Past Imperfect:

The Assassination as a Historical Question

Ulric Shannon

EDITORS NOTE: This is a paper presented at the First Research Conference of the Fourth Decade, Fredonia, New York, July 19-21, 1996. Shannon's assessment of some issues may have changed since he wrote this paper, but his assessment of the problems of the "research community" has not. Posted with the permission of Ulric Shannon.


Does a perverse law operate whereby those events that are most important are hardest to understand because they attract the greatest attention from mythmakers and charlatans?

----Holger Herwig, Patriotic Self-Censorship
in Germany After the Great War
, 1987.

A noteworthy development has taken place the last few years in scholarly literature devoted to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This is the increasing frequency of journal articles and panel discussions questioning the purpose, methods and ultimate aims of what is loosely referred-to as the research community, as we enter the fourth decade of an enquiry with no end in sight.

This is a relatively new phenomenon in our field of interest, one likely occasioned by a new-found image consciousness brought about by the Oliver Stone film and regular flurries of media attention at "anniversary time." A more important contributing factor, however, may be the increasing realization that the research community is in need of a major reappraisal of itself; this sentiment is manifest in the growing exasperation of many of my colleagues who feel that the research community's agenda is being set by its least knowledgeable and least objective members.

The purpose of my presentation is to critically evaluate the aims of the research community, as well as its methods; but before I do, two caveats need to be emphasized. First, I should point out that my criticism is meant to be constructive, and that I don't exempt myself from any of it; I've had the painful experience of re-reading Third Decade articles I wrote three or four years ago, and literally cringing. Did I really say that? What was I thinking?

Second, it should be noted that my criticism of the research community's methods is nothing new; Dennis Ford, James Folliard, Tom Filsinger and others have written very cogent essays describing various pathologies in the work of the community: poor reasoning, narrow-mindedness, biases and the like.(1) The problem with these articles, however, is that they assume from the outset that we researchers have a common goal, namely finding The Truth, and that our main obstacle is, simply, a poor grasp of deductive logic. I don't think this is the case; I think bad research is merely a symptom of the fact that assassination researchers don't have a common goal. Of course we all want the truth, we just prefer certain truths to others--I'll get to that later.

But the fact is, we all work on this case with very particular goals in mind, and these goals shape the way we treat evidence. The historian Michael Schudson argues that you don't think about events like the assassination, you think with them; they become "tools, as well as occasions, for a society's thinking out loud about itself, not only at the time but in retrospect....a reference point for thinking about American politics, American journalism, American culture."(2) The way I see it, researchers think with the assassination on four different levels: legal, journalistic, political and historical. My belief is that the historical lens is the most reliable, but that in the research community the political lens is the most prevalent, and that it is for this reason that methodological problems abound.

The Legal Lens

The legal view of the assassination chiefly concerns itself with the question of whether Lee Harvey Oswald would have been convicted at trial; this is a very parochial view of the assassination, and one that I don't think is terribly relevant or widespread; but I still see researchers, fairly regularly, argue that Oswald would have been acquitted, and that this really says something about the evidence against him.

This kind of counterfactual reasoning isn't very helpful in achieving an understanding of what the Kennedy assassination means, because there is no correlation between a jury verdict and the objective truth of events past; an acquittal of Oswald, whether by a Texas court or London Weekend Television or the American Bar Association (the latter two of whom have held mock trials of Oswald over the last decade), is not retroactive; we therefore should not act as though it means anything.

You can argue that a guilty Oswald would have been acquitted on a technicality (key pieces of evidence might have been disallowed in light of a sloppy chain of evidence); you can argue that an innocent Oswald would have been convicted by local passions and prejudices; either way, the verdicts wouldn't reflect reality. Whenever a researcher argues on a radio talk show or conference panel that Oswald would have been acquitted at trial, I always think that, first, we have no way of knowing this, and second, it's not evidence anyway. I'm aware that Martin Shackelford has a presentation tomorrow which deals with this very issue, and I look forward to hearing it; but I hope that we all strive to do more in our work than just acquit Oswald posthumously; (I'll address that a bit later).

