The fall semester is almost gone, and it’s time to order books for a spring course I have offered at Brandeis University for more than 30 years: “The Idea of Conspiracy in American Culture.” I have found the perfect book, for my purposes, from the profusion of tomes on the Kennedy assassination that have appeared in this 50th-anniversary year of that mesmerizing tragedy. Some are freshly written, others are essentially rehashes of older works gussied up with unfulfilled promises of startling new revelations.1
In the course, I cover the assassination and other cases that have provoked conspiratorial theories—the Lincoln, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations; the Sacco and Vanzetti, Hiss, and Rosenberg cases; the alleged murder of Vince Foster by or for the Clintons. Usually, though not invariably, I am a skeptic in these cases, accepting the official, the governmental, view. Apart from one period in the late 70s when I briefly wavered, I have publicly defended the conclusions of the Warren Commission for nearly 50 years. I agree there was one shooter only, named Lee Harvey Oswald; no satisfactorily proven conspiracies to employ him; no massive conspiracy in operation well before the killing and long after to cover up the first conspiracies; no even more massive conspiracy to frame an innocent or merely peripheral Oswald. In brief, on the Kennedy front, I am persuaded, and I attempt to defend to my students and readers, the notion that, all in all, given what we now know, the Warren Commission got it right.
But how can one defend the Warren Report and its 26 volumes of supporting evidence? Is it not clear that the commission failed utterly to anticipate, defeat, and in that way preempt and silence, the tsunami of doubt that followed, and indeed preceded, its publication in September 1964? It has been argued ever since that the commission seems to have begun with its conclusions and, undistracted by justifiable doubts, including those voiced by its own members and staff, proceeded to defend the indefensible. What’s more, the commission did this in a manner that was manifestly inept and ridiculous. If you have been following the books and articles, or have visited the myriad websites, or have considered a fraction of the millions of references to the Kennedy conspiracy that Google can provide—even if you have only seen Oliver Stone’s howler JFK2—you have probably already concluded that the claims of the Warren Commission are not just mistaken, but transparently absurd and stupid. Due to the conduct of its commission under the direction of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, the report, we are told, virtually pleads for much of the contempt it has received. No wonder 80 percent or so of the polled public have continued through all these years to voice doubts about this or that aspect of the official line. How could the commissioners, Warren and the rest, have thought that they would get away with this wicked nonsense?
When I get to this point in the argument, I will offer my students a slightly different version of these assertions: Is there anything the Warren Commission could have done that would have silenced or deterred these critics as we have come to know them? That question makes Jerome Corsi’s Who Really Killed Kennedy?,3of all the books to have been published at the assassination’s half-century, the ideal text for my purposes.
Corsi, who holds a doctorate in political science from Harvard, is an inveterate conspiracist, and at times a bestselling one. He started off quite impressively. In 2004 he wrote, with the redoubtable John O’Neill, Unfit for Command, a devastating takedown of John Kerry’s claims of heroic service in Vietnam and of Kerry’s allegations about the war crimes he allegedly witnessed that were committed by the American military. That book may not have caused Kerry’s defeat in his campaign for the presidency, but it certainly contributed appreciably to that outcome. Then, for Corsi, a darker turn. As a staff writer and columnist for World Net Daily, he has written detailed exposés of the alleged influence of Islamic terrorism and criminal drug networks on American politicians, John McCain included, and has claimed to uncover Barack Obama’s allegedly virulent homosexual past and present. Corsi has also been a 9/11 Truther, suggesting the possibility that those buildings in Manhattan and Washington collapsed not as a result of the airline collisions, but because planted explosives were detonated just as the planes hit. He has also been one of the celebrity advocates of “birther” claims that Obama was not born in Hawaii and that documents attesting otherwise were elaborately, and clumsily, forged. Those last claims can be found in a much-discussed book, Where’s the Birth Certificate? (2011). Just before the release of that book, Obama finally supplied his missing long-form birth certificate, taking considerable wind out of Corsi’s wind. My favorite aria from this opera is Corsi’s claim that newspaper stories, most certainly published in Hawaii, announcing Obama’s nativity a few days after his birth were themselves part of the plot to misrepresent his birthplace. This suggests that the plan to elect him president was already afoot when his foot was a day old.
All the foregoing imputations by Corsi might be filed under the category of “ideological opposition research.” They argue a pointed thesis of what allegedly happened or didn’t. They attempt to refute contrary versions, even contrary conspiracy theories. In other words, they follow, roughly, the rules of rational argumentation. Each can be seen as serving some aspect of the conservative cause. Similarly, most of the Kennedy conspiracy books I have read through the years can be labeled right-wing, perhaps extreme right-wing, or, as has more often been the case, left-wing or radical left-wing.
