On Oliver Stone’s JFK and the Academic Mindset

Oliver Stone’s JFK released in 1991 and became the highest grossing film of that year. Its success was met by a hostility unprecedented in the major media, with an early draft of a leaked script coming under criticism months prior to coming out. The entire script, with several essays both pro and con regarding the film, were collected in JFK: The Book of the Film, by Stone and Zachary Sklar and it is highly recommended if you are interested in the case.

When I saw it, I was out of college where I had been a philosophy major. I had always been interested in film, especially foreign films, and during the 1980s I would go to the local VHS tape video store and rent pictures that I had read about in film books, such as Aguirre the Wrath of God and Blowup. Most crucially, however, I had grown up the son of a history professor, and spent the formative years of my youth living in on-campus housing at a university in Laredo, Texas. The result was that I spent many days in the college library, had access to a huge number of books, and had grown up with a kind of academic mindset.

The reason I bring this up is that it affected my viewing of JFK in a way that may prove instructive. I’d like to make two general points about the academic mindset.

The first point is that one of the ways university professors survive and obtain tenure is by acquiring a unique sandbox. That is, they find a particular specialty and become the expert in that specialty through long hours of dedicated study. In some ways that is a good thing; the universe is a big place, with an infinite number of topics that cannot all be covered by a single person, so the piecemeal assignation that goes on is helpful toward a goal of general knowledge. When the AIDS epidemic first hit, many of the top scientists who ended up working in the field of AIDS had backgrounds in veterinary science. That’s because the first cases involved cryptosporidium, a disease that had typically only been found in cattle up to that time. The morphology of the AIDS virus (that is to say, what it looked like) is similar to a sheep or cattle virus. In this case, having specialists who had experience in this area proved useful in another area, and this is the sort of the thing that happens all the time.

It can also be something that inhibits knowledge. Once the sandbox is acquired, and a person’s personal reputation, livelihood, and status is dependent on that sandbox, a person can be very reluctant to give it up. When the English scientist Bertrand Russell was a teenager, he wrote a letter to the German logician Gottlieb Frege that destroyed his entire system of thought. Frege first denied it, then claimed that “the whole of mathematics is undermined.” Which of course it wasn’t. It’s just that his theory was wrong. He never recovered from this, and we can have empathy for him while recognizing that sandboxes can be as dangerous as they are helpful. The key, as in most things in life, is to remain flexible and adaptable.

There’s one more aspect to this sandbox concept. When a professor spends all or most of his or her time in that sandbox, the rest of his or her information about the world tends to stay frozen. They may retain some general knowledge about the rest of the world, but it becomes sketchier and less relevant over time. To their credit, they know this, which is why they rely on experts in their own sandboxes in discussions about areas not relevant to their own. And so everybody is an expert in one thing and vaguely cognizant of everything else.

That’s point one. Point two is that there is a specific manner in which academic professors think that can best be captured, I think, with the term categorization. Everything about the university experience is categorized. Art History 101. British Literature 1 and 2. American History is often broken up from the revolution to the Civil War, then the Civil War to the present. And so on, in more and more specific detail. I am not arguing against this. It is natural and right if the desired goal is efficiency. I am only saying that the university professor tends to categorize everything in these terms, including the other professors. (“Well, of course, that’s going to be her argument, she’s a postmodern feminist.”) So a philosophy professor might be a Kant guy or an epistemology specialist or – God forbid because everyone hates this type – a Wittgenstein guy. And you have a certain knowledge and expectation of what that particular type is going to bring in terms of intellectual opinions and objections. And they might be wrong. We are all individuals. But we generalize and categorize, and professors do it more often and more efficiently than nearly everyone.

Okay, that’s point two. Now I was heavily influenced by this type of thinking. So, among other things, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise shows the influence of Communist groups in America, for example. Or the great passages about living a natural life in Tolstoy are clearly influenced by Jean Jacques Rousseau. There’s nothing wrong with noting such things, but what can happen is that you create a mental world of wit and reference that folds back on itself without ever impacting the real world.

