U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The JFK Assassination and American Conspiracy Culture (Guest Post by Jonathan Earle)

(Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Jonathan Earle, Associate Professor of History at the University of Kansas. Although a specialist in antebellum U.S. Politics, he teaches a popular undergraduate class on the History of Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in U.S. History.  His next book, on the election of 1860 (itself loaded with conspiracy) will appear in Oxford University Press’ Pivotal Moments in U.S. History series.)

Teaching a course on conspiracy theories is always interesting in the Age of Obama, but this fall has been an especially propitious time to guide an intellectual tour through American political paranoia.  One of the hallmarks of the class is demonstrating how conspiracy thinking was “baked right into the cake” that is our republic, from colonial witch-hunters to patriot paranoids, money cranks, crusaders against the Slave Power, UFOlogists and, of course, presidential assassins.  My course is not meant to glorify this type of thinking, but to teach students to recognize it, how it changed over time, and (here’s the secret ingredient, to continue with my baking metaphor) to interrogate conspiracy theories with a special vigor and skepticism.

Even the most distracted of my students has noticed the conspiracy-relishing coverage of the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination on nearly every station on the cable dial.  Coincidentally, this fall marked the 75th anniversary of the Mercury Theater of the Air’s broadcast of “War of The Worlds,” when Orson Welles and his talented players used the conventions of the new-ish medium of radio to fool at least some unsuspecting Americans into believing their Halloween broadcast was actually a Martian invasion.[1]

A quarter of a century after extraterrestrials landed in of Grover’s Mill, NJ consumers of another developing medium – television – had their regular Friday programming interrupted by grave news from Dallas that provided a shocking real world version of Welles’ Halloween prank.[2]  Just 58 minutes after breaking into the fictional drama of As the World Turns, CBS’ Walter Cronkite confirmed a horrendous truth: President Kennedy was dead.  For an idea of just how much of a TV Nation the United States was half a century ago, ponder these numbers: between November 22-25, 1963, 96% of the households with television sets tuned in for an average of more than 31 hours apiece.  A record-setting 41.5 million sets were tuned to Kennedy’s funeral that Monday afternoon.  All this just two months after CBS became the first network to double its nightly coverage to a 30-minute broadcast.[3]

What are we to make of this event – rightly or wrongly, the most intensely-studied event in U.S. history – fifty years after the fact?  On first glance, the assassination and its aftermath are a historian’s dream: millions of pages of testimony, thousands of eyewitnesses, multiple autopsies and ballistics reports; there’s even a Kodachrome film that frames the event down to the fraction of a second.  Yet I can think of very few details from that day, even small ones, that remain completely uncontested by either buffs or scholars.  I’m not sure this can be said about any historical event, even 9/11. Within three years of the assassination, 200 books had appeared; the bibliography is now well over 3,000 even without counting films, documentaries, blogs and newsletters.  Finally, a very strong majority of these sources are saturated with conspiracy thinking.  American citizens still mutiny against the official account that pointed to Lee Oswald (as he was known then) as a “lone gunman.”  And to my eyes, a vast percentage of those focus on a single type of conspiracy, from both right and left: that a coup d’état robbed our nation of more peaceful and prosperous future.

It didn’t take long for conspiracy ideas to manifest, because they came organically out of the chaos of Dallas.  This was, in a disturbing nod to our own time, a town and a state that was deeply hostile to the President and his party.  Adlai Stevenson had been physically roughed up in Dallas earlier that year, and he was just Kennedy’s ambassador to the U.N.![4]  But you’ve likely heard the other instances of chaotic weirdness from that day: the telephone service breakdown in Washington in the 30 minutes after the shots rang out; the overt paranoia of both the new President and his FBI director; the limo being wiped clean; and, the pièce de résistance, Oswald’s own murder on live television.  In what now seems a quaint and doomed effort to quell this type of thinking, President Johnson appointed a commission headed by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to investigate the assassination and provide needed closure for the nation.

Yet as any conspiracy theorist will tell you, the “fix was in” even before the Warren Commission set to work.  A look at Life magazine throughout the year following the assassination (a logical place to start, since Life quickly secured the rights to Abraham Zapruder’s film) seems almost desperate to stop “the nagging rumors” in their tracks.  And when the Warren Report was released on September 24, 1964 – amazingly close to the Presidential election – the Commission’s report piled it on.  And on.  With 26 volumes of hearing transcripts, almost 7,000 footnotes, and a summary pushing 1,000 pages, the Warren Report laid out in short, decisive sentences exactly why the “master narrative” was the only one that mattered.  On October 2, Commission member (and western Michigan congressman Gerald Ford) laid it all out for the American public: there was, he said, “no credible evidence” of a conspiracy.  A wave of mainstream media praise lifted up the report, with the New York Times publishing the entire summary report in a special 48-page pullout.

But as we’ve found out since, there was an awful lot of information that was privileged, classified, and off-limits to even the commission’s members. (Philip Shenon’s just-published A Cruel and Shocking Act, my pick for best JFK book this year, points out how much withholding and disinformation the CIA and FBI were up to that year).  And as one of my better students: in all those pages, with all those witnesses, the Commission’s report never bothered to answer the most basic question facing most Americans: why did Oswald do it?

