What’s the best single book about JFK’s assassination?

Anthony Summers Not in Your LIfetime

Updated with new reporting

I recommend Anthony Summers “Not in Your  Lifetime,” which has been updated and reissued this week. I think it is the best  single introduction to the JFK assassination story.

Why?

Summers is a veteran journalist and accomplished biographer whose work has appeared in BBC and Vanity Fair and other publications with high editorial standards and big audiences. He combines story telling skills with a relentless focus on sifting the evidence, eliminating the dubious, and identifying what is new and important.

Where there are problems with the evidence and conflicting interpretations he fairly and succinctly summarizes the state of the debate and puts it in context. When I fault historian Robert Dallek or Washington reporters for showing signs of “denial” in writing about JFK’s assassination, it is because I feel they do not engage new and conflicting evidence the way Summers does.

Summers has a long familiarity with the JFK story and isn’t afraid to correct himself. “Not in Your Lifetime” was originally published in 1980, under the title “Conspiracy.” Recognizing that the title was problematic, he changed it — and continued reporting on the story. In this edition he has found diverse witnesses — a couple of FBI agents, a Cuban exile, and a former Warren Commission staffer — who bring new information and perspective to his account.

Summers is trustworthy because he has a track record of finding new dimensions in American political history. “Official and Confidential,” his biography of J. Edgar Hoover was the first to candidly address the FBI director’s homosexual tendencies, a fact that was once considered sensationalistic and unfounded but is now generally acknowledged to be essential to understanding the man.

Summers’s biography of Richard Nixon revealed the tormented president’s efforts to get mental health treatment, a previously unknown and revealing story that was remarkably fair to an easily demonized figure. As a result of his fact-finding skills, “Not In Your Lifetime” is more empirical than theoretical, a rare thing in the literature of JFK’s assassination.

“Not in Your Lifetime,” of course, is not the only deeply-researched book on the subject. But the best of the others — such as Vincent Bugliosi’s “Reclaming History,” Lamar Waldron’s “Legacy of Secrecy” (co-authored with Thom Hartman) and James Douglass’s “JFK and the Unspeakable” — have the drawback of being dedicated to vindicating the author’s theory of the assassination. This makes their narratives sometimes feel subjective, if not self serving.

The virtues of Summers’s historical journalism is evident when you compare his approach to Bugliosi and Waldron’s.

Bugliosi, a former prosecutor, recounts JFK case from a forensic and theoretical point of view. His self-proclaimed mission is to discredit unsupported conspiracy theories. This is a worthy mission. There are a lot of stupid JFK conspiracy theories out there. But the result is a flabby book that devotes most of its energy to describing what did NOT happen in Dallas on November 22, 1963, as opposed to explaining what actually did happen.

When it comes to describing how JFK came to be killed, Bugliosi’s fat tome is substantively thin. Focused on stupid theories, he is ignorant or dismissive of actual facts that have emerged in recent years and require analysis. The persuasiveness of Bugliosi’s 1,700-page tome winds up being inversely proportional to its weight.

 Waldron, an independent scholar, comes to the JFK story with the mission of explaining not just how Kennedy died but the nature of American politics in the 1960′s, encompassing not just Kennedy’s presidency, but the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the  Watergate scandal. This is ambitious — and endless. If the reader differs with Waldron’s interpretation of  events, the story starts to lose credibility. As Waldron’s vehicle motors on towards pre-ordained destination, the author seems oblivious to the possibility that the reader might have a mind of his or her own.

These approaches have their advantages. Bugliosi and Waldron’s elaborate certainties and cosmic insights appeal to the mythmakers of Hollywood. “Reclaiming History” is the basis for the just-released “Parkland.”  Waldron’s book has been optioned by Leonardo DiCaprio. “Not In Your LIfetime,” is less conducive to such simplification, a sign perhaps that it is truer to the complexities of the JFK story.

Douglass’s “JFK and the Unspeakable” is better than “Reclaiming History” and “Legacy of the Secrecy” in this regard, but I think it still suffers from the fact that Douglass is a liberation theologian, not a journalist. His concern is ultimately spiritual. Since my spirit is like-minded, I don’t hesitate to recommend Douglass’s book to newcomers to the JFK story. But I have to admit that Douglass’s work is sometimes permissive in its standards of evidence. It does not have the rigor of “Not in Your Lifetime.”

Full disclosure: I thought “Not In Your Lifetime” was the best introduction to the JFK story before I met its author. Since then I have become a personal friend of Summers. Readers must decide for themselves if I am biased. The best way to do that is to read “Not in Your Lifetime.”

