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The Kennedy Assassination Tapes by Max Holland
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The Kennedy Assassination Tapes by Max Holland
Sep 14, 2004 | ISBN 9781400043781

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  • Sep 14, 2004 | ISBN 9781400043781

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“No event in history has ever been recorded more minutely than the assassination of John F. Kennedy and yet it all remains a mystery. But it is not only shock, confusion, and hurt that can be heard in the words of those who lived through it captured on tape at the time and now transcribed, edited, and placed in context by Max Holland, one of the country’s leading experts on the assassination and its aftermath. Complex political issues were unfolding as well and the tension between the pain of loss, the fear of conspiracy threatening to run wild, and the hard practical matters required to get a new president up and running can all be found in this powerful volume. These transcripts, in all their raw variety, peel away the scar tissue of forty years and help us to see the awful event whole.”
—Tom Powers

"The Kennedy Assassination Tapes fills a significant hole in our understanding of Lyndon Johnson’s response to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The book is a welcome antidote to the assertions about LBJ’s involvement in JFK’s death. It sets a standard of scholarship that every writer on the assassination should imitate."
Robert Dallek

“…There is a great deal for historians to chew on; the work is a valuable addition to the written and spoken record concerning the events in Dallas that still haunt our national psyche.”
—Jay Freeman, Booklist

“…An informative and entertaining look inside the crucial years of the [Johnson] administration. [Holland is a] deft writer and observer [who] explains how certain myths and inaccuracies about the assassination began.”
—Gerald Posner, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“[Holland’s description] of November 22, 1963 [is] gripping…an engrossing, if ultimately tragic, story.”
—Richard Tofel, Wall Street Journal

“[Brings back November 22] with a chilling immediacy to those of us old enough to remember it…we see Johnson always calculating, always cajoling, always contemplating the political ramifications of the Kennedy assassination.”
—Dan Danborn, Rocky Mountain News

“…an extremely compelling read…written with such knowledge and attention to detail that one becomes fascinated.”
—Jeanne Nicholson, Providence Journal

“[Holland] presents skilled transcriptions…and makes a strong case that the bitter legacy of John F. Kennedy’s murder and the later widespread loss of confidence in the [Warren] Commission’s findings drove Johnson from office as much as the Vietnam War. [Holland’s] superb grasp of the assassination’s historical circumstances results in richly annotated transcriptions that capture the mood of national despondency that followed Kennedy’s death…strongly recommended.”
Library Journal

“[Holland’s] superior knowledge and intimate familiarity with the presidential recordings has allowed him to correct the record…by far the most lucid and compelling account of the role President Johnson played in the investigation of President Kennedy’s assassination.”
—Mel Ayton, History News Network

“…an instructive, even poignant, look at how self-interest and accident may complicate the federal investigation of a national calamity…Holland’s commentary is extensive [and] his analysis is crisp, informed and consistently reasoned—on a subject that has inspired any number of writers to take leave of their senses.”
—Thomas Mallon, New York Times Book Review

Author Q&A

Q: Technicalities first. How did you approach the transcription process? What choices did you have to make regarding how to represent the conversations?

Transcribing the tape recordings is far more complicated than it appears on the surface. Hearing the conversations accurately and understanding the context, of course, are the most critical aspects. The next is what constitutes an “assassination-related” conversation? Some are obvious; many are not. After that, a host of issues still must be decided, because as soon as one commits a spoken conversation to paper, it becomes a facsimile of that communication. Do you make believe that Johnson is speaking the King’s English, even though he does not? At the other extreme–if you render Johnson with a Southern inflection, which is very heavy at times–do you risk making him sound like a character out of a Mark Twain novel? Should the transcript be verbatim, full of pauses, errant words, uh-huhs, and hmms? That makes it difficult to follow and boring to read. On the other hand, how much immediacy is lost if the conversation is smoothed out, i.e., everyone is heard speaking in complete sentences and whole paragraphs? I tried to strike a balance between intelligibility and rendering the conversation as it is heard.

Q: What led you to write a book specifically on the Johnson Tapes as they related to the Warren Commission? How have they–or the whole topic of the Warren Commission’s formation and findings–been distorted in past accounts or publications?

I was already working on a narrative history of the Warren Commission when the tapes began to be released in the mid-1990s. Because I was familiar with the subject matter, I immediately realized that the tapes conveyed information that was non-existent elsewhere. Originally, I was going to convey this novel information in my book. But over the years, to my increasing dismay, I saw the conversations twisted and distorted by various authors, from Michael Beschloss to lesser-known writers. I finally decided to do a separate book that would present all the assassination-related conversations accurately and in context–a task that simply overwhelm my other book on the Warren Commission.

Perhaps the best example of a misrepresented conversation is one from 18 September 1964, the day the Warren Commission deliberated for the very last time. In Beschloss’s book, Taking Charge, he has Senator Richard Russell saying that every time he wanted to make a dissent in the report’s final language, the other Commission members would “trade me out of it by giving me a little old threat.” What Russell actually said, was that they would “trade me out of it by giving me a little old thread of it.”
That one word makes all the difference.

