Friday, November 21, 2008

Writing about the Kennedy Assassination

Tomorrow will be the 45th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and my publisher the Harvard University Press has placed a series of online ads for my book about it, The Road to Dallas, linking their own web page and, in turn, this blog. That has already generated a few dozen new hits, and the occasion is propitious, in any case, for reflecting upon the experience of writing that book, its reception, and the status of the assassination as an historical question 45 years after the fact.
How I came to write the book is a long story indeed: it began with the event itself, still probably the most traumatic public occurrence I have ever experienced, and I took some interest in the emerging controversy from the beginning. In the 1970s I followed the proceedings of the Church Committee and the House Assassinations Committee with some interest, and I was very intrigued when the latter committee found that there had probably been a conspiracy involving organized crime. But my real introduction to the topic came in 1983, when I had the opportunity to write a piece about it for the Sunday Outlook Section of the Washington Post. That was a calm and balanced piece that attempted to give equal time to three theories: that Oswald was simply a lone assassin, that Castro was behind it, or that it was in fact a mob hit.
On one point I had no doubts, namely, that Oswald was the killer. The controversy about the case escalated through the 1960s and 1970s because the single-bullet theory, holding that one shot had gone through Kennedy and through the back of Governor Connally, seemed so unlikely. Neither Connally’s own testimony nor the Zapruder film could be reconciled with it. But the House Assassinations Committee had successfully resolved those issues to my satisfaction, although it had also—through acoustics evidence—introduced the still-debated possibility that there had been another shooter on the grassy knoll who had missed. Meanwhile, I was hard at work on Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti, which I had taken over from my friend William Young, an amateur researcher, after his death in 1980. That introduced me to the problems of finding and grappling with the evidence in such a case, and in particular with the need to reconcile conclusions about various different aspects of a case, and to see how findings could mutually reinforce one another. What was lacking to tackle the JFK assassination, however, was a body of new evidence.
The sequence of events that filled that gap in the 1990s was interesting as well. If there was one filmmaker who might have done justice to the assassination, I thought, it was Oliver Stone, but in making JFK he planted himself among the most extreme fringe, arguing that Oswald was innocent and that the killing was the work of an enormous conspiracy involving the highest levels of the government. The movie was gripping but irresponsible, and I still think that a much better one could be made. But it reawakened interest in the case, and led to the passage of a remarkable law, the JFK Assassination Records Act, mandating the release of all available records having anything to do with the assassination. The board that was set up took its mandate very seriously and several million pages were released. I was writing American Tragedy when all that was taking place, but I knew that I wanted a crack at those documents. Eventually, in the last few months of 2001, I got to work.
Over the last few decades extraordinary evidence had surfaced about CIA covert operations, mostly having to do with the assassination of Castro with the help of organized crime, and about the war between Attorney General Robert Kennedy on the one hand and organized crime on the other. The FBI and CIA documents also promised to reveal a great deal more about Cuban exile groups. It took years for me and various research assistants—undergraduates from GW (including my own son) and from the University of Maryland—to go through the most important files and to record them with the help of some innovative use of Microsoft Excel. When I wrote the book I tried to cover the issues of the CIA and Castro’s Cuba, and of the Justice Department and organized crime, as thoroughly as possible. But meanwhile, I had become convinced that organized crime was behind the assassination, and that it was possible to identify the links between organized crime on the one hand, and Oswald and Jack Ruby on the other. The major mobsters involved were Santo Trafficante of Tampa and Havana, whom it turned out Jack Ruby had visited in a detention center while visiting Cuba in 1959; Carlos Marcello of New Orleans, whose organization included a bookmaker named Dutz Muret, Lee Harvey Oswald’s uncle; and probably Sam Giancana of Chicago. This is not the place to try to summarize the findings of The Road to Dallas, but I was also able to identify two critical lower-level figures. One, an American mercenary named Loran Hall, definitely linked Oswald to right-wing and anti-Castro Cuban networks as of early October 1963. The other, a mobster named John Martino who had spent three years in Castro’s prisons before returning in 1959, had told two friends that he had been involved in the assassination before his death in 1975. To my amazement, while I was in the middle of the book, Martino’s son Edward, an almost exact contemporary of mine, came forward to say that his father had told the family that the assassination was going to happen. Contemporary documentation substantiated Martino’s role in the assassination conspiracy and closely related anti-Castro efforts, as well as a post-assassination disinformation campaign designed to link Oswald and Castro.
The book appeared nine months ago in March. Its reception has been both gratifying and, in several respects, educational.
What has been most gratifying has been the response of many intelligent people with no ax to grind who have read it and commented on it, including more than half a dozen reviewers scattered around the country whose opinions can be found at, at, or at . The book is chock-full of information and includes a great many names, but that has not prevented many readers from appreciating the strength of the evidence and the scale of the effort involved. I always feel my work is written for the intelligent citizen who wants to understand the world in which he or she lives, and I know I have reached thousands of those with this one. I hope to reach many more.
Meanwhile, I discovered some things about the assassination community, the several dozen serious researchers—many, though not all, of whom, have published work on the case themselves—who know the most about the evidence and have spent the most time thinking about it. They and the amateurs who have also kept the controversy alive for four decades fall with very few exceptions into one of two camps—camps which can fairly be described as two religions. The first, the Church of the Lone Assassin (really the church of two lone assassins), argues that Oswald and Ruby were two pathetic loners who committed the murders that they did out of purely personal reasons. Having reached this conclusion years ago, they assume that any evidence of conspiracy must be false, and are quite satisfied to cite any piece of contrary evidence as sufficient to dismiss it. (Since there are always inconsistencies in a mass of complex evidence, some way of doing this is never lacking.) They also rely largely on a portrayal of Oswald that was not fully developed until more than a decade after his death, and which turns out to be not in the least supported by the original FBI interviews with Marina, which I was able to read. Their counterparts on the other side of the fence are the Church of the Grand Conspiracy, whose adherents hold that Oswald was (or at least very well might have been) innocent, that critical physical and/or medical evidence has been misinterpreted or faked, and that the conspiracy involved significant elements of the federal government. To them any inconsistency in the evidence is grounds for suspicion, if not proof, that the evidence has been tampered with. People on both sides of this divide, I should note, gave me a good deal of help during the writing of the book, mostly on an email list where everyone is always willing to discuss where documentation on this or that point might be found. Not surprisingly, however, many have not been pleased by the results—they can’t be. Their minds were made up long ago. Well, it’s a free country.

