What if JFK’s assassination was one loner’s mistake? That’s precisely what historian James Reston Jr. argues in The Accidental Victim, the book JFK conspiracists don’t want you to read.
Zola: Your explosive premise in The Accidental Victim is that Lee Harvey Oswald really had his sights set on Texas governor John Connally, not President John F. Kennedy. How and when did you first come to this conclusion?
James Reston Jr.: My initial suspicion that this might be true was developed 25 years ago, first in a Time Magazine article, and then in my biography of John Connally. But now, delving far deeper into this inkling and expanding my writing on it five-fold, my suspicion has moved to certainty. As I write in the introduction to the book, sometimes viewing a hugely important historical event from an oblique angle can reap real surprises.
The starting point for my thinking was to eliminate all the absurd conspiracy theories. While there’s been a lot of smoke about conspiracies in the last 50 years, there is no convincing evidence whatever of a conspiracy—not from Cuba, Russia, the CIA or the Mafia. No foreign or domestic intelligence service or criminal organization would ever rely on so unstable, irresponsible, and muddle-headed an individual as Lee Harvey Oswald. I say this from my own military training in the recruitment of foreign agents back in the 1960s: if a foreign government or the Mafia had set out to kill a U.S. president, they would have chosen a professional, given him or her the best possible equipment, and relied on certain access to the target. Lee Harvey Oswald was no professional. I recently learned that Richard Helms himself—the CIA director in the 1960s—stated somewhat wryly that “we would never hire someone like that.”
So we are left with Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin. The Warren Commission argued that he set out to kill JFK because he was a Marxist and had grandiose notions, and perhaps thought that by killing the U.S. President he could decapitate the U.S. government. Well, there are millions of Marxists then and now who are not pathological killers, and so it is with grandiose notions: we all have them, and that doesn’t make us killers.
The question is, what was it in the psychological and emotional makeup of this man that impelled him to pick up a rifle that day and shoot at that car? There had to be a deep-seated, internal, emotional, personalized rage. I think the motive was not political, but psychological. It was emotional, not intellectual.
There was a substantial difference in his attitude toward Kennedy and toward Connally. Toward Kennedy he had a basic admiration, but for Connally he had an obsession that was coupled with the feeling of having been wronged. That is, as an eminent psychiatrist told me recently, a very powerful combination. In Connally Oswald had a face for all his frustrations, a face that had appeared on a letter Connally had written to him in Russia in 1961. If only Connally had addressed the unfairness of his changed military discharge, all would be well.
Zola: What about specific counterviews? Has any historian or assassination expert weighed in against the Connally Theory? If so, what have they claimed?
JRJ: The serious historians’ community has been strangely silent on Oswald’s motive generally.
The central element of my argument has to do with Connally’s involvement—as Oswald saw it—in the change of his military discharge from honorable to dishonorable, and the failure of Connally, fellow Texan and fellow citizen of Fort Worth, to redress the unfairness of the change.
One has to have served in the military, and served honorably, to understand the power of that experience, and the personal pride that comes from achieving an honorable discharge. I’m one of those people. Like Oswald, I was in the military for three years during the height of the Vietnam War, 1965-1968, and I value my honorable discharge greatly. Most of the so-called intelligentsia of my generation avoided service entirely, and that certainly includes the lion’s share of current academics and historians. For those writers who never had military service, it’s hard to imagine what it would feel like if you had endured the hardships of service and overcome the challenges required to serve honorably, and then had your honorable discharge changed summarily—without your knowledge—to dishonorable, for political activity you had engaged in after your severance from the military.
Sad to say, Oswald had a reason to feel that he had been treated unfairly.
Zola: Oswald’s wife Marina testified three times that her husband was probably targeting Connally, not Kennedy, but the Warren Commission and subsequent investigative bodies dismissed her claims. Why do you think that was? Did they see it as a wife trying to (somewhat) protect her husband’s memory? How do you respond to that?
