We're told there are over 10,000 books, mostly or wholly, about the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy registered with the United States Library of Congress. Most are chum, illiterate or self-serving, off the point or below it, corrupt and venal, distracting or downright conspiratorial.
These are, in my opinion, the best eleven (with a coda). Meagher is the best place to start.
Accessories After the Fact (1967) by Sylvia Meagher
She was the first and remains in many ways the best and most comprehensive. Her fury at the flagrancy and incompetence (for this was an incompetent whitewash) of the Warren/Dulles/Hoover/LBJ cover-up -- and toward the whore mass media, a Sixties media whose bondage to Power was much weaker than our own -- burns through every page. Unlike most authors (good and swill) attracted to this topic, Meagher is a beautiful writer; and a great detective. Perhaps her best chapter is on the concoction known as the murder of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit. Not only does Meagher prove accused cop-killer Lee Harvey Oswald innocent, since not at the scene, but that Tippit's very strange movements before and after the assassination suggest that J.D. may have been offed by one of his own. A masterpiece getting more masterful through time, even though written only two years after release of the Warren Report and its 26 volumes of non-supporting evidence.
Six Seconds in Dallas (1967) by Dr. Josiah Thompson
The perfect early-stage companion to Meagher. Dispassionate and architectonic, Josiah Thompson takes us as far as anyone has toward knowing the (because of massive corruption and destruction of evidence and witnesses) unknowable: when and from where the Dealey Plaza shots came. With immense photographic and artwork detail, Six Seconds in Dallas proves the two shots from the front, one to JFK's throat, the other to his right temple; two shots from the rear, one to Kennedy's upper back, the second to the top right of his skull; a missed shot from behind, flying over the limousine, hitting a curbstone, and causing a chip which injured bystander James Tague; and a shot from behind traveling through Texas Governor John Connally (and unfortunately not killing him). Here, the Magic Bullet Theory is destroyed. The Single Bullet Theory is destroyed. And so is the Warren Commission's nonsensical time sequence. Thompson's amazing work was accomplished without access to a moving Zapruder film, the autopsy photos, or the Dallas police dictabelt recording of the shooting.
Conspiracy (1980) by Anthony Summers
The first major book written on the case after public release of the Z-film and the dreadful autopsy materials, and after completion of the post-Watergate investigations (the Rockefeller Commission, the Pike Committee, the Church Committee, the House Select Committee on Assassinations). Itself, it is a magnificent piece of investigative journalism, a trove of leads. Summers makes available to the general public for the first time: Rose Cheramie; the witnesses to the strange incident at Clinton, Louisiana during the summer of '63; Lee Oswald working for Guy Bannister; David Atlee Phillips and David Morales; Oswald's curious route through Finland on his way to his Soviet "defection"; the impersonating of Oswald in Mexico City; the fake Secret Service agents behind the grassy knoll fence immediately after the shooting. Here, an Irish-born journalist does what no U.S. journalist dared to do, what no U.S. journalist would permit any colleague to even begin. However, one must emphasize the 1980 edition of the work. For tragically, Anthony Summers turned tail and became just another greasy pole climber, just another condescending defamer of serious researchers who reject the Lone Nut fairy tale. First in a 1994 eviscerating "update" of Conspiracy, now named (nonsensically) Not in Your Lifetime -- Summers climbing aboard the hate Oliver Stone / love Gerald Posner media gravy train. And last month Summers did it again, with a second downgrading "revision" -- again with the nitwit Not in Your Lifetime title -- in which he runs headlong into the dear arms of the Obamian corporate / media police state by bravely dumping on his own original research, on long-dead Jim Garrison, on long-irrelevant Mark Lane, on the ignored Joan Mellen, and on everyone else who has anything to do with anti-Establishment action or thought. No rebel he, is sniffy Summers. Anthony Summers, he dead. Conspiracy (1980) lives on.
On the Trail of the Assassins (1988) by Jim Garrison
The great American patriot and district attorney tells of his breaking of the case, of his trial and investigative innocence and incompetence, of his own destruction by FBI, CIA, Johnson Administration, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and his aides, television and newspaper media, and the cracker establishment of Louisiana. Garrison was not only a great patriot, but an elegant writer and storyteller. And a very funny one.
