Not So Beautiful Minds: Conspiracy Theories from JFK to Oliver Stone and Donald Trump

Mark Milke
April 26, 2021
Shocking events that plunge a country into chaos or destroy a beloved leader are hard for anyone to process. The evil done is so towering it bends the human psyche to accept that the evildoer is utterly banal, a loner walking in ordinary shoes. The cause simply must befit the outcome; thus can a conspiracy theory be hatched. At other times, the cold hope of political or financial gain or simple mischief might be the source. There certainly is no shortage of conspiracy theories. Mark Milke revisits one of history’s most famous political assassinations and the conspiracy theories it spawned to illuminate the ongoing danger this toxic tendency poses to us all.

Not So Beautiful Minds: Conspiracy Theories from JFK to Oliver Stone and Donald Trump

Mark Milke
April 26, 2021
Shocking events that plunge a country into chaos or destroy a beloved leader are hard for anyone to process. The evil done is so towering it bends the human psyche to accept that the evildoer is utterly banal, a loner walking in ordinary shoes. The cause simply must befit the outcome; thus can a conspiracy theory be hatched. At other times, the cold hope of political or financial gain or simple mischief might be the source. There certainly is no shortage of conspiracy theories. Mark Milke revisits one of history’s most famous political assassinations and the conspiracy theories it spawned to illuminate the ongoing danger this toxic tendency poses to us all.
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Conspiracy theories have been around as long as human beings and these days recycle endlessly online. Consider a few recent ones. There is the QAnon belief wherein left-wing Democrats are theorized to be part of a child-molesting, Beelzebub-worshipping coven. There are people from all over the idea spectrum who think that Bill Gates conspired to spawn Covid-19, while yet others (like the anti-fluoride, anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists) believe scientists and chemists conspire to poison children.

Conspiracy theories like these might sound harmless at first glance, but they can be highly destructive, and a stark recent example is the “stolen election” conspiracy theory that arose following last November’s presidential election in the U.S. There, in the election that Donald Trump definitively lost, too many of his acolytes bought the conspiracy claim that emanated from Trump himself. Even 30 percent of Democrats apparently thought other Democrats were willing to steal or destroy ballots to get to a Biden win (though that’s not the same as assuming that such poll respondents concluded garden-variety fraud amounted to a successful conspiracy).

Tellingly, Republican Karl Rove, the long-time George W. Bush campaign manager, wrote of how regardless of the fraud or minor irregularities that did occur – and there is always some in any election – none of that could close the gap for the losing candidate in states where the Biden lead ranged from 12,614 votes (Arizona) to 146,123 (Michigan), with other “conspiracy”-contested states within that range. In other words, yes, fraud and irregularities occurred in 2020; no, they were not systematic or large enough to affect the outcome. That conspiracy theory can now be added to the others that are in error.

Eternal element of the human psyche? Current conspiracy theories: QAnon’s “army” for truth and freedoms, Bill Gates’ power over the world, and Donald Trump’s stolen election. (Sources, top to bottom: M.Moira/Shutterstock; Ilyas Tayfun Salci/Shutterstock; bakdc/Shutterstock)

But whether they are anti-vaccination or anti-fluoride conspiracy theories, often from granola types, or Q-Anon and stolen election scenarios from some Trump diehards, conspiracy theories are apparently an enduring feature of the human psyche. And there are reasons why. Some conspiracies, the ones that can be labelled “minor” conspiracies – like two men conspiring to rob a bank – do occur. Moreover, intelligence agencies around the world exist quite straightforwardly to “conspire” and outwit their nation’s enemies.

The distinction many people fail to make is between those garden-variety, entirely plausible “minor” conspiracies and what might be termed “grand” conspiracies. The latter involve dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people, including top elected officials and their staff and cabinet, conspiring for example to arrange the 9/11 attacks for diabolical reasons, or having foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbour but mysteriously doing nothing to alert the U.S. military, and so on.

The problem is that such conspiracy theorists misunderstand how little those who run democratic countries and are nearly always in view by colleagues, staff and the media could get away with such grand plans – even assuming they wanted to, which is another faulty assumption of the grand conspiracy theorists. It is absurd, for example, to suggest that U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy would be party to a conspiracy by his own Democratic Administration to arrange and then cover up the origins of the murder of his own brother.