JRJ: That’s an intriguing question to me. To begin with, the Warren Commissioners were political titans in Washington—the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, two powerful senators, and a powerful House member among them. They could relate to grand political motives, like decapitating the U.S. government, because that’s how they thought: in grand political terms. We were still in the Cold War, after all.
I believe that, like many Americans now, they felt there had to be an impressive motive to fit so horrendous a political crime. In 1964, during the over-heated aftermath of the assassination, they could scarcely sell the notion that our president was an accidental victim in Dallas, and that the murder was the work of an insignificant man with a grudge not against the president but against the passenger in his car. So when Marina Oswald testified to her feeling, they browbeat her and dismissed her testimony, as did later the House Assassinations Committee in 1977. Oswald’s real motive was just too hard to swallow, and too hard to sell to the American people.
And this relates to the popularity of conspiracy theories in the past fifty years. It is a more comfortable notion for Americans to believe that there was some evil empire behind the assassination.
Zola: Speaking of which, you emphasize the fact that not only Marina, but also Lee Harvey himself, spoke admiringly of Kennedy. Could you expand on this? How do those who downplay this aspect of Oswald’s profile support their case?
JRJ: His own wife was not the only witness to Oswald’s essential admiration of Kennedy, but again her testimony is the most important. Oswald approved of what Kennedy was doing with civil rights in the South. After the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy was doing things by way of rapprochement with Russia that Oswald would have subscribed to. In 1963 Marina Oswald was pregnant with her second child, and Jackie Kennedy was also pregnant with Patrick. Marina and Lee Harvey Oswald followed Jackie’s pregnancy with tender interest, and when Patrick died two days after birth in August 1963, they joined in the national mourning.
I can’t account for those who downplay Oswald’s admiration of Kennedy: there’s ample evidence in Warren Commission testimonies to this admiration from those who knew Oswald best in Dallas, especially in the Russian émigré community with whom the Oswalds almost exclusively associated.
Zola: One of the most arresting chapters in your book concerns Oswald’s attempt to assassinate Texas right-winger Major-General Edwin Walker six months before he shot Kennedy. He stood in the dark outside Walker’s house, raised a rifle, and fired—missing Walker’s head by an inch. And he got away with it. This bizarre incident resonates with the Dallas assassination in so many ways—a number of them supporting your case. Could you outline some of these connections for us?
JRJ: General Walker was a right-wing nut, and, by the way, was clearly considered to be so by President Kennedy himself. He was the darling of the extreme right wing John Birch Society. He had led riots in protest of the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi.
The potshot happened in the spring of 1963, when Oswald had become a very dangerous man. Because Walker was such a publicity hound and right-wing lightning rod, the Dallas police concluded that he had staged the thing as a publicity stunt and never really pursued an investigation of it. Had they done so and apprehended Oswald, history might have been different.
But if a political element had begun to creep into Oswald’s psychology by this time, it was a fury toward right-wingers, and for him Connally fell into that category.
Zola: You contend Oswald’s motive was psychological, a grudge murder—no conspiracy, no grand political scheme. But as the Walker attempt suggests, Oswald could be motivated to kill for political reasons. How do you parse the differences between the two shootings?
JRJ: I’m sure you’ve seen the famous picture of Oswald in his garden with the rifle on his hip. He evidently was quite pleased with it himself and sent an autographed copy of it to his best friend in Dallas, George de Mohrenschildt. On the back is his inscription: “Hunter of Fascists. Ha.Ha.Ha.” Some questions have been raised about this inscription, but it’s pretty clear to me that Oswald wrote it. On the face of it, it seems like a political act, but I’m not entirely convinced of that. Oswald’s life was a wreck by this time. Work was difficult to find and keep. His marriage was on the rocks. He had one child, and another on the way. The Walker potshot could well have been more an act of frustration in the guise of a political act.
Zola: You emphasize the amateurish nature of the JFK assassination. A mail-order rifle. Not much subterfuge going in, not much of an escape plan. And if you’re right, Oswald missed. And yet, we’ve seen five decades of elaborate conspiracy theories. Why?
