JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think About Claims of Conspiracy
By John McAdams
Potomac Books. 308 pp. $27.50
By Kenneth Scearce
For nearly half a century, JFK conspiracy theorists and their lone-gunman adversaries have thrust and parried in an unending duel of words, piling up a Mt. Everest of analysis alternating with invective. Dozens of television programs, thousands of articles, pamphlets, and books, and (more recently) terabytes of online debates have painstakingly reconstructed, and just as quickly deconstructed, all imaginable aspects, from the tiniest details up to unified field theories that attempt to explain everything about the assassination.
As a result, each successive opus, essay, rant—indeed, each additional word on this subject— confronts an increasingly heavy burden of justifying its utility (or ought to). Marquette University professor John McAdams’s book, JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think About Claims of Conspiracy proposes that a larger meaning can yet be derived from study of the assassination; that is, it can serve as a template for exposing the illogic, self-delusion, and charlatanry of Truthers, Birthers, or whatever the conspiracy theory de jour is.
McAdams begins by rounding up the usual suspects behind JFK conspiracy theory-thinking: beguilement with eyewitnesses who seemingly contradict the forensic and photographic evidence; selective and misleading quotations; narrow-mindedness and ineptitude in attempting to interpret evidence; abandonment of common sense for grandiosity; reflexive prejudice against “hard” evidence that points to a non-conspiratorial explanation; kitchen sink “theories of everything” that require a conspiratorial cast of thousands; mistaking bureaucratic clueless-ness for unwitting revelation of the “secret” truth. With careful reasoning and more than a dose of sass, McAdams picks apart the leading conspiracy explanations, generalizing to show common threads of illogic and mendacity. To rescue oneself from the conspiracy theorists’ thicket of misinterpretation and paranoia, suggests McAdams, one need merely think through the implications of conspiratorial “factoids” with cool-headed reason. Time and again the implausibility of the theory at issue becomes apparent.
It is not unhelpful to have a Cliff’s Notes-style synopsis of the main currents of conspiratorial thought. And McAdams’ engaging and sometimes mocking style breathes a measure of life into an otherwise worn subject. We certainly come to understand why this topic fascinates McAdams as a kind of Rosetta stone for historical-political analysis and criticism.
At the same time though, this territory is also well-trod, most effectively (if a bit tediously) by Vincent Bugliosi in his 2007 tome Reclaiming History. If the test of utility posited earlier is valid, is it met by extrapolating from JFK conspiracy illogic to conspiracy illogic in general? Bugliosi touched on the Truthers, too, though not with McAdams’s focus. But lumping JFK conspiracy theorists in the same camp with Moon-Landing Hoaxers and Birthers conflates camps that arise from distinct American traditions. Hoaxers and Birthers represent a paranoid fringe that harkens back to Know-Nothingism. JFK conspiracy theorizing is a “big tent” to be sure, but its genesis was from the Left. Moreover, several of its leading proponents—such as Edward J. Epstein, Paul Hoch, and Josiah “Tink” Thompson—are presentable thinkers who raised legitimate questions early on about the Kennedy assassination. McAdams’s riposte, presumably, would be that regardless of whether it emanates from the political left or right, conspiracy thinking invariably exhibits the same defects of illogic.
McAdams closes his book with the complaint that JFK assassination conspiracy theorists get to enjoy the frisson their illogical theories conjure while lone-gunman advocates must soberly accept the joyless fate that befalls those who hold “sensible” ideas. In other words, McAdams scornfully implies, how to think about claims of conspiracy boils down to the choice whether to be frivolous or serious. Or—as McAdams appears also to hint—whether to be psychologically grounded, or grandiosely bi-polar.
Many JFK conspiracy theories are silly. But some aspects of the Oswald-alone theory are dubious, too, upon reflection. The idea that the first shot was significantly deflected by an insignificant tree branch is incredible, as is the notion that such a branch—no more than a twig, really—was capable of stripping off the bullet’s copper jacketing. The insistence of most lone-gunman theorists that all of Oswald’s three shots occurred within the confines of the Zapruder film ignores powerful countervailing evidence, namely, that the first shot happened before Zapruder re-started his camera. Indeed, the stubborn reliance of lone-gunman adherents on Connally’s testimony for the timing of the first shot, to the exclusion of almost everything else, commits the same conspiracist error that McAdams so loudly protests: grounding a forensic theory on notoriously unreliable eyewitness perceptions. (McAdams’s first chapter is titled, “The Frailty of Witness Testimony”). Both sides of the debate have reasoned illogically, weakly, and ineptly, although conspiracy theorists can claim the lion’s share by far.