Given our fascination with conspiracies, though, it thus helps to grasp the mind of one 1960s-era John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorist whose influence reached into the 1990s, care of one of Hollywood’s most prominent directors, Oliver Stone. Stone’s 1991 film about the presidential assassination did for JFK conspiracy theorists what Trump did for those today tempted to see grand conspiracies – gave it oxygen, without which the theory might have died a quieter death.

That Depressing November Day

The Kennedy assassination gave birth to one of the 20th century’s most enduring conspiracy theory industries, with pamphlets, books, congressional investigations and movies. But people matter in such things, especially when they revive what had become a mostly dormant theory. In this case, one person in particular matters: Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney whose refusal to accept the report of the official inquiry on the assassination (known as the Warren Commission) would become the basis for all kinds of mischief, including Stone’s movie nearly three decades later.

To grasp the enduring power of the JFK conspiracy theories and Garrison’s malign role, we have new help from Fred Litwin, a Canadian author with libertarian leanings and founder of the Free-Thinking Film Society. In On the Trail of Delusion – Jim Garrison: The Great Accuser, Litwin dives into the twisted pathology at the core of the last century’s most enduring conspiracy theories and in the mind of Garrison himself.

“Grand” conspiracies are particularly unlikely in a democracy, but the associated theories can be especially pernicious: The 9/11 attack as “inside job”, the attack on Pearl Harbor as being known in advance, and John F. Kennedy (left side of photo, with brother Robert) as victim of his own government. (Sources: (left) cattias.photos, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; (middle) akwccr, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The originating event is etched in the minds of millions: In a November 1963 visit to Dallas, Texas in preparation for the following year’s presidential contest, John F. Kennedy was scheduled to give a lunchtime speech at the Trade Mart convention hall. There, Kennedy was to outline increased defence spending at a time when nearly everyone thought the Soviet Union was trumping the American military and when doubts persisted about the young American president’s toughness in the face of Soviet bellicosity.

Kennedy never made it to the convention hall. As his open-air motorcade (which included Texas Governor John Connally, his wife Nellie, and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy) wound around Dealey Plaza and slowly moved down Elm Street towards a freeway underpass, shots rang out, hitting both Connally and Kennedy. Both were rushed to hospital with Connally permanently paralyzed and Kennedy pronounced dead within the hour.

The bullets which struck down the American Adonis in his prime came from the rifle of Lee Harvey Oswald, a pro-communist former U.S. Marine who had been an angry, violent drifter for much of his life. Oswald was arrested soon after the assassination but was himself shot two days later by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner, while Oswald was being transported from one jail to another. Oswald died in the same hospital as JFK. The Ruby shooting would only add to the conspiracy layers that soon piled up.

Canadian author Fred Litwin has done exhaustive detective work investigating one of the last important unexamined aspects of the JFK assassination conspiracy movement, still going strong to this day. (Source of top-left image: twitter/ @spaikin)

The Warren Commission, every media outlet and every American would soon learn the minute details of the 24-year-old Dallas drifter’s life. They included how Oswald, pre-assassination, once emigrated to the Soviet Union in hopes of being involved in some high-level role, only to be rejected for anything more than menial factory work precisely because he was unstable and hardly made of the “stuff” necessary for spy work or anything else that involved undermining the capitalist world.

Disillusioned, Oswald in 1962 moved back to the United States with his new Russian bride, Marina, but soon tried to emigrate again, this time to Cuba, whose government rejected his visa application. In the high-stakes poker contest that was the Cold War, the last thing any government needed – even a Marxist one – was an erratic, angry former Marine with just one apparent talent: Oswald was an excellent sharpshooter. This skill would be on display the next year on that sunny, tragic November day in Dallas.

Jim Garrison the Prosecutor-Persecutor

All the above has been recounted in official reports and innumerable other sources for nearly six decades. Yet millions of Americans continue to believe that Kennedy fell victim to a conspiracy. As recently as 2017 this fantasy was cheekily called “the one thing all Americans agree on.” The best work on why Oswald and no-one else was the shooter is Gerald Posner’s masterly Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. Posner, a lawyer by training and an investigative journalist by choice, combined cool analysis with curious investigative research to produce the most comprehensive and definitive rebuttal of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories.

