This is part II of my thoughts on JFK and his assassination, with the 50th anniversary of the president’s death only recently passed. Certainly, and regrettably, the conspiracy folks had their day in the sun…again.
I have indicated that I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and that he did so as a deluded Marxist. Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons for folks to entertain conspiracies, not least the fringe connections that Kennedy had with the mob, his administration’s anti-Castro activities and the fact that Oswald had an unusual and checkered relationship with the Soviet Union and as a consequence with some low level staff in our intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Nevertheless, having just digested a fair amount of Vincent Bugliosi’s mammoth book, Reclaiming History, as well as some of the responses to it from both reputable and no so reputable journalists and assassination sleuths, one can only surmise that the depths of human cynicism are deep indeed.
Of course, we don’t know everything – and never will.
What we do know is that most of the conspiracy driven ideas around the assassination are built upon a few inconsistencies in reporting and/or documentation, many of them occurring in the midst of tremendous chaos during the immediate hours and days after the assassination. Ultimately, it was the criminal act of a half-balanced person named Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald two days after Oswald slew Kennedy, that gave birth to a conspiracy industry the likes of which the world has never seen.
Ruby robbed the American people of a trial that would have almost certainly put to rest all the nonsense that has unfolded in the succeeding half century. At the very least, we would have had the satisfaction of seeing all the evidence put forward in the most public way – and all relationships explored. Instead, with Oswald gone, every conceivable conspiracy found life. Denials gave birth to charges of cover up. Honest mistakes became fodder for charges of deception. Later, opportunism took hold, as witnesses who were nowhere to be found in the year after the assassination began to surface, many of them paid or manipulated by cynical or profit-motivated writers and investigators.
Whatever the strange and sloppy efforts of Dallas police, autopsy experts and the Warren Commission, their efforts look positively competent and sane next to the conspiracy hypotheses presented by the likes of Mark Lane and Oliver Stone. Bugliosi does an admirable job making this point in his 1,600 page book.
There are good reasons to be skeptical of our government and our security agencies, for all sorts of reasons both pragmatic and idealistic. Even so, there is no justification for lying, intentionally misleading people or inventing scenarios for which there is no evidence.
Both at the conceptual and factual level, the assassination conspiracies fail every reasonable test of veracity. Yet, strangely, even as responsible a commentator as Professor Larry Sabato seriously entertains some of the claims of the conspiracy schools in his recent book on Kennedy’s legacy. Sabato is apparently not aware that in the vast majority of instances the facts either contradict many of the claims he reports or the stories have been changed repeatedly in the most opportunistic and cynical fashion.
All of the famous conspiracies – the three tramps, the grassy knoll, even the magic bullet – have been explained rather easily. It has only been in the years since the assassination that folks have emerged from the shadows with new remembrances, inventions, stories and theories, most of them opportunistic and easily refutable.
For sure, there are mysteries and coincidences that do trouble. For example, why the poor security around the Dealey Plaza area? Why were there not secret service folks or police positioned in the handful of tall buildings in the area of Dealey Plaza? More to the point, why wasn’t Oswald being carefully watched, given that he was the sole (former) defector to the Soviet Union living in Texas at the time and that he worked in the Book Depository which sat strategically along the presidential motorcade route?
Equally troubling is some of the sloppy work done by the police and the autopsy doctors – bad record keeping and documentation among them. In the shock of the assassination, it was not the best moment for any of these folks, who seem to have allowed the stresses and emotions of the moment impact their professional behavior. Competency can be challenged – but then incompetency has been evident in virtually every major issue that has occurred in our modern history, from the invasion of Normandy, to pre-9-11 surveillance to Obamacare. These are grounds for trying to be better, but hardly for a conspiracy. Moreover, embarrassment about not being vigilant enough at such a critical moment probably explains the reluctance of the CIA and FBI to be forthcoming about some of their own activities, the first instinct of bureaucracies being self-preservation.
