Alexander Cockburn and Noam Chomsky vs. JFK: A Study in Misinformation
In early 1992, after the release of Oliver Stone's film JFK a media thundercloud erupted.
After early attacks in mainstream media like the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post, many other alternative media of both the left and right began to run articles on the film including outlets like "The Village Voice", for which Alexander Cockburn used to write. To the surprise of many, when some of these supposed leftist media organs did chime in, they savaged the film as wildly as the mainstream press did. These outlets were, specifically, The Progressive, Z magazine, and The Nation. The writers were, respectively, the late Erwin Knoll, Noam Chomsky, and Alexander Cockburn. Chomsky then wrote a book, Rethinking Camelot to specifically attack one of the main theses of JFK, namely that Kennedy had intended to withdraw from Vietnam by 1965.
But of the three, by far the most bitter and vicious polemics about the film were by Cockburn in three pieces in The Nation dated January 6/13, March 9, and May 18, 1992. The first piece was entitled "J.F.K. and JFK" in which he attacked not only the film, but the publishers of the book by Jim Garrison on which it was based, author Peter Dale Scott_who originated the Kennedy withdrawal thesis_and John Kennedy himself.
The next two issues cited were Cockburn's response to several of scores of letters The Nation received in response to the original article. Cockburns's response to the first group of letters was less than detached and academic. He said that Scott and author John Newman ("JFK and Vietnam" and an advisor on the film) suffered from "fantasies" and that Scott's letter was basically "silly" and showed "evidence of a rather pathetic persecution mania"(P. 319).
But perhaps the worst performance by Cockburn was in the last round of letters. He responded to correspondence by Oliver Stone, John Newman and Philip Green. He accused Stone of being a fascist (p. 678), said Newman's letter was a "confession of defeat" and called him "a very bad historian" (p. 678)_even though in the earlier issue he had called his tome "a serious book" (January 6/13 p. 7). He called Green's letter "the silliest of the lot" and full of "self-regarding blather" (p. 678). He concluded by accusing Garrisonand his publisher, and Stone and his producer, of being in it for the money. Not satisfied, he even stated that his colleague at The Nation, Chris Hitchens, of liking the film solely because he wanted to sell a script to Stone (p. 320). We should also add here that he characterized the Warren Commission critics as mostly "conspiracy mongers" who were either "imbeciles or mountebanks" and that the Warren Commission members and staff came to conclusions "more plausible and soundly based than is commonly supposed." Cockburn's trust of the Warren Commission was exhibited when he gave assistant counsel Wesley Liebeler a nearly three page interview in the March issue to defend the Commission's main conclusions.
Since Cockburn and Chomsky are good friends and colleagues, it is fair to say they communicated and compared notes during the many months the controversy raged. Now Cockburn has reprinted edited versions of some of his pieces plus another separate piece on Oswald in his new book "The Golden Age is in Us." These two hold an exalted status on the left and many progressives implicitly trust them even though neither has done any specific, extended work on the issues of the Kennedy assassination, Kennedy's intent to withdraw from Vietnam, the Garrison investigation, or the Kennedy presidency. We feel that its time to question that status in regard to the past writings, and the emerging record, and then let the reader decide who is closer to the truth: the film or its debunkers.
Point #1 The Kennedy Presidency
From The Nation 3/9/92, p. 318
". . .JFK always acted within the terms of those [economic, military, intelligence] institutions and that against the script's assertions, there is no evidence to the contrary."
In 1962, Kennedy brokered an agreement between the major steel corporations, including U.S. Steel, and their labor unions. The unions would hold off on a wage increase if the steel companies would not raise prices, which Kennedy felt would cause an inflationary spiral in the economy. On April 10th, four days after U.S. Steel signed the agreement, Roger Blough, chairman of the board, handed Kennedy a memo saying that U.S. Steel was going to break the agreement and raise prices. Within 24 hours Kennedy launched investigations by the FTC and Justice Department into collusion and price rigging by the steel companies. He threatened to break Pentagon contracts with U.S. Steel. In a week, Attorney General Robert Kennedy began a grand jury probe and announced subpoenas for documents held by U.S. Steel. President Kennedy then announced a press conference and delivered the following remarks:
". . .the American people will find it hard , as I do, to accept a situation in which a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of private power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility can show such utter contempt for the interests of 185 million Americans. "
In less than ten days the steel companies capitulated. Later on, when prices were raised in 1963, Bobby Kennedy instituted a lawsuit against the steel companies.
