It’s been fifty years since John F. Kennedy was assassinated, but the big conspiracy theory about his death still lives on.
No, I don’t mean any of the outlandish and thoroughly debunked theories about “magic bullets” and grassy knolls. I mean the much more pervasive myth that somehow the political right is responsible for Kennedy’s death.
This is the idea that there was a “climate of hate” in Dallas before JFK’s fateful visit, fueled by the outrage of Southern racists at the civil rights movement. Leaving aside the fact that these Southern racists were Democrats, there is the much more inconvenient fact that Kennedy was killed by a Communist.
Yet the myth persists. Slate recently posted a copy of what it called a “prophetic” letter warning the White House against the visit to Dallas. The letter warns of a threat to the president, based on this background:
Dallas was a hotbed of right-wing activism in the early 1960s. The city had strong historical ties to the KKK; in the 1920s, Dallas had the highest per-capita rate of KKK membership in the country. In the 50s and 60s, resistance to school integration and civil rights catalyzed rightist sentiment in the city.
Of course, such a warning wasn’t “prophetic” at all. It totally failed to anticipate the actual threat to Kennedy. It was not Kennedy’s backing of the civil rights movement that angered his assassin. It was Kennedy’s anti-Communism.
But you would never guess it from the way people remember the assassination. Here’s just a small example. Last Friday, I was at an assembly at my kids’ school. The assembly had a Caribbean theme, but it was oddly heavy on stories and songs from Cuba—though they were mostly pre-revolution. That’s what I found interesting about Michael Totten’s first dispatch about his trip to Cuba, as part of his plan to visit all of the living museums of Communism. He observes that while Havana is not the “sullen drabscape of gray concrete towers” he has seen in former Communist countries, this is largely because nothing new has been built and nothing new has been done since the Communists took over. “That’s the defining characteristic of Cuba since 1959. It doesn’t change.”
At any rate, I was struck by one of the Cuban songs the kids sang at the assembly: “Guantanamera.” It’s a catchy little ditty that started out as a popular tune about a guy mooning over a girl from Guantanamo (the “Guantanamera” of the title). It was later given lyrics from a poem by Jose Marti, one of the heroes of Cuban independence, and then adopted by the Castro regime as a patriotic song. That was how it eventually was popularized in America. The folk singer Pete Seeger promoted it at the time of the Cuban missile crisis as part of the leftist “peace movement” in an attempt promote “unity between the American and Cuban peoples.” Seeger was a Communist and an advocate of—what’s the phrase I’m looking for?—oh, yes, “fair play for Cuba.”
So there we were, on the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK, and our kids were singing a song that was intended to promote the goals and ideas of Kennedy’s assassin. No, I don’t think anyone there had any inkling of this fact. But that just shows how far down the memory hole the real story of Kennedy’s assassination has been buried, so that no one would even think to associate the date November 22 in a negative way with Cuba or Communists. It’s as if nobody associated the assassination of Abraham Lincoln with the Civil War or the South.
What is the purpose of this rewrite of history? Here is just one example: a photo essay in The New Republic purporting to show how “Kennedy Hatred in 1960s Dallas Looks a Lot Like Obama Hatred Today.” This isn’t remotely true. I’ve been to a lot of Tea Party rallies, and our signs are way better. But that doesn’t stop The New Republic from cashing in the supposed connection, declaring “how [much] the era’s rhetoric—with a president from a new ethnic group derided as a socialist and a traitor—has in common with our own.”
The appeal of the average conspiracy theory is two-fold. First, it is a limitless preserve of the arbitrary. The beautiful thing about a good conspiracy theory is that a total lack of evidence for the theory merely reinforces it: it is proof that there’s a cover-up. That leads us to the second advantage of a conspiracy theory: it allows the theorist unlimited license to write out of existence the actual causes behind a traumatic event (even if it is a real conspiracy, such as the al-Qaeda plot behind the September 11 attacks) and replace them with a story that better fits his prejudices (e.g., that it was really the Jews who did it).
In the case of the Kennedy assassination, the Communist who carried out the deed had to be written out of history so that Kennedy’s death could be blamed on “the right,” and so that the right could be smeared as racist.
That is the Kennedy conspiracy theory that still needs debunking.