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The Second Oswald: The Case for a Conspiracy Theory

Inquest

by Edward Jay Epstein
Viking, 224 pp., $5.00

Whitewash

by Harold Weisberg
Harold Weisberg (Hyattstown, Md.), 208 pp., $4.95 (paper)

In one of Victor Serge’s last works, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, written over fifteen years ago, the Russian equivalent of the Oswald story is set forth. An alienated young man, unhappy with the many aspects of his life in the Soviet Union—the food, his room, his job, etc.—acquires a gun, and manages to shoot Commissar Tulayev one night when he is getting out of a car. An extensive investigation sets in, followed by an extensive purge. Millions of people are arrested and made to confess to being part of a vast conspiracy against the government. The actual assassin is, of course, never suspected, since no one can imagine him as a conspirator. He continues to lead his alienated unhappy life, while the government uncovers the great plot.

In contrast, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, a solution emerged within hours: one lonely alienated man had done the deed all by himself. The investigation by the Dallas Police and the FBI then proceeded to buttress this view, and to accumulate all sorts of details about the lone assassin, some false (like the murder map), some trivial (like his early school records), some suggestive (like the bag he carried into the Book Depository), some convincing (like the presence of his rifle and the three shells). From its origins in Dallas on the night of November 22, 1963, the career of the theory of a single conspirator indicates that this was the sort of explanation most congenial to the investigators and the public (although the strange investigation of Joe Molina, a clerk in the Book Depository, from 2 A.M. November 23 until the end of that day, mainly for his activities in a slightly left-wing veterans’ organization, suggests a conspiratorial interpretation was then under consideration).

THE WARREN COMMISSION, after many months of supposed labor and search, came out with an anticlimatic conclusion, practically the same as that reached by the FBI in its report of December 9, 1963, except for details as to how it happened. The Commission, clothed in the imposing dignity of its august members, declared its conviction that one lone alienated assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had indeed carried out the crime.

The ready acceptance of this by then expected finding by the press and the public—except for a few critics—suggests that the American public got the kind of explanation it wanted, and perhaps deserved. For almost everyone the points that suggested a conspiratorial explanation were either disposed of by the “careful” work of the Warren Commission and the FBI, or by a faith that had grown up about the Report. Some of the early critical questions suggesting a conspiratorial explanation (raised by Buchanan, Joesten, Sauvage, Bertrand Russell, Trevor-Roper, etc.) were shown to be based on misinformation or misunderstandings, the result mainly of what the Dallas Police had said, or what had appeared in newspaper accounts and interviews. Other questions, based on the Report itself and what it failed to resolve (raised by Leo Sauvage, Salandria, Sylvan Fox, etc.), were swept aside by faith—faith, first of all, that these matters must have been settled by the mass of data in the twenty-six supplementary volumes of testimony, depositions, and documents. The twenty-six volumes seemed to be so imposing, and were, in fact, so impenetrable, that they resolved all doubts. Finally, as Dwight Macdonald pointed out, if the critics of the Report and of the evidence in the twenty-six volumes supposedly supporting it managed to reveal how tendentious, one-sided, and inadequate some of the solutions were, the ultimate faith of the public rested on the integrity of Justice Warren and his fellow commissioners, the capabilities of the FBI and of the Commission lawyers. It was just too implausible that such irreproachable talent could have doctored the case, or have come to the wrong conclusion.

Serge’s Russia could only see an assassination as part of a grand conspiracy. The western European critics can only see Kennedy’s assassination as part of a subtle conspiracy, involving perhaps some of the Dallas Police, the FBI, the right-wing lunatic fringe in Dallas, or perhaps even (in rumors I have often heard) Kennedy’s successor. Thomas Buchanan, in his otherwise far-fetched work, Who Killed Kennedy?, shows that it is part of the American tradition always to regard Presidential assassination as the work of one lone nut, no matter how much evidence there may be to the contrary. There seems to have been an overwhelming national need to interpret Kennedy’s demise in this way, and thus the irresistible premise of the investigators, almost from the outset, was that Oswald did it all, all by himself (as Ruby was believed to have done it all, all by himself). Congressman Ford’s book, Portrait of an Assassin, is a valiant and not entirely unsuccessful effort to make the thesis psychologically plausible by constructing an Oswald in turmoil looking for his moment of glory. Representative Ford also goes so far as to blame the conspiracy theories on one lone woman, Mrs. Marguerite Oswald, and to act as if there were no reason whatever, save for the alienated confused mind of Mrs. Oswald, Senior, ever to doubt that one lone assassin thesis.

