This November 22nd marked the forty-eighth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In commemoration, Hartford Books Examiner will present exclusive interviews with authors of recent literature on the case throughout the week. HBE’s intent is not to promote a particular theory but rather to inspire thought, as JFK’s death remains one of the most polarizing—and controversial—events in our shared history.
Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes John McAdams.
The author of JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think about Claims of Conspiracy (Potomac Books, $27.50), McAdams teaches American politics, public opinion and voter behavior at Marquette University. He has also taught at Harvard, and has written scholarly articles for publications such as American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, Sociological Quarterly, and Law and Contemporary Problems. McAdams maintains a website devoted to debunking the misinformation and disinformation surrounding the Kennedy Assassination.
JFK Assassination Logic was released in September, and has since received critical praise. Professor G. Robert Blakey, former chief counsel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, noted, “Anyone interested in exploring JFK assassination conspiracy theories should read the Warren Commission Report, the House Select Committee Report, and McAdams’s JFK Assassination Logic. The voluminous literature will fall into place. McAdams gives you a crucial road map—not to decide what you should think, but how to make up your mind in the face of conflicting information. His book is a must read.”
From the publisher:
The mother of all conspiracy theories is about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Many of its elements have become part of American folklore: the single bullet, the Grassy Knoll shooter, and the mysterious deaths of interested parties.
JFK Assassination Logic shows how to approach such conspiracy claims. Studying Lee Harvey Oswald’s character and personality, for example, doesn’t help determine whether he alone shot the president, and our opinion of bureaucrats can often cloud our judgments. How people view the JFK assassination can be a model for how to (or perhaps how not to) evaluate other conspiracy theories, including those generally considered dubious—such as President Roosevelt’s foreknowledge of Pearl Harbor, desert staging of the 1969 moon landing, and U.S. government involvement in 9/11—as well as those based on fact, such as Watergate.
John McAdams addresses not only conspiracy theories, but also how to think, reason, and judge the evidence in these cases. How do we evaluate eyewitness testimony? How can there be “too much evidence” of a conspiracy? How do we determine whether suspicious people are really culpable? By putting the JFK assassination under the microscope, McAdams provides a blueprint for understanding how conspiracy theories arise and how to judge the evidence.
This book puts the reader into a mass of contradictory evidence and presents an intriguing puzzle to be solved. The solution, in each case, involves using intellectual tools. Eyewitness testimony, the notion of “coincidence,” selectivity in the use of evidence, how to choose between contradictory pieces of evidence, the need for evidence to fit a coherent theory, how government works, and basic principles of social theorizing—all provide the elements of how to judge not only the JFK conspiracy but all conspiracies.
Now, John McAdams shares his logic with readers…
1) What inspired you to write JFK ASSASSINATION LOGIC? What do you hope your book contributes to the historical record?
Basically, I didn’t want to write another conspiracy book (since I don’t believe in a conspiracy) and I didn’t want to write just another “Oswald did it” book either.
I teach a class on the JFK assassination, and in the class I’ll show students one piece of evidence (say, a video of a witness), and then another piece of contradictory evidence (perhaps another witness, or a document, or the same witness at a different time giving different testimony).
Likewise, there are several pieces of evidence that indicate that the wound in Kennedy’s back was too low to be consistent with the Single Bullet Theory (the death certificate, for example) but other evidence that would indicate the wound is higher up, consistent with the Single Bullet Theory. I’ll show the students evidence on both sides, and ask them to sort it out.
So the book, to the extent that’s possible in a very different medium, tracks what I do in class.
2) What principles would you encourage people to apply when considering evidence and theories regarding this case? Can you share a few examples of how doing so can alter our perception of the evidence?
I talk about several in my book. For example, base your conclusions on the most reliable evidence. If the issue is the location of the wound in Kennedy’s back, the most reliable evidence is the autopsy photos and x-rays. Of course, conspiracists say these have been faked or tampered with, so one has to examine the evidence on that issue too.
