The Men Who Killed Kennedy: The Guilty Men
Directed and Written by Nigel Turner
Produced by Nigel Turner/History Channel
Documentary. 50 Minutes. 2003
By Max Holland
The first allegation in print that Lyndon Johnson was not merely a bystander or witness in Dealey Plaza, but a perpetrator and the chief beneficiary of President Kennedy’s assassination, dates back to 1966. On January 31st of that year, a well-known New York dealer in autographs named Charles Hamilton put on sale a letter allegedly written by Jack Ruby. The sales catalog described the letter this way:
Astounding confession of international importance pinpointing LYNDON B. JOHNSON as the real murderer of JOHN F. KENNEDY and the tool of a Fascist conspiracy to liquidate the Jews! Neatly written by Ruby to a fellow prisoner on slips torn from a memo pad, this  letter was smuggled out of the Dallas Jail and is unpublished in any form.
Despite questions about its provenance—and if not of uncertain provenance, then clearly evidence of Jack Ruby’s unsound mind—the letter sold for $950 to Penn Jones, the long-time editor of the Midlothian Mirror, a small newspaper in East Texas. Jones promptly published excerpts from the letter in his self-published May 1966 work Forgive My Grief, a compilation of his editorials on the assassination.
Subsequently, the insinuation that Lyndon Johnson played a role in the assassination gained many adherents in the fall of 1966 because of two factors: the increasing unpopularity of the war in Vietnam, and new questions about the probity and integrity of the Warren Report. There was a rising perception among some elements in the country that “the whole direction of American [foreign] policy” had changed since November 1963, as evinced by Vietnam, and that President Johnson had ostensibly embraced “the road of war, terror, dictatorship and profiteering.”
The coincidental but simultaneous erosion of public confidence in the Warren Report initially fed this first phenomena, and the two quickly became mutually reinforcing. If the Warren Commission’s findings were untrustworthy, then what was one supposed to make of the ostensibly drastic changes in U.S. policy?
Initially, barbed references to Johnson’s role occurred in the cultural sphere; it was too unspeakable an insinuation to make elsewhere. In 1966, Barbara Garson, a veteran of the 1964 Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, fashioned MacBird!, a play loosely based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which pointed to Johnson as being responsible for the assassination. Originally conceived as an “entertainment” for a protest rally, the play became an underground best-seller and was eventually produced as an off-Broadway play, despite criticisms that it was vulgar, cruel, and tasteless.
In fairly short order books and articles presuming to be non-fiction started leveling the same claim. One of the first was by a German-American journalist named Joachim Joesten, who was also the first author to write a book about the assassination published in the United States. That 1964 volume, Oswald: Assassin or Fall Guy, was printed by the publishing house of Marzani & Munsell, and claimed that Lee Harvey Oswald was in the employ of the CIA when he killed President Kennedy. In a similar vein, Joesten asserted in Johnson the Assassin that LBJ “usurped presidential power in November 1963 by backing the conspiracy to assassinate his predecessor.”
By the end of 1966, innuendo regarding Johnson had become so commonplace that it was acceptable for a respected, if left-wing, magazine to claim in all seriousness that “if the evidence against Johnson is too weak to stand on its own feet, it is still stronger than the framed case against Lee Oswald.” Indeed, inside the Johnson White House in late 1966, one of the many concerns regarding William Manchester’s forthcoming book was that Manchester’s pejorative depiction of Johnson would inadvertently feed the burgeoning belief that the president had some role in the assassination of his predecessor.
The high point of the allegation about Johnson’s involvement, in retrospect, occurred in November 1967, when New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison was the featured guest speaker at a Los Angeles convention of radio and television newsmen. Garrison famously asked the “Qui bono?” (Who benefits?) question, and then answered it: “The one man who has profited most from the assassination—your friendly president, Lyndon Johnson!”
It should always be kept in mind that Garrison represented a watershed in conspiracy thinking. Prior to his arrival on the scene in February 1967, not even the Warren Commission’s worst critics dared allege that the federal government itself was complicit in the assassination. The most serious charge had been that Washington was either incompetent, and/or too worried about where the trail of an alleged conspiracy might lead, to uncover the “real” killers.
As long as Garrison made headlines, Johnson was an integral (albeit subordinate) element in the DA’s grand theory of the assassination, which eventually took the form of a military-industrial/CIA plot against President Kennedy because he refused to fight a ground war in Southeast Asia and, in general, end the cold war. In this scheme, Johnson usually played the role of an accessory after the fact.
When Garrison’s case against Clay Shaw collapsed in 1969, the DA’s grand conspiracy theory fell into disrepute too and allegations involving Johnson subsided. Thereafter (and until very recently) President Johnson’s involvement would only be alleged sporadically and he would seldom be labeled a primary instigator. His alleged complicity pales, for example, in comparison to the oft-heard allegations regarding CIA involvement.
The point of this historiography is to show that the allegation of Johnson’s complicity is an old one, almost dating back to the assassination itself from the perspective of 2004. Therefore, one might plausibly argue that a balanced documentary treatment of this “theory” is justified.
The Men Who Killed Kennedy
Nigel Turner’s The Men Who Killed Kennedy (TMWKK) premiered on England’s Central Television network as a two-part documentary in November 1988 to mark the 25th anniversary of the assassination. Three additional episodes were filmed two years later and a sixth episode was added in 1995. For 2003, the 40th anniversary, three new installments (“The Love Affair,” “The Smoking Guns,” and “The Guilty Men”) were added, bringing the total to nine.
Initially, the series was broadcast in the United States on the Arts & Entertainment (A&E) cable channel beginning in September 1991. The venue on A&E was a self-described “news-driven documentary” program called Investigative Reports, and for an American audience the British narrator was replaced by the authoritative-sounding, veteran U.S. newsman Bill Curtis, executive producer and host of Investigative Reports. The maiden A&E broadcast occurred three months before Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” premiered and became a box-office blockbuster. “We see ourselves as the . . . responsible solution to the dialogue,” Curtis said at the time.
TMWKK appeared on A&E until 1993, the 30th anniversary of the assassination. After 1993 there seems to have been a lull of two years, after which TMWKK resurfaced beginning in 1996 on the History Channel. Insofar as I am aware, TMWKK is one of the most frequently-televised and highest-rated franchises on the History Channel. Presumably it is one of the most lucrative.
Interestingly, the History Channel has also underwritten at least one important documentary, False Witness, that is anti-conspiratorial in nature. It exposes Jim Garrison’s 1967-1969 persecution of Clay Shaw as a terrible miscarriage of justice and attacks the heroic, “white-hat” depiction of Garrison in Oliver Stone’s film JFK. To my knowledge, False Witness, a 90-minute documentary, has not been rebroadcast more than once since its 2000 debut on the History Channel even though it addresses directly many of the same allegations raised in Nigel Turner’s TMWKK series.
In and of itself, this gross imbalance in the amount of airtime devoted to contradictory documentaries is a telling indicator of the History Channel’s bias and priorities, and its near-total lack of regard for balance, objectivity, and accuracy in programs purporting to be documentaries.