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Opening it up, after all these years I Chuck's World


Last updated 10/25/2017 at Noon

As far as historical accessories go, Neville Chamberlain’s black umbrella barely warrants a footnote.

Chamberlain himself doesn’t fare much better. A respected British statesman, Chamberlain served as prime minister of the United Kingdom for three years, from 1937 until 1940, guiding Britain through the first months of World War II, and forever (apparently) associated with one particular concept.

That would be “appeasement,” a term now linked with Chamberlain’s agreement with Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938, ceding Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in the hopes of preventing wider war. This was controversial and, in retrospect, foolhardy, thus providing future generations with easy shorthand and leaving Chamberlain on the short end of history’s judgment.

And he carried a black umbrella, often. Along with “Munich,” the umbrella became a symbol of Chamberlain and thus of botched foreign policy, often caricatured in editorial cartoons of the time, and 25 years later it was still remembered by Louie Steven Witt.

A few weeks after Witt’s 39th birthday, he learned that President John Kennedy was coming to town. Not being a fan of the current president, and wanting to make a statement about Kennedy’s father, the former American ambassador to Great Britain and another proponent of being conciliatory to Hitler, Witt brought a black umbrella downtown, hoping to tweak Kennedy with symbolism.

JFK would have understood the reference, probably, although we’ll never know. As Witt slowly opened his umbrella and began to twirl it, an odd sight on this sunny autumn day in Dallas, shots rang out and Kennedy was murdered, only a few feet away.

Witt is easily spotted. He was standing in front and slightly to the left of Abraham Zapruder, the amateur photographer who took the most famous film of those horrific moments in Dealey Plaza. He’s also seen in other still photos from that day, a solitary figure doing an odd thing at a moment in time forever burned into collective memories.

If you’re a hammer, the saying goes, everything looks like a nail. Louie Witt remained anonymous for another 15 years, just a blurry image on grainy film, but the timing and the strangeness of his subtle protest combined to christen him The Umbrella Man among the skeptical. Was it a signal to the assassins? Was the umbrella actually a weapon out of a James Bond movie, or a radio transmitter? To conspiracy theorists, it looked an awful lot like a nail.

When Louie Witt finally testified before a congressional committee in 1978, he was a well-dressed, somewhat bemused man in his 50s, somehow unaware that his presence at the scene had become the stuff of scenarios. Yet years after his plausible explanation, his actions on November 22, 1963, were still suspect; there’s a quick shot of The Umbrella Man in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK,” introducing the mysterious bumbershoot to new generations.

“JFK” is an excellent film, I think, a compelling, interesting movie that nonetheless wallows in historical fiction. It contains a hodgepodge of speculation, unconnected and often contradictory, having more in common with alternate history than just a particular perspective.

But it was wildly popular, and the film left a footprint. Spurred by newly triggered assassination buffs, it led to passage of the Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, one element of which was the promise to release all previously classified government documents about the assassination no later than 25 years in the future.

We can all do the math. This week, rather than the anticipated slow, gradual release of information over months or even years, the bulk of this material will finally be made public, a document dump of impressive proportions. Only the president of the United States is empowered by law to prevent this release, and last week Donald Trump announced that he intended to proceed, barring some last-minute arguments against.

Don’t expect bombshells, this week or in the weeks to come. There’ll be plenty of hype and speculation, but thousands of pages of government minutiae won’t easily give up their secrets, assuming there are any. Six seconds on a sunny day in Dallas, over half a century in the past, surely altered world history in significant ways, but this historical mystery will most likely remain mysterious.

I know something about this subject, hardly an expert but familiar with what facts there are and what lives in the realm of fantasy. I remain curious but agnostic, unaware of any answers that might be forthcoming and actually skeptical that they exist. I suspect we’ll learn that intelligence services, particularly the CIA, knew more about Lee Harvey Oswald than was understood at the time, although this has long been established informally.

And I don’t know what any of it means, to us and to our contemporary world. Governments keep secrets, mistakes are made, judgments are rushed; alert the media, as they say. This is nothing new.

Nor is the official story of the Kennedy assassination particularly new. A disgruntled, restless, obviously intelligent but also apparently disturbed young man, an ex-Marine who espoused Marxism and once defected to the Soviet Union, bought a gun and fired shots onto a crowded street. It’s a very 2017 story, in fact, and it didn’t begin in 1963 and shows no sign of ending soon.

I’m just reminded of how elusive truth is, particularly historical truth, and how human it is to seek it out. Sometimes we find it, and sometimes an umbrella is just an umbrella.


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