In this report, CBS News seeks to portray the single bullet theory as “single bullet science” — and mostly fails.
The report, on the findings of a longer PBS program, “Cold Case JFK” that airs tonight, Nov. 13, is perhaps most interesting as a specimen of JFK denialism. It springs from the understandable impulse to deny the troubling and contradictory nature of the evidence of JFK’s assassination in favor of a factually challenged but reassuring narrative of a lone gunman.
What is JFK denialism?
One of the defining traits of JFK denialism is the impulse to refute stupid JFK conspiracy theorists. This is a worthy impulse because there are more than a few stupid JFK conspiracy theorists, and they are worthy debunking.
But the impulse leads PBS’s ballistic experts, Luke and Michael Haag, into a classic red herring argument. To the CBS news reporters Luke Haag proclaims that a Carcano bullet could pass through two people — a point that no serious JFK researcher disputes. The question is not whether the bullet could cause seven non-fatal wounds in two men but whether it did. The notorious single bullet theory notwithstanding, there is good evidence that it did not.
Another defining trait of JFK denialism is the comforting but unsubstantiated claim. The Zapruder film shows that gunfire took place over the course of about seven seconds. Michael Haag says he easily could have fired the three shots as Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly did. But we don’t see Haag do it. And he makes no reference to the multiple failures of experienced marksmen to do so when enlisted by the Warren Commission in 1964.
The Commission’s attempts to recreate Oswald’s alleged marksmanship are recounted in Volume III of the Commission Hearings. With shooters ranked as “master marksmen” — a skill level Oswald never achieved — the Commission still could not consistently duplicate what Oswald allegedly did. Shooters recruited by CBS News in 1967 had much the same experience. The most one can say is that shooters more skilled and practiced than Oswald could occasionally, but not consistently, do what the accused assassin allegedly did on the first try.
Several well-informed readers debate the issue in the comments section of a recent JFK Facts posting. Decide for yourself who has the better case. I hope the issue will be aired as fully and fairly in the full-length PBS program.
(I was interviewed for this program about CIA secrecy and JFK’s assassination; I was not asked to comment on the show’s forensic findings.)
What Nellie Connally saw
A third feature of JFK denialism, common among defenders of the single bullet theory, is the studious ignoring of the testimony of two people seated next to JFK. The Haags and CBS News could not bring themselves to mention the fact in this segment but it is still a fact: the people closest to the gunfire disputed the single bullet theory.
Texas Governor John Connally said he he heard the sound of the first shot that did not him, and then the sound of a second shot that did. Since Connally was not looking at JFK at the time of the first shot, it is theoretically possible that the first shot missed altogether, and the second shot was the single bullet that wounded them both.
But his wife, Nellie Connally, was looking at JFK and she was quite clear and consistent in her testimony: She said Kennedy was hit by the first shot and her husband was hit by the second.
Logically and journalistically, Nellie Connally’s testimony requires explanation. It gets neither on the CBS segment.
If Nellie Connally was right, the single bullet theory is wrong. If Nellie Connally was wrong, single bullet theorists should supply an explanation of why the closest eyewitness to the event was mistaken in what she saw occur three feet away from her. The Haags offered none, at least not in this appearance.
A more balanced approach would seek to recreate the scenario that the Connallys described and then compare it to the single bullet theory to see which is more plausible. Apparently, that was not done.
The mother of invention
The reality of the crime scene creeps into this antiseptic presentation only once when Luke Haag says “there is one bullet that is unaccounted for.”
No one follows up on the comment but Haag was referring to the bullet that overshot JFK’s limousine and hit a curb nearby. A piece of flying debris struck a bystander, James Tague, in the face causing a superficial injury. No explanation is offered for that shot, perhaps because of a lack of time.
Or perhaps it was because accounting for the missing shot would require telling the curious but true story that the Dallas police and the FBI initially dismissed Tague’s story because it complicated their efforts to blame the crime on Oswald alone. When Tague’s story could not be dismissed, Arlen Specter, the ambitious young Warren Commission attorney, came up with single bullet theory as a way of reconciling the shot that missed and Oswald’s sole responsibility. In other words, the necessity of convicting Oswald was the mother of inventing of the single bullet theory.
In the end, even CBS news anchor Charlie Rose seems unconvinced by the Haags’ claims.
“Why is there so much skepticism” about the single bullet theory? asks Rose, wrinkling his nose at his guests.
Here Luke Haag retreat into the last refuge of the JFK denialist; the unsubstantiated cliche.
“It’s human nature. We want to think there’s more to it,” he says. “… a Marxist who hated this country … there’s nothing more to it than that.”
Its all very comforting. JFK was killed by a nut. The CIA and the FBI didn’t fail to protect the president. The Warren Commission wasn’t deceived. Mainstream news organizations didn’t blow the story. The only problem was some guy “who hated this country.”
The problem with this hoary claim is that there is little evidence that Oswald hated this country in 1963. It is true that he defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 out of admiration for communism. It also true that he disliked the Soviet Union so much he returned in 1962. In fact, unlike most Americans Oswald actually chose to live in the United States.
The notion that Oswald “hated” America is a distortion of his mildly leftist political views. When Oswald spoke about the Cuba issue on radio and TV in the summer of 1963, he criticized U.S. policy, not in hateful or even revolutionary terms, but in the earnest tones of left-wing autodidact. The pamphlets he handed out said nothing more radical than “Hands Off Cuba.” The notion that someone who opposed U.S. policy of overthrowing Fidel Castro “hated” America is an anachronistic sound bite of Cold War vintage. It is not an accurate description of Oswald’s political beliefs.
The CBS segment was merely a report on a PBS Nova show that airs tonight. Perhaps the lack of balance and selective use of evidence is not representative of the full show. I’ll be watching the hour-long program to see if it offers a more credible treatment of the still-dubious single bullet theory.
“RIP: Arlen Specter and his Single Bullet Theory” (JFK Facts, October 22, 2012)
“Fox News on a Dallas travesty: eyewitness to JFK’s death is shut out of anniversary event” (JFK Facts, Nov. 11, 2013)