Even the strongest supporters of JFK, Oliver Stone’s notorious film on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, concede that it is deceptive: fabricated footage gussied up as documentary fact; fictional characters and scenes offered as proof of perfidy; paranoid insinuations about the conscious involvement of the highest officials in the land; outright lies. Yet to an extraordinary number of often intelligent people, these characterizations seem utterly beside the point. “Don’t trust anyone who says the movie is hogwash,” writes a Newsweek critic, David Ansen, “and don’t trust the movie either . . . [it] is a remarkable, a necessary provocation.” “One of the worst great movies ever made,” declaims Norman Mailer. One wonders: how false, fanciful, and downright mendacious does a work purporting to portray and interpret historical events need to be before it is not just chided but discounted, disqualified, disgraced?
Those who defend the film’s meta-purposes seem confident that if not all, then some and certainly at least one of its basal assertions of fact reflect what actually happened in Dallas: more than one person fired at the President. And if there was more than one gunman, there is prima-facie evidence of a conspiracy of some sort or another.
Having spent a considerable part of my life over the last three decades studying and discussing the Kennedy assassination, I can testify to the tenacity of that basal assertion. Challenging the notion of multiple gunmen has become tantamount to suggesting that it was the United States which attacked Japan in 1941, Poland which attacked Germany in 1939. And yet, I will contend that for anyone who has seriously studied the original Warren Report on the assassination (and not just had it read to him by its critics); has gone over the materials produced in the reconsideration of that Report by the House of Representatives in 1977-78; and has familiarized himself with the many scientific studies over the years, including three separate reviews of the medical material, which have examined the testable bases of the single-assassin theory—to anyone who has done all this, the notion of multiple gunmen, on which nearly every conspiracy theory extant rests, is a demonstrable chimera. And if there was one and only one assassin, and if that assassin was Lee Harvey Oswald, then nearly every insinuation in JFK, and in the mountain of conspiracy literature which it summarizes, collapses.
The case for multiple assassins consists of four lines of argument: (1) there was not enough time for a single gunman to have done what the Warren Commission alleges Oswald did; (2) compelling eyewitness, photographic, and earwitness testimony place a second gunman on the fabled grassy knoll; (3) the evidence of Kennedy’s wounds and the reaction of his body to the shots establishes the presence of assassins other than on the knoll; and (4) the so-called “single-bullet theory,” popularly known as the “magic-bullet” theory, the indispensable prerequisite of the notion that there was only one assassin, is a palpable absurdity.
These arguments are mutually reinforcing, but it is fair to say if any one of them holds water, the single-assassin theory would be untenable. However, as we shall see, all four are baseless.
Consider the issue of timing. Repeatedly, like a mantra, JFK, and the critics it mimics, declare that the famous Zapruder film (a home movie taken of the assassination by a Dallas manufacturer, Abraham Zapruder) “established three shots in 5.6 seconds” and that such a feat would stretch the capacity of the most expert rifleman, and undoubtedly was beyond Oswald and his gun. In interviews and speeches Oliver Stone frequently refers to “the 5.6-second Zapruder film,” as if that were all there was to it, 5.6 seconds, and many commentators on JFK dutifully repeat these data, usually in the movie’s own tone of outraged incredulity.
Yet: (1) The Zapruder film, which is 30 seconds long in toto, firmly establishes only the final and unmistakable shot to Kennedy’s head. (2) Even assuming that two hits occurred 5.6 seconds apart, nothing in Zapruder indicates that a possible third shot, which missed, had to have come between the two hits. The Warren Commission concluded only that there were probably three shots and that the two hits, not the three shots, came within 5.6 seconds of each other. The miss could have come first, or last, though it probably came first. That means the gunman had more than eight seconds to shoot, and more than five seconds—ample time—between the two hits. (3) Even if the miss had come between the two hits, there would still have been 2.8 seconds to fire and refire—enough time even for an amateur used to handling guns, like Oswald. Stone and/or his advisers know this, as does everyone who has studied the case.
Were there shots from the grassy knoll by another assassin? Allegedly, eyewitness, photographic, and earwitness testimony placed a second gunman there. The knoll, I would remind the reader, was in front and to the right of the President’s car when he was first struck, and directly to his right when he was fatally shot in the head. The Warren Commission placed the lone gunman above and behind the President in the Texas Book Depository building.
Surely, the most significant eye- and ear-witnesses to the assassination were Abraham Zapruder himself and his secretary, Marilyn Sitzman, who was standing next to him as he took his famous home movie. The two of them were on the knoll, on a three-foot-high concrete pedestal overlooking the scene and directly overlooking the entire area behind a five-foot wooden fence at the top of the knoll from behind which, Stone and the other conspiracists say, an assassin shot at and killed the President.
