In a new piece for the Smithsonian magazine, “What Does the Zapruder Film Really Tell Us?” veteran journalist Ron Rosenbaum suggests that the debate about the causes of JFK’s assassination may never be resolved. What filmmaker Errol Morris rightly calls “the ultimate detective’s nightmare” can be solved — if the American people muster the political will.
Rosenbaum’s piece is framed around a smart conversation with Morris, director of The Thin Blue Line and other investigations of moral uncertainty. Morris says Zapruder’s film of Kennedy’s head shattered by a bullet destroyed Americans’ conception of themselves.
Rosenbaum’s metaphor is astute as it is graphic.
“It’s almost as if the brain exploding is like what it does metaphorically to our mind-set, our worldview,” he says.
“It goes to a kind of simpler version of America,” Morris tells Rosenbaum. “It truly was the end of the ’50s. The end of a certain kind of innocence that we bought into. World War II seemed to provide a notion of good and evil that we could all embrace. We could build a postwar future on that edifice. And this threw everything up for grabs. It’s incredibly sad, still, looking at it today. And it has produced this epistemic war of people battling for reality through these images — trying to wrest control back from chaos.”
This is also astute. The debate over the causes of JFK’s death is confusing, stupid, paranoid, and often ignorant. But above all it is very sad. As a result it is natural to feel discouraged.
Rosenbaum asks Morris: “Can we even have the certainty that all is uncertainty?”
“Here’s my problem,” Morris replies gamely. “My article of faith is that there’s a real world out there in which things happen. The real world is not indeterminate. I don’t want to hear people misinterpreting the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Something happened. The problem is not about the nature of reality. We know somebody killed Kennedy and there’s an answer to the question of who and why.”
But Morris sounds pessimistic about answering the who and why of JFK’s assassination and Rosenbaum seems to agree. He ends the piece with this final thought from Morris:
“Another thing we know is that we may never learn. And we can never know that we can never learn it. We can never know that we can’t know something. This is the detective’s nightmare. It’s the ultimate detective’s nightmare.”
But while the JFK assassination story is indeed “the ultimate detective’s nightmare,” there are five good reasons to believe that the case of the murdered president can be decisively clarified.
1) Great historical crimes often take a long time to resolve.
Consider the controversy over whether Thomas Jefferson had an African-American lover named Sally Hemings. It started in the 1800 presidential election and continued through the 1980s. For most of that time, the experts and historians confidently dismissed the idea. Indeed, these opinion-makers often used the same kind of of language that is used to dismiss JFK conspiracy theorists: “deluded,” “absurd,” “childish” and so on.
With the emergence of DNA technology, however, the scientific evidence confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt that Hemings’s children were descended from a male Jefferson and the historical record shows that Thomas Jefferson was the only plausible candidate for paternity. After two centuries of debate, the controversy was resolved. The experts and historians were shown to be mistaken.
So, one possibility is that new scientific techniques, as yet unimagined, could re-arrange our thinking about JFK’s death.
2) The release of a still-secret Pentagon recording will shed new light on the case of the murdered president.
The recording captures all of the communications coming and going from Air Force One on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, as JFK’s body was flown from Dallas to Washington. Right now, we only have an incomplete and edited version of this recording.
This truncated version was made obtained by the JFK Assassination Records Review Board. But there must have been longer version, because another Air Force One tape surfaced in 2011 in the estate of an Air Force officer that included forty more minutes of conversations. But internal evidence shows that this version too is incomplete.
JFK researcher Bill Kelly is going to present a cleaned-up version of the two tapes at the Wecht Center conference on JFK next month.
The Pentagon either has a complete Air Force One recording from 1963 or it destroyed it. Either way, the JFK Records Act requires the tape (or the record of its destruction) be made public.
Right now, there is no political will in the Executive Branch, the Congress or the courts to compel the Pentagon to search for and find this recording. But that could change.
3) We don’t have all of the CIA records on the subject.
There are more than 1,100 CIA documents related to the assassination. The agency says they are “Not Believed Relevant” to the JFK story. But some of them clearly are for reasons I explained in my posts, “Top 5 JFK files Brennan should make public” and “Two more JFK files for Brennan’s review.”
These records would shed new light on the operational activities of three undercover officers — David Phillips, Anne Goodpasture, and BIrch O’Neal — who knew about Lee Oswald’s travels, politics, and foreign contacts before JFK’s assassination. All of them are deceased.
These files would also shed light on undercover officers who loathed JFK and had expertise in political assassinations: Phillips, David Morales, and William K. Harvey, also deceased.
4) The Cuban government has not released all of its records on JFK’s assassination.
For the government in Havana, the JFK story is not a matter of history but of 21st century politics. You see the U.S. government officially classifies Cuba as a “terrorist” state. There is no evidence to support this designation but it remains in place thanks to the influence of the Cuban-American minority which opposes normal relations between the two countries. One part of the attempted demonization of Cuba is the semi-official theory that Oswald, a Castro supporter, killed Kennedy. One former CIA official is embellishing this theory with the lightly-documented claim that Fidel Castro’s government knew Oswald was going kill JFK.
The Cuban government has always rejected that theory. Havana has contended that JFK was killed by enemies in his own government who sought to lay the blame on Cuba.
Fabian Escalante, a retired Cuban intelligence official who has written several books about U.S.-Cuba conflict in the early 1960s, says the Cuban government’s records support this view. Escalante quotes from these documents in his book about “JFK: The Cuba Files.” If Escalante has quoted them accurately, they shed new light on CIA machinations in late 1963. But no non-Cubans have ever seen these records, so it is impossible to confirm Escalante’s claims.
If and when Washington and Havana re-establish normal diplomatic relations, both sides will feel less need for secrecy about the now-ancient events of 1963.
5) Llving witnesses to the JFK assassination story are constrained to this day by oaths of secrecy with the U.S. government.
For such witnesses (and I know of a half dozen Cuban-Americans who qualify) to come forward with what they know about classified U.S. intelligence activities involving Lee Oswald 1963 would be a violation of the law.
But if there were some form of JFK amnesty, in which the U.S. government released such people from their secrecy oaths, we would learn more about what CIA assets in Miami and New Orleans knew about Oswald before JFK was killed.
This is not to say that the JFK murder mystery will be solved, only that it could be — if there was political will to mandate full disclosure.
That will does not now exist, even as the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death approaches. Indeed, the prosecution of whistleblowers from the NSA (Snowden) and the U.S. Army (Chelsea/Bradley Manning) suggests that the U.S. government would respond harshly to a JFK whistleblower.
But that could change. The argument that full disclosure harms U.S. national security is at least plausible in the case of the NSA and Wikileaks revelations. The argument that full disclosure about the events of 1963 would hurt 21st century American is much less defensible.
Perhaps there is an Edward Snowden of the JFK assassination story toiling in national security bureaucracy who will defy the secrecy system for the sake of overdue transparency.