Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK dives into just one conspiracy surrounding President Kennedy’s assassination. How much of it is truth may always be up in the air, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do our best to shed light on the information we have.
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KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES
- JFK (1991) – IMDb
- JFK (1991) – Plot Summary – IMDb
- JFK (film) – Wikipedia
- JFK Assassination Records – 2018 Additional Documents Release | National Archives
- The Lie That Linked CIA to the Kennedy Assassination — Central Intelligence Agency
- JFK — The Assassination Movie
- How Accurate is Oliver Stone’s Film JFK? : 22 November 1963
- Is the movie JFK true? | The Movie Snobs
- The Truth Behind JFK’s Assassination
- JFK – Jonathan Vankin Online
- Oliver Stone Looks Back at ‘JFK’ – Rolling Stone
- Oliver Stone’s JFK: a basket case for conspiracy | Film | The Guardian
- Are There Factual Errors in Oliver Stone’s Movie JFK? : 22 November 1963
- JFK: The Book of the Film (Applause Screenplay) – Kindle edition by Oliver Stone, Zachary Sklar. Humor & Entertainment Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
- Hollywood & History: The Debate Over “JFK” | Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald? | FRONTLINE | PBS | Official Site
- New Orleans/Garrison JFK Assassination Investigation
- Jim Garrison, 70, Theorist on Kennedy Death, Dies – The New York Times
- Papers of Jim Garrison | National Archives
- Who Was Clay Shaw? Oliver Stone’s JFK: The JFK 100: JFK assassination investigation: Jim Garrison New Orleans investigation of the John F. Kennedy assassination
- Clay Shaw Unmasked: The Garrison Case Corroborated | JOAN MELLEN
- Supposedly Mysterious JFK Assassination-Related Death of Clay Shaw
- Trial of Clay Shaw – Wikipedia
- 2,800 JFK assassination files released – CBS News
- Eisenhower’s farewell address (audio transcript) – Wikisource, the free online library
- Commencement Address at American University, Washington, D.C., June 10, 1963 | JFK Library
- What Does the Zapruder Film Really Tell Us? | History | Smithsonian
- David Ferrie – Wikipedia
- Camp and Lafayette St – Google Maps
- Lee Oswald and 544 Camp Street
- JFK assassination conspiracy: Dean Andrews’ lies got Jim Garrison’s attention | NOLA.com
- Clay Shaw: The Only Man Ever Tried For JFK’s Assassination
- Jim Garrison, 70, Theorist on Kennedy Death, Dies – The New York Times
- L. Fletcher Prouty — All Purpose Kennedy Assassination Expert?
- Was Jim Garrison’s JFK Assassination Suspect Clay Shaw a CIA Operative?
- 498 Elm St – Google Maps
- Supposedly Mysterious JFK Assassination-Related Death of Clay Shaw
- Summary of Findings | National Archives
- JFK Assassination Records – 2018 Additional Documents Release | National Archives
- Trump delays release of some JFK assassination documents, bowing to national security concerns – The Washington Post
- What Are the Biggest Revelations in the Declassified JFK Assassination Files? – HISTORY
- On the Trail of the Assassins by Garrison, Jim Published by Warner Books 1st (first) Warner Books Printing edition (1991) Mass Market Paperback: AmazonSmile: Books
- Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy: Jim Marrs: 8601300280479: Amazon.com: Books
Learn the true story behind JFK
Okay, so I know I just said we were going to begin our dive into the true story…but, I also think this is worth saying up front: As I mentioned in the introduction, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has a ton of conspiracy theories circling around it. And while we’ll be looking at one of those threads in this episode, it’s also worth pointing out that…to be completely honest, there’s absolutely nothing I can say in this episode that’ll make everyone happy.
Every episode of this podcast covers a different topic. Each of those topics are things that people dedicate their entire lives to…whether it’s researching those topics, studying them, or even living through those true events in history. And perhaps that is never truer than the story today. Some people are convinced one version of the story is true while others are convinced a completely different version of the story is true.
And, for the most part, those different versions all have some really great points. But, the truth is that there are always going to be things we can’t say is 100% truth with absolute certainty that will get everyone to believe it.
People spend years and years on this subject, and I know I’ve said this before but I feel it bears repeating again: There’s no way I can get into the level of detail in a single podcast episode that’ll answer every single question surrounding the story of JFK’s death.
I just wanted to clarify that up front before I start getting emails about how I didn’t cover their favorite theory about JFK’s assassination.
