Dallas in November – (Farewell to the 20th Century). Mike Lee concludes his 1999 ‘political travelogue’
This article was the final of a 3 part series covering my trip around the world in October and November 1999 – appeared in the NZ Political Review in September 2001. I have republished it to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
At the end of my stay in France, I caught the high-speed Eurostar train which took me via the channel tunnel all the way to London.The next day was 11 November, Remembrance day, I attended the ceremonies commemorating the Great War armistice outside Westminster Abbey officiated at by the old-as-the-century Queen Mother. A couple of days later I flew to Dublin, hired a car and drove down the coast to stay with my grandfather Lee’s family in Cork and to gaze at the little stone house (now a farm implement shed) on the Dingle peninsula of Kerry where my mother’s mother Johanna Kavanagh was born. Time was running out for the 20th Century by the time I left Dublin bound for Dallas, Texas. Soon we were out over the west coast of Ireland and the Arran Isles. We were still climbing as I gazed down at these lonely outliers of Europe – fringed with surf from the Atlantic swelIs – lit with the last rays of the winter sun.
November 1963 – Wellington NZ.
As the saying used to go everyone knew exactly where they were and what they doing on the day President Kennedy died. It’s rather a sobering thought that this event happened 50 years ago and most people alive today weren’t even born then. But I am one of the aging majority who can still remember with crystal clarity that day in November 1963 – still remember and can never forget.
I was 14 and I remember the day was fine with a fresh breeze. That morning I walked to Hataitai Park to take part in an athletics meeting. I can see this all quite clearly but just like everyone else I’ve talked to, I find it just about impossible to remember anything about what I did in the days or even weeks before and after the assassination.
I must have hung round the park most of the day because I remember walking home through the Hataitai tunnel late that afternoon. By then the significance of what had happened had begun to sink in. I didn’t know much about death in those days. As the last person in my family to die was my grandmother, just a few days after I was born, I was still innocent of the horror and finality of death.
So Kennedy, because of his larger than life celebrity I suppose, and because we all looked up to him, especially being a catholic, was the most significant person I felt I knew who had actually died. I mused on this all the way home. It was quite a shock when you thought about it. As I turned into my street I could hear the televisions in peoples’ houses. When I got in the door everyone was up in the front room – crowded around the TV.
They had arrested a man, a ‘loner’ with communist connections called Lee Harvey Oswald. (A studio picture and bio details were already in the Evening Post several hours before Oswald was formerly charged in Dallas). A couple of days later, the alleged assassin was himself assassinated – on TV –‘rubbed out’ as it were – by a character straight out of a gangster movie by the name of Jack Ruby. This was unprecedented and difficult to make sense of. It seemed as if the world had gone crazy. When I look back November 1963 was really when the Sixties began. As if to underline this, a few months later the Beatles arrived in town. Like everyone around my age I soon became caught up in the excitement of ‘Beatlemania’ and pop music in general.
Almost unnoticed, the report of the Warren Commission, the eminent members of which had been hand-picked by the new President Lyndon Johnson, had confirmed the initial speculation that Oswald had acted alone. No motive was established. In time the events in Dallas faded like a bad dream – but never completely. Life went on – but things were never quite the same again.
We couldn’t escape politics even if we wanted to – not in the sixties. Night after night on the television it became increasingly apparent that under Lyndon Johnson, the war in Vietnam was escalating into a major conflict, with more and more troops committed and more and more people dying.
Three years to the month after Kennedy’s death, in November 1966, Johnson made the first US presidential visit to New Zealand. LBJ came to put pressure on the NZ government into increasing its token commitment of troops to the Vietnam War.
Then in 1968, in two shocking events civil rights leader Martin Luther King and then President Kennedy’s younger brother Senator Robert Kennedy were both assassinated within weeks of one another; again, according to the authorities by ‘lone nut assassins.’ Both men had become influential opponents of the war in Vietnam. With their removal the war was to drag on for another seven years.
The mounting public scepticism at the single assassin explanations – especially in the wake of the Watergate scandal of 1973 and 74 – led to public pressure for a new official inquiry into all three assassinations.