But here is a point omitted by Stone and the conspiracists: Zapruder and Sitzman were within 50 feet, above, slightly behind, and in clear line of sight of the alleged assassin and (in Stone’s recreation) his alleged “spotter.” Fifty feet is ten feet less than the distance between home plate and the mound. Understand: Zapruder and Sitzman were on the mound facing the batter, as it were, and Stone would have us believe that they did not happen to hear or see two assassins to their right front halfway down the third-base line, firing two explosive shots. They simply failed to glance that way during the shooting or to notice the gunman while he waited for the President to arrive.
Zapruder is now dead, but Sitzman was interviewed for a sensational five-part documentary produced by the Arts and Entertainment (A&E) Network on cable TV. Somehow, the interviewer did not ask her whether she noticed a man shooting the President just to her right front.
Those who have seen the A&E documentary will recall the gripping analysis of a black-and-white polaroid snapshot of the knoll which was taken by one Mary Moorman just before the fatal head shot. In that picture, we are told, one may now see the clear image of “the badge man,” a man in uniform, who, allegedly, fired at the President from the knoll. Yet while that image may leap out at the consultants to the A&E documentary, it was not clear to the panel of photographic experts who, in 1977, perused it for the House Assassinations Committee.
Of course, those experts were not privy to the blown-up, “colorized” enhancement of the photo developed by the A&E consultants, who claim to see in the photo not only a man (nothing remarkable in that, it’s a free country and people were allowed to roam about the knoll) but a hatless man in uniform. They even claim to be able to see the label on his shirt and, “perhaps,” a gun. Well, if “badge man” is an assassin, he fired from a spot right next to, at most fifteen feet below and to the right of, Zapruder and Sitzman. Again, they did not notice.
There are other pictures of the knoll—22 persons were taking pictures in Dealey Plaza, the assassination site, that afternoon—and several are of the knoll at the time of the shooting. Over the years conspiracists have discerned in these pictures riflemen and rifles, only to have photographic expertise reveal the illusions created by light and shadow.
For example, in one set of photos purporting to show a rifleman in “the classic firing position,” the rifleman, to be actual, would need to have been floating in the air nine feet above the ground. Another rifle, supposedly visible in Zapruder frame 413, turned out to be a small branch in a bush in front of the fence, and the head behind that bush, the one with a “tennis hat” on, would have to be the size of a lemon in order to have been where the critics say it is.
Notwithstanding Stone’s insinuations, no one saw a gun on the knoll, though it would have been in the clear line of sight of hundreds of the 692 people who have been identified in Dealey Plaza. No one: not one of the eighteen people on the railroad bridge who, looking up Elm Street at the approaching President, could easily have spotted a gun about a hundred feet in front of them and slightly to their left; no one in the plaza, neither Zapruder nor Sitzman, who were on the knoll; none of the hundreds who, we presume, were following the presidential limousine with their eyes and need only have raised their gaze a few degrees to have seen the gun; not Lee Bowers, who surveyed the scene from a tower behind the alleged assassins; no one in the presidential caravan, including Secret-Service men whom film and photos show scanning the surrounding scene. (Were they ordered not to see anything? Have they remained silent to this day about those criminal orders?) On the other hand, six people saw the rifle inside the sixth-floor, southeast-corner window of the Book Depository: Oswald’s rifle, the one that fired all the bullets that were recovered. Two people actually saw the rifle as it was fired, and two of them identified Oswald in a police lineup.
Those who have seen the Stone film, or the A&E documentary, or are familiar with the conspiracy literature, may now protest vehemently: what about Jean Hill, the woman in the Stone film who fervently claims she saw a “gunman” running? What about the others who swear passionately that the shots came from the knoll? What about the many, like A.J. Holland, who saw gunsmoke on the knoll, and the sheer weight of earwitness testimony that the shots came from the knoll? What about the deaf mute who for 28 years has been trying to get someone to understand his signing message that, a few minutes before the assassination, from a distance of over a hundred yards, he saw men walking with rifles near the knoll?
And what about the lady who now claims to be the “babushka lady” visible in photos of the plaza, and who says she will go to her death believing there was a gunman on the knoll? And what of Gordon Arnold, who claims, after more than a quarter-century of silence, that he filmed the assassination from in front of the fence on the knoll, that he sensed bullets whizzing past his ear, and that after the shooting a man with “dirty hands,” in a uniform, came up to him, weeping, and threw him to the ground, physically forcing him to relinquish the incriminating film? Arnold’s is one of several stories by people who claim they were roughed up and threatened because they had seen inadmissible things. Stone graphically depicts these alleged brutalities and the reign of terror which insiders to the assassination have been enduring.
Here are the answers. Jean Hill said she “saw a man running,” not from the knoll but from the Depository. Stone has Hill say that the man was a “gunman.” But a gunman, presumably, is a man holding a gun. Hill did not say that she saw a gun. Is it possible that, as many witnesses do, she has fused two disparate facts—the President is shot, a man is running—and created the saga she has made a career of telling?