Although, I would love to hear your favorite theories! So, please, send them on! I just hope you realize that our purpose here isn’t to cover topics that people have spent decades unraveling and piecing together in a single podcast episode. We’re here to compare the movie to history, and even then, there’s plenty in the theory laid forth by the film that could be an entire series of podcasts by itself.
Okay, with all of that said, our movie today begins by setting things up with a range of historical footage from figures like President Eisenhower, Senator John F. Kennedy just before his election, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to others like Fidel Castro.
Behind this footage, we hear an uncredited Martin Sheen as the narrator explains that the now-President Kennedy has inherited a secret war against Castro’s dictatorship in Cuba. That war is run by the CIA and Cuban exiles and culminates with the Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961 — which was a massive failure.
The narrator continues saying that after the failed operation, President Kennedy took public responsibility for it, but privately claimed the CIA lied to him about it. Then, to make matters worse, the voiceover explains the tension grew even higher when President Kennedy announced there were Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba — just 90 miles away from the United States.
For today’s movie, though, the narrator continues to explain there are more wars in Laos and Vietnam going on, too. Then, it cuts to historical footage of a speech that Kennedy gave where he’s talking about how we, as Americans, mustn’t enforce peace on the world through weapons of war…but rather that we must re-examine our own attitudes toward the Soviet Union with our most basic common link — we all inhabit this same planet.
All of that tension between the U.S. and Cuba really happened. I won’t really go into too much depth on that here, though, because we already covered that on episode 115 of Based on a True Story when we learned about the movie Che!
And it is true that Kennedy gave that speech the movie is referring to at American University in Washington, D.C. on June 10th, 1963.
The movie actually cuts together different parts of the speech to make it seem like he said things back-to-back, but even so, I think it does a decent job gathering the essence of the speech.
It’s too long to include here, but I’ll make sure to have a link to it in the show notes for this episode. Basically, President Kennedy’s speech eluded to the Second World War. He talked about how a new war wouldn’t be the same as World War II — it’d be a new kind of war. A kind of war filled with nuclear powers that would stretch to the corners of the globe. It’d be the kind of war that would be pointless as an attempt to bring about peace.
So, instead, his speech suggested re-evaluating the idea of peace. First, believe it is attainable. Second, believe that the path to peace doesn’t come through nuclear wars but through an understanding that we’re all just people inhabiting the same planet.
After this, back in the movie, the historical footage blends from the days leading up to and during Kennedy’s presidency to the day of the assassination. We see clips edited into a sequence that blends a mixture of real, historical footage, and fictional shots made for to look like they’re historical for the film.
As the music gets more intense, we can see one of the clips the sequence is cutting to is a clock. It’s 12:28. The President’s motorcade is driving down the road to crowds on both sides. 12:29. More shots of the motorcade. 12:30.
The motorcade continues, turning down a street. Just then, the screen goes black. We hear one shot. Then another, and another!
The movie is showing the correct timing here. It was on Friday, November 22nd, 1963, at 12:30 PM when three shots rang out over Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. Even though not all of the footage we see in the movie is historical, the footage we see of JFK getting shot is.
Not to get too far ahead of our story because the movie mentions it later, but some of that footage comes from the Zapruder film. That’s the name for footage that clothes manufacturer Abraham Zapruder was filming as President Kennedy drove by. He was just capturing the event of the President’s motorcade passing by for personal use. Little did he know the frames he’d capture would turn into one of the most famous pieces of footage in American history as they depict the gruesome assassination of JFK.
The movie doesn’t show it all, and for good reason. I’ve got a link to the footage over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com if you want to see the whole thing — but I will warn you, it’s tough to watch.
Going back to the movie’s timeline, after President Kennedy is shot, the story cuts to Jim Garrison. He’s played by Kevin Costner and is the District Attorney in New Orleans, Louisiana. That’s about 450 miles, or just over 700 kilometers, away from where President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas. Despite the distance, Jim Garrison stumbles upon a possible connection to the shooting in his hometown of New Orleans.
That connection is Joe Pesci’s character, David Ferrie. When Jim sits down to chat with David, it’s clear there’s something a bit off with his story. He’s changing details from what his colleagues apparently said, forgetting other details, and seems to be bit on edge as he’s chain smoking in Jim’s office.
Jim continues his investigation, but then something unexpected happens — Lee Harvey Oswald is murdered. The man who was in custody for the assassination of the President was shot and killed by a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby while being transported by the police.