In 1979 the House Select Committee on Assassinations, after a three-year inquiry marred by political argument and controversy concluded ‘...on the basis of evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.’ The report raised the possibility that Kennedy may have been murdered by organised crime. The conclusion of conspiracy was based on acoustic evidence of a fourth shot (and therefore a second gunman) recorded on a police radio channel. Though this was later challenged by another Government panel, it was the first chink in the wall of the ‘lone assassin’ explanation that was the Warren Commission.
Meanwhile a growing number of Warren Commission critics found much in the House Committee investigation reports to reinforce their own suspicions; that behind the assassination of President Kennedy lay not the mob – but something much more powerful. They argued that while organised crime may have had the motive and means to carry out the killing, the mob did not have the means to organise such an extensive cover-up. Only the United States government they argued had the power to do that.
In 1992 the controversial Oliver Stone movie ‘JFK’ was released, reawakening old memories and provoking intense debate. ‘JFK’ was based on the story of Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who had taken an unsuccessful prosecution against one Clay Shaw in 1969 for being an accessory to the Kennedy killing. Stone’s movie was a synthesis of the work of the leading conspiracy theorists, including Mark Lane, David Lifton, Jim Marrs, Garrison himself and Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty.
Stone’s movie contended that Kennedy was murdered as the result of a conspiracy involving anti-Castro CIA agents and U.S. Army intelligence, and that the crime was covered up at the highest levels of the U.S. Government. The movie went on to propose that the motive for the murder was a series of policy decisions by Kennedy which in the eyes of militant cold warriors amounted to ‘treason.’ These especially related to Cuba. In particular, Kennedy’s failure to back-up the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles with U.S. military force. Also in the eyes of these hawkish elements, Kennedy’s ‘victory’ in the 13-day confrontation with the Soviets during the Cuban Missile crisis of October 1962 was in reality a defeat. Rumours had spread through Washington that in return for a withdrawal of the missiles Kennedy had permanently cancelled any U.S. invasion of Cuba. Kennedy was considered to be ‘soft on communism.’
In the wake of the Cuban Missile crisis, Kennedy’s limited nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets (signed against the advice of his military advisers), his decision to accept a neutralist government in Laos rather than intervene militarily and his suggestion that the race to the moon be abandoned and be replaced by cooperative exploration of space with the Russians, alarmed an influential section of the American elite.
Stone pointed to the role of the American ‘military-industrial complex,’ a term coined by Kennedy’s predecessor President Eisenhower. The Allied supreme commander in World War ll, Dwight. D. Eisenhower in his televised farewell address to the nation in January 1961, had gone to some lengths to warn the American people about the ‘rising influence of the military-industrial complex’.
Most sensationally, Stone’s movie argued that Kennedy was removed because he was attempting to back away from a ‘big war’ in Vietnam which would be worth billions of dollars to the military-industrial complex – ($220 billion as it turned out). That the elected President was murdered and replaced with another, more amenable to the aims of the military, meant the Kennedy assassination was in effect a coup d’état. This is an astounding proposal and one could imagine the shock it would have had on America and the world had it been made at the time of Kennedy’s death. Needless to say, Stone and his movie were excoriated by the mainstream media, (Stone responded memorably by calling his media critics. ‘Doberman-pinschers’ – trained to protect the government.’
The possibility that the Vietnam tragedy, could have been avoided and the proposition that the two defining events of the sixties, the Vietnam War and the Kennedy assassination, were somehow linked, obviously has significant implications, not only for the interpretation of the history of the second half of the 20th century but raises questions about political legitimacy and the world’s greatest power.
I was aware that conspiracy theorists and a dwindling number of the more than 50 witnesses, who rejected the Warren Commission’s findings and believed that shots came from a ‘grassy knoll’ gathered there together each year on the anniversary of the assassination. (The phrase ‘grassy knoll’ was originally coined by witness Jean Hill, who had bravely charged up the hill in pursuit of the gunmen but was stopped by unidentified ‘security men.’)
The conspiracy people, tilting against the mightiest of windmills appealed to my imagination. I made up my mind that one day I would go to Dallas and stand with them on the grassy knoll and pay my tribute to the assassinated president. Maybe there would be some answers, some new evidence – something to make sense at last of the greatest murder-mystery of the 20th century.
