Oliver Stone Talks About JFK’s Killing

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Author: Ed Rampell interviews Oliver Stone
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To mark the fifty-eighth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as well as the thirtieth anniversary of his landmark film JFK, three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone returns to the scene of the crime in his new documentary JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass.

After scoring an Oscar for writing 1978’s Midnight Express, 1991’s JFK capped what is arguably the most meteoric rise of a filmmaker with a radical sensibility in Hollywood history. Stone’s 1986 classic grunt’s eye view of combat, Platoon, earned four Academy Award nominations and won four more, including Best Picture and Best Director. He was also nominated that year for Best Writing of both Platoon and Salvador, which explicitly opposed President Ronald Reagan’s Central America policy. The Vietnam War veteran won his second Best Director Oscar for 1989’s antiwar Born on the Fourth of July, which was also nominated in the Best Picture and Best Writing categories. Two years later, Stone’s enormously controversial but influential JFK received six nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing, and won in the editing and cinematography categories.

Less well-known, however, are Stone’s more recent documentaries about Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, Hugo Chavez, and 2012’s nonfiction miniseries for Showtime, The Untold History of the United States. Now, that cinematic scourge of the status quo is back with the nearly two-hour documentary JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass. In it, Stone goes further than he did in 1991 in trying to crack the case and reveal who the great helmsmen of Kennedy’s assassination were. The seventy-five-year-old auteur spoke with Jacobin via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles and proved, as the Russian revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky put it, there’s no gray hair in his soul.

Ed Rampell: There is an age-old debate as to whether or not art can change the world. But your movie JFK seems to have settled that question because after it was released in 1991, the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act (ARCA) was passed by the US Congress in 1992. What was that law, and what did it do?

Oliver Stone: The law mandated that a panel of citizens would examine the records — not all of them, but a good portion of them — then they would have access to them, and they could declassify them. I don’t know what the exceptions were. The Assassination Records Review Board lasted until 1998, it worked for four years, then they ran out of money. As US district court judge and chairman of the Assassination Records Review Board John R. Tunheim says in the film, it could have gone on for a long time, because there was a lot of information. But they did what they could, and they actually did some very good work. And that’s why we wanted to bring attention to it in the film. It’s a rare occurrence when a film can cause any kind of honesty on behalf of the government.

Let’s not kid ourselves on the government, the representatives — among them, Joe Biden — who voted for it and who recently classified the files again for another few years. They were giving in to public pressure — a lot of people wrote letters and were upset. One of the reasons they were upset was the House Select Committee on Assassinations’ (HSCA) files, as we said in the crawl at the end of the film, were closed until 2039, I believe. But they haven’t opened them. The House Select Committee has not given those files.

Nor have we seen files from the CIA, which are very important. And I’m talking about the agents around the case, around the Cuban community. People like George Joannides and David Atlee Phillips. E. Howard Hunt — who confessed on his death bed to a lot of stuff that was going on — as well as William Harvey, who was a very important agent with the Cuban station in Miami, who was around the edges of this assassination and a real Kennedy hater. These people were important. But also, more important, were Allen Dulles and Richard Helms. These were the guys who were the bigger fish.

ER: What is some of the new and most important information you discovered because of ARCA and other sources since you made JFK in 1991?

OS: You’re asking me a huge question. First of all, they declassified a lot of files; among them we find clear evidence that Kennedy wanted to withdraw from Vietnam, from the Pacific SecDef meetings in early May, ’63.

We find out that Lee Harvey Oswald has the fingerprints of intelligence all over him for years. They’ve been reading his mother’s mail for three, four years. He’s an agent — or he’s some kind of contact with the CIA. And he’s protected. Because he comes back from Russia, nobody talks to him, nobody debriefs him. But he’s sent on various assignments, in New Orleans, Fort Worth, and Dallas, until he can be used.

You have all the autopsy evidence, which we knew about back then, but now it’s more confirmed than ever. That there was a big hole, an avulsion wound in the back of Kennedy’s skull on the right side, which indicates clearly a shot from the front. [The Texas School Book Depository building, where Oswald purportedly fired from, was behind the president.]

It puts to shame the Warren Commission — we go into details of the fact that it was really a “Dulles Commission,” more than a Chief Justice Earl Warren Commission. Dulles controlled a lot of the proceedings and made sure the CIA did not reveal any information. They did not even know there were Cuban assassination plots. They did not know about the history of assassinations by the CIA. They were kept in the dark.