The Journalistic Lens

About two and a half years ago, I was asked to serve as a consultant for a planned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary on the assassination (which has since been shelved). Part of my work was to outline for the producers areas where evidence of conspiracy was strong; this proved to be a problem, not because a solid case for conspiracy can't be made--I think it can--but because the areas I found most interesting conspiracy-wise would be like Chinese to anyone outside this room. I think the producers expected me to start telling them about the magic bullet or the Zapruder film head snap; but when instead I began talking about Oswald's possible relationship to the Dodd Subcommittee, and the vagaries of the acoustical evidence, and the disinformation campaign of the Mexico City CIA station, all I got back was a blank stare: What the hell is this guy talking about? None of that stuff was in JFK!

This is the real problem with the available evidence of conspiracy, and one that the Gerald Posners of the world are only too happy to gloss over: it's not that the most credible evidence of conspiracy isn't compelling (it is, if you have the patience to learn its subtleties), it's that you can't easily package it into a sound byte. A good example comes from Lee Harvey Oswald's short-lived pro-Castro campaign in New Orleans in the summer of 1963. Shortly after Oswald's arrest for disturbing the peace, a copy of one of his pamphlets was sent in to the New Orleans FBI office by an informant; what is interesting is that this pamphlet was assigned an FBI office code which also appears on FBI reports concerning anti-Castro activities.(3) Was someone at the New Orleans office aware of the true nature of Oswald's work?

This is a tantalizing bit of information, and may give us some insight into Oswald's role in the New Orleans anti-communist sphere. But it's not something which will ever make the front pages or which will win over converts. In fact, simply explaining the New Orleans context and its significance to someone who knows little about the case is a task in itself.

Many researchers seem to have a fixation with how the Kennedy assassination is reported in the media; whole books have been written on the subject.(4) This concern is manifest in the efforts of researchers to make the assassination a newsworthy topic (thus the regular press conferences, in Dallas, by the AIC, which has been more accurately described as the Assassin-of-the-Month Club). But this fixation has two effects: first, it tarnishes our credibility, because these mediatized leads almost never pan out. Second, and more important, it leads us to cater our research to the media--in particular, visual media; as I said earlier, a story about the Dodd Subcommittee won't cut it with journalists; as far as they're concerned, it's all gibberish unless you have illustrations--preferably pictures of a shape in the bushes. As a result, we've spent an inordinate amount of effort on photographic evidence and neglected more promising areas of research.

The journalistic mindset doesn't serve the research community well because it shies away from the really complex and byzantine areas of the case which are most in need of real scrutiny. Woodward and Bernstein broke Watergate because they kept reminding themselves that "God is in the details"--an axiom that is especially relevant to the assassination. Today, however, the journalistic profession doesn't care for details. We can't afford to think this way.

The Political Lens

The most serious obstacle researchers have imposed on themselves, in my opinion, is their prevalent view of the assassination as a political event. By political, I don't mean crudely partisan, although some researchers are not above this kind of rhetoric;(5) I mean concerning the polity--the American people. The political view of the assassination is imbued with the belief that the assassination has a generalizeable meaning for society as a whole, even thirty years later: this wasn't just a murder (the political view goes), it was an assault on the rights of every American which continues to this day. If you need greater elaboration of this line of reasoning, just review Kevin Costner's horribly maudlin ("...our slain father-leader," etc.) closing arguments in JFK.

Consider the following three statements by researchers, and see if you agree with their fundamentally political message:

The power-mad, money-hungry cabal that killed JFK believes it knows what is best for this country... It is very unlikely that this democracy will ever recover from the results of the decision made by these men in 1963.(6)

Kennedy was overthrown, murdered in a foul conspiracy... reaching into the highest areas of our government and the Establishment that has the power in this nation....Our Constitution has been subverted and circumvented by powerful people and forces in our country.(7)

The Secret Team runs the United States... They did things to each President to make him understand that his life and administration depended upon the Secret Team's control. John Kennedy's murder was an example to all who followed.(8)

If these statements speak to you, there's a good chance you're in the majority of researchers who see the assassination as a political event. You would probably agree that what was killed wasn't just a man, but a whole set of ideals and principles; and that in these ideals and principles--offensive to many powerful, reactionary forces--lay the motive for the crime. No lesser a figure than Sylvia Meagher wrote that "Few people who have followed the events closely--and who are not indentured to the Establishment--conceive of the Kennedy assassination as anything but a political crime."(9)

While it's not really my place to question the beliefs of my colleagues, I feel I should address the repercussions such beliefs have on the aims and methods of the research community, even if I don't consider myself a minion of the Establishment.

