Film and Media

Oliver Stone's JFK in Historical Perspective

James N. Giglio, April 1992

On September 24, 1964, the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy presented its report to President Johnson. The blue ribbon panel, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, concluded that twenty-four-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald, an alleged misfit and Communist sympathizer, had alone killed the president, nightclub-owner Jack Ruby had alone murdered Oswald, and no one else had been involved. It accepted Ruby's explanation that he had wished to spare Jacqueline Kennedy and her family the grief of an assassination trial. The Warren Commission's 900-page report and its 20,000 pages of published material served to substantiate the assertion that the commission had thoroughly explored all facets of the assassination.

Beginning in 1965, however, various critics—most of them lawyers and free-lance writers—had found inconsistencies and implausibilities in the Warren Report; a spate of books soon followed, including Harold Weisberg's Whitewash (1965), Mark Lane's Rush to Judgment (1966), Edward J. Epstein's Inquest (1966), and Sylvia Meagher's Accessories After the Fact (1967). These works questioned the commission's findings relating to Oswald as the lone assassin, particularly his ability to fire three shots in five to seven seconds from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository. They also doubted the plausibility of a single bullet striking Kennedy and Governor Connally from behind with such devastation, the proposed location and angle of the fatal wounds to the president, and the stated motivations of Oswald and Ruby. They alluded to the more than fifty witnesses, most of them ignored by the Warren Commission, who claimed that they had heard shots coming from the grassy knoll area ahead of the presidential motorcade, saw smoke rising from above a stockade fence in that vicinity, or smelled gunpowder in the same general area. They also criticized the Warren Commission's desire to quench rumors and allay suspicions, thereby closing many doors. The early assassination scholars concluded that some sort of conspiracy had caused Kennedy's death. At this point, even though rejecting the single gunman theory, most Americans gave little attention to these studies.

By the mid-1970s the Watergate hearings had not only exposed the vast abuse of governmental power during the Nixon presidency, they also had contributed to other investigations that uncovered earlier indiscretions of the CIA and the FBI. As a result, the Warren Commission lost more credibility. It became clearer that it had relied for its investigation on agencies that had little interest in uncovering truth. Hoover's FBI had held back information in pushing for a speedy acceptance of the lone-gunman theory. Having failed to place Oswald on the Security Index, Hoover had feared that a comprehensive examination might reveal the bureau's investigatory shortcomings. The CIA meanwhile had had its own reasons for engaging in a conspiracy of silence. During the early 1960s, it had employed Mafia elements in an attempt to assassinate Castro. It had to be concerned about embarrassing disclosures relating to a Cuban conspiracy to kill Kennedy.

Not surprisingly, in 1978, the House Select Committee on Assassinations reopened the investigation of Kennedy's assassination. After uncovering new material, committee investigators found themselves hindered by time, financial, and other constraints. Consequently, the committee neglected to explore promising leads in concluding that although it was in fundamental agreement with most of the Warren report's assessments, acoustical evidence indicated the involvement of another gunman. The committee surmised that the most likely conspiracy involved Cubans associated with anti-Castro organizations in the United States. Building partly on Jack Ruby's close ties with organized crime and on FBI electronic surveillance and informant reports, it deduced that a criminal element might also have been connected with the assassination.

Meanwhile, a flood of publications has appeared on the Kennedy assassination since the 1970s, the vast majority of them focusing on various conspiracies involving organized crime, the Castro government, and anti-Castro Cubans. Even the CIA became a conspirator in some studies. Researchers uncovered much more material and created their own archives in writing thoughtful and plausible studies. Included among the best are Henry Hurt, Reasonable Doubt (1985); Michael L. Kurtz, Crime of the Century (1988); David E. Scheim, Contract on America (1988); and Anthony Summers, Conspiracy (1989 revised edition). (Kurtz's study remains the only one written by an academic historian.) But alas, the more one seems to know about the Kennedy assassination, the less certain one is about what happened. Oswald especially remains a puzzle; one scholar compared him to a Rubik's Cube. While most works concede the existence of a conspiracy—a conclusion the general public even more readily accepts—the best studies nevertheless hesitate to define its specific nature, for the necessary facts are missing to substantiate any particular scenario.

Enter Oliver Stone, the swashbuckling cinematographer par excellence, with the production of JFK, a film costing $40 million and accompanied by enormous publicity. A child of the 1960s and a victim of his parents' betrayal of each other, Stone survived the crucible of Vietnam service and drugs to emerge as a strong anti-Establishment figure. Given the governmental abuse during the 1970s and the revelations of Iran-Contra of the Reagan era, Stone easily embraced the conspiracy literature of the Kennedy assassination.

