That afternoon in 1963, I was in the cellar of a Catholic seminary, a crenellated Gothic building in Washington, D.C. I was seated in the ad-hoc barber’s chair, while an untrained yet officially designated classmate was hacking at my hair, a normal part of the monkish life. Suddenly, one of our fellow seminarians stormed through the doorway to yell the news from Dallas. With a half-finished haircut, I rushed with the others to the common room for its television. A hundred of us were crowded there by the time the usually stolid Walter Cronkite choked up. One by one, we drifted to the chapel.
Across ensuing days, when we weren’t downtown standing on the curbside of Pennsylvania Avenue or in the Capitol grounds, mute witnesses to one funeral march or another, we were planted in front of the television, or on our knees before the tabernacle. Prayer had never come more naturally. I have no memory of that haircut being finished.
I was 20. The day President Kennedy was murdered marked the beginning of my adulthood. It was the first time I realized that hopes can be dashed suddenly and catastrophically — and, soon enough, that even the most vital of questions may go unanswered forever.
That weekend made the nation whole in its grief. Television sealed the bond. Elegantly enacted military obsequies formed one bracket of experience — the riderless horse with boot reversed in its stirrup, muffled drums, a bugle, the bagpipe; the timeless rubrics of Catholic liturgy formed the other — ubiquitous priests, black vestments, the veiled heads of women, power brokers on their knees. Why, if not for this, had suffering defined the essence of Christian faith? In the stately St. Matthew’s Cathedral, such historic figures as Charles de Gaulle, Haile Selassie, and Eamon de Valera filled out the front pews, but my parents were in there, too. Gruff old Cardinal Cushing touched the casket. He spoke for a merciful God by saying simply, “Dear Jack.”
But, the whole time, there was a loathsome distraction: the bulletins about the misfit crackpot gunman. Texas seemed guilty at first, and so did the Ku Klux Klan, the John Birch Society, the wild-eyed Cuban exiles, the US hate machine. It wouldn’t be long, we thought, before we knew who had really done this, and why. We could not imagine in those early days that our collective anguish, instead of passing, would calcify around questions to which every answer opened into yet more questions. About what happened that day in Dallas, all we know for sure even now — 50 years later — is that we don’t know it all. And in the years that followed, that lack of knowledge helped push America’s entire public dialogue in poisonous directions.
The assassination’s thicket of unresolved ambiguities became a hospitable niche for a profound American insecurity. Who killed the president? The disproportion between the punk Lee Harvey Oswald and the hero Kennedy surely meant that the assassin could not have acted alone. A gut instinct told everyone that Oswald was a mere instrument wielded by a hidden hand, but whose?
In the search for answers, facts lurking below the surface suddenly took on dark significance: Former Marine Lee Harvey Oswald had previously defected to Moscow; the Kennedy administration had locked its sights on Havana again; mobsters had been the Kennedy brothers’ archenemies. When a local man named Jack Ruby — a strip-club owner? really? — found it possible to enter Dallas police headquarters that Sunday and shoot the heavily guarded Oswald at close range, the story took its decisive turn into the realm of the truly deranged.
The connivance of Reds was an obvious theory: Why shouldn’t the demonic Kremlin have begun its openly stated project of burying America by burying the nation’s now universally beloved president? Newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson foresaw the problem of an unleashed impulse to lay blame. Johnson, sensing the danger of the question left unanswered, quickly moved to check a coming torrent of paranoid scapegoating. He appointed the Warren Commission, which, ultimately prompting more questions than it answered, would prove to be the disease that called itself the cure.
Soon, everyone knew these plot points: The Texas School Book Depository. Oswald not a drifter, but a calculator. JFK’s autopsy interrupted. Secret Service lapses. Oswald a Communist. No, a right-wing nut. Eyewitness accounts in conflict. The grassy knoll. Contested bullet trajectories. The unlikelihood of three accurate shots in little more than five seconds, especially by a man known for poor marksmanship. Then there was Oswald’s mystery wife — a Red, for sure.
If the first pieces of the story to emerge seemed jagged, they would fit together eventually, wouldn’t they? Less than a year after the assassination, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the commission findings: Oswald was an unhinged lone gunman, and so was Ruby. Because Oswald was dead, the commission said, it was not “possible to arrive at the complete story” of the murder. The nation would have to live with questions. The president had been killed for nothing larger than an accidental act of insanity. A second such act, the killing of Oswald, cut short society’s capacity to reckon with the full truth of it. When even Robert Kennedy publicly accepted this explanation, who were the rest of us to wonder?
Subsequent news events, though, kept fueling deeper suspicions about the commission’s work. Official lies about Vietnam widened a credibility gap. Demonstrations became rebellions. When Malcolm X was murdered in 1965, it could seem remote to white America, but the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 was a blow to the nation — and assassination all at once felt familiar. When Robert Kennedy was gunned down two months later, it was no longer possible to rank such perdition as mad accidents of history. We knew it, we knew it: The murder of JFK had started something. Lone gunmen all — yet these killers had to have some deeper significance than purposeless madness, right? Otherwise we would all be mad.
