Why your belief in JFK theories is so wrong - Macleans.ca

Why your belief in JFK theories is so wrong

The release of new documents related to the JFK assassination won’t satisfy conspiracy theorists who have always misunderstood how politics and power interact

Mark Oakes (L) discusses alternative assassination theories with tourists near the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza on October 10, 2013 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Mark Oakes (L) discusses alternative assassination theories with tourists near the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza on October 10, 2013 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

At the grassy knoll and in the rest of Dealey Plaza they still debate it nearly 54 years later: the assassination of John F. Kennedy—the murder at 12:30 p.m.; a 46-year-old rushed to Parkland Hospital, given last rites and pronounced dead 30 minutes later; ensconced in a bronze coffin by 2:00 p.m. and escorted to Dallas’ Love Field airport; vice-president Lyndon Johnson sworn in as the new president at 2:39 p.m. before Air Force One leaves the tarmac; Jackie Kennedy, the rest of the presidential party and her husband’s body flown back to Washington D.C; the gloomy and dark November evening arrival at Andrews Air Force Base. 

The swiftness and severity of the events on Nov. 22, 1963 would play havoc with anyone’s sensibilities. It is not surprising the tragedy is still scrounged over for historical scraps of meaning more than a half-century later.

I walked through Dealey Plaza on Sunday for the first time. The JFK assassination conspiracies that once raged in books, magazines and newspaper clippings, and which long ago went online, still appear at Dallas street-level: A few who appeared to be conspiracy-theory regulars set up their card tables and partial umbrellas to shade themselves from the still-hot, mid-day Dallas October sun. They plied their wares: books, DVDs and intense assertions about the “real” multiple assassins of America’s then-youngest president.

READ: The fight over the release of the JFK files

One fellow was perched on the sidewalk that abuts the “grassy knoll”, the green slope that rises north to trees and a parking lot, and angles down again, west, where it abuts a triple underpass, the one where the presidential convoy in 1963 accelerated into, under and away from just seconds after Kennedy was shot. This past Sunday, two other men, just across from the grassy knoll on the other side of Elm Street (the street where Kennedy and Texas governor John Connolly were shot) also appeared to be engaged in a robust exchange of views. More than a half-century distant, the events of that day are apparently, for many, still unresolved.

JFK conspiracy theories abound. Plenty of people reject what they deride as the “official” narrative, the 1964 Warren Commission report and subsequent investigations that found Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in planning and carrying out the assassination from the sixth floor of the nearby Texas School Book Depository.

I suspect then they are unlikely to be persuaded by additional material on the 1963 assassination of America’s first twentieth century-born and first Catholic president, scheduled to be released Thursday. As the Boston Globe reports, 88 per cent of archived material that relates to Nov. 22, 1963 has already been released in full; another 11 per cent is also in the public domain but with redactions; that leaves just one per cent still off-limits, a fraction that may make little difference to already-unconvinced minds.

Conspiracy theories: From rudimentary to “grand”

There are reasons why people believe in conspiracies. For one, small-scale conspiracies do exist, though are unremarkable: You and your friend can “conspire” to defraud a client. Of more consequence, two men can conspire to murder a third. Both are examples of conspiracies, but low-level ones. Also, many countries have intelligence agencies whose raison d’etre is to track, spy on and occasionally take out enemies.

But these too are mostly routine and, well, known: Everyone is aware the Mossad, to use the Israeli example, exists and kills Israel’s enemies. We know that the American military uses drones and special forces to kill America’s foes such as Osama bin Laden. But from such routine conspiring some citizens assume wider and deeper conspiracies.

Critically and in contrast, those who assert the involvement of multiple high-level agencies of government and the executive branch vis-a-vis Kennedy—a post-assassination cover-up—wrongly flatter themselves. They think they know more about politics and how its internal machinations work in liberal democracies than they actually do. Whether it’s the lead-up to Pearl Harbor in 1941, Dallas in 1963, 9/11, or Obama birth certificates, conspiracy theorists often attribute cardboard-like, two-dimensional motivations to democratically elected politicians, and others in high places.

BOOKS: A look at the people who believed JFK was ‘Wanted for treason’

To wit, the conspiracies about the Kennedy killing assume that in a liberal democracy, post-assassination, the late president’s many devoted family, friends and allies or even his political opponents—of which Lyndon Johnson was one while Kennedy was alive—would continually ignore or block the “truth” from getting out there. Conspiracy theorists believe that Americans of significant accomplishment and normally loyal to their own republic above all else, would, in a presidential assassination, direct their own eyes away from some relevant facts immediately after November 1963. In addition they assume that even family such as the president’s own brother, Bobby Kennedy, would forever prevent others from also searching for and facing reality.