I’m interested in what readers think is the best single book about JFK’s assassination and why. I’ll summarize and publish your views.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

somewhat beside the point when it comes to understanding what DID happen in Dallas. Waldron focuses on proving his theory about

 

25 comments

  1. Jason L. says:

    I agree that Conspiracy is the best overall JFK book I’ve read, and I look forward to the update. Others I’d put on the list are Breach of Trust, The Last Investigation and Oswald and the CIA. I did really like JFK and the Unspeakable, though I admit I was put off a little by the spiritual angle, and skimmed a lot of the Merton stuff.

    I haven’t read Our Man in Mexico yet, so no disrespect intended Jeff.

  2. Jeff Pascal says:

    Jeff,I agree absolutely.My copy is not supposed to arrive till tomorrow, so hopefully we will have some discussion on the new info here. His article The Ghosts Of November in 1994 for Vanity Fair is by far the beat mainstream piece I have seen in 25 years. In depth enough to do justice to the Assassination, with several bombshells. The Martino material-Oswald’s monitoring by U.S. Intelligence, and the medical evidence.

  3. Since I’ve recently published a book on JFK in Germany
    http://www.globalresearch.ca/jfk-assassination-marked-the-end-of-the-american-republic/5346419
    I went through all the books mentioned in this post. Summers is a real classic (and might even become still better with it’s updates), Bugliosi left me unimpressed despite its volume, Waldron contains some very good research but suffers with a very implausible plot-theory, James Douglass’s “JFK & The Unspeakable” I’ld highly recommend not only for beginners but also for advanced JFK-scholars, his “spiritual” angle is imho no disadavantage at all.
    The book that impressed me most at my recent research was the very first written after the assassination, by the german-american journalist Joachim Joesten “Oswald – Assassin or Fallguy ?” and published before the Warren Report and Mark Lane’s book appeared. It shows that the inconsistencies of the official story were obviously from the very beginning and clearly at hand for anyone willing to look. But the media decided not to look at all and therefore became a accomplice of the cover-up.

  4. mitchum22 says:

    Must dissent here, ‘though I’m also looking forward to the new edition.

    Anthony Summers — author of Honeytrap, and the books on Hoover & Nixon — a master of rock-solid journalism? How are his sources, often focused on very sleazy and irrelevant stuff, more “journalistic” than are the great Jim Douglass’s? After 50 years, what with the near-complete contamination of the evidence by the ghouls in charge of the cover-up, the idea of a “pure” approach to the case is a rather silly notion, don’tcha think?. One is forced by the contamination to choose one’s narrative. Douglass’s, for me, is by far the best.

    Do we not remember Summers from the middle-90s, when his second edition — with the title wimp-out — rode the anti-Kennedy, “they weren’t much anyway” Gus Russo wave, a second edition that was basically a castration of his far superior original “Conspiracy” book?

    Let’s hope this new edition re-attaches the balls of his first.

  5. edward curtin says:

    Jeff

    Saying Jim Douglass is a liberation theologian and not a journalist is meaningless. Most journalists are coverup artists, and when did journalists become the only writers who could research and write about the JFK assassination. Who is a journalist? What is the ultimate goal of a journalist? I presume the truth. That is Jim Douglass’s goal as well. What is the ultimate goal of a sociologist or historian – the truth. JFK and the Unspeakable is based on rigorous research, and because a key part of Douglass’s thesis is that JFK underwent a spiritual transformation takes away not one jot from its persuasiveness; rather, it explains the deep motivation behind JFK’s decisions and the reasons why others thought he had to die. What does it mean to write that someone’s concern is ultimately spiritual? Is a journalist’s goal ultimately secular? What doe “ultimate” mean?
    Obviously you like JFK and the Unspeakable, but such an off-handed critique is unfair and specious, especially when you add that you “have to admit that his work is sometimes permissive in its standards of evidence.” Are “journalists” standards of evidence the only ones that meet your standards? How about historians? Sociologists? Writers who identify by no appellation except writer, public intellectual? And what does “sometimes permissive” mean? What you wrote seems unfair.

