David R. Henderson  

Paul Gregory's Case Against JFK Assassination Conspiracy

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The New York Times versus the New York Times

I have known Hoover colleague, economist Paul Gregory, for about 5 years, and gotten to know him better in the last 3. An expert on Russia's economy and increasingly on China's economy, he has written two articles on those topics for Econlib. I had no idea, until reading this New York Times article, "Lee Harvey Oswald Was My Friend," earlier this month, that he had known Lee Harvey Oswald, the Communist ex-Marine who murdered John F. Kennedy. The whole piece is fascinating. Here are three paragraphs that make the case for Oswald's motivation and why Gregory finds it implausible that someone would conspire with Oswald:

On the Saturday morning after Kennedy was killed, I was sitting in my small apartment in Norman when a Secret Service agent and the local chief of police arrived and took me some 20 miles down I-35 to Oklahoma City for questioning. As we drove, I began telling them about how I met Oswald, the evenings driving around Fort Worth, the Dallas Russians and how a college kid got caught up with an accused assassin. After they escorted me into a nondescript conference room in a downtown building, the agents homed in on the question of the day, which, of course, has lingered over the past 50 years: Did I think Oswald worked alone or was part of a larger conspiracy? I told them simply that, if I were organizing a conspiracy, he would have been the last person I would recruit. He was too difficult and unreliable.

Over the years, despite public-opinion polls, many others have agreed. The opening of formerly secret archives in Russia indicate that the K.G.B. didn't want to recruit Oswald. Cuban intelligence officers, a K.G.B. agent or two, Mafia bosses and even C.I.A. officers (including, supposedly, members of Nixon's "plumbers" team) have somehow been tied to Oswald's actions that day, but it's difficult to understand how these conspiracy theories would have worked. Oswald, after all, fled the Texas School Book Depository by Dallas's notably unreliable public-transportation system.

It's discomfiting to think that history could have been altered by such a small player, but over the years, I've realized that was part of Oswald's goal. I entered his life at just the moment that he was trying to prove, particularly to his skeptical wife, that he was truly exceptional. But during those months, his assertion was rapidly losing credibility. Marina would later tell the Warren Commission, through a translator, about "his imagination, his fantasy, which was quite unfounded, as to the fact that he was an outstanding man." Perhaps he chose what seemed like the only remaining shortcut to going down in history. On April 10, 1963, Oswald used a rifle with a telescopic sight to fire a bullet into the Dallas home of Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker, the conservative war hero, narrowly missing his head. Oswald told his wife about the assassination attempt, but she never told authorities before Kennedy's death.

By the way, the editors of the New York Times, who gave a recent op/ed about Dallas's guilt, this title and tag line:

The City With a Death Wish in Its Eye
Dallas's Role in Kennedy's Murder

might want to actually read their own newspaper, especially Paul Gregory's piece. At times, the New York Times is not that bad. Its editors might want to try it out. They might even understand it, except for, maybe the big words.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Daniel Artz writes:

"At times, the New York Times is not that bad."

Sadly, those times are increasingly rare.

Brian writes:


What a valuable perspective offered from a unique vantage point. Thanks for sharing the article.

All the conspiracy theories have always been a source of amusement to me. From a physics perspective, for example, the Zapruder film made clear that only one shooter existed. The snap back of JFK's head is what one would expect from a back shot blowing through the front end. Yet people insisted that there had to have been multiple shooters.

Gregory has it right when he says "It's discomfiting to think that history could have been altered by such a small player..." People try to justify their admiration for JFK by believing that he could only be taken down by a major conspiracy. Such fantasies are simple acts of vanity.

Randall M. writes:

Topical and interesting, but bound to convince exactly nobody.

1. A major sticking point from a pro-conspiracy angle (more fundamental than exactly who was involved and why) is that if the exit wound in the head is in the back rather than the front, there is more than one shooter. Supposing that to be the case, it might be unlikely ex ante that somebody would ally with Oswald, but certain ex post. This is why so much ink has been spilled on this point.

2. The author describes the perfect patsy without meaning to. That does not prove by itself that Oswald was a patsy, of course, but this point is the obvious rebuttal. No prominent conspiracy theory places Oswald in a high-ranking position; nobody would join him, but they might use him.

I would not post these comments here, off-topic as they are, except for the general message that in discussions about many topics--some more important than others--the two sides talk right past each other. I'm glad to have read the article, but it doesn't address some of the fundamental concerns people have that lead them to think there was a conspiracy.

~FR writes:

I find this very convincing:
"Marina would later tell the Warren Commission, through a translator, about "his imagination, his fantasy, which was quite unfounded, as to the fact that he was an outstanding man."

It's Walter Mitty syndrome. Jackie had it exactly right when she said: "He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It’s — it had to be some silly little Communist."
— Jacqueline Kennedy, Nov. 22, 1963

Brian writes:

Randall M,

You say "A major sticking point from a pro-conspiracy angle (more fundamental than exactly who was involved and why) is that if the exit wound in the head is in the back rather than the front, there is more than one shooter."