Holland, who is the only one to say he saw a man with a submachine gun stand up in the back of the President’s limousine, claims also to have seen smoke over the knoll. Others, too, saw smoke, and identified it with a shot. The Stone film shows a considerable puff of smoke wafting above the knoll, pretty much as Holland described it. But modern weapons do not make big puffs of smoke. Hot steam pipes do produce such cumulus effects, and there were hot steam pipes at the top of the knoll where the smoke was seen.
Beverly Oliver, the woman who claims to be the “babushka lady,” not only swears “to her death” that the shots came from the knoll (although she saw no gun), but she also identifies herself as having been a nightclub singer in a club next to Jack Ruby’s and has said that when Ruby, Oswald’s eventual assassin, introduced her there to Oswald they casually identified themselves as “CIA agents.” She says, too, that in 1968 she met for two hours with Richard Nixon, whom she ties to the killing. Stone knows all this detail, but omits much of it in order to create the character of a sympathetic nightclub singer terrified to tell the world about her certain knowledge of links between Oswald and Ruby. (No persuasive links between the two have ever been established.)
Was Gordon Arnold there? He does not appear in photos, though some find him in the Moorman photo right next to “badge man.” (Apparently Arnold did not notice the “badge man” shooting the President.) As for the story that he was brutalized and his film removed—it is interesting that no one brutalized or even spoke to Zapruder and Sitzman, or removed them from the pivotal perch from which they filmed the assasination and, presumably, saw the assassins. And as for the deaf mute, whose 28 years of silent frustration were ended when A&E finally found someone to read his signs and put him on television, is it indecorous to suggest that his story sounds like a routine on Saturday Night Live?
Stone and others would have us believe that on the knoll that day there was a platoon of conspirators, incognito, surveying every person’s eyes, entering minds and cameras, knowing infallibly who had incriminating evidence and who did not. Like Santa Claus, they knew who had been bad or good, and they brutalized only those who saw or photographed the bad thing. And these people, in fear and trembling, agreed to be silent. Now, nearly three decades later, these same victims have agreed to take their ten minutes in the spotlight at the invitation of A&E and Oliver Stone.
And the earwitnesses? Undeniably, several people thought shots came from the knoll, said so freely to the Warren Commission, the FBI, the Secret Service, and the Dallas police, and were reported as having said so. Fourteen years later, in 1977, at the request of the House Assassinations Committee, a panel of acoustical scientists and psychologists examined all the earwitness evidence and then correlated it with observations they made at Dealey Plaza when rifles were test-fired from the knoll and the Book Depository. They discovered that of 178 earwitness accounts which they sampled, 132 thought there were three shots, 149 thought there were three or fewer. Six people thought there were four shots; one thought there were five, and one, Jean Hill, heard six. (Six is the number that Stone, and most conspiracists, say were fired.)
With regard to the source of the shots: 49 of the 178 thought it was the Depository, 21 thought it was the knoll, 30 gave other sources, 78 did not know. Crucially, however, only four of the 178 thought shots came from more than one direction. Since we know that at least some shots came from the Depository—the rifle, Oswald’s, which fired all the recovered bullets and shells was found there, and six people saw a rifle in the window—shots would have needed to have come from two directions if there were also shots from the knoll. The panel concluded:
It is hard to believe a rifle was fired from the knoll. . . . [D]espite the various sources of confusion in the locus of any single shot, a second shot from a different location should be distinctive and different enough to cause more than four witnesses to report multiple origins for the shots.1
According to JFK, there were ten to twelve assassins, firing six shots from three directions. No one heard it that way; no one. Nor do the conspiracists answer this question: if the idea (as Stone suggests) was to frame Oswald for having fired three shots, why fire six? Did the Conspiracy expect that no one would notice?
To take the full measure of what Stone and the others are suggesting, we must remember that this ingenious plot intended that the assassins on the knoll be invisible and escape unnoticed. But how could they have known where spectators would be, where cameras would be? Just behind the fence was a public parking lot, filled with cars. Anyone could have gone to retrieve his car at any time. And why does Stone not show us the (inevitably hilarious) planning session where it was decided that a feigned epileptic fit fifteen minutes before the shooting to distract attention from the gunmen on the knoll, a diversionary shot from the Depository, and an omniscient goon squad to rough up awkward witnesses would be enough to provide anonymity and safe passage to assassins standing in broad daylight, in clear view?
There is a further reason to scoff at speculations of a shot from the knoll: the alleged gunman, one of the world’s finest (according to Stone) or one of the Mafia’s finest (in other versions), firing at point-blank range, missed the car and everyone in it with a bullet which was never recovered. The now decisively authenticated X-rays and photographs which were taken of the President’s body the night of the assassination establish that no shots struck the President or Governor John Connally (who was with him in the motorcade) except shots fired from above and behind. There were no hits from the knoll.
