Obituary: Jim Garrison
Tuesday 27 October 1992
JIM GARRISON gained international fame as a lawyer for just one case, which he lost. The case was based on Garrison's contention, raised while he was a District Attorney in New Orleans, that President John F. Kennedy was killed by a plot organised by the US Central Intelligence Agency.
Garrison wrote three books about Kennedy's murder and, although he changed his argument a number of times over the years as new evidence emerged, he never stopped promoting his argument that the CIA was at the heart of the matter.
In his third book, On the Trail of the Assassins (1988), Garrison argues that the US intelligence community planned and effected the assassination, and it was this book that was adapted by Oliver Stone to make the movie JFK, starring Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison. The movie's thesis is a combination of conspiracy theories, with Lyndon Johnson as a co-conspirator and the conspirators' goal being to reverse Kennedy's (alleged) decision to extricate US forces from the Vietnam war. The villains are the CIA, the military, the corporate elite and assorted common criminals. In a piece of conscious irony, Stone gave Garrison a bit part in the movie playing Earl Warren, the Chief Justice who led the Commission that placed sole blame for the President's murder on Lee Harvey Oswald.
Garrison was the most important dissenter to the Warren Commission because he was the first to garner national headlines with his conspiracy theory. As a District Attorney in New Orleans in the mid-1960s, Garrison was inspired by the legendary Senator Russell B. Long to check rumours about Louisiana mobsters' involvement. Garrison indicted a local business figure, Clay Shaw, for being part of the conspiracy, but his witnesses and their stories were simply unbelievable. Nevertheless, the possibility of a conspiracy was out and more Americans than ever became toilers in a huge labour of investigation and speculation that continues to this day: the quest for who killed Kennedy.
There are several unofficial versions of the Kennedy assassination.
The 'corporate elite' thesis is that corporate giants have always been in command of the US government and thus of the CIA. In the late 1950s, corporate America was worried that the new Castro regime was not only shutting down gambling and related 'tourist' business in Cuba but also taking property from US firms and returning it to Cubans, and charging Pepsi-Cola market prices for Cuban sugar.
All this led Vice-President - and Presidential aspirant - Richard Nixon, to have the CIA prepare an invasion of Cuba. The invasion was planned by 'the Texans' - who were oil industry executives (some say the young George Bush and James Baker were among them) - and 'the Cubans' who were refugees who had been police and military men in the deposed Batista dictatorship. When Nixon was unexpectedly defeated, the thesis runs, by a senator representing another corporate grouping, John F. Kennedy, the CIA men went ahead with their invasion without telling the new President - at least, not until two hours before the 1,500 troops were set to go. Kennedy shocked them by refusing to provide US air cover, and the Bay of Pigs invasion failed.
The Texan managers and their Cuban triggermen, it is argued, killed Kennedy for revenge and to get Nixon into the White House in 1964 so that Cuba could be 'retaken'. In the event, Lyndon Johnson beat Nixon and by the time Nixon became President (1968) the Vietnam war made an invasion of Cuba politically
Watergate is part of some 'corporate elite' theories too. In the tape-recordings from Nixon's Oval Office, the embattled President repeatedly worries that Watergate might reveal 'the Bay of Pigs thing', a code-reference, it is argued, to the murder of Kennedy. Only 12 hours of about 4,000 hours of Nixon tapes have ever been released and some believe the smoking gun is in those secret tapes.
Then there are the Mafia conspiracy theories.
Marina Oswald, wife of the alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, is now a grandmother still living in Texas. Four years ago she broke her silence and told Ladies' Home Journal that she believed Kennedy was killed by a Mafia conspiracy to stop his brother, the US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, from hounding the Mob. This is probably the most widely held non-official theory. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is believed to have a tape-recording of Carlos Marcello, whom the New York Times describes as 'a New Orleans organised-crime figure', admitting involvement in the assassination. The tape was sealed in 1981 in order not to prejudice an unrelated trial of Marcello.
Marina Oswald (now Marina Porter) believes Oswald was a 'patsy', as he himself claimed before he was shot, and that the conspiracy involved the US government because she is convinced her late husband worked for US intelligence. She laments that, as a 22- year-old mother who had recently emigrated from the Soviet Union, she was easily intimidated into telling the Warren Commission that her husband's bizarre behaviour made him the assassin, rather than the patsy.
All conspiracy theories agree that Oswald was either not the only shooter, or not a shooter at all; that neither 'his' gun nor 'his' bullet - both key evidence against him - killed Kennedy. Most agree that Oswald was a patsy for whoever did plan the shooting, and that he was shot (by Jack Ruby) to ensure his silence.
Garrison took the mystery that has in many ways defined the US for the past 30 years and, in the words of Oliver Stone, asked the question: 'What political forces were opposed to this leader and would benefit from this assassination?' He found no shortage of evidence of conspiracy - but like all others who followed him, he found the evidence overwhelming in its complexity and magnitude.
Garrison was born in Dennison, Iowa, in 1921, and graduated from Tulane University after serving as a fighter pilot during the Second World War. Garrison was remembered last week by a fellow judge as a 'man of no small talk . . . In cases involving complicated legal principles, he would get into it tooth and nail.' Rosemary James, the reporter who wrote the first story about Garrison's investigations, said: 'I feel he ruined his career with a rather frivolous prosecution. He would have made a brilliant national politician, but he cut off his own legs.' A former staff investigator, Pershing Gervais, said: 'I cannot say anything but evil about him . . . He was a menace.'
Most of the US media seem to agree with that last assessment of Garrison. But, curiously, most of the media also maintain that the unofficial versions are the province of fringe nuts, even though more than 70 per cent of Americans have told pollsters for two decades that they believe Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy (right-wingers blame Castro), and the Congress concluded in 1979 that conspiracies were probably involved in the murders of both Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The media's determination seems to be to maintain that, even though Oswald-as-lone-nut is a hard one to swallow, no other theory has credibility. What is curious about this is that the media have been ineffective in urging the release of the massive trove of files on the assassination held by various government agencies. They have been far more vigorous in ridiculing those who reject the official story - especially Garrison and Stone.
In fact, it was only after the immense success of Oliver Stone's film, which is primarily about Garrison, that leading members of Congress began to demand that the files be made public before the year 2029 - which is when they are slated to be 'unsealed'.
If all those files were published tomorrow and they proved that Oswald was the solitary psychopath, Jim Garrison would want us to ask: 'Who says they released all the files - and what files were destroyed between 22 November 1963 and today?'
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