Oswald is played by Gary Oldman in the film while Jack Ruby is played by Brian Doyle-Murray.
For the most part, that’s all true. By that, I mean, of course the specifics of scenes and conversations are dramatized but no one expects a movie to be 100% accurate. So, as much as you can expect a movie to be true, it is here.
Jim Garrison was really the District Attorney in New Orleans at the time. David Ferrie was a real person, too, and was someone that Jim Garrison started looking into soon after the JFK assassination. Probably the most inaccurate part of this whole scene with Jim Garrison talking to David Ferrie was how guilty the movie made him look from the onset through him fidgeting, telling lies and the nervous chain smoking.
In truth, when David found out that Jim was looking for him, he voluntarily came into Jim Garrison’s office with his attorney. Although, on the other side of that, if you recall in the movie one of the most suspicious pieces to David Ferrie’s story is his claim that he drove from New Orleans to Houston just to go ice skating with some friends.
And that bit is true. According to the Warren Commission report — that’s the official report from the U.S. government on the assassination of President Kennedy — David Ferrie told the FBI that he and two of his friends drove the 350 miles or some 560 kilometers to Winterland Skating Rink in Houston, Texas on the night of the assassination. His reason for the trip was that he was thinking about opening a skating rink of his own in New Orleans and he wanted to see how they were run.
I’m not sure why he felt the need to drive all the way to Houston to do that, but that was his story, so you can see why it’d seem a bit odd.
As for the movie’s mention of Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby killing Lee Harvey Oswald while he was in police custody, I’m sure you already know that’s true. In fact, if you’re familiar with the JFK assassination at all, you’ve probably already seen the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Bob Jackson who happened to snap a photo at the exact moment Jack Ruby pulled the trigger, killing Oswald.
That happened on November 24th, 1963, just two days after Kennedy was assassinated. And it’s also worth pointing out the movie is correct in showing that at the time, Oswald wasn’t officially charged with JFK’s death — he was in custody for the murder of a police officer while he was trying to evade capture after JFK’s assassination. But that doesn’t mean people didn’t already suspect it was him.
In fact, there’s some reports that the reason why Jack Ruby killed Oswald was not only in retaliation of JFK’s death but also to save Jackie Kennedy from having to return to Dallas to go through the inevitable trial. Of course, as the movie implies, there are others who believe Jack was involved in the overall conspiracy and killing Oswald was one way of typing up a loose end.
Back in the movie, we see some text on screen to let us know that three years have passed. With Oswald’s death, everyone presumes the assassination is, well, solved.
But then, there’s a scene where we see Kevin Costner’s version of Jim Garrison up until the wee hours of the morning pouring over the Warren Commission report. As he does, he starts to disbelieve what he’s reading — there’s no way this could be true!
In the next scene, Jim and the two guys working with him, Lou Ivon and Bill Broussard, together, head to a building at 531 Lafayette Street in New Orleans where, in 1963, an ex-FBI agent by the name of Guy Banister had his office. He had since retired, but worked during his retirement as a private investigator out of the building.
Then, heading around the corner of the building to the other side of it, Jim points out that this same building on the other side has a different street address. This side is 544 Camp Street. Jim continues to explain to the two other men that 544 Camp Street is the address Lee Harvey Oswald had stamped on pro-Castro leaflets he handed out three years before JFK’s assassination.
That’s…well, I can’t really say that it’s true or untrue. The reason for that is because this is a great example of some conflicting stories. What you believe to be the truth really depends on what version of the story you believe. So, let’s just focus on the facts we do know.
It is true that Jim Garrison pushed this theory of Banister being connected through the Camp Street and Lafayette Street addresses. He wrote about it in his book that the movie is partially based on.
And it is true those two streets connect with a building on the corner — you can look it up on Google maps.
When they were investigating into Oswald’s background, the FBI found out that he might have rented an office on Camp Street. They got this because, just like the movie shows, Oswald stamped his leaflets with the address of 544 Camp Street.
But — that’s not the only address he used. He also stamped some with his home address or a post office box. So, the FBI thought perhaps he had rented an office. That was supported by a letter they had of Oswald’s where he wrote to the head of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee that while he was trying to start a Cuba Committee in New Orleans, he’d rented an office, “as planned.”
But then the letter went on to say the office was closed three days later.
It’s also worth pointing out that even though Jim Garrison was correct in pointing out that 531 Layafette and 544 Camp Street lead to the same building — he was incorrect on one assessment: That they go to the same office inside the building.
