Authors: Vincent Bugliosi
(with Curt Gentry)
And the Sea Will Tell
(with Bruce Henderson)
Till Death Us Do Part
(with Ken Hurwitz)
The Phoenix Solution: Getting Serious about Winning America’s Drug War
Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.
. Simpson Got Away with Murder
No Island of Sanity: Paula
ones v. Bill Clinton: The Supreme Court on Trial
The Betrayal of America: How the Supreme Court Undermined the Constitution and Chose Our President
(with forewords by Molly Ivins and Gerry Spence)
THE ASSASSINATION OF PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY
W. W. NORTON & COMPANY NEW YORK • LONDON
Copyright © 2007 by Vincent Bugliosi
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions,
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.,
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Reclaiming history: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy / Vincent Bugliosi.—1st ed.
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917–1963—Assassination. 2. Oswald, Lee Harvey. 3. Conspiracies—United States. I. Title.
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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To the historical record, knowing that nothing in the present can exist without the paternity of history, and hence, the latter is sacred, and should never be tampered with or defiled by untruths
At approximately 12:30 p.m. on November 22, 1963, while President John F. Kennedy, the most powerful man in the free world, rode in his presidential limousine slowly past the Texas School Book Depository Building and down Elm Street in Dallas, Texas, three shots rang out from the southeasternmost window on the sixth floor of the building. One of the bullets struck the president in the upper right part of his back and exited the front of his throat, another entered the right rear of his head, exiting and shattering the right side of his head. While the presidential limousine screeched away to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly thereafter, John F. Kennedy, his life blood gushing from his body, lay mortally wounded on his wife Jacqueline’s lap. The assassin had succeeded in brutally cutting down, at the age of forty-six, the thirty-fifth president of these United States, a man whose wit, charm, and intelligence had captivated a world audience. The assassin’s bullets had also extinguished a flame of hope for millions of Americans who saw in the youthful president at least the promise of excellence in national life.
As the years have shown, Kennedy’s assassination immediately transformed him into a mythical, larger-than-life figure whose hold on the nation’s imagination resonates to this very day. “The image of Kennedy is not based on what he accomplished, but on his promise, the hope he held out,” said historian Stephen Ambrose in 1993.
New York Times
columnist James Reston wrote similarly that “what was killed in Dallas was not only the President but the promise. The heart of the Kennedy legend is what might have been. All this is apparent in the faces of the people who come daily to his grave on the Arlington Hill.”
In 1993, Ambrose added, “There’s a very strong sense that if he had not died, we would not have suffered the 30 years of nightmare that followed—the race riots, the white backlash, assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra.”
While this is, of course, speculative, what is not is JFK’s legacy of rekindling the notion that public service is a noble calling. If it is any barometer of the sense of hope and promise that Kennedy inspired in the American people, the ever-decreasing trust by Americans in their government down through the years started with the Kennedy assassination and the subsequent erroneously perceived notion—fostered by conspiracy theorists—that the government concealed the full truth about the assassination from them. Trust in our leaders in Washington to do what is right for the people plummeted from 76 percent around the time of the assassination to a low of 19 percent three decades later.
“There’s such a gulf in history between the day before and the day after Kennedy’s assassination,” says historian Howard Jones of the University of Alabama. “It’s as if we passed through a hundred years in a day.”
In 2004, a national poll showed that trust in our government to do what’s right was only at 36 percent.
Since Kennedy’s death, the nation has not seen, in any of his successors, his cosmopolitan intellectualism or the oratorical eloquence with which he sought to lead the nation by the power of his words. What also is beyond dispute was the way Kennedy, the first president born in the twentieth century, inspired the young of his generation by his youthful vigor and the bold, fresh initiatives of his New Frontier, such as his Peace Corps, civil rights bills, and pledge to put a man on the moon. Idealism was in the air, and the nation’s capital had never seen such an invasion of young people who wanted to change the world for the better. The most accurate indicator of Kennedy’s popularity among the nation’s youth at the time is a 2003 Gallup Poll of people of various age groups as to whom they regarded as our greatest president. In the fifty-to-sixty-four-year age group, those who were young during Kennedy’s presidency, Kennedy ranked number one among all presidents. Among all age groups he ranked number two, behind only Lincoln.
