Lee Harvey Oswald’s three rapid-fire shots played no small role in transforming America from a country of optimism, self-belief and informed patriotism into something far less sanguine
Having been only six at the time of John F. Kennedy’s death, I have no idea where I was when I heard the news. Nonetheless, I was gripped—in a creepy, unsettling kind of way—by television documentaries and magazine stories throughout my school years postulating one conspiracy theory after another: fabricated photographs of Oswald posing with a rifle, an alleged gunman on the grassy knoll, the impossibility of “the magic bullet” hitting both Kennedy and Governor Connally, the pristine bullet assertion, the head of state’s head reeling back instead of forward after the fatal shot, Jack Ruby’s connection with the Mob, Oswald allegedly anti-Castro and not pro-Castro, the Oswald doppelganger theory, the perfidy of the Warren Commission, and so on. Many of the conspiracy angles may have been far-fetched, including the one about the driver of the presidential limousine, William Greer, and yet how could there be all that smoke and no fire?
By the time Oliver Stone’s movie came out in 1991, I had become less convinced about the fire. Watching JFK was like going to see The Silence of the Lambs (1991) after first reading Thomas Harris’s novel of the same name. Stone described his film as a “thriller”, but the prominence of Jim Garrison—or at least Kevin Costner’s depiction of him—in JFK gave me a sense of having already read the book of the film. After twenty-eight years of singing the same old tune, where was the proof? Any proof. It was getting harder to believe in a CIA–FBI–Army Intelligence–Secret Service–Dallas Police Department–LBJ–Warren Commission conspiracy. Surely someone (or someone’s friend or relative or someone’s friend’s relative’s friend) would have broken ranks by now and given the game away?
Stone’s JFK undoubtedly contains some fine acting, including Donald Sutherland’s wonderful portrayal of the fictitious General X, along with suspenseful music and clever editing. But did all that Hollywood wizardry bring us any closer to the truth? If the conspirators had been so smart, why did they neglect to photograph their “patsy” poking his rifle out of the six-storey window? And if the conspirators wanted to frame Oswald up there in the Texas School Book Depository Building, why arrange for their gunmen to shoot at President Kennedy from different directions, including the grassy knoll? How, exactly, would that incriminate Oswald? And why risk exposing their hired assassins by positioning them in the open where spectators with cameras (or even a home-movie camera à la Abraham Zapruder) might capture their image on film? Stone’s JFK movie had so many holes in it that even he now refers to it as “the spirit of the truth” rather than the actual truth. He also describes the film as a “counter-myth” when “counter-reality” would be closer to the mark.
Gerald Posner’s book Case Closed (1993), with all its minor errors, should have served as an antidote to JFK. Posner contended that the President’s head pitching back in the Zapruder film at the time of his mortal wound was a neuromuscular response and not the result of a gunman on the grassy knoll. Ex-marine Lee Harvey Oswald, a good marksman, murdered the thirty-fourth President of the United States with his Italian war-surplus rifle. He had the motive, the means and the opportunity to assassinate Kennedy, and there is ample proof that this is precisely what he did. Howard Brennan, sitting on a retaining wall the other side of the street from the Book Depository Building, observed—in horror—Oswald fire three shots at the motorcade. Brennan was soon providing the police with a description of the lone gunman, which explains the alert that found its way so speedily to Officer Tippit in his patrol car.
While Stone’s JFK has Lou Ivon incorrectly claiming that the Zapruder film proves Oswald only had only 5.6 seconds to fire off his three shots, Posner points out that the Zapruder film actually suggests a figure closer to nine seconds, given that the first bullet would have been pre-loaded. Stone’s movie maintains that foliage would have obstructed Oswald’s third and fatal shot, but Posner argues to the contrary. There is the insinuation in JFK that the CIA played a part in unexpectedly re-routing the presidential motorcade, and yet public records show the route was published in Dallas newspapers on Monday, November 18, 1963, four days before the assassination. One of the most convincing aspects of Case Closed is Posner’s taking into account what this startling news might have meant to a sociopath like Lee Harvey Oswald, who only seven months earlier had attempted to assassinate General Edwin Walker. Not only did the planned motorcade route pass by Oswald’s multi-storey workplace, it was scheduled to occur during the lunch break in the Book Depository Building—the one time in the day when the upper floors of the building would be devoid of work colleagues. But what could have been Oswald’s motive for wanting to shoot the President of the United States of America?
