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JFK mystery endures like the US blockade of Cuba (Review of Josiah Thompson’s “Last Second in Dallas”)


I just finished Josiah Thompson’s excellent new book on the JFK assassination: Last Second in Dallas (University Press of Kansas, 2021). Near the end of the book he describes how the scene of the crime, Dealey Plaza, looks to him in 2020. He reflects that “the case itself has been drained of its mythic resonance and, very likely, its political significance. All of that drained away as year followed year and our politics moved on.”

That’s true in many ways, but the US has not moved on from its efforts to turn Cuba back into a neo-colony. And Cuba lies at the heart of this case since the official story is that the lone assassin was a pro-Castro Marxist. The sadistic 63 year US blockade of Cuba not only remains in place, in recent years it has been greatly intensified: first by Trump and most recently by Joe Biden. The blockade, and the planning for the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, goes back even further than JFK’s government, to Eisenhower’s. 

Could JFK’s murder have been a failed attempt to incite a US invasion of Cuba?  The case still has some political relevance. History always does. The assassination challenges us to realistically access US government power and its limitations, and should make us marvel at the ossified nature of US foreign policy.

Most horrific crimes that the US government perpetrates are out in the open,  not hidden by conspiracy. The narrow question of whether or not Oswald acted alone on November 22, 1963 is way more interesting than it is important at this point. I’d argue that any plausible conspiracy, if there was one at all, was at a very low level. [1] But its possibility continues to intrigue, and Last Second in Dallas is engrossing the way murder mysteries often are.   

Background: The Warren Commission and a dubious lone assassin

Earl Warren (who as Attorney General then governor of California during World War Two was a strong advocate of the internment of US citizens of Japanese descent) led the commission that was set up, days after both JFK and Oswald were dead, to investigate the president’s murder.  Outrageously, Warren was widely regarded as deeply moral.

Lee Harvey Oswald, a supposedly pro-Castro Marxist living in a notoriously right wing city, was the lone assassin, concluded the Warren Commission. It also said that no foreign or domestic conspiracy existed. In fact, the Commission never concluded anything about Oswald’s exact motive. Was he avenging US efforts to overthrow Castro, trying to impress Castro, or maybe just trying to do something of historical importance? Was there no coherent motivation in Oswald’s embittered mind? Those were the kinds of questions the commission asked, but never answered. Proving much about Oswald was made difficult when he was bumped off 48 hours after he was arrested. Jack Ruby walked up to Oswald, as the latter was surrounded by Dallas police, and shot him in the stomach. The police also somehow failed to record any of its interrogation of Oswald. 

If you think about it, Jack Ruby is actually a more obvious fit than Oswald as a crazed lone assassin. Like John Hinckley Jr. (who nearly killed Ronald Reagan in an attempt to impress Jodie Foster) Jack Ruby got very close to his target.  Neither Hinckley nor Ruby made any effort to get away with what they did. Similarly with other notable would-be assassins in the US: the guy who shot right wing politician George Wallace and left him crippled for life, or the two different women who, only 17 days apart, independently tried to gun down Gerald Ford.  They all wanted credit for the crime. Oswald didn’t. He killed JFK with a very difficult shot from long range, escaped the immediate police lockdown of the crime scene, and denied responsibility for the hours he lived after being arrested.  I’m sure Oswald was one of the shooters, possibly the only one, but he acted in a way that created doubts. Then Ruby created even more doubts by killing him. Though Ruby probably wanted to be seen as a hero, he ended up looking like a conspirator in JFK’s murder, and arguably did more than anyone to put the stench of a domestic conspiracy all over the case.  

JFK’s government was using the mob to try to kill Castro and it was orchestrating terrorist attacks on Cuba. We know that in 1962 the CIA proposed the demented Operation Northwoods that proposed killing Cuban emigres or even US troops and blaming it on Castro so that the US would have a pretext to invade. ABC News reported in 2006

America’s top military brass even contemplated causing U.S. military casualties, writing: “We could blow up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba,” and, “casualty lists in U.S. newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation.”