Not so Corsi’s latest. Here, he is all over the place ideologically, and in the course of his book he seems to be trying to summarize every extant conspiracy theory on the Kennedy assassination. Each he presents enthusiastically, notwithstanding the blatant contradictions, ideological befuddlement, and flat-out foolishness this approach tolerates. He does not review any of the lines of criticism that have been raised against these works, if only to refute them in order to strengthen their argument. He seems to have learned nothing from the huge amount of research done since the Warren Report, research that confirms many of its previously challenged findings. Who Really Killed Kennedy? is in one respect an example of postmodernism gone berserk wherein the only “reality” is “perceived reality”—and any declared perception or opinion offered in support of any conspiracy theory is not only unchallengeable but worthy of respect presumably by virtue of its ineluctable human source.
An example: Like most conspiracy authors, Corsi needs to establish that the president was shot at by more than one assassin to prove that there was, by definition, a conspiracy (“two or more” must be involved). His major argument here is that the wound in Kennedy’s throat was a wound of entry, and therefore had to have been fired by someone facing him; it could not have been fired by Oswald or anyone else who was behind him. Now, no one in the entire discussion about the assassination disagrees that if the throat wound had been an entry wound, there had to have been multiple assassins. Flying bullets cannot make 180-degree turns. So how does Corsi know that it was an entry wound? It’s easy, he says; it is irrefutable, he implies. The experienced doctors in Dallas who examined the president and declared him dead said that the throat wound looked very much like an entry wound. On their testimony alone, it is eminently “conceivable” that that was the case, or at least “arguable.” Of course, it is easy to prove that something is arguable; all you need do is argue it, just as something is conceivable once you conceive of it. How could the Warren Report have ignored this serious possibility? Doesn’t its refusal to engage on this point reveal its purblind insistence on its pre-concocted conclusions?
No. Look. If Kennedy had been hit in the throat, that bullet would have had to go somewhere—lodge in his body or exit somewhere. It would have caused internal damage and thus have been easily discernible. Nothing in the head-to-toe photographs of the president taken during the autopsy, or, even more pertinently, the x-rays, shows anything that suggests in any way such a frontal hit. The Dallas doctors did not even undress Kennedy as they attempted vainly to save him, which means they did not, could not, examine him in a way that would have tested their first perception and opinion that it was an entry wound. They saw a hole in his throat. They widened it immediately to perform a tracheostomy to aid his breathing, such as it was. Later, they recalled the hole’s shape and opined. Later, the Dallas doctors conceded their honest error fully and publicly.
The morticians at the Lawson funeral home in Washington, which prepared the body for burial, did not report anything that might be related to a frontal hit. There is not a single forensic pathologist who has examined the x-rays and photos and then claimed there was an entry wound in the throat—and several groups through the years have been summoned to review that material. Even Cyril Wecht, a well-known forensic pathologist and a prominent skeptic of the Warren Commission, said after viewing the images that all shots came from behind Kennedy. The House Select Committee on Assassinations which took up the case again in the 1976–77 session, produced research that only a lunatic, or fanatical postmodernist would dare defy, proving that the x-rays and photos are beyond peradventure of arguable doubt, authentic pictures of John F. Kennedy and no one else.
All this Corsi simply ignores. He does not mention the x-rays and alludes to the photographs only in regard to another matter (conceding, in that instance, that the photos seem to support the commission). And he does not report that all the Dallas doctors, in light of subsequent discussions and study, have changed their minds about the throat wound, though he must know that, as his publisher tells us, he has read nearly everything.
Here’s another for the perception-is-reality file. Shortly after the assassination, a Dallas policeman identified the rifle found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, where eyewitnesses had placed a gunman, as a German Mauser. The rifle was actually the one Oswald probably ordered from Klein’s mail-order service in Chicago. It was the one ballistics tests showed had fired all the bullets, or testable portions of bullets, which were recovered. It was an Italian made Mannlicher-Carcano. It was not a Mauser. But why, Corsi fulminates, did the commission ignore the identification of a second gun, or refuse to consider the possibility that the actual murder weapon was the Mauser? After all, someone said it was a Mauser! (The Mauser has never been produced, by the way.)