November in Dallas 1999
Some hours later after leaving Dublin, our plane made its landfall over frozen Labrador. I watched the display screen as we steadily swooped in a southwestward arc across the continentaI United States.
I was on my way to attend a Kennedy assassination research conference in Dallas, coinciding with the 36th anniversary of the assassination. I hadn’t been back to the States since the 1980’s and was awed at the vast grids of lights from the huge conurbations stretching from horizon to horizon. I had the clear impression we were flying to the heart of a great empire.
We landed in Memphis Tennessee – and after clearing customs and being questioned by a stoney-eyed immigration official I suddenly felt a little self-conscious explaining why I was travelling to Dallas.
If Memphis was the ‘heart’ of America, then Dallas could be said to represent the dark side of its soul. A cow town fattened by the fabulous wealth of the nearby East Texas oil field, Dallas became the financial and banking centre of the Texas oil industry. It was also the post-war strong-hold of the extreme right. In the early sixties at the time of Kennedy visit, it was known as the ‘hate capital of America.’
By the time we arrived at Dallas/Fort Worth, I had that feeling of strung-out weariness the traveller gets from extending the day across too many time zones. I caught the shuttle to the Dallas Grand Hotel. It was here that the annual JFK-Lancer ‘November in Dallas’ conference on the Kennedy assassination would be held. Once upon a time the Grand, originally the Dallas Hilton, was one of the places to stay in Dallas – but now its late-fifties modernity had aged into Texan stateliness. By the time I had checked in and gratefully unlocked my room I was exhausted. I remembered I had been up since 5.30 am and by now it was 3am the next day in Ireland. But I had made it. Relief is a tonic. It occurred to me, that while yes, it was that time in Ireland, on the other hand, it was still only 11pm in Dallas. Maybe I should go down to the bar for a nightcap. After all as I pointed out (to my more sensible self) – I had made it here safely. That was cause for modest celebration – wasn’t it?
Down in the lobby bar the lights were low and background music was playing. The beer on tap was ‘Coors Lite’ which was something of a shock after Guinness. (Why is it that the greatest country in the world makes such indifferent beer?). The southern belle tending the bar wore dangling ear-rings, pearls, a white silk blouse, designer jeans, her platinum blond hair was piled up high. A badge identified her as ‘Rosemary’ – I estimated she was in her early 70s. Rosemary was serving a group of men around my age deep in conversation at the other end of the bar. As Rosemary moved back and forward taking orders, I overhead her say in her Texas drawl “Oh I knew Jack back in the 1950s – he was around here all the time handing out candy.”
When I ordered my second drink I said ‘Excuse me Rosemary – I couldn’t help hear you mention a ‘Jack’. May I ask – Jack who?’ ‘Why’, she replied , ‘Jack Ruby.’ ‘Right. Of course’. I had come to the right place.
I went over and introduced myself to the group. They were all assassination researchers, here for the conference. There was Russ Swickard from California, Ed Sherry from Florida and Joe Backes from New York. With them was a woman with striking blonde hair almost to her waist somewhat younger than Rosemary. The lady was Shari-Angel, a former dancer at Jack Ruby’s notorious ‘Carousel Club’ and something of a local identity.
The next day still somewhat jet-lagged I made my way to the Grand Hotel conference room.
JFK-Lancer, the entity which organises the ‘November in Dallas’ seminars is a non-profit, private company dedicated to research and publications on the Kennedy assassination (www.jfklancer.com). It is run by Texans Debra Conway and Tom Jones. (‘Lancer’ was Kennedy’s rather dashing secret service code name – quite apt given what we now know about his private life.)
The conference was to last for two and a half days to be followed by a commemoration ceremony on the grassy knoll. As it got underway I took a look around the room. Most of the participants were people were around my age (middle-aged) – the baby boom generation and from all across the U.S. The only non-Americans, was a small party from the U.K. and myself.
