David Talbot’s top 7 JFK books

David Talbot

“There is a wealth of useful information about the Kennedy assassination available online,” writes Salon’s founding editor, David Talbot, who is now writing a book about Allen Dulles and JFK’s assassination.

“But before a beginner wades into these thickets, it’s best to start with some of the best books on the subject,” he adds.

Here’s Talbot’s top seven JFK books. Am I biased because Talbot is a friend and he includes my book? Yes, I am.

1. “JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters,” by James W. Douglass. Written by a deeply thoughtful Catholic peace activist, this book portrays Kennedy as a Cold War martyr – a leader who sacrificed his life to save the world from the nuclear holocaust that was being threatened by his national security team. Douglass draws together much of the best research about the Kennedy administration, and the tensions that finally tore it apart.

2. “The Last Investigation: What Insiders Know About the Assassination of JFK,” by Gaeton Fonzi. An aggressive Philadelphia investigative journalist, Fonzi was recruited by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1976 to be one of its lead investigators. (The HSCA’s final report in 1979 overturned the Warren Report, concluding that JFK had been killed as the result of a conspiracy, but failed to name the plotters.) Fonzi’s inside account of the committee, which came tantalizingly close to cracking the case before it was sabotaged by CIA obstructionism and congressional cowardice, makes for a gripping and eye-opening tale.

3. “Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why,” by Gerald McKnight. Written by a professor emeritus of history at Hood College, this is one of the few invaluable books on the Kennedy case produced by American academia – which has been as timid as the press when it comes to exploring this taboo topic. McKnight documents how U.S. security agencies immediately hijacked the Warren investigation — and makes a compelling case for their own involvement in JFK’s death.

4. “Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA,” by Jefferson Morley. By focusing on Scott, chief of the CIA station in Mexico City at the time of the JFK assassination, Morley sheds a revealing light on a fascinating sideshow in the Oswald story. Morley demonstrates how Oswald was the object of an intensive CIA shadow play, which can be traced back to the agency’s wizard of deception, James Jesus Angleton.

5. “Oswald and the CIA,” by John Newman. A former military intelligence officer, Newman brought his unique expertise to deciphering the flood of JFK documents that were declassified in 1992 as a result of the public outcry following Oliver Stone’s film “JFK.” Newman shows that – despite CIA denials – the agency had a strong operational interest in Oswald that dated back years before Dallas.

6. “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years,” by David Talbot. Yes, I plead guilty to shameless self-promotion. But in my defense, my book broke new ground by documenting how Robert Kennedy himself was one of the first JFK conspiracy theorists. Based on over 150 interviews with Kennedy relatives and administration insiders, the book traces Bobby’s secret search for the truth about his brother’s murder.

7. “Deep Politics and the Death of JFK,” by Peter Dale Scott. A retired University of California, Berkeley, literature scholar, former Canadian diplomat and distinguished poet, Scott is the Wise Man of the Kennedy research movement. Though not trained as a historian or investigative journalist, Scott took up the challenge of the JFK mystery in his spare time over four decades ago, delving assiduously where few reporters or academics dared go. “Deep Politics” is his Kennedy masterpiece, a meticulously detailed examination of the deep network of power that underlies the events in Dallas. The book is filled with provocative insights about how the upper circles of U.S. power actually operate (often in concert with the criminal underworld). I list “Deep Politics” last, only because it’s not for beginners – readers should approach this dense and challenging book after getting a basic grounding in the Kennedy case.

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22 comments

  1. leslie sharp says:

    I wouldn’t want to bump any books on David Talbot’s list, but I think that Dick Russell’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” must be viewed as a significant contribution in the earliest days to understanding the back stories leading to the assassination. Had Russell not exposed the milieu of power brokers in Texas at the time, their relationship to the military and to the US and international intelligence apparatus, had he not taken the risk of speculating, the research into the murder of Kennedy might have stalled very early on.

    I would also add “Thy Will Be Done” (Colby & Dennett) to any list dedicated to re-educating a new generation. The book does not focus on the Kennedy assassination specifically, but it defines the impact that certain US private/industrial concerns had on governmental power, particularly in Latin America leading to the murder of Kennedy, and flourishing in the aftermath.

  2. Mitch says:

    Those 7 are definitely top ten. I just finished Gerald McKnight and Jefferson Morley’s books and agree that they are that important to the case. Actually, I’ve read or re-read every book on the list this year. If only people read these first, along with a couple “lone nut” books, more progress would be made on the assassination.

    I would also add Larry Hancock’s “Someone Would Have Talked” and Anthony Summers’ “Conspiracy” to a list of top books on the assassination.

