By John Hagney
The Kennedy assassination is the Turin Shroud of conspiracy theories. Even with the 2018 release of new documents, there were no epiphanies.
Most Americans believe conspiracy speculation because of contradictory expert opinions, Kennedy’s antagonists are prima facie presumed guilty, Warren Commission witnesses perjured, the commission’s report failed to include critical evidence, and Americans were predisposed to fear and cynically inured by a history of government deception.
The 1964 Warren Report’s conclusion: Oswald acted alone. Research defending the report include Vincent Bugliosi’s “Reclaiming History” (2007) and Max Holland’s research (e.g., “After Thirty Years,” Reviews of American History, June, 1994). Holland insists, notwithstanding “some witnesses willfully deceived the commission,” that the report reflects “the correct conclusion.”
Contrary opinions include Harvard’s Edward Epstein, who concludes in “Inquest” (1966) that the report “failed to contend with serious evidentiary contradictions and excluded crucial evidence” and the New York Times’ Philip Shenon’s “Cruel and Shocking Act” (2013).
Complicating the controversy, a 1978 congressional committee found JFK “was probably assassinated as result of a conspiracy,” and that there was “95% certainty” of a second shooter.
Those commonly implicated:
Southern Democrats: Kennedy’s Yankee Brahmin, carpetbagging, racial equality liberalism enraged Old Dixie.
Castro: The 1975 Church Committee documented eight CIA attempts from 1960-65 to assassinate Castro, some involving Mafia, hostile to Castro when he closed Mafia Havana casinos and nightclubs. Castro understood that if he was connected to the assassination, a U.S. invasion would be imminent.
CIA: Kennedy ousted Director Allen Dulles, bungled the CIA Bay of Pigs operation, and vowed he would “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces scattering it to the winds.”
Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1991) is red meat for undiscriminating conspiracy appetites. The film’s fragile premise is that Kennedy was assassinated by a government cabal in a CIA-orchestrated coup. Stone suggests Kennedy would retract from involvement in Vietnam, thus incurring the wrath of the “military-industrial complex.” In fact, Cold Warrior Kennedy was quietly escalating U.S. military presence in Vietnam.
According to National Security Archive documents, Kennedy “repeatedly increased military aid to Saigon … and had considerable role in the coup” resulting in the Nov. 2, 1963, assassination of South Vietnam President Diem. Kennedy was exonerated for Diem’s assassination by the Church Committee.
Mafia: Kennedy’s dalliances included Judith Exner, Chicago Mafia capo Sam Giancana’s moll. Through Exner, Giancana met with Kennedy. Subsequently, Giancana “delivered” 1960 Illinois votes, clinching the presidency for Kennedy. The Mafia expected reciprocity – “removal” of Castro and restoration of Mafia Cuban businesses. Brothers Kennedy fumbled both.
Robert Kennedy aggressively prosecuted cases against Mafia dons, Giancana underlings and Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, deported New Orleans capo Carlos Marcello and investigated Florida boss Santo Trafficante. All are subjects of conspiracy conjectures. Giancana, Marcello, Trafficante and Hoffa jubilantly toasted Kennedy’s assassination with profane epitaphs. Such does not constitute probable cause, only monstrous acrimony.
They were not alone, dancing on Kennedy’s grave. But loathing is not culpability. Yet, one need not be Hercule Poirot to smell smoke.
For Warren commissioners, full disclosure was the Sword of Damocles. Arguably, the report overlooked some of the evidence to paternalistically protect the public from Kennedy sins – the black ops, collusions with the Mafia, White House as Playboy Mansion (in the Irish Catholic homes of my Chicago childhood friends, there were devotional portraits of Jesus, the pope and Kennedy), and to preserve the Camelot myth, a sumptuous source of political capital.
The irony is when the curtain was retracted, the revelations intensified the conspiracy fears the commissioners expected the report to assuage.
The same politicos who touted the report were proselytizers of Cold War hysteria gestating the progeny of Soviet and Cuban complicity and fed by Oswald’s Soviet and Cuban intrigues. Presidential Faustian bargains of Vietnam, Watergate and Iran-Contra were breaches of faith, further fertilizing the soil in which conspiracy suspicions took root.
In his 1964 “Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Columbia historian Eric Hofstader contended that otherwise normal people seem to have a propensity to “conspiratorial fantasy,” from the Salem witch trials to the McCarthy inquisitions. Unlike those historic crucibles, there is a reasonable basis for assassination conspiracy conjecture.
A cautionary tale to both assassination camps: Recall how easily we were deceived prior to the Iraq War.
The danger to democracy is when irrational, baseless innuendos metastasize into paranoid accusations, its mutant spawn the present hydra-headed conspiracy delusions.
As his assassination remains shrouded in mystery, perhaps at least for some of us our naïveté perished with Kennedy.
John B. Hagney taught history for 45 years at Lewis and Clark High School.
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