Want some more perceived reality? Many sightings of Oswald have been found to be false sightings. For example, he could not have been driving that car he was seen driving, because he could not drive. He could not have been in Louisiana training anti-Castro forces, as confidently perceived by a source, because he was in Russia at the time. He could not have been driving with his own assassin, Jack Ruby, from Florida to Dallas shortly before the assassination, because we know he was elsewhere. There are many reports putting Oswald in the presence of Ruby that turn out to be based on the exhibitionistic, or mischievous, or narcissistic but probably incorrect ravings of a sort that surface in the investigation of any lurid crime. Consider the Lindbergh kidnap and murder trial, or the Boston Strangler case, for illustrations of the same. Two hundred people confessed to having collaborated in or committed the Lindbergh crime who didn’t. Six people confessed to being the Boston Strangler who weren’t. Here is Corsi’s retort. All these perceptions are plausible and perhaps are not sightings of Oswald, but rather of a platoon of Oswald look-alikes unleashed by the conspiracy to paralyze the investigation or perhaps to frame Oswald.
There is a vast literature positing false Oswalds. Stitched together, these ubiquitous perceptions can generate myriad grand schemes that are offered as “conceivable” or “arguable” in this book. So it turns out that each of these perceptions of a not-Oswald are, in their way, valid. One conspiracy book, not referred to by Corsi, even argued that Oswald himself was a look-alike, a replica selected after a long search by the Soviets when the original Oswald was living in Russia; the look-alike was trained to talk like the original, walk like him, and, presumably, for his wife’s sake, make love like him. The Oswald stand-in had to know everything important about him that he would have known, and be capable of surviving a reunion with his family, undetected. This was the “Oswald” sent here to do Soviet mischief; the real Oswald was murdered but is alive in these historic representations of him. For, in the last postmodern analysis, how could any of us know that we are alive but for these socially or personally generated perceptions? (And consider: Maybe the false Oswald was the lone assassin.)
The ingenuity of nearly all the conspiracies Corsi rehearses and endorses is similarly breathtaking. Asked for a favorite, I would vote for his explanation for how a bullet that ballistics established was fired from Oswald’s Italian gun—Commission Exhibit 399—found its way to a stretcher in the basement of the Parkland Hospital where Kennedy and the wounded Texas Governor John Connally were taken immediately after the shooting. CE-399 is the sine qua non of the Warren Commission’s thesis that one bullet hit Kennedy first and then Connally, causing some of the damage to Kennedy and all of Connally’s five wounds. The last of those was a shallow flesh wound in his upper thigh. For the thesis to be true, the bullet had to be capable of having broken one of Connally’s ribs, and his wrist, en route to his leg. Every knowledgeable person on all sides of the debate agrees.
Corsi describes the bullet as “pristine,” and also as “almost pristine.” He goes back and forth from one formulation to the other. In either case he stipulates that CE-399 is incapable, given its shape, weight, and metallic content, of breaking Connally’s broken bones and of leaving the lead elements that were extracted from his wrist and chest. I have dealt with and I think resolved this issue twice in articles in Commentary over the years4, so I will not rehearse that demonstration here except to speak of the nature of the would-be conspiracy involving it. Conspiracists believe it had to be placed at Parkland that day to be used as a piece of evidence to support the single-assassin theory—which would not even be formulated for another two months. The bullet was found in the basement of the hospital under Connally’s stretcher. At the time, Connally was upstairs. Kennedy, who was dead at this point, and his stretcher were also upstairs. A neutron-activation analysis of the bullet and the lead extracted from Connally’s wrist, reported by Dr. Vincent Guinn in 1978, established that the lead extracted from Connally almost certainly came specifically from CE-399. Simple logic suggests the bullet fell from Connally’s thigh when he was lying on the stretcher.
But simple logic is not in play here. How, according to the conspiracists, did the bullet get to the hospital? Implicitly conceding that the bullet had indeed been fired from Oswald’s gun, Corsi avers that the bullet was planted by the conspiracy—and nothing establishes the Warren Commission’s commitment to its own foregone conclusions more than its obdurate refusal to explore this entirely plausible possibility.
Let me translate. The news came to Assassination Central that the president had been taken to Parkland. The conspiracy then dispatched someone, perhaps a college intern, to take a spare bullet that had been fired from Oswald’s rifle—a bullet ever so slightly bent through its axis, the rim of its base visibly flattened, lacking a bit of lead from its core (in other words, “almost pristine”)—and told her to drop it somewhere in the hospital where it would be discovered. Our intern then placed the bullet near a stretcher in the basement—a stretcher she couldn’t possibly have known was Connally’s. Nor could she possibly have known that the conspiracy needed the stretcher to be Connally’s, not Kennedy’s, because it was necessary for the construction of a single-bullet theory not formulated until months later.
