Imagine a counterfactual
America, an alternative history wherein it has always been a well-known and
accepted fact that Lee Harvey Oswald, a lone-wolf Marxist, had assassinated the
President of the United States for rational Marxist reasons as well as
subterranean personal ones. In this America, a school shooting by a paranoid
vegan only encourages logical and evidence-based discussion of gun control and
mental illness, a terror attack by Islamist hijackers is unanimously attributed
to its obvious perpetrators, the Moon is American, and one cannot simply say
that one has won an election which one has lost. It is an America in which Dr
Fauci can sleep easy, and in which, sometimes, a virus is only a virus.
There were conspiracy theorists before JFK of course, indeed Oswald had tried to kill one of them, General Edwin Walker, the only human target he missed putting one or more bullets into. Yet the creative JFK theories have had a wider appeal across American society than the paranoic blend of European antisemitism and John Birch anti-communism indulged in by Walker and his contemporaries. Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General, tried to have Walker committed after he incited the Mississippi University race riots in 1962, but libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, opposed to the coercive psychiatry that was, to be fair, something of a public menace at the time, talked him out of it. Most people knew Walker was nuts. But with JFK theory you can stay respectable enough, it’s a hobby that seems to hurt no-one. You can put your own choice of villain in the frame – the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, LBJ, the military-industrial complex, and of course the Cubans or the KGB, though it’s strange that the Manchurian Candidate option presented in film before the assassination – because it seemed believable at the time – hasn’t survived in the modern myth, which is comprised of scenarios entirely discordant with Oswald’s personal beliefs.
We know what Oswald’s political beliefs were because he wrote them down, and expressed them relatively freely to those around him, and we know how he wanted to express those beliefs because we have a reliable witness to his development as an assassin, Marina Oswald, née Prusakova, whom he married in Minsk during his defection to the USSR. A year after Lee’s death, Marina spent several months with Priscilla MacMillan, author of Khrushchev and the Arts; the Politics of Soviet Culture 1962-1964. (MacMillan, a friend of Kennedy’s, had also interviewed Lee Oswald during his defection to the USSR, at which time he told her “I want to give the people of the United States something to think about” - she was the only person to know both the assassin and his victim). The book that resulted, Marina and Lee, did not appear till 1977.
Marina Prusakova, who was not told her father’s identity but came to assume he had died in a purge, and who was rejected by her mother and step-father, was raised for a time by her devout grandmother in an Old Regime style. She had sensibly decided, from her observations of Soviet life growing up, that politics was a sickness and that anyone interested in politics was sick, but she made a fateful exception for the young American who was interested in her. Marina may not have been “political” but she knew a thing or two, as this statement to a Warren Commission interviewer shows:
I look at America. It’s all wonderful. But you go to the damn grocery store and it’s 200 varieties of cereal and basically it’s only oats, corn – how many things? Just so someone can make an extra million off of that. It’s just so unnecessary. If that’s progress, if that’s abundance, how stupid is it of us to want it? Three hundred bags of poison, maybe only two or three good – that kind of progress…I don’t think we should strive for.
Lee Harvey Oswald’s solitary Marxism was the ideology that allowed an intelligent young man to compensate for the loss of his father and an upbringing by one of history’s more blameable mothers. It provided him with inspiration for grandiose fantasies and daring acts, as well as a feeling of intellectual importance that compensated for learning difficulties, diagnosed posthumously as dyslexia. Oswald had become seriously interested in politics at the age of 15 or 16 after he was handed a leaflet about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been executed some two years earlier for spying for the Soviet Union, on a street corner in the Bronx (the effect this interaction had on him may have influenced his later decision to hand out Fair Play for Cuba pamphlets in New Orleans; it seems to have also triggered a Walter Mitty fantasy life as an espionage hero which lasted the rest of his life). “I was looking for a key to my environment, and then I discovered socialist literature,” Oswald wrote in his diary. “I had to dig for my books in the back of dusty shelves of libraries,” although according to Priscilla McMillan, he came across more as the naïve angry young man than a perceptive Marxist in their 5-hour Moscow interview despite using “a good deal of Marxist language”. The Oswald that stalks the pages of Marina and Lee is also a familiar character to readers of criminal profiling books, a case-study of the violent malcontent male loner. An American outsider who married a Russian outsider, and who was closer to Russian-speaking outsiders than to anyone else outside his family back in the USA, Lee Oswald read Orwell and Dostoyevsky, listened to Rimsky-Korsakoff, Chaliapin, Rachmaninov, and Tchaikovsky, and in his more constructive activities was inspired by Marxist newspapers The Worker and The Militant. He is holding copies of both these papers in the famous photographs Marina took of him with his guns, one of which, with a Russian inscription on the back – “hunter of fascists – ha ha ha!” in Marina’s hand, signed by Oswald, was given to their friend George De Mohrenschildt, the edgelord of the Dallas Russian émigré scene who parodies an éminence grise role in their story. The Worker was the paper of the U.S. Communist Party, The Militant of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party; Oswald corresponded with both journals, in a futile attempt to establish credibility as a leader of the organized left; the March 11 1963 copy of The Militant he is holding contains a letter headed “News and Views from Dallas”, signed LH, which was the high point of his association with organised socialism in America.