Q: Why did LBJ create the Warren Commission–was there outside pressure to do so, or was it something he conceived of on his own? How did he feel about its findings?

One of the most interesting stories conveyed by the tapes is the Commission’s formation, which occurred exactly one week after the assassination. Initially Johnson was dead-set against such a panel, based on the advice given to him by his de facto legal counsel, Abe Fortas, later a Supreme Court justice. Fortas was skittish about getting the president involved in and responsible for an investigation of his predecessor’s murder. Legally, this was sound advice, but politically it was not a sustainable position. After that weekend, most Americans outside of Dallas believed that “Texas justice” was an oxymoron, and that the investigation could not be left in the hands of local and/or state authorities.
Ultimately, Johnson’s hand was forced by two factors: first, a desire to head-off overlapping congressional investigations, all of which would be competing for television coverage in an election year, and second, the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald had recently visited the Soviet and Cuban missions in Mexico City. If that visit was not investigated responsibly, the repercussions could conceivably lead to a war.

To my knowledge, Johnson never actually read the Warren Report so he was never completely conversant with its findings. He eventually accepted the Report’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for all the violence in Dealey Plaza; however, LBJ also believed that Oswald received help from Cuba, because of efforts made during the Kennedy administration to assassinate Castro. This does not actually contradict the Warren Report, because the Report did not say there was no conspiracy. It only claimed that based on the evidence available to the Commission, there was no proof of one.

Q: Why was there such a rift between Johnson and Robert Kennedy? How did the assassination affect this? How did it affect LBJ’s relationship with Jackie Kennedy?

Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were like oil and water: their personalities clashed, fundamentally and irrevocably. Long before Johnson took office, they did not see eye-to-eye. Johnson was famous in the Senate for cutting deals–cajoling, bullying, imploring friends and adversaries alike. This kind of politicking was completely alien to RFK, who took a remorseless and moralistic approach to politics rather than a pragmatic one, like Johnson. The rift between the two men probably became unbridgeable because of events during the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. The Johnson forces raised questions about JFK’s health (he suffered from Addison’s disease) and reminded Americans about the appeasement-minded politics (and reputed anti-Semitism) of Joseph P. Kennedy, the family patriarch. In return, RFK tried to force LBJ off the ticket after John Kennedy had offered to make Johnson his running mate. Neither man could ever forget or forgive these transgressions.

The assassination was RFK’s worst nightmare realized, of course. What made it all the harder, though, was that the one politician whom RFK detested the most inherited “Jack’s office.” Moreover, because Johnson had become president in the third year of JFK’s term, he was entitled to serve out that term and run for the presidency two more times; potentially, he could be the longest-serving president since FDR. This would have required RFK and other Kennedy men to put their ambitions on the back burner for nine years–which is several lifetimes in politics.

With regard to Jacqueline Kennedy, Johnson had, by all accounts, a pleasant relationship with JBK when she was First Lady. Her comportment in Dallas made an enormous impression on him; on the evening of November 22nd, he kept marveling to aides about her behavior, and the days leading up to and including the funeral only underscored his admiration. Immediately afterwards, he could not do enough for her, and the most touching conversations of all–a side of Lyndon Johnson that the public never got to see–are the ones between the new president and the former First Lady from December 1963 and January 1964. Johnson put JBK on a pedestal; and for political reasons, wanted to bask in her aura. Yet gradually the conversations between them became infrequent and they drifted apart. Despite numerous invitations, Mrs. Kennedy stayed away from the White House because it was simply too painful to see it, much less visit. And while she tried to explain this to the president, the overly-sensitive Johnson could never accept the fact that JBK intended no slight or disrespect to him, or Mrs. Johnson.
By the time the William Manchester book came out, President Johnson had little direct contact with JBK. And while she apologized for Manchester’s depiction, there is little doubt that Johnson was deeply wounded by the portrait of him published in a book authorized by the Kennedys.

Q: LBJ was faced with legitimacy challenges–how did they affect his Presidency?

Johnson actually did not face challenges to his legitimacy until after he was elected in his own right. For a period of about two years after publication of the Warren Report, the panel’s conclusions were accepted by a majority of Americans at face value. Then, in the summer of 1966, books critical of the Report began to be published and questions were raised about the Commission’s integrity and probity. Not all of them were easily answered. This development coincided with rising dissent and controversy over the widening war in Vietnam, and soon, critics of that war began raising questions about whether Johnson was simply pursuing Kennedy’s policy in Vietnam (as LBJ claimed). As criticism of the war grew more strident, these critics (ranging from Richard Goodwin to Arthur Schlesinger to Jim Garrison) sought to de-legitimate LBJ’s presidency by raising doubts about the assassination and/or the Warren Commission’s investigation. In other words, they continually reminded Americans of the abrupt and violent manner in which Johnson assumed the presidency, and thus a wound in the body politic was not allowed to heal, and exploited for political advantage. Ultimately, Johnson’s ability to address the most pressing issues of the day–the war in Vietnam and civil rights–was dramatically lessened by this sinister innuendo. Recently, of course, the ultimate charge has been leveled and broadcast nationally: that Lyndon Johnson was somehow complicit in the 1963 assassination, as alleged on the History Channel in November 2003, on the 40th anniversary of the assassination.

