I lived in Nanjing, China when Oliver Stone’s movie, JFK, came out. We were cut off from a lot of news over in China. You felt like you were on the other side of the world because you were. So something had to make a big stir in the U. S. for us to know about it in Nanjing. The Los Angeles riots after police beat Rodney King and the first Persian Gulf war were two events that made a stir. Oliver Stone’s film did, too.
I didn’t see the film until much later, well after we returned to the United States. Before that I saw an interview where a journalist asked Stone whether he believed the story he told in JFK. He smiled slightly and said, “I just make movies.” I thought it was a good answer. I didn’t feel so comfortable if, after nearly thirty years of controversy, the judgment of so many people would turn on the story presented in one film.
After we returned from China, I read Gerald Posner’s book, Case Closed. The controversy about Stone’s film must have raised my interest, as it was the first book about the assassination I’d read. Posner’s argument, that Lee Oswald acted alone and that a single bullet hit both President Kennedy and Governor Connally, seemed plausible. I hadn’t been inclined to question the Warren Report to begin with, so Posner’s account was convincing enough for me.
Now move forward ten years and more, to the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. The regular use of torture by the CIA and the military against our enemies appalled me. It completely changed my attitude toward my own government. Where before I would give my elected representatives the benefit of the doubt in every doubtful case, now I would never do so. I completely lost faith that the government would do the right thing as it carried out its responsibilities. The government’s behavior after 9/11 caused it to lose legitimacy.
Some would say, “It’s about time you saw that.” Others would say, “Governments have always done bad things. These acts weren’t out of the ordinary. You have to take the bad with the good.” A third bunch might comment simply, “Open your eyes and try not to be so idealistic.” Open your eyes is right, but not in the way the last group intends. Remember Saul’s conversion, when the scales fell from his eyes after God struck him blind? He was a new person after that. What a conversion experience – Paul went out and converted the world after that.
Let me describe my conversion experience. Mine started in 2002, when we started down the path toward war with Iraq. I’ve already written a lot about that period in Ugly War. Anger preceded Bush’s reelection in 2004; discouragement followed it. By 2005, though, my emotion and vehemence had played out, so the horrific events in Baghdad and elsewhere during Bush’s second term didn’t affect me so much. As Bush’s popularity bottomed out and stayed low during 2005-2007, I thought, I was here a long time before everyone else.
Then in the summer of 2009 I read an article by Oliver Stone in praise of a new book by James Douglass. Douglass’s book is titled John F. Kennedy and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. I bought the book at Amazon, and as often happens at that site, picked up another book, too, called Brothers by David Talbot. I read Brothers first, and could see it was a first class piece of journalism. I said to people, if you’re interested in the Kennedys, you have to read this book – and I don’t recommend books that often. Then I started Douglass’s book.
As I read Talbot’s account, I found myself saying, “We’ll never know if there was a conspiracy behind Kennedy’s assassination.” As I finish John F. Kennedy and the Unspeakable, I ask, “How could anyone who considers the evidence think otherwise?” The main problem with Stone’s film, and with Jim Garrison’s work in the 1960s, is that they don’t explicate a motive for a government conspiracy. You’re left feeling that everyone was in on it. How could so many people be involved with the conspiracy, and still have it be a secret after all this time?
Well, the number of people involved, or who knew about the conspiracy, was large but not that large. As for secrecy, it’s amazing how much evidence related to a conspiracy was ready at hand from the start. What a poorly kept secret! Yes, the Warren Report managed to corral enough people who would speak in favor of the lone gunman account of the crime. Its purpose from the start was to lay conspiracy theories to rest, and it succeeded with people like me – people brought up to give our public institutions more trust than they apparently deserve. After the Bush-Cheney fiasco, I would never ever misplace my public trust again.
Let me say a little about the word conspiracy before moving on to Douglass’s book. The term has a bad odor after many years of dismissive put-downs: “Oh, he’s just another one of those conspiracy theorists.” Remember the simple meaning of conspiracy: it refers to a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful. Reduced further, it means more than one person was involved in the assassination. Was it a lone gunman or not? If you think it wasn’t a lone gunman, do you have to live with the opprobrious label, conspiracy theorist?
The virtue of Douglass’s book is that he explains why a conspiracy formed in the first place. It’s the first book that convincingly addresses the conspirators’ motives. In Case Closed, Posner recognizes that he has to accomplish the same tasks as a courtroom attorney: assemble evidence to support your case, explicate a motive, make the evidence and the motive hang together in a convincing story. Douglass does the same thing. I haven’t read much of the conspiracy literature, but I can tell you that an awful lot of it focuses on evidentiary details. Jim Garrison’s case is a good example of that method. One reason the jury acquitted Clay Shaw is that Garrison didn’t explain why Shaw might have been involved with a conspiracy to begin with.