According to a statement given by Sam Newman, the guy who owned that building, the 544 Camp Street entrance stamped on Oswald’s leaflets opened to a stairway that led up to the second floor. On the other hand, Banister’s office at 531 Layafette was ground-level. There was no way to get from one to the other without going on the street and around the corner.
Which, sure, you could do, but that’s not the narrative either the movie or Jim Garrison was trying to tell.
It’s probably also worth pointing out that Guy Banister was anti-Communist and was pretty far right-wing, politically. Not really the kind of person you’d expect Oswald and his pro-Castro views to hang out with. If you recall, Fidel Castro’s revolution was all about bringing Communism to Cuba — at least that’s how he publicly positioned it in the beginning. Again, we cover that more in the Che! episode.
On top of all of that, there’s another odd thing to consider before deciding which version of the story you believe. You see, another man who used to have an office at 544 Camp Street was someone the movie never mentions: Carlos Bringuier. Carlos headed up the Cuban Revolutionary Council out of that address for a few years before Oswald handed out the leaflets with that address on them.
While Oswald was pro-Castro, the Cuban Revolutionary Council was vehemently anti-Castro. So, some people think perhaps Oswald put that address on his leaflets as a bit of a jab at the anti-Castro committee who used to be at 544 Camp Street. I say “used to be”, because they didn’t have an office there by the time Oswald was handing out his leaflets.
Oh, and when he was deposed for the Warren Commission, Carlos Bringuier mentioned something very interesting about the leaflets. In the movie, we can clearly see Oswald’s name alongside the address of 544 Camp Street. But according to Carlos’s testimony, he said none of the leaflets he saw that Oswald handed out had Oswald’s name on them. They had the 544 Camp Street address, but instead had a completely different name on them: A. J. Hidell.
A few days later, Oswald was handing out more pamphlets in the street, and this time they had his own name on them…but they had an address of 4907 Magazine Street instead.
So, in the end, the FBI determined that even though Oswald might’ve had an office on Camp Street, he probably didn’t have it for very long — and so, it was rather unimportant if he did.
Let’s head back into the movie’s timeline now because the next major plot point happens when Jim Garrison has a chat with a lawyer named Dean Andrews, Jr. In the movie, Dean has a rather eccentric look as he’s portrayed by John Candy.
According to the film, Dean says he got a phone call from a man named Clay Bertrand. Clay asked Dean to be the legal representation for Lee Harvey Oswald in the assassination of the president.
And that’s true.
Well, at least it’s true that the real Dean Andrews told both the FBI and the Warren Commission that’s what happened. According to Dean, the same day that President Kennedy was assassinated, on November 22nd, 1963, he got a phone call from someone named Clay Bertrand. And just like the movie shows, Clay requested that Dean represent who was then the suspected gunman in the Kennedy shooting, Lee Harvey Oswald.
However, what the movie doesn’t show is that there’s a very good possibility Dean Andrews made all of that up. People around Dean described him as someone that was known to stretch the truth at times if he thought it was amusing to do so.
And because of this revelation of the mysterious phone call from a Clay Bertrand, Dean was investigated by many different people. That included Jim Garrison, but as I mentioned just a moment ago, it also included the FBI and the Warren Commission. It soon became apparent that Dean’s testimonies to different people weren’t quite the same. Things just didn’t line up.
In 1967, because of these conflicting statements, some of them made before the Orleans Parish grand jury, Dean was convicted of perjury. He appealed the sentence of 18 months in prison, and before long the case was dropped.
But, of course, you don’t see any of that in the movie.
Speaking of which, going back to the film, after finding out that someone was wanting to hire a lawyer for Oswald, Kevin Costner’s version of Jim Garrison decides to dig deeper. Things spiral even further as he finds out that Clay Bertrand is a name used by a man named Clay Shaw. He’s played by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie.
Clay Shaw is a well-off businessman in New Orleans, so his was a name Jim Garrison knew. Through another thread, Jim finds out about a relationship between Clay Shaw and Kevin Bacon’s version of Willie O’Keefe. According to Willie, who is in prison for prostitution when Jim goes to talk, he was hired by Clay for his professional services.
While he was hanging around, Clay, though Willie mentions to Jim that he saw Lee Harvey Oswald there, too. From here, Jim’s investigation turns toward finding out what Clay Shaw is up to.
