The America that Almost Was and Yet May Be
Republishing from last year, for obvious reasons
A few years ago at a retreat I was outlining the dark side of the triumphalist mythology of progress. A man raised his hand and shared the following story. “When I was a boy in the early 1960s,” he said, “my father took me aside one day and said, ‘Son, we are living at the greatest moment of the greatest nation ever to exist on this earth. Anything is possible.’”
The man said this made a deep impression on him and asked, “Surely it can’t be all that bad. Surely there must be room in your narrative for the truth in what my father told me.”
I considered. “Yes,” I said, “there is truth in it. Even in full cognizance of the horror that accompanied the American version of the story of progress, the genocide, the ecocide, the slavery, the oppression, some of which was still ongoing in 1962 when your father spoke to you, still an ideal showed itself to us, never more visibly than at that historical moment. Yes, Jim Crow and the destruction of native culture and global imperialism and industrial pollution operated in full force, yet there was good cause for optimism. The civil rights movement was gathering steam, as was the environmental movement. We had an anti-imperialist, pro-civil rights President. One could reasonably believe that the ideals of freedom, democracy, liberty, and opportunity would soon bring light to the remaining shadowy corners of the American Dream.”
More recently I told my father this story. Dad was born in 1940, and he knew what the man’s father was talking about. A wistful look came over him, followed by an expression of pain, an old anger turned to grief not fully resolved. He told me, “Yes, and I remember the day it turned dark. It was November twenty-second, 1963.”
That, of course, was the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The Kennedy assassination was more than an historical event. It was a mythic event, a psychic event that reshaped the constituent archetypes of the modern world. Nearly sixty years later, the grief still abides in my father; I too feel inexplicably stricken when I watch the video of the assassination. My father, my country, and to some extent the world, has not yet fully come to terms with it. It is like a radioactive pellet lodged inside the body politic, generating an endlessly metastasizing cancer that no one has been able to trace to its source.
The Kennedy assassination(s) was the mother of all conspiracy theories; in fact, the very term “conspiracy theory” was amplified by CIA operatives inside the media in order to discredit doubters of the official story. Many present-day conspiracy theories embed the Kennedy assassinations within a larger mythology; it is an integral structural element. That doesn’t mean that the truth of a particular Kennedy conspiracy theory entails the truth of any of these larger conspiracy theories. It does mean that without the JFK assassination and cover-up, most of these other theories would not have been born.
Yes, I take as a given that there was a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy. Kennedy had alienated vast sectors of the military establishment, top corporations, and the intelligence services. He tabled discussions pushed by CIA head Allen Dulles and Air Force chief Curtis LeMay to launch a surprise nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. He had refused to follow up the Bay of Pigs with a full-scale military invasion. He had defied the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff when they urged him to bomb Russian missile installations in Cuba (assuring him, falsely, that they had no nuclear warheads present there. Had he followed their advice, none of us would be here today.) He refused to invade Laos and, shortly before his death, issued orders to pull military advisers out of Vietnam. He fired Allen Dulles along with other CIA honchos like Richard Bissell (the architect of the assassinations of anti-colonial Third World leaders in Guatemala, Iran, the Congo, and elsewhere) and vowed in 1962 to “shatter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” Through these actions, he made bitter enemies throughout military and intelligence institutions.1
The putative assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a CIA asset who fake-defected to the USSR and returned; rather than being punished in that era of McCarthyism he was welcomed back to the United States. Two weeks before the assassination in Dallas, another assassination attempt was foiled in Chicago that bore remarkable similarities to the one that succeeded in Dallas. Oswald’s statements to the police were neither recorded nor transcribed. Before Oswald had a chance to make any public statements or be arraigned in court of law, he himself was assassinated at Dallas police headquarters by Jack Ruby, a mafia-connected nightclub owner. The Warren Commission set up to investigate the assassination included many of Kennedy’s opponents, including Dulles himself, and failed to follow many leads that pointed to more than one sniper.