These actions followed Kennedy's criminal probe of the electric companies in 1961 in which he actually jailed the companies' executives for price fixing. It parallels his probe of the Rockefeller-controlled Freeport Sulphur, Hannah Mining and other mineral companies in 1962 and 1963 who had overly lucrative deals stockpiling armament materiel at the public's expense. In other areas Kennedy opposed the Pentagon with his nuclear test ban treaty (the CIA and Joint Chiefs worked against him in Congressional hearings).
He opposed the same groups at the Bay of Pigs when he refused to launch an invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis where he refused to launch air strikes against the missile silos. This last, according to one commentator, sealed his fate with Wall Street since by calling off an invasion he removed the last possibility of reversing Castro's nationalization of American industries.
Sources: Thy Will be Done by Colby and Dennett p. 401. Battling Wall Street by Don Gibson pp. 10, 11, 14. The Burden and the Glory ed. Allan Nevins p. 195.
Point #2 John Kennedy's Foreign Policy
From The Nation 1/6-13/92, p. 318. Cockburn:
"The real JFK backed a military coup in Guatemala. . . . to keep out Arevalo. . ."
In 1966, three years after the coup, columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, who enjoyed access to the intelligence community, reported that "top sources within the Kennedy administration" had told her that Kennedy authorized the coup after a majority of the Latin American experts he consulted recommended it. But some of the purported participants not only denied Kennedy's giving any green light, they insisted the meeting never took place. Some of them believed an Arevalo government was Kennedy's preferred option to avoid greater unrest and prevent guerrilla war from spreading.
Sources: Miami Herald 12/24/66. Bitter Fruit by Kinzer and Schlesinger pp. 243- 244. N.Y. Times 4/28/63. Rural Guerrillas in Latin America by Gott p. 85.
Point #3 Kennedy and the CIA
From The Nation 1/6-13/92, p. 7. Cockburn:
"At the very moment bullets brought JFK's life to its conclusion in Dallas, a CIA officer operating firmly within the bounds of Kennedy's policy was handing poison to a Cuban agent in Paris, designed to kill Castro."
The entire second phase of the assassination plots against Castro - May 1962 to November 1963 - was concealed from John Kennedy; in fact, not even his Director of Central Intelligence, John McCone, knew of it. This phase included working with mobsters, which the Kennedys found out about by accident, and the plot Cockburn lists above, commonly known as AM/LASH, in which the CIA was operating alone and without Kennedy's knowledge or permission. This was after they told Robert that 1) They would not work with the mob again, and 2) They would not try to kill Castro again. The CIA itself admitted this in a classified study dated May 23, 1967 entitled "Report on Plots to Assassinate Fidel Castro". This was not declassified until the 90's. The pertinent pages to this point would be pp. 68, 89.
Additional Sources: Deadly Secrets by Hinckle and Turner p. 217. Conspiracy by Summers pp. 321-324.
Point #4 On the Kennedy Assassination
From Cockburn's interview of assistant counsel Wesley Liebeler in The Nation 3/9/92, p. 294
"What about the speed at which Oswald would have had to fire his Mannlicher-Carcano? Critics of the Warren Commission say Oswald could never have loosed off the shots in so short a time."
". . . . If we assume that three shots were fired you have the question of which shot missed. The House committee concluded that the first shot missed. The Warren Commission never decided on the matter. The evidence is consistent with the proposition that the first shot missed. If so, all Oswald had to do was fire one more shot. So in fact he would have had from 4.8 to 5.6 seconds to fire one shot, not three shots.
