On November 26, 1963, the famed American humorist Art Buchwald dispensed with his widely syndicated column in favor of a powerfully simple tribute to the recently slain President. For the large majority of us who were not yet born (or too young to remember) when John F. Kennedy was so publicly and arrogantly murdered in a flawlessly-executed ambush, Buchwald’s words – for all their syrupy sentimentality – convey a sense of just how visceral the feelings of loss must have been to those alive at the time:
“We weep because there is nothing else we can do.
Except curse those who would destroy a man in the hope of destroying all of us.”
Judging from the recent glut of new book titles, reissues of old titles, interviews with surviving witnesses and participants to official investigations, and so on, the American public remains fascinated with the life and death of its 35th President. For all that, the superficiality of the coverage suggests that most Americans under the age of 60 are ignorant, and therefore ambivalent, about what really happened – and what was really lost – that terrible day in Dallas. To most of our historically illiterate countrymen, I fear, the Kennedy assassination has become little more than a curiosity piece which has otherwise been relegated to the dustbin of “ancient history.” Who cares anymore, right?
For nearly fifty years, large majorities have consistently doubted the “krazy kid Oswald” hypothesis. Moreover, the last governmental body to investigate the case – the scandalously undermined and sabotaged House Select Committee on Assassinations – nonetheless concluded in the late 1970s that our president’s murder was “probably” the result of a conspiracy. The existence of any kind of conspiracy – especially one implicating rogue elements of our own government – should be a really big deal to every American. Why the apparent ambivalence, then?
One problem, perhaps, is that a zealous community of independent assassination researchers, assuming the role that ought to have been undertaken by our major media outlets and college history departments, but lacking the stabilizing influence of a recognized “mainstream,” has uncovered so many confusing and contradictory facts, leading to so many confusing and contradictory (and sometimes silly) theories, that a genuinely curious reader is left bedeviled and befuddled.
I believe a path through this wilderness of confusion can be blazed by focusing on the big picture. In that spirit, I would offer the following points of fact that are not legitimately subject to dispute:
1. Moments after the shooting, a policeman went running in the direction of the gunshots that dozens of witnesses had heard coming from the infamous grassy knoll. This law enforcement officer told the Warren Commission that he was shoo’d away from the area by someone flashing Secret Service credentials. It is a certainty, however, that no Secret Service personnel were on foot in Dealey Plaza that day. The existence of even a single individual impersonating a Secret Service agent in Dealey Plaza is irrefutable proof of a conspiracy. (We now have reason to believe that in the early 1960s, the CIA’s Technical Services Division was responsible for generating Secret Service credentials; that responsibility was transferred back to the Department of the Treasury after Kennedy’s murder.)
2. The alleged killer, who had the “fingerprints” of the intelligence community all over him (according to a U.S. Senator who investigated aspects of the case for the Church Committee in the 1970s), was silenced while in police custody by a friend of the Dallas Police with known ties to both CIA-supported anti-Castro Cuban exiles and the Mafia. In the early 1960s, the CIA, the anti-Castro Cuban exiles, and the Mafia were all working in concert to murder Fidel Castro. Bobby Kennedy went to his grave privately believing that a Castro murder plot had been turned against his brother. His portfolio as Attorney General included the Mafia and Cuba – so he would be in a position to know many dark secrets. There is reliable evidence that Oswald’s killer was involved in gun-running operations to Cuba and that he knew Oswald. Oswald had provable connections to other anti-Castro zealots like his former Civil Air Patrol leader David Ferrie. These facts render the “lone nut killed by a grieving patriotic citizen” hypothesis truly risible.
3. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover told President Johnson the morning after the assassination that the CIA’s evidence of Oswald’s trip to Mexico City – a trip supposedly taken just weeks before the assassination for the purpose of getting into Cuba or Russia – was probably phony. You read that correctly. Hoover told his good friend, in so many words, that the CIA had created a false story linking Oswald to nefarious elements in Mexico City, specifically, a KGB officer known to be involved with assassinations. It was an obvious frame-up – even if Oswald had gone to Mexico City and even if he was one of the shooters in Dealey Plaza. We have the transcripts of Hoover’s phone call to LBJ and a copy of the memo on which Hoover commented, in his own handwriting, about the CIA’s “false story re: Oswald’s trip to Mexico.”
4. Jack Ruby abandoned his transparently ludicrous story that he killed Oswald in order to spare Jacqueline Kennedy the trauma of having to testify in a murder trial. After appealing his murder conviction, he won the right to a new trial. But he died in jail a month before his new trial was to start. He went to his relatively early grave (at age 55) darkly hinting that JFK’s murder involved powerful people and forces.