Clay Shaw was a real person. And it is true that Jim Garrison made the leap from Clay Bertrand to Clay Shaw. Willie O’Keefe, on the other hand, is a fictional character, and the way the movie shows Jim Garrison finding out about Clay Bertrand is incorrect.
The truth is much more simple, actually. And that is Jim Garrison found out about Clay Bertrand from the Warren Commission — and he knew about the popular businessman Clay Shaw, so before long a hunch turned into a belief that the two were one and the same man.
I’ve mentioned the Warren Commission briefly throughout this episode, but soon after President Kennedy was assassinated, obviously the government launched an investigation into it. Officially it was launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson and it was named The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy. Unofficially, it was called the Warren Commission because the man leading the investigation was Chief Justice Earl Warren.
He wasn’t the only one involved, of course. There were 34 officially-listed staff members, legal counsels and assistants assigned to the project, and who knows how many unlisted FBI agents, police officers, and other law enforcement.
During the investigation for the Warren Commission, it was those investigators who found out about the call from a man claiming to be Clay Bertrand to the lawyer Dean Andrews, Jr. He did, like the movie shows, ask Dean to be the lawyer for Oswald. At least, that’s according to what Dean told the investigators — and we’ve already talked about how accurate those statements probably were.
So, the Warren Commission report is where you’d turn to find the official story behind the assassination of JFK. Of course, we all know the official story told by the U.S. government isn’t always the true story.
But, I’ll leave it up to you to decide what to believe is the truth.
Back in the movie, the next major plot point only adds fuel to the conspiracy. Ellen McElduff’s character, a woman named Jean Hill, tells the investigators that there were shots that came from a grassy knoll across the way from where Oswald was located. She claims she heard between four to six shots, but that Secret Service agents threatened her into saying she only heard three shots and they all came from the book depository.
Well, that’s certainly odd. Why would they do that so soon after the assassination?
We also see some other footage — footage the movie makes look like real, historical footage, except we know it’s not because, well, for one there’s a very young Vincent D’Onofrio in it. Haha! But, the point of this footage in the film is to give more witness testimony. They swear they heard shots coming from the grassy knoll, and while everyone else was still trying to figure out what they had just witnessed happen right in front of them, there was a man running by the knoll.
As is the case for most of these plot points, there’s the official line and then some of the theories posed by others who have investigated the case in a more unofficial manner.
Regardless of what you believe, both officially and unofficially, the movie is correct in showing that there were people who claimed to have heard shots from the grassy knoll. They also claimed to have seen a man running. Some even got as detailed as saying the man who was running was a policeman — and he was running away from the President’s motorcade. There’s even a photo someone snapped of the policeman running some 30 seconds or so after Kennedy was shot.
So, that must mean he was chasing a gunman by the knoll, right? Or maybe, as others have theorized, perhaps the policeman was the man people saw running. Another version of the story suggests that the policeman was running toward a fellow officer in more of a, “What the … just happened!?”
Officially, though, even though there were reports of shots coming from the grassy knoll, the explanation was simply that people heard shots and didn’t identify where they were coming from correctly. To understand that, you’ll have to understand how the buildings are laid out in Dealey Plaza where President Kennedy was shot.
Elm Street is the name of the road where Kennedy was shot. As you go down Elm Street, you’ll find tall buildings — roughly six or seven stories each — on either side of the road. Then, it opens up to the small little city park named Dealey Plaza. On one end of the park there’s the grassy knoll — which is just a grassy patch of land. If you’ve ever visited it, you’ll know it’s really not very big.
And if you visit the area today, you’ll also see a white X on Elm Street. That’s where it happened.
The official story goes that when Oswald pulled the trigger he was shooting out a sixth floor window. That sound bounced around the other buildings and echoed over the open area by the little city park, making it sound like there were more than the three shots fired.
So, yes, it is true that people claimed to have heard more than three shots. And yes, it is true that some people thought the sounds came from the area of the grassy knoll. But, they were most likely hearing the echoing sound of gunshots in a busy city street and had a hard time identifying exactly where it came from.
At least, that’s the official story.
Going back to the movie, things take a dive into the conspiracy world when Kevin Costner’s version of Jim Garrison is contacted by a secret government agent. He identifies himself only as “X” and is portrayed in the film by Donald Sutherland.
According to X, Jim Garrison is on the right path. He explains that President Kennedy is hated by the CIA, the FBI and even the Mob. And by Jim being on the right path, he’s saying that the assassination was orchestrated by members in those government agencies and Oswald was just a patsy.
