Who Didn’t Kill JFK?
In case you missed it, November marked the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The city of Dallas spent more than a year preparing for the occasion, scheduling exhibits and lecture series and memorial ceremonies. The Frontiers of Flight Museum constructed a life-size walk-through replica of Air Force One as it looked on the fateful day of November 22, 1963, complete with “a highly detailed cockpit, the president’s bedroom, and the stateroom in which Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office.” The Sixth Floor Museum, located in the former Texas School Book Depository, offered the artwork of the Dallas LOVE Project, intended to rewrite the city’s 1963 reputation as a “City of Hate.” On November 22 itself, some 5,000 privileged ticket holders gathered in Dealey Plaza, where the shots rang out, to hear historian David McCullough recite from the former president’s speeches and observe a moment of silence. To commemorate the day, The Dallas Morning News offered a memorial box set with the sleek title “JFK50,” featuring a full edition of the paper from the morning after the assassination along with three “collectible JFK50 cards.”
Those of us who couldn’t make it to Dallas were nonetheless able to relive the assassination thanks to a months-long media blitz. In October, director Peter Landesman released Parkland, a feature film depicting the minute-by-minute chaos at Parkland Memorial Hospital on the afternoon of the assassination. Not to be outdone, Oliver Stone re-released his 1991 conspiracy film JFK, still the single most influential work in shaping how Americans think about the events of November 22. On the smaller screen, NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN, TLC, TCM and the Military Channel all broadcast documentaries, while National Geographic presented Killing Kennedy, a new docudrama starring Rob Lowe as JFK. On still smaller screens, CBS News streamed its 1963 assassination coverage in real time, while several iPhone apps (“JFK Assassination,” “JFK in Dallas 50,” “Ask a Conspirator”) promised to complete the picture with access to all manner of Kennedy minutiae.
And then there were the books—rafts of them—covering nearly every aspect of Kennedy’s life and death. According to Amazon, more than six dozen books related to the Kennedy assassination were scheduled for release in October and November alone. As Jill Abramson observed in The New York Times, no single one of these is likely to be the final word on an event and a presidency that seems ever more “elusive” as the decades pass. Together, though, these books can tell us an awful lot about what we want to remember, and what we might prefer to forget.
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The latest batch of Kennedy books can be divided into two categories, each with its own rules and traditions. The first and most obvious focuses on the assassination itself, presenting the events of November 22 as a grand who-done-it mystery. The second examines the Kennedy presidency and its lost promise—instead of who-done-it, the what-might-have-been. To some degree, both of these categories rest on irresolvable questions. The who-done-it literature tends to worry the evidence, circling around the same set of tantalizing ballistics, witness deaths and missing files. The what-might-have-been books grapple with Kennedy’s inner longings and outer stylings, attempting to puzzle out significant patterns in his presidential record. In both cases, the subject tends to fuel overstatement, with authors declaring again and yet again to have discovered The Truth about Kennedy and his death. This, in turn, provokes yet another set of questions: Why, fifty years on, is Kennedy still an icon, and why do we seem so stuck in the same old debates about his presidency?
Most of the basic hypotheses about the assassination have lingered for decades. Indeed, one of the remarkable aspects of Kennedy’s murder is how quickly certain conspiracy theories emerged, and how persistent they have been over time. If Oswald did not act alone, his most likely allies remain the same dizzying cast of characters first suspected in 1963: pro-Castro Cubans, anti-Castro Cubans, Soviet intelligence, the FBI, the CIA, the Mafia or Vice President Lyndon Johnson. (There is, of course, the possibility that Oswald was a patsy, framed by any or all of the above for a murder he did not commit.)
The first wave of assassination literature addressed most of these possibilities, either as catechisms of facts or as vague dark suspicions. In the 1960s, attorney Mark Lane was first out of the gate with Rush to Judgment, an attack on the Warren Commission report as a high-level government whitewash. Congress itself took up the case in the 1970s, when the House Special Committee on Assassinations concluded that the single-bullet theory was hopelessly flawed. In 1980, investigative journalist Anthony Summers followed up with new research suggesting that gangsters, anticommunist Cubans and the CIA may have each played a role in Kennedy’s death. In 1989, conspiracy and UFO guru Jim Marrs took the argument a step further, claiming that Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover wanted Kennedy dead and went out of their way to make his murder possible. Marrs’s book was a source for Stone’s 1991 film, which in turn inspired a backlash led by investigative journalist Gerald Posner, who returned to the Warren Commission’s original argument that Oswald, indeed, acted alone. Optimistically, Posner titled his book Case Closed.
Far from closing the case, though, these early works of assassination research mainly served to raise new questions—and, not incidentally, to force the opening of additional archives. In 1992, in response to the public outcry unleashed by Stone’s JFK, Congress passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, ordering the “immediate disclosure” of all possible assassination records. To the frustration of many researchers, the disclosure process remains incomplete, an ongoing cycle of FOIA appeals and denials. But the act did have the important result of releasing thousands of new documents and establishing a central repository for assassination-related records. Today, assassination researchers can perform their work in a dedicated, climate-controlled room at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, which houses an estimated 5 million pages of relevant material. The collection also includes physical artifacts ranging from Jackie Kennedy’s bloodstained pink-wool Chanel suit to Oswald’s 6.5-millimeter Carcano carbine rifle.