5. Closing the loop, the prominent 1960s journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, who obtained an exclusive private interview with Ruby and who told her close associates that she was about to break the case wide open, was found dead before she could break her story. It was one of those “apparent suicides.” Her close friend, to whom she entrusted her notes of the Ruby interview, died a few days later. No notes of the Ruby interview were ever found.
Thousands of books, articles, conferences, mock trials, witness interviews and the like have flushed out a million more facts about this extremely complicated case. Assassination buffs perhaps deserve some of the ribbing they endure for the passionate debates they are famous for having over arcane matters like Zapruder film frames, the highly compromised and botched medical and ballistics evidence, chain of possession issues, and the reliability of witnesses like the pathetic Helen Markham. You could spend the rest of your life debating bullet trajectories and entrance / exit wound locations based on the same hopelessly compromised evidence and end up no closer to figuring out who fired what shots from where. Indeed, it is unlikely we will ever know the truth about who squeezed which triggers, in which order, from which location(s).
Fortunately, those details are irrelevant to the most important questions about John F. Kennedy’s murder. The facts outlined above (and many others) strongly suggest a conspiracy of some kind – very possibly involving Oswald as one of the shooters. I submit that this is all that we really need to know.
Once we reject the kooky “lone nut” explanation for the assassination, we inevitably confront larger questions that ought to concern us far more than bullet trajectories and autopsy photos. Those bigger questions include the following: What groups or forces directed Oswald, Ruby and the other participants? Why did those forces want Kennedy dead? How did his death change the direction of our country – particularly in the area of war and peace? Has the establishment’s tattered faith in the lone nut theory irreparably damaged our society and its political and legal institutions? Why do they maintain that faith in the teeth of so much evidence pointing to a conspiracy of some kind? These questions are vitally important today. To pose them is not to delve into a pointless study of “ancient history.”
John Kennedy was no angel. By many accounts, he was a philanderer and a ruthless Machiavellian come election time. He hid the severity of his potentially debilitating medical conditions from the public and he may have recklessly endangered our national security by having an affair with an East German spy. Concerning his many flaws, however, I am with the late great Christopher Hitchens who, in discussing Martin Luther King Jr.’s final evening of debauchery before his murder, reminds us how King’s life proves that “a high moral character is not a precondition for great moral accomplishments.” We are all ordinary and flawed lumps of wet clay capable of great good and great evil. There are no perfect Platonic heroes or villains and these twin facts should equally cheer us up.
Thus, the true measure of an American President is what he does when put to the test in moments of historical consequence. How does John F. Kennedy come out on that score? What kind of leader did we lose with his murder? What kind of leaders succeeded him? (Hint: LBJ and Nixon).
Future generations will forever debate JFK’s life and presidency, of course. And the professional historians tell us that we are out of bounds to speculate about what Kennedy “might have done” had he lived. Fair enough. We can nonetheless know something about what he actually believed, what he actually did, and what he intended to do in his second term. What follows is one man’s view . . . mine.
John Kennedy was a product of his time and place. He certainly talked tough about communism for political gain. He may have even believed some of his own Cold Warrior bullshit. He famously out Cold-Warred Nixon in order to win the presidency in 1960. But we know for certain that he wanted to avoid war – and especially nuclear war – at virtually all costs.
Look at his record on war and peace. There has probably never been another American President who was under such unrelenting pressure from his generals and national security establishment to commit American troops to combat than John Kennedy was in his short time in office. He resisted them every time: Laos, Cuba (twice), Berlin and Vietnam. In all these cases, right-wing hawks pressured President Kennedy to go to war. In all these cases, he rebuffed them. His domestic enemies called this weakness. I call it tremendous strength and courage.
After coming to the brink of catastrophic nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy spent the last year of his life doggedly seeking a reduction in Cold War tensions and a path towards peaceful competition between to the two political systems. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, if not before, there was no way Kennedy was going to commit combat troops to nearby Cuba – much less distant Vietnam. We now know that, at the moment the fatal bullet passed through his skull, he intended to get completely out of Vietnam. He intended to continue easing tensions with Khrushchev and the Soviets. He intended to seek a rapprochement with Castro’s Cuba.
They killed him for it.
The rest, as they say, is history: Vietnam, with all of its tragic implications for American and Vietnamese society. Watergate – carried out by ex-CIA agents with ties to the Kennedy assassination (one of whom admitted involvement on his death-bed). Iran-Contra. Two more unnecessary decades of Cold War with the Soviet Union and the attendant trillions of dollars wasted in that ignoble cause. I am not the first person to trace all of it to John Kennedy’s murder by rogue forces within the national security state – a murder that had to be covered up for reasons of institutional self-preservation.
When Art Buchwald wrote about cursing those “who would destroy a man in the hope of destroying all of us,” his tone was one of certainty that we would never let this happen to us. When I look around at the pervasive and malevolent influence of the national security state upon our lives 50 years later, I am not so sure.