Updated: Feb 18
“Turn on, tune in, drop dead!”
(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 2, Episode 7.1, Chapter 1)
You just heard an excerpt of the famous Woodstock outdoor concert of 1969, with crowds of young peace activists chanting the Vietnam Song by the psychedelic rock band Country Joe and The Fish. This was followed by excerpts of a 1989 interview by filmmaker David Hoffman of Carl Oglesby, a founding member of the Students for a Democratic Society, a leading Sixties anti-war protest group. Country Joe and Oglesby were only two among thousands of mostly young, white, educated, and irreligious anti-war and anti-capitalist protestors, fueled by a deep cynicism about the American political system and mounting anxieties about the state of western democracy, race relations, social justice, poverty, forced conscription, and the possibility of nuclear war.
Oglesby understood the 1968 assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and of Senator Robert Kennedy (whose brother, the former president, was assassinated less than five years earlier) to be not just tragedies for the country and the anti-war movement, but as part of a deliberate plan by the powers-that-be—that proverbial and faceless “THEM” who control the state, media, universities, and financial institutions—despite the fact that these two assassinations are considered by law enforcement authorities, several government inquests, and a vast majority of American historians, to be the work of separate and unconnected lone assassins. You may also have noticed the optimistic slippery slope fallacy offered by Oglesby, who suggests that had these two men not been murdered, they would have certainly transformed the world into the bright peaceful future that the counterculture protesters—a movement that called itself the New Left—could thereafter only fantasize about.
Perhaps, but not necessarily.
The late Sixties counterculture movement was a veritable Petrie dish of anger and paranoid thinking, and it could perhaps not be avoided that in their uphill struggle to end war and capitalism, the young activists of the New Left would accept, promote, amplify, and further expand the conspiracy theories of their older left-wing mentors and supporters—authors such as Mark Lane, Thomas Buchanan, Bertrand Russell, Vincent Salandria, and Harrold Weisberg, as well as a certain New Orleans District Attorney named Jim Garrison (but we’ll deal with him later). Indeed, the New Left had an organic and natural connection to the community of amateur JFK conspiracy researchers, and found it a welcoming place to rail against the so-called ‘fascist police state’ and its conspiratorial ways long after the New Left itself had splintered into a dozen narrower interest groups. Oglesby, for instance, went on to found the Assassination Information Bureau, which pressured the U.S. Congress—successfully—to reopen an investigation of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and President John Kennedy. While this commission—the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which published its final report in 1979—ended up reaffirming earlier conclusions that Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a disgruntled young Marxist who briefly lived in the Soviet Union and distributed pro-Castro leaflets in the United States, it left the door open to the possibility that Oswald was assisted by a third party, whose identity remained unknown. Although the acoustic evidence used by the HSCA to support this conclusion turned out to be highly speculative (and most likely wrong), it was enough to keep the conspiracist flame burning for many more decades in the hope that, some day soon, the so-called “Men Who Killed Kennedy”, would be exposed and that the United States would be reclaimed from the grips of this evil warmongering cabal who had conspired to start the Vietnam War and squash the New Left opposition. (Gagné, ch.4)
Needless to say, that struggle has yet to achieve a conclusion that satisfies believers in a conspiracy. Oglesby went on to write several books about the JFK assassination, including The Yankee and Cowboy War: Conspiracies from Dallas to Watergate, which argued, namely, that President Kennedy was killed by a right-wing confederacy of anti-Castro Cubans, the mafia, renegade CIA and FBI agents, and an oligarchy of Texas oilmen. Oglesby wasn’t alone in blaming these powerful and faceless agents for all of the world’s ills. A plethora of books, documentaries, films, and websites continues to make similar claims.
The "official story", of course, is that President Kennedy was shot by a lone and radicalized Marxist, who hated the United States and its place in the world. This is a story that stank of meaninglessness to leftist activists. Worse, it suggested that their own revolutionary ideology was to blame for the spiral of war, death, and violence that they were now denouncing. That narrative was not acceptable. It did not fit into the counterculture Zeitgeist. A better explanation had to exist.