McAdams’s overly broad brush defames earnest and thoughtful Warren Commission critics without applying similar skepticism to Warren Commission supporters. Several original conspiracy theorists in the ’60s were serious about questioning the government’s three-shots-within-six-seconds scenario because it rightly struck most people as too rapid to be plausible, even if it wasn’t impossible. And it was not insensible for Warren critics to wonder whether it was just a little improbable for the crime to be committed by a Marxist living in, of all places, Dallas. And it was reasonable to wonder how the assassin of the assassin, Jack Ruby, could waltz unchallenged into a heavily-guarded police garage. So much of the government’s explanation seemed to defy common sense or conventional wisdom.
Perhaps most importantly, frivolous conspiracy theorists were not the only ones to voice grave doubts about the Warren Commission’s single bullet theory. No less grave an eminence than Texas Governor John Connally insisted that he and Kennedy were not hit with the same bullet. “It’s a certainty . . . I’ll never change my mind,” asserted Connally in a startling November 1966 Life magazine story read intently by millions. That the only other actual victim of the crime rejected the Warren Commission’s central hypothesis was a deep wound to the credibility of the official explanation, and a constant source of confusion.
New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s late ’60s attempt to prove a JFK conspiracy ironically gave officialdom a new birth of legitimacy, if only because the conspiracy alternative became indistinguishable from Garrison’s buffoonery. In fact, the most serious and enduring split within the conspiracy camp remains the one between those who correctly fingered Garrison as a demagogue and charlatan (Sylvia Meagher being the first, to her ever-lasting credit) and those who are still in his thrall (Oliver Stone most prominently, to his ever-lasting discredit). Afterwards, most thoughtful people, while not embracing a conspiracy explanation, felt a distinct sense of unease about the subject, if not dread. The controversy faded slowly away for all but the most truculent . . . or so it seemed.
Then came the Watergate break-in, followed by the promise of Richard Nixon’s attorney general that the Justice Department would conduct “the most extensive, thorough and comprehensive investigation since the assassination of President Kennedy.” Nixon’s prolonged effort to obstruct justice suggested that an august body like the Warren Commission might have been denied the truth, too. The 1975 revelation that the CIA’s anti-Castro assassination plots had been withheld from the Commission seemed to prove that point, as did the news that unbeknownst to the Warren Commission, Oswald left a note for Special Agent James Hosty at the FBI’s Dallas Field Office 10 days before the assassination. And when the Zapruder film was at last shown in public, and seemed to show Kennedy’s head jerking backwards, unmistakably, from the third and final shot—well, after that it was the conspiracy theorists who looked serious and the lone-gunman adherents frivolous.
Where have we come since then? Because of skeptics' and conspiracy theorists’ relentless and sometimes effective challenges, supporters of the Oswald-alone explanation were forced to look more closely at the evidence to support their theories. More insightful examinations of the Zapruder film led to a much more precise realization of when the second shot was fired, decisively refuting Connally’s testimony and confirming the single-bullet theory as fact. In a sense, interested parties have engaged in a nearly 50-year-long Socratic dialog about the film, which has only gradually, almost grudgingly, yielded the truth about how the assassination precisely happened—culminating in the belated realization that the Zapruder did not capture the assassination in full, but one already in progress.
These post-Warren Commission forensic discoveries have confirmed Oswald’s guilt with a clarity that eluded the Warren Commission, notwithstanding its eminence, intellectual firepower, and resources. This deeper, more scientifically-grounded examination of the evidence would not have occurred but for questions and challenges from conspiracy theorists, aka the “research community.” The decades-long battle of ideas about the JFK assassination thus improved forensic science while heralding the American public’s unwillingness to accept its government’s claims at face value. For this, we owe a debt of gratitude to at least some Warren Commission critics, however thick-headed and intellectually dishonest many of their colleagues are. Ultimately, McAdams unfairly slights the contributions of these skeptics, and his work would have been stronger had he saved some criticism for his own camp.
As a succinct primer on higher-level thinking about the JFK assassination and conspiratorial thinking in general, however, McAdams’s book manages to justify its existence. After all, the scale is still heavily tilted toward conspiracy-oriented works.
©2012 by Kenneth Scearce