Though purportedly based on a preponderance of new evidence, Stone’s documentary treats viewers to a densely detailed, often emphatic, but entirely predictable two-hour argument that will be familiar to anyone who viewed his 1991 feature film “JFK.” These include the idea that Kennedy was killed because Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and collaborators in the military, defense and intelligence communities sought to profit from a ramped-up war in Vietnam.
The problem with this theory is that it is counterfactual. Despite suggestive evidence of Kennedy’s intention to draw down the number of military advisers in Vietnam, no one can know with certainty whether he would have started an active ground war, as Johnson did. Such thinking fuels conspiracy theories with an entirely unprovable assertion about what might have been.
Despite the impressive depth of assassination-related research published since the mid-1960s, most writers and documentarians continue to focus deeply on a relatively narrow set of questions, including whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted as a lone assassin or if a conspiracy lay behind the president’s murder. The question, which has been asked, answered, debated and repeated time and again, is also re-adjudicated in “JFK Revisited.”
Blurring the lines between fact, fiction and pure speculation, the film also distorts our understanding of the historical record, one that is incredibly well documented. In the wake of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 — federal legislation that was spurred by the compelling but largely unverifiable theories Stone presented in “JFK” — Congress created an independent body called the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB). Over four years, its members reviewed and then succeeded in prying more than 60,000 documents from federal intelligence agencies, declassifying and making them available to researchers at the National Archives facility in Maryland. Today, the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection exceeds 5 million documents of various types.
This archival collection allows historians to ask new questions about the postwar period, ones that get away from well-worn conspiracy theories and illuminate the very real ways that the FBI and CIA delayed disclosures to the Warren Commission, the presidential commission Johnson deputized to investigate the assassination, and later to the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Both agencies were undeniably guilty of dissemblance, if not outright deceit, but no documents have been released that indicate intelligence agency participation in the assassination. In other words, if there had been a conspiracy, extant documents do not reveal the names of people or operatives who would have participated in the president’s murder.
Consider the story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who Stone cast as the protagonist of “JFK.” The 1991 film advances an argument that a perverse group of New Orleans-based gay men, working with CIA affiliates, were instrumental in planning the president’s murder. “JFK” also featured a fictionalized character named X, who told Garrison about the vast military- and intelligence-led conspiracy that lay behind the president’s murder, advising the crusading DA that “the how and the who” of the assassination were just “scenery for the public … why is the real question.” Stone inserts this fictional vignette into “JFK Revisited” just before launching into a recitation of documented CIA misdeeds abroad — implying that the agency, no stranger to inciting murder offshore, played a role in Kennedy’s assassination.
The problem is that without providing convincing evidence about “the how and the who,” suggestions of CIA culpability, made largely through establishing tenuous connections among individuals, are no substitute for proof. And this focus misses another important development that is firmly rooted in the historical record and fact: the well-documented homophobia within U.S. intelligence agencies, including the draconian steps the FBI and CIA took to purge their ranks of suspected gay men and lesbians, making it extremely unlikely that either agency would have relied on a cabal of gay men in New Orleans to plan the assassination.
Garrison’s prosecution of a closeted businessman, Clay Shaw, in 1969 grew out of stories told by two New Orleanians the weekend after the assassination. In their original iterations, those tales had only two things in common: Lee Harvey Oswald and accusations that he had been associating with “known homosexuals” the summer before the assassination. Four years later, Garrison merged these stories to create the contention that Shaw had conspired with Oswald and another deceased conspirator to kill Kennedy. The jury at Shaw’s trial returned a unanimous not guilty verdict. This failed prosecution remains the only assassination-related conspiracy case ever heard in a court of law.
A close reading of records related to Shaw’s prosecution shows how Garrison’s investigation was facilitated by long-standing suspicions of gay men. Multiple sources also demonstrate how a broad cultural homophobia made Shaw and his alleged co-conspirators suspect to a generation of Americans primed to believe that gay men were sex criminals likely to commit all manner of deviant acts, up and to and including murder.
In short, historical scholarship and the evidence at the National Archives make it clear that Garrison’s prosecution of Shaw, who was accused of acting with Oswald and another man, was largely conducted to provide a public forum for questioning the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman.
As we approach the assassination’s 60th anniversary, let’s look to the historical record rather than the silver screen for satisfying and nuanced answers to still-important questions. An archive borne in tragedy and consolidated on the basis of durable but disputed claims of conspiracy retains the ability to enlighten us historically about a whole range of issues that resonate in contemporary American life.
For example, as the congressional Jan. 6 committee struggles to gather evidence and compel testimony from witnesses reluctant to appear before it, a comparative look at how two congressional investigations from the 1970s — the Senate’s 1975 Church Committee, which explored intelligence agency abuses and misdeeds, and the House Select Committee on Assassinations — succeeded and failed to wring answers out of witnesses reluctant to testify under oath can be both timely and enlightening.
There is no need to stay mired in decades-old debates about bullets and ballistics, no matter how often they are repackaged in richly orchestrated audiovisual productions or perverted by conspiratorial cabals such as QAnon. We can disenthrall ourselves from the debates conspiracy advocates seek to make inviolable and, instead, enter the colossal archives related to Kennedy’s assassination with new questions. In particular, the archive can demonstrate how events that fertilized citizen cynicism about the government more than a half-century ago can help us document our contentious past — and also help explain the troubling conspiracy theories of today.