Again, viewers of Stone’s film will protest: what of the doctors at Dallas’s Parkland hospital, who for years after the shooting insisted that the small neat wound in Kennedy’s throat was a wound of entry, inflicted from the front (hence, by another gunman)? What of their insistence, for years, that there was a massive wound of exit in the back, occipital region of his head, where the autopsy doctors had purported to find only a small wound of entry? And most memorably, what of the dramatic thrust of the President’s body, backward and “to the left”—Kevin Costner, playing Stone’s heroic protagonist, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, repeats the phrase “to the left” five times, while the gory Zapruder frames show the President, indeed, thrust backward and leftward—a movement consistent only with a hit from the right front?
It is true that several Dallas doctors once thought the throat wound was an entry wound, and said so at the time. And a few of them later recalled massive damage to the back of his head, not on the right side where the autopsy doctors placed the damage. The Dallas doctors agreed that there was no time for a proper “medical examination” of the President; all of their efforts were aimed at saving his life, not examining his wounds. So frenzied were their ministrations that they did not even notice at the time a small wound of entry in his back and a small wound of entry in the back of his head. Later, after the President was peremptorily removed from Dallas to the autopsy in Washington, to the considerable professional chagrin of the Dallas doctors, several of them came to insist that the wound in the throat “looked like” a wound of entry, and that there was a massive default in the rear, occipital, portion of the President’s head, a glaring fact somehow missed by the official autopsy team.
Over and again, Stone and the conspiracists refer us to these incongruous comments by the Dallas doctors. What they do not tell us is that these doctors changed their minds when they reviewed the X-rays and the photos taken at the autopsy for a Nova documentary on public television. The evidence in the X-rays and photos is of paramount importance. If the throat wound was an entry wound, that bullet, fired from the right front, would have torn into Kennedy’s throat and probably out of the back or side of his neck. Or it would have lodged in the body causing appropriate damage, all of which would be visible in X-rays and photos. Unless the photos and X-rays are fake, the throat wound is not a wound of entry. Every one of the by now more than 20 forensic pathologists who have examined those documents agrees there was no strike to the throat from the front.
Similarly with regard to the alleged massive wound of exit in the back of Kennedy’s head—the result, according to Stone, of a bullet administered from the front right. The X-rays and photos clearly show that that massive wound of exit is on the right side of the head, not in the back, and was caused by a bullet entering in the rear of the skull where a small wound of entry was seen by the autopsy doctors.
Again, this is the conclusion of every one of the prominent forensic pathologists who have studied the photos and X-rays which show the location and nature of the wounds and the pattern of fracturing. Even Dr. Cyril Wecht, one of the stars of the A&E documentary, a frenetic critic of the official version, agreed on this point after examining the X-rays and photos over a two-day period. The Dallas doctors, too, examining these documents for the Nova program, agreed that their memory of the wound location had been erroneous.
Stone and the conspiracists, having spent hundreds of hours with the Zapruder film, examining it meticulously, frame by frame, must know all this. In frame 313, when Kennedy is struck in the head, and in subsequent frames, we see a large burst of pink—bone and brain matter—exploding out of the right side of his head, exactly where the X-rays and photos place it; the back of the head, clearly visible in these frames, is unruffled and completely intact. Where then is their theory of a massive rear exit? Robert Groden, one of Stone’s technical advisers, has now taken to arguing that the Zapruder films too have been doctored, along with the X-rays and photos.
Well, are the X-rays and photos authentic? As to the photos, the analysis submitted to the House Assassinations Committee by a team of photographic experts found no evidence whatsoever of tampering. Far more important was the detailed report of the team of forensic anthropologists. Studying the photos of the President, fore and aft, the anthropologists meticulously measured the angle of his nasal septum, the lower third of the nose cavity, the nasal tip area, various features of his ear, the lip profile, facial creases, and the network of wrinkles across the back and side of his neck. All of them, when compared to previous, unquestionably valid photos, established that the wounded man in these photos was the dead President and no one else.
The authentication of the X-rays was equally decisive. X-rays are like fingerprints. Since every person has a unique bone structure, it is quite easy for forensic anthropologists to identify the mutilated remains of persons killed in combat or plane crashes. The only thing needed are previous X-rays for comparison; of course, many were available in this instance. Thus, the deviation in Kennedy’s nasal septum was noted and compared with his other X-rays. The bony rims around his eyes, the honeycomb air cells of the mastoid bone, the saddle-shaped depressions at the base of his skull, the bony projections along the spine—all exactly matched the comparison X-rays, as did features in the X-rays of Kennedy’s lower torso.