When the Socialist painter Diego Rivera refused to take down a politically motivated mural (which included a portrait of Lenin) at Rockefeller Center, the Rockefellers had the mural destroyed and paid him off in full. They then funded abstract art, possibly for aesthetic reasons, but also because abstract art can only reference itself and cannot carry political messages. One of the most famous museums in America, MOMA in New York City, was built by the Rockefellers. It isn’t just art, either – music also shows a steady progression into abstraction and self-reference, and arguably film does as well.

So I saw JFK. And I thought it was excellent. I thought the montages were brilliant and the performances superb. I agreed with Stone’s casting of Kevin Costner in the lead, seeing in him a kind of Gary Cooper-Jimmy Stewart solidity with which to revolve all the other eccentrics. I thought the story was tremendously interesting and thought-provoking and went back and saw it again.

However, during all that time, it never occurred to me to think of the conspiracy it depicted as something real, or as something to be taken seriously on a human level. I treated it as a categorizable point of view; that is, the film is an example of an artistic talent demonstrating a certain take on historical events. It’s a Conspiracy Thriller. And although intellectually I understood there was a real debate going on under the surface, I treated the whole thing as an abstract and went back to reading about other things. It would be another ten years before I ever studied the case in detail.
Now maybe I’m just stupid. It’s certainly possible. But one thing I know happened is that my academic training prepared me to slot certain ideas in certain categories which ended up being a substitute for real thought. I just never asked the question, the behavior that pains Jim Garrison (Costner) in the film when he yells at the Warren Report: “Ask the question! Ask the question!”

For a long while, I didn’t.

Fortunately, many others did. Most of them weren’t academics, although a fair number of researchers do come out of university jobs. It’s still a dangerous thing to get into, and one risks both status and livelihood by writing seriously about it. Michael Parenti’s career has been dotted with troubles for being both a committed Marxist and for writing about politically controversial issues his whole life, despite having published numerous books and being much in-demand as a speaker and commentator. It’s not easy.

As far as JFK went, however, for whatever flaws one wishes to assign to it, it played a real historical role in the creation of the AARB and the release of millions of JFK-related documents to the public. Not bad for a movie that was excoriated by the mainstream press long before it ever showed up in theaters. It remains a great film and a solid entry point for interested people.

Rat’s Nest: Two Books on the CIA-Nazi-drug Nexus

by Joseph E. Green

The Essential Mae Brussell: Investigations of Fascism in America
edited by Alex Constantine
Feral House, 359 pp, $18.95

Drugs as Weapons Against Us
by John Potash
Trine Day, 420 pp, $18.60

Mae Brussell Book

It was a masterstroke of Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglorious Basterds to make a point of Nazi flight in the wake of a losing war. Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), after learning that a Nazi captive is going to burn his uniform and never wear it again, informs him: “Yeah, we don’t like that. We like our Nazis out in the open,” right before carving a swastika into his forehead. Then, in the immensely satisfying end of the film, Aldo does the same to Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), an officer who has made a deal to ensconce himself into the loving arms of the U.S. military. In the opening scene, Landa describes the Jewish people as rats; but in the end, it is Landa who is the rat, scrambling to desert the sinking Reich.

In watching the film, I recognized that the ending might be more satisfying for me than for some others, because many people do not know that Nazi officers and scientists flooded into the U.S. after World War II or how much influence they had over our history. Following the “good war,” the Pentagon and the CIA seemed hell-bent on giving cover to as many Nazis as possible. Some of them went into the U.S. Army historical division (the person who wrote the official Pentagon history of World War II was an official historian of the Reich) and others were scientists who would hold the chief positions at NASA and elsewhere for decades yet to come.

One character who did escape to America after the war was Reinhard Gehlen, where he became a willing instrument of the military establishment’s desire for a Cold War. CIA Director Allen Dulles funneled over $200 million to Gehlen. The idea was that Gehlen would use his old contacts to set up lines of information against the Soviets, while also training mercenary forces to fuel revolutionary movements with Russia. (Does this sound familiar?) Indeed, the CIA itself (which was created in 1947) was largely a combination of the old OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and Gehlen organization members. (Brussell 61) Additionally, as Mae Brussell notes in a new collection of her work put out by Feral House, “Some of [Gehlen’s] spies were schooled at the CIA’s clandestine base in Atsugi, Japan, where, in 1957, a young Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald was posted to the U-2 spy plane operation there.” (Brussell 23)

Mae Brussell has been described as the Queen of Conspiracy numerous times, which is a belittling nickname even if not expressed with such intent. She was, instead, one of the most brilliant intuitive thinkers who ever lived, and legendary at analysis. I never met her, alas, but heard many stories about her from my friend John Judge, as she and Penn Jones were his mentors. And while recordings of Mae are easy to find (the best collection can be accessed at www.worldwatchers.info, along with other Mae-related material), print has been rare. This new collection, edited by Alex Constantine, contains her most well-known pieces and examples of her prodigious facility. Having the book in print is also nice for those who wish to slowly digest the material, as listening to her radio shows can be challenging for the uninitiated as she zips from topic to topic.

What Brussell specialized in was milieu. She figured out who the players were in any situation she investigated, then who was related to whom, and who was connected to whom, and eventually she revealed the dark tunnels underneath the American dream. As she discovered, the fascists rule in secret while our Punch and Judy “democracy” keeps people distracted. Her ability to analyze events this way made her prescient, as when she warned Mary Jo Kopechne’s family that she was about to be killed shortly before Chappaquidick, or even writing a warning letter to Richard Nixon.

There are other observations sprinkled throughout the book with deep consequences. For instance, she mentions in passing that Clay Shaw, the subject of the Garrison trial and the later Oliver Stone film JFK, happened to die a few weeks after being publicly outed as a CIA asset in Victor Marchetti’s The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence. (B 115) Like Penn Jones, Brussell did a great deal of work on suspicious deaths, and the timing of such deaths. She also observed that Hale Boggs, a Warren Commission member who expressed doubts about the final report’s conclusions, died one month after the Watergate arrests were made, in a plane crash. According to a Los Angeles Star story, she points out, Boggs was planning to make public links between the Kennedy assassination and Watergate. (B 113)

Brussell also wrote astonishing exposes of CIA operations such as the Symbionese Liberation Army’s kidnapping of Patty Hearst, which occupies a large section of the second half of the book, and even the deaths of West Coast rock and roll stars. As she points out, the two biggest bands of the era became associated with murder and hate – the Beatles via Vincent Bugliosi’s ridiculous conspiracy theory regarding Charles Manson, and the Rolling Stones via the Hell’s Angels murder of an unstable fan during the Altamont concert. (B 277)

What is the purpose of all these intrigues? She relates it to the underlying white power structure. As she puts it:

Competition for jobs between Indians, Blacks, and Chicanos is caused by a racist power structure in this country that refuses to allow jobs in the first place…IQ tests have been proven to be racist, thereby dropping off otherwise qualified students. By keeping minorities out of the professions except entertainment and athletics, the white community can keep their residential areas white, their schools white, their churches white, perpetuate the racism. (B 133)

Despite the articles in this book being decades old, none feel out of date. They feel more relevant than ever. Indeed, what has happened is that the power structure has gotten better at it. They’ve turned pro, both in a raw political sense but also in a cultural sense. The list of musicians that Brussell talks about is sobering: Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Phil Ochs, Gram Parsons, Lennon, and Otis Redding, among others. Is there anyone on the current cultural scene of that quality and impact? The obvious answer is no. When Lennon looked like he was getting ready to re-enter the mainstream, he was gunned down by another lone nut, which America seemingly specializes in producing. In response to this, Brussell has the single best advice I have ever read about such murders:

When someone is gunned down who is controversial, has political enemies, is hated by the wealthy and well-organized religious movements, and is an open opponent of government policies at home and abroad, that kind of murder requires much more inquiry into the background of the assassin. (B 284)

Exactly.

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As if to prove the timeliness of Brussell’s observations, a new book – Drugs as Weapons Against Us by John Potash – will be coming out in November on Trine Day. Potash, who previously authored The FBI War Against Tupac Shakur, states in his book that he is building on the work of other researchers such as Peter Dale Scott, Brussell, and Constantine, the editor of The Essential Mae Brussell. There is a slight difference in focus as explained by the title Potash gave to his work, but it fits snugly alongside in terms of the research and point of view.

Potash tackles a broad spectrum of topics that converge on the topic of drugs, with an emphasis on the 1960s to the present. He first sets out some of the historical background of the opium wars and then quickly gets into government experimentation and abuse of mind-altering chemicals. And it’s here that Potash may create some controversy with readers of his book: he doesn’t support marijuana use or LSD use for mind expansion. As he points out, the CIA used the latter for purposes such as disorientation and truth extraction, but not for achieving higher levels of consciousness (Potash 32). He even quotes William S. Burroughs, famed author and heroin addict, as saying “LSD makes people less competent.” (P 37)

The book also suggests that Ken Kesey and Tim Leary may have been (unknowingly?) doing the government’s bidding in promoting drug use. Kesey himself actually participated in an MK-ULTRA (mind control) experiment in 1960. In describing the Magic Bus, Potash notes with interest several people connected to it who had military and/or blueblood backgrounds, and whose primary function seemed to be financing and encouraging figures such as Neal Cassady and Kesey. Further, what would somebody like the CIA’s John Gittinger be doing at Acid Test parties featuring the Grateful Dead? How did the Grateful Dead break out of the San Francisco scene to become a national success? The answers are both convoluted and fascinating, and in the book.

Drugs as Weapons Against Us gradually throws up a pattern constituting a street-level cultural war. COINTELPRO went after movements like the Black Panthers and targeted individuals like Dr. King and Malcolm X; at the same time, the CIA infiltrated the music scene. Many people find this difficult to believe – why would government forces be interested in someone like Jimi Hendrix, for example?

Scotland Yard claimed to quote Hendrix’s attending doctor, Dr. John Banister, saying Hendrix was ‘dead on arrival…[dying] in the ambulance or at home.’ The ambulance workers denied this. The hospital’s official report had Hendrix’s hospital arrival time as 11:45 and pronounced dead at 12:45. [Monika] Danneman claimed Hendrix was alive when the ambulance workers took Hendrix from their apartment. If Hendrix was dead on arrival, what happened during that hour? Scotland Yard couldn’t give Danneman an answer. When she asked what Dr. Bannister had to say about it, Scotland Yard told her that he had been struck off England’s official medical register of all doctors in the country, without any further explanation. (P 145)

At the same time, Hendrix’s manager, Mike Jeffery, had connections with the Mafia and FBI and had formerly worked for MI6, Britain’s intelligence agency. (P 146) There is more, a great deal more, and the devil is most certainly in the details. It’s an incredible story, but just one of a hundred in Drugs as Weapons Against Us.

Potash also takes us through the attacks on hip-hop artists, Panther leaders, Bob Marley, and in a startling set of chapters, the murder of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. He also brings us up to date by describing how an unknown party dosed people with acid at Burning Man events and comparing it to the Grateful Dead’s long association with LSD. It is literally true that the year after Jerry Garcia died and touring stopped, LSD use dropped considerably in the U.S. “Slate magazine writer Ryan Grim wrote, ‘For 30 years, Dead tours were essential in keeping many LSD users and dealers connected, a correlation confirmed by the DEA in a divisional field assessment from the mid-1990s.’” Fortunately for LSD dealers, the band Phish entered the gap to help keep their business rolling. (P 281-283)

The extraordinary scope and detail in Drugs as Weapons Against Us makes it difficult to summarize. Readable, compelling, and packed with stunning information, Potash’s book works both as a terrific introduction for the beginner and an excellent resource for the veteran researcher. It serves as a kind of textbook to modern American history, covering all the aspects history books typically ignore. Taken together with the Brussell volume, these are vital and necessary defenses of the mind against the idiotic, and sinister, propaganda fed to us daily by major media.

John Judge: an unabashedly personal remembrance

It was mid-morning under grey skies somewhere between Dallas and Waco, on our way to the Poage Legislative Library at Baylor University. Randy Benson, a filmmaker and professor of documentary studies at Duke, walked alongside me. We trailed two figures walking and talking beside each other: John Judge and Robert Groden.

“This is like being a hockey fan,” Randy said, “And we’re hanging out with Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky.”

I agreed.

We all walked into Starbucks and grabbed a table.

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I had met all three men during a trip to Dallas in November for the Coalition on Political Assassinations conference. I had decided to go after encountering an article by John Judge called “The Black Hole of Guyana” in a book called Secret and Suppressed. It impressed me because – in the first place – the information was incredible. It told a story of the Jim Jones cult suicides utterly at odds with what was conventionally known. No Kool-Aid to be found here. Secondly, however, was the thoroughness of the documentation Judge had used. It was scholarly. It used Guyanese sources rather than standard Western sources, which told a far different tale. There were no suicides at Guyana. The autopsist, Dr. Mootoo, had ruled all of the dead to have been murdered.

I had become interested in so-called “conspiracy literature,” which was fascinating but often ill-documented. All too often large claims were based on singular testimony or dubious provenance, so that they didn’t always pass rational muster. I was struck by the emphasis on detail and care that went into the article’s sourcing. Not long after hearing about the COPA conference and seeing that it was up the road from me in Dallas, I decided I had to meet him.

That first conference I arrived early – about 10 AM – at the Hotel Lawrence, a rickety building with two elevators, one frequently inoperative, but conveniently close to Dealey Plaza. I went up to the 2nd floor breakfast room and saw John sitting at one of the tables, going through some papers and having his breakfast. I walked over, tentatively.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Joe. I know you’re, uh, John Judge. Mind if I sit down?”

He agreed and three hours later we parted company and said we would talk later, after the night’s speakers. I remember going outside in a bitter wind, barely feeling it because my mind had been blown in so many directions. I had received my first taste of the John Judge experience.

Talking to John could often be like drinking from a firehose. (WAIT, what did he just say?? And then what?? And wait a minute – what?!?) He flowed from one astonishing fact to another so fast that you couldn’t keep up. He had become a researcher via his own mentors, Mae Brussell and Penn Jones, and adopted some of that style for his own.

I’d get better keeping up, with practice.

Through John at the conferences I met Robert Groden. Groden was a legend – the man who brought the Zapruder film to popular consciousness along with Dick Gregory on the Geraldo Rivera program, Oliver Stone’s research expert on the film JFK (and who had played several roles in the film), author of High Treason and The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald and creator of the rotoscoped version of the Zapruder film.

Which is why Randy made his remark to me. And it was true – a bit astonishing to be chatting mildly over tea and coffee in some tiny Texas town.

This would become a typical COPA experience.

 

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I attended every COPA conference in Dallas after that, and became more and more involved with the setting up (always to John’s specifications) and helping with whatever needed help. In 2008, COPA held conferences in Los Angeles (to mark RFK’s death) and Memphis (for Dr. King), which is how I ended up complaining in solidarity with Bill Turner about our LA hotel and having the singular experience of Judge Joe Brown buying me barbecue and listening to stories about the Black Panthers and skiing in Colorado. It is hard to overestimate how amazing the conferences were, in terms of being able to sit around and pick the brains of so many high-level scholars. And it was always brilliant to find that someone you knew had written a book, like T Carter with her A Memoir of Injustice, or to find a researcher you immediately hit it off with, like Shane O’Sullivan or John Potash.

And naturally over the years John and I became friends, and he served as a mentor in many ways, helping to guide me through the thickets. My first book, Dissenting Views, was dedicated to three people: Ben Rogers, the archivist for the Poage Library, Jim DiEugenio for publishing many of my articles (including my first, “The JFK 10-Point Program”) and to John, precisely for his stewardship. I could always check my thinking with him, see if I was on the right track, and though I didn’t always agree with him I always respected his agility of mind.