Spy Saga (1990) by Philip Melanson
A micro-view of the assassination. Actually, not about the assassination at all. Philip Melanson takes the dribs and drabs given to us by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, fills in many gaps through his own sleuthing and forensic genius, and gives us a Lee Harvey Oswald as an operative who was never really allowed to come in from the cold. Under Melanson, Oswald was recruited by military intelligence while in the Pacific as a Marine (perhaps even earlier courtesy of Civil Air Patrol leader David Ferrie), taught Russian at CIA's Monterey School of Languages, sent to the Soviet Union in 1959 as a false defector, brought back to the States (now with a Russian wife) in '62, and used as a "dangle" in up to a half-dozen covert ops in Texas, Louisiana, and Mexico City (mail order gun sales, anti- and pro-Castro infiltration, voter registration drives, Communist Party USA) until his ultimate dangling in Dealey Plaza on 11/22/63. An astonishing read of very scanty (and withheld and destroyed) evidence.
Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (1993) by Peter Dale Scott
Looking through the other end of the telescope from Phil Melanson, our greatest political historian maps Dallas with a macro-coverage, using much the same method: Scott links small pieces of evidence through an economic, political, and criminal labyrinth most of us could not begin to fathom; for what we are used to seeing, trained to see from birth, is the public state, the public economy, and a concept of crime embraced by everything from Batman to Dragnet, from Columbo to The Wire. What Scott brings to life here is what he calls the Deep State, a malignancy which was nascent throughout the 1940s and 1950s, what was fully born on 11/22/63, and what has since swallowed the public state whole: a parallel international secret power system, composed of mafias, private corporations, military cadres, intelligence and security and police apparatus; financed by drugs, stolen government dollars (the 2008 "bank bailout" being the largest and most historic example), corporate funding; engaging in illicit violence to protect the status and interests of the powerful. In Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, Dallas is the template, a template which since '63 has suffocated us all. Honore de Balzac was the greatest of all conspiracy theorists. Among modern English language historians, Peter Dale Scott comes the closest to him. A dense, sometimes opaque book not for the faint-hearted.
The Last Investigation (1993) by Gaeton Fonzi
Alas, it would be so. Gaeton Fonzi was lead investigator for the hopeful, degraded, hijacked, yet still valuable House Select Committee on Assassinations (1976-79), a committee whose final report would point to more than one shooter firing at the Dallas motorcade. Under enormously difficult conditions -- funding cut by Congressional reactionaries and intelligence stooges; blasphemed by the press; cut-off at the knees by feuding staffers (some of whom were double agents) -- Fonzi was a miner finding much golden ore. It was he who discovered the key witness (Antonio Veciana) linking patsy Oswald to Kennedy assassination ringleader David Atlee Phillips; linking Phillips to CIA / JMWAVE Miami station chief David Sanchez Morales (Morales would also participate in the CIA execution of Che Guevara in Bolivia four years after Dallas, a fascist murderer for all seasons); Fonzi would nail George DeMohrenschildt, Oswald's Texas handler, to the wall, until DeMohrenschildt's untimely death, the day before a crucial interview with Fonzi. For it is death which destroyed the Last Investigation. Beyond DeMohrenschildt, there are the murders of Jimmy Hoffa, Sam Giancana, John Rosselli, top FBI administrator William C. Sullivan (supposedly shot when someone mistook him for a deer), Rolando Masferrer, Charles Nicoletti, Carlos Prio, Sheffield Edwards, William Harvey, David Morales, William Pawley, Thomas Karamessines, John Paisley: all murdered during HSCA's time, rivers of mid-70s blood, the glue holding together the fetid deep state system while it tottered. And my how it worked, leading to the Reagan Restoration -- and beyond. But not only blood. As Gaeton Fonzi tells it, one man castrated the HSCA from within: corrupt legal bagman, and Chief Counsel, G. Robert Blakey. It was Blakey who made sure all pointed toward Oswald, or the Mob (same distraction); all pointed away from CIA. Richard Sprague -- lion-hearted, unimpeachable, incorruptible, fearless Philadelphia D.A. Richard Sprague and his Chief Investigator Bob Tannenbaum were originally put in charge, before Blakey. Sprague was character assassinated by the intelligence media, then fired. Tannenbaum quit. Leaving the HSCA to the stinking fixer Blakey. Gaeton Fonzi, a blessing, a hero, stayed on, giving us this brave, grand book.
