On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was shot dead. The president was assassinated by the vice president, the KGB, the Mafia, the Cubans, or the Secret Service, depending on who one asks. According to the federal Warren Commission, however, the lone gunman was a 24-year-old radical named Lee Harvey Oswald.
What’s happened since can best be described as a kind of transmogrification: the event, and the events surrounding it, have become endlessly complicated by conspiracy theorists (“CTs,” to use their parlance), who seized on the commission’s report and used its seeming incongruities and omissions as ample fodder for their beliefs. These individuals range vastly in ideology and credibility, and over the past four-plus decades, a raft of writings, theories, and notions have sprung from their many-tented camp.
Nearly every one of the thousand or so books that have been written on the subject has cried “Conspiracy!” in one form or another. However, a recent tome (close to 2,000 pages) written by Vincent Bugliosi, the hard-nosed Manson prosecutor and former Los Angeles County assistant district attorney par excellence, goes decidedly against this grain. The book, Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is nothing less than a resounding endorsement of the Warren Commission’s 42-year-old findings. Bugliosi is, in conspiracy-theorist lingo, a “lone-nutter” (or “LN”)—a disparaging term for those who believe Oswald’s solitary guilt is indisputable and that the “magic-bullet theory” is simply a bullet-trajectory fact.
In the July/August issue of The Atlantic, Thomas Mallon considers Bugliosi’s opus. Mallon—an Atlantic contributing editor and fellow “LN,” fluent in assassination history—is the author of, among other works, Mrs. Paine’s Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy, a singular account of the event, centering on Ruth Paine, the virtuous Quaker woman who became, quite innocently, enmeshed in the assassination. Mallon points out that Bugliosi’s examination of JFK’s death is oddly straightforward: what emerges in Reclaiming History is that, despite countless fantastic claims to the contrary, the government did not lie.
Thomas Mallon’s latest book is Fellow Travelers. He spoke with me on April 18th about Lee Harvey Oswald, conspiracy theorists, and his own book on the Kennedy assassination.
The Kennedy assassination has been described as a “political Rorschach test,” suggesting that the way one perceives the shooting and the events surrounding it are as much a statement about the perceiver as the history and context in which they occurred. Could you speak to this?
I think that’s true. I think there is a certain, for lack of a better term, “political-personality” type that is predisposed towards a belief in conspiracy, and another that more naturally inclines to the “lone-nutter” theory. I would say that the preponderance of conspiracy theorists are left-wing. But there is definitely a right-wing contingent and another group whose politics are hard to classify. My sense is that somebody who is very inclined towards conspiracy belief is also predisposed toward an extreme view of politics.
Now you could say, “Well that’s disprovable because if so many people – something like 75 percent of Americans, according to the polls—believe in conspiracy, then 75 percent of the American population should be fanatical politically, and that’s not the case.” But I’m talking about people who have really thought about the assassination.
In the same vein, do you think that Vincent Bugliosi’s pro-Warren Commission position shows any kind of clear ideological bias, however much he declares that he’s strictly interested in the facts? I know that he’s a self-identified liberal...
Right, which I think, in a sense, goes to show what I was saying about how this cuts across the political spectrum. I think actually it’s healthy to see somebody who seems to have solid liberal credentials, who was very pro-Gore in the 2000 election, still taking the pro-Warren Commission view. You do find writers like Max Holland, who’s writing a history of the Warren Commission and was for many years a writer for The Nation, or somebody like Anthony Lewis, who was the most liberal of Times columnists and who was sort of the Paul Krugman of his day, turning out to be believers in the Warren report. And the Kennedys themselves—whether the current Senator Kennedy or the younger generation, you never hear them saying, “Oh, this needs to be investigated yet again,” implying that the Warren Commission was wrong. As for Bugliosi, I’m struck by his pugnacity and his thoroughness. But I’m not sure that it tells me anything about him politically.
Leaving aside one’s ultimate reading of the assassination, it seems to me that there are a lot of coincidences and strange factors at play, a perfect storm of politics, crime, socioeconomics and psychology, both group and individual. What do you think about this?
There are coincidences in the assassination for the same reason that there are coincidences in life. The vast, vast, vast majority of what may look like contradictions, ironies, mysteries—the vast majority of them are explicable. I think that is a real strength of Bugliosi’s book. Whatever you think of the scale of it, he does set out to provide factual explanations of things. You can’t explain everything, and if you could, something would be wrong. It would be too neat.
But one of the things that I think is true about the real and conspiratorial mind is that when somebody’s really got it bad, and is a really heavy-duty conspiracy theorist, they tend to believe that the plot was hatched farther and farther back and farther and farther away from Dallas. They think you have to go all the way back to the 1940s, or that it has its real roots in something that took place over in Europe. And I think that’s a mark of the conspiracist inclination, to go ever farther away geographically and temporally.
Conspiracy theorists have been described in various ways. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about who they are, exactly. Are they real scholars, professors, historians, morbid malcontents, pernicious patriots, cranks, the people who would argue that Humpty Dumpty was pushed?
One of the things that surprises me about Bugliosi’s book is that he is, in some ways, more generous to them than I would be. He frequently makes an effort to point out that he thinks they’re motivated by patriotism or sincere inquiry. I’m not so sure. I think some of them are, but I think it’s a truly dark, morbid fascination to them. Hmm. How inflammatory do I want to be here? On some level—subconscious in some, conscious in others—they find the assassination thrilling. And their preoccupation with it is, I would say, unhealthy.
There are a few supposedly respectable academics who have gone way out there in conspiracy theory, but I would say that most of them are kind of gumshoes, amateurs, and people who probably were impacted by the assassination. Their emotions were impacted by it in what was originally a genuine way, but somehow the tissue around that impact has become infected, and it’s become something that they don’t want to let go of. The thing that they would hate most is for anything that they would have to regard as definitive proof to come along. I think we do have definitive proof that Oswald killed Kennedy, but if definitive proof of their own theories came along somehow, I think they’d be terribly bereft.
They’d have to forfeit.
They’d have a terrible, massive depression—and would go on to something else.