Lasting Questions about the Murder of President Kennedy
Shared Assumptions and Mass Denial
The Kennedy assassination was in a real sense a "safer" subject for mainstream commentators in the late 1960s, when arguments could be had about the plausibility of the single bullet theory or the proper tracing of Oswald's movements on November 22, all without violating the shared assumption that the crime was honestly if imperfectly investigated.
In 2001, the gulf between the fairly narrow range of views that society deems reasonable, compared with the uglier reality that is easily discovered by any interested researcher, has become a vast ocean.
This gulf makes it problematic to write or speak about the assassination to a general audience. For one thing, most of the important new things to be said on the topic require a background of knowledge in characters, events, and history that most people do not share. But to skip the detailed piles of minutae, and speak directly to larger issues, is to invite ridicule and marginalization.
What is the nature of a society which keeps, propped up as necessary, clearly false views about important topics such as this one? What mechanisms are at play here?
One theory popular in some circles makes reference to a "secret team" which controls such events and their aftermath, operating the government behind the scenes like a puppeteer. Such notions are popular with some because they attempt to explain what seems otherwise, well, inexplicable. Also, the concept of such power and control, even if done in a secretive way, is something which is familiar to most of us.
But there is another explanation which seems to better explain much of what has happened in the history of the JFK assassinationdenial of a reality too painful to acknowledge. For any of us, such denial is a natural reaction. But especially for someone who works in government or holds a position of prominence in society, denial is a potentially powerful force. For many of us, it is painful but not overwhelming to acknowledge that the democratic process is flawed, even to the point of being a storybook ficton when push comes to shove in the power structure, as it apparently did in 1963. But what would such acknowledgment mean to someone deeply embedded in such a system, dependent upon it for both livelihood and self-identity?
Denial is a powerful force, but exactly how much it accounts for in the history of the Kennedy assassination is difficult to gauge. Certainly there were cold-blooded killers and their patrons who had no illusions about what they were about. But what of the political leaders of the day, and other prominent and powerful members of American society? What went through their minds, then and since?
Did they understand all too well what was going on, and refuse to speak out of fear or other motives? Did they not see at all? Did they catch a horrifying glimpse, and then put the matter out of their minds? How could Robert McNamara prosecute for LBJ a war which his dead predecessor had been in the process of ending?
These questions are essentially idle speculation, given the near-wall of silence such men have left in the written and spoken record. But they are important questions, because they go to the heart of how our society functions, or fails to.
Consider Earl Warren, the liberal Chief Justice who was strong-armed onto the President's Commission, presumably to give it weight among those who might be less inclined to believe Dulles, Ford, and the others. Several years after the Warren Commission published its Report and disbanded, Warren wrote his memoirs. In a chapter devoted to the Commission's work, he wrote the following: "Practically all the Cabinet members of President Kennedy's administration, along with Director J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI and Chief James Rowley of the Secret Service...testified that to their knowledge there was no sign of any conspiracy. To say now that these people, as well as the Commission, suppressed, neglected to unearth, or overlooked evidence of conspiracy would be an indictment of the entire government of the United States. It would mean the whole structure was absolutely corrupt from top to bottom..."
The two names picked out here are interesting. Hoover and Rowley indeed did had evidence of conspiracyHoover delivered a report which included information on the Mexico City imposter to Rowley on the day after the assassination, though Warren was likely unaware of this fact.
But the excerpt is striking. If it is safe to assume that the passage is meant in earnest, what is one to make of it? There is a little bit of buck-passing, letting the rest of government shoulder some responsibility for the Commission's conclusions. But did Warren actually believe, at least when writing in the 1970s, that there had been no sign of conspiracy? If so, the passage speaks volumes about the power of denial. The Commission indeed had bright young lawyers like Arlen Specter and David Belin to do much of its dirty work, but Warren sat in on a good deal of testimony and actively steered the Commission's course. So is it possible that he had forced such thoughts completely out of his mind? Did he make himself believe that evidence of conspiracy was not really there, because these other fine men had said so?
And what of Bobby Kennedy, the devoted brother of the slain President? As evidence has emerged that RFK suspected that a right-wing plot killed his brother, so evidence has also emerged that he aided the coverup. The missing brain, tissue slides, and other original autopsy materials, which could shed much light on the medical mysteries, disappeared while under his control. The casket used to transport JFK's body from Dallas, with unknown contents, was dropped from military aircraft into 9000 feet of water a few months later, on RFK's orders. The Garrison grand jury transcripts contain allegations from multiple sources that Kennedy was involved with the Federal government in obstructing Garrison's probe.
Bobby Kennedy? Coverup? Was the phony Communist conspiracy idea used against him as well? Perhaps, but doubtful. It is hard to believe that the Assistant Attorney General, Nicholas Katzenbach, was not privy along with Hoover, LBJ, and Rowley, to the fact that the Mexico City tapes were recordings of an imposter. Asked to comment for an AP story about these tapes in 1999, Katzenbach issued this lame denial: "Whether I knew anything about it at the time, or what I knew about it at the time, I don't recall." And if Katzenbach knew, would not his boss Robert Kennedy know?
So what stayed RFK's tongue? Was it some dark Kennedy secret, his or his brother's, that would be exposed, perhaps related to covert Cuban operations including the Castro assassination plots? Was it simply recognition that, despite the title of Attorney General, he was now powerless in the face of the new order?
There are several insider reports that RFK planned to re-open the investigation into his brother's murder, once elected to the Presidency himself. If true, those plans evaporated in a hail of gunfire in the pantry of a Los Angeles hotel. During his brief bid for the nation's highest office, the younger Kennedy seems to have seen this fate and walked toward it like a player in a Greek tragedy. One time on the campaign trail, word came in that a man with a rifle had been spotted on a rooftop near Kennedy's hotel. RFK advisor Fred Dutton silently moved to close the open curtains. "Don't close them," Kennedy said, "If they're going to shoot, they'll shoot."
It is perhaps unfair to pick on Earl Warren and Robert Kennedy, who represented the better instincts of that era's political leaders. They did not leak the Warren Commission's discussions and plans to the FBI and CIA, as Commissioners Gerald Ford and Allen Dulles did, respectively. They certainly played no part in the murder of John Kennedy, a statement which is difficult to make with such sweeping certainty in the case of some of their brethren.
But if, to borrow a phrase, the "best and the brightest" could see fit to sweep this crime under the national rug, then what kind of a nation exactly is it that maintains such a rug, and what else is under it?
Franklin Roosevelt said "The truth is found when men are free to pursue it." For all of us, what is needed is not merely freedom from external pressures, but also freedom from perhaps-comforting myths that stand in the way of real understanding. The study of the JFK assassination, and particularly its coverup, has much to tell us about the nature of power and information control in our society. That this is a roundabout way of learning such things may be a valid criticism. But that such matters are important seems beyond question.
President Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert