by Anthony Summers
I missed covering the greatest conspiracy controversy of the twentieth century – at first. I was a student working in an Oxford pub in November, 1963 when – minutes after President Kennedy was shot – the telephone rang behind the bar. The then editor of “World in Action,” a leading British current affairs program, was rustling up reporters and researchers for a charter flight to Dallas. He knew of me from a vacation stint I had done for his show. Could I be at Heathrow airport within two hours?
Couldn’t I just! Except that an assistant rang back soon after to say they had found someone more experienced. As the world’s press raced to Dallas, I went back to pulling pints.
As time passed, as I covered international affairs for the BBC and as the “lone assassin” verdict in the Kennedy case bobbed on a sea of rumour, I resolved to stay away from the story. It looked what it indeed can be: a mire of half-truth waiting to swallow up journalistic reputations.
I got sucked in eventually, when a Washington colleague told me an U.S. congressional committee was soon to reach a conclusion that had previously seemed the preserve of California dreamers and fast-buck artists. The Kennedy murder, the House Committee on Assassinations was to declare, was “probably” the result of a Mafia conspiracy. I produced a TV documentary, then a book that won an award. That was followed in 1994 by an article on the subject, “The Ghosts of November” – written with my wife Robbyn Swan – which became the longest story ever run by Vanity Fair. Now, on this 50th anniversary – and again with Robbyn’s help – I have massively revised and updated my book, Not in Your Lifetime. (Which can be found in the U.S. here or in the UK here.)
Those who praised the previous edition of the book said its “BBC approach” persuaded them for the first time that the President may have died as the result of a plot. It has led some to dub me a “conspiracy theorist” and, mysteriously, a “leftist”.
After authoring eight non-fiction books, all on controversial events or individuals, such brickbats no longer hurt. Had I failed to provoke criticism with books on the fate of the last Russian imperial family, the Kennedy assassination, Marilyn Monroe, the Profumo sex/spy affair, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, or 9/11, I would have been boring my readers.
My guiding rule is to research the hell out of a story, pursue every lead to the limit of my abilities and the budget – authors in my field are few because the work is so costly – then write the story truthfully. And readably, I hope. Along the way, meanwhile, I have wandered far in the strange land of Conspiracy.
The word “conspiracy” derives from Latin roots that translate roughly as “breathing together” – a desirable activity for plotters who want to stay in sync. History is replete with conspiracies: from the stabbing of Julius Caesar to the shooting in Sarajevo that started World War I to the Wannsee conference at which the Nazis –breathing together in terrible unison – laid the foundations for the Holocaust.
In a book published some years ago, the American author Jonathan Vankin examined a clutch of his compatriots and their theories, many of which I would consign promptly to the wacko category. Concluding that “conspiracy theories are a guide to life in a strange and threatening America: a conspiracy nation,” Vankin said he came away “asking questions about America and my own place in it that I’d never dared ask before.” It is hard to tell whether Vankin was more bothered by the evidence supporting the existence of conspiracies, or by the fact that America has a surfeit of folk who believe in them.
Wackos there are in plenty. The Loonies file in our office contains some gems: a letter on the grand notepaper of “The Institute of Moral and Political Law,” advising me that “the JFK mystery is solved!” The assassin was George Bush Sr.; another missive, enclosing photos “proving” that a small dog travelled in the limousine with the President the day he died. The pooch was somehow involved in the murder plot; and an initially sane-sounding letter closing with an offer to prove that JFK was “removed from office” but not killed. Crouched down on the floor of the car, he escaped the bullets.
Not all the nut cases are immediately recognizable as such. I was once contacted by a woman claiming knowledge that Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family were not killed in 1918 but spirited to safety by British agents. Writing on posh notepaper from a part of London inhabited by the “old money” wealthy, she said the source of her sensational information had been her late husband, a former senior naval officer.
This was long before the identification in the early 1990s of skeletons with DNA that apparently matched that of the Romanovs, and I knew British Naval Intelligence had indeed been involved in rescue schemes. The background the woman claimed checked out, so I went to see her. Two hours into the visit, she got out a Ouiji board and implored the Tsar to send us a message from the spirit world. It was time to leave.
When is a source not a usable source? Answer: when it is not corroborated by a second or more sources or – often – simply when your gut tells you to back off. While we were researching our Nixon biography, the author of an earlier book recalled one of the former president’s aides telling him how – one night during Watergate – he found President seated at his desk – tipsy and stark naked. Interviewed by me, though, the aide disclaimed any such memory and seemed to think he was being set up. Had he, rather, been setting up Nixon years earlier? Or was the story attributed to him true, but one he now regretted having told? I had no way of knowing, and that juicy morsel wound up in the “file and forget” folder.
“In America,” author Vankin concluded, “The word used to describe conspiracy theories is ‘paranoia’. Conspiracies are delusions. Believe in them and you are mentally ill.” Because conspiracy nuts do exist, that is a handy slur to throw at troublesome people who are not mad at all, as I discovered when my Kennedy book was published.