Lee Oswald was a person who would lie or withhold the truth whenever possible, so that he moved in a web of misdirection, but also presumably in a state of tension lest his lies (which include a long list of needless lies on official forms) be found out. He starved himself and Marina, as his mother had starved him, and pinched pennies as she had - what conspiracy asset would have been left as bereft of financial support as the Oswalds were at times, or as dependent on the kindness of strangers, who liked Marina but rarely liked ungrateful and ungracious Lee, and sometimes feared him? He was violent and controlling towards Marina, and beat her often, but became less violent at home after his attempted assassination of General Walker altered their relationship; he was also often cruel to her, as if practicing the heartlessness essential in a great revolutionary leader, and prevented her learning English for his own reasons (so that much of the evidence in the case of Lee Harvey Oswald is the record of conversations held in Russian, remembered by someone who thought in Russian). Yet Lee, who identified as a Marxist, was never a member of the Communist party, and recognised that the USSR was less successful than the USA – his core attitude was a juvenile delinquent’s hostility to any authority he was no longer capable of idealising, and a contempt for almost all other people, but as a strongly self-entitled person of progressive views he granted, in theory, everyone else a share in what he himself felt he deserved. As a social justice warrior, he was capable of admirable performative gestures, such as sitting in the black section of a segregated courtroom when arraigned in New Orleans, without seemingly ever going out of his way to perform any act of kindness for another human being in need.
There is a Jekyll and Hyde character to Lee’s politics, in which his violent acts contradict both his written statements and his progressive activism, resembling an expressionistic caricature of 20th century Marxism. Eleven years after his murder of Joseph P. Kennedy’s son, the Symbionese Liberation Army, collectivist Marxists with better childhoods and higher education than Oswald, embarked on a crime spree which included kidnapping the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst. Their goals, motivations and grievances were, though filtered through the kaleidoscope of LSD, aligned with Oswald’s. Both Oswald and the SLA were influenced by what Elizabeth Converse, in The War of All Against All, called “the irrational Communist belief in ultimate world victory”. At its most extreme, this belief encouraged the accelerationist heresy - the belief that as Communism was inevitable, historical upheavals within Capitalist societies brought it closer, the worse the better. The accelerationist Marxist thinks like the addict who overdoses because the sooner they reach rock bottom, the sooner they can begin recovery. Thus the Communists of Weimar Germany were taught to welcome the rise of Hitler and call the liberal democrats who opposed him “fascists”, thus Posades welcomed the possibilities of nuclear war and alien invasion, thus the apocryphal Bernie bro voted for Trump. Sigmund Freud gave us the concept of Thanatos. the organism’s compulsive drive toward dissolution back into the world; Oswald’s decisions were often thanatic – his defection to the USSR, which involved cutting his left wrist and attempting to surrender his US citizenship, his assault on the Soviet bureaucracy to get both himself and Marina back to America, the time he shot at Walker, the time he stuck a pistol in his belt and said he was going to “have a look” at Richard Nixon (defused by Marina), the similarly defused planning to hijack an airliner to Cuba, the assassination itself, his refusal to consider that he might become a target afterwards.
On the morning of the 22nd of November 1963, Lee Oswald left $170 for Marina, whom he had, up to that point seldom allowed any cash at all, as well as the wedding ring he never took off, collected his rifle, and went to work at the Elm street branch of the Texas Schoolbook Depository. There, from a window on the East side of the fifth floor, he shot dead U.S. President John F. Kennedy and wounded John Connally, the Governor of Texas; later that day Lee Oswald would kill Patrolman J.D. Tippit with the cut-off Smith and Weston .38 pistol he had mail-ordered long before the rifle, but which had arrived on the same day.