For starters, those who sincerely believe the Kennedy assassination was a coup d'état aimed at subverting democracy tend to identify contemporary problems with it. The assassination didn't just happen in 1963, they say; it continues to this day. Many authors have linked it to subsequent national traumas; one in particular even sees in it the groundwork for David Duke's political career.(10) The gist of these arguments is that the murder of John Kennedy remains relevant today as the source of just about all our political problems.(11)

Researchers who see the assassination not as a mere crime but as a subversion of democracy now in its fourth decade tend to feel it their mission to warn everyone of the danger this poses; they see themselves as modern-day Samuel Adamses, endowed with the mission of overthrowing, through rhetoric, the tyranny of the state. For this reason, the prime feature of the political view of the assassination is an overriding desire to convince the public that there was a conspiracy, lest some naive people believe the death of Kennedy was merely, as David Lifton puts it, a man in a building shooting a man in a car. The unspoken credo at work here is that the ultimate truth of the assassination is unimportant--what counts is what people believe. The research community let Oliver Stone off the hook for depicting patently fraudulent evidence of conspiracy because his film had the noble ambition of winning over converts--regardless of whether the basis of this conversion was valid or not. As one researcher puts it, "Perception in this case is, alas, reality."(12)

The desire to shape public opinion was especially strong in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when legions of Warren Commission critics toured university campuses with their charts and slides, and proselytized to the gallery. And it worked. The public--or nine-tenths of it, according to polls--"knows" there was a conspiracy. It is a fact in the common wisdom of the American people--regardless of whether it's true or not. The P.R. battle has been an unmitigated success for us.

Well, so what? I for one don't care what the public thinks about the assassination; I've now spent eight years researching it (with varying degrees of intensity), and early on I would have sided with the nine in ten. But recently I've come to appreciate how ambiguous the evidence in this case is, and how difficult it is for a truly objective researcher to pass judgement on what really happened--and this is true whether your name is Gerald Posner or Jim Marrs. For this reason, I'm not terribly impressed by the number of people who believe in a conspiracy, or the passion with which they believe it. And I can't bring myself to believe that the efforts we all expend on this case serve no other purpose than to raise the public's belief in conspiracy to one hundred percent.

This fixation with public perception of the assassination, which is spawned by the political view I'm addressing, adversely impacts the way we work in several ways. The first is the desire to make complex evidence accessible to the guy on the street. In doing so, we tend to emphasize evidence that is persuasive rather than evidence that is sound. An example is the magic bullet; diagrams of its zigzag path are compelling and can be understood by anyone, but they are also exaggerated and scientifically meaningless: they treat mobile objects as static and claim greater accuracy than they can possibly achieve. (The same is true of HSCA and Failure Analysis Associates simulations which pretend to prove the magic bullet's viability).

Another side-effect of the wish to impact public opinion is an appeal to the quantity of conspiracy evidence, rather than its quality. By this, and I hope we can all agree on this, I mean that there is no smoking gun; there is no incontrovertible proof of conspiracy. Many researchers have a tendency to use the word "proof" very loosely,(13) and that really bothers me. The Zapruder film doesn't prove conspiracy, regardless of what some people think; it's compelling, but that's not the same thing as proof. You don't need to be a lawyer to understand that. I might add, too, that if we had proof of conspiracy, none of us would be here debating it.

Let me illustrate what I mean by quantity of evidence versus quality. I had a conversation with a friend some time back, and he was telling me why he believes in UFOs; now he's a very sane and rational person, and his logic was persuasive: he argued that there have probably been tens of thousands of UFO sightings; I replied that most were probably hoaxes; he agreed, but said that only one of the sightings has to be factual for the existence of UFOs to be verified--it doesn't really matter at that point if all the other sightings are fraudulent. In other words, each sighting may constitute weak evidence on its own, but there's strength in numbers.

