Untangling the Web of the JFK Assassination

We might have the evidence, says LearningLife instructor James Norwood, but are we asking the right questions?

Let's get this one thing straight, right off the bat--the "C" word that often goes hand-in-hand with many discussions surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (that's "conspiracy," in case you were wondering), will not appear in this story.

At least not in information coming from James Norwood, retired U of M humanities professor and instructor for the upcoming LearningLife course The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: An Event That Changed History.

JFK LimoThe mystery surrounding that fateful day in November isn't an Area-51-esque result of some secret shadow organization conspiracy, he says, but here are plenty ofother "C" words involved: controversy, conflict, confusion...

Says Norwood, "With a controversial topic like this one--a timely one, one that has seen a lot of exposure and confusion and conflicting information--the one thing people ask is, 'will we ever know the truth? Will we know what really happened to JFK?'

"And I think the answer is yes, we CAN know the truth. It's a question of finding out what to study, how to access the information, how to employ good clear, critical thinking skills to discover the truth."

Norwood says that untangling the data, knowing which questions to ask and which threads of inquiry to follow, can seem like a daunting task. Part of his goal for the November course, however, is to help people find a way to dive into the issue.

"Here we are, on the eve of the 50th anniversary...and that question 'WILL we ever know' is hanging there. And I think it's very revealing about the general public's thoughts on the matter--it implies a sense of defeatism, a sense of frustration from people, as if they've almost given up on knowing, or being able to know, the truth."

Not surprising, Norwood says, given the sheer volume of material available on this pivotal day in American history. "There is so much information out there. Some might say TOO much information. And, in a way, I fear that the Internet has compounded that problem--anybody can post anything, or start a website or otherwise easily present/disseminate information that may or may not be reliable."

Part of the inspiration for the course are two books, James W. Douglass's JFK and the Unspeakable--Why He Died and Why It Matters, and James H. Fetzer's Murder in Dealey Plaza: What We Know Now That We Didn't Know Then. And while they are not required reading, they are recommended, says Norwood. Even the titles alone, he says, tie strongly to the themes of the class.

"Consider the idea in the Douglass book: Why he died and why it matters. Here, the author realizes how difficult it is as a job, to get this topic on the table. Why it matters, why we should hear this story again [given there is already so much information out there already].

"The other...what we know now we didn't know then...What it suggests is that over the passage of time, over the course of decades, we have learned more and more about the case. Especially in the last 10 years or so, where modern forensic science has stepped in with experts to study the known evidence in new ways. That, coupled with new information that is being released (or has recently been released), is giving a fresh understanding of, or perspective on, the topic."

Those two concepts--why this story is such a pivotal one, such a turning point in American history, and why it should continue to be told; and why we will, eventually, be able to understand the truth of what happened that day are the backbone of the course.

There have been other presidents, other public figures, assassinated throughout our history--yet none seems to have captivated the American public like the JFK assassination. The reason the story must be told, the "why it matters," isn't "just that it was a loss of a great man whose promise was never fulfilled, or that he only served 1,000 days in office," Norwood says, but rather the incredible historical relevance of the moment--how it forever altered the nation and the world.

"Consider Vietnam. JFK was going to withdraw from the war--he had actually signed a national security advisory memo to bring the advisers back home. To bring the troops home by 1965. He wasn't going to get us tangled in the Vietnam War.

"Think of the credibility gap that opened with LBJ. And then Nixon, whose career was shattered, and surely would not have been elected had JFK survived, and Watergate. We get Ford, who wasn't even elected president by the American people. We dropped in world prestige. We lost that vision of peace that JFK had, and it wouldn't be seen again until Mikhail Gorbachev and Glasnost in the 1980s. It had an enormous transformative effect on this country."

That transformation is both why it matters, and part of the reason people are still asking what really happened. Continues Norwood, "Over the course of 50 years, our nation has gone through intense soul searching to try and get to the bottom of things, and to try and resolve in some way the questions that have remained unanswered."

