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  • The Kennedy Assassination Tapes
  • Written by Max Holland
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9781400043781
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The Kennedy Assassination Tapes

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On Sale: September 14, 2004
Pages: 480 | ISBN: 978-1-4000-4378-1
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Synopsis

A major work of documentary history–the brilliantly edited and annotated transcripts, most of them never before published, of the presidential conversations of Lyndon B. Johnson regarding the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath.

The transition from John F. Kennedy to Johnson was arguably the most wrenching and, ultimately, one of the most bitter in the nation’s history. As Johnson himself said later, “I took the oath, I became president. But for millions of Americans I was still illegitimate, a naked man with no presidential covering, a pretender to the throne….The whole thing was almost unbearable.”

In this book, Max Holland, a leading authority on the assassination and longtime Washington journalist, presents the momentous telephone calls President Johnson made and received as he sought to stabilize the country and keep the government functioning in the wake of November 22, 1963. The transcripts begin on the day of the assassination, and reveal the often chaotic activity behind the scenes as a nation in shock struggled to come to terms with the momentous events. The transcripts illuminate Johnson’s relationship with Robert F. Kennedy, which flared instantly into animosity; the genuine warmth of his dealings with Jacqueline Kennedy; his contact with the FBI and CIA directors; and the advice he sought from friends and mentors as he wrestled with the painful transition.

We eavesdrop on all the conversations–including those with leading journalists–that persuaded Johnson to abandon his initial plan to let Texas authorities investigate the assassination. Instead, we observe how he abruptly established a federal commission headed by a very reluctant chief justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren. We also learn how Johnson cajoled and drafted other prominent men–among them Senator Richard Russell (who detested Warren), Allen Dulles, John McCloy, and Gerald Ford–into serving.

We see a sudden president under unimaginable pressure, contending with media frenzy and speculation on a worldwide scale. We witness the flow of inaccurate information–some of it from J. Edgar Hoover–amid rumors and theories about foreign involvement. And we glimpse Johnson addressing the mounting criticism of the Warren Commission after it released its still-controversial report in September 1964.

The conversations rendered here are nearly verbatim, and have never been explained so thoroughly. No passages have been deleted except when they veered from the subject. Brought together with Holland’s commentaries, they make riveting, hugely revelatory reading.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

1963 November 22

Friday

The day began on a note of keen anticipation. Friday, after all, would take the presidential entourage into Dallas, that unrivaled bank and bastion of anti-Kennedy sentiment. It wasn’t simply the distinction of having been the only large American city to favor Richard Nixon over John Kennedy in the 1960 election that indelibly tagged Dallas. No, it was the sheer emotion and staggering wealth of its opposition in the three years since then that made the city synonymous with Kennedy’s bitterest critics. Above and beyond its role as a wellspring for anti-Communism, and anti-Communist paranoia, Dallas was the fount of some of the ugliest anti-Kennedy vitriol in circulation.

Foremost in everyone’s mind on the morning of November 22 was Adlai Stevenson’s visit to Dallas on October 24. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, an experienced politician in his own right, had encountered hostility before on the campaign trail. But it was nothing compared with the mob that descended on him as he left the Dallas municipal auditorium after delivering a speech in favor of U.S. participation in the UN. One well-dressed woman hit him on the head with a placard, and a college student spat in his face. “Are these human beings or animals?” Stevenson muttered as he wiped the spittle off. Afterward he pretended to treat the incident with aplomb, but privately he was shaken to the core. He had never encountered the kind of mindless, raw hate he saw on display in Dallas.

The Stevenson incident might have remained an isolated black eye but for a coincidental development. In a telling reflection of their growing influence and reach, the national news shows sponsored by CBS and NBC had recently expanded their nightly broadcasts from fifteen to thirty minutes. Just a few weeks before, the shoving and spitting would in all likelihood have remained a local story, filmed as it was by a local TV station. But the networks’ suddenly larger appetite for graphic footage turned the story into a lead item, in the new way that many Americans were getting their news. Virtually overnight Dallas awoke to find itself stigmatized, its reputation for intolerance indelibly fixed in the national imagination. It was a revealing clue as to the stunning power of a new medium.

