Monday, November 22 is the forty-seventh anniversary of JFK’s assassination.
The weather in Dallas that afternoon could not have been more beautiful. President Kennedy, with the top down in his limousine, took full advantage of the sunshine and warm temperatures, waving to the throngs of people lining the motorcade’s route and flashing his winning smile. Camelot had come to central Texas.
Farther down the route, overlooking Dealey Plaza, Lee Harvey Oswald waited, rifle at the ready. The scope on the gun was a little wobbly, the lens in the scope a little blurry, Oswald’s marksmanship skills a little questionable—but Oswald had his mission.
The president’s car rounded the curve into the plaza and came into Oswald’s line of fire. Oswald squeezed the trigger.
So, too, did a gunman hidden across the way near the top of a grassy knoll.
And now, forty-three years later, that second gunman is ready to speak.
That’s premise behind Chuck Helppie’s new novel, Kennedy Must Be Killed. Helppie has spent decades researching the Kennedy assassination, pouring through more than 125,000 pages of documents in his search for clues. He has sat in Gerald Ford’s private office at the Ford Presidential Library and looked through the former president’s personal collection of materials from the Warren Commission’s investigation. He’s been to the book depository overlooking Dealey Plaza and sited a replica of the rifle Oswald supposedly used. He’s worked with police and military snipers. He’s read memoirs and public and private documents and personal correspondence.
“My research, I guess you could say, quite literally started on November 22, 1963,” Helppie says.
He was eleven at the time, living in Arlington, Virginia just blocks from the Pentagon. “We were literally at Ground Zero of the Cold War, and the whole neighborhood knew it,” he says. His father, an economist, worked for Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the Justice Department’s Anti-Trust Division.
Helppie had stood on the capital lawn with his mother to watch JFK’s inauguration. From his own front lawn, two-and-a-half years later, he could hear the twenty-one-gun salute fired when JFK was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
“I was there at the beginning,” Helppie says, “and I was there at the end.”
“The horror of the Kennedy assassination shocked me to the core because I had never seen adults mourn en masse before,” he says. “The nearest thing I can liken it to is when you go to a funeral, and inside the church, everyone is mourning, but when you go outside the world is still going. When President Kennedy was assassinated, it was entirely different. The whole world shut down.”
It was, he says, “a very, very dark, almost smothering time,” and it left a deep impression. “The experience imprinted itself on me,” he says.
His father left the Justice Department soon thereafter for a faculty position at Eastern Michigan University. But for Helppie, questions about Kennedy’s assassination lingered. “I kept looking for an answer that wasn’t there,” he says.
Helppie stills lives in Michigan, where he has worked for as a financial advisor in the financial services industry for more than thirty-three years. But throughout adulthood, he has never stopped looking for those answers.
“As I began to put all the information together, I was still searching for a motive,” he says. “What eluded me intellectually was that there was really no motive.”
So he stepped back to take a broader-angle view, examining the cultural, social, political, historical, and global forces at work at the time—and what he saw stunned him. “I began to see this panoply play out in front of me,” he says. “And as I began to weave these threads together, I thought it was too good of a story not to write down.”
The result, his “fact-based novel” Kennedy Must Be Killed, tells the story of the motive behind Kennedy’s murder.
“I wanted to share this information in a way that would get people invested in the tale,” Helppie says. “The book can be read simply as a thriller—people can do that and enjoy it—or as a piece of history, or a Shakespearean tragedy, or a literary form of Greek drama. I tried to create something that worked on multiple levels so readers could get a lot out of it.”
Particularly important to Helppie is the first-person narrator, which gave him a way to process and interpret “complicated events” for readers. “He’s also the moral center of the book, and he’s tugged in different directions,” Helppie says.
While the main characters are fictional, Helppie has put them in accurate historical settings. Readers can fact-check him, he says. “But I wanted to [write the book] in a way that would let readers draw their own conclusions,” Helppie says. “I wanted to build a lot of historical context into the book without hitting readers over the head with history dumps.”
Helppie tells the story from “a contrarian standpoint of history” that will, he hopes, challenge readers to questions what they know—and what they think they know.
“There are all sorts of problems with the chain of evidence,” Helppie says. “It’s been broken, tainted, manufactured. There are so many inconsistencies in the story. I want people to see them, understand them, and ask why the government doesn’t want to acknowledge them.”
The government’s official position, he points out, is that JFK’s assassination was the result of a conspiracy. That position, the result of hearings in 1979, refuted the findings of the Warren Commission, which originally investigated the president’s death—yet the hearings also tried to support parts of the commission’s report even while refuting others. “It’s a tremendous mess,” Helppie says.
But, he points out, “Conspiracy theorists do have the weight of the government behind them.”
Helppie’s novel tries to point out the extent of that conspiracy. “There is a realization that people in government at the time were willing to commit one of the most heinous crimes—and they got away with it,” he says. “The assassination of a president was a supremely abominable sin.”
Forces behind the assassination had four options for removing a president they felt was completely incapable and incompetent, says Helppie:
- They could try to vote him out of office, although the results of that would be uncertain and the timetable was a year away.
- They could try to create a scandal that would force the president to resign. Marilyn Monroe’s death, engineered by the mob, was just such an attempt, but the Kennedys were able to sanitize her “suicide.”
- They could impeach the president over the embargo of Cuba, something the Kennedys themselves saw as an impeachable offense. To do so would create a constitutional crisis at the height of the Cold War, which could potentially leave the country vulnerable to a Soviet sneak attack.
- They could kill and replace the president—something that could happen so fast the Russians wouldn’t have time to respond.
In the end, JFK’s assassination was nothing less than a coup.
“Lyndon Johnson was a ruthless politician with ties to people with blood on their hands,” Helppie points out.
That’s not all, of course. There’s sex, drugs, and lots of money, and as is almost standard with JFK conspiracies, the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, the Cubans, and the Pentagon are all involved in varying capacities. Lee Harvey Oswald is the patsy—although Helppie believes Oswald wasn’t even a shooter.
Helppie points out, too, that the American people themselves played a complicit part. People today tend to remember Camelot, he says, but they tend to forget “there was no love for Kennedy in the South at that time.”
“There was so much blind hatred toward him,” he says. “There was an almost evil presence that was going to lead to trouble in Dallas on that day.”
Kennedy Must Be Killed is Helppie’s attempt to present the broad-canvas truth—presented as fiction—about an event that manages to still hold the public imagination forty-seven years later.
“The government has too much at stake for people to know the real truth,” Helppie contends. “It would bring down fortunes. It would bring down powerful men. It would be devastating to the nation. How could you ever trust your Pentagon again? There are questions that are horrifying in their conclusions.
“How do you deal with that?”