If a conspiracy theory needed hatching, New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison was the man for the job: Previously diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, virulently anti-gay and now with nearly unchecked power to speculate, investigate, manipulate and indict. (Source: twitter/ @BoardJfk)

About the only angle from Posner and similar books left to examine in even more detail was Garrison’ insidious role. Which brings us back to Litwin’s book on the New Orleans prosecutor. Litwin has done a yeoman’s work of sourcing original documents, in-person interviewing, working the ground in Dallas, Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, while adding telling details such as that Garrison once even slurred a prominent Jewish-Canadian businessman in Montreal.

The 445-page book is nearly one-fourth composed of source listings, attesting to Litwin’s exhaustive work to investigate Garrison and illuminate the man’s particular combination of determination and derangement and why that matters to the JFK conspiracy industry.

The research effort paid off.

Litwin details how Garrison, born in 1921 and who served with distinction in the Second World War and Korea, was later discharged because of mental problems. His psychiatric report stated that Garrison had a “severe and disabling psychoneurosis of long duration” which predated Garrison’s military service. The report noted he was “considered totally disabled from the standpoint of the military duty and moderately severely incapacitated in civilian adaptability.” Another report from a psychiatrist labelled Garrison as a paranoid schizophrenic. Both reports were thus ominously insightful, given that such paranoia would drive Garrison to extremes in his prosecutorial methods and theories.

That dire prognosis was not at first publicly evident. In the mid to late 1950s, Garrison received some treatment and seemed competent enough to join the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office in 1957. Charismatic, tall (six feet, six inches), handsome, possessed of a deep, booming voice, Garrison was a natural for the television age just then starting. By 1962, he ran as the Democratic candidate for D.A.

The new D.A. possessed almost unchallengeable power, soon a problem for those not considered acceptable or mainstream in the 1960s. While New Orleans was considered bohemian or alternative, law enforcement had no tolerance for homosexuality. Reputations, careers and lives could end swiftly if the local police and prosecutors decided to move against what was then considered deviant behaviour.

Enter Garrison, whose own neuroses and fixation made him a prosecutor/cop in his own mind with an intensity to match that of a Rottweiler. That combination was going to be hell for anyone who strayed into Garrison’s sights. Clay Shaw, a local businessman of some renown, became the prime example.

Garrison Revives JFK Conspiracy Theories

The Warren Commission Report presented sufficient evidence that it was Lee Harvey Oswald who pulled the trigger and killed JFK. Yet for Garrison it wasn’t enough.

Litwin’s On the Trail of Delusion notes how, after the Warren Report, the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories were beginning to fade. The Warren Report was not perfect but it was sufficient, and it did establish that Oswald himself pulled the trigger enough times to maim Connally and kill Kennedy.

Not according to prosecutor Garrison, however, who soon after the Warren Report was published in September 1964 began reading up on the conspiracy theories that attacked the report. These included articles in Life and Esquire magazines and, later, conspiracy-laden books including Whitewashed by Harold Weisberg, Inquest by Harold Jay Epstein, and Rush to Judgment by Mark Lane, all published in 1966. This is where the ill-fated Shaw, who happened to be gay and who merely had the same first name as someone initially named by a New Orleans lawyer (later discredited), found himself in Garrison’s crosshairs.

The Paranoid Mind meets Prosecutorial Power

Lee Harvey Oswald was born in New Orleans, moved away at age six, returned at age 15, and stayed until he moved away to join the Marines two years later. He also lived in New Orleans again, for five months in 1963. As a result, Garrison as D.A. had helped follow up some of the early Kennedy assassination leads in the city, in late 1963 and early 1964. Those came to nothing but the fact of Oswald’s residency in New Orleans plus Garrison’s conspiracy reading plus his paranoid state would prove to be an irresistible lure into the belief that a grand conspiracy was afoot and that he, with prosecutorial power, would uncover it.

Given Garrison’s conviction that the Warren Report was flawed, he set out to prove his theory unbounded by any speculative, conspiratorial or theoretical limits. It appears – and Litwin hints at it – Garrison might have been a gay man in denial, which might in turn explain his obsessive prosecution of gay men.