The White House’s script for the day called for a direct, ideological assault on the president’s right-wing critics; in a sense, it was to be Kennedy’s opening salvo against the clear front-runner for the Republican nomination in 1964, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, easily the most conservative GOP candidate since Robert Taft. The White House press corps seemed poised to play its role in propagating the day’s message, too. The advance text of the luncheon speech to be delivered at the Dallas Trade Mart pointedly criticized “voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties,” and was generating the desired buzz among the reporters. There was every reason to believe they would take the bait and make the president’s challenge the lead of every story datelined Dallas. Only one possible development threatened to intrude on this Daniel-walking-into-the-lion’s-den theme, and that was a replay of the previous day’s public feud between Texas Democrats.

Since the end of Reconstruction, Texas had been a one-party state, like much of the South, and therein lay the true origins of the Democrats’ internecine sniping, even though it was often portrayed as a clash of personalities. The state Democratic Party’s hegemony was unnatural and increasingly untenable; the Texas GOP, once a political oxymoron, was growing larger by the hour. (After Lyndon Johnson was elected vice president, a Republican had won the special 1961 election to fill his Senate seat, the first GOP senator elected in Texas since the 1870s.) In the meantime, liberal and conservative Democrats were engaged in a tenacious, bitter brawl over the presumed soul of the state party, and this ferocious struggle had been bared for everyone to see during the first hours of President Kennedy’s visit.

Texas senator Ralph Yarborough, a devout liberal, had quickly become furious about his treatment at the hands of Governor Connally, the conservative Democrat hosting the president’s visit. They had already been feuding for weeks about such trivialities as who would stand where in receiving lines, and who would sit next to whom at banquet tables. With good reason, Yarborough believed that Connally was still scheming to diminish his visibility during the president’s visit, to a point where Yarborough was not even being accorded the courtesies that a state senator from Amarillo would receive. The lack of an invitation to a reception at the governor’s mansion in Austin was particularly grating, and Nellie Connally, always fiercely loyal to her husband, didn’t help matters with her own sharp comments. Unable to take revenge against the governor directly, Yarborough struck back at the nearest available target, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Connally’s political mentor and a witting conspirator in the humiliating treatment—or so Yarborough thought. In San Antonio and again in Houston, the first two stops on Kennedy’s three-day, five-city Texas tour, Yarborough pointedly refused to ride in the same automobile as Johnson, and the headlines in the Friday morning papers were all about Yarborough’s snub of the hapless vice president. The 1950s image of Johnson as the domineering majority leader who steered the U.S. Senate at will bore no resemblance to the shrunken politician who seemed to have no purpose other than to serve as Yarborough’s scapegoat.

President Kennedy was determined that nothing get in the way of the message he wanted to get across, not even a Texas-sized political headache. On Friday morning Yarborough was informed in no uncertain terms that he had only two choices: “You will either ride in the same car with Lyndon Johnson in Dallas or you will walk.” Yarborough, though none too pleased, bowed to the president’s request, and the way was cleared for the White House to dominate the news cycle on its terms.

Initially, Dallas seemed intent on playing into the White House’s hands. The Morning News of November 22 carried a full-page advertisement on page 14, rimmed in black, underwritten by a group calling itself the “American Fact-Finding Committee.” Under a sarcastic headline, “welcome mr. kennedy to dallas,” the committee listed twelve deliberately provocative questions, all couched to insinuate that the president (and his brother, the attorney general) were unbearably soft on Communism. The advertisement complemented a handbill that had appeared mysteriously overnight under doors and on the windshields of countless Dallas cars. Featuring the president’s image from the front and the left side, as if taken from a police mug shot, the broadside accused him of turning the United States over to the “communist controlled United Nations.” In case the imagery or text was lost on anyone, the headline read, “wanted for treason.”

After reading the paid advertisement, the president sought to prepare Jacqueline Kennedy for any unpleasantness that might occur in the afternoon. “Oh, you know,” John Kennedy remarked to his wife, “we’re heading into nut country today.” Intensely private, often diffident in public, the First Lady disliked retail politicking and the press. Campaigning combined the two and as such represented the ultimate invasion of her privacy and the control she cherished. Her disdain for the gestures expected of a politician’s wife meant her presence was sometimes a mixed blessing when the president was electioneering. The state of being “on,” the lot of political wives, exhausted her. The president would have to remind her not to wear large sunglasses, like some Hollywood movie star, and she almost never partook in the behind-the-scenes bantering with staff. The most frequent adjectives applied to the First Lady were “aloof” and “regal,” and the latter description was not necessarily intended as complimentary. Jacqueline Kennedy had a “formidable” temper in private, and to hardened pols she was “Jackie the Socialite.” She had nonetheless agreed to accompany her husband on his swing through Texas, her presence viewed as a drawing card because of her fluency in Spanish and because Dallas—home of the famed Neiman-Marcus department store—was such a fashion-conscious city that it would turn out just to see what “Jackie” would be wearing. And true to form, the November 7 news that Mrs. Kennedy would accompany the president had substantially increased demand for tickets to the Trade Mart luncheon as well as the other venues on the tour.