David Phillips, a former head of the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division, was furious because I had written of troubling anomalies in his sworn testimony. To put it more bluntly, the staff of the House Assassinations Committee were sure he had lied – and I had so reported. Appearing opposite Phillips on NBC’s Today show, I explained that what I had written had been taken almost verbatim from the Committee’s published reports. The CIA man fulminated for a while, then produced his trump card.
Gaeton Fonzi, the congressional investigator who researched and wrote the offending report, he claimed, was by his own admission “paranoid” about the Kennedy assassination. I was ready for this, having been tipped in advance by Today to what Phillips planned to say, and had asked the investigator what could possibly be the basis for such an accusation.
Though baffled at first, Fonzi eventually recalled having long ago written, in tongue-in-cheek fashion in an obscure article, that the spate of assassinations in the sixties were enough to make any sane citizen start to feel paranoid. On perusing the article, it was obvious Phillips was distorting what the investigator had written. I was able to defuse the smear, by reading the passage out loud and in context, live on television.
You do not have to be much of an expert, and certainly not a conspiracy-monger, to question the facts in the Kennedy case. These days, many people know how horrendously badly the autopsy and ballistics evidence was handled: that due process was stymied when the President’s body was removed from the custody of the proper authorities at gunpoint; that the post-mortem was bungled; that key bullet fragments mislaid; and that – it would be funny were it not so serious – Kennedy’s brain remains missing to this day.
Few though, I think, are aware of another outrageous blunder. Fingerprint evidence can be crucial, and Oswald’s prints were found on book cartons near the window from which he allegedly fired. Yet that proved nothing. As an employee, the alleged assassin had been legitimately working in that very area.
What, though, of the palmprint found on one of the boxes, one never identified? Whose was that? We shall never know, not least because – in a ludicrous oversight – not all those who worked in the building were fingerprinted. Why not? Because, after Oswald had been arrested, the building superintendent asked that the fingerprinting process be halted. Incredibly, law enforcement officials obliged.
In 1968, I happened to be one of the first journalists at the scene of Martin Luther King’s murder, a killing that – the Assassinations Committee firmly believed –did result from a conspiracy. The civil rights leader had been shot in the early evening, and before breakfast next morning I was able to talk my way into the house from which the fatal shot had apparently been fired. The policeman on the door demurred only briefly, then let me and my camera crew enter the room the sniper was believed to have used. We balanced our camera on the window frame on which the rifle was said to have rested, did virtually anything we wanted, trampling a crime scene that should have remained sealed for days.
The following year, after the killing spree by the Manson Family, I picked up a hitchhiker not far from the ranch where the gang had lived. He turned out to be the former husband of one of the young women involved, and – stoned on peyote – poured out the gruesome account of the crime his wife had confided to him soon afterwards.
At the time, the cops had Manson and his crew in the lockup but still lacked clinching evidence. This was one of the rare occasions, I thought, when civic duty had to take precedence over journalistic privilege. I phoned the police, introduced myself as a BBC man who wished to report relevant information, and was told a detective would interview me at my hotel within hours. Nobody appeared that day nor – though I phoned repeatedly all week – on any subsequent day. I was never interviewed.
Back to the Kennedy case. The only comprehensive visual record of the assassination, the home movie shot by bystander Abraham Zapruder, was suppressed for more than a decade. Within days, though, viewers of CBC News were regaled with a verbal description of the footage by a young reporter who had been allowed to view it. His name was Dan Rather, and the scoop helped him on his way to national prominence.
In Rather’s account of watching the film, viewers heard that at the moment of the fatal head shot the President “fell forward with considerable violence.” But he got it totally wrong. Any alert viewing of the film makes it mercilessly clear that Kennedy jerked backward at that moment – a movement that convinces many, rightly or wrongly, that the killer bullet was fired by a sniper in front of him. Ergo, a conspiracy.
The point here is not to denigrate Rather, and not to argue the case for conspiracy. The episode demonstrates, as do the hopeless handling of the Kennedy and King crime scenes and the police inefficiency in the Manson case, the role played by human error. The cock-up theory of history is often as valid as the dark theories that posit cover-up or conspiracy.
Yet it is indefensible to shrug off inconvenient facts with easy generalities, or to dismiss competent researchers as paranoid. Government officials often do just that, and the mainstream media as often as not lets them get away with it. It is easier to be blasé, to sneer, than to do the sheer hard work, the questioning and digging that should be the reporter’s stock in trade.
“To hell with the truth,” says a cynical character in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, “As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything.” A former Warren Commission counsel put it another way. “Consider the possible reality,” he said, “that under our system of civil liberties and the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, it is virtually impossible to prosecute or uncover a well-conceived and well-executed conspiracy.”
Perhaps so. But how shameful it would be if honest men gave up bothering to seek elusive truths. Ethically, that would be the end of the road.