Oswald’s lifelong embrace of radical politics began in 1953 when he read a pamphlet handed out at a meeting protesting against the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. One could reasonably object to the use of the death penalty, but the guilt of Julius, who ran a Soviet spy network, and his wife, who aided and abetted her husband in his endeavours, is another thing altogether. We can assume that Oswald bought into the radical narrative at the time: that the Rosenbergs were innocents, used by the US government as scapegoats—or patsies, if you will—to explain why America lost its monopoly on the atomic bomb in 1949. Here we have the genesis of American leftist paranoia. It insinuated that the administrations of President Truman (1945–53) and his successor, Eisenhower (1953–61), promoted a form of homegrown fascism, a notion more absurd than the histrionics of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Oswald, a self-confessed aficionado of “socialist literature”, came to despise his homeland so much that he defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959. Disillusioned with the reality of life there, he switched his allegiance to Castro after returning, in June 1962, to live in the USA. On September 26, 1963, the lifelong Marxist took a bus to Mexico City and visited the Cuban embassy in order to gain passage to Havana. No luck—we assume.
Vincent Bugliosi, in Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (2007), does not claim to know the inner workings of Oswald’s mind on the eve of the assassination, but suggests there are enough clues left behind to get the general picture. On Thursday evening, November 21, 1963, Oswald hitched a ride with a colleague, nineteen-year-old Wesley Frazier, to the neighbourhood of Irving, a thirty-minute drive from Dallas. Marina, Lee’s young Russian wife and the mother of his two children, was separated from her husband, but there were expectations of a reconciliation. Lee normally spent the weekend with her in Irving, driving there after work on Friday with Frazier. Turning up on a Thursday evening “aggravated” Marina, because it was not a part of the arrangement with the owner of the house, Ruth Paine. Bugliosi’s educated guess—and one corroborated by Marina herself—is that if Marina had agreed to Lee’s request that night to move back in with him, he would not have gone through with the assassination. Early next morning, while Marina remained in bed, Lee Harvey Oswald left a large amount of money along with his wedding ring in a little china cup, and quietly departed. On the ride into Dallas, Wesley Frazier commented on the brown paper package on the back seat. “Curtain rods,” Oswald explained.
Did Lee Harvey Oswald assassinate President Kennedy some four and a half hours later? He was the one employee at the Book Depository Building who claimed not to have witnessed the presidential motorcade, and the only one to leave the building in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. He raced back to his apartment, caught a taxi when the bus proved too slow, and changed into fresh clothes. Then he packed a .38 revolver. After a few abrupt words with his landlady, he took off in the direction of Oak Cliff, which happened to be on the bus route to the nearest airport. Dallas Police Department officer J.D. Tippit spotted a man on the pavement who fitted the description of a prime assassination suspect broadcast on the police radio. A brief altercation between Oswald and Tippit ensued. Oswald then shot the constable four times—the last into Tippit’s temple—and escaped towards the nearest cinema. Five people witnessed Oswald’s monstrous crime. Dallas Police Department’s Captain Will Fritz, Oswald’s chief interrogator, soon grasped that Tippit was not the only person Oswald had murdered that day.
Oswald denied any accusation of wrongdoing except punching one of the policemen who arrested him in the cinema (though he actually attempted to shoot Officer McDonald). Oswald disclaimed ownership of a rifle and a pistol even after Fritz confronted him with a photograph—retrieved from the garage at Ruth Paine’s house in Irving—depicting a guy who looked like Oswald showing off his rifle and pistol. Only towards the end did the accused slip up. According to Vincent Bugliosi, in Reclaiming History, Oswald told Captain Fritz he was on the first floor of the Book Depository Building at the time of the assassination before going up to the second floor to buy a Coke. Not long before the interrogation finished, however, Oswald contradicted his story by telling a different interrogator—Fritz was not present—that he “came down” to the drink dispenser on the second floor.
One thing Oswald never tried to hide was his leftism. A Marxist if not a “Leninist-Marxist”, the lone gunman admitted to being a keen supporter of the Cuban Revolution. He boasted that he was the branch secretary of the New Orleans chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba organisation. Oswald was a man of “The Cause”. Paraded in front of the press, he raised his handcuffs and gave the world a defiant smirk and a leftist fist, replicating the gesture, according to Bugliosi’s account, a day later when he lay mortally wounded on the floor after being shot by Jack Ruby.
