President John F Kennedy in limo with wife Jackie
Image courtesy of University of Texas, Austin

The JFK Assassination and the Search for Truth

By Kevin Robbie | published Thursday, November 21, 2013 |
Thursday Review Contributor

November 22, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dealey Plaza, Dallas. It is one of the seminal events of twentieth century American history. I am too young to remember that event. However, over the years the assassination has indelibly impacted our popular culture and the media. The study of it still tantalizes and captivates us. The assassination has spawned a multitude of works in the popular and commercial media. The shots which killed a president still resonate around the world, and the trajectory taken by those fatal bullets changed the trajectory of American history.

The impact of the shooting soon took tangible form. It struck with a force equal to that of the terrorist bombings of 9/11, 38 years later. Before the country could catch its collective breath, the assassination had spurred a cottage industry of its own. Within hours of the event, the public was asking how such a tragic event could have happened. The question is being asked even in the present day. The assassination has been portrayed in books, videos, movies, magazines and newspaper articles. By some estimates, nearly 2,000 books have been written on the subject though the exact figure is anyone’s guess.

When viewed through the lens of history, focus on the assassination often becomes blurred by the perspectives of conflicting opinions and the often myopic approach of researchers and authors. There are essentially two “camps” in the ongoing debates on--and investigations into--the JFK assassination. The official position of the government is the one promulgated by the Federal Government in 1964 and memorialized in the Warren Commission Report. It presents the case of the lone-gunman theory, that Lee Harvey Oswald, and he alone, shot the president. The opposite camp is comprised of those who support one or more of the conspiracy theories.

Among the other more well-known works espousing the “lone-gunman” theory, supported by the Warren Commission are: Reclaiming History, by Vincent Bugliosi; Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK by Gerald Posner; Revisiting Camelot, by Noam Chomsky; Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot, by Bill O’Reilly, and the Warren Commission Report itself, known formally as The Official Report of the President's Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The more widely read books which support conspiracy and/or purport to expose the Warren Commission as official sham are: Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs; JFK and the Unspeakable by James Douglass; Ultimate Sacrifice: John and Robert Kennedy, the Plan for a Coup in Cuba, and the Murder of JFK by Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann; Last Word: My Indictment of the CIA in the Murder of JFK by Mark Lane, Case Open: the Unanswered JFK Assassination Questions by Harold Weissberg, and Inquest: The Warren Commission & the Establishment of Truth by Edward Jay Epstein.

Movies on the topic include In the Line of Fire, Parkland and, of course, JFK by Oliver Stone, and at least one documentary–Oswald’s Ghost by Robert Stone, which recounts the culture of paranoia infusing the Cold War period.

The assassination is a topic fraught with inherent tension. For example, many conspiracists will likely never be satisfied without a full government disclosure of the “truth” which would be at least a tacit admission of a conspiracy and subsequent cover-up. However, if the conspiracy buffs are right, the government may never provide such disclosure. It would, to say the least, prove highly embarrassing and further tarnish the image of the government in the eyes of the public. In addition, any surviving individuals involved in the conspiracy or subsequent cover-up could be exposed to criminal prosecution.

The lone-gunman argument has acquired an element of entrenched, academic orthodoxy. On the other hand, if the government version of the event is true, the facts are already known and nothing significant remains to be revealed. For their part, many conspiracy theorists present very cogent, compelling and thoroughly researched arguments which raise relevant questions about the assassination. Some of these questions were either glossed over by the Warren Commission or were ignored. However, there are other conspiracy ideas which are downright wacky and which detract from serious scholarship. Those theories have often led to the lone-gunman camp being very shortsighted and condescending on the whole issue of conspiracy. But even those goofy theories should not be allowed to distract from the viable conspiracy theories that exist. Both sides seem to have drawn lines in the sand which neither is willing to cross. It’s an “us or them” mentality which drives the debate and inspires intellectual discourse. Unfortunately such a mentality also obscures the real goal of discovering the truth. On the other hand, perhaps there is no middle ground. Either President Kennedy was killed via conspiracy or he was felled by a sole assassin.

The JFK assassination also provides us with an excellent “whodunnit” story. We have the context of the Cold War and the prevailing threat of nuclear war. Another element is the young, handsome and charismatic president, the scion of a political dynasty, who had a glamorous wife and two young children. In addition, there were many witnesses to the shooting in Dallas that day, and their versions of events provide different perspectives as well as more fuel for debate.

We will, of course, never know what different course history would have taken had John Kennedy not been shot. We do know that the Cold War dragged on for another twenty-seven years. The United States became deeply involved in Vietnam and Americans began to lose confidence in their government and other institutions. Political parties and politicians found it more difficult to build consensus as Democrats became more liberal and Republicans became more conservative. Robert Stone’s Oswald’s Ghost suggests that a vein of paranoia exists in our society that can be traced directly to the assassination. If so, the event might also be the source of the growing disconnect between the public and the institution of government.

The debate over the Kennedy assassination will likely continue into the foreseeable future, and its impact on our culture and political life remain intact. If the Warren Commission Report is fundamentally correct, we already know the truth. If the proponents of conspiracy are correct, we may never have a clear picture of what really happened, and why, on November 22, 1963. Under such circumstances, truth would be the ultimate victim.