"So, on that explication, he's waiting with his gun aimed. The car comes along, he shoots and misses. But there's no time fix as to when he might have fired that shot. It wasn't in the famous 4.8 to 5.6 second interval. He reloads and then fires the shot that hits the President in the neck between frames 210 or 225 according to the Warren Commission. . ."
This exchange is startling on 2 counts:
1. Liebeler, in his desperation to give Oswald a longer firing sequence to get off all three shots, seems to be saying (momentarily) that only two shots were fired, which of course, destroys the single bullet theory and acquits Oswald.
2. Cockburn's statement about "no time to fix" to the first shot reveals his unfamiliarity with the evidence as contained in his interviewee's Warren Report. On page 98 of the report it states that from frame 166 to frame 210 of the Zapruder film (save for one frame) Kennedy's head was hidden by the branches of an oak tree. So, by their own math, Oswald had 5.6 seconds to fire 3 shots with a manual bolt action rifle which the FBI stated took 2.3 seconds to operate (Warren Report p. 97). The 2.3 seconds does not include time to aim the rifle, or to let the scope stop vibrating from the recoil of a shot.
Additional Sources: Six Seconds in Dallas by Thompson pp. 29- 38. Best Evidence by Lifton pp. 70-96.
Point #5 On the Kennedy Assassination
From The Nation 3/9/92, p. 295 of Cockburn's interview of Liebeler.
"The other thing that seems to cause people a lot of problems is the 'single-bullet theory'_the first shot that hit Kennedy and also John Connally."
"The first shot that hit went through the top of Kennedy's back, came through the throat to the right of his trachea, didn't hit any bones."
Again, two startling points that Cockburn left unchallenged.
1. If the first shot went through the throat at the right of the trachea it would have smashed the cervical vertebrae, the small chain of bones in the back of the neck. Kennedy's are virtually intact. This is due to the lateral angle of the sixth floor window to the limousine. This was proven at the trial of Clay Shaw during the cross- examination of Dr. Pierre Finck and the direct examination of Dr. John Nichols by Garrison's assistant attorney Alvin Oser. It was also proven at a presentation in Dallas by Dr. David Mantik at a 30th anniversary medical panel on the death of John Kennedy.
2. But its even worse than that. If Liebeler believes the bullet went through the top of Kennedy's back and exited his throat, he has not read the declassified transcript of the January 27, 1964 Executive Session of the Warren Commission, Chief Counsel Rankin speaking:
". . . we have the picture of where the bullet entered in the back, that the bullet entered below the shoulder blade to the right of the backbone, which is below the place where the picture shows the bullet came out in the neckband of the shirt in front, and the bullet, according to the autopsy didn't strike any bone at all, that particular bullet, and go through. So that how it could turn and-" (p. 193)
And go upward? A quite puzzling thesis: that a bullet could go in at a downward angle below the shoulder blade and then reverse direction without deflecting so it could levitate and exit at the throat. The Commission itself knew the single-bullet theory was untenable. The thesis was so troubling that Rankin later added, ". . .that all has to be developed much more than we have at the present time." (Transcript p. 193) It was "developed," that is created out of whole cloth, by assistant counsel like Arlen Specter and Liebeler, who Cockburn quotes as an authority.
Additional Sources: Best Evidence by Lifton pp. 75-80
Point # 6 On the Garrison Investigation and Stone's JFK
From The Nation, 5/18/92 p. 678
"In JFK, David Ferrie confesses to his involvement in the conspiracy. No such confession was made, as is clear even from Garrison's book. Aha, said Stone at the Town Hall event, the confession was made to one of Garrison's assistants. Ed Epstein, author of books on the Warren Commission and on Garrison, called this assistant, who said that Ferrie had done nothing of the sort and that the story was nonsense from start to finish. So far as historical scruple goes, Stone makes Cecil B. DeMille look like Braudel."
