect some of the strengths and faults of that derivative profession. Ours was built around weird monks and piracy in the rubble of Rome and there's no shame in admitting it.

Yet the sense that Kennedy was also the last president to be allowed by the people who run America to behave in a certain way seems to me sensible. In writing that, I'm not drawing on any pointed European or Catholic sense of superiority. Americans, after all, have been America's harshest critics, from the writers of The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance (itself a play on patsies and political power, but also on the public's need to believe) to those who rage in the culture wars. Kennedy offered a detente without China or the Prague Spring; a taming and saving of Khruschev with none of the slow, grinding despair of the seventies that the likes of Arthur Miller limned in The Archbishop's Ceiling. As General Giap and Robert MacNamara both observed years later, it is also a given that, on the basis of his own words and actions, John Kennedy would not have fought the Vietnam War. From that war and its loss all else flows; ergo, the Kennedy killing was the breach in the dam.

The assassination also represents high drama. It's a truism that all great Irish stories revolve around funerals but who, and I ask this pointedly, could have conspired to have had Richard Nixon and George Bush in Dallas on the same day as JFK met his demise, and then have Gerald Ford, of all people, alter the evidence? In the City run by the brother of a man he fired, populated by a cast of characters like Oswald, David Ferrie, Jack Ruby, and the Dallas Police Department who could not be made up? Surrounded by a riven Secret Service, by Cuban, Right-wing, and racist enemies in a state open to renegade Cubans? To have all this, plus the witnesses with their baroque backgrounds, their confiscated or altered films, their strange testimony, and then to have the layer on layer of cover-ups, Jacobean style, accompanied by presidential whispers to the side of the mike by LBJ, Nixon, Carter and Clinton--all of this defies the imagination. When one adds in all the military, wealthy, oil and defence-based money concentrated in such few hands in Dallas, one almost starts to think that life is a written tale.

One is therefore brought, Tertullian-like, to a position where one becomes able to believe seemingly absurd theories because they are absurd. As I write, though, there are still three positions which hold water; that Oswald did it, that the Secret Service did it, or that the CIA did it. Everything else is displacement. I want to explore those points in other posts.


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