On November 22, 1963, I was sitting in Mrs. Peachy's 4th Grade class, at Hendy Avenue School, Elmira, New York. It was a normal day until early afternoon, when The News broke.
That night, we watched, stunned, as live TV showed the casket being unloaded in DC, and I was, for some long-forgotten reason, alone in the house on Sunday, when I watched live as Jack Ruby stepped into the picture and chaos ensued.
The Kennedy assassination has been with us a long time. I always expected that some deathbed confession would have cleared it all up by now, but, as they say, questions remain.
When we were in Vietnam last November, we visited a Buddhist monastery outside of Hue, whose head monk, in the summer of 1963, had driven his little blue car (still faithfully preserved there at the monastery) to Saigon, parked outside the US embassy, poured gas on himself, and struck a match.
Our Vietnamese guide proceeded to explain to us the reason why Kennedy was killed. It went like this:
President Diem's persecution of the Buddhists (leading to many public self-immolations that summer), increased Kennedy's fear that the bad publicity over these deaths jeopardized his re-election prospects for 1964. Kennedy directed the State Department and CIA to take out Diem and his brother, Nhu (who was involved in the international heroin trade), who were both assassinated November 1, 1963. Three weeks later: Dallas.
Bottom line on this theory: Kennedy was killed by the American mafia, on behalf of the French heroin mafia, who had been partnered with Vice President Nhu. Our guide recommended to us a book describing all this: "The Deaths of the Cold War Kings". I read it, and it was pretty convincing. Case closed.
Not so fast.
In another context a couple of weeks ago, another JFK assassination book came to my attention, and I just finished it: "JFK and the Unspeakable", complete with a jacket blurb from Robert Kennedy, Jr ("everyone should read this book").
Vietnam also played a key part in this book, but quite differently. The subject of heroin is never mentioned and, instead of Kennedy approving the Diem/Nhu assassination, he is instead portrayed as having been absolutely opposed to it. Instead, he was totally outflanked by the duplicitous hawks in the CIA and Joint Chiefs, who were fearful that Kennedy's plans to GET OUT of Vietnam (well-known but not to be released to the public until after his 1964 re-election), and find a peaceful accomodation with the Soviets (instead of escalating the Cold War), would lead to Communist world-domination.
Bottom line: Oswald was actually a patsy (as he claimed) and the CIA perpetrated a complex web of implications and impersonations that were focused on bolstering the Oswald-did-it line. Also, a prior CIA assassination plan, in Chicago on November 2nd, was aborted at the last minute, although a patsy for that planned killing had likewise been cultivated. Kennedy knew that he was a target and, throughout November, had the sense that his end was near.
Again, a totally convincing narrative - the CIA did it.
Finally, I remembered another massive JFK book that came out a couple of years ago and just got it at the library. It's "Legacy of Secrecy", by Lamar Waldron and co-authored by the impecable Thom Hartmann.
This is an imposingly-hefty book (850 pages), that claims to be the definitive word. Its conclusion: it was the Mafia. I am NOT going to spend the next couple of weeks reading it - I am burned out. However, I did consult its extensive index: not a single reference to Diem or Nhu.
What do we conclude about all this? For an answer, I only had to look at my copy of the current "London Review of Books", which has a long review of a new book called "The Murder of James I". That, for those keeping score, was in 1625.