Another is that any “conspiracy evidence” to be taken seriously has to suggest some plausible scenario. Conspiracy books often present the reader with this or that piece of evidence that contradicts the Warren Commission version, but then depend on the reader not to ask “if this is true, why would a conspiracy do this?”
For example, they puff a woman named Lillian Mooneyham, who saw somebody in the Sniper’s Nest 4½ to 5 minutes following the shooting. Since Oswald was long gone by that time, and the cops hadn’t arrived in the Sniper’s Nest yet, the implication is that the figure must have been a conspirator. But this falls apart when one asks: “Would a conspirator just lollygag in the Sniper’s Nest for four or five minutes?”
3) The majority of Americans continue to believe that they have not been told the truth about the events of November 22, 1963. In your opinion, what is so appealing about the notion of conspiracy? And what makes the lone gunman scenario so undesirable a solution?
In the first place, conspiracy books and videos vastly outnumber lone assassination books and videos. So people are very likely to have been exposed to conspiracy arguments and claims, but very unlikely to have been exposed to material that would inculpate Oswald.
Then there is a sort of pseudosophistication that goes along with “not accepting the official version.” People can be proud of their critical attitude toward government pronouncements, all the while accepting what the movie “JFK” tells them or what an author like Mark Lane tells them.
Finally, conspiracy theories are easy to understand. One can finger a group of people with a clear objective acting to achieve clear goals. Untangling the essentially unfathomable psychology of Lee Harvey Oswald is way more difficult.
4) Your book supports the conclusions of the Warren Commission, whose report and supporting volumes are considered by many to be sloppy at best and perhaps even fraudulent. Why has the Commission’s work become so maligned and how can their findings be resuscitated (if at all)?
A lot of people simply want to believe in a conspiracy, or as I mentioned above, have mostly been exposed to one side of the argument, and that requires them to reject the Warren Commission’s work.
More people should just read the Warren Commission Report. It’s really a good read: way better than the average government report, and about as good as a trade book.
That’s not to say the volume is perfect. The Warren Commission could hardly deal with claims that surfaced after it disbanded. Further, the Commission shot itself in the foot on the medical evidence by refusing to look at the autopsy photos and x-rays.
This was done out of deference to the sensibilities of the Kennedy family, but it was a major blunder.
5) If asked to summarize the absolute essential evidence that you believe validates the Warren Commission’s findings in one paragraph, how would you respond?
A solid paper trail connects Oswald to the rifle. Hard forensic evidence (bullet fragments, shell casings) connects the rifle to the shooting. Oswald almost certainly brought the rifle in to work on the morning of the assassination (it disappeared from the garage in Irving where it was stored, Oswald had a long bag with him on the trip downtown to the Depository, a bag found in the Sniper’s Nest that perfectly fit Oswald’s rifle had Oswald’s palm print and a fingerprint on it). Oswald was one of the few Depository employees out of sight when the shooting happened.
Oswald lied to the cops and said he never had a long bag (guilty knowledge). And on and on.
6) You maintain the position that too much evidence of conspiracy can actually detract from the likelihood of such theories being true. Please explain.
Just a couple of examples: if you know how many people have “confessed” to having a role in the assassination, you won’t take yet another “confession” very seriously. At least, not until and unless the person “confessing” actually has some hard evidence.
Likewise, I count thirteen “extra bullets” (beyond the three the Warren Commission accepted) that have been reported by various witnesses. So do we believe that there were sixteen shots fired in Dealey Plaza?
Given that the vast majority of these accounts must be in error, it’s easy to believe they are were.
This argument, again, would not apply against really hard evidence of an extra bullet. But such hard evidence does not exist.
With thanks to John McAdams for generously sharing his thoughts and to Laura Briggs, Marketing and Publicity Manager at Potomac Books, for facilitating this interview.
Be sure to rejoin HBE on Friday for an interview with Mark Lane, author of Last Word: My Indictment of the CIA in the Murder of JFK.