A Minute With...

Ned O'Gorman, expert on communications and the Cold War

11/18/2013  9:00 am

It’s likely the most-famous home movie ever produced: a 27-second film made by Abraham Zapruder chronicling the assassination 50 years ago of President John F. Kennedy, on Nov. 22, 1963. The film has been used as evidence to both support and question official conclusions about how Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Ned O’Gorman, a University of Illinois professor of communication who studies the Cold War, calls the film “extraordinarily important” more for its symbolism than its role as evidence. O’Gorman spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

The killing of any president is going to shock the nation, especially when captured on film. But what made this film, showing the assassination of this particular president, so powerful?

image of professor ned o'gormanKennedy was the first “Hollywood” president. His father, Joseph Kennedy, was a well-known Hollywood executive and Joe very much thought of his son as a political star. So it was not only ironic but extraordinary that the death of this political star was recorded in a movie, and a very vivid movie at that.

In fact, it wasn’t an accident that Zapruder was out there on Dealey Plaza with his cutting-edge home movie camera. Kennedy, more than any president before him, was a president made for the camera. He approached his presidential image in photographic terms, far more so than Eisenhower, Truman or Franklin D. Roosevelt. That’s what the open convertible was all about. Zapruder was just one of millions in America who understood this and sought to get an image of the president. That he got an image of the death of the president was not at all what Zapruder expected or wanted, but it was perversely fitting.

But the film, as you know, also served as evidence of a crime. Zapruder’s camera was kind of like an accidental surveillance camera, and its contents were crucial if inconclusive in the debates in the decades to follow about the true nature of the crime.

You see the film and the assassination in the context of the Cold War. But we tend to view the Cold War primarily as a military and nuclear standoff. In fact, the Cuban missile crisis had occurred just the year before. So why is that context important here?

The Cold War was a symbolic war as much as a military and nuclear standoff. It was a war of images. Both the United States and the Soviet Union sought to get as much support from other peoples in the world as they could manage. It was all about tipping the scale of world opinion in their favor.

One of the big differences between President Eisenhower and President Kennedy in this regard was in their divergent approaches to what to show the world about America. Eisenhower thought they should see a free system rather than big personalities. You have to remember that his presidency, during the 1950s, came on the heels of an often-disastrous age of big political personalities: Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin among them. Eisenhower also disliked the near-iconic status given to FDR and the World War II American generals Patton and MacArthur.

Eisenhower thought that a free system should not depend on, or even center on, any one big personality. He therefore consciously tried to avoid any hero status as president, though he had been a war hero, and instead fight the Cold War by showing the world the greatness of the American free system. The Eisenhower administration, for example, set up all across the world exhibits featuring American technological and economic ingenuity, while the president tried to present himself as a responsible executive with a keen interest in golf rather than as a big personality. This was all very intentional.

Kennedy, on the other hand, thought a big personality like his could re-energize Americans and help fight the Cold War. He thought, as have many Americans, that the best way to show off America to the world was in exemplary representative individuals: inventors, astronauts, and presidents. Such people could function as symbols of America, as icons. So when the president was shown being violently killed in Zapruder’s film, it was in an important sense, in the context of the Cold War, an attack on a representative image of America.

Why do you think conspiracy theories about the assassination have persisted over the years since the event? What role does the Zapruder film play in that?

As I noted, the Zapruder film was a key piece of evidence. Originally, for the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination, it was the key piece of evidence used by the government to establish Oswald as the lone gunman. But later, in the wake of Vietnam and then Watergate, both of which helped fuel extraordinary skepticism toward the government, the Zapruder film became the key piece of evidence against the government.

In fact, if you look closely at public presentations of the Zapruder film – from Life magazine in the 1960s to Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK” some 30 years later – you can see how they reflect American attitudes toward the government, and more broadly toward the purity or impurity of the nation. Originally it was seen as clear evidence of a lone operator, offered by a credible government agency, the Warren Commission. But before long it was evidence of the untrustworthiness of the government itself. And in fact, this became the dominant way in which the Zapruder film was made to say something significant not about the events of Nov. 22, 1963, but about America more generally. The Zapruder film became a key proof text to show just how far America had strayed from its ideals.


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