Had Lee Oswald stood trial, his guilt would have been presented as a coherent narrative, and his motivations widely discussed, as he intended. Instead, he was shot dead two days later by Jack Ruby in an act almost as impulsive and last-minute as his own. Ruby’s motives are obscure – even more unstable and violent than Oswald, he was a heavy consumer of phenmetrazine, the new amphetamine also popular with The Beatles, was only 5 blocks from the assassination when it happened, and became paranoid that Jews would be blamed for the assassination, resulting in a pogrom.
The original complaint filed by the Dallas police department on Lee Oswald, around midnight on the 22nd of November, said that Lee Oswald did, "in furtherance of an international communist conspiracy, assassinate President John F. Kennedy,” but Oswald’s murder, and the lack of evidence against anyone else he knew, meant that charge would not be tested in a court of law.
The possibility that Oswald's political convictions may have played a decisive part in his shooting John F. Kennedy was down-played in the early 1960s because President Johnson and other officials did not want the assassination to become a casus belli with the Soviet Union. And to the public, this explanation, at a moment when capitalism was riding high, appeared ludicrous. Besides, for a Marxist, killing this president appeared wildly inconsistent. Kennedy was a liberal.
- Priscilla MacMillan, JFK and Oswald: The Inconvenient Truth
It may have also have
mattered that no-one wanted to revisit McCarthyism. Sen Joseph McCarthy had
been defeated by censure in 1954 and died in 1957; the House Unamerican
Activities Committee lingered until 1975 but by 1963 was beginning to come
under siege from an emerging counterculture that would become increasingly
Marxist as the 60’s turned to the 1970’s. Overseas, US foreign policy and
covert interventions would ensure the abduction, torture and death of many
thousands of Marxists through the next few decades, yet in the USA the few
leftists who knew Oswald were not persecuted, and the journals of which he said
"you can see what they want you to do by reading between the lines"
were not supressed.
In December of 1963 Dylan, then in the most activist stage of his folk career, was an attendee at a dinner event in New York hosted by the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, which had awarded him its annual Tom Paine Award.
“I’ve got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don’t know exactly where — what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too — I saw some of myself in him. I don’t think it would have gone — I don’t think it could go that far. But I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt, in me — not to go that far and shoot.”
The outraged crowd then expressed its hostility to the speaker.
“You can boo but booing’s got nothing to do with it. It’s a — I just a — I’ve got to tell you, man, its Bill of Rights is free speech and I just want to admit that I accept this Tom Paine Award in behalf of James Forman of the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and on behalf of the people who went to Cuba.”
Fair play for Cuba.
Perhaps the first
conspiracy theory about the assassination, after the statement of the Dallas
PD, was held covertly – the branch of the CIA working on mind control research
must logically have begun looking for evidence of a “Manchurian Candidate”
brainwashing of Oswald by the KGB. The MKULTRA program, initiated in 1953, had
failed to find any reliable form of brainwashing – they had been able to
produce “vegetables” among their guinea pigs but not effective agents or
reliable informants. The program’s budget would be reduced in 1964, but if
there was the possibility that the Soviets or Cubans had succeeded in
brainwashing Oswald then it could be kept alive, and perhaps vindicated. It was
probably in this spirit that MKULTRA researcher Louis Jolyon West interviewed
Jack Ruby in 1964, likely with the use of hypnosis and sodium pentothal. During
the visit Ruby experienced a “psychotic break”, revisiting his delusion of a
Kennedy-assassination inspired pogrom. Jolyon West, who killed the elephant
Tusko with LSD and other drugs in 1962 and studied hippies with MKULTRA in
Haight-Ashbury in late 1967, would later testify at the trial of temporary
Marxist Patty Hearst in support of her defence’s brainwashing theory.
As Jolyon West was infiltrating the hippie subculture in search of the mind-control McGuffin, David Crosby was ending his career in The Byrds on stage at the Monterey Pop festival, by introducing the song He Was a Friend of Mine, a tribute to JFK, with a categorical statement of the most enduring of the JFK theories –
When President Kennedy was killed, he was not killed by one man. He was shot from a number of different directions — by different guns. The story has been suppressed, witnesses have been killed, and this is your country.