Yet the quest for answers proved even madder. The uncorked New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison launched a sensational JFK assassination investigation in the late 1960s, culminating in the 1969 trial of a businessman named Clay Shaw. By then John Kennedy’s nemesis Richard Nixon was in the White House — from which some Kennedy admirers deduced that a malevolent current was running below the surface of national consciousness, especially when Nixon expanded the war in Vietnam that Americans had been told was ending. In New Orleans, Shaw was quickly acquitted by a unanimous jury, but in that dismally tumultuous year Garrison’s charge that Kennedy was murdered by a conspiracy had unexpected resonance.
Conspiracy books began rolling off the presses — ultimately hundreds of them. After the Pandora’s box of Watergate was thrown open, with revelations of true government criminality, Congress itself returned to the question of President Kennedy’s assassination, with investigations in both the House and Senate. The Warren Commission report was revisited, and now serious inconsistencies, lapses, and even deceptions were exposed. What the American people had been told about Oswald had fallen far short of the full truth.
But rather than restoring public confidence, these revelations further damaged it. Open congressional testimony produced no hard evidence to contradict the Warren commission’s essential conclusion that both Oswald and Ruby had acted alone. But while the Senate and House committees had made many secrets public, others remained sealed, fueling still more conspiracy theories. Those who rejected conspiracy theories out of hand had come to seem naive.
Through the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, for whom destruction of faith in government was a political purpose, cultivated cynicism on the right by demonizing social services, and on the left by pursuing secret wars in Central America. Thus the whole government-hating country was primed for the arrival of Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK.” With Kevin Costner as Garrison, it turned the New Orleans DA from a crackpot self-aggrandizer into a lonely seeker of truth.
In the movie’s centerpiece scene, a long walking sequence shot at the reflecting pool in Washington, a mysterious Pentagon insider, played by Donald Sutherland, explains to Garrison, and by extension the nation, that Kennedy was killed in a carefully orchestrated act of “black ops” involving the US Army, the CIA, the Secret Service, the FBI, and top-level Washington officials — all acting to protect the Cold War national security elite and its military-industrial partners and, especially, to make sure that their much desired war in Vietnam could proceed. An all-too-dovish Kennedy had to be removed, Stone’s film makes clear, because he was a threat to the “establishment.” Dozens, if not hundreds, of conspirators were actively involved in this crime. And they all kept the secret.
It was nonsense. Critics said so. Still, many took the movie as history. Never mind that Stone’s hypothesis, offered up as fact, amounts to a ghastly slander of numerous identifiable people — one of whom, as it happens, was my father. He was the Pentagon’s intelligence chief, a character bound to be at the center of such a plot. Not given to weeping, to put it mildly, Dad had wept that November weekend. He felt the loss of Kennedy more acutely than anyone I knew. By 1991, luckily, Dad was not aware.
Stone’s film resonated, though, because it salved what had by then become an intolerably painful national wound — not the memory of JFK’s death, but our failure to fully explain it. That we’d been invited to regard the assassination merely as a cruel turn of fate was the work of malevolent forces. The government did this to us, Stone’s film explained.
His narrative was a roaring rejection of the contingency of life, of how great consequences can follow from the petty deeds of wholly insignificant individuals acting with weightless motive more or less alone. “JFK” would prove to be the master template for all assassination conspiracy theories, right down to those 50th anniversary books being published this month. Such elaborate fantasies would be nation-destroying if they were true. Yet, ironically, they offer us a rescue of the moral order — an insistence that massive social and political heartbreak must be the result of intentional design.
In their own way, these conspiracy theories prepared the soil in which took root the broad distrust in government that curses the nation to this day. More than that, conspiracy-mindedness undercuts the civic maturity that is necessary for a commonwealth to function responsibly. Every tug in the direction of conspiracy — “they” did this! — is a signal of the test we have been failing. The compulsion to keep asking the question “why?”, replying to every answer with another “why?”, until the final conjuring of a satisfactory explanation is forced, is a mark of childhood. More recent conspiracy theories, from the supposed murder of Vince Foster to “9/11 was an inside job” to insinuations about missing birth certificates, are also rooted in a callow refusal to get real.
Fifty years later, it is hard to convey how most Americans felt— and how I felt — about John F. Kennedy. In his first summer as president, a crisis over Berlin had ignited the lethal nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. Kennedy told us to prepare for war, and we did. In fear, we felt bound to him.
The climax came, of course, not over Berlin but Cuba. During that October in 1962, an unflinching Kennedy dispelled the danger for which he had primed us. When he and Nikita Khrushchev, equally chastened, agreed to a partial nuclear test ban the following summer, we glimpsed the opening — arms-control negotiations — through which a peaceful end of the Cold War would eventually come.
Less than three months later, when the shots rang out at Dallas, it seemed the post-Cuba reprieve from terror had been revoked. In the death of one man, as we felt it, a far more catastrophic fate had shown itself, an armageddon after all. That the fabric of the nation so quickly unraveled seemed somehow unsurprising. And why shouldn’t we have sought ways to put off maturity — by filling in the gaps in the record with grandiose theories whose vast scope reflected the depths of our sorrow?
At some point, though, a grown person has to say, “I do not know, and never will.” That is the reply to life’s most important questions. For me, it was also the terrible lesson of Kennedy’s death.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.