Lee Harvey Oswald murdered President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago today. Unlike almost any other possible character, he had the means, motive and opportunity. The longstanding conspiracy theories are bunk. I don’t know how many people have claimed the shot was “impossible.” Really? We could do it. You could do it. Range under 100m, scoped (if second-rate) rifle, slow-moving but steadily-moving target. Piece of cake. The difference is, of course, you wouldn’t do it. And we wouldn’t do it. Because we’re not bat guano crazy Communists like Lee Oswald, a guy who was so pro-Soviet he went there to stay, and so pro-Fidelista he tried to go there — and they wouldn’t have him. (We covered some of that last month).
Nonetheless, conspiracy theories thrive. On the 50th anniversary of the murder, one of the first events we personally remember, comes the New York Times and Washington Post to suggest… right-wingers did it. Or enabled it. Or something. Yeah, suuure. David Bernstein at the Voloky Conspiracy lawblog (“Conspiracy,” for the mouth-breathers still obsessed by the JFK whacking, is a cute name for a group blog of libertarian-minded law professors, not a description of what they do there) commits the necessary but futile attempt to straighten out the twenty-something ahistorical lightweights on the papers’ staffs:
This is really amazing to me. The New York Times and the Washington Post each manages to publish a piece on the Kennedy assassination, by two different authors, focusing on what they see as the right-wing extremist environment in Dallas in 1963, and while never saying so directly, implicitly blaming Kennedy’s assassination on that environment.
Look, guys. Lee Harvey Oswald murdered JFK. Oswald was a Communist. Not a small c, “all we are saying is give peace a chance and let’s support Negro civil rights” kind of Communist, but someone so committed to the cause (and so blind to the nature of the USSR) that he actually went to live in the Soviet Union. And when that didn’t work out, Oswald became a great admirer of Castro. He apparently would have gone to live in Cuba before the assassination if the Cubans would have had him. Before assassinating Kennedy, Oswald tried to kill a retired right-wing general. As near as we can tell, he targeted Kennedy in revenge for Kennedy’s anti-Castro actions.
The similar tropes in the two articles may be coincidence, or they may be another example of how the left-leaning press tends to work together to coordinate stories and themes. (Remember when all at once the most serious problem in the world was some golf club that didn’t admit women?) Most likely, the “conspiracy” behind the two pieces involved the publicists for the latest conspiracy book, Dallas 1963 by Minutaglio and Davis — the Post article is written by Minutaglio, who argues that the Tea Party, the universal bogeyman of Post readers, did it. This book blames, we are not making this up (although Minutaglio and Davis certainly are), the “climate of hate in Dallas.” The “hate” included a radio program that demeaned and abused Kennedy supporters as — wait for it, it’s really raw and vile — “the mistaken.” O the humanity! Bernstein doesn’t mention the book, so he may not know of it. It’s best described (based on a short examination at a bookstore) as the usual conspiracy drivel, with a buy-it-today slant. Minutaglio and Davis even identify right-wing retired general Edwin Walker, another target of Oswald, as one of the conspirators. But the Times and Post bought their message.
From there, it’s just a short step to ID the real killer: George W. Bush.
Bernstein refers readers to a former professor of his, Brandeis’s Jacob Cohen, who has a timely piece in the upcoming Commentary which is already online. This is absolutely a Read The Whole Thing™ for those of us who are not conspiracy buffs. (The sad fact is, the conspiracy buffs are not educable, for reasons Cohen covers in his class, “The Idea of Conspiracy in American Culture.”) Cohen on Oswald’s weapon:
Here’s another for the perception-is-reality file. Shortly after the assassination, a Dallas policeman identified the rifle found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, where eyewitnesses had placed a gunman, as a German Mauser. The rifle was actually the one Oswald probably ordered from Klein’s mail-order service in Chicago. It was the one ballistics tests showed had fired all the bullets, or testable portions of bullets, which were recovered. It was an Italian made Mannlicher-Carcano. It was not a Mauser. But why, Corsi fulminates, did the commission ignore the identification of a second gun, or refuse to consider the possibility that the actual murder weapon was the Mauser? After all, someone said it was a Mauser! (The Mauser has never been produced, by the way.)
The images you’re about to see are all from world.guns.ru for consistency. The first one’s similar to Oswald’s but a 1938 7.35mm version. We’ll see Oswald’s in a moment. But our point is, the readers of this blog would never mistake a Mannlicher-Carcano…:
For a Mauser:
Not even this Mauser (a “Commission” Gew.88), which looks a lot like a Mannlicher because it uses a Mannlicher feed system, but uses some Mauser features and was generally called by Americans in 1963 a “Mauser”:
For the record, here is Oswald’s gun, in a photo taken in Washington during the 1970s. So the conspiracy theorists will say we went and swapped guns, we suppose. (Sigh).
