Today's commentary is the second of two reviews by Ronald Goldfarb on the vast number of Kennedy assassination books prompted by the 50th anniversary of that terrible event.
people who were alive when President Kennedy was killed on November 22,1963
remember vividly where they were that traumatic day. The world was stunned and
television repeated the event and the later shooting of Oswald in custody –
over and over again. I was an assistant to Robert F. Kennedy in the Justice
Department and was in his office that morning to discuss a proposed indictment
of a high Mafia character. We broke for lunch; RFK left for Hickory Hill with
his guest, Robert Morgenthau, and in those historic minutes, the world changed.
Some suggest that Americans lost their innocence when they witnessed the event on television, and repeatedly thereafter through every variation of media. My law partner represented the Zapruder family for many years, and the enduring interest in his much licensed film of the event was remarkable. Of the JFK assassination, James Wolcott wrote in the November 2013 issue of Vanity Fair, “Readers will never be sated, because too many hidden dimensions and murky links remain…History left us hanging.”
The assassination books (about a thousand of them) fall into three credible (and other questionable) theories:
- The Warren Commission conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone; the assassination was a crazy act by a single assassin. Gerald Posner attempted decades ago to close the case in his book, and the noted trial lawyer Vincent Bugliosi, in over 1500 pages, argues that sinister revisionist viewpoints are without merit, dismissing accumulating credible evidence to the contrary.
- The theory that Fidel Castro somehow engineered the murder in anticipatory retaliation to plans to kill him; never proven but interestingly suggested in former CIA official Brian Latell’s book Castro’s Secrets: The CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine, just updated.
- That the mob did it in retaliation against Robert F. Kennedy’s pursuit of Mafia members who joined Jimmy Hoffa in planning the murder. My book, Perfect Villains, Imperfect Heroes: Robert F. Kennedy’s War on Organized Crime explains and agrees with this view of the House Assassination Committee.
Along with investigative books supporting or reversing the Warren Commission conclusions, have been novels imagining what happened on November 22, 1963. Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale, (written with Lawrence Schiller) combines factual research with novelistic flair and ends with a reasonable hypothesis. Don DeLillo’s Libra uses his literary skills to generate intriguing speculations. I couldn’t engage with Stephen King’s 11/23/63, or Bill O’Reilley’s Killing Kennedy – best sellers probably because of their highly visible media personas. The best of the literary treatments is Charles McCarry’s Tears of Autumn, a persuasive tale on what might have happened, a great read even if one doesn’t agree with the hypothesis.
Not long after the Warren Commission Report pinning the assassination on lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, revisionist historians began chipping away at that conclusion, which while honestly reached was based on what we now know was incomplete and distorted information. Edward J. Epstein began the credible challenge to the single bullet theory, and other authors, and congressional investigating committees followed. Oliver Stone’s movie JFK, was engrossing theatre – and influential – but based on fundamentally flawed history.
Lamar Waldron’s encyclopedic books come closest to presenting not only an alternative theory but mounting credible evidence establishing the conclusion that, as the House Assassination Committee earlier concluded with less evidence, the mob did it. He excludes Oswald as shooter, however, which undercuts his proof of the shooters on the infamous grassy knoll. Waldron’s latest book, The Hidden History of the JFK Assassination: The Definitive Account of the Most Controversial Crime of the 20th Century (Counterpoint) connects the dots of his earlier works, and that of others, describing for the first time who was there doing the shooting and at whose order. Were people in 1963 able to capture events on their phone-cameras as we do today, we’d no doubt see what Waldron has taken decades of indefatigable research to develop. [Note: I know Waldron, discussed and reviewed his work, but know many of the other assassination authors, too, and have discussed the subject with many of them, those who agree and those who don’t.]
And so the speculation continues. This month, The Newseum in Washington, DC will have programs about The Warren Commission, with panels about the media coverage of the assassination. James Swanson will discuss his new book, End of Days: The Assassination of JFK. The Washington Choral Arts Society will perform music written to mark the anniversary of JFK’s death. There will be an exhibit at the Museum of American History, “Assassinations and Mourning”, and no doubt much more.
Doubts and controversy about the Kennedy assassination continue. Records of this seminal historical event remain unrevealed. Most Americans doubt the Warren Commission conclusion, and agree with author Sam Tannenhaus that JFK’s death “has become the sphinx’s riddle.” And publishers’ oil well.
Ronald Goldfarb’s column CapitaLetters appears regularly in the Washington Independent Review of Books. This
column of CapitaLetters and the next one are reported from the Miami International Book Fair.