The title of this post is not intended as a Baudrillard-style ‘The Gulf War did not take place’ reading of the events of Dallas, 22nd November 1963. Rather, I wish to highlight some fictional and non-fictional literary and cinematic productions that use the assassination as subject matter.
The official ‘narrative’, published in 1964, the Warren Commission report, found Lee Harvey Oswald to be the lone assassin, motivated by his Communist views and hatred of the USA.
Harold Weisberg’s Whitewash (1965) was one of the first books to question the conclusions of the Warren report, and in particular, the much-ridiculed ‘magic bullet’ theory. It was self-published, and its Roneo-d format makes it somewhat difficult to read, but for sheer detail and analysis it is a noteworthy addition to the corpus of assassination literature, and not solely for its being one of the earliest. See also Weisberg’s Whitewash II : the FBI-secret service cover-up (1966) and his Photographic whitewash : suppressed Kennedy assassination pictures (1967)
In 1976, the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations was established, with its report being published in 1979. Its remit was to investigate the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the Committee concluded that both murders had been the result of conspiracies.
For a more recent look at the Warren report, see Breach of trust : how the Warren Commission failed the nation and why / Gerald D. McKnight (2005).
Conspiracy, by Anthony Summers (1980) is one of the most comprehensive investigations into the background to the case, examining links between Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, anti-Castro exiles, elements of the U.S. military and U.S. intelligence, and organized crime. Investigative journalist Summers is thorough and un-sensationalist in this in-depth, fully referenced work.
For an opposing view, Gerald Posner’s Case Closed (1993) is one of the best studies upholding the ‘lone assassin’ theory. Also in support of the Warren Commission’s findings is William Manchester’s The death of a President, a well-written and well-regarded work. Manchester interviewed all the major figures in the case, and visited the relevant locations.
Peter Dale Scott, a former English professor at Berkeley, is both a poet and a contemporary historian. Scott eschews the term ‘conspiracy theory,’ preferring to use ‘deep politics’ (which he has described as “the interplay of unacknowledged forces that spin out of the control of the original policy initiators”). Scott has written about US policy regarding oil and the global drug trade in Cocaine politics : drugs, armies, and the CIA in Central America (1991) and Drugs, oil, and war : the United States in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Indochina (2003).
His Deep politics and the death of JFK (1996) examines the JFK assassination and the ‘parapolitics’ surrounding the case.
Focussing on the history and (mis)use of a celebrated Dealey Plaza artefact, David R. Wrone’s The Zapruder film : reframing JFK’s assassination (2003) examines the film itself, issues of ownership, access and copyright, more broadly, “private ownership of American history,” and the use to which the various assassination theorists have subjected the Zapruder film.
Another in-depth study of the Zapruder film, this time from a cultural studies perspective, is Zaprudered : the Kennedy assassination film in visual culture / Øyvind Vågnes (2011).
For a wider look at representations of the assassination in visual media, SHL also has Dangerous knowledge : the JFK assassination in art and film by Art Simon (1996), and Shooting Kennedy : JFK and the culture of images by David M. Lubin (2003).
50 years on, and there is still no consensus as to who was responsible for the assassination of the President, and of the subsequent murders of Oswald and of Officer J.D. Tippit. (Was Jack Ruby really acting of his own volition, motivated by a desire to spare Jackie Kennedy the trauma of a trial? Was policeman Tippit killed by Oswald, or – as has been argued by some theorists – did someone else do the shooting in an attempt to set Oswald up?)
There is no shortage of available material analysing the facts. Indeed, new books on the JFK assassination are published each year. The number of websites dealing with the case are also increasing at an exponential rate. However, the proliferation of non-fiction examinations has not made matters easier – quite the reverse. Inaccurate information can be much more easily disseminated and repeated via the Web, making life harder for the researcher trying to sift fact from fantasy.
Perhaps a more useful means of coming to an understanding of the events is via fiction. There seems to have been a delay of around 10 years’ “decent interval” – after which it was deemed appropriate to be using the facts of Kennedy’s assassination as source material for fictive treatments of the case.
Don Delillo’s Libra (1988) is a superbly written piece of fiction, a compelling exploration of Oswald’s background and motivations, whilst hinting at (rather than overtly spelling out) the identities of the conspirators.
Somewhat like Capote’s In Cold Blood, Libra evinces a sense of increasing tension yet tragic inevitability as Delillo depicts Oswald’s progress towards the events of Dallas, November 1963 – the deaths of both President Kennedy and himself – as inexorable.
Also published in 1988 was New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins, a factual account detailing how, in 1967, Garrison arrested local businessman Clay Shaw and charged him with conspiracy to murder the President. Garrison’s book was one of the main starting points for Oliver Stone’s JFK film (1991). The three-hour epic proposed an overarching conspiracy which encompassed secret factions within the State, Southern oilmen, anti-Castro Cubans, the Mafia, and the CIA.
On the grounds that such a conspiracy would of necessity include several thousand people, at least some of whom would have by now confessed, ex-CIA man and novelist Charles McCarry criticized Stone’s film as a ridiculous fantasy. (Others might offer a rebuttal to this by quoting Mandy Rice-Davies’ “well he would say that, wouldn’t he?”)
McCarry’s own spy story, The Tears of Autumn (1975), praised for its realism by virtue of his insider knowledge, features a CIA operative, Paul Christopher, who conducts his own investigation into the assassination and concludes that it was orchestrated by Vietnamese politicians, albeit in cahoots with Mafia, Cuban and African nationalist elements.
Richard Condon, authored The Manchurian Candidate in 1959, later filmed in 1962 and starring Frank Sinatra. Its notion of a US soldier being brainwashed by an enemy power to become a ‘robot assassin’ is one that has been proposed as relevant to Oswald and his stay in the USSR.
Condon also wrote Winter Kills (1974). It features thinly-disguised characters and events, and is centred around the assassination of a U.S. President “Timothy Kegan.” An official state commission finds a lone gunman to be the guilty party, but as the novel proceeds, various plotters are encountered; disparate groups and persons who may have been part of the conspiracy to kill President Kegan.
Condon said of his fictional work: “…people are being manipulated, exploited, murdered by their servants, who have convinced these savage, simple-minded populations that they are their masters, and that it hurts the head, if one thinks. People accept servants as masters. My novels are merely entertaining persuasions to get the people to think in other categories.” [Who's Who in Spy Fiction, Donald McCormick, Sphere Books Ltd., London, 1977, page 64]
Finally, should you wish to investigate the case yourself, a useful starting point might be this bibliography:The assassination of John F. Kennedy : a comprehensive historical and legal bibliography, 1963-1979 / compiled by DeLloyd J. Guth and David R. Wrone
All images Creative Commons; courtesy Croft, Bradipus, Francois Gorik.