The sophistication of the Left enables it to exploit conspiracism more than does the Right. A worldly, well-educated analyst does not fall prey to conspiracist demons with the same sincerity as does a janitor. Yahoos on the Right appear almost universally heartfelt in their fears of Jews and Freemasons; leftist sophisticates lack that same veracity. Rather, they seemingly spread conspiracy theories as a means to further their political agenda; in case after case, conspiracism serves their goals. On the grandest scale, if Hitler represents conspiracism gone mad, Stalin stands for something altogether craftier. The Nazi state held conspiratorial antisemitism to be its highest truth and singlemindedly pursued it, but the Soviet state used anti-imperialism more instrumentally, retaining an ability to turn it on and off as circumstances warranted. If Nazis were the creatures of conspiracism, Soviets were its masters.
The same difference holds in the American context, notably the Left's use of conspiracism in the Kennedy assassination, the October Surprise, and the O. J. Simpson trial. The Left forwards conspiracy theories that conveniently explain how two of the previous four Democratic presidents (John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter) left office through plots most foul.
The Kennedy case is remarkable for its gumption given that the main figure, Lee Harvey Oswald, was an extreme leftist who moved to the Soviet Union, renounced his American citizenship, participated in a pro-Castro group (the Fair Play for Cuba Committee), and nearly assassinated General Edwin Walker, a well-known right-wing figure. Yet attention shifted away from Oswald soon after the Kennedy murder, thanks to the work of a network of leftist activists (e.g., Jim Garrison) and book authors both famous (Edward Jay Epstein, Mark Lane) and obscure (Thomas Buchanan, Joachim Joesten, Sylvia Meagher, Harold Weisberg).
These "assassinologists" took two tacks. One turned Oswald into an extreme rightist ("Oswald would have been more at home with Mein Kampf than Das Kapital") and his life into an elaborate charade (Fair Play for Cuba was seen as a front for American intelligence). The other tack turned Oswald into a minor figure by focusing attention instead on a grand conspiracy in which he was but a minor cog. Oswald's politics, motives, and connections to Soviet intelligence nearly disappeared, replaced by topics that pointed to others involved in the murder. Assassination buffs raised questions about the number of guns that went off (up to sixteen), the number of shots, their trajectories, and the number of bullets that hit Kennedy. In the process, they fingered some thirty gunmen as Oswald's accomplices. This profusion of accomplices focused attention away from Oswald and onto the sponsors of this huge effort.
Prominent suspects included the CIA (because Kennedy planned to shut it down), anti-Castro Cubans (due to the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion), White Russians (angry about improved relations with the Soviet Union), the mafia (to stop Robert Kennedy's investigations into organized crime), the FBI (Hoover feared being forced out of office), the military-industrial complex (which hated the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty), the generals (intent to stop a pullout of Vietnam), Texas oil millionaires (to end talk about canceling the oil depletion allowance), international bankers (who disliked current monetary policies), and Lyndon Johnson (who feared being dropped from the ticket in 1964). To this list, black Americans added the idea, still alive a generation later, of the Ku Klux Klan or other white supremacists killing Kennedy because of his civil rights stance.
As controversy swirled about the precise identity of the right-wing conspirators, the numbers involved steadily increased ("their meetings would have had to held in Madison Square Garden"), and Oswald's role faded. Some books almost ignored his existence; others turned him into a scapegoat. Thanks to the combined efforts of leftist writers, Gerald Posner noted in 1993, "The debate is no longer whether JFK was killed by Lee Oswald acting alone or as part of a conspiracy—it is instead, which conspiracy is correct?"
This orgy of speculation appears all the more artificial when seen against the background of other recent American assassinations that did not spur conspiracism. Robert F. Kennedy was killed in June 1968 by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian who explicitly portrayed his act as a protest against Kennedy's pro-Israeli views. By that date, Yasir Arafat's Al-Fatah had already established an international reputation for terrorism, so Sirhan might well have been thought part of a conspiracy, but he was not. Americans saw him in isolation, not connected to an organized group, much less to a concerted campaign of intimidation.
Similarly, John W. Hinckley, Jr.'s, attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981 prompted little speculation, though the videotape of the shooting incident has unexplained flashes of light, and presidential guards initially looked the wrong way for the gun—possible indications of more than one assassin. More interesting yet, Hinckley's father was reported to be a friend of Vice President George Bush, who would have been the direct beneficiary of Reagan's death. Most remarkably, John Hinckley's brother Scott was scheduled to have dinner with Bush's son Neil on the very evening of the shooting. Yet these connections cast no suspicions on the vice president.
The silence surrounding the RFK and Reagan episodes points to the exceptional, and possibly manufactured, nature of the speculation surrounding the JFK assassination.
. Edward Jay Epstein, Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth (New York: Viking Press, 1966); Mark Lane, Rush to Judgment: A Critique of the Warren Commission's Inquiry into the Murders of President John F. Kennedy, Officer J. D. Tippitt, and Lee Harvey Oswald (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966).
. Thomas C. Buchanan, Who Killed Kennedy? (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1964); Joachim Joesten, Oswald: Assassin or Fall-Guy? (New York: Marzani and Munsell, 1964); Sylvia Meagher, Accessories after the Fact: The Warren Commission, the Authorities, and the Report (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967); and Harold Weisberg, Whitewash: The Report on the Warren Report (Hyattstown, Md.: n.p., 1965); idem., Oswald in New Orleans: Case of Conspiracy with the C.I.A. (New York: Canyon Books, 1967); idem., Photographic Whitewash: Suppressed Kennedy Assassination Pictures (Hyattstown, Md.: n.p., 1967).
. Jim Garrison, quoted in Gerald Posner, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (New York: Random House, 1993), p. 443.
. Steven E. Ambrose, "Writers on the Grassy Knoll: A Reader's Guide," The New York Times Book Review, 2 February 1992.
. Posner, Case Closed, p. x; Posner agreed with the basic thrust of this argument in a telephone conversation with the author on 5 December 1996.
. For a definitive repudiation of efforts to link Sirhan to a conspiracy, see Dan E. Moldea, The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy: An Investigation of Motive, Means and Opportunity (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), esp. chap. 30.
Nov. 22, 2013 update: For all my work on this topic, see "Bibliography – My Writings on John F. Kennedy."