The higher you are, the less likely a conspiracy can work

This is not actually how friends, family, loyalists, and even political opponents in the case of presidential murder, behave. Rather it’s the reverse, and the reasons for that are legion. Start with the difference between the small and routine conspiracies noted above and what I’d call “grand” conspiracies that allege the involvement of hundreds of people immediately after an event and for decades thereafter.

The belief in grand conspiracies is mistaken because theorists equate the holding of power with the ability to control events. But they’re not the same thing. For example, the president of the United States does have immense authority. He can order troops into war (though he is supposed to do so via congressional authorization). That’s power. But it’s not the same as controlling the outcome—winning the war.

Or ponder conspiracy theories that assume a president or other high officials in the American government would plan for or ignore the planned killing of a few thousand fellow Americans—the 9/11 conspiracy nonsense. That assumes Beelzebub-like character on the part of those in liberal democracies who are elected to office by catering to citizens and not killing them.

Such paranoid imaginings also misunderstand how the dynamics of power work and weigh against grand conspiracies. For instance, conspiracy theorists misjudge the constricted reality of those in high office: They are the least likely to get away with a grand conspiracy, even if they desired to. That’s because they are always watched by friends and foes alike; it’s because the competition to embarrass and topple them is intense. That is more and not less true the higher one moves up the power pole of politics.

READ: Looking at John F. Kennedy with fresh eyes

Presidents are surrounded by friends and enemies, but everyone in such circles possesses their own characters, interests and agendas. Those with laudable character would expose a colleague engaged in some heinous action, while those with opposing interests or a desire for the same office would certainly blow the whistle.

Conspiracy theories that posit grand schemes involving hundreds or thousands—and span subsequent decades—have it exactly backwards: Small conspiracies where secrets and secret-keepers are few and the stakes are small can keep mum. Think of two guys who rob a bank and have an interest in each other’s silence. Those whose future political lives, to say nothing of avoiding jail, depend on not murdering fellow citizens or covering up the facts of an assassination, have very opposite incentives. That, in fact, is how Richard Nixon and his Watergate cover-up were taken down: by the very system that some think has held secrets about the Kennedy assassination for more than five decades.

An American Adonis cut down

Those who think U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by something and someone more than just a lone gunman have understandable difficulty accepting that his death was the tragic result of a 24-year-old Marxist, Lee Harvey Oswald, a perennially dissatisfied drifter between nations whose bullets found his intended mark.

In his 2003 biography of Kennedy, An Unfinished Life, Robert Dallek tried to explain the “why.” He blamed that unwillingness on the refusal to “acknowledge a chaotic, disorderly world that frightens most Americans.”

Dallek was, I think, psychologically patronizing of Americans and wrong. I’d posit a different explanation for the continuing refusal on the part of many to believe Oswald acted alone. The explanation goes beyond even the mistaken conflating of routine conspiracies with grand ones that assume mass involvement.  The substantive reason is found in Dallek’s other observation, that “someone as inconsequential as Oswald [had] the wherewithal to kill someone as consequential—as powerful and well-guarded—as Kennedy.”

READ: 10 reasons why ‘Dief the Chief’ and JFK hated each other

America in 1963 was a youthful nation with over 86 million people, 46 per cent of its population under the age of 25. Twenty-four-year-old Oswald’s three-shot marksmanship blew open the rank unfairness of life and this against a young, optimistic president who reflected back to a young America what it believed of itself.

The conspiracy theorists are incorrect because they misunderstand how politics, human behaviour and power actually interact. Dallek was wide of the mark because he identified the wrong emotion—fear, rather than sorrow and also our sense of justice: an American Adonis cut down in his prime.

That catastrophe was why so many then and now prefer the conspiracy explanation: because such a banal truth as Oswald acting alone feels horribly imbalanced and unjust: a Greek tragedy without meaning but with all its attendant sadness.

Mark Milke is a regular contributor to Maclean’s.