Furthermore, the damage in the photos matched the damage found in the X-rays. Let us be clear about what this means: these are X-rays and photos of the damaged President, taken the only time in his life that he was damaged in that way. If they are phony, whose body and face are in the fake X-rays and photos? The panel of experts did not argue that the government was incapable of contemplating forgery; they argued that such a forgery, even if contemplated, would be next to impossible: “There can be no doubt that they are the X-rays of John F. Kennedy, and no other person.”
Why did President Kennedy lurch backward and to the left if he was struck from behind? Twice now, panels of experts examining the question—once for the Rockefeller Commission in 1972, yet again for the House Assassinations Committee—have concluded that no bullet, by itself, could have caused that physical reaction. Rather, the motion has been attributed to “a seizure-like neuromuscular reaction to major damage inflicted to nerve centers in the brain.” The House panel even assassinated some live goats to demonstrate the effect.
Let us turn, finally, to the mother of all J of Stone’s and the other conspiracists’ canards, their account of the so-called “magic bullet,” a term so deeply entrenched in discussions of the assassination that routine newspaper accounts of the latest conspiracy allegations refer to it, without quotation marks, as if it were the God-given name of the bullet. I have seen Stone’s film three times and each time Kevin Costner’s derisive account of the Warren Commission’s supposed position on the subject has brought gasps of incredulous, mutinous laughter from the audience:
The magic bullet enters the President’s back headed downward at an angle of 17 degrees; it then moves upward in order to leave Kennedy’s body from the front of his neck, wound number two, where it waits 1.6 seconds, presumably in mid-air, where it turns right then left [right then left, Costner repeats] and continues into Connally’s body at the rear of his right armpit, wound number three. The bullet then heads downward at an angle of 27 degrees, shattering Connally’s fifth rib, and exiting from the right side of his chest, wound number four. The bullet then turns right and reenters Connally’s body at the right wrist, wound number five, shattering the radius bone. The bullet then exits Connally’s wrist, wound number six, takes a dramatic U-turn and buries itself into Connally’s left thigh from which it later falls out and is found in almost pristine condition in a corridor of Parkland Hospital.
The Warren Commission, it should be unnecessary to say, argued no such thing. It contended that Kennedy and Connally were struck by the same bullet, somewhere between frames 207 and 223 of the Zapruder film. During that one-second period, the two men disappear behind a road sign. Just before Connally disappears behind the sign, and again a little less than a second—fifteen frames—later when he reappears, his right wrist is close to his lap, directly over his left thigh. He is holding the lid of a big Texas hat, knuckles up. His head has turned to the right—Connally has remembered doing this after hearing a shot (probably the first shot, the one that missed)—and in turning, his shoulders rotate rightward slightly, bringing his body into perfect alignment to receive all five of his wounds. It is only then, when the Commission held the two men were hit, that Connally could have been struck in a way to cause the scars which he indubitably has, to this day.
On three separate occasions in the last 20 years, panels of photographic experts analyzing the Zapruder frames and all the photographs have confirmed this analysis. Using the same evidence, and with the added help of wound locations established by X-rays and photographs, the panel of experts assembled by the House Committee showed that a line drawn through Connally and Kennedy’s wounds leads right back, straight as an arrow, to the window from which someone fired Oswald’s gun: no turns, no pauses.
Now consider Connally’s position when Stone and other conspiracists say he was struck. (Costner: “Connally’s turning here now, frame 238, the fourth shot, it misses Kennedy and takes Connally.”) As I pointed out in COMMENTARY seventeen years ago, in that frame Connally
has turned 90 degrees to the right and is facing out of the side of the car. A bullet striking Connally when the critics say he was hit would then have had to exit from the chest at a downward angle, to have taken two sharp turns upward, in midair—right and then left into the knuckle side of the wrist; and then, upon exiting on the palm side, further up in the air than the wound of entry, would have had to execute a very sharp U-turn into the thigh: plainly impossible.2
In other words, it is not the Warren Commission’s account which requires these absurd zigs and zags, it is Stone’s.
And the “almost pristine” bullet found “in a corridor” at Parkland Hospital? That bullet, unquestionably fired from Oswald’s gun, was found next to Connally’s stretcher in the basement of the hospital, exactly where it would be to support the single-bullet theory. It was not pristine; it lacked lead from its core in the amount found in Connally. It was also flattened at one end, and bent at its axis. In 1978, Professor Vincent Guinn, responding to a decade of demands by critics, employed recently improved neutron-activation techniques to compare the traces of antimony, silver, and copper in the lead from the “magic bullet” with the trace amounts of those metals in the lead recovered from Connally’s wrist. He concluded that the wrist lead almost certainly came from lead missing from the “magic bullet.”