As a result of the uproar caused by the Oliver Stone movie there was renewed political pressure on the government for the release of millions of pages of classified documents on the assassination. In response, Congress in 1992 had passed a bill called the’ JFK Assassination Records Act.’
This legislation established an ‘Assassinations Records Review Board’ (ARRB), which had reviewed and declassified 4 million pages of documents before ‘sunsetting’ in September 1998. This substantial body of new resource material is still apparently being worked over by researchers and is being added to. New fragments of information painstakingly gleaned from it, has given the assassination research movement something of a boost. This particular conference was very much focussed on the work of the ARRB. The presentations as you would expect were varied and I don’t propose to cover them all. The ones I found the most absorbing were interestingly enough from former career military men, John Newman, Doug Horne and Craig Roberts.
Roberts, the first speaker was a former combat sniper in Vietnam – ’18 hits confirmed, 21 probable.’ His presentation was on technical aspects of the shooting from your sniper’s point of view. He reviewed and dismissed the so-called ‘magic bullet theory’ – by which the Warren Commission maintained a single bullet had caused multiple wounds to President Kennedy and Governor Connally. The theory was proposed by an ambitious young Commission attorney called Arlen Specter, now a senior Republican senator. Roberts also dismissed the likelihood of an indifferent marksman like Oswald getting away three shots in 5.6 seconds at a moving target using a cheap bolt-action rifle.
Discussing the number, trajectory and angle of shots, Robert suggested there were likely three teams of shooters in Dealey Plaza. One, at the west end of the sixth floor of the school book depository building – not the east end location of Oswald’s alleged ‘snipers nest’), another in the nearby Dal-Tex building, and finally a team on the grassy knoll.
Roberts mentioned that an old un-provenanced shell case had been recently found on the Dal-Tex building under some roofing material. He also proposed that the explosive kill shot which blew open the president’s head was a slug loaded with mercury – traces of which would have been detectable in a brain examination. Unfortunately the President’s brain had disappeared from the National Archives soon after his death.
Moving on from blood and bullets, Doug Horne’s presentation was much more low key. A former naval officer and civil servant in both the navy and army, Horne gave an insiders view of his time as an official working for the ARRB. The bureaucratic workings of the Board were obviously of deep interest to the conference participants, many of whom had testified before it. This is where I first heard the word, ‘redacted. ‘Redacted’ is officialese for when certain words or phrases or even whole paragraphs of documents are blanked out. It became clear from Horne’s presentation that a significant amount of the documents released by the ARRB have many words, and sometimes whole passages redacted.
The most impressive presentation came late in the first day from John Newman Ph.D., a former military intelligence officer, author of two books on the assassination and a lecturer at the University of Maryland.
I guess I’m going to introduce myself – I’m a conspiracy theorist!
Kicking off with that opening line John Newman’s presentation seemed to electrify the conference. It was based on 130 newly-released ARRB documents which covered Lee Harvey Oswald’s mysterious visit to Mexico City in September/October 1963.
Using slides and over head transparencies, [the early versions of PowerPoint were not widely used in 1999], Newman skilfully juxtaposed declassified documents to outline what appeared to be an elaborate and, (if I might say so), elegant stratagem involving Oswald (and someone impersonating Oswald) to clearly link Oswald with both the Cuban and Russian embassies in Mexico City.
Furthermore the Russian consular official Oswald had been linked to by tapped phone calls, was a man called Valery Kostikov. Kostikov was known to the American intelligence as a member of the notorious KGB department 13 – the section in charge of sabotage and assassinations (“wet jobs” as those in that particular line of government service call it).
This explosive information was not made known to higher authorities at that time but was left to lie dormant, as Newman put it, ‘like a virus’ ready to activate after the shots rang out in Dealey Plaza.
Newman showed how the released documents which covered the first 24 hours after the assassination referred to tapes and photographs made in Mexico, ostensibly of Oswald which upon examination were found to be impersonations. Someone was impersonating Oswald! The most likely way such a conclusion could be reached, argued Newman, was if the tapes were flown to Dallas for comparison while Oswald was still alive and being interrogated. Again Newman produced evidence of a special Navy flight from Mexico City carrying an FBI agent with a package containing photographs and apparently tapes which arrived at Dallas in the early hours of the morning, the day after the assassination.