The Morning News advertisement was a perfect expression of Dallas’s venom for the president. Passions, apparently, had not cooled in the wake of the Stevenson incident, and the prospect of a scuffle or some other unsightly incident along the motorcade route or at the Trade Mart appeared likely. But probably there would be nothing more than that, because Dallas law enforcement authorities had taken every precaution recommended by the Secret Service, and then some. That morning the paid ad seemed destined only to make the laughs that much louder when Lyndon Johnson delivered his closing line at the gala fund-raising dinner scheduled for Friday evening in Austin. “And thank God, Mr. President,” Johnson reportedly intended to say, before pausing for effect, “that you came out of Dallas alive.”

At 11:23 a.m. the president and Mrs. Kennedy board the specially designed Boeing 707 popularly known as Air Force One for the short hop from Fort Worth to Dallas.

12:29 p.m.
Among the hundreds of people in Dealey Plaza, one of the eye- and ear-witnesses who will be closest to the assassination is Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, wife of the vice president. She is riding, along with her husband and a tight-lipped Senator Yarborough, in a Lincoln Continental convertible just behind the “Queen Mary,” an armored 1955 Cadillac convertible brimming with eight Secret Service agents and hidden automatic weapons. Just ahead of the Queen Mary, as the motorcade wends its way through downtown Dallas, is the president’s limousine. Though Mrs. Johnson does not capture every detail, her account stands out because she tape-recorded it while her memory was still fresh and relatively untainted.

It all began so beautifully. After a drizzle in the morning, the sun came out bright and beautiful. We were going into Dallas. In the lead car [were] President and Mrs. Kennedy, John and Nellie [Connally], and then a Secret Service car full of men, and then our car, with Lyndon and me, and Senator Yarborough. The streets were lined with people—lots and lots of children, all smiling—placards, confetti, people waving from windows. One last, happy moment I had was looking up and seeing Mary Griffith leaning out of a window, waving at me.

Then almost at the edge of town, on our way to the Trade Mart, where we were going to have the luncheon, we were rounding a curve, going down a hill [when] suddenly, there was a sharp, loud report . . . a shot. It seemed to me to come from the right, above my shoulder, from a building. Then one moment [passed], and then two more shots in rapid succession.

There’d been such a gala air that I thought it must be firecrackers, or some sort of celebration. But then, in the lead car, the Secret Servicemen were suddenly down. I heard over the radio system, “Let’s get out of here!” And our Secret Service man who was with us—Rufe Youngblood, I believe it was—vaulted over the front seat on top of Lyndon, threw him to the floor, and said, “Get down!”

Senator Yarborough and I ducked our heads. The cars accelerated terrifically fast—faster and faster. Then suddenly, they put on the brakes so hard that I wondered if they were gonna make it as they wheeled left around a corner. We pulled up to a building. I looked up and saw it said, “Hospital.” Only then did I believe that this might be what it was. Yarborough kept on saying in an excited voice, “Have they
shot the president? Have they shot the president?” I said something like, “No . . . [it] can’t be.”

As we ground to a halt—we were still the third car—the Secret Servicemen began to pull, lead, guide . . . hustle us out. I cast one last look back over my shoulder and saw a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying in the back seat. I think it was Mrs. Kennedy . . . lying over the president’s body.

They led us to the right, to the left, onward into a quiet room in the hospital, a very small room. It was lined with white sheets, I believe. People came and went: Kenny O’Donnell, Congressman [Homer] Thornberry, Congressman Jack Brooks. Always there was Rufe right there, [along with Secret Servicemen] Emory Roberts, Jerry Kivett, Lem Johns, [and] Woody Taylor.