Now, if the bullet found in the basement of Parkland Hospital next to Connally’s stretcher, fired from Oswald’s gun and missing the very lead found in Connally’s wrist, is not the one which struck Connally, how did it get next to his stretcher? Stone suggests that someone from Assassination Central was sent over to drop a spare bullet somewhere in the hospital. Why the basement? Why Connally’s stretcher and not Kennedy’s? How could the Conspiracy have known where Connally’s stretcher would be? How could it have known then that a bullet which had ended in the soft flesh of Connally’s thigh needed to be placed with his stretcher in order to confirm a single-bullet theory which was not developed for another two months? And if this was not the bullet that hit Connally, what happened to the bullet that did?
In the film we see colonels and other gray eminences directing the autopsy like puppeteers, ordering doctors to lie about the damage to the President, to silence their curiosity about dangerous matters, and forever. But at that point the Conspiracy could not have known what directions to give. The single-bullet theory, to repeat, was not developed until months later, and only an omniscient demon could have figured out so soon what precise changes would be necessary in the autopsy report. When and how did the Conspiracy brief its agents in the autopsy room, and who did the briefing, and who briefed the briefers? It is a shame that Stone did not invent scenes dramatizing all this; they too would have been hilarious.
Similar objections may be raised to the theory developed by David Lifton in a best-selling book and reiterated in the A&E documentary. Kennedy’s body, we are told, was taken to a secret laboratory after its arrival in Washington while an elaborate ruse—empty coffins, diversionary caravans—convinced the public that his body was being taken directly to the Bethesda Naval Hospital. With about 40 minutes to do their work, the agents of the Conspiracy completely altered the President’s wounds to make it look as if he had been hit by one assassin, firing from behind, disguising even the signs of their intervention from the X-rays and photos, although not from Lifton and A&E.
In this version, then, the autopsy itself is honest, only the doctors are working on an altered body. But how could the Conspiracy have known what alterations to make? How could its agents be sure 40 minutes would be enough? Scores of people would need to be involved: those who prepared the alternate route, those who switched the body, those who performed the 40-minute surgical miracle, those who carefully brought the body to Bethesda through the back door, those who sent advance news of the nature of the wounds from the Parkland Hospital or the President’s plane. And all have remained silent about the matter to this day.
There was, in sum, nothing magic about the “magic bullet.” And there was no need to alter the body, no need to fabricate an autopsy. The overwhelming burden of the evidence indicates that one assassin shot the President, just as the Warren Commission said.
Was Lee Harvey Oswald that single assassin? Chief Justice Earl Warren, who according to Stone was a perjurer and either a willing or a moronic accomplice to a massive coverup, said that in a lifetime as a lawyer and judge he had never seen such a clear case of guilt. Here I can only sketch the outline of the case, but even a sketch is sufficient to demonstrate the absurdity of ubiquitous charges that Oswald did not shoot the President, that he was a “patsy” set up to deflect attention from other assassins.
First, there is this pivotal fact: Oswald worked in the building from which the President was shot and obtained the job there, unsuspiciously, three weeks before unsuspicious decisions were made (by Kenneth O’Donnell, Kennedy’s friend) which occasioned the President’s appearance in front of that building.
Stone tells us in the film that on the day of the assassination the Conspiracy “sent” Oswald to the building. But it did not have to; he reported for work as usual. What Stone does not tell us is that Oswald carried a gun to work that morning. A coworker who drove him in (Oswald could not drive) reported that Oswald had a long object wrapped in paper which he held from below, cupped in his palm, military style. (“Curtain rods,” was Oswald’s answer to the obvious question.)
Paper that had been fashioned as a gun carrier was later found on the sixth floor, near the murder window. Oswald’s fingerprints were on it, as was his palm print at the base where he would have cupped it in the manner described. Also on the bag were strands of wool from the blanket in which Oswald’s rifle had been wrapped. There were no curtain rods. The murder rifle, Oswald’s, which fired all the bullets and shells later recovered,3 was also found on the sixth floor. On it were strands of wool from Oswald’s shirt and Oswald’s palm print.4 Oswald’s finger and palm prints were also on the card boxes used as a gun prop and on the brown bag. (Stone mentions none of this.) In addition, two eyewitnesses who saw the gunman in the window identified Oswald as that gunman.
According to Stone and the conspiracists, the plotters went to extraordinary lengths to link Oswald to a rifle which they also claim was not used. But why not link him to the “real” gun? Viewers may remember very brief shots of a photograph of Oswald being altered. These shots are spliced into JFK, out of context and narrative sequence, in order to set the scene for Stone’s later contention that a photograph of Oswald holding the murder rifle and pistol in his backyard was the crudest of forgeries. In that photo, the conspiracists say, two-thirds of Oswald’s face has been pasted onto the chin and body of a stand-in. A distinct line across the chin shows the intervention clearly, and anyway the shadows cast by the nose are inconsistent with the shadows cast by the stand-in body.