    • I agree with Edward Curtin – an explicator is an explicator regardless of the title one is given. When I am asked the “one book” to read, I say “JFK and the Unspeakable.” (I found it fascinating that Thomas Merton and Ethel Kennedy corresponded about JFK). Douglass gives one the minute stuff and the big picture and he does it masterfully.
      “Breach of Trust”, “Destiny Betrayed” 2nd ed.,”The Last Investigation” and “Oswald and the CIA” have been my favorites along with the Douglass. I am currently reading Joseph McBride’s book “Into the Nightmare” and love the way he is capturing so much of what one saw and felt and understood.
      Of course, Mark Lane’s book and Sylvia Meagher’s book are essential because they were written at the time.(the utter nonsense, for instance, of a Shakespeare authorial conspiracy was never broached by anyone until 150 years after the playwright died.No one for 4 generations uttered a disbelief)

  6. Marcus Hanson says:

    Thanks Jeff.

    I corresponded,briefly,with Anthony Summers about twenty years ago : I can attest that he did offer wise words of caution about a particularly ardent(and flat wrong)pro-conspiracy group prominent in the 1990′s.

    Presumably,you received an advance copy.
    You have done a far better job of promoting the book than these folks:

    http://www.openroadmedia.com/not-in-your-lifetime

    That sparse review gave me the impression – apparently false – that he was doing nothing more than follow YOUR lead,regarding release of documents.
    There was no mention of the “diverse witnesses”.

    You are pals with Anthony Summers? Then please tell him,as I mentioned at John McAdams’ site,I think his greatest achievement is getting his wife,Robyn, interested in the JFK case. How many of us could ever hope to do THAT ?!

  7. Photon says:

    The problem I have with many of these books is they postulate that if the CIA is withholding information, they MUST have something sinister to hide.
    And that is pretty much it. No new forensic evidence. No real new medical evidence. And even if you could prove an ironclad association between Oswald and the CIA (highly unlikely after 50 years) what exactly would that mean? As he had no visible means of support why would they have trusted him with anything? Wouldn’t a poor guy like him be automatically assumed to be a security risk? Let alone considering his mental health history . These CIA theories all ignore the realities associated with genuine operatives with the Agency. By definition those operatives never stand out; they never draw attention to themselves.

    • Neil Hodges says:

      “These CIA theories all ignore the realities associated with genuine operatives with the Agency. By definition those operatives never stand out; they never draw attention to themselves.”

      Actually people working in intelligence DO sometimes draw attention to themselves. Especially if they are involved in a False Flag operation(which Oswald plausibly may have been part of).

    • Jason L. says:

      Your first sentence I think is a fair point, and many of the CIA people in this story no doubt stonewalled the WC and other inquiries in order to protect means and methods, etc. But it’s 50 years later now. The continued lack of transparency becomes more suspicious as time goes by. The Cold War ended more than 20 years ago. If there’s nothing sinister, then why the continued secrecy? You see the national security state and police make a version of this argument all the time to the public (i.e., if you’re not a criminal, you have nothing to worry about when we do X).

  8. D. Olmens says:

    On the topic of books, there’s some fictional works about the assassination that might appeal to people interested in the case. To name a few:

    Don DeLillo, “Libra” – The best fictional book about the assassination that I’ve read.

    James Ellroy, “American Tabloid” – As a work of fiction, the Underworld USA trilogy is just immense.

    Stephen Hunter, “The Third Bullet” – Some interesting ideas, but maybe not such a great read. First half is ok, second half got a bit tedious for me.

    I’d be interested to hear any recommendations from others.

  9. Ronnie Wayne says:

    I started with Seth Kantor’s the Ruby Coverup in 1980 followed by Conspiracy among others of the time (Mafia Kingfish, Contract on America, etc.). It stimulated me to want to know more because it convinced me there was a Ruby coverup and led me to think what else is being covered up. The real eye opener for me had to be Jim Marrs Crossfire. I await the revised edition coming out 10/22. Others were The Man Who Knew Too Much, Plausible Denial.
    In the last few years it has to be Jim DiEugino’s revised Destiny Betrayed.

    • larrywheeler says:

      You listed some very good books to research this case with the foundation to understand how the overlapping power interests formed an alliance to remove their perceived threat. It amazing how this was pulled off and covered up for 50 years, yet they got away with it. I just came back from Dallas and I heard first hand from an old time vice cop how Ruby made car payments for him and the police were dispatched to pick Ruby up like a cab service. He told me Campisi’s was a layoff bookie center and Ruby paid off using “fat envelopes” – numbers written in pencil and delivered to the police station for payoffs. Seth Cantor had Ruby’s connections to the underworld spot on.

  10. Eric Saunders says:

    It is not for the uninitiated, but Peter Dale Scott’s Deep Politics and the Death of JFK is fantastic. He provides a peerless look at the unacknowledged forces that drive US militarism. He also describes how deeply intertwined are the Overworld of private wealth and the Underworld of organized crime. The intelligence agencies act as go-betweens for the two. In this context, the assassination is not one isolated conspiracy, but an outgrowth of institutionalized criminality that serves to maintain and extend a despotic, extractive, and hierarchical political economy in the US and over much of the world via US hegemony/imperialism.

