Myth and History: Roswell, JFK and Assassination Conspiracies

To my previous commenter, yes, I would point out that James Ellroy’s work is fiction.

There was a terrific book published in 1997 about the Roswell incident – UFO Crash at Roswell The Genesis of a Modern Myth by Saler, Ziegler, and Moore – that provides a useful framework for watching the evolution of great cultural myths like Roswell or the Kennedy assassination conspiracy(ies).

The authors (two anthropologists and a physicist) offer a tool that can be used to distinguish between myths and history. Historical analysis, over time, tends to converge – as more evidence can be gathered, historians and journalists are able to zero in on some sort of central truth. It is ever contingent, but in general the stories tend to converge.

Cultural myths, without a good truth to anchor them, tend to diverge. That’s why, in Roswell, you can now find adherents arguing for no less than six separate crash sites, for example. Some adherents argue persuasively for recovery of live bodies, some dead bodies, some no bodies, some one ship, some two ships, some a late June 1947 crash date, some early July.

The same pattern can be found in the Kenneday conspiracy stories. CIA? Mafia? Cubans? Some sort of CIA-Mafia-Cuban conspiracy? The Jewish bankers? The Catholic Church? Oswald plus another gunman on the grassy knoll? Oswald didn’t shoot at all, just the grassy knoll guy? Here’s my favorite: Oswald, plus a gunman on the grassy knoll, and then to cover up the grassy knoll guy’s handiwork there’s a team of surgeons pre-positioned on the plane flying the body back to D.C. that surgically alters the late president’s corpse to hide the evidence when the autopsy is later done.

I got started thinking about this topic when I was a young tyke of a reporter in L.A., and I had occasion to make the acquaintence of some of the Robert F. Kennedy conspiracy theorists. I’d hear one argue persuasively for one version of the conspiracy, then another argue equally persuasively for another story line. The funny thing was (and this holds true for JFK or Roswell, the other two similar topics that I’ve since spent any time with) that the best conspiracy debunkers are the other conspiracy theorists. Each has to debunk the other in order for his theory to hold, and they all end up collapsing one anothers’ houses of cards.

What you end up with is a couple of loony lone gunmen killing two Kennedy brothers five years apart, and a secret balloon research experiment landing on a ranch outside Roswell a very long time ago.

As for the specifics of bjc’s complaint:

forty years on…? forty days on and enough would have been buried, burned or deported to make sure it was never discovered.

Sadly, there’s not much response that can be made to that argument. If there is a complete lack of evidence of conspiracy, there are two possibilities. One is that the conspirators covered it all up. The second is that there was no conspiracy. Take your pick.

This is an amusing but completely consistent pattern in all three of the cases I discuss above – Roswell and the two Kennedy assassinations. If every piece of counter-evidence to a conspiracy can be written off as part of the conspiracy, and all lack of evidence of a conspiracy can be seen as evidence that the conspirators covered it up, there’s really nothing to do but have a beer and call it a day.