I recently saw this complaint – that the market is oversaturated with JFK assassination books – and from a certain point of view that is true. However, if we only pick out the worthwhile JFK books, that list shrinks considerably. The problem is, how do you know what is worthwhile and what isn’t?
Everybody has their own point of view. One person’s meat is another’s poison and all that. And it’s also true that some books that can have an utterly wrongheaded thesis and still have some worthwhile research in it. My friend Joe McBride has pointed out that even Dale Meyers’s book With Malice is not entirely useless, although one has to account for the ideological curve at all times. For his part, Meyers has attacked McBride’s book.
Remember: early on, there were questions about what happened, why the investigation played out as it did, and how Ruby managed to get into that basement. See my article on one of the first books to include the Kennedy assassination questions in this blog post. I will suggest that one way to think about which books are truly important to read is to start with November 25, 1963 and go from there ideologically. Yes, November 25, not November 22. Because one good place to start is with the Katzenbach memo.
On November 25, then-Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach wrote a memo to Bill Moyers (yes, that Bill Moyers) with the following prescription:
It is important that all of the facts surrounding President Kennedy's Assassination be made public in a way which will satisfy people in the United States and abroad that all the facts have been told and that a statement to this effect be made now.
For his part, J. Edgar Hoover concurred: “The thing I am most concerned about, and so is Mr. Katzenbach, is having something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin.”
Hoover had not been shy about using his power to intimidate those who would promote ideas not to his liking. In 1950, a book critical of the FBI written by Max Lowenthal went to press. Hoover first went after the publisher, William Sloane & Associates, to get the book stopped. When that failed and the book was published, “…Hoover sicced his press dogs – Fulton Lewis, Jr., George Sokolosky, and Walter Trohan, to name three – on Lowenthal and smear him as a Communist sympathizer, Moscow lackey, and worse.” (Turner 123).
Was the CIA any better? In 1967, a famous memo (which mentioned Mark Lane by name) came out listing several ways to attach critics of the Warren Report. Why would such a document be necessary if the government were not attempting to promote one story over another?
So, from the first, the government’s position was to promote the lone assassin theory. Okay, sure, we know that, but that should lend suspicion to all books which promote that theory. If we look at the words Katzenbach used, we are led to understand that he felt the public should be made to understand Oswald’s lone nut status, regardless of the actual facts. (“Speculation about Oswald’s motivation ought to be cut off…”) That means that any book meant to establish that Oswald was a lone nut should be viewed with this perspective in mind, and therefore there is an extra burden of proof to be met. If a writer wants to prove that Oswald was the lone assassin, he or she should be scrupulous in all respects, careful with language, meticulous with evidence, careful about misquoting primary source interviews, and in all ways honest in presentation and detail.
This will rule out Posner, McAdams, Bugliosi, etc.
The lone assassin theory quickly fell apart. Knowing that the public was not buying this story, at least in broad parts of the country, the fallback position became that Oswald was working for the Communists. In the first place, that Oswald was either working on behalf of Castro, or the KGB in some fashion.
We now know that Castro had no reason to kill JFK and in fact reacted with alarm at his passing. He knew that the far more bellicose LBJ would be in power. “Es una mala noticia,” he said, over and over, sitting across from Jean Daniel, the man Kennedy had sent to engineer back-door talks. You can read Daniel’s own account here.
In fact, Castro believed in a conspiracy to kill Kennedy and investigated it himself.
Among the newly released documents was a June 17, 1964, report from the late J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, which imparted information gleaned from an unnamed FBI source whom Hoover deemed "reliable."
The document said that Castro ordered his own tests made on a similar rifle and concluded "that Oswald could not have fired three times in succession and hit the target with the telescopic sight in the available time" and that therefore "it took about three people."
He further elaborates on his view in this article:
I asked Fidel why he thought Oswald could not have acted alone. He proceeded to tell the table a long and discursive story about an experiment he staged, after the assassination, to see if it were possible for a sniper to shoot Kennedy in the manner the assassination was alleged to have happened. “We had trained our people in the mountains during the war”—the Cuban revolution—“on these kind of telescopic sights. So we knew about this kind of shooting. We tried to recreate the circumstances of this shooting, but it wasn’t possible for one man to do. The news I had received is that one man killed Kennedy in his car with a rifle, but I deducted that this story was manufactured to fool people.”
The Soviets-killed-Kennedy story did gain some favor with the government. However, Krushchev’s reaction was similar to that of Castro, although more extreme. “Hearing the news from Dallas, Krushchev broke down and sobbed at the Kremlin…For several days, he was unable to perform his duties. Kruschev was convinced that Kennedy was killed by militaristic forces in Washington bent on sabotaging the two leader’s efforts to reach détente.” (Talbot 253) Although this theory is favored by some right-wing groups, it is incoherent. If Kennedy was such a Communist, why would he be murdered by the Communists? Especially by Communists who expressed devastation upon the murder.
How far afield does this line of reasoning get? In one instance, a researcher states that Kruschev made screaming threats against Mary Meyer. Yeah.
But in the context of the Cold War, you can see how the government might want to retreat to this position. Unfortunately, nobody was buying this story either, and in the 1970s public pressure led to the creation of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Eventually led by Robert Blakey, the HSCA was forced to conclude there was more than one shooter based on some audio evidence provided by a police dictabelt. And, in the wake of the HSCA, the favorite explanation shifted from the Communists to the Mafia. Blakey himself would later write a book explaining that the Mafia Did It.