Undoubtedly, two other factors have burnished and enlarged the Kennedy aura. He was among the most attractive and naturally charismatic public figures the nation has seen. And the Choate-and Harvard-educated son of privilege
and wealth ignored the wishes of his powerful father and a medical condition that could easily have exempted him from combat and became a World War II hero. Kennedy historian Richard Reeves writes that JFK had a “range of illnesses” that commenced as a child. “He could never have passed a real military physical examination, so he used the riches and influence of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, to become a naval officer. The old man persuaded friends in the military to accept a certificate of good health, a false one, from a family doctor…[JFK’s] executive officer, Leonard Thom, wrote home that Kennedy was the only man in the Navy who faked good health.”
After seeing extensive combat in the Japanese theater, not long after midnight on August 2, 1943, in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, the twenty-five-year-old navy lieutenant personally rescued one of the crew members of the patrol torpedo boat (PT 109)
he commanded when it was cut in half and sunk by the Japanese destroyer
, by swimming four hours to the nearest island towing the man by attaching a strap from the man’s life jacket to his teeth. In a typical example of Kennedy’s well-known laconic wit, when he was once asked how he became a war hero, he responded with his famous understated smile, “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.”
Kennedy’s magic started with the people (particularly, as indicated, the young, to whom the words of his inaugural address seemed to be aimed), as evidenced by the fact that although he had won the presidency with only 49.7 percent of the popular vote, a Harris Poll right after his inaugural showed his approval rating jumping up to an incredible 92 percent. Though his rating would soon return to the atmosphere, the speech, considered by many one of the finest inaugural addresses in the nation’s history, demonstrated that Kennedy was no ordinary politician. It wasn’t just the words of the speech (“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”; “Let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace [cold war], proud of our ancient heritage”), but the dramatic way in which he uttered them on this memorably bright day, a day, author Thurston Clarke wrote, where the cold winter air turned his breath into white clouds, the words appearing to be going forth into the exhilarating air. “God, I’d like to be able to do what that boy did there,” his political opponent Barry Goldwater said. The power in Kennedy’s delivery of the words had to be helped by the fact that apart from the “Ask not” clause, the words were written by him and told his own story.
In writing this book about the assassination, I inevitably got into, though tangentially, the man, John F. Kennedy. Governor John Connally’s wife, who herself was married to a handsome and dynamic man, wrote that “I thought I knew what ‘charisma’ meant before I met Jack Kennedy, but our young President gave the word a new definition.”
But there was more to the man than mere charisma, an indelible element to his personality that lassoed the attention of the onlooker. When Kennedy died, the worldwide mourning that his death induced was unprecedented. Perhaps the most impressive testament of what Kennedy possessed was the way his death was greeted by the tens of millions of people behind the Iron Curtain during the very height of the cold war. The masses behind the curtain were
fed Soviet propaganda, the level of censorship being virtually complete, isolating the people within from the outside world. Yet when Kennedy died, the evidence is overwhelming that millions of Soviet citizens and those in the Soviet Bloc satellite countries in Eastern Europe took his death almost as hard as we in America did, these adversary countries being immediately swept up in national mourning and tears. Under the prevailing censorship, how much could the people of these nations have possibly been exposed to Kennedy, the tiniest snippet of his person or his words reaching them during his three years in power? In addition to the youthful vigor and indefinable charisma that he projected, my sense is that these masses, who heard so few of his words, and could understand none of them, picked up in the sound of his voice and the inherent decency and sincerity in his always pleasant face and smile, that he was different, and it was these additional critical components that enabled the essence of the man, from just a glance, to pierce the curtain of iron that had descended upon these countries and to touch the hearts of its citizens. How else, for instance, can one explain what Nobel Prize–winning novelist John Steinbeck witnessed in Warsaw when news of Kennedy’s assassination reached the Polish capital? Steinbeck had been on a cultural tour of Iron Curtain countries at the time, and he said that the “great sorrow” he saw among the Polish people over Kennedy’s death “was the most fantastic thing I ever saw. I’ve never seen anything like it. The Poles said they’d never seen its like either,
Political author Thomas Powers cannot be accused of hyperbole when he observes that Kennedy’s assassination “was probably the greatest single traumatic event in American history.”