It is standard practice for the Air Force One crew to monitor the signals that keep the traveling White House in contact with the real one in Washington at all times, courtesy of the White House Communications Agency (WHCA, or “Whakka”) and the unrivaled virtuosity of Army Signal Corps operators. Secret Service headquarters, the State Department, and the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center are also kept in this communications loop. As Air Force One’s pilot, Colonel James Swindal, eavesdrops on the Secret Service agents’ chatter, he is pleased to hear that Dallas seems to be redeeming itself after the ugliness of the Stevenson visit. The crowds greeting the motorcade are unexpectedly large and friendly, with nary a hostile placard in sight.

Seconds after 12:30 p.m. Swindal hears a shout explode on Charlie frequency—and then another. His body tenses up, and he recognizes the voice of Roy Kellerman, head of the Secret Service detail, who is riding in the front passenger seat of the president’s limousine. Swindal can only make out one injunction from Kellerman—dagger cover volunteer!—before the radio becomes a cacophony of screeching voices. Then it falls silent.

Something has clearly gone wrong, but Swindal has no idea what. dagger is the code name for Rufus Youngblood, and volunteer is Lyndon Johnson. Has someone thrown an egg at the vice president? Perhaps a riot has broken out along the motorcade route. While Swindal is mulling over the possibilities, WHCA patches a telephone call from Parkland Memorial Hospital into Special Air Missions (SAM) 26000 (the radio designation for Air Force One when it is not airborne). It is Brigadier General Godfrey McHugh, the president’s air force aide, with new, cryptic orders. Refuel the airplane instantly and file a flight plan to return to Andrews Air Force Base (AFB) near Washington immediately. General McHugh does not bother to explain, but since Air Force One is involved, Swindal now knows that whatever happened concerns the president. Minutes later the news is heard over the television set aboard SAM 26000. The president has been shot!

The radio traffic is now anything but routine. While trained operators generally maintain a brisk demeanor betraying nothing, other voices quaver and speak haltingly, still reeling from the news. Tongues are tied, and there is an undertone of apprehension in nearly every conversation. The precaution of using code names instead of real names, and the protocol of distinguishing between Air Force One and SAM 26000, are cast aside more often than invoked.


From the Hardcover edition.
Max Holland|Author Q&A

About Max Holland

Max Holland - The Kennedy Assassination Tapes

Photo © Link Nicoll

Max Holland has worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., for more than twenty years. In 2001, he won the
J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for a forthcoming narrative history of the Warren Commission. He is a contributing editor at The Nation and The Wilson Quarterly, and his articles have also appeared in The Atlantic, American Heritage, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe. From 1998 to 2003 he was a research fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. His work has also been supported by fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. This is is his third book. He lives with his wife and daughter in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Author Q&A

Q: Technicalities first. How did you approach the transcription process? What choices did you have to make regarding how to represent the conversations?

Transcribing the tape recordings is far more complicated than it appears on the surface. Hearing the conversations accurately and understanding the context, of course, are the most critical aspects. The next is what constitutes an “assassination-related” conversation? Some are obvious; many are not. After that, a host of issues still must be decided, because as soon as one commits a spoken conversation to paper, it becomes a facsimile of that communication. Do you make believe that Johnson is speaking the King’s English, even though he does not? At the other extreme–if you render Johnson with a Southern inflection, which is very heavy at times–do you risk making him sound like a character out of a Mark Twain novel? Should the transcript be verbatim, full of pauses, errant words, uh-huhs, and hmms? That makes it difficult to follow and boring to read. On the other hand, how much immediacy is lost if the conversation is smoothed out, i.e., everyone is heard speaking in complete sentences and whole paragraphs? I tried to strike a balance between intelligibility and rendering the conversation as it is heard.

Q: What led you to write a book specifically on the Johnson Tapes as they related to the Warren Commission? How have they–or the whole topic of the Warren Commission’s formation and findings–been distorted in past accounts or publications?

I was already working on a narrative history of the Warren Commission when the tapes began to be released in the mid-1990s. Because I was familiar with the subject matter, I immediately realized that the tapes conveyed information that was non-existent elsewhere. Originally, I was going to convey this novel information in my book. But over the years, to my increasing dismay, I saw the conversations twisted and distorted by various authors, from Michael Beschloss to lesser-known writers. I finally decided to do a separate book that would present all the assassination-related conversations accurately and in context–a task that simply overwhelm my other book on the Warren Commission.

Perhaps the best example of a misrepresented conversation is one from 18 September 1964, the day the Warren Commission deliberated for the very last time. In Beschloss’s book, Taking Charge, he has Senator Richard Russell saying that every time he wanted to make a dissent in the report’s final language, the other Commission members would “trade me out of it by giving me a little old threat.” What Russell actually said, was that they would “trade me out of it by giving me a little old thread of it.”
That one word makes all the difference.

