Friday, November 22, 2013

Conspiracies real and imagined: the JFK assassination

Since this 50th anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination is being commemorated all over the media, I though I would republish here the full post I did on 02/10/2010 on the conspiracy theories around it.


This is Part 3 of a four-part discussion of the book Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 (2009).

The Kennedy Assassination is probably the most famous of all sets of conspiracy theories, except maybe for anti-Semitic theories about the World Jewish Conspiracy. And even those like to work the Kennedy assassination in.

I'm one of probably about 10 people in the country who actually believe the "lone gunman" theory of the JFK assassination: Oswald, with the rifle, in the Book Depository. But Olmsted's main point here is valid. The Johnson adminstration wanted to wrap up the investigation quickly. The FBI had its secrets to hide, i.e., a seemingly lax handling of the information on Oswald that they had been tracking up to the assassination. The CIA also had a secret assassination program against Fidel Castro that they wanted to be sure stayed under wraps, but which could have been plausibly seen as a motive for the Cuban government to attempt an assassination of Kennedy.

And the eagerness of the official investigators to put the case to rest wound up generating a lot of suspicion in the decades since. "Oswald may have been the real assassin," Olmstead writes, "but the FBI's refusal to consider alternatives ensured that conspiracy theories would flourish."

In some ways, the JFK assassination is a very different kind of conspiracy theory story the first three she describes: revisionist criticism of the First World War, the Pearl Harbor Conspiracy, and the Red Scare. Those all served some substantial political purpose: opposition to war, discrediting of the Roosevelt administration and (for some) of the American war effort in the Second World War, inflaming public passions against Communists to bolster support for Cold War policies, demonizing Democrats as subversives and anti-American.

The JFK assassination conspiracy theories, though, were a much more eclectic set of theories generated by cranks, amateur historians, serious academics, Congressional researchers, investigative reporters, and conspiracists who wanted to work this incident into their Grand Scheme. And, as Olmsted's account illustrates well, research into this case touched on issues historically important in their own right, such as the FBI's questionable competence and willingness to indulge coverups, the CIA's assassination plots that hired major mobsters for the job, Johnson's foreign policy concerns that a thorough investigation would reveal Communist powers' involvement which in turn might lead to a nuclear war, even the question of whether Kennedy had to decided to phase out the American military presence in Vietnam.

While Olmsted is sensibly critical of the approach of the early JFK assassination buffs, she is also fascinated and at least a little impressed by the process. She credits Sylvia Meagher with being pivotal in organizing the early network of assassination researchers. Not incidentally,Meagher was an employee of the World Health Organization who had been dragged before a security hearing in 1953 because she had questioned the legality of the government's loyalty program of the time. She was aware from personal experience that the government was sometimes willing to do stupid and abusive things.

According to Olmsted's account, the first two major books that popularized skepticism of the Warren Commission Report, Mark Lane's Rush to Judgment (1966) and Edward Jay Epstein's Inquest (1966), drew heavily on the work of these researchers linked in an informal network. These early theories were largely generated by people like Meagher who considered themselves on the left of American politics. Though far-right groups like the John Birch Society were quick to decide it had all been a Communist plot, like they thought pretty much every event in the world was.

Olmsted also stresses that many among this network of amateur criminologists and historians were women. In a case of the kind of groupthink among the press that in later would grown to bizarre, pathological proportions around other issues, conventional wisdom rallied around the officially accepted version, the Warren Commission's. And the female amateur researchers involved, Osmsted notes, were a particular target:

The women came in for special criticism. The authors of one 1967 attack on the assassination researchers, for example, devoted a condescending chapter to the "housewives' underground," which implied that female researchers such as Meagher and [Maggie] Field were looking for meaning to fill their empty lives. Meagher was singled out as the "Housewives' Supersleuth," though she was a divorcee with a full-time salaried job. [The Scavengers and Critics of the Warren Report by Richard Warren Lewis and Lawrence Schiller (1967)]
New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison also boosted interest in JFK assassination conspiracy theories when he indicted a gay New Orleans businessman in 1967 for plotting to kill Kennedy. But he also helped brand them as the domain of crackpots when he fairly quickly showed himself to be one. As well as a DA bringing abusing his prosecutorial powers.

I have to confess that, despite my fuddy-duddy view of the JFK assassination, I have pretty much always been fascinated by the case. So reading Olmsted's account of it is also a bit of a guilty pleasure.

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