This is an excerpt from 50 Years After Dallas, in which the author, ConsumerAffairs reporter Mark Huffman, reviews the assassination of President Kennedy and examines the serious, and not so serious, theories about who did it and why, noting that we really don't know who was behind the crime of the century.
Hundreds of books make up the genre of JFK assassination literature. Many are well-researched volumes that make a strong case that the murder happened one particular way and cite persuasive evidence. However persuasive they may be, and however solid their evidence appears to be, it is obvious that they cannot all be accurate.
Among the standouts in the JFK assassination category is a work of fiction, Libra, by Don DeLillo. It is a story about how the assassination of John F. Kennedy could have happened and may, in fact, come as close as anyone has so far at offering a plausible explanation.
Libra is the story of Lee Harvey Oswald and three fictional CIA operatives, Win Everett, Larry Parmenter and T.J. Mackey. Everett, Parmenter and Mackey were all involved in the failed Bay of Pigs operation and all, in one form or another, were officially reprimanded for their roles.
On April 17, 1963 – the second anniversary of the invasion - they reunite to consider a plan Everett has hatched to reverse U.S. policy from one of toleration of a communist Cuba to military action to remove Fidel Castro once and for all.
Everett, who has been relegated to a teaching post at a women's college in Denton, Texas, explains the plot: an attempted assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Snipers will fire at the President's motorcade but miss – or perhaps wound a Secret Service agent. Manufactured evidence will lead to a suspect who appears to be a militant Castro supporter who has escaped to Cuba.
In the book's non-linear progression, the reader follows Oswald through childhood, into the Marines, his defection to the Soviet Union and his return to Texas, with a Russian wife and daughter in 1962. While never stated, there is the vague impression that Oswald was sent to the Soviet Union by the Office of Naval Intelligence as part of its false defector program.
The narrative skips from recounting the stages of Oswald's life to the plot as it unfolds and evolves. Mackey, in charge of logistics, goes rogue. Without telling his co-conspirators, he changes the mission to one intended to actually murder the President and finds willing participants among Cuban exiles and Carlos Marcello associates Guy Bannister and David Ferrie of New Orleans.
It is Ferrie, who knew Oswald as a youth, who carefully draws him into the plot to kill Kennedy. But Oswald moves onto the plotters' radar screen almost by accident, through a series of random encounters, associations and coincidences.
DeLillo's Oswald is in many respects what he appears to be on the surface – a confused and frustrated young man of sincere leftist views who wants more than anything to be taken seriously. Actions that to many researchers seemed products of manipulation were actually Oswald's own doing. Ordering the pistol and rifle, taking a shot at Gen. Edwin Walker, moving to New Orleans and engaging in pro-Castro activities, and traveling to Mexico City in a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to obtain a Cuban visa. Viewed in hindsight these acts appear to all be designed and coordinated by an intelligent hand. But DeLillo asks, “What if they weren't?”
Luck and chance
In DeLillo's book, luck and chance play as much a role as plotting in placing Oswald in the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository on November 22, 1963. DeLillo has Oswald firing the Mannlicher Carcano rifle – thinking he is the lone assassin – but a hired assassin on the grassy knoll fires the fatal shot to take out the President.
In the same way that Oswald is manipulated into firing at Kennedy, DeLillo has a financially pressured Jack Ruby silencing Oswald on behalf of Marcello, who agrees to pay him $40,000 for the deed.
Libra, named for Oswald's astrological sign, is not the story of a neat, well organized plot but rather a messy, chaotic one in which coincidence and luck shaped its outcome. Another fictional character in the book, CIA consultant Nicholas Branch, hired in the present day to analyze all the JFK evidence and write a secret, definitive history for the Agency, is the surrogate for all our frustrations in trying to get a handle on what actually happened and why.
“If we are on the outside, we assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme,” DeLillo writes. “Conspiracies have a logic and a daring beyond our reach. All conspiracies are the same taut story of men who find coherence in some criminal act.
“But maybe not. Nicholas Branch thinks he knows better. He has learned enough about the days and months proceeding November 22, and enough about the twenty-second itself, to reach a determination that the conspiracy against the President was a rambling affair that succeeded in the short term due mainly to chance.”
Not black and white
Whether Oswald was anywhere near the sixth-floor window on November 22 is a legitimate subject of debate, but DeLillo has done us all a great service in reminding us that history rarely plays out in black and white. Its outlines are formed by subtle shadings of gray, especially where intelligence services and criminal enterprises are concerned.
Fifty years after Dallas, many find this lack of definitive knowledge and a cogent, understandable story-line frustrating and evidence of deep, dark motives by varied individuals and organizations that we happen to distrust. We want closure, preferably an ending that conforms to our world-view, but it's not to be.
We are like the fabled blind men who try to describe an elephant by touching part of the animal. The descriptions vary wildly as each person can grasp only a portion of the beast. The full picture eludes us so many of us tend to attach ourselves to theories that reflect our core beliefs.
For example, if we tend to be distrustful of authority and a bit left of center politically, we might embrace the view that the CIA or U.S. military was behind the assassination. If we are politically conservative, we are more likely to believe the Mafia or Fidel Castro pulled it off.
If we are comfortable being part of the Establishment, we are more likely to believe the Warren Commission and cannot conceive Lyndon Johnson had any role. If we have, over the years, internalized the myth of John F. Kennedy, we want to believe that he was killed to prevent him from carrying out some noble policy objective rather than a more pedestrian reason – such as making another man President or revenge for double-crossing mobsters.
Political Rorschach test
It has been said that the Kennedy assassination has become a political Rorschach test, with different people gazing at the same pattern and each seeing something different, depending upon their political views.
For many that November day in 1963 marked the beginning of America's downward spiral, when things that had seemed so right began to go so wrong. But perhaps Kennedy's death was not the cause of the onrushing changes in America but a casualty of it. The violence unleashed by the collision of two decades would claim many victims, perhaps even the 35th President of the United States.
We can guess what happened in Dealey Plaza a half-century ago, but we can never really know. Perhaps that is what makes this crime so powerful after all these years that it continues to inflame passions.
The enduring debate is whether one man, Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, fired the shots that killed the President. Or whether a group of men conspired to kill Kennedy.
Those who adhere to the official view that Oswald acted alone often say conspiracy theorists can't accept the fact that one insignificant man removed from office the most powerful leader in the world. Conspiracy theorists could answer that their critics simply can't accept the fact that conspirators assassinated the President and got away with it.
Fifty years after Dallas, all we can really know for sure is that one of those two realities is the truth.
50 Years After Dallas is available as a Kindle book at Amazon.com.