The nurses, all the people at Parkland Hospital [where Kennedy died], they were talked to. We talked to the FBI agents James Sibert and Francis O’Neill, for example, who were at the Bethesda autopsy [of Kennedy], and with their own eyes, testified to the hole, to the wound, in the back of Kennedy’s skull. And when the official photographer John Stringer was asked again if these were his photos of the autopsy, he said, “Clearly, no. This is not my film.”

Also, in the shot, in the open car, his skull was seen flying off. Pieces — the Harper fragment was found in the street the next day [by William Harper at Dealey Plaza] and wasn’t admitted to testimony. [Conspiracy theorists consider the Harper fragment to be evidence that JFK was shot from the front, from the storied grassy knoll.]

The testimony of the three women in [the Texas School Book Depository building], the three secretaries — secretaries are very important, because they pay attention to details — the moments the shots are fired, they’re on the fourth floor, two of them run downstairs, within a minute — they never see Oswald in the staircase. Then Dorothy Garner, their supervisor, an older woman, who’s also very bright, she goes to the edge of the stairs and doesn’t see Oswald when she’s looking down. So, how does Oswald get the hell from the sixth floor down to the first floor in one minute, even less? You can’t stash the rifle, do all the things he’s supposed to have done on the sixth floor. Which leads me to believe he was not even on the sixth floor. A lot of people have said that already, and I believe it, but definitely, the way the bullets were laid out, the way the rifle was left, no fingerprints on the rifle — nothing could have held up in court. No fingerprints on the rifle at all—it’s not the same rifle! It’s not the same bullets. We go into all that. All of the original evidence from day one was corrupted.

ER: A lot of this is in JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass.

OS: We also have a lot of other details, like the movements of Oswald, the protection for Oswald, the “flash warning” that’s removed on him so that he’s not picked up before the Dallas visit. There’s a flash warning given by the FBI — that pulls off any Secret Service from picking up Oswald, which he would have been picked up on.

ER: The single detail that is most chilling to me regarding the assassination is “the two Oswalds.” Can you tell us about that theory, and do you believe that’s true?

OS: We went into that in the 1991 movie. In this version, we simply show the two other assassination attempts on Kennedy, in Tampa, Florida, and Chicago. In both cases we have an Oswald figure; he wouldn’t have been called “Oswald” necessarily. We have two men who are exactly the same profile as Oswald — marines, went to Russia, came back, and seemed to have agency [CIA] connections.

There was a tall building in both cases, which the motorcade was supposed to go by, the tall building was perfect to slow down the vehicle, like it was in Dallas, and the assassination would have occurred. The one in Chicago did not go forward because the Secret Service was warned and Kennedy canceled the trip. In Tampa, it did go forward, and nothing happened. But there was a lot of talk. In other words, they were look-alike assassination sites, exactly the same, with the same kind of profile. And also, both of these other men had also joined the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and were involved in pro-Castro activities. So, whoever was going to take the fall for the assassination had to have Castro links. Which indicates that they were trying to blame Cuba and the USSR for the assassination.

ER: What has still not been declassified and released through ARCA and other sources?

OS: House Select files, which have not been declassified. Those are the ones that originally — remember, they came to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy. That was classified right away. So, we don’t know exactly how they came to that conclusion. That’s a big deal.

In addition to that, of course, the CIA files. The Secret Service destroyed their files in 1995 because the investigators were barking around and asking questions about these two Kennedy trips to Chicago and Tampa. And of course, we know the story of Abraham Bolden — that’s an important story, the black Secret Service agent who Kennedy, it was one of his ideas to hire a black agent. He wanted to integrate the Secret Service.

We want to know more about these people, I mentioned some of them before to you, and that would be valuable — but we don’t know, because they’ve stonewalled from the beginning. For example, George Joannides, the guy who ran the Miami CIA station, very crucial in the Cuban community, was reappointed to work with the House Select Committee in 1975, ’76. But it was never revealed to HSCA Chief Counsel Robert Blakey that Joannides had worked with the Cuban community in 1963, ’64. That’s an outrageous thing. Blakey was shocked. He said, “I’ll never believe the CIA again. They told me he hadn’t been involved in the case. I wanted an objective, outside observer.” But Blakey was fooled by the CIA.

ER: What do you suspect is the role of former CIA director Allen Dulles in the Kennedy liquidation and the cover-up?

