Behind the Lines
The day we knew where everyone was.
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It is now several weeks since the twenty-fifth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. The event was commemorated by somber special reports on television, by articles in newspapers, and magazines, and by several new books, each with its own theory about what happened that sad day. Their exploitation and fatuous thinking have left me angry.
Survey says two-thirds of the people in America do not believe the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. It was fashionable to disbelieve the commission almost from the moment it was formed. As soon as the report was released, opportunistic charlatans such as Mark Lane toured the lecture circuit and enraptured audiences. John McCloy, a lawyer who was a member of the commission, later wrote in exasperation, “I visited at a number of universities in those days—It was actually thought ‘liberal’ to be convinced that President Kennedy had been shot as a result of a conspiracy by a group of Texas millionaires or chauvinists and that it was quite ‘illiberal’ to think that he has been assassinated solely by a little ‘punk’ who perhaps had some personal communistic leanings.”
One’s attitude toward the Warren Commission became a touchstone belief, like one’s opinion on Vietnam, that separated people utterly. Since then, a belief in a conspiracy has gained a kind of sanctity; now it is treated practically like a religious tenet that may not be challenged or contradicted. Thus most of the retrospectives tiptoed around without really making a stand of what really happened. The New York Times wrote of the window from which “Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle was fired.” And the Dallas Morning News identified the sixth-floor window as the place “alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is thought to have used.”
There isn’t much credence in evil Texas millionaires anymore. Nor has there been much speculation about Oswald’s Double since Oswald’s grave was dug up in 1981. The body in the grave was supposed to have been that of his double, but it turned out to be Oswald after all. Nothing has been pinned on the CIA. Currently, the fashionable theory is that the mob did it. Carlos Marcello, the longtime boss in New Orleans, is supposed to have ordered the president’s death. Rich Texas bigots, the CIA, the mob—that is the list of the main bogeymen of the last 25 years. If he weren’t too young, Qaddafi would be next.
Within twenty minutes after the shooting, both NBC and CBS were reporting that three shots had been fired and that they had come from the Texas School Book Depository. The first reports that Lee Oswald had been arrested and he had shot a Dallas policeman came at 2:40 p.m. central time, just two hours after the assassination. In another hour, his biography was sketched in—a defector to Russia, a Castro sympathizer, an employee at the School Book Depository. There were some conflicting reports and errors but fewer than one might imagine in those circumstances. Immediately after the shooting, much of the tension came form the fear that further attacks might be imminent. But there were no other attacks—except for Jack Ruby’s—and soon enough we were left with what we had known almost from the beginning, that all this was the result of one man’s psychosis.
Perhaps this letdown made the Warren Commission hard to accept. And its members, Earl Warren, Gerald Ford, and the rest, weren’t Kennedy people. They did their work in secret, which was probably a mistake, and made other missteps as well. But to me they proved their case. The evidence is presented most succinctly, if repetitiously, in Final Disclosure, by David W. Belin, formerly the counsel to the Warren Commission. In briefest outline, this is the case he makes:
Howard Brennan, a steamfitter, was sitting across the street from the School Book Depository, less than forty yards from the sixth-floor window. He saw a man take aim and fire the last shot, the one that killed Kennedy. Brennan’s description of the man he saw matches Oswald. Amos Lee Euins, who was fifteen at the time, also saw a man in the window shooting. Robert Jackson, a photographer for the Dallas Times Herald, saw the rifle in the window. Harold Norman was an employee at the School Book Depository who watched the parade from the corner window on the fifth floor. He heard both the bolt action of the rifle and the cartridge cases hitting the floor above him.