Garrison concocted a bizarre scheme in which (at left) Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby (middle) and Clay Shaw (right) conspired to kill JFK. In reality, the three men never even met. (Source of middle image: Dallas Municipal Archives)

Early on, the only “evidence” available to Garrison against Shaw was from Perry Russo, a 25-year-old insurance salesman trainee who wrote Garrison to say he might have “some information.” In the initial, several-hour-long interview, Russo did not even mention an assassination plot or Shaw. It was only after being shown a picture of various men, including Shaw, whom Garrison had already targeted, that Russo identified Shaw as a suspect.

There were several problems. The only reason Garrison believed Clay Shaw was an assassination suspect was because his first name coincided with that of a fictional “Clay Bertrand” offered up to New Orleans police from a local lawyer, Dean Andrews, the day after the Kennedy assassination, on Saturday. Andrews claimed he had been called that day and asked to represent Oswald by a “Clay Bertrand.” Except Andrews was actually in the hospital with pneumonia, heavily sedated, and later recanted his delusional story.

Nonetheless, Garrison would later dig up this fictional account, link the nonexistent Clay Bertrand with Claw Shaw, and place a picture of Shaw in front of Russo. It was only then that Russo claimed to have seen Shaw with some of the other men Garrison thought were in on the conspiracy. Fatefully, only after being shown pictures of Shaw and then given the so-called “truth serum” drug (sodium pentothal), and after three suggestive hypnosis sessions, Russo told Garrison what he wanted to hear: that Shaw had been at a party where the JFK assassination was discussed with two other men.

That was unreliable testimony in several respects, including because Russo’s earlier pre-drug, pre-hypnosis statement (contained in a memo from a local A.D.A.) never mentioned any such party. Nevertheless, Garrison would soon tell Newsweek that he had evidence on three men, Shaw included. The New Orleans prosecutor also believed Shaw had been hired by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro, which to him explained Oswald’s attempt to emigrate to Cuba, rather than what it plainly was: more evidence of Oswald’s sympathy for Communist regimes and dislike for his own country.

As Litwin writes, “Almost from the start of his probe, Garrison believed that the Kennedy assassination was a homosexual plot.” Garrison remained dismissive of all the real evidence: ballistic reports, witness statements and much else, all pointing to Oswald. But in Garrison’s highly conspiratorial mind, Oswald was only the patsy for the CIA.

Garrison thus spun elaborate theories and went to extreme lengths to “prove” connections where none existed. For example, in an effort to prove that Oswald, Shaw, Oswald assassin Ruby and others who never met each other in fact did, Garrison concocted a bizarre numeric equation. His mathematical theory involved: an Oswald notebook; the street address where Oswald lived; four digits from Shaw’s phone number; letter arrangements from the Warren Commission report; a series of additions, subtractions and dashes; and entries from Shaw’s own notebook – including one entry made two years after the assassination – to “prove” that a gay man from New Orleans and Oswald knew each other.

Shaw, of course, never knew Oswald and found himself Garrison’s target for the same reason others did: non-sequiturs such as similar names; or passing proximity such as living near each other at some point in their lives; or being gay; or some other incidental or irrelevant characteristics which made their way into Garrison’s tortured psyche and became useful for his conspiracy theory. All hit a dead-end in court and in thoughtful media accounts.

For all the sense one could make of his over-the-top methods and resulting charges, and his own psychosis, Garrison’s convoluted theories could just as easily have consisted of magical incantations from the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble”. Unfortunately, the combination was applied in framing innocent men.

A New Generation; a New Paranoiac

This is Litwin’s second JFK book. His first was I was a Teenage JFK Conspiracy Freak, published in 2018 and described his own past infatuation with conspiracy theories and confessionary evolution from the same shadowy beliefs. It should be read as a set with On the Trail of Delusion, which adds previously unexamined details about the man who helped revive the JFK conspiracy racket.

One of Litwin’s many strengths in On the Trail of Delusion is establishing Garrison’s lifelong pattern of behaviour. Besides describing Garrison’s not-so-beautiful mind in the 1940s and 1950s, Litwin’s digging shows how Garrison’s troubled, obsessively conspiratorial psyche was continually obvious to others, including when he was D.A.

 Persecuted: Clay Shaw was proved innocent but at the cost of four exhausting years and US$200,000 in legal costs. (Source: Facebook)

In the 1960s, after some of the targets of his or his staff’s persecution complained, Louisiana’s Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC) was forced to investigate Garrison. MCC head Aaron Kohn would write a memo citing the “emotional incapacity or perhaps insanity” of Jim Garrison. That echoed what every other report into his mind had found: He was certifiably paranoid.

