Grassy knoll. Lone gunman. Dealey Plaza.
These phrases have entered our culture as bywords for the shadowy and conspiratorial, while also evoking a tragedy that still resonates powerfully in the American psyche largely because many believe it is unresolved -- and perhaps irresolvable.
Such is the enduring fascination with and controversy over this tragedy that the 50th anniversary of U.S. president John F. Kennedy's assassination is heralding a flood of new, revised and re-released books, affording the knowledgeable and uninitiated alike the opportunity to weigh the evidence in the case for themselves.
However, be warned: the events of Nov. 22, 1963, present to the unwary reader a Rashomon-like maze of conflicting accounts.
End of Days by James Swanson (who has in several previous books delved into Abraham Lincoln's assassination) and the lavishly illustrated Kennedy's Last Days by famed conservative pundit Bill O'Reilly, both recount the converging stories of JFK and his alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, told as a straightforward series of events, and without qualification. Both authors accept at face value frequently challenged Warren Commission assertions, such as Oswald's Marxism and his killer, Jack Ruby, claiming he acted out of patriotism.
Oswald is a minor figure in Bill Minutaglio's and Steven Davis's Dallas 1963, a fascinating (and disturbingly timely) portrayal of a city hijacked by right-wing, racist, demagogic extremists opposed to a Democratic president's progressive policies towards civil rights, rapprochement with America's enemies and the public provision of health care -- all of which they regarded as tyrannical.
Released to tie in with the poorly received film of the same name, Vincent Bugliosi's Parkland, is an adaptation of the narrative portion of his controversial 1,600-page conspiracy-debunking defence of the Warren Commission, Reclaiming History (2007). The renowned attorney recounts the events of Nov. 22-25 in gripping, minute-by-minute and novel-like detail, but (unlike Swanson and O'Reilly) has the good sense in the absence of witnesses to leave to the imagination Oswald's supposed actions in the pivotal moments.
These four titles all support Warren's conclusions (which a recent poll suggests only 24 per cent of Americans still believe); the next four contend that the crime involved (in varying combinations) a conspiracy between elements of the CIA and FBI, the Secret Service, organized crime and Cuban exiles.
The Hidden History of the JFK Assassination is the third in Lamar Waldron's series (following Ultimate Sacrifice and Legacy of Secrecy, each co-written with radio host Thom Hartmann) focusing on the leading role of Mafia figures in the assassination plot.
The overriding (and not entirely convincing) thesis in all three books is that the decades-long cover up of the president's assassination was aimed at concealing the Mafia's infiltration (and exploitation) of a top-secret plan by JFK and Robert Kennedy to back a palace coup against Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Veteran investigative journalist Anthony Summers, in his Not in Your Lifetime (a substantial revision of his 1980 title Conspiracy) has no predetermined thesis, but sifts the evidence as he goes, and treats Mafia claims of involvement with some skepticism. While establishing evidence that there was an intricate conspiracy involved, he nonetheless strives for a middle ground by weighing and rejecting many of the claims supported by others; for example, he accepts as genuine the notorious "backyard photos" of Oswald.
Former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura has no such reservations. His book They Killed Our President (co-written with Dick Russell and David Wayne) is a blunt and clearly stated case for conspiracy, delivered with both Ventura's distinctively gruff narration as well as helpful links to online resources, making it well-suited for the uninitiated, while presenting enough recent revelations for the well-read student of the assassination.
Jerome Corsi -- who has promoted anti-Obama "birther" theories on the right-wing website World Net Daily -- offers in his Who Really Killed Kennedy?, an extremely detailed examination of the crime scene evidence, arguing that the conspiracy to kill JFK led all the way up to vice-president Lyndon Johnson and future president Richard Nixon, and went on to lay the foundation for the military-corporate "New World Order" of presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush.
Clearly, the controversy over what really happened still rages unabated. Two additional books focus on the nature of that debate, from the history of the Warren investigation to the uncritical dominance of its narrative in the major media.
Philip Shenon's mammoth investigation A Cruel and Shocking Act is based on hundreds of interviews, including with surviving Warren staffers. He claims that, while Warren's conclusions were valid, its sincere efforts were deliberately crippled by the CIA and FBI, both of which stonewalled the commission by concealing or destroying evidence to cover up what they had known about Oswald in advance -- including their own murky connections to him.
James DiEugenio would argue that Shenon -- a New York Times reporter -- epitomizes the extent to which major media outlets continue to double down on their support of the commission. The bulk of his Reclaiming Parkland methodically eviscerates Bugliosi's Reclaiming History, which had been lavished with immediate praise by the press on its release. He also takes to task actor Tom Hanks (a co-producer of the film Parkland) and other Hollywood figures for what he describes as their puerile, uncritical knowledge of JFK's assassination and American history in general.
What is notable when comparing "official version" versus "conspiracy" books is that -- Shenon's aside -- the defenders of Warren do not editorialize or seek to persuade through argumentation: they are simply telling a familiar and tragic, but ultimately non-threatening, story. The skeptics, by contrast, focus on investigation over narrative and have, as a consequence, produced far more engaging and unsettling books.
These titles surely won't resolve the fierce debate over the truth regarding JFK's assassination, but they may persuade a new generation of readers why the answer to that question -- as well as the late president's legacy -- still matter.
Michael Dudley is the subject specialist librarian for history at the University of Winnipeg.