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Image courtesy of John F. Kennedy Archives & Library

The Thoughtful Reader's Primer to the JFK Assassination

By R. Alan Clanton | published Saturday, November 23, 2013 |
Thursday Review Editor

American readers love a good mystery. And the book and investigative output that is the JFK assassination industry has had its ebbs and flows over the decades. Now, fifty years after that fateful day in Dallas, Texas, when President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed by a sniper’s bullet, the small plot twists and turns continue to stream into the collective consciousness.

The milestone anniversary has brought many of those present that day—at least those still alive after so many decades—back to the forefront of a case that never seems to be fully closed, or fully open. The newest flurry of activity has given rise to another wave of nostalgia for Kennedy—arguably one of the most popular modern Presidents—as well as a new influx of magazine articles and TV reports about survivors’ memories of that day.

Just this week CBS News’ Bob Schieffer talked to Dr. Kenneth Salyer—in 1963 a young resident physician at Parkland Hospital, and on call that day for head injuries. Dr. Salyer was in the emergency treatment room when the President’s shirt and pants were cut away. Salyer told Schieffer that the President’s severe head wounds might have been avoided had it not been for the heavy, restrictive back brace he was wearing at the time—an elaborate and complex web of material enclosing his torso so tightly that it certainly prevented Kennedy from slumping, ducking or crouching in the vehicle (as John Connally had done) in the immediate seconds after the first shot.

The President, a Navy veteran of World War II, would have surely had the basic training and reflexes to lower his body in the limousine, especially after that first shot passed through his shoulder and neck. But Salyer says the heavy back brace made such a move impossible, keeping the President effectively upright and making him an easy target for the head shot.  Others have argued for decades that the first shot, which grazed JFK’s spinal cord near his shoulder and upper back, triggered a neurological reaction called the Thorburn Position, in which a spinal cord injury’s victim raises arms and hands into a T-shaped configuration, and in some cases causing them a moment of immobility—as likely an explanation as any when once watches the Zapruder film and sees Kennedy clutching at his throat, arms outstretched at his elbows. In response to the Salyer report on CBS, there was a fresh burst of discussion on the internet by those who ascribe to the notion that the spinal cord reflex was the real cause of Kennedy’s inability to move.

So, controversy remains ablaze even now as new information and new conjecture by first-hand sources emerge. And the busy industry of assassination theory by experts continues unabated half a century later.

This past week, commemoration and special events were held in Washington and Dallas, and on Friday thousands gathered in Dealey Plaza to mark the exact hour and day fifty years ago when those infamous shots were fired.

Biographers and those who write memoirs from the era must all traverse this well-visited terrain of John F. Kennedy’s death, and that adds proliferation to the already fertile mix. Earlier this year Knopf released Robert Caro’s massive The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, the fourth in a series of a planned five books on the sprawling life of Lyndon Johnson, and in book four we encounter fresh, sometime startling insights into that day in 1963 when JFK’s sudden death propels LBJ into the presidency. Other books, many of them memoirs and autobiographies, have been published in the last few years—some from those who worked closely with Kennedy and who have their own axes to grind regarding JFK’s death. And books whose subject matter focuses directly on the assassination are still arriving with new, fresh, and sometimes contentious theories. Just this year the University Press of Kansas released two important books, Gerald McKnight’s Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why, and David Wrone’s The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination. Over the recent years hundreds of new books on the subject have incorporated advanced medical science and dazzling tools of technology to support various views of what happened that day in Dealey Plaza, and some of the world’s most prominent fiction writers have sought to explore the competing variables (as in Stephen King’s recent novel 11/22/63, in which, through an accident of time travel, the protagonist is transported to back to 1963 Texas, wherein his path crosses that of Lee Harvey Oswald’s).

As Thursday Review writer Kevin Robbie points out in his new article (“The JFK Assassination and the Search for Truth”), by some estimates as many as 2000 books, studies or reports have been published on the subject of the Kennedy assassination over the last five decades, many of them promoted by their authors, publicists or publishers as “definitive” or “conclusive.” By that reckoning, what Robbie refers to as a “cottage industry” would be more accurately described as heavy industry, with a publishing output exceeded perhaps only the always fertile topics of World War II, and the U.S. Civil War. The topic of Kennedy’s assassination, however, raises the collective blood pressure far faster than historical reassessments of Adolf Hitler, FDR, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin or even Abraham Lincoln.

Those JFK books which seem to back a larger conspiracy greatly outnumber those works which support the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, as was the official position of the Warren Commission Report in 1964.

Within the conspiracy camp there can be nearly unlimited variables—separate but sometimes overlapping narratives, some downright byzantine, others direct. The perpetrators of the assassination can include some or all of the following: the CIA, the FBI, the top brass at the Pentagon, the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro and Cuba, U.S. Marxist-Leninists, U.S. right-wingers, the Mafia, the military-industrial complex, or some web-like combination of all of the above. One particularly interesting theory holds that then-governor John Connally was, in fact, Oswald’s intended target. Meanwhile, the total number of made-for-television documentaries has swollen into the hundreds, and TV viewers with an interest in revisiting the subject have had no lack of options over the past seven days.

Still, the proliferation of books has been truly dazzling, and speaks perhaps to the national lack-of-closure in what may have been the great American twentieth century tragedy, and the start of what was a terrible decade of political violence in the U.S.