We’d have used the Warren Commission shot, but the versions we could find are grainy. If there is one artifact in DC that has a good chain of custody, though, this one’s probably it.
But our point is, not everybody’s deeply-enough immersed in the gun culture to see the differences. What are the odds that a Texas cop fifty years ago would misidentify one foreign bolt-action for another? He probably knew US weapons (he was very likely a military veteran, as there had been a nonstop draft since 1940). But he was likely to be familiar with his service revolver, his .22, and the gun he took deer hunting, which was probably a lever-action.
There is a lot of drivel written about the Mannlicher-Carcano, and the conspiracy theorists suggest that the shot was “impossible” with that gun. Most of them, of course, are not shooters. A lot of it seems to be ethnocentric nonsense that has, at its fundament, the concept that Italians are stupid and cowardly and couldn’t or wouldn’t make a serviceable firearm. This would be news to the LRDG and SAS, who liked certain Italian heavy machine guns.
The Mannlicher-Carcano is not the best battle rifle of World War II (that would be the M1), or even of World War I, for it’s not the equal of the Mauser, but it’s equivalent to the more-respected Mosin-Nagant or Lee-Enfield. When adopted in 1891, it had adequate range, accuracy and firepower for an infantry rifle of the day, as defined not just by the Italian Army but by most of the world’s armies. In fact, it had a number of advantages over the gun the US had not yet adopted (Krag-Jorgensen), let alone the Springfield Trapdoors American soldiers were still toting when the Carcanos started coming off the line.
The Italian Army ordnance department was staffed by officers who wanted, mirabile dictu, to arm their forces with good weapons. Sometimes they succeeded, sometimes not, but the differences between the Eurasian bolt-action rifles of the 20th Century are, when they are considered as military weapons, on the margins.
Referring to an overheated conspiracy book by Jerome Corsi (another example of a Harvard PhD indicating less than some might think), Cohen talks ballistics:
The ingenuity of nearly all the conspiracies Corsi rehearses and endorses is similarly breathtaking. Asked for a favorite, I would vote for his explanation for how a bullet that ballistics established was fired from Oswald’s Italian gun—Commission Exhibit 399—found its way to a stretcher in the basement of the Parkland Hospital where Kennedy and the wounded Texas Governor John Connally were taken immediately after the shooting. CE-399 is the sine qua non of the Warren Commission’s thesis that one bullet hit Kennedy first and then Connally, causing some of the damage to Kennedy and all of Connally’s five wounds. The last of those was a shallow flesh wound in his upper thigh. For the thesis to be true, the bullet had to be capable of having broken one of Connally’s ribs, and his wrist, en route to his leg. Every knowledgeable person on all sides of the debate agrees.
Corsi describes the bullet as “pristine,” and also as “almost pristine.” He goes back and forth from one formulation to the other. In either case he stipulates that CE-399 is incapable, given its shape, weight, and metallic content, of breaking Connally’s broken bones and of leaving the lead elements that were extracted from his wrist and chest. I have dealt with and I think resolved this issue twice in articles in Commentary over the years4, so I will not rehearse that demonstration here except to speak of the nature of the would-be conspiracy involving it. Conspiracists believe it had to be placed at Parkland that day to be used as a piece of evidence to support the single-assassin theory—which would not even be formulated for another two months. The bullet was found in the basement of the hospital under Connally’s stretcher. At the time, Connally was upstairs. Kennedy, who was dead at this point, and his stretcher were also upstairs. A neutron-activation analysis of the bullet and the lead extracted from Connally’s wrist, reported by Dr. Vincent Guinn in 1978, established that the lead extracted from Connally almost certainly came specifically from CE-399. Simple logic suggests the bullet fell from Connally’s thigh when he was lying on the stretcher.
“But,” Cohen goes on to note, “simple logic is not in play here.” Indeed. It is remarkable, and amazes us as much as it does Cohen, that conspiracy-minded persons, like Corsi, are capable of protean feats of idea-shifting; as one wacky conspiratorial idea is debunked they latch onto another, without regard for the degree to which it contradicts the idea they held in an anaconda grip mere moments ago. Continue to question the illogic, screwy weighting of facts, and persistence in “facts” that are not any such thing, and the conspiracy theorist soon comes to identify you as one of them — part of the conspiracy yourself!
Welcome. We’ll show you the secret handshake later.
Cohen concludes that conspiracy buffs will always be with us — as will, of course, authors that cash in on them. Bernstein, for his part, concludes by asking conspiracy theorists to keep out of the comments. As you might expect, they fail to heed his request.
After all, Bernstein and Cohen… must be part of the conspiracy. Hey, those are both names that could be Jewish (which we hardly ever see among scholars from Brandeis, right?)…. has anyone blamed the… ?