Why your belief in JFK theories is so wrong

  1. why do they keep hiring journalists that know jack shit about the case to do pieces on it? Ted Sorensen confirmed conspiracy in 2010 I offered it to the Post but no one responded. At least cover that story. google my show for more so tired of main stream that likes to dismiss the last 20 years of scientific proof like a senior CSI examining the scene finds a frontal shot, as a NASA physicist, what about the two JFK aids O’Donnell and Powell (in the Secret Service follow up car) who went on record to say they saw the shooter on the grassy knoll. No mention what so ever. Why still hold to the same old same old let everyone the FACTS and let them decide. More hack reporting from a paper that should know better. I was the ONLY Canadian invited to speak at the 50th JFK Memorial in Dallas, no mention or reaching out to me as well. So tired of the sheer nonsense by these hack writers.

    • Thank you for rather hilariously proving the author’s point. Bless you and your tinfoil hat…

      • Thank you for absolutely hilariously proving that you are – with the Saturday release – absolutely incorrect as is the Warren Commission Report. Try the red pill Brent. Wow.

  2. A conspiracy exists whenever two or more people share a lie.

    Propaganda was developed in the US through a concentrated effort to dupe the public into supporting a war in Europe that they wanted no part of. WW1.

    The US Department of propaganda has continually grown and is still very much active today. Modern public relations PR is based on the methodology of propaganda.

    To first identify an issue, then make it emotional so the facts don’t matter, then replace the facts with misinformation and finally offer a solution that elicits the desired mass behaviour.

    It is essentially psychosis, reverse engineered by Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freuds nephew.

    With the advent of the Internet, people have become aware of their vulnerability to propaganda.

    Never before have we trusted our leaders or the media less. For good reason.

    The government has already demonstrated the willingness to develop tools to lie to the masses. Must one be a conspiracy theorist to expect them to use them?

  3. It’s not a conspiracy theory unless aliens are involved.

  4. Conspiracy theory aficionados deserve to be given as much credence as flat-earthers – zero. As a society we should marginalize these whack-jobs as the nuts that they are. There’s no need to, and little point in, attempting to debunk their fantasies – they’re completely resistant to logic, reason, and facts. They have “faith” in what they believe. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, but not all opinions are worth paying any attention to.

    • Good, that means we can get rid of religion then!

        • Religion is a conspiracy theory.

  5. Well lets just get to the refuting evidence. SNOWDEN and spying on half the world with computer programs that can listen to and/or screen a billion calls a month….or tap leaders of democratic allies phones. MK Ultra for the US government’s delve into mind control. Operation Northwoods 1962 (read up on that and tell me if it reminds you of anything *cough* 9/11 *cough**cough*. The Gulf of Tonkin, The USS Liberty Incident, Operation Gladio, Operation Paperclip, COINTELPRO (because the FBI just left Martin Luther King alone right….), FBI poisoning alcohol during prohibition, the Iran Contra Affair, The fact that CIA black sites exist, testing AIDS drugs on foster children (no shit look it up), Bohemian Grove, Charlie Wilson arming the Mujahideen, Noriega on the CIA payroll for years, the CIA overthrowing literally dozens of governments (including democratically elected governments in Iran and Chile and many others). And in Chile the CIA helped install Pinochet….and then worked with him afterwards secretly of course (you can thank Kissinger for that one and he won a Nobel Peace prize.

    And that’s just the stuff that is pretty much undeniable at this point. Not even touching on the other big ones like the Lusitania WW1, Pearl Harbour WW2, moon landing, or 9/11 which of course are a little more convoluted but none the less debatable.

    So don’t tell me this sh*t doesn’t exist. That’s just the government, not even corporations which is really what people should be worried about as we can’t even pretend that they have to answer to us. And don’t tell me that the infallible system of democratic checks and balances ensure this doesn’t happen because that is laughable bullsh*t. If we are lucky whistle blowers might give us a glimpse, a split fraction of a second where we might get a clue to the crap that goes on. Case and point of all the Snowden files we only ever heard about 1% of them. The rest the Guardian and Post didn’t publish because they would be too detrimental so those “liberal” good guy media outlets are full of shit as well.

    save it for the birds Mark Milke and Macleans you F_cking pawns

    I know you meant Al-Qaeda and enemies in general but drones didn’t kills Osama Bin Laden….remember they dumped his body at sea which makes soooo much sense. HACKS!

    If your democracy has multiple clandestine agencies that keep information secret for decades like the JFK files and then release redacted info then you are a sucker to believe it and you don’t live in a democracy you live in a National Security State (which is a nice way of saying Fascist State)

    • That’s a pretty good start but a couple of things to add.

      The Lusitania question is resolved. In 2009 archaeologists dove on the wreck finding millions of rounds of ammunition. She was a legitimate target.