Meanwhile, the biggest media outlets seem to be assassinationed out. [ I did make a number of radio appearances when the book came out (links to which can also be found at and the Harvard press site.) The Chronicle of Higher Education printed the introduction. I also got a nice review in Playboy, of all places, and, as mentioned, in a number of newspapers around the country. Most of the most visible media outlets, however, did not review it. In an exchange about JFK about fifteen years ago, I wrote that an unfortunate version of Gresham’s Law seemed to dominate the public discussion of the assassination: the bad conspiracy theories drove out the good. To use the language of communications theory, there is so much accumulated noise on the subject that it is hard for a true signal to get through. [It is now Saturday the 22nd, and the media's lack of interest is confirmed: according to google, only two newspapers in the country--one in Dallas--have run any kind of anniversary piece.]
My goal was to base my account to the maximum extent possible on contemporary documentation and to paint the most consistent picture of all the evidence. Others will make their own judgments but I was more than satisfied with the result. The book involved the accumulation, sorting, and distillation of an extraordinary amount of data, and I don’t think it would have been possible without Microsoft Excel and the presence of some documentation on line. I like to think that it, like my earlier books, are something of a vindication of the idea of history that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: a relatively (though never absolutely) scientific enterprise in a scrupulous practitioner could make the most likely truth emerge from the data. Their reception has been similar: while none has ever become anything like a best-seller, and all have earned some hostile comment, substantial numbers of people, and several reviewers, have always understood and appreciated what I was trying to do. Meanwhile, much of the first four years of History Unfolding will be available in book form in about two weeks; check back here for a further announcemnt. I have also gotten deeply involved in a new research project on a completely different topic—a healthy step for any professional writer after the completion of a big and controversial task.
The death of John Kennedy, I now see, had truly traumatic effects—including, as I argued in American Tragedy, the decision (which he had resisted) to fight in Vietnam—but they were short- and medium- , not long term. Had he served two terms the 1960s would have been less cataclysmic, I think, but after the passage of the Civil Rights Act he would have faced the same political and social problems as Johnson did. The South would have gone Republican, liberalism was rapidly exhausting himself, and it’s quite possible that Ronald Reagan would have been elected President in 1980 anyway. And had there been no war in Vietnam, some subsequent Administration would probably have involved itself in some other third world trouble spot, quite possibly with similar consequences. Kennedy’s calm, usually unhurried, and well-informed approach to government may indeed serve as the model for Barack Obama’s—although if indeed Hillary Clinton becomes Secretary of State, the Obama Administration may turn out to be a bit more freewheeling and multipolar, rather like the Roosevelt one. It will be interesting to find out.