Arguments that Kennedy’s assassination was coordinated by the CIA and other political factions fill many books. Maybe there is no conclusive proof (although it is hard to say what conclusive proof of a cover-up would look like, now that all the main actors are long dead and any archival information can be labeled a fake). The circumstances are extremely suspicious though, so suspicious that I would like to argue: the American public never truly believed the story.
A large minority rejected the official story outright, but the majority, my father included, pretended and professed to believe it. But in their heart of hearts they did not believe. As well they should not have—on the face of it, the story beggars belief. I mean, come on. The whole thing just doesn’t add up. However, to reject the official story would have required accepting something so monstrous and so utterly contrary to the story of America that few people could withstand the shattering cognitive dissonance that would have followed. In most people’s eyes, the CIA and the military-industrial establishment were still heroes. They broke the codes that led to the defeat of the Nazis and the Japanese. They were fighting against the specter of communism. For them to kill a President, a war hero, was unthinkable. It contradicted the entire story of America, land of the free, beacon of democracy, exemplar for the world.
That is why we the people swallowed the lie. What followed was inevitable, just as in any relationship where a lie festers. On the one hand, it sets a precedent for the acceptance of more lies; at the same, real trust is impossible so long as the lie remains in place. The one lied to develops all kinds of suspicions that, while perhaps not factual, carry the essential truth that she is being deceived. So it is with conspiracy theories today. Certainly most are objectively false (after all, they broadly contradict each other), but also they are all true in their basic motif. They give voice to a profound alienation, an endemic and well-deserved distrust of authority. Today huge numbers of people believe the election was stolen, that the vaccines are a deliberate depopulation scheme, even that the moon landing was fake, the earth is flat, and Santa Claus is a hoax. The monstrous act of deception that was November 22, 1963 makes all of these a lot more plausible, suggesting, “They are capable of anything.”
The JFK assassination was by no means the first deception perpetrated by the American establishment upon its people, but nothing before it was as brazen or as total.2 It was in fact a coup, and we have been living under the regime it installed ever since. That doesn’t mean Kennedy’s successors were conscious of being figureheads; rather, the deep state had gained permanent control of the apparatus of government. It could, though imperfectly, winnow out leaders too far at odds with its goals and pressure others to conform. Over the next few years it consolidated its victory, removing first JFK’s brother and leading presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, and then Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, anti-imperialists who posed a threat far beyond challenging white supremacy.3
The beneficiaries of the coup included not only the military-industrial complex, but every institution whose profits and power were held in check by democracy. The core of democracy was dead, and in time the necrosis spread to its outer organs: the press, Congress, and the regulatory agencies. To varying degrees, all became captives of industry over the ensuing decades. Ever since the New Deal, government had enjoyed wide respect among the public—my grandfather took pride in paying his taxes. A majority saw government as their friend, on their side, protecting them from moneyed interests. It wasn’t only the Kennedy assassination and cover-up that changed that; it was also the ensuing takeover of government by corporate and other undemocratic interests.
Not only did the JFK assassination and cover-up irremediably damage public trust in government, it also corrupted government’s attitude toward the public. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “It is a principle of nature to hate those whom you have injured..” By the same token, it is a principle of nature to despise those one has deceived. Naive intuition sees it the other way around: you wouldn’t deceive someone if you respected them, right? But it is just as much the reverse. The JFK affair opened a gulf between people and government that no bridge can span. It was the death of America—the America of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” People and government are now separate. The political class, interlocked with other elites, is a class unto itself, deploying propaganda, PR, psychology, “messaging,” spin, hype, “optics,” “narrative” and all kinds of manipulation on a population it holds in, at best, patronizing contempt: unruly schoolchildren who must be managed, surveilled, tracked, locked up, and locked down for their own good.
What can we do now? If the radioactive pellet of the JFK assassination and cover-up is the source of so much illness, what would it take to remove the pellet? It would take Disclosure.