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I am sitting on many years of emails, on a huge variety of topics political, philosophical, and personal, and what shines through in them is his warmth of feeling, his humanity, and his wicked sense of humor. On the phone, I became accustomed to hearing his standard greeting for me: “How are ya, Doc?” or sometimes a booming “Doctor Green, the younger!” (My father is a professor and I grew up around academia, and John always granted me an honorary Ph.D.) And then we’d be off and running about one topic or another. A few years ago, John met a girl. On an internet dating site. And suddenly our conversations changed, and I found myself listening to him wax poetic about a certain Marilyn he’d met and how he wanted me to meet her. The idea is a bit astonishing – looking for a date on a website and finding John Judge. But that was John; human, after all, not a walking encyclopedia, a real live person. And he was a happier man for that.

Running a conference isn’t for the weak. He got a lot of shit. There were idiots in the 9/11 Truther movement who disrupted COPA events and sent nasty emails because John didn’t think the Towers had been destroyed by controlled demolition. They didn’t know that John had worked closely with victims’ families or bothered to understand why he thought the way he did. As always in our thing, there were people who thought he was a CIA agent or FBI informant. I used to tell him, “If you’re working for the CIA, you need to renegotiate your contract, because they need to get you some checks.” We laughed those off, mostly. But putting yourself forward always is a risk, and one he accepted with aplomb (most of the time) and bitchiness (some of the time). He tried to ignore most of the “skunks,” as he put it, but sometimes he couldn’t, as when certain members of COPA perpetually tried to tie their personal events under the COPA banner without telling him, or tried to recruit every nutter in Christendom into the fold. Those are the things that made him angriest, and he often sent me long, blazing emails about such betrayals.

However, the times that will stay with me forever are the human ones. Eating dinner with him in Memphis and listening to a story about an out of body experience from his days in Ohio. The one conference speech he gave in ‘09 where he described how dolphins will sacrifice for one another when they know death is imminent for some or all of the group. Getting a call to go up to his room so I could help fix his tie or get his shoes on when he was injured. The late nights with the other techies (Randy, John Geraghty, Tim Plainfeather, and others who came and went) making sure microphones were ready and cameras in place. The one time John yelled at me (because another “tech” person, C—, had screwed up the audio on movie night) and after I fixed the problem couldn’t help thinking “I just got yelled at by John Judge,” and how cool that was. And how we then skipped the movies and went to an all-night restaurant.

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The conferences were always 24-7 affairs, and I used to get 3 or 4 hours of sleep per night with everything that needed to be done. This led to a certain level of punch-drunkenness by the time Sunday rolled around, but it was worth it. It was a good exercise for the brain to have amazing information given to you during the day with so many brilliant speakers, and then work most of the night getting everything ready for the next day.

There have been two conferences in the United States that have been traditional rivals in the JFK community: COPA and Lancer. Many people thought that there were mere differences in opinion between the two, or that it was based on personality disputes. It wasn’t. Those close to the situation know what I mean, but I will say that I never regretted my choice of which entity to support, even when COPA was on a shoestring and Lancer appeared to have money coming out of its ears.

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 Photo credit: Jedediah Laub-Klein

Randy and I have since become good friends, and indeed I’ve made many good friends over the years as a result of John and the conferences. We’re both involved in the making of documentaries about the Kennedy case; his, The Searchers, is a brilliant celebration of the original Warren Commission critics. The one I am involved with is still in post-production but features many things, including the last recorded interview with John, which I conducted. It will hopefully be out before the end of the year, but as anyone will tell you it isn’t easy these days.

My hope is that both these films will help preserve the memory of John and the causes he stood for, which were much larger than simply JFK. He was an incredible scholar, a wide-ranging activist whose absence is felt in veteran counseling and in DC schools, a dedicated servant to advocates for change like Cynthia McKinney and Dennis Kucinich, and a larger than life figure on the research scene. But for me, mostly he was my friend who I admired. I will miss him, his intelligence, tenacity, and sometimes hilarious-if-dark quips. His goal of creating a Museum of Hidden History is a perfect summation of his ideals. He was on a mission to better ourselves, to see and acknowledge the darkness within us, and to try and pull it into the light.

 

 

Donations can be made to a gofundme site or to the Museum of Hidden History at PO Box 772, Washington DC 20044.