Then, 24 hours after the assassination, Newman revealed, throwing document after document on the overhead projector, the official line suddenly changed. Investigators were now informed that the Mexico City tapes had been routinely wiped soon after they were recorded.
It was a little more complex than this of course, but in summary, there appeared to be a two-level strategy running. Oswald was in Mexico with the objective of obtaining a visa to travel to Cuba. As it turned out the Cubans (fortunately for them) refused give him one. As Fidel Castro told representatives of the House Assassinations Committee, ‘I said to myself, what would have happened had by any chance that man come to Cuba…gone back to the States and then appeared involved in Kennedy’s death? That would have been a provocation – a gigantic provocation.’
That part of the apparent strategy, the provocation of a retaliatory military invasion of Cuba didn’t work out. However when alarm bells rang in the corridors of power in the hours and days after the shooting, Oswald’s connections seemed to be not with the anti-Castro extreme-right or the FBI or the CIA, but with the Cubans and Russians. The threat appeared to be from the Left not the Right, and to be external not internal . The link to Kostikov and department 13, raised the possibility of war – ‘the death of 40 million people’ – as Lyndon Johnson repeatedly stated privately in the days after the assassination.
Though, as Newman demonstrated, Johnson was made aware of the Oswald impersonation – as early as the morning after the assassination by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
The awesome consequences of this avenue of enquiry appeared to act as a sort of brake on investigating agencies from following up too hard on these leads. The threat of world war was also used by Johnson, again demonstrated by Newman using documents and tapes, to gain support at the highest levels of government, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren for a tacit consensus to support the ‘lone assassin’ explanation.
More conspiracy theorists
The bar of the Grand, run by the remarkably efficient Rosemary became the meeting place after conference sessions. I buddied up with researcher Russ Swickard (most everyone is a ‘researcher’ in this milieu). Russ, whom I guessed was around my age and who looked like (and in fact was) an original California surfer from the Beach Boys era. Russ had an extensive knowledge of the case and I found his shrewd insights quite valuable.
Russ introduced me to his friends from COPA (Committee on Political Assassinations) a sort of rival body to JFK-Lancer, headed up by John Judge which was also meeting in Dallas. More of an activist group it was COPA which successfully led the lobbying for the JFK Assassinations Records Act.
In between discussing the finer points of the case, Russ and I would take our turn buying bourbon and coke for Shari Angel.
Another local character who put in an appearance in the bar of the Grand was Madeline Brown, a petite woman now quite frail, whom people openly referred to as ‘Lyndon Johnson’s mistress’. Madeline was the author of a couple of books and once made the claim that LBJ had pre-knowledge of the assassination. Other researchers have placed doubt on her credibility.
Another ubiquitous figure in the conspiracy movement, if I may call it that, is Beverly Oliver – another former dancer. Beverly a vivacious blonde, and a larger-than-life personality, appears in most documentaries on the assassination and claims to be the famous ‘Babuska lady’. This person, shown in photographs wearing a coat and head scarf (hence Babushka) who with Jean Hill was perhaps the closest witness to the assassination, has never been officially identified. Beverly also claims to have seen Lee Harvey Oswald with Jack Ruby in the Carousel Club.
I used to share the same table in the hotel dining room with two older gentlemen, both who happened to be called ‘Hal’. Neither, I noted at the time, would have been out of place at an Alliance conference (or perhaps nowadays a Greens conference. The first Hal, Hal McDiarmid, was in his sixties and more your strong-willed individualist. At the time of the assassination, Hal told me over breakfast, he was a young white lawyer working for a black law firm on the south side of Chicago. When he saw Lee Harvey Oswald on TV, making a plea for a lawyer ‘to come forward’ to represent him, Hal placed a long distance call to the Dallas police chief, Jesse Curry. ‘Curry wouldn’t take the call’, Hal told me, and the hapless Oswald was left without legal representation until his murder the next day.
When he heard I came from New Zealand, Hal told me that he was a keen jogger. He said he had once met Arthur Lydiard, the famous New Zealand athletics coach and long distance running guru, in a bar in Los Angeles. Hal claimed Arthur had talked him into running a marathon the next day – which Hal claimed he did, of course in a very slow time.