The unnamed "assistant" in question is Louis Ivon, who at the time was Garrison's Chief Investigator and who, as the film shows, Ferrie took a personal liking to. When author Jim DiEugenio read this passage of Cockburn's he phoned Ivon about the purported Epstein contact. The conversation went like this:
DiEugenio: Lou, do you remember a writer named Ed Epstein?
Ivon: Epstein, Epstein. Yeah I seem to remember him from the investigation. Didn't he write a piece on Jim?
DiEugenio: Yes he did. It was in "The New Yorker". Has he called you recently about the film and the scene where Ferrie breaks down?
Ivon: Called me? No. Anybody who says that is full of bull.
Additional Sources: JFK: The Book of the Film by Stone and Sklar p. 88.
Point #7 On the Garrison Investigation
From The Nation, 5/18/92, p.678. Cockburn:
"Anyone who maintains. . .that Jim Garrison makes a persuasive case for "a right-wing conspiracy" should be confined to a lunatic asylum. Garrison was a berserk self- publicist with a penchant for locking up journalists who inconvenienced him. . . ."
If Cockburn can list a journalist that was locked up by Garrison he must have either new or fanciful information. In all the studies of the Garrison investigation, both pro and con, there is not one such case listed. It is true that Garrison did charge two journalists_Walter Sheridan of NBC and Rick Townley of WDSU, the local NBC affiliate_but they got their hearings shifted to a federal court and then, mysteriously, had the charges dismissed. It would seem relevant to ask what the charges were. Among them were bribing, harassing, and intimidating witnesses involved in a criminal conspiracy case of murder.
Perhaps Cockburn thinks obstruction of justice is alright as long as you don't like the person who was murdered.
Sources: The Kennedy Conspiracy by Flammonde pp. 319-328. American Grotesque by Kirkwood p. 178
Point #8 On Lee Harvey Oswald and Stone's JFK
From The Golden Age is in Us, p. 353
"Stone didn't have the slightest idea of how to portray him [Oswald]."
Cockburn then goes on to paint Oswald, like the Warren Commission, as a disturbed Marxist who after a frustrating experience at a communist cell meeting, "goes home and reaches for the mail order catalogue for Mannlicher- Carcanos."
The problem here is that there is no indication from any piece of documentary record, any witness, any Oswald possession that Oswald ever attended any such meeting. In four official investigations, hundreds of books, the amateur sleuthing of thousands of researchers, no one has ever written of Oswald attending any such meeting, or even knowing a communist. On the other hand, there are many, many documented occurrences of Oswald associating with just the opposite types. In fact Oswald_the supposed communist_associated with two of the most rabid right-wing groups in the U.S. at the time: the anti-Castro Cuban exile group in New Orleans and the White Russian emigres in Dallas. The first group wanted to invade Cuba and do away with Castro. The second wished to overthrow the Politburo and bring back the Czar. Funny people for a communist to be hanging out with.
This has led many knowledgeable people to conclude that Oswald was not really a communist but an agent provocateur. In fact, two New Orleans friends of Oswald said just that, one memorandum being in the files of the Garrison investigation and one in an interview newly declassified from the House Select Committee files.
Additional Sources: Spy Saga by Melanson, especially Chapters 3-6. Reasonable Doubt by Hurt pp. 192-255.
Point #9 On the Kennedy Assassination
From The Nation, 5/18/92, p. 678. Cockburn:
". . . Stone, who espouses the most preposterous theory of all, aside from anything else requiring total suspension of disbelief, since not one. . .party to this imagined conspiracy has ever surfaced, even on deathbed or in post mortem testimonial, to admit participating in the mighty plot."
As shown in Point #6 above, Cockburn called what Ferrie said in the film a confession. In reality, it is less than that. But in the newly declassified files of the House Select Committee, there are two confessions. One of whom passed a polygraph. Of course, Chief Counsel Robert Blakey never called either to testify.
Sources: The National Archives Interviews with House Select Committee investigators
Point #10 On the Kennedy Presidency
From The Nation, 3/9/92, p. 319. Cockburn:
"It was L. B. J. who ended Operation Mongoose."