Perhaps the most compelling argument against conspiracy is that the so called experts can’t agree on what happened. The credibility of the conspiracy schools is instantly suspect because they themselves cannot agree on any plausible conspiracy that fits all the facts. They can offer only half truths to sustain suspicion, or are we to believe that the mob, the CIA, the FBI, the Soviet Union, Texas oil men, President Johnson and Castro all conspired together?
Here is what we do know. Oswald ordered the rifle that killed the president. Most of the conspiracy folks argue there were multiple shooters. Yet, how to explain why five or six or seven shots were not heard, but only three – three that were fired from one spot with a single gun owned by Lee Harvey Oswald? No other bullet from another gun was ever found.
He was in the Texas Book Depository at the time of the assassination and then fled the scene. Multiple witnesses saw him during the pursuit by police, including when he cold bloodedly shot Officer J.D. Tippet. Oswald then pulled a gun on police in the theater at the time he was captured. Later, his fingerprints were found precisely in the spot from where the shots were fired. We also know that his behavior in the days immediately prior to the shooting do not give credence to the notion of a conspiracy – he was trying to patch things up with his wife, and was trying to defect to Cuba. What actually happened, alas, is that a situation presented itself to him in those fateful days in November and Oswald, his marriage failing and his desire to be important stifled, acted in a moment of pique and resentment.
His connections to some of the security folks and fringe elements are easily explained – he inserted himself into their world because of his politics and his desire to be involved in the hot issues of the day. (It is really not that hard to have ties, however insignificant, to people in low level government or politics or the activists around them – you just have to be persistent.)
Jack Ruby denied several times that he was involved in any conspiracy. In fact, he was known to be a huge fan of the president. All of his acts prior to his shooting of Oswald – including withdrawing money from a bank, leaving his dog in his car, etc. – leave little doubt that his decision to shoot Oswald was impulsive and not premeditated. To put it as bluntly as he did, he wanted to wipe the smirk off Oswald’s face.
The unknown question, of course, and only relevant question related to the conspiracy idea is whether anyone else had any idea Oswald was going to do it. Who knows? Perhaps some low level contact somewhere pushed Oswald down the path of his twisted journey with a comment of some volatile kind. Perhaps it was inadvertently done by the dutiful FBI agent who tried on a couple of occasions to check in on Oswald in the weeks prior to the assassination, only to find him gone each time. Word got back to Oswald, who sent a nasty note complaining of harassment. Knowing that he was not trusted, did Oswald became angry and decide to show all those agents of imperialism who was boss? That was about the depth of his thinking and it fits totally with his punkish and arrogant self-importance.
No, Oswald did it, and he did it because he was a man fueled with delusions of glory rooted in a leftist, Marxist view of the world. He hated America and he hated Kennedy as a symbol of America. He thus committed one of the most notorious acts in our history and those on the left still can’t accept it for ideological reasons, and others can’t accept it because….?
William Manchester, the author of a Death of A President, the first important book on the assassination, tried to explain the desperate need so many have to believe in a conspiracy:
“If you put the murder of the president of the United States at one end of the scale, and you put that waif Oswald on the other end, it just doesn’t balance,” he said. “And you want to put something on Oswald’s side to make it balance. A conspiracy would do that beautifully. Unfortunately, there is no evidence whatever of that.”
But perhaps the most eloquent comment is found on a memorial web site for a victim that day often forgotten amidst all the nostalgia and grief for a fallen president: Officer J. D. Tippet.
“Five decades of official investigations into the events of November 22nd have not squelched the curiosity of an increasingly distrustful nation. Conspiracy theorists have demonized all of the major players in this tragic drama – including the Dallas cop who was once called a hero. In the cynical world of conspiracy, Tippit is instead a cop on the take, paid to kill Oswald as part of an elaborate plot to overthrow the government.
To others, J.D. Tippit was just an ordinary man who through a chance encounter stumbled into history. But to those who knew him, J.D. Tippit embodied the essential ingredients of the American hero.