I’ve never been as strongly affected by a movie as I was by Oliver Stone’s JFK. Although Stone takes artistic liberties in weaving together the disturbing facts surrounding Kennedy’s assassination and its subsequent investigation, I found his central thesis — that Kennedy’s death was part of a well-orchestrated plot reaching into the highest levels of our government — not only plausible, but compelling.
Some reviewers have billed this a film for “conspiracy buffs.” I am not a conspiracy buff. Yet this film suggests that the military-industrial complex is far more menacing than most of us realize. Everything we feared about our government, but never really wanted to know, is brought out here.
It is fashionable to think that individual leaders do not have much influence over the interests that control our collective fate. But I believe that if Martin Luther King, Jr., had lived, we would not have lost a generation of blacks to drugs. And that if both he and the Kennedy brothers had lived, this would be a very different country today.
The Kennedys, like Gorbachev, were vehicles for a little light, compassion, and humanity to enter the dark world of politics. Like Gorbachev, the Kennedys were part of the establishment, and no doubt had to make a number of compromises to reach positions of power. Yet I think that, like him, they would have started to dismantle the military-industrial complex. Although JFK entered the presidency as a cold warrior, he was moving in a different direction by the end of his life. He said that he would “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” He fired the director of the CIA, Allen Dulles, and the CIA’s number-two man, General Charles Cabell, who was in charge of the air cover in the Bay of Pigs invasion. When Cabell asked for American aircraft carriers to back up the failing invasion, Kennedy refused. For this he earned Cabell’s undying hatred. (Cabell’s brother was mayor of Dallas in November of 1963, and must have been involved in the last-minute decision to change the route of Kennedy’s motorcade, so that it had to slow as it turned to pass the Texas Book Depository.) Kennedy also closed down the CIA-operated Cuban-refugee training camps in the South. He took on the oil and banking interests, as well as organized crime. And he commissioned the first and only major study on converting our military economy into a civilian one. This report has been buried, and no one in Congress or in the high levels of government has called for a conversion of this magnitude since. A recent book by Major John Newman, J.F.K. and Vietnam, concludes that Kennedy intended to withdraw all U.S. personnel from Vietnam once he was reelected in 1964. Even if you don’t agree that the main motive behind his murder was to thwart an early withdrawal from Vietnam, there were plenty of other motives.
JFK relished life. Look into the faces of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush. Can you detect any love of life in these men? Do they represent the forces of life or the forces of death? What does it mean to have leaders who are not lovers of life? What is the effect on a nation when its leaders do not give first priority to human well-being? There is a strong archetypal motif in the JFK assassination that I find haunting: the murder of the son, the idealistic youth, at the hands of the rigid, older males who refuse to relinquish their rule.
The press has revealed many unseemly details about Kennedy’s life. But can you imagine someone who was a lover of life not doing outrageous things, not experimenting, not playing the edge, not pushing against conventional boundaries? Could such a person be elected today? If we had had eight to sixteen years of Kennedy presidencies, I believe today’s generation of political leaders would be different. They would be trying to solve the world’s problems rather than serving the interests of the military-industrial complex. I don’t have any need to idealize JFK or to indulge in Camelot fantasies. I just see him as unabashedly human.
So the bright hopes of the sixties died for me with the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., and I sank into political resignation. I had deeply grieved Jack’s death, but when Bobby was killed, something in me contracted and went numb. With the assassinations and the decline that set in afterward, it seemed that America was collectively not ready to move in a positive, life-affirming direction. I turned inward and started to work on myself because that was something I did have the power to do, that was an arena where I could effect meaningful change. My interest in social change by political means died with RFK and was buried at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. In some sense, America died for me then too.
The Gulf War started to stir me from my political torpor. While we waged wholesale destruction on innocent people, the media responded with a single, unquestioning pledge of allegiance, from CNN to NPR. Fortunately, I had access to the Pacifica radio network and its free-thinking analysts and commentators. They spoke of the hidden economic and political motivations behind our claims to a just and righteous war of liberation.
Why did Ambassador Glaspie practically invite Hussein into Kuwait, with the full knowledge of Baker and Bush? Were we looking for a pretext to whittle Hussein down to size, after having done so much to support him? Why did this happen just when there was momentum to distribute a peace dividend among our citizenry? What about the billions of dollars that the Saudis and Kuwaitis had invested in U.S. Treasury Bonds, propping up our military-created deficit? Why the murder of so many civilians, along with Iraqi soldiers who were either retreating or trying to surrender? Instead of raising and pursuing such questions, the press became the mouthpiece for the military.
This subservience of the press was frightening. It gave me a vivid sense of what it must be like to live in a totalitarian state. The Democrats who had argued against going to war were savaged. Was this a sign of things to come? Having become the world’s top cop, was the U.S. covertly provoking wars to maintain its power and to assure its access to Third World resources, while using the press to whip up support? Was this the form that totalitarianism would take in this country?
The media’s treatment of Stone’s movie reminds me of its coverage of the war. At first, I was open to the possibility that Stone’s view was grossly distorted. Yet none of the critical articles I read swayed me. The greater the media barrage, the more I wondered why journalists were busily trying to discredit the film when they gave so little scrutiny to the Warren Report or the House investigation of the assassination. Tom Wicker of The New York Times accuses Stone of fomenting political cynicism; yet the shoddiness of the Warren Commission’s investigation has certainly contributed much more to that same cynicism. Wicker fails to cite his own interest in the Warren Report: he wrote the introduction to the book edition. Dan Rather, another critic, was working in Dealey Plaza that fateful day interviewing eyewitnesses. Perhaps he didn’t want to admit that he hadn’t done a very thorough job. But what about all the others? Why is this film so threatening to them? Whose interests are they trying to protect?