And all this was for the purpose, mind you, of proving that there was not a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. It’s like the newspaper birth announcements in Hawaii, planted there at the time of Obama’s birth, three years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, to establish his subsequent presidential eligibility.
I urge my students to apply the question “what must be true if?” to all conspiracy theories we examine. Thus: Corsi recounts theories that allege every single piece of evidence proving Oswald was the sole assassin was manufactured by the conspiracy to entrap him—an immensely complicated task which would take the collaboration of thousands (all of whom have remained silent about their forced collaboration to this day). Thus, Oswald didn’t shoot the police officer, J.D. Tippitt, who stopped him for questioning less than an hour after the assassination. Oswald wasn’t on the sixth floor when the shooting occurred. The doctors who performed the autopsy, the basis for the single-assassin theory, deliberately falsified their observations, ordered to do so by ominous military figures looming in the autopsy room who told them, commanded them, to see what they could not see, and not see what they could see. There are witnesses who allege all of this.
On this last point there is a rival, and contradictory, conspiracy theory, which Corsi also endorses. When the president’s body arrived in Washington from Dallas, on the afternoon of the assassination, it was not taken immediately to Bethesda Naval Hospital, where the autopsy was performed, but to a secret laboratory, where, for an hour, the body was feverishly altered to indicate a single rear source for the shooting. But how could the conspiracy know so soon what changes to make, since it could not have predicted what damage would be done by all those bullets fired by unseen assassins from several directions? Many of these alleged shooters, according to Corsi, were right out in the open along the parade route but were somehow missed by the many onlookers. And, yes, we must dispose of all the bullets from guns other than Oswald’s that Corsi and others tell us were fired. The invisible sweepers employed by the conspiracy must have known on the spot which ones were which. And where they were. And whether any bystander had discovered one.
Which is to say, this conspiracy theory, like most others, implicitly posits a omniscient Intelligence that sees past, present, and future at once and knows how to act in all three realms to disguise the truth.
We have not yet considered Corsi’s answer to the question posed in the title of his book: Who Really Killed President Kennedy? Here it is, pay attention to all of this, it will be on the final exam: It was the concatenation of everyone, every force, every movement, every group, every individual that, in their own perception, stood to benefit from the death.
It was anti-Castro elements, furious at Kennedy for his betrayal during the Bay of Pigs invasion and his failure to dispatch Castro during the Bay of Pigs crisis. It was pro-Castro forces, furious at Kennedy’s attempts to assassinate Castro, also alerted by Kennedy’s sudden turn to a strongly anti-Communist position during the campaign, a turn that resulted in his contested victory over Nixon in the 1960 election. It was Nixon, angry about the outcome and also fearful that Kennedy was preparing to lead the United States out of Vietnam. Nixon’s connections with organized crime, derived from his involvement with illegal drug rings, also led him to think ill of the president, which naturally means to think of killing him. Suspiciously, Nixon was in Dallas the night before the assassination and departed just after or before the assassination, or perhaps he did not depart. (It is clear from Corsi’s book that just being in Dallas invites suspicion.) It was the Soviets,5 who, having programmed and trained Oswald to assassinate Kennedy, may have changed their minds and tried to deprogram him during his visit to Mexico City in early October 1963. It was the KKK, a former member of which foretold that Kennedy would be assassinated in Miami. It was, of course, organized crime, which hated Kennedy’s brother Bobby, their nemesis, and whose drug and gambling interests were being threatened by either Castro or Batista, and therefore by Kennedy, who swung all ways on these matters as well. Organized crime then ordered Ruby to kill Oswald, a kind of suicide bombing to which Ruby agreed because he favored a slow death in prison to the torture he would have received had he defied orders. It was the CIA, which actually had engineered previous assassinations, most notably of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. The Arbenz assassination set the stage for their unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion, which in turn prompted anti-Castro Cubans to hate Kennedy and, therefore, proves that the CIA was the cause of the Kennedy assassination. It was Lyndon B. Johnson, for obvious, Macbethean reasons, but also because he hated the Kennedys, who constantly humiliated him—and because he, too, opposed Kennedy’s intent to leave Vietnam. Did you know that Johnson’s long-time mistress claimed that Johnson whispered to her (at a party they attended in Dallas the night before the assassination), “After tomorrow, goddamn Kennedy will never embarrass me again”? (To be fair, here, for one of the very few times in the book, Corsi concedes that this part of the tale may be “unlikely.” I would have said “impossible,” since Johnson was in Houston that night.)