Oh, and it is true that Oswald said he was, “just a patsy.” He refused to confess and instead claimed he was just a patsy mere hours before he was killed by Jack Ruby. The movie makes sure to show that…and that is something a lot of people refer to to suggest he was the fall guy for a much larger conspiracy.
As X explains, the reason for the U.S. government wanting to take out their own president is because they were furious about the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. They also didn’t like how he was weakening, to borrow from what we heard President Eisenhower say in the beginning of the movie, “the military industrial complex.”
Perhaps most importantly to this is an idea X explains that President Kennedy was planning on withdrawing from Vietnam during his second term — something these secret government agents didn’t agree with. So, they did something about it.
Yet again, this is a story that the movie tells somewhat accurately to the conspiracy theorist’s version, but a much bigger question is whether that version story itself is true or not.
Let’s start with the character of X. He is fictional. Director Oliver Stone admitted this, but was quick to add that he based X on Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty.
What’s interesting about this is that the movie is correct in showing that Prouty believed there was a bigger conspiracy at play. He believed not only the CIA was behind it, for mostly the reasons we just talked about, but that even the Federal Reserve was involved, too.
Prouty also was pretty outspoken about his beliefs, so you can find quite a bit by doing a search for him. A brief overview, though, not only has him connecting JFK to the CIA, but also that the U.S. Air Force had custody of two extraterrestrial bodies and, of course, that flying saucers were, in fact, real. He also believed that the Jonestown mass suicide wasn’t a mass suicide at all but a mass murder by U.S. intelligence agencies, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was poisoned by Winston Churchill, and while this wasn’t until decades later, that the same secretive government team that took out JFK also took out both Princess Grace of Monaco and Princess Diana.
In the movie, all this ties together for Jim Garrison as X explains the conspiracy and we’re lead to believe Clay Shaw was the mastermind behind the assassination on behalf of the CIA.
There’s one catch to that, though. Jim Garrison never met Colonel Prouty until many years after Clay Shaw was put on trial. The truth is that Jim Garrison never had a secret informant — that was all added for the movie.
The true story behind why Jim Garrison was led to believe Clay Shaw was the mastermind for the CIA in the plot to assassinate JFK is very complex — which could be why the movie tries to simplify things a bit — but I’ll try to recap the highlights here.
It starts during World War II, when Clay Shaw served in the US Army Medical Corps. After the war, Clay became a successful businessman — but he still maintained connections in the government. In 1947, the CIA was formed with the intention of gathering information on other countries.
Clay traveled to many countries for his business, but one of particular interest was Czechoslovakia. That country was of interest to the U.S. because, within the span of one week in February of 1948, its government changed from a democratic state to a Communist dictatorship.
In 1948, he volunteered some information he’d gathered while traveling abroad to the CIA. On its surface, that adds a connection between Clay Shaw and the CIA. That connection seems a little less important when we back up and realize that the CIA had hundreds of thousands of civilians doing that exact same thing Clay Shaw did.
It was done through a department called the Domestic Contact Service, or DCS. Between 1948 and 1956, Clay delivered a total of 33 separate reports through DCS. There is no official reason for why he stopped in 1956. Well, that’s not entirely true. There was one, it’s just not very helpful:
Why the relationship ended after 1956 is not revealed in any of the recently declassified CIA files or Shaw’s own papers. Whatever the reason, the documentary record is clear: Shaw was not handed off by the DCS and developed as a covert operative by the CIA’s Plans (now Operations) Directorate. The relationship just lapsed.
That is a quote from the official government report on Clay Shaw’s reason for stopping his service to the DCS. Interestingly, though, when Jim Garrison arrested Clay Shaw on March 1st, 1967, he didn’t have any knowledge of a link to the CIA. He just thought Clay was involved in the assassination plot. As soon as Jim arrested Clay, the CIA started looking into Clay Shaw to see if Jim Garrison was onto something. That’s when they discovered Clay had submitted information to DCS.
As it happened, a guy who was in the New Orleans DCS office named Lloyd Ray was looking into Clay. He knew Clay personally from when Clay had been volunteering information to DCS. Just to play it safe and make sure everyone knew about his personal relationship to the businessman now under investigation for allegedly assassinating the president, he sent a message to the CIA’s general counsel explaining it.
That’s what caused things to blow up.