      And you forgot about the biggest conspiracy theory. It is illegal to discuss the actual science and history of it. Only the official narrative can be spoken or taught. Merely mentioning the alleged perpetrators now elicits bind hatred. That’s what all propaganda emulates. What do you think when Nazis are mentioned?

  6. Mark Milke…someone with no pedigree in investigative journalism, an irrelevant hack writer who appears to be so arrogant and pompous that he is able to generalize the motives and suppositions of those that question the ‘official story’ of the Kennedy assassination as incapable of understanding the machinations of power. Well please enlighten us Mr. Milke, you are obviously a generational genius, an inerrant sage who I am sure has spent a lifetime judiciously studying the complex workings of ‘liberal democracies’, and you know precisely how ‘politics, human behavior and power actually interact’ because investigators that have spent decades devoting themselves to these very subjects do not. You are as stupid and gullible as the rest of society who accept the ridiculous nonsense puked out by the Warren Commission because you are ensconced in this consensus myth that is prevalent in a society too lazy and ignorant to understand that governments are capable of great injustices even those perpetrated upon their own citizens. Just because you choose to believe in the fairy tales that your bias and belief systems force you to accept does not make it so. You want a good recent example, try weapons of mass destruction in the lead up to the Iraq war in 2003. A bold faced lie that half wits such as yourself swallowed hook line and sinker only to be told by the very same liars after the fact that they indeed ‘lied’…well the motive changed at that point…it was regime change, no it was freeing a people from a dictator, no it was bringing democracy to an oppressed people, do you see where this is going. When you allow yourself to be duped by the power structure into accepting sheer nonsense without questioning their motives you make the search for justice and truth improbable. If you have a day job stacking groceries at whole foods, don’t give that up, it’s really all you have that validates your pathetic existence…..

  7. Look how much human cost and effort is devoted to lying and trying to expose lies.

    How many court cases, wars, special investigations of all types and plain old interpersonal conflicts are caused by lies?

    Truth is the only thing we all share in peace. It is not relative.

    Happiness is the knowledge, not belief, that ones life is in order. Love is helping someone be happy. So logically, sharing the truth promotes knowledge as is required for happiness.

    But the observation is valid that sharing truth often elicits not gratitude but animosity. Why?

    We all make decisions every day. Some have temporary positive consequences but long term, even eternal negative ones. Murder for example, causes negative ripples in our shared existence that can never be undone. Knowing this obstructs the murderers happiness.

    We think forgiveness helps, but forgetting is much more effective at allowing our illusion of happiness.

    People subsequently perceive sharing the truth as obstructing their happiness.

    I think our reaction to truth is perhaps the best indicator of our personal mental health and the health of society in general.

    Personally, I enjoy the way sharing the truth scrambles the jigsaw puzzles in people’s minds.

    Get with the program to criminalize all lying and empower everyone to digitally record their observations in life as proof of truth.

    This would immediately resolve most conflicts on earth. Imagine, it’s easy if you try.

  8. This article is flawed because it doesn’t address any of the peculiarities of the assassination that have not been sufficiently answered, and ascribes it to a “grand conspiracy” of hundred or thousand within the US gov’t. I’m not a conspiracy theorist at all, but JFK is the only popular conspiracy that has never really added up to me.

    For one thing, thinking Oswald didn’t act alone, doesn’t require a belief that the co-conspirators were within the US gov’t. It is entirely reasonable to assume that Cuba could have played a hand, given the dozens of failed assassination attempts on Castro, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion. I’m certainly no expert on all the other elements, and the waters have been muddied by the crackpot theories over the years. For me the biggest single thing that never added up was Oswald’s immediate execution after capture by Jack Ruby. Why would a low level mobster scumbag effectively end his own life to kill JFK’s assassin within a day of his capture? Patriotism? Why has never been answered, and to me the most obvious, rational answer is that he was forced to do it to ensure Oswald couldn’t talk. If that is true, then it proves a conspiracy of some sort, whether it was the CIA, the Mob, Cuba, Russia, or little green men doesn’t really matter from that point.

    • Yes Ruby’s actions don’t make any sense.

      For me, the “magic bullet” is an impossibility.

      There is no bullet I’ve ever heard of that could smash through several bones of two people, changing direction, to emerge essentially unscathed, not during the autopsy but beside one of the victims on his hospital gurney.

      I may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night.

  9. Oh so wrong Mike. Your moronic diatribe has been entirely exposed as the twaddle it is with the Saturday release of the last several documents. Shot from front and back. Quit writing, you’re proven unreliable.