Unfortunately, this kind of logic is rampant in the research community; I've often heard colleagues of mine say things like, "What are the odds that all of the evidence of conspiracy is wrong?" Nothing better illustrates this than Jim Marrs' Crossfire, which simply collates, in terms of conspiracy evidence, everything but the kitchen sink, without really discriminating between good and bad evidence. Crossfire makes its case through sheer volume: no one piece of evidence in the book is especially compelling (let alone proof of anything), but there's 590 pages of it--two and a half pounds of conspiracy, thank you very much.

The problem with seeing the evidence in this case in terms of quantity and not quality is that, like any investigation, the explanation you advance is only as strong as the sum of its parts. That's why someone like Gerald Posner does such a good job of attacking the case for conspiracy; by not discriminating between solid, credible evidence and some of the garbage that is taken seriously, the research community has left itself open to attack. For the most part, Posner attacks half-baked theories and weak evidence that aren't even at the heart of the case for conspiracy. I am disappointed at the vitriol directed at Posner by the research community; in actual fact, he only did what we researchers should have done ourselves a long time ago: take stock of the available evidence and root out everything that isn't rock-solid, instead of trying to build a case a mile wide and an inch deep.

Seeing the evidence in terms of quantity, with little concern for quality, means there are few researchers around who bother to clean out the cages, so to speak. A good example is the man in the doorway. On December 2, 1963 a wire service story went out featuring the famous James Altgens photograph of the motorcade, with the front entrance to the Texas School Book Depository visible in the background. The picture showed a man standing on the front steps of the Depository who looked somewhat like Oswald; obviously, this had the potential to undermine the contention that Oswald was six floors up, readying his rifle.

The Warren Commission, however, concluded that the man in the doorway was not Oswald, but a Depository employee named Billy Lovelady, who did bear a striking resemblance to Oswald. Lovelady himself told the Commission that he was the man in the Altgens photograph, and that he recognized in the picture the shirt he had worn that day.

Yet the notion that Oswald was the man in the doorway (and therefore innocent) persisted for years without any sort of factual sustenance. Finally, in 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations' Photographic Evidence Panel discovered a color film which featured a side view of the man in question, as well as his striped shirt. It exactly matched Billy Lovelady's attire, at long last settling the question of the man in the doorway's identity: it wasn't Oswald. Even Robert Groden, a HSCA photographic panellist who had pushed the Oswald-In-The-Doorway theory in the past, was forced to admit his mistake and acknowledged that the man in question was indeed Lovelady.(14)

Yet for some reason, some researchers have been unwilling to let go of even the slight possibility that that could be Oswald. As late as 1989, Jim Marrs was whipping this dead horse in Crossfire.(15) We shouldn't wonder why Gerald Posner has so much fun attacking the research community: on the issue of the man in the doorway, he's shooting fish in a barrel. He's entirely correct when he writes that "the real question is why, when the original evidence is considered, this ever became such an important issue."(16) And indeed, by entertaining such weak theories, the research community supplies Posner with straw men to demolish.

There is at least one more negative side-effect to wanting to convince the public of a conspiracy without the benefit of a smoking gun: this is an overemphasis on evidence of a cover-up coupled with the notion that the underlying crime (of an assassination conspiracy) goes without saying. The problem here is that many of these cover-ups (e.g., of domestic espionage programs, of Ruby's informant relationship with the FBI, of the plots against Castro, etc.) were meant to obscure the truth about official transgressions not necessarily related to, and often predating, the assassination. If the CIA covered up facts about Oswald's visit to Mexico City, it's just as likely that it was to avoid disclosing the methods of their surveillance on the Soviet and Cuban embassies and the identities of their inside people; we can't casually discount the possibility that they were, in Paul Hoch's words, accessories despite the fact. Yet I estimate that at least half of the research community's work is aimed at adducing facts not about the crime but about the manner in which the evidence was treated by law enforcement authorities.

Since Shannon wrote this essay, the "Zapruder film alteration" theory has prospered among conspiracists, in spite of the wacky nature of the "logic" that supports the claim. Clint Bradford has an excellent web page outlining the evidence on this issue.