But the depravity of US officialdom does not mean JFK was murdered by it. This faulty logic is often applied by the US against its enemies: Saddam Hussein was a monster therefore he must have been hiding WMD.  Again (see note 1) the idea that the CIA or even a Cuban exile or Mafia boss with big bucks orchestrated JFK’s murder doesn’t hold up. But could it be that – without any intentional help from the US government or wealthy criminals – some anti-Castro fanatics used Oswald to stage their own amateur Operation Northwoods?  Could the FBI have inadvertently endangered JFK by using the unstable Oswald (who had defected to the Soviet Union) as part of its COINTELPRO program to infiltrate, disrupt, discredit and even assassinate left wing activists in the US? We only know about COINTELPRO because some very brave activists broke into FBI offices to steal documents. 

Could low level gangsters have orchestrated the hit on JFK along with Oswald? Doesn’t it pose dangers to US officials when one part of the government is using gangsters against foreign enemies while another part (run by JFK’s brother, Robert) was trying to legitimize itself by putting gangsters away? 

Or maybe the Warren Commission (despite the shortcomings that even its defenders admit it had) actually got the most basic conclusion right. Oswald was simply a disturbed gunman who acted alone. But after reading Josiah Thompson’s Last Second in Dallas, I think it’s very possible that Oswald was not the only shooter.

Thompson’s approach: forget all conspiracy theories

In 1966, Thompson was a young philosophy professor who was working on a book about the assassination. He eventually gave up being a professor to spend decades working as a private investigator. He caught a huge break in 1966 when LIFE magazine (owners of the Abraham Zapruder film of the assassination) hired him as a consultant for a critical re-examination of the Warren Commission.  Thompson was able to closely examine high quality film of the murder that very few people had ever seen (a national audience was not shown the most graphic scenes from the Zapruder film until 1975). Thompson was also able to interview important witnesses because he had LIFE’s resources behind him. 

Thompson’s dissatisfaction with the article LIFE eventually published in 1967 compelled him to finish the book he had been writing.  How many shots were fired at JFK, when and from where? Those are the only questions his new book  Last Second in Dallas (and his 1967 book Six Second in Dallas) examined  – with no speculation as to why Oswald or any accomplices shot Kennedy.

Thompson’s very narrow focus and careful approach worked greatly to his advantage over the past five decades. As interesting as the conspiracy-related questions are, they have inspired wild claims which Gerald Posner ruthlessly debunked in his 1993 book Case Closed. Thompson is barely mentioned in Posner’s book. Posner describes Thompson as one of the Warren Commission reasonable critics, and Posner’s only criticism of Thompson’s work is underwhelming.[2]

In 1967, Thompson’s close examination of the Zapruder film and questioning of witnesses led him to conclude that two of the bullets that hit JFK’s head struck almost simultaneously. But it was impossible for Oswald’s rifle to fire shots closer together than 2.3 seconds apart. Moreover the two shots seemed to come from two different directions. Thompson therefore concluded that there had to be at least one other shooter with whom Oswald conspired. The notion that two or more crazed shooters showed up on the same day and, without conspiring, put JFK in a crossfire is absurd. [Note that a New York Times editorial did suggest this possibility in 1979 after a congressional investigation concluded there must have been two gunman. The NYT editorial is cited in a 1998 piece by FAIR.org]. 

Some gruesome details

In Last Second in Dallas, Thompson revises his 1967 conclusions significantly in light of new evidence and analysis, in particular acoustic evidence, that came to light. He had assumed a slight forward movement detected in frame 313 of the Zapruder film was due a bullet hitting JFK in the back of the head. He now plausibly argues that he was deceived on that point by two things: a blur that led to overly large measurements of the forward movement, and the limousine slowing down at that frame which caused the other passengers to also nod forward slightly. Incidentally, here is a Youtube video where Thompson effectively explains his reasoning. 

