Who Didn’t Kill JFK?
What have we learned from this avalanche of new data? Unfortunately, not much. The most popular Kennedy assassination book of recent years has been Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Kennedy (2012), a lightweight nonfiction thriller awkwardly written in the present tense. The book asserts nothing new about the assassination, either as a cultural symbol, political cataclysm or criminal plot. Its central premise seems to be that Oswald was bad while Kennedy, relatively speaking, was pretty good. “There will be no second inaugural,” the book declares in a typical passage. “For John Fitzgerald Kennedy is on a collision course with evil.” To mark the fiftieth anniversary, O’Reilly has released a brightly illustrated children’s book that makes the same obvious points.
To their credit, most of this year’s assassination books probe further. They nonetheless find themselves mired in many of the same debates that have long plagued assassination literature: single bullet or multiple shooters, Oswald as lone wolf or pawn in some high-level conspiracy. What has changed over the past fifty years is not so much the outline of these theories as the public’s willingness to believe them. In 1964, when the Warren Commission issued its report, 51 percent of the American public questioned its conclusions. By 1992, in the wake of Stone’s film, that number had jumped to 77 percent and has remained relatively steady ever since.
Many recent assassination books attempt to capitalize on these suspicions. For sheer chutzpah, top honors must go to Republican political consultant Roger Stone, who purports to prove in The Man Who Killed Kennedy that “LBJ was not only involved in JFK’s assassination—but was in fact the mastermind.” A close runner-up is defense attorney Mark Shaw, who argues on the website for his new book, The Poison Patriarch, that “Joseph Kennedy Killed His Son John, The President”—though Shaw acknowledges that this may only be true “figuratively speaking.” Former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura wins an honorable mention for sheer completism, offering “63 reasons to believe there was a conspiracy to assassinate JFK.” Many of these claims, such as that “Oswald Had a Look-Alike Intelligence Double,” have been debunked repeatedly over the years only to resurface yet again.
For the uninitiated, the vehemence of the conspiracy literature can be disconcerting. (When my 10-year-old son saw Roger Stone’s book sitting on the kitchen counter, he looked at me accusingly: “You never told me LBJ killed JFK!”) Even experienced journalists trained to avoid conspiratorial thinking sometimes find themselves drawn in. In A Cruel and Shocking Act, one of this year’s most rigorous assassination books, former New York Times reporter Philip Shenon set out to write a critical history of the Warren Commission, based on interviews with its former staffers. Along the way, he grew fascinated with Oswald’s September 1963 trip to Mexico City, where the future assassin spent time in the company of Cuban diplomats and alleged spies. Shenon’s book really comprises two different works—one about the failures of the Warren Commission, the other about the possibility that Oswald was part of a Castro-led conspiracy. To his credit, Shenon never adopts the false certainty that characterizes so much conspiracy literature. Instead, as a dogged professional reporter, he is left agonizing about the “dual curse” of assassination research: “too little information and too much.”
Perhaps seeking to get out from under this curse, the most compelling and original of this year’s assassination books, Peter Savodnik’s The Interloper, sidesteps the assassination altogether, focusing instead on Oswald’s life as a defector in the Soviet Union between 1959 and 1962. That Oswald lived in the USSR at the height of the Cold War is well known, one of the deeply strange and endlessly tantalizing facts behind nearly every theory about his motives and associations. Until recently, though, surprisingly little was known about what he did there, or why he came and went. Norman Mailer explored the subject in the early 1990s, producing the darkly intriguing Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, but his book blended novelistic techniques with the few known facts. Savodnik has adopted a reporter’s approach, traveling to Russia to interview the men and women who once knew Oswald in the flesh.
The resulting discoveries are at once utterly fascinating and painfully mundane. As a 20-year-old self-proclaimed Marxist dissident, Oswald arrived in the Soviet Union in late 1959 prepared to renounce his American citizenship and get to work building a communist utopia. When the Soviets refused his offer, he slit his wrist, half hoping to create an international crisis. At that point, the Soviet authorities took him in, but with reluctance: in early 1960, they shipped Oswald off to the far-west city of Minsk, described by Savodnik as a godforsaken backwater still recovering from the devastation of World War II. There, Oswald spent two years as an ordinary communist worker in a radio and television factory, trying to blend in with his comrades despite the highly peculiar fact that he happened to be an American. The experiment failed. Almost universally, his Russian co-workers viewed Oswald with suspicion and contempt, as a lazy “interloper” whose mere presence threatened to disrupt their tenuous postwar security.
According to Savodnik, the idea that Oswald was an “interloper,” always moving, always on the outside, is the key to understanding both his personality and his motivation for killing the president. As a boy, Oswald never had a home, dragged by his mother through some twenty different households, including a brief stint in an orphanage. As an adult, he sought to settle down but found himself unbearably restless, first seeking out Marxism, then joining the Marines, then fleeing to the Soviet Union. In Savodnik’s view, it was Oswald’s disappointment with life in Russia—the place that was supposed to fulfill his dreams of fitting in and finding a home—that led to his final bout of rage and violence. When Oswald was forced to begin “interloping” once again, returning to the United States with his Russian wife and baby daughter, he gave up normal life and instead decided to do something dramatic.
Savodnik ends his narrative in October 1963, a month before the assassination. In doing so, he avoids the usual rites of assassination literature: the blow-by-blow account of the awful event, the speculation about Oswald’s secret intelligence ties, the painstaking analysis of the evidence. All that, he suggests, is really beside the point: we know Oswald shot the president, and now we have a clearer sense of his possible motives. “It is the facts of [Oswald’s] life, and especially his life in the Soviet Union, that tell us what we need to know to conclude that he alone was responsible for killing President Kennedy,” Savodnik writes. Only by rejecting the temptation of those millions of pages of documents, he suggests, can we hope to get closer to the truth.
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