Oswald, during his interrogation, argued that his particular radical faith did not mark him out as a potential assassin but quite the opposite, because Marxists believe in systematic change—class struggle, social revolution, and so forth—rather than the anarcho-terrorist practice of bumping off highly placed individuals belonging to the counter-revolutionary establishment. Putting paid to this particular line of defence was Oswald’s attempted assassination of General Edwin Walker on April 10, 1963. Fritz and his team suspected Oswald tried to kill Walker, but only later were their suspicions confirmed. Not until December of that year did the Dallas police locate the note Oswald wrote to his wife Marina before making the attempt on Walker’s life. Oswald, it turned out, had ordered his Carcano rifle in March 1963 after reading an article in a Dallas newspaper about Walker agitating for the USA to “liquidate the scourge that has descended upon Cuba”. Marina Oswald told authorities that around this time her husband remarked, “Well, what if somebody got rid of Hitler at the right time?”
…what was the point of the conspirators silencing Oswald, only to leave an undisciplined and volatile character such as Jack “Sparky” Ruby in the custody of the police?
Besides, what was the point of the conspirators silencing Oswald, only to leave an undisciplined and volatile character such as Jack “Sparky” Ruby in the custody of the police? The murder of Oswald, as it turns out, proved convenient to the conspiracists—not conspirators—and most inconvenient to the cause of truth. A majority of Americans, perhaps as many as 85 per cent, believe the death of John F. Kennedy was the result of a conspiracy. Even Jack Ruby, before he died in 1967, came to believe in a conspiracy—not one that involved him, naturally.
With the benefit of hindsight, we might now view the assassination of Kennedy as a calamity waiting to happen. Since the time of Abraham Lincoln, lone gunmen have taken a potshot at a third of all American presidents, albeit only a few successfully. The standard postwar exercise of a presidential motorcade passing slowly through the built-up area of a city—any city—with the President sitting there totally exposed to the world, strikes us as a kind of madness. It would never be contemplated today. The Secret Service can be blamed for Kennedy’s death, not because they conspired with the so-called military-industrial complex to murder their boss, but because they allowed a reckless practice to continue until it ended in tragedy. They were also negligent in their liaising with the Dallas branch of the FBI—and, for that matter, every other branch of the FBI.
That said, a whole series of things had to fall Oswald’s way in order for him to carry out the assassination, including Kennedy’s convoluted back brace that made it impossible for him to take evasive action once the bullets starting flying. There was also JFK’s insistence that Secret Service agents not come between him and the crowds by standing on the presidential vehicle’s running-boards. President Kennedy could have survived the attack, in the opinion of Vincent Bugliosi, had either of those factors been otherwise.
The most generous explanation for the lasting popularity of conspiracy theories—any conspiracy theory, for that matter—is, as David Aaronovitch argues in Voodoo Histories: The Role of Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History (2010), that they assure the believer that “the world was ruled by some kind of order, even if it was hidden”. The murder in broad daylight of one of the most famous and charismatic figures in the twentieth century by a twenty-four-year-old misfit, a fellow possessed of low cunning rather than high intelligence, suggests a universe characterised by absurdity rather than rationality. Paradoxically, a conspiracy theory—however paranoid and far-fetched—is comforting to the believer because it assures him that “human agencies are powerful, and that there is order rather than chaos”. Those who unilaterally alter history’s direction might be malevolent but at least they are identifiable and can, therefore, be fought and even defeated. Deliverance from life’s inequities, redemption in other words, remains in our grasp.
A whole series of things had to fall Oswald’s way in order for him to carry out the assassination, including Kennedy’s convoluted back brace that made it impossible for him to take evasive action once the bullets starting flying
Friday, November 22, 1963, was a ghastly day in American history. In the middle of the carnage, Governor Connally, hit by the previous bullet but still conscious, heard the First Lady cry out, “They’ve killed my husband. I have his brains in my hand.” She held his head together as best she could all the way to the Dallas Parkland Hospital. Two hours later, she refused to change out of her blood-spattered clothes for LBJ’s brief swearing-in ceremony aboard Air Force One. “No. Let them see what they’ve done.” By them, significantly, Jacqueline Kennedy meant racist extremists who opposed the White House’s civil rights legislation. In her interview for William Manchester’s book The Death of a President (1967), she vented her frustration that it was “some silly little communist” who had murdered her husband. She worried that Oswald’s culpability denuded President Kennedy’s death “of any meaning”, since it meant JFK “didn’t have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights”.
It is along these lines that James Pierson, in Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism (2007), argues that November 22, 1963, casts an even longer shadow over the USA than the events of September 11, 2001. The liberal media in America, Pierson contends, sought to refashion John F. Kennedy as a liberal martyr rather than a Cold Warrior by shifting the blame for his death from a radical leftist to an American-style malaise. The political benefits for the Democratic Party were immediate and overwhelming, with LBJ sweeping aside the Republicans’ Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. If America was a diseased and violent nation capable of the most heinous of crimes, then Goldwater’s libertarian conservatism, predicated upon a healthy, positive, pragmatic, last-chance-for-the-free-world America, made no sense.
