By Max Holland
David Kaiser’s The Road to Dallas, as John McAdams’s March review makes abundantly clear, is scarcely different from dozens of conspiracy-mongering books on the Kennedy assassination that have been published in the last 44 years.
The over-ingenious fantasy Kaiser conjures up—that the mob, anti-Castro Cubans, and right-wingers conspired to kill Kennedy—is better written than some of the buff literature, viz., A Farewell to Justice, Joan Mellen’s hagiography of Jim Garrison. Yet ultimately, The Road to Dallas exhibits all the familiar defects of the conspiratorial mindset. Kaiser is credulous about the dubious, and skeptical about the obvious.
Still, Kaiser’s book arguably deserves to be in the public marketplace of ideas, despite the small amount of genuinely new material in it. Given the conceptual quality of the book, however, one would think a second-tier publisher was responsible for foisting it onto the public. Instead, the name on the spine is Belknap Press, the prestigious imprint of Harvard University Press (HUP), one of the most venerable academic publishers in the nation—and this is what sets Kaiser’s book jarringly apart.
The publishing of the book is much more interesting than the book itself, as critic Scott McLemee was the first to point out, akin to a “mutation in the cultural genome.” As McLemee asked in his March 19 Inside Higher Ed column, “Why did one of the country’s most distinguished scholarly publishers decide to contribute to a genre that has flourished mainly on the cultural margins for almost five decades?”
The scholarly sheen given The Road to Dallas is not wholly unprecedented, to be sure. A few other fallacious books about the assassination have received the academic stamp of approval. Still, that begs the question: How did The Road to Dallas ever survive the gauntlet of peer-review at the august Harvard University Press, which is part of an industry that likes to think of itself as “a bulwark against the confusions of error and unsupported opinion, of ideology masquerading as fact, magic as science, and prejudice as theory.”
Neither Kaiser nor HUP was willing to answer questions about the editorial vetting The Road to Dallas underwent. “Any such questions would have to be addressed to the Press,” Kaiser responded when asked, and HUP refused to disclose information about its editorial process in general, or as it pertained to Kaiser’s book specifically. Indeed, insofar as HUP is concerned, the rotating membership on its Board of Syndics—or what other university presses call their editorial or publications committee, and readily make public—is top secret.
Some reticence and confidentiality about the editorial process, of course, is understandable and normal. Peer-review can be highly politicized, and no author would relish having the process laid bare for everyone to ponder. The published book, after all, is what finally matters, not the sometimes twisted and torturous path to publication. Still, when a press as distinguished as HUP publishes a book that makes a bald claim about a controversial matter—“the assassination . . . was an appalling and grisly conspiracy”—some transparency would seem advisable.
Put another way, if HUP were to put its reputation on the line by publishing a book that “proved” 9/11 was an inside job, wouldn’t some kind of explanation be in order?
An Objective Historian
Before HUP’s editorial process is explored, one of the fictions at the heart of Kaiser’s book merits exposure.
The book is advertised as the first to be written by a credentialed historian who has researched newly-available archives; in addition, the book features a back-jacket blurb, written by G. Robert Blakey, which asserts that Kaiser came to the task without prejudice or an ax to grind:
Finally, a historian, without preconceptions, has looked at the voluminous, once secret documents produced by the CIA, the FBI, and other government agencies in response to the JFK Assassination Records Act of 1992. Kaiser’s nuanced conclusions on Oswald’s guilt and the ominous issue of conspiracy will command respect from even those who disagree with them.
Yet, far from being someone who began the project without a predisposition, Kaiser has demonstrated a bias toward a conspiratorial explanation for at least 25 years, and HUP surely knew about his predilection when it undertook the project in 2004.