The second Hal, Hal Verb, was down on the programme as a conference presenter. Hal Verb, was described as ‘a first generation conspiracy theorist’ and was a sort of father figure in the research movement. A dignified, quietly spoken, rather humourless man in his late sixties, Hal was a member of the ‘Fair Play for Cuba Committee at the time of the Kennedy assassination. It will be recalled that the mysterious Lee Harvey Oswald had attempted to set up a chapter of the ‘Fair Play for Cuba’ Committee in New Orleans in the months prior to the assassination and was arrested after a street fracas when handing out ‘Fair Play for Cuba’ leaflets. That incident, conspiracy theorists suggest had all the hallmarks of being staged.
Hal Verb, by his accent a native New Yorker, was apparently an old-style left-winger of the Militant variety. He was active in the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties. At the time of the assassination, Hal told me he was horrified to learn of Oswald’s alleged connections to the Fair Play for Cuba committee and feared a right wing back-lash. The Fair Play for Cuba committee was disbanded soon after.
As the conference drew to a close, an awards session and dinner featured a number of luminaries of the assassination research movement such as Jim Marrs author of the important assassination book ‘Cross-Fire’, and Mary Ferrell (now in a wheelchair), the Dallas researcher and archivist who was one of the original critics of the Warren Commission. Also featured was Kerry McCarthy, a first-cousin-once-removed of President Kennedy, a one time senior official in the Democratic Party and a TV host. Whether her presence meant a change in the Kennedy family position on the assassination conspiracy movement was not clear – the Kennedy’s have always maintained a strict silence on the assassination. I studied her carefully – she was a handsome women in her late forties, she spoke very well (with a touch of the blarney) and bore quite a strong family resemblance to her famous cousins of whom she spoke fondly.
The Kennedy legacy
In reviewing Kennedy’s political career even in the most critical of his detractors trace an interesting political journey. First of all, perhaps most importantly, Kennedy, thanks to the enormous wealth of his ambitious father, was financially self-sufficient. This gave him a degree of political latitude virtually unique in the American experience where big corporate donors have a decisive influence on the political process.
In 1960 Kennedy campaigned as a cold warrior who strove to be harder-nosed than his rival Richard Nixon. After the ‘Bay of Pigs’ fiasco, the new President appeared to become distrustful, even embittered with his military and Intelligence advisers. Kennedy’s sacking of CIA director Allan Dulles, was a direct consequence of the abortive Cuban operation.
In the aftermath of the ‘Bay of Pigs,’ in 1962, faced with a political crisis in Laos in which his military Joint Chiefs urged intervention, Kennedy opted for a diplomatic solution, resulting in a neutralist government, which included members of the communist Pathet Lao. This suggested a President (despite the militant cold war rhetoric) who was aware of the limitations of military force.
In October 1962, and the Cuban Missile crisis, Kennedy again over-ruled the generals and together with his brother Robert contrived a solution which narrowly averted a catastrophic war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
This seemed to mark a turning point in history. In the following months the cold war tensions seemed to ease. A nuclear test ban treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was signed and a ‘hot line’ set up between the White House and the Kremlin. Kennedy’s move away from the cold war was best articulated in his famous commencement address to the American University in June 1963. Here Kennedy called for a profound reassessment of the U.S. attitude towards the Soviet Union and Communism, a move toward nuclear disarmament and an end to the cold war. ‘And, if we cannot end now our differences at least we can make the world safe for diversity. Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future and we are all mortal.’
A few weeks before his death Kennedy went on a pre-campaign swing through the conservative mid-western states. He had been prepared with speeches on nature conservation. Half through one of his first speeches (which he sensed seemed to be not connecting with the audience) Kennedy departed from his notes to talk about the nuclear test ban treaty and an end to the cold war. The audience immediately responded. Sensing this Kennedy increased the force and tempo of his remarks. The speech was met with enthusiastic applause. The crowd response was similar wherever he spoke. It appeared that Kennedy had discovered a deep well of cold war-weariness, a yearning to come out from the shadow of years of Russophobia and nuclear war intimidation – and a heartfelt desire for peace amongst ordinary middle-Americans.