Somehow, a newspaper in Rome caught wind of Lloyd’s cable. That paper, called Paese Sera published a connection between the New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw and the CIA. This same paper had previously printed an article in 1961 — two years before Kennedy’s assassination — claiming that the CIA was in league with a military coup in Algeria. That was the first connection Jim Garrison had to the conspiracy, and six years later it resurfaced with this new article.
They spread a story about a group in Rome called CMC who they believed to be a sub-organization of the CIA — an organization that had ties to Clay Shaw.
From there, it didn’t take long for the stories to spread like wildfire in the media. On April 25th, 1967, the New Orleans States-Item newspaper published a front-page story stating that the CIA was linked by evidence uncovered, “by an influential Italian newspaper.” Before long, Clay Shaw was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy on orders from the CIA.
At least, that was the story that spread.
Just a moment ago, I mentioned that Jim Garrison didn’t know about Clay’s connection to the CIA. The reason for that was because, at the time, DCS was a top-secret program — so Jim Garrison didn’t know anything about that when he was investigating Clay Shaw. He just knew about some threads that connected Clay to the CIA. What he didn’t know was that those threads were through the DCS program and were also threads that, by the 1970s, also included hundreds of thousands of other business men and women like Clay Shaw who voluntarily passed on information to DCS.
Whew! I told you it was complex. And even though we had to skip a bit ahead in the historical timeline some to get an overview, we didn’t even begin to scratch the surface. You can read a much more detailed history of that over on the CIA’s website. I’ll include a link to it in the show notes for this episode at basedonatruestorypodcast.com.
Of course, there’s always the idea that, if indeed the CIA were involved, then of course they’d have something explaining away their involvement — that’s how cover-ups work, after all! So, I’ll leave that up to you to on how much you believe is truth.
Back in the movie, the climactic ending takes place during the trial of Clay Shaw. Jim Garrison lays out the evidence for the jury and makes his case.
As a little side note, the trial was also where the public became aware of the Zapruder film for the first time. We’ve already talked about most of that evidence, including the now-famous Zapruder film.
However, this trial did happen. To date, Clay Shaw is the only person to ever be put on trial for the assassination of President Kennedy. Even though he was the only person put on trial, it’s not like they thought he acted alone. Of course, Lee Harvey Oswald was named, along with David Ferrie and some others.
We haven’t really talked much more about David Ferrie — he’s the character played by Joe Pesci — but as a quick side note, the movie was correct in showing that he died during the timeline of the investigation. That happened on February 22nd, 1967, which was less than a week after the media broke the news that Jim Garrison was investigating the assassination.
There was some suspicion around his death, because the autopsy determined he died of natural causes…but they also found two suicide notes written when he was found dead. So, which was it? Suicide or natural causes? Or was it that he planned on committing suicide and died of natural causes before he could? We don’t know; nothing could be proven either way.
So, by the time Clay Shaw was arrested and charged with conspiring to assassinate the President on March 1st, 1967, the two main co-conspirators named, Lee Harvey Oswald, and David Ferrie, were already dead.
Almost two years after being arrested, on January 29th, 1969, the trial began. It lasted the entire month of February and, just like the movie shows, when the jury deliberated on March 1st, 1969 — they came out only one hour later and acquitted Clay Shaw of the charges.
Back in the movie, we see Kevin Costner’s version of Jim Garrison get swarmed by reporters as he’s leaving the courtroom. Answering questions about if he’s going to resign or not, Jim says he’s not going to resign. He’ll run for the District Attorney again, and he’ll win again. And he’ll continue the investigation for another 30 years because that’s what he owes to Jack Kennedy and the country.
He did not continue the investigation that long.
Jim Garrison was the District Attorney in New Orleans until 1973, when he was tried for accepting bribes in an illegal pinball machine scandal. He was found not guilty, but that certainly hurt his public image and he was defeated in a re-election campaign.
As a fun little fact, the man who defeated him and became the new District Attorney in New Orleans was Harry Connick, Sr. Yes, that’s the father of the singer.
Back in the movie, after Jim is hounded by the media, their attention is drawn away as Clay Shaw leaves the courtroom. The horde of reporters migrate over to him, leaving Jim to walk down the hallway alone with his wife and son.
Finally, some text scrolls up giving us details about what happened after the investigation.
First, it says that in 1979, a man named Richard Helms, who was the Director of Covert Operations in 1963, admitted under oath that Clay Shaw had worked for the CIA.