The first phase of MONGOOSE lasted from February of 1962 until August of the same year. The second phase, a more stepped up covert sabotage campaign, lasted from August until October or the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis. After this, the administration moved all such activities off the mainland of the U.S. and gradually began to cut any funding for them. By the summer of 1963 Kennedy was using the FBI to actually shut down certain training camps and activities in Louisiana and Florida.
Sources: Edward Lansdale by Currey pp. 239-250. Fidel: A Critical Portrait by Szulc p. 480. Newly declassified note cards of Special Group meetings of MONGOOSE.
Point #11 On Kennedy's Intent to Withdraw From Vietnam
From The Nation, 3/9/92, p. 319. Cockburn:
(After comparing two versions of NSAM 273, the order that reversed Kennedy's stated policy of withdrawal in NSAM 263:) "The italics in the first version are added by Newman, and in the second by Scott. They furnish an amusing example of two men trying to tilt, in different directions, virtually identical words. So Scott's whole edifice collapses. . ."
Only if one is unaware of the context in which the two writers analyze the two National Security Action Memorandums which, of course, Cockburn does not provide. Scott was quoting the final draft of NSAM 273 and comparing it to two previous October 2 announcements, the first by General Maxwell Taylor and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara; the second issued by Kennedy and how the second announcement seemed to soften our commitment to the government of South Vietnam. Of course when Johnson signed the final draft of 273 Kennedy's October announcement was radically altered as Scott shows. Newman is using the rough draft of 273_which was not available to Scott_to prepare the reader for how it will be changed later on November 26th by Johnson and McGeorge Bundy. Scott is looking backward, Newman forward and they are not comparing what Cockburn says they are since Scott did not have what Newman is analyzing.
Sources: The Assassinations: Dallas and Beyond ed. Scott, Hoch, Stetler, pp. 406-442. JFK and Vietnam by Newman p. 439.
Point #12 On Kennedy's Intent to Withdraw From Vietnam
From The Nation, 3/9/92, p. 319. Cockburn:
"There is no beef either in the famous paragraph 7 of NSAM 273, which in the fantasies of Scott and Newman. . is crucial, . . ." He then lists the paragraph. That is it for Cockburn's comparison of the draft version and final version of the two memoranda.
The obvious question the reader would have is "What is the final draft of 273 being compared to and why doesn't Cockburn compare the two?" When one actually looks at the rough draft one immediately sees the answer. The draft version specifically states, "there should be a detailed plan for the development of additional Government of Vietnam resources. . .". As Newman points out, this is gone in the final version. The final version signed by Johnson on November 26th, allowed direct U.S. covert operations against North Vietnam. A month later Johnson and McNamara approved intensified CIA actions against North Vietnam which, as Theodore Draper points out in a recent review of McNamara's book, allowed the CIA to directly support covert operations against North Vietnam. These attacks inside territorial waters led to the C. Turner Joy and Maddox incidents and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which paved the way for the introduction of U. S. combat troops, something that Kennedy never countenanced and had already refused to do as early as 1961.
It seems superfluous to add that there were also changes in paragraphs 8 and 9 of the final draft of NSAM 273 which, respectively, concerned Laos and Cambodia. The first change increased the size, penetration, and scope of CIA operations against Laos. It, of course, led to the ten year CIA war against the Pathet Lao, perhaps the biggest and most costly CIA operation ever. The second change made it easier to disregard the claims of Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia that the U.S. was running clandestine operations inside his country's borders. In other words, it inched the U.S. closer to spreading the war into Cambodia.
It is not hyperbole to say that the changes from the Kennedy- signed 263 to Johnson's 273 were a milestone on the road to the colossal disaster in Southeast Asia eventually finalized by Nixon and Kissinger in the 70's.
Sources: JFK and Vietnam by Newman pp.438-449. "McNamara's Peace", New York Review of Books, 5/11/95, p. 9. JFK: The Book of the Film by Scott and Sklar pp. 536-542. This contains the text of all the NSAM's in question so the reader can check any writer's analysis for himself.
As the reader can see both Cockburn and Chomsky have played loose with the record.