No work influenced him more than On the Trail of Assassins (1988), a self-serving study by Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney who questioned the Warren Commission's findings in 1967 and filed charges two years later against Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessman, for conspiracy to murder Kennedy. Because of the paucity of credible evidence, it took the jury only one hour to acquit Shaw. Yet despite Garrison's subsequent and unsubstantiated charges against the government and all of his talk about assassins firing from manholes, Stone transforms him into a hero, choosing Dances with Wolves star Kevin Costner to portray the anti-Establishment Garrison. The metamorphosis produces a skilled investigator who spins an immense web of conspiracy that he labels a coup d'etat, involving the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, and Vice President Johnson. To the uninitiated, it seems convincing because of the passion, knowledge, and eloquence of Stone's Garrison. Witnesses and scenes are manufactured in ways that assassination scholars cannot do—including the fabricated images of Kennedy's assassination and autopsy that are intermingled with actual footage and photographs. Even a "deep throat" prototype appears to edify Garrison on the intricacies of the coup. Garrison's role is embellished out of design, for he serves as a "metaphoric protagonist" who "stands in for a dozen researchers," Stone contends.

Stone's crucial question remains: Why was Kennedy assassinated? He privately acknowledges not knowing, but he presents a strong feeling in JFK that can easily be accepted as fact. The implication is that Kennedy's death came as a result of a supposed 1963 decision to end the war in Vietnam by first withdrawing 1,000 troops. This might be coupled with Kennedy's conciliatory American University speech and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, both in 1963. Hence, Kennedy's cold war "betrayal" became the supposed motive of the Establishment.

Yet the record is much less clear than presented in JFK. The 1,000-force cutback slated for the end of 1963 mostly involved a construction battalion that had completed its work; it was understood that it would be replaced by other troops. Moreover, the testimony of several contemporaries and Kennedy's own statements suggest that he intended no pullout after the 1964 election. In a 1964 oral history interview, Robert Kennedy, who knew his brother best, confirmed that the administration had not considered a withdrawal. When asked what the president would have done if the South Vietnamese appeared doomed, Robert answered in a way that truthfully expressed the ad hoc nature of the Kennedy presidency: "We'd face that when we came to it." The recently published Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume 4, Vietnam, August-December 1963, further affirms the no-pullout conclusion.

Regardless of his admiration for Kennedy, Stone's primary purpose is not to elevate JFK's reputation. Exposing the Establishment for betraying the people's trust most drives Stone. His targets are the Warren Commission, the intelligence agencies, the military, the media, and the other hypocritical myth perpetrators of the cold war era. He responds with a countermyth so colossal and compelling that it commands our attention. But only the knowledgeable viewer can discern Stone's qualifiers and subtleties. In the film's final message, Stone leaves the resolution of the assassination to the "young, in whose spirit the search for truth marches on."

Of course, JFK distorts history; of course, it is potentially dangerous to an alienated and uneducated public; and, of course, Stone and Warner Brothers stand to make millions from it. This aside, Stone's riveting drama has contributed to an unprecedented interest in the Kennedy assassination. Teachers can use the film as a teaching tool in conjunction with the innumerable scholarly works on the assassination—many of them recently heading the best-seller lists. Moreover, this frenzied publicity may also cause the government to open all of the restricted material on the assassination—the files of the CIA and the FBI, the House investigation, the Church Committee investigation on intelligence in 1975, and the Warren Commission. Senator Edward Kennedy has indicated that the Kennedy family has no objections to such a release. On ABC's Nightline, in January, Congressman Louis Stokes, chair of the 1978 House Committee investigation, and David Belin, Warren Commission counsel, both indicated that they favored opening all of the material. Perhaps as a result of such a full disclosure, we might know much more about Kennedy's assassination and the investigations themselves despite the deaths of witnesses and the destruction of evidence. Only then might this matter be put to rest.

James N. Giglio is a professor of history at Southwest Missouri State University and author of The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991).

Editor's Note: For more information on the literature of the assassination, Professor Richard A. Brody, Stanford University, recommends the following two articles: "Our Continuing Obsession with Assassination: From Lincoln to JFK, the Search for Conspiracies," by Michael R. Bechloss, Washington Post National Weekly Edition (January 13–19, 1992), pp. 23–24; and "Writers on the Grassy Knoll: A Reader's Guide," by Stephen E. Ambrose, New York Times Book Review (February 2, 1992), pp. 1, 23–25.