That’s not really true. Some of it is, though. Richard Helms was indeed a deputy director for the CIA at the time. And he was deposed for a libel case related to a book called Coup d’état in America. The part that’s not true is about how he admitted that Clay Shaw worked for the CIA. What Richard really said was, “one time, as a businessman, [Clay Shaw] was one of the part-time contacts of the Domestic Contacts Division.”
We already learned about the DCS — Domestic Contacts Service, or Division as Richard called it. We also learned that even though DCS was under the CIA, Clay Shaw was just one of thousands and thousands of American citizens who gave information to the DCS over the years.
The next bit of text says that Clay Shaw died in 1974 of lung cancer and that no autopsy was allowed.
That’s true. Well, maybe.
Clay Shaw did die in 1974. And it is true that Clay Shaw was buried before an autopsy could be performed. Some people have suggested perhaps this was on purpose — to cover a more mysterious cause of death.
But, as far as I can tell in my research there’s never been any proof of that. Here’s a brief excerpt from the police report from the officers who arrived on scene after Clay’s death:
Although the exact cause of Mr. Shaw’s death could never be determined without the results of an autopsy, it is clearly evident that Mr. Shaw’s condition was terminal. During the week prior to his death, he was seen by his attending physician and was being made as comfortable as possible. As of the completion of this report, no evidence has been found to indicate that Mr. Shaw’s death was anything but natural. Final classification to be made by the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office.
His official cause of death was lung cancer, something attributed to his being a chain-smoker. If you recall, Tommy Lee Jones’s version of Clay is almost always smoking a cigarette when we see him.
Another bit of text in the movie says that between the years 1976 and 1979, a Congressional Investigation found a, “probable conspiracy” in the assassination of President Kennedy. But then it says that, as of 1991 when the movie was released, nothing has been done about it.
As is the case for most of the facts throughout the movie, we’re split with some truth and some, well, some stretching of that truth. With that said, though, the statement in the movie is closer to straight truth.
There was a committee who looked into the assassination. Their final report was released in 1979. It’s way too long to include here — for example, just their summary of findings is four pages long!
But, here’s a couple of their findings that I think are relevant:
- The Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to investigate adequately the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President.
- The Warren Commission failed to investigate adequately the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President.
- Scientific acoustical evidence establishes a high probability that two gunmen fired at President John F. Kennedy. Other scientific evidence does not preclude the possibility of two gunmen firing at the President. Scientific evidence negates some specific conspiracy allegations.
- The committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. The committee is unable to identify the other gunman or the extent of the conspiracy.
Wow! I mean, that’s pretty crazy, right?
The findings go on to say that based on evidence they don’t believe the Soviet or Cuban government were involved. It also didn’t believe anti-Castro groups were involved or a national syndicate of organized crime was involved.
And last, but certainly not least, the movie gets its bubble burst when the report mentioned that it also didn’t believe the CIA was involved in the assassination at all.
I’ll include a link to their official report in the show notes so you can check it out yourself.
Even though the movie says nothing was done since the movie’s release in 1991, there was a scientific study on the audio ballistics done in 1982.
We didn’t talk at all about this because the movie doesn’t show it, but there was a police motorcycle that happened to have its microphone open at the time. So, they studied that audio with the idea that if there were gunshots it should be heard on the audio.
Basically, that report indicated there wasn’t anything that would support the conclusion of a second shooter.
The final bit of text on screen in the movie says that the files of the House Select Committee on Assassinations are locked away until the year 2029.
That’s not true, but of course there’s no way the movie could know this. Those files were supposed to be released in 2029. But, after the movie was released, that changed.
The movie spawned such a resurgence into the assassination of JFK that there was new pressure to release previously top-secret documents.
Then, on October 26th, 1992, Congress passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.
As part of the Act, a board was set up to determine what they should do with the documents. For four years, between 1994 and 1998, the board met and tried to figure out what they should do.
Finally, they determined that documents should be released by October of 2017. If you recall from a couple years ago when there was a massive dump of new JFK files released — that was a direct result of the board’s decision.
What you may not know, though, is that board itself was a direct result of the 1991 movie JFK. Here’s a section from their final report:
The suspicions created by government secrecy eroded confidence in the truthfulness of federal agencies in general and damaged their credibility. Finally, frustrated by the lack of access and disturbed by the conclusions of Oliver Stone’s JFK, Congress passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 (JFK Act), mandating the gathering and opening of all records concerned with the death of the President.