For 45 years, controversy has swirled around President John F. Kennedy’s assassination: Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone, or was Kennedy the target of some vast conspiracy? Robert Stone discusses his new film, Oswald’s Ghost, which explores the impact this debate has had on America since that extraordinary November 22, 1963, in Dallas. “It’s not a who-done-it,” says Stone. “It’s what the who-done-it’s done to us.”

Why take another look at the Kennedy assassination?

My initial motivation came after seeing the incredible reaction to Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK. It seemed like he had opened up some sort of primal wound. I thought it would be interesting to make a film about the history of the conspiracy theories, who propagated them and why they were so widely believed. Nobody had really explored why this subject produces such a visceral response and how it’s shaped so many people’s worldview.

What have other films said?

Really, the only documentaries that have been done advocate a particular conspiracy theory, or they’re the “debunking films” that the networks roll out every five years on the anniversary, with computer animations of bullet trajectories and stuff. Things have been reduced to this mind-numbing debate about forensics and ballistics that really misses the whole point.

Did you expect to find anything new?

I had a new thesis, I think, and a new approach. But in terms of actual building blocks to make the movie, we thought that would be next to impossible. It turned out that quite the opposite was true. There’s tons of stuff out there.

What was your biggest find?

Well, the Dallas police tapes. They’d never been played in a documentary before. One documentary reenacted the transcripts, but nobody had ever used the tapes. That was huge. People who are pursuing a particular conspiratorial angle obviously will pass up anything that might conflict with the idea that there was a conspiracy. It’s clear from the tapes that the police weren’t all swarming around the grassy knoll, as legend has it. Within a few minutes, all their attention was focused on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, and an APB was put out describing Oswald to a T. So if you’re going to make a movie suggesting that there was a conspiracy, you’re not going to use those tapes.

Was it important that the conspiracy theorists you interviewed didn’t appear to be “fringe” figures?

I didn’t want to set these people up and then sort of chop them down and debunk them. Their views of what happened held sway and were persuasive to people. My views are very fixed that Oswald acted alone. But some people I interviewed for the film, who I have deep respect for and who are clearly very intelligent people, firmly believe there was a conspiracy. That idea didn’t take shape because people are stupid but because of very real things that were going on in this country, particularly the lies that were told about the Vietnam War. Given the culture of distrust of all figures of authority in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that there was a conspiracy to kill JFK. That doesn’t mean it’s true, but it’s understandable.

What surprised you most?

The degree to which people like Todd Gitlin and Tom Hayden spoke about the enormous impact that the JFK, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations had on the thinking of those who were in the streets in the 1960s. It was more than Vietnam, more than civil rights. It was this sense that every leader they support gets taken away, that there was some powerful force out to decimate the left and that our democracy is not functioning.

How did they respond?

They felt locked out of the political process, so in 1968 they take to the streets and have a revolution. But when that led to Richard Nixon being elected, many of them dropped out of the process forever and passed that cynicism on to their children.

What does this film say to people born after 1963?

That’s really who I made the film for, and the reaction from people under 30 has been the most positive. I think this conspiracy theory has had an enormously detrimental impact on young people, particularly young people who might be inclined to pursue progressive politics.

How has it affected them?

They’ve opted out because they think they’re powerless. If the government can kill Kennedy, then why bother? They think that the whole country is controlled by Halliburton or the CIA or whoever. I don’t think that’s because of the Kennedy assassination necessarily, but that spark got passed on. You can’t get up and go to work in the morning believing that such terrible things are going on beyond your control and have much faith that your voice counts. In fact, the opposite is true—500 votes in Florida [in 2000] would have changed the world.

Did making this film change your mind?

I came into it willing to accept the notion that there was a conspiracy. I’d read the major conspiracy books, and certainly they’re very convincing. But I came to the conclusion that Oswald acted alone. That’s not to say that there aren’t conspiracies out there, but by embracing such a wildly implausible conspiracy as this, it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy: The people left in control are the very forces of power that your imagination has conjured up. They’re the only people left because so many others have opted out.


Originally published in the April 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here