There came a slew of such books, all of them arguing that some Mafia stooge killed Kennedy. It certainly seems as though elements of the Mafia were involved in the periphery of the assassination, although hardly front and center. The reason why was stated extremely well by Jim Garrison himself in On the Trail of the Assassins:
“…the best-established historical examples of positive association between the Mafia and elements of the U.S. government are ones in which the Mafia served as the junior partner:
In none of these cases was the Mafia dominant over the government; in none did the Mafia provide the motivation for the relationship or the leadership within it.” (emphasis mine; Garrison 303)
And with that, I think, we can dispense with Mafia-Did-It.
After Oliver Stone’s film JFK, and the release of millions of pages of documents in the wake of the ARRB, we have had a series of brilliant books written with the context these documents provide. To somewhat counteract that position, the government took two tacts: one, I believe, was to go back to the Warren Report and pretend the thirty-plus years of research didn’t happen; the other was to promote the theory of LBJ-Did-It.
LBJ-Did-It proves a useful cover because, even though it supports a conspiracy position, it concentrates the conspiracy in Texas without necessarily implicating other parts of the government. Phil Nelson has been a strong supporter of this line (I dealt with his inane first book, LBJ Mastermind of the JFK Assassination, in my book Dissenting Views II.) Roger Stone, in collaboration with his toady Robert Morrow, has entered the fray promoting these ideas as well. (It goes without saying that all these books tend to spend a lot of time promoting the idea that Kennedy slept with lots of women, did drugs, and wasn’t any better than anyone else, etc., as if smearing the target will absolve the crime.)
It is probably the last bastion in this long retreat, the line that will be forcefully defended because if LBJ-Did-It falls apart, there isn’t anywhere to go. The magic words CIA and – horror of horrors – The Pentagon will have to be uttered.
And if that happens, to quote James McCord, “every tree in the forest will fall.”
So there aren’t actually too many books to read out there, although there are some excellent ones. I think they fall into categories, depending on what it is you're looking for.
For an introduction to the case, it is hard to beat JFK and the Unspeakable by James Douglas, which will appeal to the general historian as well as someone specifically interested in the case, and is beautifully written. I would also suggest Conspiracy by Anthony Summers (avoid the re-release, Not in Our Lifetime), and Into the Nightmare by Joseph McBride. Both books have interviews with people crucial to the case that cannot be found elsewhere, while also providing a lot of context to understand the assassination. The other book that serves as a good introduction is JFK: the Book of the Film, by Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar, which features a ton of essays both pro and con and is useful for identifying both the heroes and villains of this research drama. The book I quoted earlier, On the Trail of the Assassins, is a fine work although one should be aware that there was deep division among the researchers as to whether Garrison was hurtful or helpful. This clash was very well documented in John Kelin's excellent Praise from a Future Generation.
Arguably the best book ever written on the assassination is Accessories After the Fact by Sylvia Meagher. It is meticulously detailed in its analysis, and admirably restrained, and for pure content is still certainly among the best, I think.
Other indispensable books, in my view, include: Destiny Betrayed and Reclaiming Parkland by Jim DiEugenio, as well as The Assassinations, edited by DiEugenio and Lisa Pease but also including essays by Doug Valentine, Douglas, and others; Harvey & Lee, by John Armstrong, because of all the incredible interviews and documentation, whether you buy the premise or not; Survivor’s Guilt, by Vince Palamara because it has interviews no one else has, and fits hand-in-glove with The Echo in Dealey Plaza by Abraham Bolden; Breach of Trust, by Gerald McKnight, which gives the most detailed account of what happened during the Warren Commission available; The Last Investigation by Gaeton Fonzi, who was an investigator for the HSCA and whose book is one of the greatest ever written on the case; History Will Not Absolve Us, by E. Martin Schotz, and False Mystery by Vince Salandria, which both take a psychological approach; Brothers, by David Talbot, which traces Bobby Kennedy’s view and actions following the assassination; The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald, by Robert Groden, which has a ton of great photos; and Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, by Peter Dale Scott, who provides much useful academic analysis of the underlying power structure of the assassination, even if I disagree with him on some points.
One writer who has been a huge influence on me (although I never knew him) was Penn Jones, who wrote the series called Forgive My Grief. His influence came to me via John Judge, who kept a promise made to Penn to go to the grassy knoll every year on the anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. The books are probably of interest more to the historian of the assassination than a brand new researcher, but I retain an affection and deep respect for his work. It is partly based on Penn Jones's series that I decided to continue the tradition with my Dissenting Views volumes, and will keep producing those as long as I am able.
Anyway, there are lots of other books out there (and I own a lot of them) but this would be a solid library for anyone, I would think. And it eliminates the books that we can be pretty sure are being backed by the government, either directly or indirectly, by the theses they keep. Or so I would suggest.
Of course, there’s a new one by Talbot covering Allen Dulles, who should be near or at the top of anyone’s suspect list in the Kennedy assassination, and I’m looking forward to reviewing that at the beginning of 2016.
Garrison, Jim. On the Trail of the Assassins (Skyhorse Edition: New York 2012).
Talbot, David. Brothers (Free Press: New York 2007).
Turner, William. Hoover's FBI (Thunder's Mouth Press: New York 1993).
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