By far the most insidious fixation on the possibility of a cover-up is the one being engaged in these days by some members of the research community who believe that the entire body of evidence is suspect. I refer specifically to those who are endeavouring, with very little success, to prove the Zapruder film was altered.(17) It seems clear to me that these people are making these arguments for no other reason than that the film conflicts with their own pet theories about the location of the wounds or the number of shots. I had planned to say much more about this, but since Daryll Weatherly has a presention on this topic planned for Sunday, I'll let him address this issue.

But the dim view some researchers take of the evidence in this case has been extended, in recent years, to all of the basic tools of the historian. Jim Marrs states that more than five witnesses "have stated that their testimony as presented by the Commission [in its transcripts] did not accurately reflect what they said."(18) For this reason, he advises his readers not to trust the basic evidence and testimony. For his part, Charles Drago told participants at the Third Decade conference in Providence, three summers ago, that the research community shouldn't waste its time poring over the newly-released files in Washington. Why? Well, if we don't find a smoking gun but reiterate our belief in conspiracy anyway, he writes, "this will allow them once again to paint a group portrait of us as impossible-to satisfy conspiracy 'buffs' out on the lunatic fringe."(19)

Now think about for a second. For decades, we beat the drum about full disclosure: the files won't be released until 2039! What in God's name has happened to democracy! And when the government finally relents--under pressure from a movie, of all things--we immediately denounce the newly-released files as an even more insidious cover-up than earlier non-disclosure. A neutral observer might say that we've loaded the dice: we treat evidence of conspiracy as such; we treat the absence of evidence of conspiracy as proof of a cover-up; and then we infer a conspiracy from this cover-up.

This is psychotic. If the body of evidence has systematically been altered, why does it seem to point so consistently in the direction of conspiracy, to the point where true believers in Oswald's sole guilt are treated like disciples of the flat-earth society? For example, why would the Warren Commission alter Jean Hill's testimony (as she claims it did) but leave in her description of four to six shots, some from the knoll? And why does her "altered" testimony match point for point her description of the assassination to radio reporters some twenty minutes after the shooting? (Well, maybe that tape has been doctored, too.)(20)

This tendency to view more and more of the available evidence as suspect has devastating implications for us. If none of the evidence is reliable, then the truth is no longer knowable; it becomes something you attain through intuition alone. Dennis Ford has addressed this problem much more eloquently than I can, and I'll quote from him:

I know of no other field in which opinion leaders happily argue their cause out of existence. It's as if some of the[m forget] that no theories are possible without an evidentiary base. There's no way to create a theory without such a base....the only evidence left for consideration is eyewitness testimony and that has been shown in decades of experimental study to be an exceedingly shaky base on which to build cathedrals of speculation.

Turning from empirical researchers into metaphysicians, whose theories need no support and can't have support, these assassinologists have unwittingly closed their version of the case.(21)

I'd like to take a moment to address what some researchers see as a cover-up taken to extremes: the so-called mysterious deaths of witnesses. Can we abandon once and for all the notion that there is something suspicious about the necrology of witnesses? There was a time when researchers were fond of saying that seventeen witnesses in the Warren Commission index had died within three years and three months of the assassination, and that the odds of this occuring naturally were 100,000 trillion to one. Of course, this figure turned out to be completely wrong,(22) but that hasn't stopped researchers since from compiling ever longer lists of dead witnesses--the longest I've seen recently runs at over 200 names.(23)

Shannon is correct that the "mystery deaths" thesis is not merely wrongheaded, it is easily debunked, and tends to discredit researchers such as Penn Jones and Jim Marrs who have promoted it.

The problem, though, isn't just that these lists contain the names of people with no imaginable link to the assassination (Jayne Mansfield, Alex Onassis, Phil Ochs, and a person who had a heart attack and fell over the eternal flame);(24) it's that these so-called mysterious deaths are no longer canvassed strictly from the Warren Commission's index, but indeed from the limitless supply of people involved even tangentially with the case. If you consider that the FBI and Secret Service interviewed over 26,000 people in 1963 and 1964, and that researchers have probably added at least ten thousand names to this body of evidence, then a rate of attrition of 200 people over a thirty year period seems remarkably healthy. In actual fact, if we had a complete record of what has happened to these people since 1963, we would probably find that at least a third of them have died; but this is a normal actuarial condition. We shouldn't expect the material witnesses to be immortal.