For many reasons, Thompson has always considered it beyond any doubt that Kennedy was hit in the head from the back (not just the front), but now argues that JFK’s head was hit first from the front at frame 313 of the Zapruder film, the frame that always makes viewers people gasp in horror. He argues it was basically a tangential hit to the right side of the head as one of the doctors who first examined JFK in Dallas described. A second shot, says Thompson, then struck JFK’s head from the back about three quarters of a second later. Since it was the last shot to hit, it obliterated much of the medical evidence of the first shot. And because JFK’s head was already shattered its impact was not obvious like the first shot that drove the head back and to the left. Thompson’s theory fits with acoustic evidence, the testimony of an AP photographer who (from only fifteen feet away) insisted that the last shot he heard drove JFK’s head forward. It explains why debris from JFK’s head would land as far forward as the hood ornament of the presidential limousine, and also spray police on motorcycles riding to the rear left of the limousine. 

If  two shots hit JFK’s head from different directions then, even if it was a tricky wound to examine, wouldn’t it have been detected at the autopsy? Wouldn’t the best forensic pathologists in the country have done the autopsy? In fact, forensic pathologists did not even do the autopsy. One thing everyone agrees on is that the autopsy was very poorly done. A PBS Nova show about the assassination (which features Thompson but concludes that only one bullet from behind destroyed JFK’s head) explains why the autopsy was botched. [4]      

Intuitively, a shot from the front (from the Grassy Knoll) seems obvious given the way JFK’s head moved sharply back and to the left. After criticism of the Warren Commission’s findings emerged based on that observation, Luis Alvarez, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, stepped forward to say that a “jet effect” could explain the movement. But Thompson got a hold of unpublished experimental results where Alvarez attempted to show that the concept was a significant factor in this case. Most of the Alvarez experiments failed to show that. Moreover, Thompson stresses that the Warren Commission did actually fire shots at skulls and reported nothing like a “jet effect”.  Some medical experts said a neuromuscular spasm could explain JFK’s head movement. Thompson points out that in its 1979 report the US House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) was unwilling to say that JFK’s head movement was explained by a combined jet effect and neuromuscular spasm, only that it was “a possibility”. [3] The HSCA was convened because the US public, after finally viewing the Zapruder film in 1975, was largely convinced that a shot must have hit JFK from the front.

I would add that there is a very disturbing video people can watch online (if they have the stomach for it). In 1979,  journalist Bill Stewart was murdered by the US-backed Nicaraguan National Guard (many of its commanders would go on to form the Reagan-backed Contra terrorists after the Sandinista revolution). Stewart was made to lie on his stomach and he was then shot in the back of his head. No spasm moving his head upward towards the shooter occurs. On the contrary, his head is driven into the ground. It didn’t even bounce back off the ground.  This is not to say that the jet effect is not valid as a general concept, or that neuromuscular spasms don’t happen, but in Stewart’s case these factors clearly did not jolt his head back towards the shooter. Physics doesn’t always conform to what people consider intuitively obvious, but in the case of JFK’s dramatic head movement after he sustained a massive head wound – back and to the left – it looks like it might have. [5]    

Decades of forensic science debate

Acoustic evidence forced the US House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) to say that there was a second shooter, but it said that a shot from the front missed completely. But the US government soon convened scientists (the Ramsey Panel that was led unofficially by Luis Alvarez) to say the acoustic evidence was worthless. Incidentally, the acoustic evidence originated with the Dallas police, from a microphone that inadvertently stayed open on a police motorcycle during the assassination. Again, this points away from any high level conspiracy. Why wasn’t the recording destroyed? 

One goal of Thompson’s book is to restore the credibility of the acoustic evidence.  Two technical appendices were written by acoustic specialists, one of whom (James Barger) was hired by the HSCA to lead the technical team that studied the Dallas police recordings. It greatly helps Thompson’s case that Barger stuck to his guns all these years, and that the Ramsey Panel had no acoustic specialists. The very esoteric debate over how to properly interpret sound waves in primitive 58 year old recordings will certainly continue. [6]    

Science advances through repeatable experiments, a very powerful kind of scrutiny and transparency. Murder scenes don’t provide that for obvious reasons. Key evidence cannot be indefinitely preserved even if no mistakes are made in handling it, even if no powerful political actors (as in the case of the OPCW’s work in Syria) act to compromise it. 