After Brennan and Euins told the police what they had seen, the depository was searched. A row of boxes stacked around the sixth-floor window had shielded it from the rest of the building. Three cartridge cases lay on the floor there. Hidden near the stairway at the opposite corner was a high-powered rifle. Bullet fragments from the limousine, the bullet discovered by on Governor Connally’s stretcher, and the cartridge cases found by the sixth-floor window all came from that rifle. It belonged to Lee Harvey Oswald, who had mail-ordered it under the name “A. J. Hidell.” Oswald’s wife, Marina, testified that he used that alias; it was derived from “Fidel.” When Oswald was arrested, he had false identification with the name “Alex J. Hidell…” Oswald’s palm print was discovered on the rifle.
Officer J. D. Tippit tried to stop Oswald near his rooming house because he matched the description of the assassination suspect that was already being broadcast on the police radio. Six people—William Scoggins, Helen Markham, Barbara and Virginia Davis, Ted Callaway, and Sam Guinyard—either witnessed Oswald murdering Tippit or saw him seconds afterward, fleeing the scene. Some of those witnesses picked up shell casings that Oswald had tossed away near the murder. They were fired by the pistol that Oswald had when arrested and that, like the rifle, he had bought under the name “A. J. Hidell.”
Even that skeletal outline of the evidence is convincing to me, particularly since nothing discovered in the years since has disproved it in even the slightest detail. The most celebrated claim was that of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. A Dictabelt made from a police microphone that had accidentally been left on supposedly had recorded four shots, three from the School Book Depository and one from a stockade fence at the top of a grassy knoll. Extensive tests and testimony by experts about the “sonic fingerprint” of Dealey Plaza supported the fourth-shot theory. But a rock drummer from Indiana, who had gotten his copy of the Dictabelt from, believe it or not, Gallery magazine, was able to prove from other sounds on the recording that it could have been made only after the assassination had already occurred. As for the theory that the President’s wounds had been altered to disguise the direction of the shots, it seems ludicrous to suppose that any plotters would actually initiate such a fantastic and difficult plan. Nor does this or any alternate theory have any physical evidence to support it. Ultimately, every theory but the Warren Commission’s rests on conjecture or fantasy.
Of course, there is always the possibility that Oswald did the deed alone but on someone else’s orders. But why was Oswald glumly working day in and day out at the depository in the weeks before November 22 rather than stalking Kennedy as a hired killer would have had to do? The current theory that Carlos Marcello plotted the assassination emphasizes Oswald’s uncle, a bookie who lived in New Orleans, and Jack Ruby’s mob connections, such as they were, originating with his days in Chicago. By careful selection of evidence and shaky logic, one can begin with Oswald and Ruby, and work back to Marcello. But it is harder to imagine the connection going the other way. Think of mobsters plotting to kill the president. Who is going to do it? “I know,” someone says. “How about the bookie’s nephew, the wormy, commie flake who has never done anything for us before? He’ll come through.” Then what? Suppose he talks. “Simple. We’ll get that strip-club owner to kill him in the basement of the police station.” This sounds like farce, but something like it would have had to happen for the mob to plan the assassination with Oswald and Ruby involved. (Time recently excerpted a book that claimed John Connally was Oswald’s real target. Elsewhere in the same issue is the news that the main witness supporting this contention didn’t pass a lie-detector test. So, Time, which is it?)
Although certain that Oswald, acting alone, shot President Kennedy and that Ruby, acting alone, shot Oswald, I still eagerly read the new books as they come out. America changed when Oswald pulled the trigger. Our society divided and remains divided still. We don’t want to believe that could have been caused by one hideous creep. Surely the force must have been much more powerful. We look for the traces that the force must have left behind. That there are no traces seems to prove how powerful it really is.
November 22, 1963, is the one moment in American history when time is frozen. The assassination literature has developed a huge body of research on the whereabouts and activities of hundreds of people, the majority of them basically anonymous. We know about steamfitters and teenagers, about Secret Service men and shoe clerks, about strippers and the two women living on the corner near where Tippit was killed. On and on it goes, person after person. And once the shots were fired, the mundane actions of each individual take on an importance that is sinister or tragic or both. That day is as near as we will come on earth to Judgment Day.