As the writer David Halberstam recalled on his last night in Salt Lake City, the crowds along the route were the biggest yet. When he entered the Mormon tabernacle, thought to be the heart of the enemy camp – Birch country, Goldwater country – the President received a 5 minute standing ovation. Kennedy knew by then that Goldwater was to be his Republican opponent in 1964. He believed he had found the issue to defeat the Goldwater and the right and move to America on during his second term, beyond the rigid fear and paranoia of the Cold War.
The Kennedy charm seemed to mesmerise most journalists. An exception was young David Halberstam of the New York Times. Halberstam’s despatches covering the early days of the war in Vietnam conflicted with the upbeat line of the American mission in Saigon and embarrassed the administration.
Halberstam best-selling book, The Best and the Brightest, which appeared in the early seventies is a brilliant study of U.S. politics and government of that era. The book is a penetrating critique of how the Kennedy/Johnson administration became entrapped in Vietnam.
Recently it was republished and in it Halberstam rewrote his introduction, a reappraisal of the book from the perspective of thirty years. As one of Kennedy’s earliest critics Halberstam’s views are worth noting.
On reflection, Halberstam claimed his book to be ‘the first revisionist book on Kennedy, though on the increasing scale of what was to come later, it was rather mild. I did not see Kennedy as a romantic figure (although, later, I saw his younger brother Robert that way) but rather as a cool, skillful, modern politician. Sceptical, ironic and graceful. The best thing about him was modernity, his lack of being burdened by myths of the past.
Because I saw him as cool and sceptical it always struck me that he would not have sent combat troops into Vietnam. He was too sceptical, I think, for that: I believe that in the last few months of his life, he had come to dislike the war, it was messy and our policy there was flawed and going nowhere, and he was wary of the optimism of his generals. His first term had been burdened by his narrow victory over Nixon and the ghosts of the McCarthy period; with luck he would be free of both of these burdens in his second term, and I do not believe he intended to lose in the rice paddies of Indo-China what he considered this most precious chance for historic accomplishment.’
That being the case Kennedy’s second term raises intriguing possibilities. No big war in Vietnam, continuation of the post-war economic boom without the chronic inflation set off by the Vietnam War and even the possibility of a U.S. opening to China before the Cultural Revolution. History could have been very different.
Kennedy’s second term because it didn’t happen, takes its place as one of the great ‘what ifs’ of the 20th century.
The political orphans of JFK
As the conference draw to its conclusion, I began to feel as a non-American something of an intruder – an outsider at a family gathering. And yet looking around the room I realised I had quite a lot in common with the people here – something that transcended nationality. The post-war baby boom generation was said to be the best nurtured and best educated in history. With such preparation and moved to high idealism by Kennedy’s sweeping rhetoric, the new generation promised great things. The Peace Corps and the civil rights movement seemed only to be the beginning. As it turned out the promise and high expectations were never met. After all, we should remember, it was really the World War II generation which reached the moon and last walked there thirty years ago – the baby-boom generation has never really gone anywhere. A commentator once observed that in the wake of the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the youth of America suffered a ‘collective nervous breakdown.’ Things never quite worked out after that. High idealism turned to self absorption and then to cynicism. Personal experiments with drugs were followed by political experiments with neo-liberalism – (and most baby-boomer private lives are unhappily complicated compared to those of their parents’ generation).
If you talk to most people in the assassination research movement about their motivations for being involved, they will tell you first of all the Government’s lone assassin explanation insults their intelligence – there are just two many loose ends. But there is also the impression of an underlying feeling that somehow they have been robbed -ripped-off. That as young people at the time, the violent removal of Kennedy had stolen something important from their future – and the unfulfilled promise of the second term had somehow detracted from their lives. As I looked around the room, at the now middle-aged faces turned expectantly towards the podium, in their eyes I could see the youthful idealism of the sixties was still there. That’s what they were, I decided, that’s what we all were, I suppose – the political orphans of JFK.