The day after seeing the film, I called a number of friends, and was surprised to find that none had seen it. Several said that the publicity about the film had dissuaded them, and I was disturbed to think that the media campaign might be working. Others said they did not want to see it because they didn’t want to get stirred up. I understand: holding a job and raising a family consumes us today. Who has the time or energy to unscramble the official version of reality or question what’s behind the façade?
When my schoolmates and I first heard about the “good Germans,” who somehow didn’t know what was being done in their name, we all shook our heads. We would never be like that. Yet most of us today regularly avert our gaze from the unethical, illegitimate, barbarous activities perpetrated by our government. After reflecting on the media treatment of the Gulf War, and our self-congratulatory celebrations for slaughtering 200,000 Iraqis, I began to understand how national forms of insanity are legitimized. “President Bush’s skillful handling of the war” has become a standard piece of rhetoric, often cited in the media. The more often such language is invoked, the harder it is to challenge.
When I read that Stone had trotted out an old, discredited conspiracy theory and idealized Jim Garrison because he needed a hero for his film, I picked up a copy of Garrison’s book, On the Trail of the Assassins.
This is not the kind of book I usually read, but I couldn’t put it down. I soon understood why Stone became so impassioned. Garrison is not the oddball the media made him out to be. As a World War II veteran, he considered the army a model of integrity and decency. His family were patriots and veterans for generations back. He worked for the FBI. He cleaned up so much vice in New Orleans that he was the first district attorney to win reelection in that city. He was one of that old breed of Americans who believed that his country stood for goodness and justice. His investigation into Oswald’s connections in New Orleans grew out of his integrity and idealism. He had nothing to gain, and everything to lose — his job, his family, possibly even his life — by pursuing the investigation.
Yet Garrison persisted because the evidence he uncovered about high-level government involvement in the assassination proved so compelling. As a reader, I found his allegations of FBI-CIA-Mafia intrigue plausible. Though he lost his case against Clay Shaw, Garrison did convince the jurors of the existence of a conspiracy. Interestingly, the press reacted the same way it has to Stone — indeed, worse: NBC tried to defame Garrison with trumped-up witnesses whose accusations never stood up under scrutiny; the federal government initiated two major proceedings against him that proved fraudulent.
I doubt that anyone who approaches the film and Garrison’s book with an open mind could ever again believe the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Oswald was the real assassin. Nonetheless, I imagine many will reject Garrison’s theory, without much scrutiny, for emotional reasons like those suggested by Carl Oglesby, director of the Assassination Information Bureau:
Maybe Garrison’s political and historical realism will prove too intensely challenging for general consumption. We Americans like to regard ourselves as pragmatic about politics, but this seems to mean that we tend to believe what makes us happy and not to believe what confuses and depresses us. . . . For all its structural logic and its virtually audible resonance with contemporary American experience, Garrison’s theory of the crime is perhaps too challenging, too frightening, and too deeply contradictory of very basic American myths (i.e., that we are a law-abiding republic) to stand a chance of official recognition or even civil consideration by the intelligentsia and the media.
What is the importance of all this today? Are these concerns just a fixation with the sixties, as some journalists would have us believe? As a nation, we have a collective wound that has been festering since 1963, when a new spirit of openness and change was literally killed off. We need to be aware of the forces behind these killings. We need to question our subservience to the military-industrial complex. We need to dismantle our vast covert intelligence network.
America is behaving more and more like a dysfunctional family. A dysfunctional family doesn’t raise its children in a healthy way, refuses to recognize what is going on within the family, hides the family history, and does not call things by their true names. When our president describes a savage war as a noble crusade, and the media and the public mindlessly accept that; when we advertise our selfish economic motives as the pursuit of freedom and justice; when we say we can’t afford to spend money on health, education, and human welfare because we’re broke, while continuing to feed an insatiable military; when we refuse to acknowledge the irreparable damage we are doing to our environment; when we acquiesce to a cover-up of the assassination of the brightest, most compassionate president of our generation, with the full complicity of the media, we are engaged in the kind of denial characteristic of dysfunctional families. The media offensive against Garrison and Stone resembles the attacks of abusive parents against their children for wanting to expose the family secrets.
Perhaps we can only confront this situation by first feeling our fear, anger, and sorrow about what is happening to our country. As we do this, a part of us that is connected to the collective begins to wake up, and we start to emerge from our isolation. At first, it’s painful to do this; it’s much more comfortable to stay in our cocoons.
Yet in this moment we can also begin to give birth to what Chögyam Trungpa has called “the broken-hearted warrior.” Along with our feeling of rawness, there arises a desire to see things as they are and to join with others who are working in the service of the human spirit. If we can hold in our hearts both our sadness and our determination, we can begin to act not from hatred, but from awareness and compassion.
The first step in emerging from our collective nightmare is to open our eyes and become aware of what is happening. JFK is a wake-up call.
Since writing this, I have done further investigation into all three assassinations. They share disturbing similarities in how they were set up and then covered up. Sirhan Sirhan’s gun had only eight bullets, but as many as twelve bullet holes were discovered at the scene of RFK’s death. This evidence was destroyed by the L.A. police department. While Sirhan was some five feet in front of RFK, the autopsy clearly shows the fatal bullets entered from the rear, and were fired from a distance of inches. The government’s case against James Earl Ray was so flimsy that he had to be coerced into pleading guilty so that it would not go to trial. The ballistics evidence did not prove that Ray killed Martin Luther King, Jr. The FBI unit that was sent to investigate King’s death was the very same unit that had sought to discredit him for many years.