Willem L. Oltmans. Reporting on the Kennedy Assassination. Edited by Michael A. Rinella. Translated by David Stephenson. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2017. 384 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2378-5.
Reviewed by Oliver Elliott (Independent scholar (PhD, London School of Economics))
Published on H-FedHist (August, 2017)
Commissioned by Andrew Gawthorpe (Leiden University)
The publication of a book examining the assassination of President John F. Kennedy would not normally generate much excitement amongwithin the historical profession. Since the 1960s, and particularly in the wake of Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK, which popularized the idea of a high-level government conspiracy to murder Kennedy, hundreds, if not thousands, of books have been published offering scandalous new theories as to how and why he met his tragic end in Dallas in November 1963. Few of these books, however, have been taken seriously by professional historians. Although there are certainly unanswered questions surrounding the details of the assassination and the flawed official investigation that followed it, the mainstream historical consensus remains that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone gunman acting entirely on his own initiative.
Willem L. Oltmans’s book is not, however, just another conspiratorial history. Instead, it is a memoir, first published in Dutch in 1977 but presented here in English for the first time, of Oltmans’s experiences reporting on the Kennedy assassination in the late 1960s and 1970s. A respected Dutch journalist professionally exiled from his home country as a result of his close links with Indonesia’s postcolonial government, Oltmans found renewed purpose as an investigative reporter in the United States. After a chance meeting with Oswald’s mother in 1964, Oltmans began doing his own research into the assassination and befriended several of the key individuals in the case, most notably George de Mohrenschildt, a well-connected Texas-based oilman who had been friendly with Oswald before the assassination. Much of the book is dedicated to exploring Oltmans’s struggles to get de Mohrenschildt to talk about the nature of his relationship with Oswald, culminating in 1977 with de Mohrenschildt’s tragic suicide and Oltmans’s testimony to the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
While the book offers no revelations as to what really happened in 1963, it is nonetheless an intriguing case study of how a relatively esteemed political reporter can be drawn down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole. As editor, Michael A. Rinella explains in the excellent introduction that Oltmans was “swept up in what he considered a historical moment” (p. xxxvi). Initially a skeptic, Oltmans became convinced that he was closing in on the truth of a grand conspiracy to kill Kennedy, most likely involving the Central Intelligence Agency. All too often this conviction led him to only hear what he wanted to hear. When de Mohrenschildt told him that he felt responsible for the Kennedy assassination, Oltmans took it to mean that he had played a direct role in organizing the assassination. He did not seem to conceive of the rather more mundane possibility that de Mohrenschildt felt guilty for not having done more to divert Oswald from the path that led him to killing Kennedy. Nor did he give serious consideration to the question of whether de Mohrenschildt’s growing mental health problems made him a fundamentally unreliable source. Indeed, although Oltmans never seemed to realize it, the book is a testament to the profound mental trauma that can occur when ordinary people become caught up in world historical events.
The book is enhanced by extensive footnotes that provide not just historical context but also paragraph-by-paragraph fact checking of Oltmans’s original text. Here, it becomes clear that Oltmans saw intrigue and conspiracy everywhere, a by-product of both his own experience of persecution at the hands of the Dutch establishment and the increasingly paranoid nature of American society in the 1970s. Throughout the text, he alluded to de Mohrenschildt’s and Oswald’s mysterious connections to diplomats and intelligence officials. According to Rinella, however, these were greatly exaggerated. Rinella’s commentary is a vital reminder of the importance of reading primary source material critically; indeed, it should serve as inspiration and model for other editors seeking to embed fact checking into primary sources.
It is impossible to avoid the question, however, of just who this book is meant for. Rinella suggests that the book will act as a corrective to the negative perception of Oltmans among the conspiracy research community. Indeed, the last section of the book makes it clear that his reputation was severely tarnished by a cruel smear campaign in both the American and Dutch media following de Mohrenschildt’s death. But Oltmans has always been a marginal figure for conspiracy researchers and Rinella’s critical reevaluation of an almost forty-year-old text seems unlikely to change this. For anyone else not so invested in the details of the assassination conspiracy, the subject of the book may feel rather obscure. Yet, in an era increasingly defined by post-truth politics and twitter-borne conspiracy theories, understanding how such conspiracies gain a foothold in the public consciousness is more important than ever. The contemporary significance of the Kennedy assassination itself should not be underestimated. In a recent interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to a question over Russia’s alleged role in hacking the 2016 presidential election by drawing a comparison to the conspiracy surrounding the Kennedy assassination: “There’s a theory that Kennedy’s assassination was arranged by the United States intelligence services,” Putin said. “So if this theory is correct and that can’t be ruled out, then what could be easier, in this day and age, than using all the technical means at the disposal of the intelligence services, and using those means to organize some attacks, and then pointing the finger at Russia?” With world leaders using history in such a flippant and instrumental manner, books like this one are a vital resource for anyone who cares about truth in public discourse.
. Margaret Hartmann, “Despite Megyn Kelly’s Efforts, Putin Still Won’t Confess to Election Meddling,” NY Mag, June 5, 2017, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/06/putin-denies-election-meddling-in-megyn-kelly-interview.html.
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Oliver Elliott. Review of Oltmans, Willem L., Reporting on the Kennedy Assassination.
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