When you read Talbot and Douglass together, you can see that many powerful people had numerous reasons for wanting Jack and Bobby Kennedy out of the way. At bottom, they saw Jack Kennedy as treasonous, not to be trusted with the power he held. Brutus and the other conspirators in Rome had the same motive for killing Caesar. They didn’t trust him. They didn’t trust him with the survival of the state. In Kennedy’s case, his enemies believed that if he continued as president, the United States would lose its global contest with communism.
Imagine that Barack Obama wants to open negotiations with Osama bin Laden. When challenged, told firmly he should not go down that road, Obama persists. He argues that we invite our own destruction if we don’t find a way to make peace with our enemies. He argues that we should look at our own attitudes, examine our own tendency to reach for weapons of war when the methods of peace offer us our only hope for salvation. The differences between our current war and the Cold War of Kennedy’s time are numerous and relevant, yet this example gives an idea of the reaction some people had toward Kennedy’s moves toward reconciliation with the Soviet Union after the Cuban missile crisis. Like Kennedy, they perceived the nation’s survival at stake. They concluded that Kennedy must be removed from office to protect the republic.
When you understand the conspirators’ motives, the rest of the evidence becomes too strong to dismiss. Douglass assembles a huge amount of non-dismissible evidence to support the conclusion that the CIA was involved in Kennedy’s murder. For me, Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Oswald on November 24 created the small voice that asked through the decades, “What’s going on here? That’s fishy.” How could Oswald be murdered like that? What’s going on here?
Then you learn that Jack Ruby had ties to the CIA before he carried out his hit against Oswald. You learn that Oswald wasn’t only a former Marine, a loner and a misfit with problems in his marriage and no steady job. His history was a lot more complicated than that. Life magazine published that black and white photograph of Oswald, standing with a rifle in his hands. There you have him, the president’s killer. The evidence is right in front of you. When you find out that Oswald himself worked with the Central Intelligence Agency, had done so for quite a long time before 1963, you have to question the Life magazine account. You can’t believe the Warren Report any longer when you learn that both Jack Ruby and Lee Oswald had clear ties to the CIA.
The enormity of the alternate account was too big for most people to swallow. How could our own government have been involved with this huge crime? The crime itself couldn’t be believed. Political assassinations of the kind that brought Julius Caesar down just don’t occur any more. Instinctive disbelief in political assassination engendered grief-stricken belief in the Life magazine account: a disturbed gunman acted alone, for reasons we could never fathom due to Jack Ruby’s act of revenge.
Well what if Jack Ruby didn’t act out of revenge? What if he cried that weekend not because Kennedy was dead, but because he’d been assigned to take Oswald out? He’d cry if he knew his life was over. He went to prison and died there. Oswald cried out to the press the day before, “I’m just a patsy!” Funny thing for a presidential assassin to say, actually. Funny thing to say, unless it’s true.
So read Douglass’s book. Read it even though the print is small and it looks a little intimidating. Good research generally does look intimidating. One Amazon reviewer commented that this book is the most important written in the last forty years. That is not an overstatement, no matter what you think of the Kennedys and no matter what you think of the Warren Commission. John F. Kennedy and the Unspeakable offers our country an opportunity to deal with the truth. The country is already immeasurably weakened now, at the beginning of 2010, compared with its strength and vitality at the end of 1999. At the least, it can muster courage to recognize the truth before it passes into history’s list of deflated empires.
J. K. Rowling said that dealing with the truth is always better than accepting a lie or an evasion. Not only better – it’s easier than the alternatives, no matter how hard accepting the truth might be. We don’t know what might have happened in the United States if we had accepted the truth about November 22, 1963, right away. We do know what will happen if we don’t accept it now. Our country will succumb to civil conflict, just as Rome did after Caesar fell. We had plenty of civil conflict in the 1960s, and we have plenty more on the horizon in 2010.
Conspiracy theorists have another kind of dismissive put-down to deal with. “You think JFK’s assassination was an inside job? So what if it was? What can we do about it? Let’s move on already.” Bobby Kennedy wasn’t dismissive about it, but during his bitter period of grief he would say something similar. “What good would it do to prove a conspiracy? It won’t bring my brother back.” Who cares if people in our own government knocked off a sitting president? It happened over forty-five years ago. Let’s deal with problems we have right now.