So all of these shortcomings I've been talking about come from our misguided wish to convince the public that there was a conspiracy. Because of this bizarre sense of mission, many researchers implicitly see what we do as a public relations battle between our version of history and theirs; this, I might add parenthetically, has led to abuses of the historical record perpetrated under the guise of bringing the truth to the people. We should all be offended--not just as researchers but as human beings--that Robert Groden peddled a set of lurid autopsy photographs to that noted rampart of historical enlightenment, Globe--a tabloid best described as recyclable.(25)

This base appeal to the public's morbid tendencies is sheer exploitation of a tragic event; Groden lined his pockets to the tune of $50,000 by shilling pictures of the cadaver of a man regarded by many--particularly in this room--as a remarkable and interesting person. And yet few in the research community objected; some even saw this as a good thing: the truth about the medical cover-up was being publicized--what's wrong with that? If only the rest of the autopsy photographs were published--then we'd blow the lid on this thing.

Well, if this how the autopsy photographs are going to be used, I for one hope they remain under lock and key at the National Archives, accessible only to qualified experts. The notion that the American public needs to see these pictures to gain an understanding of the facts of the assassination is a lot of self-serving nonsense. As I'm sure the medical panel will show tomorrow, the photographs and X-rays don't depict any absolute truths--they are subject to interpretation. And I'm confident that medical professionals are more qualified to do this than the readership of Globe.

And yet the belief persists in much of the research community that abusive practises such as the exploitation of autopsy photographs is a good thing because it scores points for us in the battle of public perception--this despite the fact that the battle was won decades ago; close to 90% of all Americans think there was a conspiracy, and twenty Gerald Posners working around the clock couldn't put a dent in this figure. The public is now suspicious and cynical beyond belief. And what, exactly, has this accomplished?

Shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, which it seems was carried out by mental cases who see black United Nations helicopters everywhere, George Will accused Oliver Stone of laying the foundations of this mass murder. On This Week With David Brinkley, Will argued that the movie JFK had taught people to fear their government. I found this funny, coming from someone who demonizes the government every day of his life, until someone sent me a tape of a radio program from Oklahoma; the gist of this particular show was that the bombing had been orchestrated by the government--the same government, the show argued, that killed Kennedy in 1963.(26)

You may think that paranoids like these don't know what they're talking about, and that, thank God, they aren't in the mainstream of assassination research. But think about this for a second: one of the pet beliefs of right-wing lunatics such as these is that the U.S. government is currently murdering thousands of dissident Americans every year in a secret, nationwide gulag. We may all find this pretty ridiculous; but how different is it from the mainstream research community's belief that witnesses--hundreds of them--have been silenced over the last three decades?

Nowadays, Americans in general are convinced that the government routinely does things like assassinate people. That's why I so dislike the political view of the assassination; it has no other aim than to instill in people a sense of government persecution. Breeding paranoia is not a virtue--least of all when the factual record is ambiguous to the point of making hard-boiled conclusions quite suspect.

The Historical Lens

The historical view of the assassination is one I wish were more prevalent in the research community. Simply put, it means recognizing that, despite the many theories and the many political agendas that underwrite them, the assassination only happened one way, and it may not necessarily lend itself to a satisfactory political interpretation. Gerald Posner argues that conspiracy theories exist because great crimes need great motives and great perpetrators, and that we--the researchers and the public--aren't willing to accept the fact that someone like John F. Kennedy could be cut down by a runt like Oswald for no particular reason.

I think this is an oversimplification. There are real reasons for doubting the lone-assassin theory; there is a wealth of inconsistencies and contradictions in that version of the case--we didn't invent them. But to a certain extent, I think Posner has a point. Suppose for a moment that we went back to November 1963, and were privy to the whole story as it unfolded. And suppose we found out that there was indeed a conspiracy--but not the one we think. Suppose it turned out that the deed was done by Oswald and a couple of anti-Castro types from New Orleans, and that's it. No CIA, no military-industrial complex, no Nazis. No cover-up of any real significance. How would the average member of the research community feel?