This moment marks the overground advent of progressive conspiracy theory, with its roots in Eisenhower’s Military-Industrial Complex warning, and its motivation in opposition to the Vietnam war, and more to the point, in opposition to the drafting of young American men, who naturally adapted conspiracy theory as a defence against the mass disposal of their minds and bodies by the State – analogous to the adoption of conspiracy theory defences today by those whose autonomy and future plans have been threatened by their conscription in the war against COVID-19. It was widely rumoured that LBJ, Kennedy’s Vice President and successor, under whom America had become most stickily entangled in Vietnam, had ordered the hit, but Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were about to show the USA, and the world, how real political conspiracies are constructed.
It was in this environment of renewed conspiracy ferment that Kerry Thornley, who had known Oswald in the US Marines and written a book inspired by his personality, The Idle Warriors, before the assassination, initiated Operation Mindfuck, with the help of Greg Hill, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. Operation Mindfuck introduced the Illuminati, through letters and ads in Playboy and other “hip” publications, to the US counterculture, with the intent of parodying the counterculture conspiracy industry and serving up an anti-stupidity vaccine with a side-order of chaos and fun. But Thornley and his accomplices underestimated the forces they were toying with, especially the human tendency to believe in malign machinations that can explain one’s own apparent impotence, dehumanise those in control, and undermine the achievements of those who have succeeded in one’s place, the same need to feel one’s weakness justified as cursed and, if one can do nothing worse, curse back that fed the belief in witchcraft in the Middle Ages and that in modern Africa.
While the Jews and Freemasons theories of the Right did not go away, they were quaintly old-fashioned and smelled strongly of old library books by the 1970’s, unable to keep up with the actual conspiracies and political and cultural developments of the Nixon-Kissinger period. The Satanic Abuse panic of the 80’s-90’s was the most successful attempt to upgrade them – arguably this succeeded, to the extent that it disrupted civil society, because it aligned with Marxist Feminist agitation against sexual exploitation; sexual Satanism was a predictable manifestation of the Patriarchy, and vice versa. Meanwhile, Hunter S Thompson had created new myths of the operation Mindfuck type, giving adrenochrome its backstory and planting a rumour about senator Eugene Muskie, the less-progressive Democratic candidate for the 1972 Presidential race, being high in ibogaine, which destroyed his candidacy. Kenny Thornley, instead of mocking the operation Mindfuck theories – which he, glimpsing the truth about Oswald, had started - began acting as if he believed in one or the other or all of them. And a young Oliver Stone, after serving in Vietnam and disapproving of the whole thing, began thinking about the assassination of JFK, who was believed posthumously to have been opposed to the War in some way.
Stone’s 1991 film JFK marks the moment when conspiracy theory passed over from the counterculture and far-right into the mainstream; it featured an impressive cast of A-list actors who presumably approved of its message of suspicion. JFK was followed by The X-Files TV series in 1993, with its telling slogan “I want to believe”. The X-Files was ironic enough, unlike Stone’s breathless film, but this didn’t inhibit the mass distribution and discussion of its ideas. Both JFK and The X-Files posit an all-powerful, yet successfully concealed Deep State for which the elected US government is window-dressing and easily removed if it objects. All around the world, this gave an easy explanation to those who resented US cultural hegemony and military power but were not the type to organise against them. It helped that it was a seemingly playful explanation, one that didn’t insist on being taken seriously enough to really test, even as it established itself in the zeitgeist.
Prior to 2001 the Deep State conspiracy theories had to co-exist with the rest of the Fortean world represented in The X-Files. UFOs, Bigfoot, spontaneous combustion, the Bermuda triangle, vampires - by the end of the 20th century, several different species of UFO-riding aliens were abducting and probing people all around the world. But after 9/11, Islamist terrorists became the aliens and monsters we watched out for and it was the US state that began abducting and probing people everywhere; reports of UFO sightings and alien abductions went into serious decline. As the plainly venal team of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld openly conspired to roll back freedoms and push the world into another unwinnable war, a spontaneous conspiracy of sorts arose to undermine their casus belli by suggesting that the terror attacks had been an inside job. This also meant not admitting that a Saudi Arabian NGO could get the better of the mighty USA, so it had cross-party appeal, but the list of progressive celebrities who endorsed or indulged 9/11 conspiracy theories is almost as impressive as the cast of JFK, and included Ed Asner, Spike Lee, Woody Harrelson, Rosie O’Donnell, Marion Cottillard and Graham Nash. Spreading a rumour like “Bush did 9/11” is a way of cursing the powerful, a displacement activity born of impotence and frustration, like spreading a rumour that your local feudal tyrant worships Bahomet because you are powerless to stop him taking what he wants from you. And 20 years later, Q-Anon is simply the aggregate of all the progressive counterculture conspiracy theories, including Kerry Thornley and Hunter S Thompson’s inventions, with a modified Satanic abuse element, and with the older Jews, Freemasons and Communists theories always sneaking back in.