Anonymous said...

David, any praise your book receives is much deserved. As someone with a long-term interest in the assassination, it is so refreshing to at last read a book on the subject that is both scholarly and sober in nature. The frustration at only being able to find, largely, poorly written and researched writings belonging to the two extreme camps you identify had caused my interest on the topic to wane, considerably. Many thanks.

Dave K. said...

My question is.... If Oswald shot Kennedy, why didn't he shoot him coming up Houston Street? If you look at the limousine evidence, there was a nick in the aluminum next to the rear view mirror, and the windshield on the Lincoln was cracked. Not to mention that John Connaly was buried with bullet fragments in his wrist. The fragments could only have come from the "Magic Bullet". Yet, the only fragments missing from the magic bullet were taken from it by the FBI for testing. Kind of interesting to me.

Cantara said...

David -

A link to this blog posting, with my comment, is on my blog:

- Cantara Christopher

SGFoxe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SGFoxe said...

discovery channel's documentary establishing that the fatal bullet could have only come from the 6th floor of the School Depository Building pretty much transformed my favorite theory (Jimmy Hoffa godfathered it, result of the infra-teamster power struggles between Hoffa and Sam Giancana whose west side chicago teamsters stole it for JFK in 1960) into the Great American Novel.

Your theory of right wing antiCastro forces -- including the Mafia which had a lot of investments in preCastro Havana -- prevails

Tho it is so hard for me to buy into a theory where Hoffa was NOT a major player

marcdcase said...

Prof. Kaiser,

I too have had long standing (well, as a long an interest someone in their late 20's can have) interest in the JFK assassination. My own interest developed after watching Stone's JFK several times as a preteen and of course had my beliefs moderated as I did more personal research but left it alone in recent years while I was in college and now grad school. I picked up your book last week at the library expecting to read it slowly over the week as an escape from dissertation writing and have found myself entranced (unfortunately not working on my dissertation) by the detail and logic. I never realized the depth of government and mafia involvement in the Cuban affairs. I plan to purchase this book for my own library. Thanks for such a fantastic work.

dp10 said...

I was totally gripped by your book but was wondering why you did not include more of the physical evidence that also leads to a conspiracy. I read a book called"JFK Conspiracy of Silence" by Charles A.Censhaw MD who was one of many doctors at Parkland Hospital that dreadful day when Kennedy was taken there. He states from his observations as a professional that the wounds to Kennedy's head and throat werte caused by bullets that struck him in the front,not the back......which would lead to the conspiracy theory that shots were fired from the front (grassy Knoll).....what say you....


DrSteve said...

Dear Prof Kaiser:

I am curious as to your opinion of Talbot's book "Brothers"

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