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Conspiracy Theories

President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963
President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 (AP)

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So while a new crop of JFK assassination books blooms every November, the Washington press corps, confident in its own ability to uncover wrongdoing, tends to see the JFK story as a black hole of misinformation and irrationality. That viewpoint has gotten plenty of support over the years from ludicrous conspiracy theories positing that Kennedy was killed by a gunman lurking in a sewer, by a bystander wielding a dart-shooting umbrella or (my favorite) by an accidental gunshot from a Secret Service agent. After the fierce debate over Oliver Stone's controversial 1991 hit movie "JFK," which portrayed the assassination as the work of a sinister CIA-Pentagon cabal determined to kill Kennedy lest he pull out of Vietnam, much of the Washington press corps never rejoined the discussion of his murder. Most (but not all) historians and journalists scorned Stone's scenario as unfounded, wild-eyed and destructive. But a CBS News poll taken two years later found that far more respondents thought the CIA was involved with JFK's murder (49 percent) than thought that Oswald acted alone (11 percent). This impasse fuels the industry of new assassination books.

The case that Oswald acted alone was most persuasively restated by the investigative reporter Gerald Posner in his 1993 bestseller Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK . His success prompted furious rebuttals of his reading of the evidence.

Beginning in 1994, the Assassination Records Review Board declassified thousands of once-secret JFK records. They generated yet more JFK books but also (mercifully) eliminated some of the least plausible theories. First to go was the claim that Oswald had acted on behalf of the Soviet Union, a claim effectively debunked by the new U.S. records and records from the former communist spy agencies.

The Board also dispatched the far-fetched claim that the U.S. government had altered Abraham Zapruder's famous home movie of the assassination to hide evidence of a conspiracy. David R. Wrone, a historian, refuted this bogus theory in his 2003 book The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK's Assassination . The unaltered film, Wrone concluded, shows that Kennedy was hit by gunfire from two different directions.

Another leading theory -- that the Mafia killed Kennedy -- has endured in the memoirs of people close to top organized-crime figures. But reams of recently released FBI surveillance records do not provide any corroboration. Nor has Oliver Stone's malign vision of murder-by-military-industrial-complex found any substantiation.

The new records have bolstered other scenarios, however. Gus Russo's 1998 book Live by the Sword: The Secret War Against Castro and the Death of JFK resuscitated the lone-gunman theory by giving it what it had long lacked: a motive. Russo, an investigative reporter, argued that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's secret efforts to overthrow Castro in 1963 were much more extensive than had previously been known. He suggested that Oswald, acting out of leftist conviction, killed JFK in defense of Castro's revolution, perhaps with Havana's help.

The Board's documents arguably enhanced another popular scenario -- that CIA operatives manipulated or framed the pro-Castro Oswald. In his 1995 book Oswald and the CIA , John Newman, a former military intelligence officer, demonstrated that senior CIA officials gave pre-assassination reporting on the itinerant ex-Marine far more attention than they ever admitted. Newman refrained from passing judgment on whether Oswald was involved in an authorized, still-classified CIA operation with a legitimate purpose and no apparent connection to Kennedy's assassination. He noted that the agency had not released all of its JFK records, which remains true in 2005.

The rational reader is confronted by the paradox that while plenty of wacko theories circulate on the Internet, a good-faith parsing of the evidence can still yield reasonable doubt. After all, many people in high places concluded that JFK had been ambushed by his enemies. Lyndon B. Johnson, for one, never believed that Oswald acted alone; he suspected Cuba's Fidel Castro had retaliated for CIA efforts to kill him. House Speaker Tip O'Neill said that JFK aide Kenneth O'Donnell had told him in 1968 that "he had heard two shots" from the "grassy knoll." Conspiratorial fears found support in 1979 when the House Select Committee on Assassinations, led by former federal prosecutor G. Robert Blakey, concluded that JFK had been killed by unidentifiable conspirators. Former cabinet secretary Joseph Califano, intimately involved in JFK's Cuba policy, wrote in his autobiography that he had "come to share LBJ's view" that Oswald was not a loner.

In 1997 it was revealed that Bobby and Jacqueline Kennedy believed there was a conspiracy in Dallas. In their book on the Cuban missile crisis, "One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964, historians Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali reported that the president's widow and brother sent an envoy to Moscow in late 1963 to tell a Soviet intelligence officer that they believed JFK had been killed by what the authors called a "large political conspiracy" originating in the United States. The grief-stricken widow and brother wanted the Kremlin to know that RFK would resume his brother's policy toward the Soviet Union as soon as he became president himself. This rather startling revelation deserved more attention in Washington than it got at the time. Inside the Beltway, the idea that serious political players believed that JFK's murderer got away with it was somehow inadmissible. Elsewhere, the strange circumstances of the Dallas tragedy make Jackie and Bobby's suspicions seem almost commonsensical. Conspiracy theories endure. Yet, as two new JFK assassination books illustrate, there is still no compelling case to explain who the alleged conspirators were, if they existed at all.

In Ultimate Sacrifice , researchers Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann propose a novel variation on the Mafia conspiracy theory. They report that Bobby Kennedy sought to orchestrate a "palace coup" in Havana on Dec. 1, 1963 -- which the authors refer to as "the Kennedys' C-Day plan," "a name entirely of our own invention" that they use alongside actual terms from the time, doing their credibility no favors. Mafia crime bosses, they contend, learned of this plan and killed Kennedy, using Oswald as their patsy, knowing that the crime could not be investigated lest it reveal Bobby's secret scheme.

Their exhausting, massive account, grounded in new CIA and Army records, valuably fleshes out Russo's portrait of RFK's secret campaign to oust Castro. But their theory about how that ties into the assassination itself is conjectural. They inflate tenuous links between Oswald and organized-crime figures and presume that the Mafia had a bureaucratically savvy leadership. To attribute the gunfire in Dallas and the alleged subsequent cover-ups to the ingenuity of thuggish crime bosses like Jimmy Hoffa, Johnny Roselli and Santo Trafficante Jr. has the feel of a deus ex mafia , wrapping up a complicated story too neatly.

Joan Mellen's brisker A Farewell to Justice retells the story that Stone mythologized in "JFK." In 1967, Jim Garrison, district attorney for the city of New Orleans, sought to investigate Kennedy's assassination by indicting businessman Clay Shaw on conspiracy charges. Mellen, a biographer (of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, among other literary figures) and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, shows beyond a reasonable doubt what the CIA denied for years: that Shaw was a sometime agency informant from 1949 to 1965. She persuasively argues that Oswald was neither a loner nor a nut and may well have associated with Shaw. But Mellen's insistence that any contact between Shaw and Oswald proves an assassination conspiracy is a stretch, to say the least. Ultimately, her assertion of a New Orleans-based plot depends on two witnesses whose credibility is far from certain.

And so the JFK jury remains out. Those who say there is no proof of a conspiracy are correct, and those who say the preponderance of evidence indicates that Oswald did not act alone also have a strong case. Those who want a decisive answer to the question of who killed John F. Kennedy 42 years ago will have to await new books -- and live with the disturbing thought that we still don't know.

Jefferson Morley is a staff writer at washingtonpost.com. He is writing a biography of Winston Scott, a former CIA station chief in Mexico City.


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