Breach of Trust (2005) by Gerald McKnight
Professor McKnight's inside/outside investigative history is the first major work of the new century and it is the finest picture we have of what the Warren Commission truly was: a funnel for every piece of distortion, misrepresentation, false witness, suppressed witness, crime lab fakery, photographic fakery, autopsy fakery, ballistics fakery, Ivy League shyster and cover-up artist, ideological distortion, personality distraction, and psychobabble necessary to paint the Lone Nut fairy tale portrait -- composed, perhaps most disturbing, against a faux mournful tribute to the late President. McKnight makes clear: three men ran the Oswald Star Chamber, none of them named Warren: Kennedy assassin Allen Dulles, accessory-after-the-fact J. Edgar Hoover, and chief beneficiary of the crime Lyndon Baines Johnson. This is our J'Accuse!
Brothers (2006) by David Talbot
The most beautifully written, most passionate, and probably the saddest of all the books in the canon; rejecting all irony, camp, narcissism, deconstructionism, moral relativism, nihilism, sexual prurience and other malignancies of our time. John and Robert Kennedy were heroes. They were murdered by evil men. End of story. Talbot takes the top off the cesspool of enemies who brought down the US Government in 1963 and murdered the leading Presidential candidate of 1968. Who were the enemies? Sex haters, race haters, America-Firsters, oil junkies, mob guys, fascist intelligence agents, military dictators, tweed-covered garbage such as Dick Helms and Des FitzGerald, right-wing publishers and editors, drug executioners, psychopathic politicians, Goldwaterites. And that's the horror of the book. Fifty years later, what is left on a popular or establishment level of the idea that society and government must be judged by the way the weakest and most vulnerable among us are taken care of? The answer is: nothing. There is nothing left of that. Which is why the sense of doom and sorrow one takes from Brothers will be long lasting. The worst of our history murdered the best and got away with it. Scott free. Not only did they get away with it, but they've created the sort of society diametrically opposed to everything JFK and RFK stood for: a country where the least human and most nakedly aggressive dominate everything. This was the newer world others' sought. Born from the gore of Dealey Plaza, they've achieved it. For a bracing and deeply moving reminder of what was lost, one cannot do better than David Talbot's magnificent book.
JFK and the Unspeakable (2007) by James Douglass
If Talbot's Brothers is a tributary hymn-of-despair, Jim Douglass's JFK and the Unspeakable is also a hymn, in a way a companion piece to the Talbot book. But Douglass's sound is a hymn of belief, hope, and transcendence. In Kennedy's murder by the forces of the Unspeakable, a contemporary crucifixion, Douglass sees meaning beyond the resulting Vietnam genocide, beyond the takeover of our society by back-stabbers, soul-crushers and ghouls, beyond the shifting of cultural meaning toward something hideously empty and narcissistic -- meaning in the symbol of a man willing to die for his beliefs, for his (in Douglass's term) "turning." One can argue with this, for at the heart of Douglass's profoundly spiritual argument, there is something anti-political. Rather than view John Kennedy's murder as a political and economic act by men who saw themselves only in those terms, we experience it through Douglass's writing as a modern day Stations of the Cross. First Station: Kennedy refuses war with Laos. Second Station: Kennedy refuses invasion and air attacks during the Bay of Pigs; Third Station: Berlin Wall goes up, Kennedy lets it stand. Etc. It is an agony, as we follow Kennedy's turning and his movement toward the Golgotha of Dallas. So what do we do? Much can be said for acceptance and a belief in transcendence, a belief in Grace. But as Jack Kennedy said: "Here on earth, God's work must truly be our own." Do we let this crucifixion stand? Do we accept the vampires now in almost total control? Do we take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them? Can they ever be ended here on earth? Do we let Catholicism be defined by Hitler-Jugend Joseph Ratzinger and his successor, men who led the war against Liberation Theology? Do we let Christianity be defined by Tim LaHaye and his life-haters? Such questions. That JFK and the Unspeakable forces us to ask them marks the Douglass book as a rare and beautiful masterpiece, one to go back to many times through the years.