To get to the bottom of the story, to find that resolution, Norwood takes an eclectic approach in examining the assassination--involving art and popular culture such as the Don DeLillo's Libra (1988) and Oliver Stone's 1993 film JFK, as well as philosophy and literature, in addition to the standard forensic evidence.

Such a cross-genre investigation suggests that "In some ways, this story is our modern Hamlet. Because the story has not been told... Pick up most any mainstream American history textbook--high school or college--and they pretty much all say the same thing. They follow the Warren Commission and say JFK was killed by a lone assassin--Lee Harvey Oswald--and then they drop it. They don't provide any real evidence or discussion of much of the controversy or any or all of the investigations that have basically produced enormous evidence suggesting that Oswald did NOT, in fact, kill JFK."

Even now, he says, much of the coverage in the news, especially as the anniversary date approaches, still speaks in definitive terms as if we should simply accept the Warren Commission findings as the end. Norwood quotes from a recent USA Today article describing the events of November 23, 1963: "'Minutes later, Oswald struck,'" he reads. "They're not qualifying this by saying 'the alleged assassin struck,' or mentioning that it is surmised that the president's killer was in the sixth floor window. It's all stated as unchallenged, set-in-stone fact."

It's that assumption of fact that Norwood plans to challenge in the four-session short course. "We are going to start from scratch and move forward. We'll look at the earliest evidence, and then trace the story all the way through with the new pieces of information that came out--in the Warren Report and beyond. There are 26 volumes that accompany the Report, and many people are simply not aware of all the recorded documents and eyewitness testimony that can be really useful.

"There are also the inquests that follow up on the Warren Commission--for example, the Clark Panel, in the late 1960s, which was convened to look at the medical evidence (because the Warren Commission didn't look at X rays or autopsy photos--all they did was interview, in a group, the doctors on the scene.).

"The Garrison trial (highlighted in Stone's JFK) was a landmark event because it brought into the public venue evidence about the case, along with new information, new witnesses, new items (including the Zapruder film). There are also the Rockefeller Commission, the Church Committee, and the House Select Committee on Assassinations, all of which tackle different angles and bring in new information. And the JFK Records Act and Assassination Records Review Board (AARB)--which was created in response to the uproar of the Oliver Stone movie."

The AARB especially was crucial, says Norwood, because following its conclusion in 1998, no fewer than60 million documents have been released to the public. Some had been previously available, but highly redacted, and they are now unedited; others are completely new to the public eye. So the materials to discover the truth, or at least cast doubt on aspects of the mainstream media's typical presentation of November 23, 1963, certainly exist--and, although many people may not realize it, they are public.

Warren Commission DocumentsMillions of documents, eyewitness testimony, films, ballistics and autopsy reports, transcripts from previous testimonies, statements from people who have been involved in all aspects of the case in the last 50 years--attorneys, researchers, committee members...it seems like an exhausting task, but Norwood says, "It's not just about the preponderance of evidence. It's not just about an elusive search for a 'smoking gun.' It's not just about watching the Zapruder film or looking at bullets. It's about the sum total of the evidence--which encompasses more than just what most people believe is there. Looking at how the pieces fit together."

He likens it to a jigsaw puzzle that is missing a piece--there is a box of pieces that seems like a jumble. But you start putting them together in a group, and then, even though it is incomplete, and is missing some pieces, you can still see the whole picture, what it's all about. "You get a sense of what happened, who was responsible, where does the evidence lead...and above all, how we can correct the history books and how we can accurately tell the story."

The key to getting that crucial answer, to getting the truth about what really happened, Norwood says, isn't to look for definitive answers to all the questions--it's asking the right questions, then working to answer the ones that CAN be answered, and finally piecing those answers together.

"Conspiracy, conspiracy theory... I won't mention that. This isn't about a conspiracy. This is about using the evidence to reach a conclusion. That's what the Warren Commission didn't do. They assumed that Oswald did it, and then worked backward with the evidence to get it to fit their thesis. The way we're going to go about it is good, hard-hitting scholarship. Starting at the very beginning--what was some of that first-day, first-hour, first-moment evidence--and then working forward to put that jigsaw puzzle together."