As we all know, the critics of 1964 became a burgeoning community, ripping the Commission Report’s logic to shreds.  And they won significant converts: Johnson administration officials like Dick Goodwin, U.S. Senators, authors like Norman Mailer, even stand-up comics (Woody Allen called Oswald lawyer Mark Lane’s early conspiracy book Rush to Judgment “the non-fiction version of the Warren Report.”)

In retrospect, from then it’s been off to the races.

Since I’m pretty sure none of my students read this blog, I will risk giving away some of the answers to the final exam.  The assassination of President Kennedy was a major watershed in American conspiracy thinking – away from the status conscious, angry and white “pseudo-conservatives” who populate Richard Hofstadter’s brilliant articles from the exact time I’m discussing here, and towards a more ideologically diverse group of thinkers.[5]  Conspiracy and political paranoia became much more ecumenical after Dallas, spinning off into a raft of new theories, helped along by the FBI’s misdeeds and the Church Commission’s revelations, that culturally mainstreamed the entire enterprise.  People who used to hand-crank mimeograph machines to print angry diatribes about fluoride in municipal water supplies morphed into big-money book authors, feature film directors and television documentarians.  Just ask Oliver Stone, Jesse Ventura, Bill O’Reilly or members of the Wu Tang Clan who killed JFK, and you’ll see what I mean.

[1] Recent contributions to the history of the War of the Worlds broadcast have suggested that the print media exaggerated the hoax, but the fact remains that millions of Americans who had just lived through blanket radio coverage of the Munich crisis admitted to being frightened and, yes, paranoid in the fall of 1938.

[2] CBS has scrubbed its public-domain footage from November 22, 1963 for rebroadcast starting November 22, 2013 (http://www.cbsnews.com/feature/jfkassassination/), but for another network’s interruption, see this interesting clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KPW_E16fmwc.

[3] 38 years later Americans repeated this behavior to watch the coverage of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01; it remains to be seen what the “internet age’s” first mass viewing event will be, or if it will have conspiratorial ramifications.

[5] See Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt – 1954,” and “Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited – 1965,” in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York: Vintage, 2008); the first essay is available here. (http://studyplace.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/files/courses/reserve/Hofstadter-1996-Paranoid-Style-American-Politics-1-to-40.pdf)

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I love the concept of post-JFK conspiracy ecumenicism. That’s a useful way of thinking about the phenomenon and how various theories relate to one another or become more or less acceptable to believers in other theories. It’s also funny to me that “theory” is the going term–it lends the weight of scientific inquiry to these wild flailings.

    This January, I’ll be part of a panel at the American Historical Association on ‘Contextualizing Conspiracy in Recent American History: When the “Paranoid” Is No Longer in “Style.”’ We hope to have fruitful conversation on this type of thinking.


    • I love the concept of post-JFK conspiracy ecumenicism.

      This January, I’ll be part of a panel at the American Historical Association on ‘Contextualizing Conspiracy in Recent American History: When the “Paranoid” Is No Longer in “Style.”’ We hope to have fruitful conversation on this type of thinking.

      Hilarious. Well done, sir.

      The surveys/polls proving American paranoia often lack imagination, such as the number of Obama voters who also believe that AIDS was created by the CIA.

      How many poll answers are raised middle fingers to obviously agenda-driven pollsters

      Is Barack Obama the anti-Christ?

      Put me down for 5, strongly agree, you bastards. Born in Kenya? Sure, put me down for that one too.

      FYM. ASMBD.

  2. There is no question that left conspiracism went wide after the JFK assassination, but the reaction actually plugged into anti-rightist fears that were already quite prevalent in some quadrants of the culture before 1963, as part of the post-McCarthy backlash against Cold War politics and policies. Consider the fact that “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Seven Days in May” were stories created before the assassination. The ground was pretty well prepared for people to respond to the assassination with fears of a right-wing plot.

  3. ok perhaps oswald shot him from the back, but what about the bullet that entered his throat? His head blew back, and the wound was shot from the front. Two Oswalds?

  4. Great piece, Jonathan. As an adoptive New Orleanian I feel compelled to point out that our own Jim Garrison should have had at least an honorable mention in the JFK conspiracy rogues gallery (and he would also fit well in Jeff Pasley’s anti-rightist paranoia story). On a more serious note, what do you think of the notion that instead of ascending into unprecedented heights of conspiracy-mindedness, the USA has instead regressed to a historical mean (albeit one in which our conspiracy-mindedness is amplified by all the power of the Internet era)? That the period from WWII until November 22, 1963 was really the anomaly, a time in which Americans were atypically ready to accept the accounts of authorities and experts? The Fordist halcyon days before the anti-Fordist backlash of the 60s and 70s? The time of the Cold War Consensus and the Best and the Brightest? At least that’s the way I think it seems to me (I reserve the right to be a little unsure about exactly what I think, since after all I’m an Early Americanist, and claim only the prerogative of pontificating about 20th century America without the responsibilities of expertise). Your thoughts, please (because I take it as given that you are anxiously standing by, with nothing more important to do than respond to Internet commenters). Best, Lo

  5. Another factor could be that the “investigation” ignored far more questions than it answered (which you briefly mention), and a “conspiracy” was consistent with covert American foreign policy under the Dulles bros . . . for starters.

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