Kohn would also write of how Garrison used New Orleans’ most vulnerable – people he could prosecute if they didn’t say what Garrison wanted in court – to build often-specious cases against targets. Those vulnerable “witnesses” included, in the MCC head’s words, “homosexuals, narcotic addicts, sociopaths, extreme neurotics.” That, and perhaps Garrison’s own denial about being gay, goes a long way to explaining the New Orleans prosecutor’s obsession with Clay Shaw.

The other critical element in Garrison’s crusade was his own left-wing bias: He just couldn’t believe that a Marxist like Oswald could kill Kennedy. (Posner’s Case Closed has much more on this.) In Garrison’s world, an attack on the Democratic president only made sense if it originated with right-wing, anti-Kennedy, anti-Castro personalities. This other blind spot in Garrison’s psyche is why Litwin labels Garrison “the irrational leftist”.

In March 1967 Garrison charged Shaw with the assassination of Kennedy. As the public spectacle dragged on for two years, ever-more journalists and law enforcement officials cast severe doubt on Garrison, his mind and his methods. Once the case finally got to court in 1969, a jury found Garrison’s theories and charges against Shaw so absurd they took just 45 minutes to acquit Shaw on their first ballot.

Even that didn’t stop Garrison. Two days later he charged Shaw with perjury. It would take another two years and a federal court judge to issue a permanent injunction against Garrison to stop the D.A.’s crusade. Finding that Garrison’s charges had been brought in bad faith, the federal judge forbade Garrison from ever charging Shaw again. Shaw “won” but at a tremendous cost: To defend himself over four years, Shaw spent US$200,000 (about $1.3 million in today’s dollars). Shaw sued Garrison but before his case could reach trial, Shaw died in 1974, a broken man.

Stone Keeps the Conspiracy Alive

That was not the end of the story for Garrison who in 1988 published a book, On the Trail of the Assassins, about his purported insight into the Kennedy assassination. That book became the basis for Stone’s 1991 film JFK. Stone was not a dispassionate filmmaker telling a good yarn; he was a deep believer in Garrison’s unhinged version of the events of November 22, 1963.

Litwin’s chapter on Stone is perhaps most relevant to today’s conspiracy theories, including those often overlooked by traditional media – i.e., when they emanate from the ideological and political left, of which Stone is a conspiracy-minded adherent. In 2003, for example, Stone would produce a fawning documentary of Fidel Castro, ignoring the derelict, repressive state of Cuba to which Castro reduced the once relatively flourishing island nation.

Litwin does a masterful job of showing the filmmaker’s own multiple delusions, conspiracy theories and crackpot connections. Stone was hardly alone, however, for much of Hollywood fawned over JFK and was happy to help revive the conspiracy theory. Oddly, Hollywood liberals – which most actors are – did so despite the movie protagonist’s anti-gay bent and how, as Litwin chronicles, gay rights activists regarded the film as the same. Kevin Costner played Garrison, Tommy Lee Jones played Shaw and Garrison himself played Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, who of course headed the official investigation into Kennedy’s assassination.

“Indifferent to truth”: Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK (with Kevin Costner playing Garrison and Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw) channelled Garrison’s obsessions, distortions and paranoid fantasies, breathing new life into the Kennedy conspiracy theory.

Costner served as the perfect ventriloquist for Stone’s every conspiratorial rant, every word he uttered clearly channeling Stone’s mind and before him, that of Garrison. The best dead-aim summary of the film and Stone came from columnist George Will, cited by Litwin: “Stone falsifies so much [that] he may be an intellectual sociopath, indifferent to truth.”

Indeed, but Hollywood glitterati seemed not to have cared. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and Stone received a Golden Globe for Best Director. As Litwin notes, Warner Brothers even distributed thousands of JFK film “study kits” to American high schools. Thus was a new generation exposed to the paranoia deep in the disturbed psyche of a 1960s prosecutor from New Orleans. That it infected a new generation is perhaps proof of how easily infected we are as human beings to pernicious idea viruses which posit grand conspiracies.

Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations. C2C Journal’s review of the book is here.

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