Historian James Reston Jr. quickly points out in “The Accidental Victim” that the vast majority of Americans believe there was a conspiracy to kill President John F. Kennedy. But he contends that this belief is based on “no evidence whatsoever.”
“It’s a factor of two things,” he says. “One, a crime as grotesque and huge as the killing of a president (makes it) hard to believe it’s the sole product of a little schleppy guy. People need a motive as big as the crime itself.”
And two, Reston says, “Americans in general are into conspiracies, and people Like Oliver Stone and Bill O’Reilly replant the idea of conspiracy in the American mindset. My book attacks the essence of the conspiracy theories and explains the event solely in the psychology of Lee Harvey Oswald.”
Reston realizes, of course, that other historians, and especially the conspiratorialists, haven’t accepted his theories about the events of Nov. 22, 1963. But without further ado, here they are in a nutshell: Oswald’s real target was Texas Gov. John Connally, and Kennedy was the accidental victim because a back brace that he was wearing prevented him from bending down and avoiding the bullets.
In early 1962, Reston writes, Oswald learned from his mother, Marguerite, that the Marine Corps had changed his discharge from honorable to dishonorable. “The downgrading had actually stopped at ‘undesirable,’ one notch short of ‘dishonorable,’ but that was bad enough,” Reston writes. “Anything less than an honorable military discharge is a curse in America, especially for the working man, and Oswald knew it instinctively.”
Reston also documents how Oswald began a campaign to overturn the downgrade of his discharge. “On January 30, 1961, his campaign began with a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, since the Navy Department held sway over the U.S. Marine Corps. That secretary was John Connally.”
Reston goes on to note that 13 months after sending the letter to Connally, the Navy secretary still had not replied to Oswald. During that time, Connally resigned as secretary to run for governor. And during the next few months, Oswald received several brushoffs, his efforts leading nowhere. All of this led to Oswald’s “loathing” of Connally, Reston writes.
In an interview, Reston argues that Oswald had “a right that he had been wronged by the change in his discharge.”
“It was done in secret,” Reston says, “and he could never make his case. And it was changed for his political activities after his honorable discharge.”
Reston says that he started having suspicions that Connally was Oswald’s target back in 1988 and ′89, while working on the biography “Lone Star: The Life of John Connally.”
Part of the evidence that Reston cites to support the argument includes the 1964 testimony of Oswald’s widow, Marina, before the Warren Commission. Reston notes that Marina told the commission: “I feel in my own mind that Lee did not have President Kennedy as a prime target when he assassinated him. … I think it it was Connally. That’s my personal opinion — that he perhaps was shooting at Governor Connally, the governor of Texas.”
Then why did Kennedy end up dead? Reston points out that a birth defect made Kennedy’s “whole left side appreciably lower than his right, a disparity that aggravated the stress on his lower back, manifested as chronic sacroiliac joint strain.” To lessen the back pain, Kennedy wore a brace, with a bandage wrapped in a figure-eight “between the president’s legs and then wrapped over the corset around his wait to tighten it further and keep it from slipping. Once in it, the president was veritably planted upright, trapped, immobilized, and almost mummified into a ramrod posture.”
He was wearing this brace on Nov. 22, Reston writes, and the first bullet “passed cleanly through the soft tissue of Kennedy’s lower neck … then entering Connally’s back.” But Kennedy, unlike Connally did not writhe in pain, Reston writes. Instead, “because of the corset, the president’s body moved only slightly. It was almost as if his torso was bolted to the back of the seat. … Held by his back brace, Kennedy remained bolt upright for five full seconds. This gave the assassin time to reload and shoot again at a nearly fixed, unobstructed target.”
Reston criticizes Connally for later insisting to the Warren Commission that his injuries were caused by a bullet that was reserved for him, and that it didn’t hit Kennedy first. “He argued his singular position with a fervor that went beyond any possible supporting facts, as if it were a point of vanity that Lee Harvey Oswald had reserved a special bullet for him,” Reston writes.
The significance of Connally’s insistence became a key point for conspiracy theorists, who contended that there was more than one assassin.
As for Oswald being part of a conspiracy, Reston says: “I was in Army intelligence for three years, and I learned this. If you’re going to ask someone to do something real dangerous, they have to have access, be reliable and have to have an extreme commitment. It is inconceivable to me that a foreign government or the Mafia would hire a wretched little man like Oswald. Watch ‘The Day of the Jackal’ to see what a real killer has to do.”
Reston decries the dozens of new conspiracy books coming out as the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination approaches. “I think it would be a terrible thing for the 50th anniversary if the focus was to wallow around in these crazy theories,” he says. “It’s insulting to history and the memory of JFK.”
The Accidental Victim: JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the Real Target in Dallas
James Reston Jr.
Zola Books, $23.95
This is one in a series of articles about new books that focus on the assassination of President John Kennedy. Visit www.statesman.com for previous coverage, and look for more articles in the coming weeks.