Image via Wikimedia Commons
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas. On November 22nd, 1963, the president of the United States was shot down in cold blood in Dealey Plaza in front of hundreds of people. The nation reeled from the tragedy, a new president was instantly sworn in, and lazy commenters on history would always say that this was the day that “everything changed” (“everything changed” again after 9/11, so we were told, but that’s another story). The reality of what happened on that day has never been fully explained, and the American people remain unconvinced by the Warren Commission to this day. However, this story is more personal and deals with belief and naivety.
You see, for many years I was one of those people who believed the “official” government line behind the assassination. I believed that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone; Jack Ruby murdered him because (according to my father) he wanted to spare Jackie having to testify at his trial, and that was that. This was something I clung to for many years, even after I graduated from a university with a degree in history, even as my political leanings fell off the deep-end of leftism and my skepticism of the political process was amplified by the illegal and immoral actions of the Bush II administration. Despite all of this, I had never taken a hard look at what I considered I was above: the “conspiracy theory” that Kennedy was killed not by Oswald but by some other shooter, who was supported by the CIA/the mob/his own government. The idea was laughable, so much that I burst out in a torrent of guffaws when my wife Mary (who was my girlfriend at the time and has mercifully stuck with me since) brought up her fervent belief that there was more to the story. I couldn’t believe that this smart, talented, lovely lady had such a wacky mindset about this historical event. Hadn’t she heard about the Warren Commission? Hadn’t she understood its conclusions? She had mentioned her interest in conspiracy theories before this but never talked about this event in particular, so I was taken aback. Surely a well-educated, detail-catching writer such as me knew what happened that day in Dallas, and that the government was telling the truth.
As it happened, Mary didn’t particularly like being laughed at, especially over something she believed in so ardently. She couldn’t just leave it at that, but challenged me to watch with her the seminal documentary series created in the UK entitled The Men Who Killed Kennedy. I still remember sitting next to my wife on our tiny red couch in our first apartment together, skeptical mind in tow, clamoring that I still didn’t believe any of this, but would keep an open mind. For those that haven’t seen it, the series delves into the many facets of the assassination, including Oswald’s past, Ruby’s shady connections with the mob, the machinations of the CIA, LBJ’s possible involvement (which according to the Wikipedia article got the History channel in some major hot water), and others. The more I watched, the more holes I found in the brick wall my skeptical mind had erected against any possibility that there was more to this story. “Well, that kinda makes sense…ok, they are making a good point there.”
As we continued to watch the series, the more my mind found itself opening up to new possibilities. This was partially the result of my never having studied the Kennedy assassination much in my time at school. It also proves the convincing nature of this documentary, not all of which is credible, but which does raise some interesting questions behind this major even in American history. The more I considered that there probably was a conspiracy of a sort to rub out the president the more I realized that this type of thinking could hold true for other events. It’s trite to say “everything changed” on that day in Dallas in 1963 but for a large part of the population the view of their government was most assuredly askew, if not downright hostile. The fact that our own government could release a massive report on the assassination that ignored or disregarded some of the most crucial facts (including the “magic bullet”) and that implicated Oswald alone, and that they considered the American public gullible enough to believe it revealed just what their government thought of them. Thankfully the virulent strain of skepticism and hostility toward federal power in this nation put the lie to that claim, but we still don’t know what exactly happened on that day. Considering fifty years have passed and we are no closer to the truth, it seems we will never know. This had major implications for our relationship to the powers that be, and opened the door to mendacity on a scale that hadn’t been seen since the 1920’s. Paralleling this was my own, fairly benevolent view of federal power at that point. I considered the transition from Bush to Obama as a sort of “cleaning house” moment, in that the vapid corruption and destruction perpetrated by the former would be cleaned up by the latter. Of course deep into the man’s second term in office we know better, and even during his first year there were signs that Obama was in fact going to sweep most of the blatant war crimes of the Bush administration under the rug almost immediately. The documentary helped to fully open my eyes to what our federal government could be capable of and changed the way I thought about a lot of these things. If certain elements of the government are capable of killing the president (not that they did, but it’s possible), then what else could such a group do? This threw a harsh spotlight on everything I thought I knew about politics and the federal government, even beyond such eye-opening books like Zinn’s masterful People’s History. This showed the lengths people would go to silence the voice of a crusader against the military-industrial-complex, someone who spoke about dismantling the CIA, and who promised a new day in America where the least fortunate would matter to people in Washington. Of course he had also planted the seeds for America’s disastrous involvement in southeast Asia, but this country would have looked very different had he gone on to serve two full terms. But instead the military-industrial-complex only grew more powerful, the Vietnam quagmire continued until our eventual retreat, and the country became more cynical for it. Reagan thought he was successful with the whole “morning in America” pitch, but in fact paved the way for the deregulation of the economy and the creation of massive deficits that crippled the economy. And all those conspiracy mongers viewed everything that happened, from Iran Contra to the Iraq War, as more of the same.
I hate to say it, but there’s not much of a moral to this story. My naivety was shattered, my mind was opened, and I’d like to say the edges of my mind in which I sharpened critical arguments were given a new sheen. But what does that mean? Now that I knew my own government may have been complicit in such a horrific act, it didn’t come too that much of a surprise that Obama had asserted his authority to kill an American citizen abroad via drone. The next step will be to assert that power on domestic soil (the NDAA came pretty close to that with its indefinite detention clauses), but anymore the thought doesn’t come to me as a shock. Now that I’m aware of what came before, Obama’s unconstitutional actions don’t come as such a revelation. I still don’t buy a lot of conspiracy theories (the Truthers are still a joke, for example) but this one is different. This changed the very soul of this nation, distorted its history, and soared like a spike through the remaining innocence that the public may have retained after fighting two world wars and a disastrous engagement in Korea. As much as I hate to admit it, “everything changed” maybe does have a place here after all. Because everything changed in the way I saw the world after I considered this assassination. I owe most of this to my wife, who has helped me open my eyes to a variety of ideas, even if I resisted until the very end.
We still don’t know what happened to Kennedy. But the questions still remain. That gives me a little faith that even at this late stage of the American empire the populace is not content with simple answers and solutions. We need that mindset to preserve if we are to survive as a nation. Keep asking questions. And if you run into a well-meaning skeptic such as me, hopefully he or she will keep an open mind. My life is all the better for it.