Editor’s Note: For Oliver Stone’s critique of this story, click here.
By Max Holland
On March 1, 1967, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison arrested a prominent local businessman named Clay Shaw and charged him with master-minding the crime of the century: the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was a bizarre and groundless accusation by a supremely ambitious prosecutor, but Shaw was not its only victim. This terrible miscarriage of justice was to have immense, if largely unappreciated, consequences for the political culture of the United States.
Of all the legacies of the 1960s, none has been more unambiguously negative than the American public’s corrosive cynicism toward the federal government. Although that attitude is commonly traced to the disillusioning experiences of Vietnam and Watergate, its genesis lies in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination. Well before anti-war protests were common, lingering dissatisfaction with the official verdict that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone broadened into a widespread conviction that the federal government was incompetent or suppressing the truth or, in the worst case, covering up its own complicity in the assassination. Today, national polls consistently show that a vast majority of Americans (upward of 75 percent) do not accept that Oswald alone killed President Kennedy. Many also believe that a co-conspirator lurked in Washington, with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) always the prime suspect.
No individual was more responsible for fomenting these beliefs than Shaw’s nemesis, Jim Garrison. There were other critics of the Warren Commission’s official report on the assassination, but none had the authority of a duly- elected law enforcement official; none could match the flamboyant Garrison’s skill in casting himself as the archetypal lone hero battling for the truth; and none was more adept at manipulating the Zeitgeist of the 1960s. His audacity and lack of scruple were breathtaking, though camouflaged by lean good looks that made Garrison appear like a prosecutor ordered up by central casting. Not since Senator Joseph McCarthy had America seen such a cunning demagogue.
Initially, Garrison explained that, in indicting Shaw, he was only assuming an unsought, even unwanted, burden. The federal government’s bungling of the case left an honest prosecutor no other choice, he asserted. Soon that rationale was replaced by a far darker fable. Within two months of Shaw’s arrest, Garrison began articulating a truly radical critique that challenged not only the veracity of the Warren Report but the federal government’s very legitimacy. Ultimately, he would claim that the people’s elected leader had been removed in a CIA-led mutiny, and that the plotters had been allowed to walk away unscathed. As he wrote in his 1988 memoir, On the Trail of the Assassins, “What happened at Dealey Plaza in Dallas on November 22, 1963, was a coup d’état. I believe that it was instigated and planned long in advance by fanatical anticommunists in the United States intelligence community.”
The fact that a New Orleans jury delivered a resounding verdict of “not guilty” after Shaw’s 1969 trial barely hindered Garrison’s ability to market this myth of CIA complicity. He would argue that the “validity” of his investigation ought not to be judged on its technical, legal results. And one has to admit that, in the court of public opinion at least, Garrison (who died in 1992) by and large succeeded, albeit with Hollywood’s help.
Until recently, it was impossible to revisit this episode as a historian would, by examining primary documents. Garrison’s records were in the possession of his descendants and his successors in office; Shaw’s papers were in the hands of his attorneys and friends; the CIA’s records were secured in agency vaults. But all that began to change after Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, JFK, which breathed new life into Garrison’s decades-old charges. As the end of the Cold War eased concerns about secrecy, Congress in 1992 passed the far-reaching JFK Assassination Records Collection Act. It not only freed highly classified documents from government bureaucracies but authorized the gathering of primary materials from nongovernmental sources.
What emerges from these papers, and from other, unexpected quarters, is an altogether new view of the Garrison story. The district attorney who legitimated the notion of CIA complicity emerges as an all-too-willing accomplice to a falsehood. Garrison allowed himself to be taken in by a lie, a lie that may well have been part and parcel of the Soviet KGB’s relentless propagation of disinformation during the Cold War.