In some respects, there are parallels between the vilification of Johnson in 1966-67 and the situation facing the incumbent president, George W. Bush. In both instances, critics of the president have not been content to concentrate their wrath on a policy or position they vehemently disagree with. Instead, they also resort to reminding Americans of the unusual circumstances that put the president in office. This has the effect of suggesting that the incumbent and his policies are tainted, if not somehow illegitimate.

Q: Let’s turn to the Garrison issue, for a moment. Wasn’t it shocking, at the time, for a DA in Louisiana to even launch an investigation into the President’s assassination? Why did Garrison get into it in the first place? What was Johnson’s attitude towards Garrison?

It was extremely shocking, yes. But at the time, it was also like the other shoe had finally dropped. Beginning in the summer of 1966, the Warren Report began to come under attack in several books. By the fall, a total of four major books had been published that were critical of the Report for one reason or another, and this was followed by several articles in major magazines at the time–Life and the Saturday Evening Post–that also treated the Warren Commission’s conclusions with great skepticism. Public confidence in the Report was plummeting because of these attacks. Thus, when Garrison announced his probe, he initially had great credibility because public doubt was increasing.

You must also recall that Oswald, who was born in 1939, was only 24 years old when he died, and although he moved around a lot, he had spent the majority of his years in New Orleans. He had also lived and worked in the city just a few months before the assassination in Dallas. Therefore, it was not completely out of the question for an investigation to focus on New Orleans, and in fact, considerable efforts were made to find out what Oswald did there in the summer of 1963.

Garrison claimed, in his memoir, that he got involved because a responsible DA could do no less. That may be so, but Garrison had no business arresting anyone, much less putting them on trial, because he had no case. The 1967 arrest and subsequent trial of Clay Shaw was one of the greatest miscarriages of justice to ever occur in the United States. Shaw was completely exonerated in 1969, but by then it was too late. His life had been utterly and capriciously destroyed.

Q: What do you make of the Garrison’s findings? What are the biggest issues you have with his theory?

Garrison was a charlatan and a demagogue, the likes of which we see from time to time in the country. In the 1950s we had Joe McCarthy, the professional anti-Communist who gave anti-Communism a bad name because of his reckless and irresponsible charges. In the 1960s we had Garrison, who exploited the 1960s Zeitgeist to suggest that the US government was complicit in the assassination–that, in fact, the murder was a disguised coup d’etat by the CIA in concert with the “military-industrial complex.” This is the kind of thinking one might indulge in after smoking too much pot in the 1960s.

And if this also sounds like a theory the old Soviet KGB might have propagated, that’s because it was. An all-too-ambitious and gullible district attorney from New Orleans was duped by KGB disinformation into thinking that Clay Shaw, the businessman he arrested for conspiring to kill the president, was a high-ranking CIA operative. From there, Garrison built an entire conspiracy edifice, which was painstakingly replicated in Oliver Stone’s film JFK. Stone’s film has the unenviable distinction of having been the only American feature film made during the Cold War to have, as its very axis, a lie concocted in the KGB’s disinformation factories.

Q: You’re well-known as being anti-conspiracy. What do you find so unreliable about the various conspiracy theories other than Garrison’s? What do you think really happened?

When you have been at this awhile, you begin to notice that all the conspiracy theories one thing in common: buffs treat the assassination like a political cafeteria. They pick and choose from the facts available, picking out the ones they like (because they supposedly “prove” their case), and ignore the inconvenient facts that they don’t like (because they contradict their theory). Another common feature is that rather than trying to understand what happened, conspiracy theorists tend to make mountains out of molehills, i.e., when a simple explanation of what happened is available–say, all-too-human error–they would prefer to construct a sinister one.

That said, I have gotten some of my very best insights and ideas from conspiracy theorists! They ask good questions sometimes and point out important inconsistencies that must be answered. Plus, they are largely responsible for making so many of the primary documents about the assassination available at the National Archives.

What do I think happened? Lee Harvey Oswald was not unlike Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City truck bomber) in terms of his personality. Both were young, politicized sociopaths with a proclivity for violence. McVeigh blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City to incite a popular revolt against Washington after the Waco incident (or so he said). Of his own volition, Oswald killed President Kennedy because of the United States’ hostility to the revolution in Cuba. As Oswald said when he tried to defect to the Soviet Union in 1959, “I want to give the people of the United States something to think about.” Oswald would be very disappointed today to learn that he wasn’t being given sole credit for the assassination.

Q: What are your thoughts regarding the recent news that the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in Berkeley, California is developing a method to clarify sound on a tape of the assassination?

It seems like a good idea on the surface, but this latest development is a cruel hoax, one of the worst travesties ever perpetrated on the American public by a congressional committee. The tape recording in question is not a sound recording from Dealey Plaza at the time of the assassination. Therefore, no matter how much it is cleansed and clarified, it will never constitute reliable evidence about the assassination. To borrow Gertrude Stein’s famous comment about Oakland, “there’s no there there.”

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