What Stone does not tell us is that the photo was taken with Oswald’s box camera, that his wife remembers taking it, that it is one of several taken of him with gun and pistol at that time, and that after exhaustive examination photographic experts employed by the House Assassinations Committee found even the challenged photo to be entirely unexceptionable, shadows and all. It also should be noted that this photo, found among Oswald’s effects after the assassination, is superfluous to the proof that he possessed the gun: there are many other, superior, evidences of that.
Stone scoffs at the rifle, “the worst military weapon in the world.” But the laugh is on him, for the neutron-activation analysis and ballistics findings prove that this supposedly defective rifle fired the bullet which deposited lead in Connally’s wrist and also the bullet which hit Kennedy in the skull.5 Somone used that rifle very effectively, and if it was not Oswald, Stone needs to explain why this brilliant Conspiracy, which used one world-class marksman, gave him the worst weapon in the world. He should also explain why, if the Conspiracy was framing Oswald, it would have wanted to link him to such a ridiculous weapon.
Oswald left the building immediately after the shooting, retrieved a light-colored jacket and pistol from his rooming house, and about 45 minutes after the assassination was seen shooting a Dallas policeman named Tippit. Twelve eyewitnesses identify Oswald as Tippit’s assailant—although, to be sure, a few others, the ones presented by Stone and the A&E documentary, do not. The shells expended at the scene and the bullets in Tippit match the pistol found on Oswald when he was arrested. His jacket was found nearby. When the eyewitnesses reported the shooting to the police, using the radio in Tippit’s car, police swarmed to the area. After a phoned report to them that a man had been seen ducking into a theater without paying, they rushed to the theater and arrested Oswald, who resisted, for the murder of Tippit. On him was the murder pistol; he had ordered it by mail, ten months earlier.
Astonishingly, Stone and many other conspiracists even question the contention that Oswald shot Tippit. Citing inconsistencies in eyewitness reports, which are to be expected in nearly all such reports, they imply that the bullets and shells were a plant, that the real ones were removed, that the jacket was a plant, and that the narrative by which the police traced Oswald to the theater was a contrived fiction.
What may have happened, according to Stone and the others, is that the Dallas police were expecting Oswald at the theater. They would murder someone in the neighborhood, a Dallas policeman murdered with the cooperation of Dallas policemen, and they would blame it on Oswald, presumably to prove that he was a murdering sort. The reader is invited to recapitulate the planning which would need to go into this part of the Conspiracy, involving now new bullet-snatchers and -replacers in the Dallas police, the elimination of anyone who could prove that Oswald was elsewhere than next to Tippit’s car when the officer was shot, etc. Of course, all parties to this part of the Conspiracy have remained silent ever since.
It is often asked why Oswald denied having killed the President, as though guilty people do not deny things all the time. The fact is that Oswald denied everything. He himself was the first to insist that the backyard photo of him with the gun was a forgery. Shown it during his interrogation, he dismissed it at a glance. He denied having hunted in this country; he denied possessing the rifle, any rifle; he denied ever using the pseudonym, “Alec Hidell,” which he had used to order the guns and on several identification documents; he made up an easily contradicted story that the manager of the Depository brought a rifle to the building; he denied the curtain-rod tale, saying he carried only his lunch to work that morning; he denied killing Tippit; when asked his reason for visiting his estranged wife and children on Thursday, assassination eve, rather than his usual Friday, he made up a story about a birthday party; he denied using an alias at his rooming house. He also refused to take a polygraph test. The law familiarly says that lies of this sort indicate a “consciousness of guilt” especially if they are explicable only by the hypothesis that the accused knows he is guilty.
To sum up: Oswald (1) worked in the building which was the only source of shots; (2) owned and possessed the one and only murder rifle; (3) brought it to work with him the morning of the murder; (4) was at the murder window at the time the President was shot; (5) left the scene immediately after the shooting; (6) shot an officer who attempted to question him and then forcibly resisted arrest; (7) lied about crucial matters of fact when interrogated.
There is an eighth reason to believe he was the killer: this was not his first assassination attempt. Among the photographs in Oswald’s effects were several of a house and adjoining driveway. Weeks after the assassination, the FBI discovered that the house in the photo was that of General Edwin Walker, a right-wing, anti-Castro, anti-civil-rights fanatic. The G-men irrefutably established the exact date the photo was taken, which turned out to be just before someone unsuccessfully tried to assassinate Walker on April 10, 1963. The photo was taken with Oswald’s camera; Oswald had a collection of news stories about the assassination attempt; bullets that had slammed into Walker’s wall were consistent with Oswald’s gun; a note written to his wife at the time, and her suspicions voiced then as well, indicate that he was Walker’s would-be assassin. In the Marines he had twice been court-martialed, once for threatening a superior officer. Needless to say, Oliver Stone tells us nothing of this.