I capitalize the word Disclosure in order to name it as an archetype. It reverberates throughout the conspiracy metaverse as the defining moment of victory, when the nefarious world-controlling powers surrender their most potent weapon: secrecy. Secrecy is the alpha of evil. Whether it is the secrets we keep from ourselves, or the secrets government keeps from the people, it is in their gloom that evil thrives. (Why? Because human beings are fundamentally compassionate. Evil must be somehow hidden—behind euphemisms, ideologies, justifications, or secrets.) The way to undo the effects of a lie is to reveal it. That is how to remove the pellet and clean the wound.
Lies tend to grow over time as further lies are required to maintain the original. Disclosure, then, has revolutionary implications, since revelation of the keystone lie will lead to the crumbling of the entire edifice of lies built around it. Which of the embedding conspiracy myths will be verified as we follow each cancerous filament to one tumor after another? I have no idea. Some may prove valid; the vast majority will fall away as honesty and transparency rob speculation of its fuel.
The biggest crisis facing society today is a crisis of communication; it is the division of society into mutually exclusive cults; it is the splintering of reality into disjoint shards. The groups that form around conspiracy theories are no more cult-like than mainstream belief groups. Exclusionary, punishing of dissent, trapped in their own reality bubbles, they are among the poisonous fruits of the distrust sown in 1963. That act of deception has indeed metastasized. Therefore, Disclosure will dispel not only the conspiracy theories but perhaps also the mainstream cultic trance that keeps society polarized. Of course we may still have serious disagreements, but the pitch of the playing field toward distrust will have been reversed. Disclosure, even after all these decades, will have a healing impact on society far beyond the resolution of an historical dispute.
America today is riven with division. Division, misunderstanding, and suspicion are inevitable when lies saturate the air we breathe. Human beings naturally trust authority—in a healthy society, those rise to authority who have earned respect. When authority betrayed us, we lost not only trust in government but the very instinct of trust. In the post-WWII era, we had faith in ourselves as a people that cut across political divisions. The Story of the People was strong. Today it is in shreds. To fulfill the possibility of greatness that was so visible in 1962, we need to come together, both around traditional American ideals that, though never universally applied,were very much alive post WWII, and also a new story of peace and healing. Disclosure would be a huge step in establishing the trust necessary for such a reunion.
How will Disclosure come about? It requires a push and a pull. The push is from journalists, artists, and citizens who have ceased to tolerate their own pretense of belief. They no longer swallow obvious lies. They demand authenticity. They refuse the patron’s bribes and no longer cower before his threats. Then it becomes harder and harder to hold the lies together, and the urge intensifies among the secret-keepers to break ranks.
The pull, exerted on the secret-keepers (those who know that they know, and those who facilitate them without knowing that they know), comes from the world that Kennedy strove for, the America the man’s father invoked, a place that never truly was but that yet might be. He wasn’t seeing nothing. He was seeing a real future that shone into early 1960s America. It is still available. The damage can be reversed. The pull of that future on even the most jaded heart opens a portal to courage. And make no mistake, it takes courage to break ranks. Others will follow you. You know who you are. It is time.
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Much of the above comes from the book JFK and the Unspeakable, by James W. Douglass.
Yes, I am aware of theories, purveyed mostly on anti-Semitic websites, that hold that Presidents Lincoln and McKinley were assassinated to uphold the interests of hidden elites. They seem far-fetched to me (McKinley after all was funded by J.P. Morgan) and arise through a process of back-formation, extrapolating backward from JFK to embed that assassination in a larger mythology.
The evidence that RFK’s assassination was also not a matter of a crazed lone gunman (yet another one!) is less abundant than that for JFK; nonetheless glaring circumstantial anomalies should at a minimum give us pause. (For example, all bullets from Sirhan Sirhan’s gun were recovered in the walls of the hotel where RFK was shot; he fired across a steam table, yet RFK’s wounds were inflicted from behind at point-blank range; the hotel had hired a new security guard with intelligence connections two days earlier who was standing right behind RFK and who disappeared promptly thereafter, Sirhan seemed to have no recollection of the event and protests his innocence to this day, etc.) As for Dr. King, if his assassination wasn’t directly planned by the FBI, that organization certainly deliberately incited it.