Pierson claims that although the Democrats marginalised libertarian conservatism in 1964, they failed to destroy it, as evidenced by Ronald Reagan’s victory in the 1980 presidential election. Reagan was a patriot, brimful of American can-do, who cared little for the diplomatic niceties of détente—in his first term, at least—and overturned years of Carter-esque ambivalence about the role of America in the world. It is not by accident that Ronald Reagan’s “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” line echoed Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner!”
Kennedy, being a genuine Second World War naval hero and a man of indisputable style and charisma, appealed to patriotic and urbane Americans alike, and during the 1960 campaign frequently sounded more hawkish than Richard Nixon on the subject of the Cold War. It is difficult conceiving of a modern-day, high-profile Democrat—Barack Obama, for instance—repeating the kind of pledge Kennedy made at his 1961 inauguration, that America would “pay any price … support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty”. In terms of foreign policy, at least, Kennedy was closer to Reagan than Obama.
I would not unreservedly recommend Chris Matthews’s Kennedy and Nixon (2011). His proposition that Watergate can be explained largely in terms of Nixon’s enmity towards the Kennedy clan might be drawing a long bow. All the same, he provides a fascinating insight into the competitive friendship that existed between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy up to—and, to a degree, shortly after—the closely-fought 1960 presidential election campaign. Throughout the 1950s they were pretty much on the same page about everything, except who was the better person to deliver their (mostly agreed upon) idea of mid-twentieth-century American liberalism. Kennedy disclosed to his confidants that if he lost the contest to be the Democratic Party’s candidate for the presidency, he would vote at the election for Nixon. After Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, Nixon defended Kennedy as vehemently as any Democratic politician.
Senator John Kennedy and Vice-President Richard Nixon were, admittedly, more like rivals than friends, and yet Matthews’s book clearly demonstrates that a genuine respect existed between the two of them until the acrimony of the 1960 election, which included the shenanigans of the Chicago count, soured their personal relationship forever. Simply put, Nixon was not a good loser—and Kennedy not always a principled winner. For all that, they had far more in common than most critics today are prepared to acknowledge. Any fair assessment of the domestic policies advanced by the Nixon administration (1969–74) would recognise the resemblance to the Kennedy years (1961–63). LBJ’s “Great Society” spend-up had more in common with FDR’s “New Deal” than anything Nixon or Kennedy proposed during their respective incumbencies. As for civil rights legislation, Nixon supported Eisenhower’s initiatives in the 1950s, as Republicans en masse did the JFK–LBJ 1964 civil rights bills.
Ironically, the paranoid and radical view of the USA espoused by Lee Harvey Oswald has become increasingly the norm amongst America’s “New Class”. He, too, was scathing about American exceptionalism and blamed the Cold War on the machinations of Uncle Sam. Oswald would have enjoyed reading Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States (2012), which blames capitalism for everything that went wrong in the postwar decades and redefines communist dictators, including Fidel Castro, as freedom fighters. The truth, however, is that Nikita Khrushchev nearly brought the world to ruin during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and it was Kennedy, in the opinion of Cold War scholar John Lewis Gaddis, who saved us from catastrophe. During the thirteen days of nuclear brinkmanship, according to all the latest sources, Fidel Castro’s great contribution was to counsel General Secretary Khrushchev to unleash Armageddon on the United States. Lee Harvey Oswald idolised Fidel Castro, and Oliver Stone still idolises Fidel Castro. If I were a conspiracist I might want to join the dots.
I doubt even Oswald—a grandiose narcissist if ever there was one—could imagine the profound effect his killing of Kennedy would have on the country he loathed so much. The fallout from Oswald’s murderous deed has played no small role in transforming America from a country characterised by optimism, self-belief and informed patriotism—“ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”—into something far less sanguine.
Kennedy hoped that the Democrats could be a sensible progressive party that might be idealistic and realistic at the same time, true to American traditions but also with an eye to the future. Perhaps, as James Pierson argues in Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, this was always a creed in danger of falling victim to its contradictions. What we can say is that the unreconstructed leftists who long ago hijacked the Democratic Party have little in common with the real John F. Kennedy. On Friday, November 22, 1963, JFK was robbed not only of his life but also of his political legacy.
Daryl McCann, who also blogs, wrote on the Iron Curtain in the October issue