Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Lecture outline -- JFK: History of the Conspiracy Theories

JFK: History of the Conspiracy Theories

I. Overview and Analysis

JFK’s death began a new era in conspiracy theory:
  • “Broadened the base” of c.t. beyond the anticommunist far right-wing
  • Fears shifted from outside subversion to evil & corruption of the whole system
The Aftermath: Clips from Four Days in November

The Politics of JFK Assassination Investigations
  • Dual role of media: Hyping the mystery & tragedy while accepting official explanations.
  • Despite Cold War & LHO beliefs, communists rarely blamed for JFK murder, with exception of useful kooks such as Prof. Revilo P. Oliver.
  • The political and academic establishment of the mid-60s was heavily committed to the “liberal consensus” and thus had every reason to suppress conspiracy beliefs.
  • Establishment fears of the “politics of unreason,” the radical right (John Birch Society), and possibility of an irrational public overreacting to news of a conspiracy: Seven Days in May.
Close relationship between the rise of 1960s radicalism & the rise of JFK c.t.’s.
  • Left-wing origin of most theories. Argument that LHO was U.S. spy or the victime of a frame-up, not Commie.
  • Rise of protest after JFK: The Berkeley “Free Speech Movement,” 1964.
  • Deep distrust of established institutions pervaded both JFK c.t.’s and 60s radicalism. Example of Carl Oglesby, SDS leader & conspiracy theorist.
  • Paranoia in 60s/70s counterculture: “Paul is Dead,” Easy Rider, Texas Chainsaw Massacre
II. How the Theorizing Began

The Manchester thesis: Crime and criminal did not balance.

Truly, obviously bizarre/mysterious aspects of the case:
  • Jack Ruby’s mob background & police connections
  • Ruby’s murder of Oswald, entry & escape
  • Oswald’s “patsy” claim, plus failure to record what he said
  • Oswald’s strange, contradictory background
  • Communist in the Marines at sensitive posts
  • Defection to and undefection from Soviet Union
  • Communist and anti-communist associations (Russian émigrés)
  • Spy-like behavior: Post office boxes and aliases
  • Too-perfect evidence trail (photos, mail-order rifle, sightings)
  • Logical flaws & factual errors in the Oswald impersonator scenario
Early reactions:
  • Polls showed that most of the public believed in some conspiracy from the beginning, at least that Oswald did not act alone.
  • Left was most influential in suspecting conspiracies, blamed the Right
  • Site of shooting in Dallas, a hotbed of right-wing activity, strongly suggested a right-wing plot.
  • Left-wing lawyer Mark Lane appointed himself Oswald’s defense attorney, raised problems with evidence immediately after the assassination (Dec. 1963)
  • First fully developed c.t.s came from European Left, who saw Dallas as a violent coup d’etat such as commonly happened in world history
  • First book: Joachim Joesten’s Oswald: Assassin or Fall Guy?
  • Bertrand Russell and the “Who Killed Kennedy Committee?” Dreyfus affair comparison.
  • Left split over JFK conspiracy theories: I.F. Stone attacks “demonology.”
  • Soviets spread JFK c.t.’s through their official media
Lone Gunman theories as defense of “American exceptionalism”: US officials wanted to show that true political violence still could not happen here, that U.S. had its own tradition of assassination by deranged, paranoid loners.

III. The Warren Commission

Rushed, sloppy investigation caused more problems than it solved.

Warren Commission’s paternalism, emphasis on calming fears, quashing rumors & protecting “our institutions.”

Pressures due to 1964 election: Barry Goldwater won GOP nomination over liberal Nelson Rockefeller, challenged liberal consensus, offering “choice, not an echo.”

Members: Chief Justice Earl Warren, House leaders Hale Boggs & G. Ford, Senators R. Russell & J.S. Cooper, Chase Manhattan Pres. John McCloy, plus Allen Dulles (CIA director fired by JFK).

Problems with the investigation:
  • Non-cooperation of the CIA & FBI. Warren’s failure to press for more cooperation.
  • Members’ failure to attend meetings and generally political approach.
  • Set up as prosecution of Oswald, but Oswald was allowed no representation.
  • W.C. adopted “lone gunman” & “single bullet” theories despite contradictions in the evidence. Leads were not followed if they led to a possible c.t.
  • Mainstream media and public largely accepted the lone gunman theory, at first. Warren Commission seemed to be a success.
  • Warren Report (intro) & non-c.t. JFK books were among 1964 bestsellers.
  • Wide, quick public acceptance of the liberal martyr view of JFK.
  • Playing on idea of Kennedy as liberal martyr, President Johnson got major civil rights legislation passed & crushed Goldwater in the election.
IV. The Rise of the Buffs and the Fall of the Lone Gunman

The collapse of faith in the Warren Commission’s work
  • Tracked with the rise of political turmoil in 60s: urban race riots, antiwar protests, etc. As liberal consensus broke up, so did belief in the lone gunman theory.
  • Early emergence of independent critics & lay researchers, or “buffs”: Mark Lane (Rush to Judgment –1966 bestseller), Sylvia Meagher, Harold Weisberg, Josiah Thompson, David Lifton, & others. Buff investigations (and c.t. in general) as “people’s scholarship.”
  • Doubts about Warren Commission raised by mainstream media (Life) by 1966, encouraged by Edward Jay Epstein’s Inquest, a Cornell MA thesis.
Conspiracy theory in left-leaning pop culture: play Macbird! (1967), film Greetings (1968) – draft-dodging hippies as conspiracy theorists.