JRJ: The best cultural antidote to Dallas is the movie The Day of the Jackal—a terrific movie, by the way. There you see the image of a professional assassin, hired by a shadowy right-wing group of generals, stalking, covering his tracks, doffing disguises, planning his movements for months, to culminate in exactly the right planned moment of violence. With Oswald you have a low grade rifle, with low grade ammunition, a muddle-headed 24 year old with a 9th grade education, sunk in frustration, gripped by obsession, seething with resentments, who just happens to be in a place where a presidential motorcade will pass (though the route of the motorcade was not made public until 3 days before the event). So apart from everything else, there’s a terrible element of spontaneity and fate about the Dallas assassination.
But with all that, Oswald scarcely missed. Had the first wounding bullet—the one that passed through the President’s neck and into Connally’s back—been a millimeter left or right, it could easily have killed both men with one shot: hitting JFK’s spinal cord and Connally’s heart.
Zola: Five seconds passed between that first shot and the shot that killed Kennedy. An obvious question: after Oswald reloaded, was he aiming at the President? If so, why?
JRJ: I lay out the horror of those five seconds after an extensive analysis of the most relevant piece of evidence, the Zapruder film. The critical time span is between Frame 220, when the first bullet hits both men, and Frame 313, when the second bullet crashes into the President’s skull. In the film of those days there were 18 frames per second, hence five seconds between the two shots.
In those five seconds Connally writhes in agony and by Frame 313 he is out of sight, having been pulled into his wife Nellie’s lap. The President was Oswald’s only remaining target, because he remained basically upright and stationary.
The world of psychiatry tells us about something called a “motor program”: when someone starts to do a terrible thing, a thing that must be accomplished in seconds, it’s nearly impossible to make fine distinctions and to stop once the act has begun. With that second shot, Oswald had only one target.
Zola: Your book also offers a fascinating new theory about Kennedy’s backbrace—the lace-up corset he wore for his back problems—having a central role in the day’s tragic outcome. Could you summarize this theory? And how did it feel to actually view this backbrace in person at the National Archives?
JRJ: As everyone seems to know, JFK had a terrible back problem that went back to his PT-109 accident in World War II. He had had three back operations to try to correct the problem, but none had worked, and the problem was never fully corrected. Over the years he had employed a number of strategies not only to relieve the pain and the disability, but also to project a youthful, military posture to the public.
In 1963 a central strategy was to wear a very tight back brace. In an interview with me 25 years ago, Senator Ralph Yarborough referred to this as “that damned girdle” and put me on to the importance of the brace to the events in Dallas.
The back brace held his torso essentially upright and immobile for the critical five seconds after the first bullet passed through his neck. I’ve talked to combat veterans from the Iraq War about this, and they confirm that anyone who sustained a shot through the neck would instantaneously have been blown forward and flail around in agony (as Connally did with his wound). Remaining upright after such a terrible wound is impossible for a normal, unsupported body.
I felt I needed to see the actual corset at the National Archives before I finished the book. It was a bad moment for me. They took it out of its box with white gloves. While they measured it, turned it over, and set aside the Ace bandage that had winched the president even tighter into his upright posture, I stepped back, arms folded, and almost fainted.
Zola: You’ve been researching the JFK assassination for nearly thirty years. What do you think will be the reaction to your claim that President John F. Kennedy was an accidental victim?
JRJ: It’s going to be interesting. People have settled into their pet theories, and yet, there’s a disquiet about conventional thinking. It’s astonishing that, according to a recent poll, over 80% of Americans still believe their conspiracy theories. The Kennedy assassination is a central piece of Kennedy lore and mythology, and these elaborate, complicated conspiracy theories abound partly because we love them and they entertain us, but more importantly, because it’s comfortable to imagine an evil empire behind so terrible an act.
But that’s the value of a 50-year commemoration. After all the irresponsible books and films, the sound historians need to take charge of this event again. And the public needs to embrace the knowable facts and the most likely scenario.
The Kennedy assassination is no less tragic by virtue of the fact that JFK was an accidental victim. Indeed, I would argue it is even more tragic as such.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.