Oliver Stone, David Talbot and James Douglass have it right, though. We can’t pretend Kennedy fell to a lone nut if it’s not true. We have to be clear eyed about why facing the truth matters. We have to face the enormity of this assassination. If it’s the truth, we have to accept that our government executed a president, then lied to cover it up. How could anyone say that the truth doesn’t matter here? We all want to love our country. We all want to be proud of our citizenship, our membership in a constitutional community for freedom and responsibility. How can love and pride ring true for us if the whole project rests on a lie?
Once you’ve lost faith in one area, you lose faith in every area. The government tortured people to death at Bagram air force base, and you wonder what else it can do. Once you doubt that Lee Oswald acted alone, you doubt that Sirhan Sirhan acted alone. Once you doubt the government’s story about why the Kennedys died, you doubt the official story about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. When you don’t believe anything the government says, that’s not healthy skepticism anymore. That’s a loss of faith so complete the government no longer holds legitimate authority.
That’s the corrosive consequence of betrayal. Once you doubt one act or statement, you doubt every act, every statement. Once you see that the government secretly, then openly runs torture camps – with a worldwide network it uses to transport prisoners to designated torture sites – you ask what else it does. I can’t think of a policy that stoops lower than that. It was just the Holocaust with fewer people.
Loss of trust goes a long way: you distrust every last element of authority you used to deem legitimate. You used to pay taxes because you wanted to support public institutions, because you believed in their mission. You believe your representatives carry out their responsibilities openly and in good faith. You are proud of your membership in the community, and you believe in its purpose. Once you lose trust, you lose all those beliefs. Once you lose trust, you pay taxes because you have to, and your membership becomes a disgrace.
We know the 1960s weren’t easy – Vietnam stretched most Americans’ patriotism hard. I’m glad I didn’t have to make a decision between fighting Viet Cong or resisting the draft board. I have deep admiration for soldiers like John Kerry who fought honorably, then opposed the war whey they returned. That took courage. On the other side, the so-called patriots who swift-boated John Kerry are nothing more than political scum: people who will say and do anything – no matter how unethical – to get their candidate elected. It’s especially galling that the beneficiary and tacit backer of the swift boat campaign, George W. Bush, sat out the war in his air national guard unit while Kerry and others led brave men into battle. Bush knew the swift boaters were lying, yet said nothing to defend Kerry’s honorable service.
After Vietnam, I joined the Navy voluntarily, when the armed forces still lived under the ignominy of that misbegotten war. Service to country was a primary motive. My love of country survived Vietnam, but living through that time taught me that loving your country does not require loyalty to its government. You can maintain fidelity to your country’s ideals while you stand against the actions of its government. The same distinction has to hold for patriots who recognize the evil behind our government’s actions, whether those actions involve assassination or torture. Condemnation of the government for acts that are in fact evil is not disloyal, unpatriotic, or treasonous. Let the truth about evil come out, though the heavens may fall.
Would the heavens fall if we acknowledged the truth about JFK’s assassination? Would they have fallen if we had acknowledged it forty-five years ago? We can’t answer the second question, of course. We can only answer the first question if we try it out. Sixteen years after the assassination, in 1979, the House panel on assassinations wrote that Kennedy’s murder was probably the result of a conspiracy. After Oliver Stone’s film, polls started to show that more than half of American citizens believe the same thing. Does that mean we’ve acknowledged the truth? I don’t think so. Acknowledging the truth means we open up all of the government’s records on the matter. To begin with, those records belong to us. Acknowledging the truth means that the government take an active role in finding the truth, not an active role in hiding it. Acknowledging the truth means owning the crime, and figuring out where to go from here once we’ve done so.
I’d say we owe James Douglass a big debt of thanks. That book took a lot of work. It took special skill to do what he did. As citizens we need to read his work and reach judgments about what he has written. Honestly, you can’t let your president be murdered and not face up to it. You can’t let the unspeakable remain unspoken. At some point the unspeakable has to come into the open and enter the room, no matter what. When it does, you have to keep it with you, no matter how shocking, shameful, or shattering the truth is.
I’m telling you, we have one more chance, after George W. Bush, to save our country, to reestablish our commitment to its founding ideas and principles. We have big trials ahead. Acknowledging the truth about all our government’s evil acts could help us survive the coming trials as one nation. If the country and its citizens hide the truth, avoid it and hope it disappears, we’ll shatter into a shapeless pile under the pressures we’ll endure. We don’t have to endure these trials alone, we don’t have to succumb, but the general atmosphere of division and pessimism suggests that we prefer failure to honesty.