HOWEVER, THE “OFFICIAL” THEORY was in many ways implausible. It involved a fantastic amount of luck. If the FBI and Warren Commission reconstructions were correct, Oswald had to get the rifle into the building without attracting attention. Only two people saw him with a long package, and none saw him with it or the rifle in the building. He had to find a place from which he could shoot unobserved. The place, according to the “official theory,” was observed until just a few minutes before the shooting. He had to fire a cheap rifle with a distorted sight, old ammunition, at a moving target in minimal time, and shoot with extraordinary accuracy (three hits in three shots, in 5.6 seconds, according to the FBI; two hits in three shots in 5.6 seconds, according to the Commission). If the “official theory” of the Commission is right, Oswald had no access to the rifle from mid-September until the night before the assassination, and had no opportunity whatsoever to practice for at least two months. Having achieved such amazing success with his three shots, Oswald then was somehow able to leave the scene of the crime casually and undetected, go home, and escape. But for the inexplicable (according to the “official theory”) Tippit episode, Oswald might have been able to disappear. In fact, he did so after that episode, and only attracted attention again because he dashed into a movie theater without paying.

The critics have argued that the Commission’s case against Oswald, if it had ever been taken to court, would have collapsed for lack of legal evidence. A legal case would have been weakened by sloppy police work (e.g., the failure to check whether Oswald’s gun had been used that day), confused and contradictory reports by witnesses (e.g., the mistaken identification of Oswald by the bus driver), and questionable reconstructions by the Commission (e.g., testing the accuracy of the rifle with stationary targets). The Report (against the better judgment of at least two of the Commission’s staff, Liebeler and Ball) had to rely on some of the shakiest witnesses, like Brennan and Mrs. Markham. It also had to impeach some of its best, like Wesley Frazier.

The critics were still dismissed. This was not, I suspect, simply because it was more difficult to believe that the Commission, its staff, and the FBI could be in error than it was to accept a counter-explanation, as Dwight Macdonald contended in Esquire. It was also because the critics had no counter-theory that was better than science fiction, no explanation less implausible than that of the Report.

TWO BOOKS JUST PUBLISHED move the discussion to a new level. Harold Weisberg’s noisy, tendentious Whitewash (which, for some good and probably many bad editorial reasons, no publisher would touch) is nevertheless the first critical study based on a close analysis of the twenty-six volumes themselves. Edward Jay Epstein’s Inquest, a remarkably effective book, presents startling new data about the internal workings of the Commission. In addition, two recent articles by Vincent Salandria in The Minority of One and those by Fred Cook in The Nation raise important questions. This material suggests not that the “official theory” is implausible, or improbable, or that it is not legally convincing, but that by reasonable standards accepted by thoughtful men, it is impossible, and that data collected by the FBI and the Commission show this to be the case.

Before these writings appeared, there were already strong reasons for doubting that Oswald did the shooting alone, or at all. The majority of eye-and ear-witnesses who had clear opinions as to the origins of the shots thought the first shot was from the knoll or the overpass (and these witnesses included such experienced hands as Sheriff Decker, the sheriff’s men standing on Houston Street, diagonally across from the Book Depository, Secret Service Agent Sorrels, and many others). All of the Commission’s obfuscation notwithstanding, Oswald was a poor shot and his rifle was inaccurate. Experts could not duplicate the alleged feat of two hits out of three shots in 5.6 seconds, even though they were given stationary targets and ample time to aim the first shot, and had partially corrected the inaccuracy of the sight for the test. No reliable witness could identify Oswald as the marksman. No one saw him at the alleged scene of the crime, except Brennan, who did not identify him later on in a line-up. Hardly enough time was available for Oswald to hide the rifle and descend to the second floor, where he was seen by Policeman Baker. No one saw or heard Oswald descend. And a paraffin test taken later that day showed positive results for nitrates on Oswald’s hands, but negative ones on his cheek. All of this indicates that Perry Mason, Melvin Belli, or maybe even Mark Lane, could have caused jurors to have reasonable doubts that Oswald did the shooting, or did all of the shooting. But none of this shows absolutely that Oswald could not have done it. He might have had fantastic skill and miraculous luck that day, and might have outdone the experts. He had an amazing talent for getting from place to place unobserved and unaccountably, and it could have been successfully employed at this time. The FBI and the Commission tell us a paraffin test is inconclusive (but then why do police forces use it?).

The “hard” data relied on by the Commission are that Kennedy was hit twice and Connally at least once; that Oswald’s rifle was found on the sixth floor; that three shells ejected from Oswald’s rifle were found by the southeast window of the sixth floor; that Oswald’s palm print is on an unexposed portion of the rifle; that his prints are on some of the boxes found near the window; that ballistics experts say that the distorted bullet fragments found in Kennedy’s car are from Oswald’s rifle; that the almost complete bullet No. 399 found in Parkland Hospital (whose strange history and role will be discussed later) was definitely shot from Oswald’s rifle; that Oswald was observed by at least five people in the building between 12:00 and 12:30, plus or minus a few minutes—two saw him on the first floor around noon, two report him on the fifth and sixth floor around this time, and Baker saw him right after the assassination on the second floor; and that Oswald left the building around 12:33 and went to Oak Cliff. (One might add some of the data on Tippit’s murder as “hard fact” but Oswald’s role in this incident is too much in dispute.) All of this certainly made a suggestive case that, difficulties notwithstanding, all of the shooting—three shots—was done by Oswald with his own rifle.

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