I suspect that most researchers would be disappointed. Even having been proved right on the existence of a conspiracy, most of us would probably feel cheated out of an indictment of great significance. Unfortunately, history is often like this; it often fails to meet people's expectations. The historian Henry Commager captured this in the title of his book Search for a Useable Past. In a way, we're all doing this--you, me, Oliver Stone, and Gerald Posner--we're all hoping to find a version of history that bolsters our core beliefs. But if our mission is to find The Truth, we can't afford to do this.

We have to recognize the difference between being objective and being neutral. None of us is neutral; we all tend to prefer certain theories to others, or certain types of evidence to others. But it is possible to be truly objective; we can do this by not having an emotional or intellectual stake in the ultimate truth of John Kennedy's murder--whatever it turns out to be. This is already happening with a small core of researchers--I include myself in this group--who try to wield a double-edged sword, and who see that there is as much virtue in exposing the fallacies of so-called conspiracy evidence as there is taking the lone-assassin theory apart. If you feel you belong to this group, you're probably in the minority.

This sort of objectivity is unnerving to some researchers; Charles Drago wrote the following three years ago:

As for the "next generation" of assassination researchers, I fear that their dispassionate approach to the task at hand, a function of their lack of first-hand experience and emotional involvement with the murder victim and/or his times, makes them vulnerable to sophistic counter-arguments. While they're evaluating the effluvia spilled by David Belin and John Lattimer and Priscilla Johnson McMillan, we'll be about the work of adults.(27)

Well, with all due respect, it seems to me this modus operandi leaves much to be desired. First of all, we shouldn't pretend that sophistry is the sole preserve of Warren Commission apologists; it is rampant in the research community. Second, if objectivity is such a feckless exercise, and if you need an axe to grind to see things clearly, why is this case now three decades old and counting? The reason there even is a next generation of researchers is because our predecessors, in the absence of such a dispassionate approach, fell over themselves taking the road most travelled.

There is such a thing as balance in academic pursuits; extremes are usually short-lived. The Warren Report quelled doubts about Oswald's lone guilt for a short time, but it was soon under attack. And ever since then, it is the critics of the Warren Commission who have had the wind in their sails; most major disclosures over the last three decades have lent support to allegations of conspiracy. But the evidence has never kept pace with the increasingly flaky constructs of the researchers. A year and a half ago, the Fourth Decade--which to me is the meeting place of mainstream researchers--featured a letter to the editor which suggested quite seriously that J.D. Tippit's body was used as a double for Kennedy's, and that both the Welcome Mr. Kennedy ad in the Dallas Morning News of November 22, 1963 and the Impeach Earl Warren billboard which got Jack Ruby's attention, both contained "secret codes" to the conspirators.(28)

Well, when you're a researcher and you start seeing assassins in your soup, it's only natural that, at some point, the pendulum starts to swing the other way. I'm not psychic, but I had a feeling three or four years ago that a book like Case Closed was imminent. I knew it when I heard Jim Garrison declare, in The Men Who Killed Kennedy, that the real Lee Harvey Oswald was not only innocent, but "was in all probability a hero." This is what I mean by a flaky construct. Let's keep in mind here that, whatever his role in the assassination, Oswald has been shown at the very least to have been a pathological liar and a chronic wifebeater; in addition, his actions in the immediate aftermath of the shooting are those of a man with guilty knowledge of something. Let's not be throwing Oswald any banquets, please.

When I started writing this presentation, I didn't mean for the tone to be quite so negative. There is a lot of excellent work being done right now in the research community, but it's often obscured by the rhetoric of those who see the assassination as a cause and by the bizarre tangents of some whose grasp of logic is debateable.

It's at this point in my presentation that I'm supposed to offer some recommendations on how to improve things, but to be honest I don't really know what to say. The real problem is that the institutions we use--newsletters, computer bulletin boards and conferences--are not governed by a sort of consensus-building constraint; they're truly democratic. The great thing about the Fourth Decade is that anything can be published; the awful thing about the Fourth Decade is that anything can be published. The best we can hope for, if our institutions are to continue to be open-minded, is that the more rational and fair-minded researchers will take on greater responsibility in setting the agenda.