They have not relied on primary documents or established fact but have instead tried (deliberately?) to use a campaign of smear, invective, unfounded argument, half- truths, deception and assumptions in a seeming effort to confound and confuse the reader. Cockburn especially seems to have used some very questionable sources like CIA and FBI connected journalist Edward Epstein. This questionable practice continues in his new book ( p. 352) when he quotes a CIA officer as saying that assassination attempts on Castro were run directly out of the White House. He then goes on to say that this example led to the death squads that haunt South America today. Need one advise Cockburn and Chomsky that the CIA never liked John Kennedy, at least since the time when he faltered at the "Bay of Pigs" which led to the firing of Allen Dulles, Dick Bissell, and Charles Cabell? That Richard Helms acknowledged this dislike on a CBS 30th anniversary special to correspondent Richard Schlesinger? That the disinformation campaign run by the CIA against the Kennedys goes on to this day with veteran covert operator Ted Shackley actually telling a Kennedy researcher that it was Bobby's idea to appoint Dulles to the Warren Commission? Would Chomsky and Cockburn have printed that if Shackley had told it to them? Will they print it now? Of course, Cockburn and Chomsky can't admit the resentment of the CIA for the Kennedys. If they did, it would open the door to the distinct possibility that the CIA, rather than face 13 probable years of Kennedy domination, decided to erase the problem themselves. And when one adds in the fact, as stated above, that Oswald was likely a CIA agent provocateur, then that verboten word "conspiracy" comes into play. As if the CIA was not originated and designed by Dulles to carry out covert acts and conspiracies for his corporate clients. In the forties and fifties, it operated mostly abroad. In the last three decades it has operated domestically also. It has remained unchecked to this day.
Chomsky and Cockburn want to blame the system first, then slap the hands of the CIA. But how could corporate America operate, at least abroad, without the CIA? Socialist economist Victor Perlo very aptly joked that the acronym actually stands for "Corporate Interests of America". In their desire to denigrate "the system" Cockburn and Chomsky do all they can to unjustifiably trash the Kennedys. In fact their attacks would make covert operators like David Phillips proud. Their motto seems to be as Phillips' murderous agent in the Letelier bombing stated: "Any shit would confuse them, the jury is so ignorant that one of the best defenses at this time is to throw more shit in and stir it up."
It is strange how Kennedy stirs the passions of both the extreme left and extreme right. We have tried here to shed some light on the topic. We encourage everyone to try and get the primary documents yourself. If you cannot, get the next best thing: a near-objective commentator. No one is free of bias, especially on topics as controversial as Kennedy and his assassination. Cockburn and Chomsky seem to say: don't trust the Kennedys but its OK to trust CIA or CIA- related sources in this dispute. We say don't trust anybody, do your own research and we have listed our sources here for you to check out on your own. But the use of questionable sources, dubious facts, and weak documentation eventually leads to a cynicism in the reader. He feels that neither side is telling the truth, which leads to alienation and an eventual dropping out of the process. Today, according to a poll cited in Kevin Phillips' book "Arrogant Capitol", only 19% of the public believe in their government, a substantial drop from the poll of 1960 that showed that 75% of the public believed in government. This fact is reflected at the ballot box. Phillips' notes that the biggest drop in this belief was in 1964, the year the Warren Commission was issued. Obviously, when voter turnout gets low, it is easier for the economic elites to win. They are better organized and have more resources. Their strategy is to divide and conquer. The pattern of their ascendancy is pretty clear since 1968, never more obvious than in the 1994 Gingrich- Dole blowout. It is ironic that Cockburn and Chomsky don't recognize this phenomenon and seize on the issue of total truth, candor, and declassification of all secret documents, including those related to the media, so that intelligence related journalists can be exposed for what they are. But it seems these two hate Kennedy and the legacy of Camelot more than they love the truth.
Sponsored by Citizens for Truth about the Kennedy Assassination (P.O. Box 3317, Culver City, CA 90231, (310) 838-9496). May, 1994.