Years later, it remains a festering wound on the nation’s psyche. Though Powers made his remark several years ago, its truth continues to this day. As we will see in the next section of this book, there is little comparison between the nation’s response to Kennedy’s death and its response to the World Trade Center catastrophe on September 11, 2001, even though the response to the latter was enormous. Just two indications among many of the difference. On the day of Kennedy’s assassination and for three consecutive days thereafter, all three national television networks suspended all of their commercial shows and advertising. And while only a relatively small number of books have been written about 9-11, far more books continue to be written to this very day, over forty years later, about Kennedy’s assassination. How could one death cause greater personal anguish to more people than three thousand deaths? The World Trade Center victims were known only to their loved ones, entirely unknown to the rest of the country. But the dazzling First Couple of JFK and Jackie, and their two children, Caroline and John-John, were perceived by many as the closest to royalty this nation had ever seen. Nearly all Americans felt they knew JFK intimately, his charm and wit regularly lighting up the television screen at home. This is why polls showed that millions of Americans took his assassination like a “death in the family.” Some, even more deeply than the death of their parents, because, as Kennedy confidant Ted Sorenson observed, the latter often represented a “loss of the past,” while Kennedy’s death was to them an “incalculable loss of the future.”
It was written that “never in the land did so many, out of a feeling of personal identification with a dead leader,” mourn his death.
t is believed that more words have been written about the assassination than any other single, one-day event in world history. Close to one thousand books have been written. So why the need for this book, which can only add to an already overwhelming surfeit of literature on the case? The answer is that over 95 percent of the books on the case happen to be pro-conspiracy and anti–Warren Commission, so certainly there is a need for far more books on the other side to give a much better balance to the debate. But more importantly, although there have been hundreds of books on the assassination, no book has even attempted to be a comprehensive and fair evaluation of the
case, including all of the major conspiracy theories.
On the issue of fairness, the more I studied the assassination and the writings of the conspiracy theorists and Warren Commission critics, the more I became disturbed with them. Though they accused the bipartisan Warren Commission of bias, distorting the evidence, and deliberately suppressing the truth from the American people, I found that for the most part it was they, not the Warren Commission, who were guilty of these very same things. I haven’t read all of the pro-conspiracy books. I don’t know anyone who has. I have, however, read all the major ones, and a goodly number of minor ones. And with a few notable exceptions, when the vast majority of these conspiracy authors are confronted with evidence that is incompatible with their fanciful theories, to one degree or another their modus operandi is to do one of two things—twist, warp, and distort the evidence, or simply ignore it—both of which are designed to deceive their readers. Waiting for the conspiracy theorists to tell the truth is a little like leaving the front-porch light on for Jimmy Hoffa.
Ninety-nine percent of the conspiracy community are not, of course, writers and authors. These conspiracy “buffs” (as they are frequently called) are obsessed with the assassination, have formed networks among their peers, and actually attend conspiracy-oriented conventions around the country. Though most of them are as kooky as a three-dollar bill in their beliefs and paranoia about the assassination, it is my sense that their motivations are patriotic and that they are sincere in their misguided and uninformed conclusions. I cannot say that about the conspiracy authors. Unlike the buffs—virtually none of whom have a copy of the forty official volumes on the case—the authors possess and work with these volumes. Yet the majority of them knowingly mislead their readers by lies, omissions, and deliberately distorting the official record. I realize this is an astonishing charge I am making. Unfortunately, it happens to be the truth. In any other field, such as the scientific or literary disciplines, even a fraction of these lies, distortions, and omissions by a member would cause the author to be ostracized professionally by his colleagues and peers. But in the conspiracy community of the Kennedy assassination, where one’s peers have turned their mothers’ pictures against the wall and are telling even bigger lies themselves, and where the American public is unaware of these lies, not only is this type of deception routinely accepted by most members of the community, but the perpetrators are treated as celebrities who lecture for handsome fees and sign autographs at conventions of Warren Commission critics and conspiracy theorists.