  3. Cary Jennings says:

    I would add Jim DiEugenio’s 2012 edition of “Destiny Betrayed,” which is the best synthesis of what we have learned from the government records released in the last twenty years. He also demonstrates definitively the overwhelming role the CIA played in undermining the investigation conducted by New Orleans DA Jim Garrison.

  4. lysias says:

    Douglas Horne’s five-volume, 2000-page Inside the Assassination Records Review Board: The U.S. Government’s Final Attempt to Reconcile the Conflicting Medical Evidence in the Assassination of JFK goes through the medical (and other) evidence in much greater detail than other books. Horne, a retired naval officer, as Chief Analyst of Military Records for the Assassination Records Review Board, personally took part in interviews of many of the leading witnesses, especially people at Parkland Hospital and at the Bethesda Naval Hospital.

  5. Tom says:

    Does anybody know if the argument between Scott and Chomsky over NSAM 263 and 273 continues in some form?

    • Colleen McGuire says:

      Does anybody know if the argument between Scott and Chomsky over NSAM 263 and 273 continues in some form?

      Tom — Could you kindly summarize their respective argument? (I already know what NSAM 263 and 273 are).

  6. Neil says:

    I recently read ‘Unspeakable’.

    It’s probably one of the best books I’ve read on Kennedy’s Presidency and his assassination.

    There were some things that bothered me about the book. One being that it was a little too repetitive at times. The other was that some of the Conspiracy stuff mentioned in the book appears to have very little independent corroboration. Specifically, I’m referring to the stuff about an Oswald double being airlifted out of Dallas on a military plane and the story about the Green Beret who says he was asked to murder a JFK witness.

    Still, ‘Unspeakable’ is a great book and the author builds a very persuasive case for his narrative that Kennedy’s murder was an inside job…

    • Mball says:

      “Unspeakable” was a good read and an interesting take on JFK’s presidency. The conspiracy business with the plane landing on the Trinity River bed to pick up conspirators is, in my opinion, ludicrous. I also believe that Mr. Douglass is not remotely objective about Kennedy. Worth reading, but I wouldn’t hang my hat on it as a deinitive work in re JFK. Sylvia Meaghre’s “Accessories After The Fact” is a necessary book, as is Larry Hancock’s “Someone Would Have Talked” and “Nexus”. My opinions only, of course.

  7. Jonathan says:

    I rate “Deep Politics” number 1, “Unspeakable” number 2.

    Peter Dale Scott does something remarkable in “Deep Politics”. He looks at the assassination in the context of apparently unrelated events; in particular, the huge amount of money then being made here and abroad from the drug trade.

    Here’s a secret. In Viet Nam, the U.S. Army ran very deep cover operations involving foreign nationals (not Vietnamese) who were drug couriers from the Golden Triangle. Why? Because these individuals in bringing drugs (heroin) into South Viet Nam intersected North Vietnamese Army units in the Laotian and Cambodian border regions. So what, you say? Some of these NVA units held American POWs. Getting information American POWs was my #1 priority in Viet Nam.

    Drug dealing is a big deal from an intelligence gathering and funding standpoint. What the U.S. Army did with regard to drug couriers in Viet Nam was scrupulously honest, except for rogue operations. What the CIA and certain politicians have done over the years in regard to drugs is something the American people don’t want to know and wouldn’t believe.

    • KenS says:

      And perhaps another secret: this is not the appropriate thread for it, but Allen Dulles opened the door to the possible role of the narcotics trade in the murder of Tippit in his question to Jesse Curry 50 years ago; no one (living) to my knowledge has stepped through yet.

      • Mball says:

        Good point. I think that the DPD was very closed mouth about Tippit. You keep hearing about alleged connections between him and Jack Ruby and other police who were friends of Ruby’s. I suspect that being open about Tippit might have opened a can of worms in re the entire dept. There’s a lot of rumor about his friendship with Ruby. With that much smoke, there’s likely to be a fire somewhere in there. The entire murder case in re Tippit was poorly handled, possibly intentionally.

  8. Larry Schnapf says:

    I agree with top 6 and also agree that Dick Russell belongs in top ten list. I would substitute “Not In Your Lifetime” by Anthony Summers for Deep Politics.

    A book that has remained incredibly useful despite its age is “Accessories After the Fact” by Sylvia Meagher. Josiah Thompson’s Six Seconds in Dallas” would also be in my list of top ten books. Dick Russell also belongs there

  9. Ronnie Wayne says:

    As a respected writer/researcher I defer to Mr. Talbot’s list with the additions of Leslie Sharp and Cary Jennings. I’ve not read his book or Mr. Scott’s though they have been on my wish list for a good while.
    I would like to note all of these are in the last 20 years basically, a time in which knowledge on the subject been expanded greatly as a result of the ARRB, internet and as a result of the movie JFK. Going back further I’d add Crossfire by Marrs, On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison, High Treason by Groden & Livingstone and the Ruby Cover up by Kantor off the top of my head.
    Also I’ve never read After the Fact by Meagaher, Rush to Judgement by Lane (I do have Plausible Denial and Last Word), or Six Seconds by Thompson which I’ve read are invaluable. I believe these (and others by those more knowledgeable than I) would complement a more comprehensive list.
    As I’m just finishing it Mr. Dieugenio’s Reclaiming Parkland may end up on some peoples “Top” whatever lists.