Into the Nightmare (2013) by Joseph McBride
Amid the cascade of assassination books covering us this 50th Anniversary season, Joe McBride's is the best. This journey by one of our great film critics (works on Hawks, Ford, Capra, Spielberg, several on Welles) begins with his role as a 12-year-old volunteer during JFK's run in the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary. (Kennedy's state chairman was McBride's mother.) We follow the author through the agony of Dallas, his belief -- as a patriotic anti-Communist Irish-Catholic teenager -- in the bona fides of the Warren Report, his transformations -- via Vietnam, race riots, the murders of Malcolm / King / RFK, and Watergate -- into something very different, to his search for the truth of the day (as Norman Mailer wrote) the post-modern world was born. And what a start to the search: it was McBride in a 1988 Nation magazine piece who exposed then Vice President George H.W. Bush, then running against sap Michael Dukakis, as a CIA enforcer from way back, beginning in the late-1950s, and who was up to his preppie neck in the Texas intrigues of November '63. The most valuable and astonishing parts of Into the Nightmare are the very fresh and convincing sections concerning officer J.D. Tippit. Rather than the unknowable dumb cop who just happened to get in homicidal Marxist maniac Lee Harvey Oswald's way during his escape from Dealey Plaza, Joe McBride makes Jefferson Davis Tippit well known: as part of the plot to kill Kennedy, Tippit's role was to track down Oswald immediately after the ambush and gun him down, before arrest, before Oswald had any chance to declare himself a patsy. He also suggests that Tippit -- a crack shot -- may have been one of the gunmen in Dealey Plaza. A beautiful and stunning book, with rare photographs, streets maps, and analysis.
*Other necessary titles: Jim DiEugenio's Destiny Betrayed (second edition) and Reclaiming Parkland; Jefferson Morley's Our Man in Mexico; Joan Mellen's Farewell to Justice; Robert Tannenbaum's Corruption of Blood; Cover Up by Gary Shaw; Harvey and Lee by John Armstrong; The Assassination Tapes by George O'Toole; Crime of the Century by Michael Kurtz; Don Thomas's Hear No Evil; The Man Who Knew Too Much by Dick Russell; Pat Speer's web work; Girl on the Stairs by Barry Ernest; Oswald in New Orleans by Harold Weisberg; Mark Lane's Last Word; John Newman's Oswald and the CIA.
*Finally, two keystones from the Land of Fakery edifice.
Vince Bugliosi's Reclaiming History is a 3,000 page monument to True Believing in Official Fairy Tales. Unlike 90% of Reclaiming History commentators, I've actually read all 1,700 text pages, 1,000 pages of endnotes (outstanding endnotes), hundreds of source note pages, plus two photo sections. You must hand it to Mr. Bugliosi: he is the Joan of Arc of this event. Regardless of POV -- and of course his POV is to basically suffocate and de-mystify the mysterious -- one cannot but admire his passion and hard work. And, he is a very funny writer. His various descriptions of Oswald the Cheapskate, Oswald the Potential Jet Hijacker ("jumping around the house in his underwear, preparing athletically for the hijacking, only caused baby June to think he was playing with her"), Marina the Sex Maniac, Marguerite the Harpie (and the Sex Maniac). His best humor (and his nastiest spite) is left for the real chuckleheads in the research community: the pathetic Robert Groden, the hapless photo expert Jack White, Mark Lane's endless self-promotion etc. But the fatal problem with the book is its boy scout level worship of everything official. Bugliosi discredits most everything he writes because from early on we see that his prism is exactly what one would expect from an establishment-based former D.A. So the book is a valentine to the honor of Gerald Ford, Earl Warren, Allen Dulles, David Belin, Arlen Specter, Henry Wade(!), Jesse Curry, Will Fritz, J.Edgar Hoover(!!), every member of the Dallas Police Department (except Roger Craig), every member of the FBI, every member of the Clark Panel/Rockefeller Commission/HSCA/ARRB, every member of the Secret Service (except Abraham Bolden), every member of the mainstream media circa 1963-64, the Bethesda autopsy doctors, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dick Helms and James Angleton, those fine patriots David Phillips, David Morales, and Guy Bannister, plus every official crime lab Vince could think of. How touching. (Or as Vinnie would write, "my, my.") My-my indeed. What sort of world does Bugliosi live in? Are we really supposed to take on faith -- which is what one must do to accept much of the evidence he