For younger readers, the proliferation of books about the Kennedy assassination must make the task of discrimination difficult, especially in the context of such a web of hexagonal conspiracy and competing theories. My preference has always been to recommend simplicity to anyone wishing to wade into the dangerous waters of JFK’s death. Start with three books, and read each one carefully and completely before arriving at a judgment.

Cross Fire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, by Jim Marrs, was originally published over 35 years ago but has been expanded and updated at least twice since that time. Cross Fire, the essential text from which Oliver Stone drew his screenplay for the film JFK, is considered by many to be the authoritative book among the conspiracy camps, and the one text least prone to hyperbole, emotionalism, or blind conjecture. I read the paperback version decades ago, and though its writing was sometimes choppy and disorganized, newer editions have made the task of synthesis smoother and more palatable. Marrs’ book has also been embraced by much of the mainstream press and reviewers as the definitive text that stands as foil to the Warren Commission’s assertion that Oswald acted alone.

At the opposite end of that spectrum is Gerald Posner’s Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, originally published in 1993 and widely regarded as the final word among those who believe that the troubled, tormented Oswald acted alone. Posner presents a sober, professionally dispassionate case, often puncturing and deflating some of the most notable exhibits of the conspiracy theorists, and using a variety of balanced scientific tests conducted by groups with no axes to grind. Posner’s book is also readable and comprehensive, and though it runs to nearly 500 pages (including meticulous notes and citations), the book’s brisk crime-solving narrative is famous for keeping readers enthralled to the very end. Case Closed also has the advantage of some of the most useful diagrams and graphic illustrations available, including several pages which present about as compelling a case for Oswald’s bullet as any argument ever produced. Historian and author Stephen Ambrose has called Posner’s book “…a model of historical research. It should be required reading for anyone reviewing any book on the Kennedy assassination.”

In the vaguely defined middle camp there is the powerhouse writing style of Norman Mailer, whose monumental Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, reveals the tragic life of the assassin through hundreds of first-hand interviews and investigations. Mailer’s modus operandi is to let the reader soak up the tragic trajectory of Oswald, then, decide for themselves whether the young Oswald acted alone, in league with masters and managers, or whether he was—as some have asserted—a mere patsy upon whom the greatest murder of the twentieth century was pinned as a matter of convenience, cover-up or closure. Published in 1995, two years after Posner’s book, Mailer offers his own occasional cross-examinations of both sides of the story, with only an occasional attempt to press his hand upon the scales. Mailer concludes with a simple snapshot, and the core conundrum: nightclub owner Jack Ruby, by killing Oswald before all the facts could be calibrated against Oswald’s own testimony, tossed a shroud upon the whole truth, and clouded forever any definitive answers.

This lack of closure spilled over into the political and cultural narratives of others of that era, affecting the mindsets of Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ted Kennedy and many others. In his magisterial biography An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963, author and historian Robert Dallek illuminates Bobby Kennedy’s nagging belief that his brother’s death may have been the result of dark, rogue operations within the CIA, or the work of Sam Giancana, then among of the most powerful mafia bosses, or even the work of labor chieftain Jimmy Hoffa. But LBJ, as we would learn from his taped Oval Office conversations over the years, often advanced the theory that agents of Fidel Castro or operatives within the U.S. communist community—or some combination of both—were behind the death of JFK. Dallek points out that the Warren Report’s “failure to ferret out and disclose CIA assassination plots against Castro or to reveal and condemn the FBI for inattentiveness to Oswald raised questions later about the reliability of its evidence and judgment.”

For most Americans, the Warren Commission Report was never a satisfactory epilogue. An elaborate and well-funded review and investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1977-78 concluded, after much new scientific, forensic and audio-visual material was brought together, that there was some evidence of conspiracy in Kennedy’s assassination, but the committee offered no conclusive or comprehensive approach to unraveling what may have in fact happened in Dallas in 1963.

Oliver Stone’s massive, landmark film JFK, released in the summer of 1991, further inflamed the national conversation in ways that no major book had done. Stone’s dazzling cinematic gifts combined with an all-star cast to lend Hollywood credibility and endorsement through powerful shooting and editing skills. But to confuse Stone with a historian is a mistake, for his previous and subsequent films—while they are surely movies of great visual and cinematic importance (The Doors; Nixon)—have the one common thread most identified with Stone’s narrative style: a fast and loose association with the truth. (I saw the film JFK on its opening weekend, and I must admit that I left the theater a believer in the existence of a larger conspiracy; only after reading several books on the subject did I come to the conclusion that Stone did great damage to the truth through his deliberate mishandling of certain facts, and through his insertion of entirely fictional characters into key locations along the timeline as tool to connect disparate pieces of his elaborate web.)

Still, as a film student, I recommend Stone’s gut-wrenching motion picture even to the lone-gunman advocates. It is surely among the most impressively edited films of the twentieth century.  Indeed, Gerald Posner’s work was made that much more challenging in the wake of the commercial success of JFK and the belief, by the early 1990s, by a majority of Americans that Kennedy’s assassination must have surely been the result of powerful forces and conspiracy.

“To accept the fact,” writes Dallek, “that an act of random violence by an obscure malcontent could bring down a president of the United States is to acknowledge a chaotic, disorderly world that frightens most Americans.”

Indeed, Americans want the deaths of their beloved leaders to have meaning and resonance, even under the most tragic circumstances.  That Kennedy's death was the result of the tormented madness of one person seems farfetched to many people, and leaves the question of conspiracy at the forefront of many who remember a remarkably popular President.