Q: Why did LBJ create the Warren Commission–was there outside pressure to do so, or was it something he conceived of on his own? How did he feel about its findings?

One of the most interesting stories conveyed by the tapes is the Commission’s formation, which occurred exactly one week after the assassination. Initially Johnson was dead-set against such a panel, based on the advice given to him by his de facto legal counsel, Abe Fortas, later a Supreme Court justice. Fortas was skittish about getting the president involved in and responsible for an investigation of his predecessor’s murder. Legally, this was sound advice, but politically it was not a sustainable position. After that weekend, most Americans outside of Dallas believed that “Texas justice” was an oxymoron, and that the investigation could not be left in the hands of local and/or state authorities.
Ultimately, Johnson’s hand was forced by two factors: first, a desire to head-off overlapping congressional investigations, all of which would be competing for television coverage in an election year, and second, the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald had recently visited the Soviet and Cuban missions in Mexico City. If that visit was not investigated responsibly, the repercussions could conceivably lead to a war.

To my knowledge, Johnson never actually read the Warren Report so he was never completely conversant with its findings. He eventually accepted the Report’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for all the violence in Dealey Plaza; however, LBJ also believed that Oswald received help from Cuba, because of efforts made during the Kennedy administration to assassinate Castro. This does not actually contradict the Warren Report, because the Report did not say there was no conspiracy. It only claimed that based on the evidence available to the Commission, there was no proof of one.

Q: Why was there such a rift between Johnson and Robert Kennedy? How did the assassination affect this? How did it affect LBJ’s relationship with Jackie Kennedy?

Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were like oil and water: their personalities clashed, fundamentally and irrevocably. Long before Johnson took office, they did not see eye-to-eye. Johnson was famous in the Senate for cutting deals–cajoling, bullying, imploring friends and adversaries alike. This kind of politicking was completely alien to RFK, who took a remorseless and moralistic approach to politics rather than a pragmatic one, like Johnson. The rift between the two men probably became unbridgeable because of events during the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. The Johnson forces raised questions about JFK’s health (he suffered from Addison’s disease) and reminded Americans about the appeasement-minded politics (and reputed anti-Semitism) of Joseph P. Kennedy, the family patriarch. In return, RFK tried to force LBJ off the ticket after John Kennedy had offered to make Johnson his running mate. Neither man could ever forget or forgive these transgressions.

The assassination was RFK’s worst nightmare realized, of course. What made it all the harder, though, was that the one politician whom RFK detested the most inherited “Jack’s office.” Moreover, because Johnson had become president in the third year of JFK’s term, he was entitled to serve out that term and run for the presidency two more times; potentially, he could be the longest-serving president since FDR. This would have required RFK and other Kennedy men to put their ambitions on the back burner for nine years–which is several lifetimes in politics.

With regard to Jacqueline Kennedy, Johnson had, by all accounts, a pleasant relationship with JBK when she was First Lady. Her comportment in Dallas made an enormous impression on him; on the evening of November 22nd, he kept marveling to aides about her behavior, and the days leading up to and including the funeral only underscored his admiration. Immediately afterwards, he could not do enough for her, and the most touching conversations of all–a side of Lyndon Johnson that the public never got to see–are the ones between the new president and the former First Lady from December 1963 and January 1964. Johnson put JBK on a pedestal; and for political reasons, wanted to bask in her aura. Yet gradually the conversations between them became infrequent and they drifted apart. Despite numerous invitations, Mrs. Kennedy stayed away from the White House because it was simply too painful to see it, much less visit. And while she tried to explain this to the president, the overly-sensitive Johnson could never accept the fact that JBK intended no slight or disrespect to him, or Mrs. Johnson.
By the time the William Manchester book came out, President Johnson had little direct contact with JBK. And while she apologized for Manchester’s depiction, there is little doubt that Johnson was deeply wounded by the portrait of him published in a book authorized by the Kennedys.

Q: LBJ was faced with legitimacy challenges–how did they affect his Presidency?

