Thursday, November 22, 2007

November 22, 1963

Today is not just Thanksgiving. Forty four years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Half a century later, the nation is still enthralled with the JFK assassination and the issue of the complicity, or lack thereof, of Lee Harvey Oswald. As with all tragic anniversaries, today's newspapers are filled with memories and reflections, although perhaps less so today because no one meaningfully observes a forty fourth commemoration of anything. Nevertheless, that awful day gave birth to America's thriving conspiracy industry, which suggests that any nefarious deed is the product of a secretive government cabal.

In its November 22, 1993 edition, Newsweek employed a team of writers and researchers to offer their own explanation for the plethora of conspiracy theories. Oliver Stone's JFK had been released only two year earlier, and Gerald Posner's Case Closed, an excellent 1993 book rebutting many of the assassination conspiracy theories, was receiving scoffs from anyone who considered himself or herself outside of the established order of thinking. Published on the assassination's thirtieth anniversary, Newsweek's piece offered an interesting rationale for the behavior of U.S. government officials in the immediate aftermath of JFK's murder: benevolent negligence. In the wake of Oswald's violence, various government agencies and officials tried to secure the public calm and quell any fears, attempts which conspiracy theorists later seized upon as evidence of a vast wide ranging conspiracy of which high government officials were a part. Introducing that series of articles, presidential historian Michael Beschloss observed:

Nervous at the prospect of pursuing the investigation wherever it led, [America's government leaders] instead sought to ensure that the American people's suspicions were put to rest as soon as possible. Their motives were both self-protective and honorable. [President Lyndon B. Johnson], for instance, was justifiably worried that if Americans promptly learned the depth of Oswald's apparent connections to Moscow and Havana, they might demand that he retaliate with force that could lead to a third world war.

The effect was to purchase short-term political calm at the price of thirty years of doubt, not only about John Kennedy's murder but about the integrity and ultimate purposes of American government. During these years, presidents developed such a tendency to conceal or rationalize government failings in the name of national security that the public has been encouraged to suspect a plot behind every act of American statecraft. Thirty years later, if we can wring any moral out of John Kennedy's murder, it is that, in the long reach of American history, the rewards of full disclosure tower over its immediate perils.1

Certainly, though, these government officials and their underlings had a slight ulterior motive as well: to avoid blame for any possible mistakes or omissions and immunize themselves from accusations of negligence. In the lead article of the series, journalist Evan Thomas concluded:

In the hours and days following the assassination, America's leaders feared that a hysterical public would demand revenge for the death of their president. At the very least, they worried, the small steps Kennedy had taken toward detente would be dashed. With remarkable speed and unanimity, officials at the top levels of the U.S. government decided they must convince the country that the president's death was the work of a lone madman, not some vast communist plot. In the context of the time, this strategy was well intentioned, certainly understandable. But as a method of discovering the truth, it was deeply flawed.


In the end, the Warren Commission was probably right: Kennedy was killed by a lone nut, who in turn was killed by another lone nut. But conspiracy theories die hard: more people believe the wackiest conspiracy theory of all -- the CIA-LBJ-Pentagon cooked up by the movie producer Oliver Stone -- than they do the Warren Commission, the combined effort of senators, statesmen and Supreme Court justices.

The irony, of course, is that in their desire to reassure the public that the institutions of government would persevere, the worthies of the Washington establishment produced the opposite effect. The rush to judgment left many Americans wondering if their government was telling the truth.


In the end, the story of the American government and the assassination of John F. Kennedy is a tale of human error and parochialism, not of conspiracy. More likely than not, the men of the establishment were right about Oswald. But because of their mistakes, the public will never believe what really happened.2

The American psychology also comes into play in this arena. No one wants to believe that a single individual, acting from a place of malice, can so dramatically alter the course of a nation by killing its leader. Cynicism is also a culprit; it serves well those who are generally ignorant of the facts of the JFK assassination. Why bother to read the Warren Commission report, Posner's mighty tome, or anything else when one can fashionably hide behind a veil of doubt and disdain? If one can veto explanations with an air of cynical derision, one need not read any source material. But cynicsm and ignorance are not the only motivators for the conspiracy industry. There is another motive: profit. Conspiracies sell. Sinister cabals meeting and smoky corridors sell more books and films than a lone gunman acting alone and without aid of government conspirators. From series as popular as The X-Files to films as obscure as 2002's faux-documentary Interview with the Assassin, Hollywood adores conspiracy. By the same token, purported non-fiction books offering the latest bizarre explanations would not continue to appear were there not a buying public interested in reading, or at least purchasing, such things.

In the end, the Newsweek piece offers lessons to government leaders in times of crisis; they would do well to heed them. Rather than scurrying about in the aftermath of tragedy to reassure the American public at any cost, government leaders can and should be a bit more straightforward about such things to avoid the cluttering of the historical record. Now, just as in the 1960s, some people question the official government response to national tragedy and cite any initial uncertainty or reticence as proof positive of sinister machinations. But the goverment can't prove a negative; it cannot establish for the record that there was no American government involvement on November 22, 1963 or September 11, 2001. It shouldn't have to. All that it can do is remain reasonable and responsive and avoid offering the type of "children's history" that Newsweek rebuked as being provided to the Americans of four decades ago.

1. Michael Beschloss, "The Day That Changed America," Newsweek, p. 60-62, November 22, 1993.
2. Evan Thomas, "The Real Cover-Up," Newsweek, p. 66-95, November 22, 1993.

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