It was the Justice Department. It was the Watergate burglars and especially Howard Hunt (punished for his illicit knowledge by the assassination of his wife). It was the same people who organized at least three other assassination plots against Kennedy, each similar to the Dallas assassination, with a patsy who was an ex-Marine looking “remarkably” like Oswald and an attack plan replicating the events in Dealey Plaza. It was China. It was jealous husbands whose wives consorted with JFK. It was the Dallas police. It was Washington insiders like the legendary James Jesus Angleton (who knew all about Oswald well before the assassination), and Allen Dulles. It was the French drug mafia, which was allied to the South Vietnamese drug mafia. It was the Corsicans, those notorious assassins, one of whom, world renowned, was in Dallas on the day of the assassination and was never even detained and questioned! Have I mentioned the Military-Industrial Complex? Corsi does, several times.6
Oswald, though, did not do it, although he was involved and would need to be framed as the designated patsy. After all, there is “credible evidence” that Oswald worked for the KGB, but also Naval Intelligence and the CIA. He was, therefore, simultaneously, a single, double, and triple agent.
How did the various conspiracies hear about him, and how did they enlist him? Oswald worked in the building from which the president was shot. He took the job on October 15, having heard about it from a neighbor. He did not, by the way, take an available job at the airport where the president was sure to be. The decisions that brought the president’s limousine to the front of the Texas Depository were made in early November by a close friend of the president. Oswald could not have known when he took the job that the president would come to his doorstep. He shot the president from the sixth floor of the building in which he worked. That he was alone when the president’s car arrived, 25 minutes after the announced time, is pure coincidence. Three other men who were working on the sixth floor, an open space with no walls, decided to go down to the fifth, to eat their lunch and wait for Kennedy. If they had not moved, he would not have been free to shoot. All the bullets recovered were traceable to his gun, an old, unreliable Italian rifle. Given his gifts as a marksman, the hits were unlikely, but then, unlikely things happen in reality, and it is only after they have happened that they are proved plausible. Even if the Russians had programmed Oswald to assassinate the president, how could they have predicted that this was the way he would get to him? Any theory of the killing that does not add these dots to the matrix and connect them fails.
I return to the question raised at the outset. Was there anything the Warren Commission and, more particularly, its staff could have done to preempt and silence this tempestuous dubiety? I do not dispute that the Report should have paid closer attention to conspiratorial possibilities. And I can understand why so many members of the staff, vividly recalling their actual doubts, their unanswered questions at the time, humiliated to have been bludgeoned all these years, now want to redeem their names by joining the complaining chorus. But I ask my students and my readers to attempt an exercise of intellectual reverse engineering. Imagine a report that sought to answer some of the intelligent questions floating around in the months following the killing—but which also, by entering into the conspiratorial mindset, attempted to predict the “imaginable,” “conceivable” allegations to come, and the kinds of evidence and tortured logic those allegations would proffer, and then attempted to answer them, no, to silence them. In my view, far from dispelling doubt, such a report would have been like Christmas morning for the conspiracists. It would have averted nothing. There was not, and there never could have been, an escape from the cottage industry of half-baked fantasies the Kennedy assassination has become.
1 Among the new ones I have consulted are Flip De Mey’s Cold Case Kennedy, James DiEugenio’s Reclaiming Parkland, Bill Minutaglio & Steven L. Davis’s Dallas 1963, Ion Mihai Pacepa and Ronald Rychlak’s Disinformation, Philip Shenon’s A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination, Roger Stone’s The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ, and Lamar Waldron’s The Hidden History of the JFK Assassination. Also a novel (wrong but a terrific read): Stephen Hunter’s The Third Bullet.
2 See my article in the June 1992 issue of Commentary, “Yes, Oswald Was the Lone Assassin.”
3 Corsi, Who Really Killed Kennedy?: 50 Years Later: Stunning New Revelations About the JFK Assassination, World Net Daily Books.
4 See also: “Conspiracy Fever,” from the October 1975 issue of Commentary.
5 Among the new books listed above, I excluded a splendid one: Peter Savodnik’s The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union, which decimates all the theorizing about Oswald’s activities in the USSR. It is one of the very few anniversary books on the conspiracists.
6 Corsi omits one explanation of Kennedy’s death, popular at the time, and now resurrected, quite impressively, in a new book by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis, Dallas 1963. The book argues that Kennedy was killed by the climate of intense hatred in Dallas.