Another leader of the New Left was Todd Gitlin, who later became a sociologist and media critic. In his 1987 memoir of his time in the New Left, titled The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Gitlin offers a more nuanced examination of the influences that shaped these young protestors and made them receptive to conspiracy claims. The Sixties have been greatly romanticised and mythologized, he explains, through the lens of the events of later years: the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran-Contra Affair, and the resurgence of conservatism in the Reagan era, all serving as filters through which that decade, and events like Kennedy’s assassination, are remembered by those who still struggle with their broken dreams—not unlike like the way the 1950s are often perceived as a golden age by nostalgic conservatives. What frightened this new generation, however, was not the expansion of communism, but a return to the anti-communist witch hunts of the Fifties, and communism being used as an excuse for not addressing the racial, cultural, gender, and economic disparities that fostered injustice, poverty, and war. Their enemies were the adults, the established culture, western civilization and its traditions, and the institutions that promoted them. In other words, it was the schools, homes, and families in which most of them had grown up that was the enemy, and they were determined to break and rebuild them. (Gitlin, p.12-21)
The Sixties counterculture, Gitlin continues, was profoundly influenced by existentialist and relativistic philosophers like Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Herbert Marcuse, and inspired by outlaw rebels like James Dean, Marlon Brando, Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsburg, and Timothy Leary, who broke taboos and lived by their own rules. They idolized Marxist thinkers, activists, and revolutionaries like Karl Marx, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Franz Fannon. “Existentialism started from the premise of meaninglessness, and then executed a brilliant judo move: it declared that precisely because humanity is deserted by God and values are not inscribed in the natural order of things, human beings are responsible for making their own meanings. […] The god of prohibitions was dead and everything was permitted—and possible.” It should therefore not be surprising that whatever it was the New Left was or would have been fighting for, that “the rhetoric of showdown and recklessness prevailed.” (Gitlin, p.30, 50, 287)
This does not mean that the anger that the New Left channeled was not genuine or justified. There were plenty of injustices, wars, and threats of war going on at the time—as indeed there still are today—to justify their call for reforms of the state and transformation of culture. But to build a mass movement and keep it together requires an ideology (namely precise definition of good and evil), a sense of common identity (defined by a body of heroes, victims, and villains), and a clear program for social change. This also often implies reading the past selectively and subjectively to build up a collective sense of urgency and outrage that maintains unity and determination. “Permanent opposition was the rebel’s way to avoid the corruptions of power,” writes Gitlin. “Hadn’t the United States been founded in slavery and a quite literal genocide against the Indians? […] ‘America is a crime!’ I concluded with no apparent irony. […] The only affirmative position was negation. […] This political generation’s decade had started with a rising hope […] then came seven years of disillusion. […] With King and [Bobby] Kennedy dead, a promise of redemption not only passed out of American politics, it ran out of ourselves.” (Gitlin, p.256-7)
Their loss of hope from their failure to change the system helps explain why, despite clear evidence to the contrary, many in the New Left were captivated by conspiracy theories that blamed not the Soviets or Cuba, nor petty crooks or deranged sociopaths for JFK’s death, but the corporate establishment, the munitions makers, the Pentagon, the FBI, and the CIA. If indeed the locus of power had moved gradually from the Progressive Left to the intransigent Right, as they saw it, then it must have been part of a massive plot, because the will of the people—or so it seemed to them—was on their side. As Gitlin explains:
“From the national melange of rational optimism and free-floating paranoia, […] there emerged conspiracy theories galore. The Warren Commission Report […] was shoddy enough, but something else was operating to discredit it: a huge cultural disbelief that an event so traumatic and vast in its consequence could be accounted for by a petty assassin. Popular books […], serious journals […, and] sensationalist underground papers regaled their readers with tale after tale about exit wounds, gunshots from the grassy knoll, missing frames of the Zapruder film, […] mysteriously murdered witnesses, double agents [and] double Oswalds. […] For years thereafter, […] we held on, white knuckled, to the scraps of hope for legitimate heroes.” (Gitlin, p.312-13)
Political scientist James Piereson has been even more blunt than Gitlin about this relationship, and ascribes to members of the New Left movement much of the blame for obfuscating the truth about Kennedy’s assassination—and many other events of the Sixties—to further their revolutionary cause. In the 2013 foreword to his book, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, Piereson writes:
“For many who came of age during that era and were taken with Kennedy’s style and idealistic rhetoric, his very public murder […] was a shock that they could never quite get over. Returning to it again and again as the years passed, they could not help but feel that the disasters that followed—the war in Vietnam, the urban riots, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Nixon’s election and Watergate—were in some way connected to that irrational act of violence that claimed President Kennedy’s life. If somehow the act could be undone or […] blame for it could be fairly apportioned and punishment meted out, then the world might again be set right. […] Before long the Kennedy assassination became encrusted with so many layers of myth, illusion, and disinformation, that every attempt to understand it rationally failed to gain purchase.” (Piereson, p.viii)
This is why the assassination of Kennedy by a disgruntled Marxist, he explains, “should have generated a revulsion against everything associated with left-wing doctrines. Yet something very close to the opposite happened. In the aftermath of the assassination, left-wing ideas and revolutionary leaders […] enjoyed a greater vogue in the United States than at any other time in our history. By 1968 […] socialism and revolution—causes that Kennedy resolutely fought against—were the watchwords of the New Left […] It is one of the ironies of recent history that many of the young people who filed in shocked grief past the president’s coffin in 1963 would just a few years later embrace as political activists the very doctrines that drove Oswald to assassinate him.” Piereson therefore concludes that “the various conspiracy theories that arose in the wake of the assassination must be viewed […] not so much as efforts to discover the truth but as aspects of a struggle to find meaning in a seemingly senseless event.” (Piereson, p.xxviii, xxxvi)
So who exactly was Lee Harvey Oswald? And who exactly was John Kennedy? And were these two men victims of a massive right-wing conspiracy? If Oglesby and others like him are right to suspect that a secret machinery of power is responsible for Kennedy’s assassination and the unfortunate events that followed, then we may in fact live in a gigantic hall of mirrors where nothing is what it seems. But if Gitlin’s impressions are true, and Piereson’s analysis is accurate, we need to pay closer attention to the mechanisms of self-delusion that have led thousands of authors and activists, and millions of people who believe them, to accept a disprovable fabrication.
And this is what we aim to discuss in the following episodes.
Michel J. Gagné, 2023.
Documents related to this episode:*
1. The Birds (Universal Pictures, 1963). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Featuring Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, and Jessica Tandy.
2. Psycho (Paramount Pictures, 1960). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Featuring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, and Vera Miles.
3. The Manchurian Candidate (United Artists, 1962). Directed by John Frankenheimer. Featuring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Angela Lansbury.
4. Jackie (Searchlight Pictures, 2016). Directed by Pablo Larraín. Featuring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, and Greta Gerwig.
5. Parkland (Exclusive Media Group, 2013). Directed by Peter Landesman. Featuring Zac Efron, Tom Welling, and Billy Bob Thornton.
6. Thirteen Days (New Line Cinema, 2000). Directed by Roger Donaldson. Featuring Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, and Steven Culp.
7. The Pink Panther (United Artists, 1964). Directed by Blake Edwards. Featuring Peter Sellers, David Niven, and Robert Wagner.
8. The Party (United Artists, 1968). Directed by Blake Edwards. Featuring Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet, Natalia, Borisova.
9. The Great Escape (United Artists, 1963). Directed by John Sturges. Featuring Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough.
10. Carnival of Souls (Herts-Lion International Corp.,1962). Directed by Herk Harvey. Featuring Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, and Sidney Berger.
11. The Trip (American International Pictures, 1967). Directed by Roger Corman. Featuring Peter Fonda, Susan Strasberg, Bruce Dern.
12. The Magic Christian (Grand Films Limited, 1969). Directed by Joseph McGrath. Featuring Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr, Isabel Jeans.
13. South Park (TV Series, 2007 to today). Created by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Brian Graden.
14. Michel Jacques Gagné: Thinking Critically About the Kennedy Assassination. Routledge, 2022.
15. Todd Gitlin: The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. Bantam, Revised Edition, 1993.
16. James Piereson: Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism. Encounter Books, 2nd ed., 2013.
17. The Hippie Temptation (TV Documentary, 1967). Written by Warren Wallace. Narrated by Harry Reasoner.
19. Cheech & Chong's Up In Smoke (Paramount, 1978). Directed by Lou Adler. Featuring Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong.
* All copyrighted video and audio clips are used for educational purposes only under "fair use" regulations.