After twenty-five years, the last batch of documents related to the John F. Kennedy assassination is finally being released to the public. It promises to settle once and for all a series of burning questions. Was Lee Harvey Oswald really the lone gunman? Was Jack Ruby part of a larger conspiracy? Did the Mafia conspire to kill Kennedy?
One might ask another question: How much does it really matter?
To be clear, the documents’ release is undoubtedly a good thing, not just as a matter of government transparency, but because the public has a right to know what exactly happened in this murky incident that’s been subject to decades of outrageous government obfuscation.
And there are important revelations in the released documents, from details of the CIA’s anticommunist activities at home to its assassination plots against various world leaders (usually Castro), including a plot to bomb Miami and kill refugees in order to pin the blame on Castro and justify regime change.
But the Kennedy assassination and the wild conspiracy theories that have flourished around it have assumed such an outsize role in the public’s imagination — and such a distorting effect on our understanding of history — that it’s hard not to be cynical about the whole affair.
The majority of Kennedy conspiracy theories are rooted in the idea that the valiant, progressive Kennedy was cut down in his prime by a sinister cabal of right-wing warmongers who rejected his peacenik-ey vision. This was the basis of Oliver Stone’s JFK, which argued that Kennedy’s murder was a coup prompted by his desire to withdraw from Vietnam and break up the CIA. As the late Bill Hicks put it, it was the “taking over of democracy by a totalitarian government.” Or as one prominent assassination obsessive said on the eve of the latest document release, they would help explain why Kennedy “would have been viewed as an adversary to powerful elements within the national security establishment.”
To be blunt, this is hokum. It’s true that Kennedy made a few decisions that angered one faction or another of the national security establishment; almost every president does at some point. But overall, Kennedy was a gift to that establishment, a militaristic, anticommunist hawk dressed up in the soft garments of trite, inspirational liberalism. Kennedy perpetuated the myth of a US-Soviet “missile gap” to win the 1960 election, despite almost certainly being informed it didn’t exist. (To be fair, there was a missile gap — it was just in the United States’ favor). Once in office, he then sharply increased military spending, expanded the US nuclear arsenal, and stationed nuclear-armed missiles around the world.
The Cuban missile crisis could have been avoided had Kennedy put a stop to the CIA’s ultimately disastrous Cuban regime change operation, including multiple assassination attempts against Castro. Sure, he resisted some of the most extreme elements of the national security establishment, but Kennedy was a reliable Cold Warrior. And while there’s evidence he had private doubts about Vietnam, so did almost every policymaker involved in that catastrophe. As it happens, Kennedy initially expanded the US presence there, despite his personal ambivalence.
All of this is to say that Kennedy’s murder, and the cottage industry of conspiracy theories that emerged around it, has helped sanitize his image and distort his actual record. But this has always been part of the function of conspiracy theories.
On the one hand, they’re oddly comforting things, imposing a sinister yet comprehensible order on chaotic, sometimes messy and random, events. They also convince us that the real problems lie somehow outside us, that evil is perpetuated by some shadowy “other.” So, the problem wasn’t the liberal Kennedy’s hawkish policies, themselves the outgrowth of a wider, virulently hawkish and anticommunist culture. It was the fiendish “rogue” CIA.
On the other hand, conspiracy theories serve as a useful distraction, a safety valve where ordinary people’s attention and energy can be directed. Rather than noticing the daily, routine outrages committed by those in power, scarce political engagement can be directed towards outlandish theories with little tangible impact on the world.
There’s no better example of this than the zombie “9/11 inside job” theory: the nonsensical charge that the World Trade Center attacks were orchestrated by the US government in order to invade Afghanistan and Iraq — after which, inexplicably, the Bush administration must have framed its own ally, Saudi Arabia, rather than either of those two countries.
To some extent, this conspiracy theory is a funhouse mirror reflection of the Bush administration’s very real dishonesty and depravity. But it’s also a bizarre distraction from the administration’s very real, behind-the-scenes wrongdoing around September 11 — from the fact that Bush was on vacation all of August while warnings of an attack came in (some of which were simply ignored) to the administration’s very real conspiracy to lie its way into the Iraq War. In fact, to some extent the nuttiness of the inside-job theories helped delegitimize such critiques.
And while some kept obsessing over the “inside job” theory, devoting untold amounts of time and energy to “exposing the truth” as the Bush years went on, they ignored countless real outrages committed by the administration on a rolling basis, from its destruction of the environment, to its corruption and corporate capture, its further attacks on the welfare system, and rampant lawlessness on the national-security front.
The military industrial complex — indeed, any powerful lobby — needn’t go to the trouble of murdering a president in order to bend him to their worldview, as we saw most recently with Obama. Nor does an administration have to orchestrate a nonsensical attack on the US homeland (though, clearly, the CIA hasn’t always been above considering it) if it wants to mislead the public and drag it — along with the often war-hungry punditocracy — into war. Just look at the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the made-up episode that took the United States officially into Vietnam.
From elite attempts to manipulate the world’s political systems, to the very real and horrifying injustices secretly imposed on the less powerful, the world is full of enough actual conspiracies. Let’s focus on ending those before we turn our sights to the made-up ones.