provides -- the honor of people involved in investigating such a history-changing event? Yes, we are. There must be a 1,000 instances in the text and endnotes along the lines of: "What kind of loonie-bird could believe [fill-in-the-blank] would jeopardize his life/career/reputation/freedom by covering up murder?" Well, where do we start? Sadly, the history of the world is one long continuing account of people in power doing exactly that in order to remain in power, exactly to keep their reputations/freedoms/careers. If a bunch of cheap Ivy League (and oh my how VB loves the Ivy League!) legal hustlers trying to make their bones are faced with the challenge of covering up a crime which if exposed would crack in two the very establishment they wish to enter and dominate, and if there is already plenty of proof that being offered that gig and turning it down for some kind of pusillanimous and righteous reason may lead to harmful effects (Ruby/Oswald being Exhibit A), the really confusing and naive conclusion would be to assume the hustlers would not grab for the brass ring. And to assume some sort of holy righteousness on the part of the apparatchiks who made up the Warren Commission, a personal morality that would lead John McCloy to stand up and say "Hey, Mr. Chief Justice. This stinks. And the odor is coming from my pal James Angleton's death-squad offices down at Langley, and from our Mexico City Station" -- to quote the great philosopher Michael Corleone: "Who's being naive, Vince?" If only the world and the powerful were that way. We know they are not. And surely former D.A. Bugliosi knows they are not. So one wonders what private ghosts he is trying to exorcise with this book. He's a brilliant man with a great sense of humor -- he can't possibly believe in the automatic honor of these people, can he? Is he trying to convince himself in a late stage of life that everything he did in service to establishment power was not so much sound and fury, signifying nothing? Is Mr. Bugliosi trying to make up for not becoming a revolutionary? Is he trying to avoid the same feeling Dave "Maurice Bishop" Phillips felt on his death bed, when he confessed to his estranged brother that "Yes" he was in Dallas on 11/22/63? -- the kind of feeling one gets when one looks toward eternity? I believe Mr. Bugliosi is -- unlike practically all members of great power elites -- an honorable man. There is no way someone creates this sort of work for the money. And it is heroic how far he went with his obsession. (In medieval times, like his role model Joan of Arc, he would've been burned at the stake.) An honorable book, however deranged.
No honor in the other, more typical, keystone. For it is something normally found in a dung heap. For thirty years, Norman Kingsley Mailer blew the trumpet of JFK assassination conspiracy, generally pointing his noise toward CIA, the military, and LBJ. As the 80s turned to the 90s, as Jim Garrison and Oliver Stone commandeered the discussions concerning how Power in America really works, and as Mailer married his 8th wife while his 7 previous brides were suing him for back alimony (half of whom he may have stabbed), this once-great, bravery-obsessed writer took on a pimp job offered up by Random House editor-in-chief and Reichsmarschall of the Culturally Depraved Sir Harold Evans. (Evans's immediately preceding hire was of some plagiarizing Botox-patient by the name of Gerald Posner.) Mailer's assignment turned into something called Oswald's Tale, which should have been called Mailer's Tail since the book is almost 700 pages of Norman Kingsley taking it up the bum from Warren Commission liars, U.S. fascist intelligence sources of all flavors, pathetic psycho-babble about Oswald's probable homosexuality (hence his need to shoot the virile JFK from behind), marriage counselor guidance, and "newly released" KGB forgeries concocted by Boris Yeltsin's mafia goons. For decades Mailer lived off the pose of being the most courageous dude -- and certainly most courageous writer -- in America: the Miller / Mailer / Manson man, Gore Vidal would call it. "God is not love. God is courage. And love is the reward." So it went. That we're all born with a cancer-gun inside us. That we're all faced with a moment when that gun is cocked, when we must choose between bravery and fear. If we fail to be heroic, the gun goes off. Cancer = cowardice. Norman Mailer lived for a dozen years after writing what surely is one of the most venal and corrupt books ever coming from a major writer. And it seems he did not die of cancer. Yet the cowardice contained within Oswald's Tale resounds with the force of an atomic blast.