The old adage holds that “Truth is stranger than fiction,” to which I reply, “Because fiction must be realer than truth.” That is, fiction must be plausible, while the truth only has to be verifiable. … But sometimes you gotta wonder.
As proof of the adage—at least as far as popularly accepted history goes—I offer the events of 61 years and one day ago: the assassination in Dallas of President John F. Kennedy. If I were to submit an idea for a manuscript or screenplay based on that sequence of events, I would be laughed out of both New York and Hollywood.
Consider: a U.S. president was shot in broad daylight during a motorcade along a crowded parade route. The assassin was apprehended almost immediately, held for two days, and then was himself assassinated. An investigative commission headed by a sitting Supreme Court Chief Justice was launched to analyze the event but could not say with any certainty how many bullets were actually fired, where they came from, or where they went. One bullet, a full metal jacketed round consistent with the type of rifle found in the book depository and which the assassin presumably fired, a round which passed through the President’s body in the back seat of the limousine and then through the torso and wrist of the Governor of Texas sitting in front of him, was later recovered from a hospital gurney but appeared suspiciously pristine. A second bullet, supposedly of the same type from the same gun, went through the back of the President’s skull and fragmented inside his head. Evidence was produced—the Zapruder film, the puff of smoke, the grassy knoll—suggesting that the actual shooter was not in the book depository at all but instead to one side along the motorcade route, or perhaps firing from the front. And finally, the Warren Commission published its official findings and sealed all of the evidence for 75 years.
So much about the event did not add up, or was left unanswered, that a deluge of conspiracy theories quickly ensued. Key evidence was considered mishandled, misinterpreted, or forged. This is not the way history is supposed to be made.
The current popular theory, presented in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK, suggests that Lee Harvey Oswald was merely a patsy, a fall guy, and the real shooter or shooters were on the knoll. This story puts forth a conspiracy between FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the CIA at the behest of the “military-industrial complex” to assassinate the popular president because he was about to pull out of our involvement in Vietnam. The fact that Oswald’s assassin, Jack Ruby, appears to have had CIA connections is offered as proof: Oswald had to be killed before he could talk and show that he was just an innocent loony who could not have pulled off the job alone but was in fact working for government spies.
The Stone version is unbelievable on the face of it. First, although the anti-war Left would love to claim the martyred Kennedy as one of their own, the fact is that he subscribed to the Domino Theory and was pushing this country deeper into the Vietnam conflict because of that conviction, rather than pulling us out of it. I remember this, because I was alive then and conscious of the news. If anything, the “military-industrial complex”1 would have wanted to unseat Kennedy because of recent fiascoes like the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. And if you’re an industry getting rich on government contracts, you wouldn’t relish the prospect of the United States going further into a sideshow conflict like the Vietnam insurgency, which could promise only procurements of M16 rifles, army boots, and light helicopters. Instead, you would want to focus on the Cold War and the big strategic picture, which would continue to net you lots of complex and expensive contracts for aircraft carriers, ballistic missile submarines, and heavy bombers.
Second, Earl Warren was an eminently respected jurist and a man of great intellectual honesty. If he had obtained evidence that J. Edgar Hoover had connived to assassinate a sitting U.S. president, Warren would not have hesitated to make those findings public, whatever the outcome. The idea that he might have helped to cover up an attempted coup is ludicrous.
Third, why seal everything for 75 years? Presumably that’s one whole lifetime—of anyone born on the day of the assassination—in order to protect the “innocent persons” connected with the case? What innocent persons? And how would an innocent person be damaged by the truth?
I have a theory about the assassination. I believe it fits all the facts. And I think I know why the CIA was involved and why the Warren Commission sealed their unpublished findings.