Johnson actually did not face challenges to his legitimacy until after he was elected in his own right. For a period of about two years after publication of the Warren Report, the panel’s conclusions were accepted by a majority of Americans at face value. Then, in the summer of 1966, books critical of the Report began to be published and questions were raised about the Commission’s integrity and probity. Not all of them were easily answered. This development coincided with rising dissent and controversy over the widening war in Vietnam, and soon, critics of that war began raising questions about whether Johnson was simply pursuing Kennedy’s policy in Vietnam (as LBJ claimed). As criticism of the war grew more strident, these critics (ranging from Richard Goodwin to Arthur Schlesinger to Jim Garrison) sought to de-legitimate LBJ’s presidency by raising doubts about the assassination and/or the Warren Commission’s investigation. In other words, they continually reminded Americans of the abrupt and violent manner in which Johnson assumed the presidency, and thus a wound in the body politic was not allowed to heal, and exploited for political advantage. Ultimately, Johnson’s ability to address the most pressing issues of the day–the war in Vietnam and civil rights–was dramatically lessened by this sinister innuendo. Recently, of course, the ultimate charge has been leveled and broadcast nationally: that Lyndon Johnson was somehow complicit in the 1963 assassination, as alleged on the History Channel in November 2003, on the 40th anniversary of the assassination.

In some respects, there are parallels between the vilification of Johnson in 1966-67 and the situation facing the incumbent president, George W. Bush. In both instances, critics of the president have not been content to concentrate their wrath on a policy or position they vehemently disagree with. Instead, they also resort to reminding Americans of the unusual circumstances that put the president in office. This has the effect of suggesting that the incumbent and his policies are tainted, if not somehow illegitimate.



Q: Let’s turn to the Garrison issue, for a moment. Wasn’t it shocking, at the time, for a DA in Louisiana to even launch an investigation into the President’s assassination? Why did Garrison get into it in the first place? What was Johnson’s attitude towards Garrison?

It was extremely shocking, yes. But at the time, it was also like the other shoe had finally dropped. Beginning in the summer of 1966, the Warren Report began to come under attack in several books. By the fall, a total of four major books had been published that were critical of the Report for one reason or another, and this was followed by several articles in major magazines at the time–Life and the Saturday Evening Post–that also treated the Warren Commission’s conclusions with great skepticism. Public confidence in the Report was plummeting because of these attacks. Thus, when Garrison announced his probe, he initially had great credibility because public doubt was increasing.

You must also recall that Oswald, who was born in 1939, was only 24 years old when he died, and although he moved around a lot, he had spent the majority of his years in New Orleans. He had also lived and worked in the city just a few months before the assassination in Dallas. Therefore, it was not completely out of the question for an investigation to focus on New Orleans, and in fact, considerable efforts were made to find out what Oswald did there in the summer of 1963.

Garrison claimed, in his memoir, that he got involved because a responsible DA could do no less. That may be so, but Garrison had no business arresting anyone, much less putting them on trial, because he had no case. The 1967 arrest and subsequent trial of Clay Shaw was one of the greatest miscarriages of justice to ever occur in the United States. Shaw was completely exonerated in 1969, but by then it was too late. His life had been utterly and capriciously destroyed.

Q: What do you make of the Garrison’s findings? What are the biggest issues you have with his theory?

Garrison was a charlatan and a demagogue, the likes of which we see from time to time in the country. In the 1950s we had Joe McCarthy, the professional anti-Communist who gave anti-Communism a bad name because of his reckless and irresponsible charges. In the 1960s we had Garrison, who exploited the 1960s Zeitgeist to suggest that the US government was complicit in the assassination–that, in fact, the murder was a disguised coup d’etat by the CIA in concert with the “military-industrial complex.” This is the kind of thinking one might indulge in after smoking too much pot in the 1960s.

And if this also sounds like a theory the old Soviet KGB might have propagated, that’s because it was. An all-too-ambitious and gullible district attorney from New Orleans was duped by KGB disinformation into thinking that Clay Shaw, the businessman he arrested for conspiring to kill the president, was a high-ranking CIA operative. From there, Garrison built an entire conspiracy edifice, which was painstakingly replicated in Oliver Stone’s film JFK. Stone’s film has the unenviable distinction of having been the only American feature film made during the Cold War to have, as its very axis, a lie concocted in the KGB’s disinformation factories.


Q: You’re well-known as being anti-conspiracy. What do you find so unreliable about the various conspiracy theories other than Garrison’s? What do you think really happened?