The Rise of the Zapruder Film
  • Jim Garrison’s prosecution of businessman Clay Shaw, 1967-69: failed, homophobic, corrupt & baseless, but legitimated buffs & caused wide distribution of Abraham Zapruder’s home movie of the assassination. The Perry Russo problem.
  • Film became centerpiece of a traveling roadshow that spread views of conspiracy buffs to local audiences, especially at colleges.
  • Zapruder film lent great power to “common sense” arguments of buffs, especially for a second shooter in front of JFK on the Grassy Knoll. One reason: apparent snap of head back and to the left.
  • Most “popular” conspirators at this time were typical left-wing/Cold War villains, but researchers focused on technical investigations rather than “who” or “why.”
V. The Conspiratorial Legacy of 1968

Factors that allowed JFK c.t.s to go mainstream: Fear, shock, loss of faith in American society & institutions.
  • Generally distrustful spirit of times combined with rising crime, social change, fear of both.
  • Rapid escalation of Vietnam War despite promises & protests, growing “credibility gap” over how truthfully public & Congress were informed about the war.
  • “Operation Chaos”: Johnson administration asked CIA to investigate possibility that anti-war movement was a foreign-controlled conspiracy. Answer was no.
MLK & RFK assassinations, April & June 1968, both at times and under circumstances that suggested more right-wing plots. King as he was turning to economic issues, RFK on day he won California primary seemingly enroute to sure victory in November. Left-leanings CTs undermined by:
  • Lack of real mystery surrounding James Earl Ray or Sirhan Sirhan.
  • Violence against conservative targets that followed (Wallace, Ford).
Vice President Hubert Humphrey was nominated by Democrats as demonstrators and police rioted, followed by mutual conspiracy theories & conspiracy trial of the “Chicago 7.”

VI. Conspiracy A Go-Go: The 1970s

The Post-Watergate Interregnum, 1974-78
  • 1974 elections as high point of liberal Democratic political power in recent history, artificial break from ongoing conservative trend.
  • 1975, “The Year of Intelligence”: CIA becomes major political issue as Church Committee and press exposed CIA as “rogue elephant on a rampage”: domestic surveillance (incl. wiretaps & mail opening), foreign coups (Chile) & assassination attempts, drug experiments.
  • Secrets first came out because of CIA & FBI involvement in Watergate, internal “Family Jewels” report arising from post-Helms shakeup.
  • Led to closer oversight of, & sharp, but often ineffective, restrictions on covert intelligence activities.
  • Rogue CIA idea led to CTs such as Christic Institute’s “Secret Team.”
National broadcast of the Zapruder film in 1975 by Geraldo Rivera.

House Select Committee on Assassinations (1978) – a new, conspiracy-minded investigation found little that was new.
  • At last minute, endorsed conspiracy in general, based on discredited audio evidence of a 4th shot.
  • Other evidence mostly supported W.C. conclusions, but the committee’s work led to wide acceptance of a JFK conspiracy.
The Conservative 80s: Reagan elected in 1980
  • Emergence of the Mafia theory, growing from work of G. Robert Blakey, chief counsel of the House Select Committee
  • Made Kennedys complicit in own death, took in anti-JFK CTs like Marilyn
  • Took left-wing politics out of JFK CTs.
  • New conservative-leaning CTs: “stab in the back” view of Vietnam, POWs & MIAs, renewal of Cold War
VII. The Oliver Stone Era

Oliver Stone’s hit film JFK (1991): used some of the dumbest c.t.s.; mixed fact & fiction; brought Vietnam, military-industrial complex motive to the fore.
  • Huge controversy over the film led to creation of the Assassination Records Review Board and the release of most remained assassination-related records, 1992-98. Not much there.
  • Media increasingly dismissed political conspiracy theories after the controversy over Stone’s JFK.
Oliver’s Fallacies -- a sampling
  • As seen already: a conspiracy too immense and the head snap
  • The “Magic Bullet” (CE 399)
  • Smoke on the Grassy Knoll
CT as Science Fiction
  • They Stole Kennedy’s Brain: David Lifton’s “body alteration” theory
  • Umbrella Man and the Darts of Death
Final thoughts: The return of American exceptionalism and the depoliticization of the JFK narrative.

(Pull-out screen)
Right-Wing Extremism after McCarthy

During the era of the “liberal consensus” & post-McCarthy backlash, Communist conspiracy fears kept up by new “radical right”:
  • John Birch Society, founded 1958, organized like CPUSA: no democracy, fronts, etc.
  • Strong in TX, FL, southern Calif.
  • The Politician promoted idea that Eisenhower was communist agent.
  • Today: Robert Welch U. & summer camp.
Extreme anticommunists considered mentally ill by 60s liberals, but respected by conservatives opposed to social changes (civil rights) & out to “win” Cold War.

Beginnings of modern conservative movement. Example: Barry Goldwater campaign 1964.

Very active in early 1960s: 1964 best-seller None Dare Call It Treason by John H. Stormer.

Long-term influence: Lingering fear of red-baiting helped push Johnson into the Vietnam War.