Thompson’s book is impressive, but I suspect all doubts about the JFK case can only be cleared up when the US changes enough to end its blockade on Cuba, and, more generally, stop trying to be the Global Dictator. What can bring that change about? That’s a vastly more important question than whether or not Oswald acted alone.        

NOTES

[1] Reasons to discard high level conspiracy to murder JFK:

  1. a) JFK was no threat to the Establishment. Perhaps because he was young and on the liberal end of the elite US political spectrum some people romanticize JFK in a way they do not romanticize right wing politicians who were shot (Ronald Reagan and George Wallace).  JFK approved major terror attacks on Cuba only 10 days before he was killed. A plot to murder Castro was initiated on the day JFK was assassinated (See Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival page 85). JFK had not rejected basic imperial assumptions despite going through the Cuban Missile crisis. Ben Norton reviewed some of JFK’s horrific record on Cuba in this piece. Incidentally, a famous quote from JFK supposedly wanted to break the CIA “into a thousand pieces” was cited in April 28, 1966 NYT article. An anonymous official claimed JFK said that out of anger and fear for his political future after the Bay of Pigs defeat. Even if true, it’s about as significant as a father saying “I’ll kill him” after his teenager wrecks the family car.
  2. b) If JFK had become a big threat to the Establishment, the mass media would have tried extremely hard to neutralize him through character assassination. Recall the way the UK media convinced much of the public that life –long anti-racist Jeremy Corbyn was actually a racist. Media vilification need not succeed entirely to secure concessions from a politician as Corbyn’s example also shows. Seymour Hersh depicted  JFK as being at about as susceptible to blackmail (i.e. sleazy in his personal life) as Donald Trump was accused of being.
  3. c) If they decided to kill him, why literally blow his brains out in broad daylight in front of hundreds of witnesses leaving a huge trail of film and audio evidence? Why not more subtle methods like poison, and preferably while he was on foreign soil, not at home?
  4. d) Why did Oswald use such a cheap rifle? One big clue that the assassination had no big money behind it (and therefore didn’t go beyond Oswald and the other shooter or shooters) is that Oswald mail ordered such a cheap rifle – under $13 in 1963, so about $120 in today’s money. The PBS Nova special makes clear that far better, but more expensive, rifles were available by mail order in 1963. Wouldn’t any rich mobster or Cuban emigre, never mind the CIA, have ensured that the assassins used weapons that gave them the best possible odds? Why would anyone with significant resources skimp on an attempt to kill the US president?

[2] Posner claims Thompson misclassified several witnesses in Six Seconds in Dallas based on where they thought shots originated, but there were dozens of witnesses whom he classified (p.236). It appears the same criticism of Thompson is made here

[3] Last Second in Dallas, p 176-177

[4] The PBS Nova special about the assassination says a shot from the Grassy Knoll woud have had a trajectory of only 4 degrees down from the horizon. According to my own calculations, the horizontal component of the force imparted from a Grassy Knoll shot would therefore have been about 99.8% of its total force.

[5] Gerald Posner’s Case Closed (p 314) refers vaguely to a murder like Bill Stewart’s and suggests it validates the spasm explanation for JFK’s head movement, but Posner’s citation is very vague. He specifies “Central America” but not the year, country or name of the journalist who was shot. If he was referring to Stewart then he was wrong.  

[6]  Thompson describes how forensic science evolved since the late sixties. For example, Erik Randich, a scientist who was key to forcing the FBI to abandon Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis (CBLA) in 2005, also had a peer reviewed paper published in Journal of Forensic Science in 2006 rejected the validity of the metalurgic analysis of the bullets that had been done in the JFK case.  

 

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