Though a common claim among conspiracy lovers, the forensic evidence shows that there is no exit wound in the back, nor is there any chance that the shots came from anywhere except the book depository. With the evidence indicating that Oswald was the sole shooter, it is common to move the conspiracy to the planning stage, with shadowy characters either guiding or using Oswald. Gregory's article goes a long way toward eliminating that possibility, making any conspiracy scenario highly unlikely.

Bill writes:

Mike Devaney has a recent book called A Plague of Experts which has a chapter titled "What do William Shakespeare and Lee Harvey Oswald Have in Common?" He makes the point that so called "experts" think Shakespeare was just a front man in a conspiracy that hid the true identity of the author and that Oswald was also part of a vast conspiracy. Why? Because neither man had formal training and it is difficult for the experts to believe that they could be capable of such great or heinous acts. The Paul Gregory article is an excellent piece of evidence against the conspiracy theorists.

Dick White writes:

The only reservation I hold with respect to the Oswald-only shooter is this. Like Oswald, I was a Marine (1962-67). For one of those five years I, like Oswald, qualified as a Sharpshooter with the rifle; the other four years I qualified as an Expert, the highest USMC small arms qualification designation. I know how hard it is to hit the bullseye of a stationary target much less a moving target, albeit one moving slowly. Notwithstanding the use of a telescopic rifle, I cannot account for Oswald's accurate shot other than by fortuity. Thus my skepticism.

Yancey Ward writes:

Obviously, Gregory is part of the conspiracy. [/sarcasm].

Brian writes:


I'm not expert on shooting, so I'll defer to your judgment on the difficulty of hitting the target. It's worth noting, though, that SOMEONE made those shots from the book depository, and Oswald's background was as qualified as anyone.

Forensics make it absolutely clear that 3 shots were fired from the direction of the book depository and nowhere else. One shot missed entirely, one caused non-lethal wounds on JFK and Connelly, and one managed to hit JFK in the head. Shoot enough at a low-moving vehicle and something is likely to hit.

Keep in mind also that the first two less successful shots occurred while the car was moving laterally with respect to the shooter. Not surprisingly, these shots were harder to make. The last shot occurred when the car was partly lined up with shooter and moving away with little lateral motion. This had to be an easier shot and, not surprisingly, successfully hit the target.

John Fembup writes:

"Gregory finds it implausible that someone would conspire with Oswald"

I think so, too. Besides, I think a conspiracy is implausible. But . . . if there WERE a conspiracy, could the core question really be whether anyone "would conspire with Oswald"? I think not.

Far more unsettling is whether there might have been some conspiracy that used Oswald without his knowledge. Jack Ruby prevented investigation of that question.

And thereby hangs all the tales.

Greg Jaxon writes:

Ditto Randall M & John Fembup's comments.

Nearly all the interesting conspiracy theories depict Oswald as unwitting patsy. Oswald said this word himself, on camera, and it's an odd choice of noun. It goes beyond someone just trying to squirm out of a charge - because it asserts victimhood in some larger conspiracy - and it doesn't advance the goal of someone "trying to prove, particularly to his skeptical wife, that he was truly exceptional" to be put in front of television cameras and given such a platform and NOT to use it to "stick it to the man" one more time, or to otherwise preen for his audience.

If Oswald was in-on, or even just aware-of, any conspiracy, then establishing the "patsy" defense this early sent the signal to his cohorts that they'd be named and charged if the case went to trial. That Oswald's murderer operated a major vice ring under the nose of Dallas police and still had access to the prisoner transfer event opens a can of circumstantial worms far too rich for one "witness to weak character" to discredit.

Oswald said he was a patsy. Is Gregory calling him a liar? What kind of "wannabe exceptional man" admits to being the patsy? The glove doesn't fit.

Oswald actually was exceptional. During the height of the Cold War, the "Iron Curtain" was closed to simple vagabonds. Flitting back and forth was itself surprisingly exceptional! Or do we have evidence of dozens and dozens of political drifters sampling the Cold War superpowers at will? Let's hear their stories of how easy it was to jump around the world stage without intelligence agency help, or substantial money resources of some kind.

If this assassination story is to be put down as a Cold War exchange of fire, which seems doubtful, then we still have a conspiracy (minor or major) of silence in gov't left to explain.

The story of JFK appears to be meticulously negotiated and shaped by political ends. It has joined the long list of crimes whose evidentiary trail was so swiftly distorted or destroyed that legal proofs are no longer possible either way. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) appear to be the ultimate goals and oddly these were also the crowning achievements of the cold warriors: a fear so vast that trillions could be spent on weapons systems too fearsome to be used. I'm just grateful we've lived through it all, and sad for the Kennedys and the bright lights among his many talented supporters.

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