Why would Oswald try to kill a right-wing general? An obvious hypothesis, the one Stone and the critics feverishly try to silence, is that the attempt had something to do with Oswald’s intense left-wing sympathies. Stone’s campaign to transform him into a long-term right-winger, in league with Castro-hating activists, involves biographical surgery even more radical than the surgery which allegedly transformed the President’s wounds the night of the assassination.
Oswald was already a left-winger at the age of thirteen when he distributed pro-Rosenberg material in New York. He defected to the Soviet Union and attempted to commit suicide when, notwithstanding his offer of radar data, the land of his dreams refused him citizenship. Disillusioned with the Soviet Union, he returned to the U.S. and transferred his fantasies to a new hero, Castro, whose picture he kept by his bed. He monitored radio broadcasts from Havana on his shortwave radio.
Oswald subscribed to the Communist Daily Worker and the Trotskyist Militant; these are the newspapers he holds in the authentic photos of him with gun and pistol taken in his backyard. He formed a one-person chapter of the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC), handed out FPCC leaflets, which he himself printed, and spoke on the radio in its behalf. Imagining himself a Castro operative, and acting alone, as always, he briefly attempted to infiltrate an anti-Castro group in New Orleans but then immediately revealed his pro-Castro sympathies, to the group’s considerable dismay. He composed a schmaltzy and horrifically spelled “historic diary,” as he called it, and several paeans to Marxism. He visited the Cuban and Russian embassies in Mexico City in October 1963, seeking a visa to Cuba, and reacted in fury when denied his request.
This recital only scratches the surface of Oswald’s left-wing record and his unstable, lone-wolf personality. But it is enough to sustain at least the possibility that the sole assassin of John F. Kennedy was a left-wing fantasist who found himself working in a building in front of which would come the President of the United States, the man whom Castro had publicly named as responsible for assassination attempts on his, Castro’s, life. The same fantasist who went to the Soviet Union expecting to be accepted as a hero (and told his Russian wife that someday he would be “president of the world”) now thought, incoherently, stupidly, that he would become a hero in Cuba as the assassin of Castro’s enemies: General Walker and President Kennedy. Character, as the Greeks said, is fate.
If there was only one assassin and he was Lee Harvey Oswald, if there was no massive frameup or coverup, then Stone’s and every other conspiracy theory currently before the public are fatally wounded. The government’s allegedly ubiquitous hand disappears. Absent that hand, what other grand conspirators—military industrialists, mafiosi—would use so unlikely a killer, stage so unlikely a killing?
For nearly 30 years, platoons of conspiracists have concertedly scavenged the record, floating their appalling and thrilling might-have-beens, unfazed by the contradictions and absurdities in their own wantonly selective accounts, often consciously, cunningly deceitful. They have refused to let go of any shred of their earliest suspicions, even when these have been demolished by decisive scientific findings. And the media have patronized them, for journalists love their thrilling insinuations and share many of their philosophical and political assumptions; and with regard to the assassination, they remain stone ignorant. Small wonder that 85 percent of the American public thinks there was a conspiracy of some sort.
Recently, 13,000 copies of a new study guide, sympathetic to JFK, were sent to American high-school teachers. Our students know nothing about the case or the times; their teachers remember little, and many of them, especially the most “liberated,” hold the view that to question any official version of anything is important in and of itself, even if the questions are based on palpable falsehoods. I do not think we should rejoice that our children ask questions in this manner. I think we should weep; and scold the scurrilous.
1 One further comment on the matter of earwitness testimony. The House Assassinations Committee in 1979 concluded that a tape recording of police communications at the time of the assassination registered four, not three, shots, and specifically, three shots from the Depository and one from the knoll. Solely on the basis of that piece of evidence, the Committee decided that an unseen gunman shot an (unrecovered) bullet, and missed. In 1982 the National Academy of Science asked a blue-ribbon panel of physicists and acoustical experts to review the recording and the accompanying studies which had persuaded the House Committee that there was a gunman on the knoll. The panel concluded unanimously and vigorously that the alleged sounds on the tape could not have been made at the time of the shooting, and also scoffed at the calculations and methodology of the House consultants.
2 “Conspiracy Fever,” COMMENTARY, October 1975.
3 One wonders how the conspirators recovered and disposed of the embarassing bullets from the other alleged guns. They could not have known where they would end up. Scores of collaborators would have been needed, at the ready, in the plaza, in the car, in the hospital, to snatch away the damning missiles without being noticed.
4 Conspiracists make a good deal of the charge that there were no other prints on the gun. The charge is untrue. The FBI report did not say there were no other prints, it said there were no other “identifiable” prints, which is not unusual. As experts testified, the rough wood stock and poor-quality metal of the gun tended to absorb moisture from the skin, making a clear print unlikely.
5 The traces of silver and antimony in the lead removed from Kennedy's brain were compared to traces in the lead found in bullet fragments, fired from Oswald's gun, which were recovered from the presidential limousine. Again, as was the case with Connally's wrist, the match was perfect.