  11. B.G. Riney says:

    JOANNIDES PHOTO

    In the book, NOT IN YOUR LIFETIME, there is a photo of George Joannides on page 462. This person does not look like the photo of Joannides on JFKFacts.org. Please enlighten.

  12. Curt says:

    B.G.,

    I saw the photo too in Summers’ updated book. Photo is misidentified as George Joannides, but is actually Ted Shackley who ran the CIA’s JM/Wave station in Miami in the early 1960s.

  13. Jon Boles says:

    The ultimate fault I find with the majority of pro-conspiracy books is the disregard for disclosing the full nature of Lee Harvey Oswald’s character. Many render him too far in the background as a two-dimensional character, a puppet to be used by players on some crazy-assed chessboard. After reading Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale, Davison’s Oswald’s Game, and his brother Robert’s excellent book Lee, I have no doubt whatsoever that Oswald was capable of political assassination or other acts of violence, and ultimately, that he in fact committed the murders of Kennedy and Tippit on 22 November 1963. What I find personally persuasive in these books is that they focus less on the periphery, and zero in solely on Oswald the man (I’ve yet to read Marina and Lee, but from all indications, I will likely find myself adding it to the list as well). Finding so many people (including family) indicating his general contempt for normal standards of societal civility reeks less of ‘legend’ to me, and absolutely, full-on, 100% indication of someone who could assassinate the chief executive.

    That said, while I have full admiration for the above books for shining a spotlight on the man and not the deed, I still credit Bugliosi’s book as being the gold standard.

    I would give Summers top marks, however, for writing a top-shelf book from the other side of the aisle. While I generally did not agree with many of his conclusions in the 1998 edition, I did at least find the book far less ludicrous than some other works out there.

    Finally, I still credit Douglass and Twyman for being the authors of the books that finally eradicated any agnosticism regarding the Kennedy assassination and sent me away from any potential conspiratorial view.

  14. TLR says:

    I recommend Henry Hurt’s REASONABLE DOUBT, or Gerald McKnight’s BREACH OF TRUST.

  15. Warren says:

    The best book about the Kennedy murder was authored by former U.S. Senate and U.S. House investigator, Gaeton Fonzi: “The Last Investigation.” Gaeton worked in the field and through his legwork connected many of the disparate threads among Oswald, the anti-Castro Cubans, and the CIA – and moreover, tells why the House Select Committee scuttled the investigation. Gaeton was a journalist and investigator par excellence, and we miss his authenticity dearly.

  16. Paul says:

    Surprised that two of the best have not been mentioned: “Death of a President” by William Manchester and “Case Closed” by Gerald Posner.

  17. Mark Groubert says:

    But the best of the others — such as Vincent Bugliosi’s “Reclaming History,” Lamar Waldron’s “Legacy of Secrecy” (co-authored with Thom Hartman) ..

    You’re making this up as you go along Jeff? After all the work Jim DiEugenio did to shred both these books? Don’t you at least owe it to Jim to begrudgingly honor his hard work and remove these two? Are you that much of a hater? Give Jim and others some love here. Both of these books have been thoroughly dismantled. Dear Lord.

  18. HP says:

    I think you need to start with Dave Emory’s Text & mp3′S ON HIS web

    Site: http://www.spitfirelist.com/

    There’s 30+ years of research & interviews

    if you think there’s a more complete site please post it

    HP

  19. The Scribe says:

    Really excellent review. I’m currently reading Waldron’s new book, THE HIDDEN HISTORY as well as UNSPEAKABLE. I don’t believe you have to necessarily accept Waldron’s conclusion; there’s a lot of really good stuff in there that people should be aware of. As far as UNSPEAKABLE, I’m just not impressed with it at all so far. I’m just not buying into what Douglas is saying or even how he says it. I know Waldron has been accused of revisionist history but so far I think that description fit Douglas much better. He would have us believe Kennedy was some kind of Gandhi figure or something who died for peace cause.

  20. Neil says:

    I’m currently reading Waldron’s ‘Hidden History of the JFK Assassination’ and in terms of covering recently declassified info it’s probably the most informative book on this topic that I’ve ever read.

    I agree that Summers’ book is a great introduction to JFK assassination research but as someone who didn’t need much of an introduction to this topic, I didn’t find it as informative as other books I’ve read.

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