For this to take place, we have to be more rigorous in our methods and more honest in our aims. We have to realize that internal criticism strengthens us. We have to make sure that our evidence precedes our conclusions (in other words, move at the speed of the slowest ship in the convoy). We have to realize that the world is not waiting breathlessly for our verdict; people outside this room see in this case what they wish to see, quite irrespective of our work. And finally, we have to know that Richard Nixon was wrong he said that "History depends on who writes it." There is an immutable truth to the assassination; we're probably closer to it now than at any other time, and yet we're still so far. But only if we accept to leave behind an honest and even-handed historical record do we have even a chance to reach it.

1. A sampling: Dennis Ford, "Assassination Research and the Pathology of Knowledge," The Third Decade, July 1992; James R. Folliard, "Research 'Energies'--One-Sided or Harmonized?," The Third Decade, September 1993; Tom Filsinger, "Groupthink and JFK Assassination Research," The Third Decade, September 1992.

2. Michael Schudson, Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past, Basic Books, (New York, 1992), p. 14.

3. Anthony Summers, Conspiracy, McGraw-Hill, (New York, 1980), p. 574, n. 79.

4. Such as: Mark Lane, A Citizen's Dissent, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, (New York, 1966); Barbie Zelizer, Covering the Body: The Kennedy Assassination, the Media and the Shaping of Collective Memory, University of Chicago Press, (Chicago, 1992).

5. E.g., Harry Livingstone not believing Tom Wilson because "Wilson is a Republican." Harrison E. Livingstone, Killing The Truth, Carroll & Graf, (New York, 1993), p. 411.

6. J. Gary Shaw and Larry R. Harris, Cover-up: The Governmental Conspiracy to Conceal the Facts about the Public Execution of John Kennedy, (Cleburne, TX, 1976), p. 203.

7. Harrison E. Livingstone, High Treason 2: The Great Cover-Up--The Assassination of President Kennedy, Carroll & Graf, (New York, 1992), p. 14.

8. Livingstone, Killing The Truth, p. xxx.

9. Sylvia Meagher, Accessories After the fact: the Warren Commission, the Authorities, and the Report, Vintage, (New York, 1992), p. xxiv.

10. Cyril Wecht, Keynote Lecture, Assassination Symposium on Kennedy, Dallas, 1991.

11. Livingstone, High Treason 2, pp. 14-15; Killing The Truth, pp. 560-562.

12. Charles Drago, "Radicalisms: A Manifesto for The New Conspirators," Proceedings of the Second Research Conference of the Third Decade, June 1993, p. 10.

13. E.g., the ubiquitously-titled: Milicent Cranor, "Proof and More Proof," The Fourth Decade, March 1995.

14. Robert J. Groden, The Killing of a President, Viking, (New York, 1993), pp. 186-7.

15. Jim Marrs, Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, Carroll & Graf, (New York, 1989), pp. 45-46.

16. Gerald Posner, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, Random House, (New York, 1993), p. 261.

17. They are too numerous to list; a good counter-argument is: Richard W. Burgess, "On the Authenticity of the Zapruder Film," The Fourth Decade, September 1994; also, Sheldon Inkol, letter to the editor of The Fourth Decade, unpublished.

18. Marrs, Crossfire, p. 479.

19. Drago, "Radicalisms..," p. 6.

20. For more on Hill's credibility, see Peter Whitmey, Jean Hill--The Lady in Red, as well as Dennis Ford and Mark S. Zaid, "Eyewitness Testimony, Memory and Assassination Research," Proceedings of the Second Research Conference of the Third Decade, June 1993.

21. Dennis Ford, "Major Trouble in Conspiracy Land," The Fourth Decade, March 1994, p. 26.

22. Hearings of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, U.S. Government Printing Office, (Washington, D.C., 1979), Vol. IV, pp. 454-468.

23. Louis Sproesser, "JFK: Conspiracy Graveyard," Proceedings of the Second Research Conference of the Third Decade, June 1993, pp. 195-199.

24. Ibid.

25. Globe, December 31, 1991.

26. "Lighthouse Report," July 3, 1995.

27. Drago, "Radicalisms...," pp. 7-8.

28. Else Weinstein, Letter to the Editor of The Fourth Decade, November 1994, pp. 20-21.

Go To Bogus Evidence Page
Back to Kennedy Assassination Home Page