  10. Andy A says:

    Good list, but I’d say a ‘Top 100′, minimum, is necessary at this stage.

    DiEugenio’s ‘Destiny Betrayed’ (revised ed.) is hands-down the best book on the subject for newbies. His latest ‘Parkland Reclaimed’ (needs a new title) is very useful for countering the ‘Buglidiots’ in your life.

    Garrison’s ‘On the Trail of the Assassins’ should definitely be on the list. It’s a gripping, well-edited book that reads like ‘In Cold Blood’. Given later disclosures re: the New Orleans crowd, it’s stunning how close he came to solving this case. Perfect for beginners.

    Joan Mellen’s ‘A Farewell to Justice’ deserves a mention. Not for newbies, but if a tenth of the stuff she’s dug up on Thomas Beckham, Jack Martin, de Mohrenschildt, Fred Crisman etc. can be independently corroborated, her work will prove very valuable indeed.

    Sterling & Peggy Seagraves work on Yamashita’s Gold in books like ‘Gold Warriors’ deserves mention. Not about JFK, but necessary to understand the importance and power of higher-ups like Ed Lansdale & Charles Willoughby.

    Similarly, Doug Valentine’s books like ‘Strength of the Wolf’ are useful in describing the various high-level drug-running networks that passed through TX, LA, Mexico etc. You can’t get a handle on longtime FBN informant Jack Ruby without knowing this stuff. Valentine’s ‘The Phoenix Program’ provides yet more dirt on our buddy Lansdale.

    Also, anything & everything by Larry Hancock.

  11. GM says:

    I have recently read David Talbot’s book on JFK and RFK, and Not in Your Lifetime. I thought Not in Your Lifetime was very good. The one criticism I have about Summer’s book is that towards the end it heavily focuses on organised crime as a suspect. I think Summers might have been too influenced by Blakey towards the end of his investigations of JFK’s murder. If there was a conspiracy, then the Mafia may well have had an operational role in the assassination, along with, or and, the anti-Castro Cubans. However, these groups did not have the ability on their own to influence the American government’s communications, records, or investigations into the assassination.

    I have just started The Last Investigation. I know it is highly rated. I would like to read Accessories After the Fact, and Deep Politics some time. I already have a few other books as well to read (Douglass, McKnight).

  12. Fredrick Burlakoff says:

    One book I would add to this list is Judyth Vary Baker’s ME AND LEE. I feel her book is VERY well documented to support her story. She is a very brave woman who has suffered greatly in the pursuit of truth. ME AND LEE was fascinating in connecting so many dots around LHO and David Ferrie.

  13. Jean Davison says:

    There was a time when I thought I could rely on the accuracy of books from reputable publishers that were well-reviewed and had lots of footnotes.

    Boy, was I wrong!

    The books mentioned here that I’m familiar with (I haven’t read them all) contain many errors and misleading statements. I’m not talking about things I simply disagree with, but outright errors and unfounded claims that are stated as fact — for example, that Oswald was fluent in Russian when he defected or that he had a “crypto” security clearance.

    Nowadays it’s often easy to check footnotes online. May I humbly suggest that readers verify the accuracy of authors’ claims before accepting them as true.

  14. D. Olmens says:

    The best book I’ve come across on James Jesus Angleton is “Cold Warrior” by Tom Mangold, originally published in the early ’90s if I remember correctly. A very good read. Would be interested to know if anyone has any other recommendations. Sadly there seem to be very few books dedicated solely to the topic of Angleton.

  15. GM says:

    There is a book on Angleton and Bill Harvey called
    Wilderness of Mirrors: Intrigue, Deception, and the Secrets that Destroyed Two of the Cold War’s Most Important Agents, by David C. Martin. I have not read it though so cannot give an opinion on its quality.

  16. Alan Dale says:

    ^ Wilderness of Mirrors is essential. Great book.

  17. Mball says:

    The is another, an autobiography of Joseph B. Smith entitled “Portrait of a Cold Warrior” from the 50′s through the ’70′s, and served part of his time in the Western Hemisphere Division. Interesting memoir.

  18. D. Olmens says:

    Thanks for the recommendation Alan, sounds like an interesting read. Will find myself a copy.

    Given how long ago “Cold Warrior” was written I think it’s high time someone wrote an updated Angleton biography. It surprises me that there’s not been more books written about him.

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