When you have been at this awhile, you begin to notice that all the conspiracy theories one thing in common: buffs treat the assassination like a political cafeteria. They pick and choose from the facts available, picking out the ones they like (because they supposedly “prove” their case), and ignore the inconvenient facts that they don’t like (because they contradict their theory). Another common feature is that rather than trying to understand what happened, conspiracy theorists tend to make mountains out of molehills, i.e., when a simple explanation of what happened is available–say, all-too-human error–they would prefer to construct a sinister one.

That said, I have gotten some of my very best insights and ideas from conspiracy theorists! They ask good questions sometimes and point out important inconsistencies that must be answered. Plus, they are largely responsible for making so many of the primary documents about the assassination available at the National Archives.

What do I think happened? Lee Harvey Oswald was not unlike Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City truck bomber) in terms of his personality. Both were young, politicized sociopaths with a proclivity for violence. McVeigh blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City to incite a popular revolt against Washington after the Waco incident (or so he said). Of his own volition, Oswald killed President Kennedy because of the United States’ hostility to the revolution in Cuba. As Oswald said when he tried to defect to the Soviet Union in 1959, “I want to give the people of the United States something to think about.” Oswald would be very disappointed today to learn that he wasn’t being given sole credit for the assassination.

Q: What are your thoughts regarding the recent news that the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in Berkeley, California is developing a method to clarify sound on a tape of the assassination?

It seems like a good idea on the surface, but this latest development is a cruel hoax, one of the worst travesties ever perpetrated on the American public by a congressional committee. The tape recording in question is not a sound recording from Dealey Plaza at the time of the assassination. Therefore, no matter how much it is cleansed and clarified, it will never constitute reliable evidence about the assassination. To borrow Gertrude Stein’s famous comment about Oakland, “there’s no there there.”


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“No event in history has ever been recorded more minutely than the assassination of John F. Kennedy and yet it all remains a mystery. But it is not only shock, confusion, and hurt that can be heard in the words of those who lived through it captured on tape at the time and now transcribed, edited, and placed in context by Max Holland, one of the country’s leading experts on the assassination and its aftermath. Complex political issues were unfolding as well and the tension between the pain of loss, the fear of conspiracy threatening to run wild, and the hard practical matters required to get a new president up and running can all be found in this powerful volume. These transcripts, in all their raw variety, peel away the scar tissue of forty years and help us to see the awful event whole.”
—Tom Powers

"The Kennedy Assassination Tapes fills a significant hole in our understanding of Lyndon Johnson's response to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The book is a welcome antidote to the assertions about LBJ's involvement in JFK’s death. It sets a standard of scholarship that every writer on the assassination should imitate."
Robert Dallek

“...There is a great deal for historians to chew on; the work is a valuable addition to the written and spoken record concerning the events in Dallas that still haunt our national psyche.”
—Jay Freeman, Booklist

“...An informative and entertaining look inside the crucial years of the [Johnson] administration. [Holland is a] deft writer and observer [who] explains how certain myths and inaccuracies about the assassination began.”
—Gerald Posner, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“[Holland’s description] of November 22, 1963 [is] gripping...an engrossing, if ultimately tragic, story.”
—Richard Tofel, Wall Street Journal

“[Brings back November 22] with a chilling immediacy to those of us old enough to remember it...we see Johnson always calculating, always cajoling, always contemplating the political ramifications of the Kennedy assassination.”
—Dan Danborn, Rocky Mountain News

“...an extremely compelling read...written with such knowledge and attention to detail that one becomes fascinated.”
—Jeanne Nicholson, Providence Journal

“[Holland] presents skilled transcriptions...and makes a strong case that the bitter legacy of John F. Kennedy’s murder and the later widespread loss of confidence in the [Warren] Commission’s findings drove Johnson from office as much as the Vietnam War. [Holland’s] superb grasp of the assassination’s historical circumstances results in richly annotated transcriptions that capture the mood of national despondency that followed Kennedy’s death...strongly recommended.”
Library Journal

“[Holland’s] superior knowledge and intimate familiarity with the presidential recordings has allowed him to correct the record...by far the most lucid and compelling account of the role President Johnson played in the investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination.”
—Mel Ayton, History News Network

“...an instructive, even poignant, look at how self-interest and accident may complicate the federal investigation of a national calamity...Holland’s commentary is extensive [and] his analysis is crisp, informed and consistently reasoned—on a subject that has inspired any number of writers to take leave of their senses.”
—Thomas Mallon, New York Times Book Review









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