It all began with Oswald and the trauma he induced in the USA on November 22 1963. As NBC News anchor David Brinkley said, as he signed off that night, Kennedy’s death was “just too much, too ugly and too fast.” In 2007 Priscilla MacMillan summed up the aftermath of the assassination in a short article for World Policy Journal titled JFK and Oswald: The Inconvenient Truth.
Oswald's act of violence indisputably
ushered in an era of unease and suspicion in American life that was not there
prior to the Kennedy assassination. Oswald was not responsible for all of the
damage that has befallen American society since 1963, much as he would have
wished to be. Some of that damage is the result of events related only
tangentially to the assassination of President Kennedy. But some of the injury
can, with justice, be attributed to conspiracy theorists who have gone to
superhuman lengths to avoid facing the truth. They have constructed
wildly-implausible scenarios, far-out, fictitious "conspirators," and
have scandalously maligned the motives of Kennedy's successor, rather than take
a hard look at the man who actually did it. They have, ironically, done more to
poison American political life than Lee Oswald - with the most terrible of
intentions - was able to do.
Kerry Thornley thought that a little light Illuminati hoaxing would make people immune to conspiracy theories, but conspiracy theories, as The X-Files and its spin-off The Lone Gunmen have proved, are immune to spoofing; Q-Anon is a spoof of spoofs, and it has outshone them all.
If the world is ready to give Marina Oswald’s story and Priscilla MacMillan’s research and analysis the same attention it once gave to Jim Garrison’s speculations, narrative will replace montage in the JFK storytelling tradition. In the near future there will be a film, or better yet a TV series, of Marina and Lee, based on the True Crime book of that name which its viewers will queue to read. In our contemporary state of disinformation hypersensitivity, it should get a more reasoned reception from the comments section than the PBS Frontline documentary series Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald did when it rescreened in 2013. We will come to understand Lee Oswald and the ideological world he inhabited, which is closer to our own than used to be the case, because the expression of low-constraint or heretical or otherwise deviationist versions of Marxist ideas is now commonplace, because glasnost revisionism, 90 Day Fiancé, RT, and Red Scare have made Marina’s voice more relatable, and because we’re now well-used to seeing violent malcontent male loners acting out the terrorist fantasies which they developed through ideological study and travel.
Imagine a counterfactual America, an alternative history wherein it has always been a well-known and accepted fact that Lee Harvey Oswald, a lone-wolf Marxist, assassinated the 35th President of the United States.
George Henderson, Auckland, Sept 2021
The killing of Oswald by Jack Ruby was the real singularity that tipped America down the path to Q-Anon, as it removed Oswald from his own story. I've called Ruby's motives "obscure" above, but obscure as they are they are not beyond all speculation. Here's what I think.
Roy Cohn, as a patriotic American Jew trying to succeed in the system, persecuted Jewish American communists because he thought they gave a bad impression of American Jews - he more-or-less framed Ethel Rosenberg and brought about her execution. This was the injustice that led to the radicalization of the young Oswald.
The Dallas newspapers had been carrying adverts against JFK that in the opinion of many at the time amounted to hate speech, and some of these were signed by Jewish Republicans (the Republican party still being the old party of tolerance for many, I suppose). Ruby was concerned about this even before the shooting, and when he heard about it panicked that the Jews would be blamed for killing JFK (as, I suppose, they had been for killing Christ) and was compelled to kill Oswald to clear their name, as a kind of sacrificial lamb for his people.
Because this involved magical thinking, and because he may have found it embarrassing in his lucid moments, Ruby gave the more innocent explanation that he had killed Oswald to spare Jackie Kennedy the pain of a trial.
Roy Cohn would go on to become the mentor of Donald Trump, and Donald Trump would go on to become the patron and beneficiary of Q-Anon.