OS: Plays a huge role that we can never — we’ll never find a smoking gun that links him. But he was all over the case. After he got fired by Kennedy in ’61 he was bitter, he said so later to writer Willie Morris about his feelings about Kennedy, who he said “thought himself a god.” He was fired with two of his people. But Kennedy never cleaned house, which was huge. He should have gotten rid of everyone.

Because Helms basically took over the agency — he was the assistant to John McCone. McCone was an outsider — Helms ran the place, and Helms knows a lot. So, we should have the files on Helms, as much as possible. He was working with William Harvey — he brought Harvey back to work with the Cuban community.

And we know also know now from the film that Lyndon Johnson was against the withdrawal plan from Vietnam, you see. We have a phone conversation with him and Robert McNamara, and he says to McNamara, “You know, I was against you and the president.” He was very cocky at this point — but when he was vice president, he would shut up. So, you know that Lyndon Johnson totally opposed withdrawal from Vietnam, which Kennedy definitely wanted. McNamara made it very clear in his book that Kennedy was going to withdraw from Vietnam, win or lose. The same thing was said by McGeorge Bundy.

Now, you can argue that we don’t know what would have happened, but the man, Kennedy, we try to establish, was an anti-colonialist. He’d been involved in Algeria, he’d been involved in Vietnam as early as 1954. And he said repeatedly these Third World countries needed their independence, and he was against the concept of a Cold War, against communism being used as an excuse to suppress independence — in the Congo, in Vietnam, in Laos, in Algeria, all over the world. And in Latin America, especially, he was very strong with his Alliance for Progress.

All of that was scrapped when he was killed, by Johnson. All of that was scrapped. The whole era of hopefully progressive policies on the part of the American administration was changed. We went back to the old hardcore Dwight Eisenhower–Allen Dulles way of dealing with foreign countries.

ER: So, what was Oswald’s actual involvement, and what role did he play?

OS: Speculation, but I definitely don’t believe he was on the sixth floor. I believe he was working with contacts in the agency [CIA]. He had contacts — he was an informant for the FBI, too. He knew Jack Ruby, who killed him.

Lee Harvey Oswald after arrest by the Dallas Police. (Rob Wilson / Ixtlan Archive)

He knew he had been set up. I think that he knew he was in trouble. When you see the man in the corridor, you see a completely cool operator who knows how to behave in these situations. He wasn’t the so-called crazed, lone-nut assassin who screams, “I got him! I got him! I did it for my country!” All that shit — no. He was saying, “I need a lawyer.” He wanted a lawyer, which is one thing, and he said, “I don’t know anything about this.” Which is true — he didn’t know anything about the actual killing.

He really was a man, I think, who was cool under pressure. He talked with the authorities at the police station after several hours over Friday, Saturday, before he was moved on Sunday. But no records were kept of what he said.

ER: Isn’t that strange?

OS: Well, everything is very disturbing.

ER: What would you say to somebody who dismisses the Kennedy assassination as just “ancient history”?

OS: Oh, bullshit!

ER: What is its relevance to today? Why is finding out the truth about who shot JFK so important in 2021 and beyond?


Because in 1963, our so-called democracy went down the drain. After Kennedy was killed, there’s been no American president — none! — who has been able to challenge the authority of intelligence agencies or the military. Their budgets keep growing, and they have carte blanche. In other words, no one can change what they’re doing, and they’re on a course to protect our national security — which, of course, they define in the most unrealistic terms. So, under that aegis, you can do pretty much whatever you want. You cannot touch national security as president — it’s a third rail in politics.

I think the media has no desire to bring this back as a subject. It’s a memory hole. But it’s very important because you have to behold American foreign policy, what we’ve been doing. We’ve been in forever wars — we never stop. That’s what Kennedy was fighting about — he was a warrior for peace, for peace. And he saw the problem of Pax Americana — his speech at American University, his desire for détente with the Soviet Union, and Cuba, too. He was a man who’d been to war, he knew war, he didn’t believe in the generals anymore. He thought they were old men who’d lost contact with reality.

Operation Northwoods, all the crazy schemes they devised to invade Cuba, shocked him, horrified him. That’s what he was dealing with — a war-state mentality that came out of the 1950s. It’s actually true, the Pentagon wanted war with Russia, they wanted to go for it now because they figured in the future Russia would build up its nuclear arms. And they wanted to get them now. This was the Curtis LeMay point of view.

[Oliver Stone is a filmmaker, three-time Oscar winner, and author of Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game (HMH Books, 2020).


Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian/critic, author of Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States, and coauthor of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.]


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