The Grassy Knoll
The next day 22 November 1999 was the 36 th anniversary of the assassination and the last item of business on the conference agenda – the ceremony on the grassy knoll.
We made our way out of the hotel in the bright Texan sunlight, along the arid canyon which is Commerce Street, walking the few blocks to Dealey Plaza. The weather was fine with a mild breeze – not too different from the weather I remember in Wellington on that day back in 1963.
The giant stars and stripes flags in Dallas flew at half mast that day – but this had nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination. A number of students at Texas A&M university had just been killed by collapsing lumber when they were building a huge bonfire as part of a campus ritual and Texas Governor George W. Bush had declared a period of official mourning.
Dealey Plaza lies at the western side of downtown Dallas where Commerce, Main and Elm Streets come together. Named for a famous Dallas civic father (a right-wing newspaper proprietor) its features were immediately familiar. The little white colonades and the picket fence of the grassy knoll, the railway underpass and looming above, the sinister red brick Texas school book depository building. I realised that this place had been burned into the collective imagination of my generation – the setting for the original nightmare on Elm Street.
I visited the school book depository building much of which is now a tourist attraction – On the sixth floor is a museum dedicated to the Kennedy assassination. A video tape of Kennedy’s funeral was playing and as I watched it old memories came flooding back.
Out on the grassy knoll out-of-state assassination buffs mingled with Dallas locals – among which were a few remaining witnesses. A banner was unfurled, there were speeches and at 12.30 a minute’s silence.
Here I met Tom Blackwell one of that hardy breed, a leader of the Dallas Democratic Party. Tom runs an email information service constantly sending out news items and research developments on the JFK case, other political assassinations and general information on Dallas history and politics (http://web2.airmail.net/radio). (I sometimes receive emails addressed “to you and other Texas Democrats”). Tom kindly showed me over the grassy knoll and we walked around the railway yard behind the picket fence. Here we stood behind the now dilapidated fence right on the spot where witnesses (and some photographic evidence) suggest two men were standing, one of whom many believe delivered the kill shot – blowing open the President’s head. My feeling was that the assassins must have had ice in their veins to execute such a crime so close to where people were standing. But no-one was looking their way, and nobody in those more innocent days would be expecting such barbaric audacity.
Standing there, I reflected morbidly of the words of Warren Commission critic Vince Salandria as told to the Congressional investigator Gaeton Fonzi. ‘I’m afraid we were misled – all the critics, myself included, were misled very early. I see that now. We spent too much time and effort micro analyzing the details of the assassination when all the time it was obvious, it was blatantly obvious that it was a conspiracy. Don’t you think the men who killed Kennedy had the means to do it in the most sophisticated and subtle way? They chose not to. Instead they picked the shooting gallery that was Dealey Plaza and did it in the most barbarous and openly arrogant manner. The forces that killed Kennedy wanted the message clear: ‘We are in control and no one – not the President, nor any elected official – no one can do anything about it.’
Boston psychiatrist Martin Schotz once pointed out ‘It is so important to understand that one of the primary means of immobilizing the American people politically today is to hold them in a state of confusion in which anything can be believed but nothing can be known, nothing of significance that is.‘ And while the overwhelming majority of Americans believe there was a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy – the don’t know it. And as I stood there looking out over Dealey Plaza, I wondered whether they ever would.
When I saw the Pacific Ocean again I felt I was nearly home. After the usual excruciating middle of the night stop over in Honolulu and flight in a crowded Air New Zealand 767 we landed in the early morning at Rarotonga. An old friend Helen Browne and her son Ken were there to pick me up. I went home to their rambling colonial bungalow in the Takuvaine Valley, had a cold shower, took some sleeping pills and with the rumble of thunder and the sound of rain drumming on the roof, fell into a deep sleep. I slept most of the day and from time to time I was aware of the people talking in Maori somewhere in an another room. I rested in Rarotonga a few days, swimming in the lagoon, reading and relaxing preparing for re-entry back to routine working life. That moment arrived when I received an email – my youngest daughter Annabelle had given birth to a little girl. I was a grandfather again. My journey and the 20th Century’s was almost over. I would go home to meet Omiha Pearl and her new century.