On JFK, Joyce Carol Oates blames the victim

In an essay for The Washington Post, prolific novelist Joyce Carol Oates opines that the real problem in the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy was not the government’s implausible and mendacious account of the crime but the confused and outraged response of the American majority that could not–and does not–believe it.

Alexandra Zapruder “If Kennedy’s assassination was a tragedy,” she writes in a review of Alexandra Zapruder’s book about her grandfather’s home movie of the assassination, “the aftermath of competing and vociferous conspiracy theorists was a farce, with serious consequences: the undermining of trust in the U.S. government and in authority in general that continues to this day.”

As we approach the commemoration of JFK’s death on November 22, Oates’s stance is a reminder of the sources and power of denial. Rather than face the facts, Oates takes comfort in the fiction that the American people are to blame for their own suspicion and doubt.

Oates suggests that the critics of Warren Commission’s account undermined trust in government. She refrains from judging President Johnson or FBI director J. Edgar Hoover or former CIA director Allen Dulles decided within 48 hours of JFK’s death that Oswald alone had committed the crime and then ordered subordinates to reach that conclusion.

Who’s to blame?

In Oates’ perspective, it was not the CIA that undermined trust in government by withholding two bodies of evidence from the public and from investigators: the plots to kill Castro and the pre-assassination monitoring of Oswald.

Giamatti as Zapruder
As seen in ‘Parkland,” Abraham Zapruder, played by Paul Giamatti

Note that I am not talking about individual pieces of evidence but whole bodies of information that contained multiple pieces of material evidence that were fundamental to the homicide under investigation.

The accused assassin was not, as the government pretended, of little interest to the FBI and essentially unknown to the CIA before JFK was killed. The story of a “lone nut” was false and senior government officials knew it was false.

Oswald was not alone as he made his way to Dallas; he was watched by senior CIA and FBI officers every step of the way. And he was not regarded as a “nut.” He was the object of intense interest, culminating on October 10, 1963 when senior CIA officers reviewed Oswald’s file and told the Mexico City station that he was “maturing.”

In fact, the accused assassin was a man whose politics, foreign contacts, and personal life had been monitored by the CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff for four years. The Fair Play for Cuba Committee to which he ostensibly belonged had been targeted for destruction by a joint CIA-FBI COINTELPRO operation in September 1963.

Playing dumb

Yet after JFK was dead, the CIA officers who knew the most about the accused assassin Oswald played dumb.

James Angleton testifies
James Angleton, spymaster who monitored Oswald.

At the same time, James Angleton, chief of the counterintelligence staff and other top CIA officers who had been conspiring to kill Cuban president Fidel Castro, said nothing about their own endeavors in political assassination. They didn’t disclose those murderous plans to JFK investigators, despite their obvious relevance.

In face of this painful and shameful accumulation of facts, Oates does what a lot of people do. She takes the easy way out. She blames the people, not the government. The problem, in her view, wasn’t criminal governmental misconduct. It was–and is–the millions of Americans who responded indignantly to this malfeasance.

Their implausible theories, she says implausibly, are what undermined faith in government. The men who actually committed perjury and obstructed justice in the case of the murdered president escape her censure.

Facts and fiction

A novelist, Oates is more interested in grand themes than mundane facts, especially facts that disturb her apolitical analysis of the human condition. What interests her about Zapruder’s film–and his granddaughter’s book about it–it how it shapes individual identity.

“If there is one predominant theme of “Twenty-Six Seconds,” she writes. “it is that an individual cannot easily escape the inheritance of names, and how it shapes identity and life experiences.”

Head ShotOates does not share Alexandra Zapruder’s efforts to understand the visual evidence of a homicide on the film. Oates doesn’t mention the most shocking revelation of the film when the film was first shown publicly in 1975: that the president was not driven “forward” by the fatal shot as Secret Service officer Clint Hill told the Warren Commission or that JFK fell to his “left” when shot as the Commission’s final report falsely stated.

The Zapruder film shocked tens of millions of Americans when it was first shown on national TV in March 1975 because it showed the president backwards and to the left, as if struck by gunfire from the front–which is was what Merriman Smith, the UPI reporter on the scene, reported and waht Roy Kellerman, the Secret Service agent in the motorcade, soon said. So did twenty other law enforcement officers at the scene of the crime.

The visual evidence of the film left no room for doubt. On the question of the impact of the fatal shot, the Warren Commission had propagated a false version of events. In plain language, the Commission lied.

In response, many people developed theories that would better explain the facts. Some of these theories were stupid, ill-informed and implausible. But none of the stupid JFK theories did so much to undermine public confidence as the governmental misconduct which preceded them.

By pretending otherwise, Oates can excuse herself from the chore of confronting the truth that we really don’t know what happened in Dallas, not even a half century later. This is an uncomfortable and disturbing fact and Joyce Carol Oates does not want to be detained by it. She wants to get on with her mission of writing more fiction.



From a 5-Star Amazon review of Jefferson Morley’s CIA and JFK: The Secret Assassination Files,

“Can’t imagine a more meticulous take down of the CIA’s decades-long subterfuge surrounding the assassination.”

Jefferson Morley’s new ebook, CIA and JFK: The Secret Assassination Files, available on Amazon, provides the fullest account of the role of CIA operations officers in the events leading to the death of JFK, with a guide to what will be declassified in October 2017.






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