Monday, 02 October 2006 22:57

Elegy for Philip Melanson

Looking at the totality of Philip Melanson's work (and I am leaving out some of it), there are very few people who contributed as much or as at the high level that he did, writes Jim DiEugenio.

The first time I ever encountered Philip Melanson's name was in the library of California State University at San Bernardino, where I was researching my first book, Destiny Betrayed. I had driven about 65 miles to San Bernardino to borrow copies of American Grotesque and The Second Oswald. While I was perusing the shelves in the Kennedy assassination section, I noticed an oddly titled volume called Spy Saga by Philip Melanson. I had never heard of this book, or its author. But looking it over, I thought it had an interesting and unique premise: an examination of Oswald's connections to the American intelligence community. So I went home and started reading it--before I read the other two books.

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Spy Saga, I came to believe, was a crucial contribution to the JFK field, and for two reasons. First, it developed one of the keystones of the case against the Warren Commission. One of the most puzzling aspects of the Commission was its characterization of Lee Harvey Oswald as a communist who knew no other communists. Far from it. Here was an alleged communist who chose to go and live in two of the most rightwing enclaves of the USA , namely the anti-Castro Cuban exiles in New Orleans, and the White Russian community in Dallas. In fact, these two groups would seem an anathema to a real communist, since they actually wanted to overthrow the communist regimes in Cuba and the Soviet Union. Further, Oswald did strange things while in their midst, like distributing provocative literature in broad daylight on major public streets. It was almost like he wanted to provoke them--which he did.

Although the Commission tried to paint him as a loner, Oswald did have friends. But they were all quite conservative, and some had ties to the CIA, like George DeMohrenschildt, David Ferrie, Kerry Thornley, and Clay Shaw. Spy Saga explained this paradox by showing that it really was not a paradox. Melanson convincingly argued that Oswald was doing his job as an undercover agent for the American government.

Second, Spy Saga was a milestone in the field. At the time of its publication, there were over 700 books written on the Kennedy assassination, but few of them had Lee Harvey Oswald as their sole focus. The ones that did were clearly clinging to the Warren Commission characterization, like Marina and Lee and Legend. Melanson's work was the first full scale study of Oswald as an agent provocateur. In that sense it basically cleared the field and superseded the Priscilla Johnson/Edward Epstein myopia. Once you digested Melanson's careful and well-documented work, it was hard to regress back to the Warren Commissoin's view.

If you read my Destiny Betrayed, you can easily see the influence of Spy Saga, in both the footnotes and in my characterization of Oswald. Phil's book was both elucidating and a pleasure. It was a pleasure because it was well written, well documented, and relatively brief. Melanson was a scholar who could actually write clear and serviceable prose. Although he had not done a lot of original research, he had integrated a lot of previous work into a cohesive, tight, and convincing framework. After reading it, I considered it one of the ten most important books on the JFK case. While others have gone past Melanson's work today in detail and depth, they are still working in the general framework he established. Which is another way of saying that the book has stood the test of time. For me, it is one of the few classics in the field.

The amazing thing about Philip Melanson is that not only did he pen a seminal work on the JFK case, he wrote about the King case and the RFK case as well. In fact, to this day, no other critic has published as many books on all three cases as he did. The Murkin Conspiracy is a creditable work on the King case in which Melanson did some original field research. He published two hardcover books on the Robert Kennedy case, The Robert F. Kennedy Assassination and Shadow Play (co-authored with Bill Klaber). While the latter has some interesting information on the trial of Sirhan Sirhan, the former is the better and more comprehensive book.

The last two books point up what became Phil's primary focus later in his professional career: the RFK case. At his college, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, he developed an RFK archives. This was a valuable academic contribution since it constituted by far the best collection of RFK assassination research materials on the east coast. Phil tried hard to bring more attention to the RFK case, which he felt was pitifully ignored by the public, the media, and the research community.

In 1992, Phil tried to do something almost unheard of: get the RFK case reopened. He did this through his petitioning of the grand jury in Los Angeles. He put together a very impressive volume of testimony and exhibits he hoped the grand jury would use, as it began hearing witnesses in the case. He got several illustrious names to endorse the idea, including Arthur Schlesinger, Norman Mailer, and Cesar Chavez. He got a long feature story in the Metro section of the LA Times on the petition, an amazing achievement. Since grand jury proceedings are secret, no one really knows what happened behind closed doors. Rumor has it that three consecutive grand juries saw the petition and then passed it on. Since grand juries are controlled by the local DA's office, this was not surprising, especially since Phil's work hit hard at the complicity of the local authorities in the cover-up. But Phil never went overboard in that regard. He never wrote things he could not back up. This made him a good commentator for the critical community on both radio and television, which he did many times with distinction.

Looking at the totality of Philip Melanson's work (and I am leaving out some of it), there are very few people who contributed as much or as at the high level that he did. And now he is dead at the premature age of 61. Of course, one feels sad for his family and close friends. But the research community will miss one of the very few who represented the highest standard of what a critic was and could be.

In 1998, Dr. Melanson spoke on the grassy knoll in Dallas at a rememberance ceremony for JFK. "It's never too late to find the truth, if citizens demand it," he said. "Until that happens, the original tragedy will be compounded like a bad political debt into the next millenium, and our faith in our system will continue to erode."

Goodbye, professor. You will truly be missed.

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