I believe Lee Harvey Oswald did in fact kill Kennedy. He was a trained marksman from the U.S. Marines, and his position in the book depository was the right one for the attempt. With the motorcade moving away from the building in a more or less straight line, he had time to align and take his shots. Of course, the range was increasing all the time, which would make the first shot most important and any that followed increasingly uncertain. It might have been better to take a position on the bridge, in front of the motorcade, so that the range would be decreasing and the chances with second and third shots getting better all the time. But that would have put the shooter in daylight, with every eye in the motorcade looking toward him. No, the shot from above and behind was the right one.
If Oswald were the patsy, the fall guy to hide the actual shooters, then these presumed professionals gave him the best shooting position. And instead they took the least likely: from the side, where a gunman would have to lead a target moving at an unpredictable speed, where a stray bullet would go off into the crowd standing opposite or, worse, end up in the limousine’s side bodywork, proving that there had been more than one shooter and that Oswald, the patsy, was not working alone. The firing position on the knoll was in the open, too exposed to passersby, while Oswald’s position on the sixth floor of the book depository was inside a window, hidden in the shadows.
Oswald was a disaffected young American. Before the assassination, he defected to the Soviet Union, spent time in Minsk at an unsatisfying job in an electrical plant, and married a Russian woman. Then he asked to be repatriated to the United States. To me, these are significant facts that tend to get lost in the high weeds of the conspiracy theories.
So here is what I think happened. Somewhere in the Soviet Union he was contacted by a low-level KGB agent. The agent recruited Oswald in a plot to assassinate Kennedy. Not being senior level, this agent possibly believed he would be making his superiors happy because of the embarrassment Kennedy had caused the Soviets by standing firm during the Cuban missile crisis. Or maybe the agent just thought, “What the hell,” and tossed Oswald over the wall to see what might happen.
Then, wonder of wonders, this unhappy dweeb actually manages to kill the President under the eyes of the Secret Service and a very large crowd. The low-level agent tells his KGB bosses, “Hey, look what I did!” But they know, as he does not, that decapitating a foreign power is the worst possible move to make during tense diplomatic times.2 They quietly dispose of their rogue agent and then call their opposite numbers in the CIA through back channels. “Ah, look, this is a big, big mess,” the Russians say. “We’ve handled it from our end, but you have to take care of your end or we’ve all got terrible problems.” To this the CIA guys say, “Okay, but remember, you owe us one.” The CIA then sends in Ruby to shoot Oswald before he stops denying his guilt and starts proclaiming his status as a new hero of the Soviet Union.
All of this goes into the lap of the Warren Commission. Everyone involved knows that if the assassination is proven to be the work of a Soviet agent then, given the current international tensions, the U.S. Congress will want to declare war. And, given the nuclear capability on both sides, this could be the end of civilization. So the commission is pleased to play up all possible alternate theories: single bullets, alternate shooters, puffs of smoke, and grassy knolls. They spread the conspiracy theories as a smoke screen, then they declare Oswald to be a lone and disaffected shooter. Nothing to see here, folks, just a disturbed young man. And finally they seal all the evidence for 75 years.
Those 75 years are up in 2039, long after the fact. By lucky coincidence, the Cold War and the Soviet Union itself will have been gone for 50 years by then. So will most of the “innocent persons” who might otherwise have been incinerated in World War III. By that time, all the conspiracy theorists will be dead, too. Only the historians will be alive to care.
Gosh, I hope I live long enough to hear the truth. I’ll be 91 by then and hope I have the wits to understand what I hear.
1. I use quotes here because, while the military and industry in this country have strong links and mutual desires, no single group of men and women or any one organization, not even the Pentagon, exists to act in their interest with concerted purpose. The “military-industrial complex” is a large and varied group of enterprises, often in competition with one another and sometimes working at cross purposes, even within the Pentagon. It’s certainly not a hierarchical body with a responsible leadership like the Roman Catholic Church or the Democratic Party.
2. Okay, Kennedy and the CIA didn’t know this either, as their repeated attempts to assassinate Castro proved. But that still doesn’t make decapitation a sensible policy.