‘The dots weren’t connected’
50 years later, why does JFK’s shooting still raise questions?
Recorder illustration/Adam Orth
President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline arrive at Dallas Love Field, Nov. 22, 1963, the day he was assassinated. (AP Photo/files)
Seen through the limousine's windshield as it proceeds along Elm Street past the Texas School Book Depository, President John F. Kennedy appears to raise his hand toward his head within seconds of being fatally shot in Dallas, Nov 22, 1963. Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy holds the President's forearm in an effort to aid him. Gov. John Connally of Texas, who was in the front seat, was also shot. (AP Photo/James W. (Ike) Altgens)
“In all these years, no one has ever come forward, which seems to mean that there was no conspiracy.”
“Or, that it was a very good one.”
— The late newsman Daniel Schorr, responding to NPR’s Scott Simon during a Nov. 22 anniversary broadcast
In 1991, if such a thing were possible, the United States Senate was embarrassed.
Director Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK” was in theaters, a three-hour film profiling the mid-1960s investigation by Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison into John Kennedy’s assassination. Several times the film noted that the files of the 1964 Warren Report, the federal investigation of the president’s death, were sealed for 75 years, routine for any government investigation. One year after the movie’s release, the Senate passed the JFK Records Act, unleashing a tsunami of documents relating to the federal inquiry.
For a half-century, some 800 books outlining threads of a conspiracy and others, fully supportive of the report’s conclusion that Lee Oswald was a delusional lone assassin, have been published. For researchers such as author David Kaiser, the 1964 investigation was seriously flawed.
“The authors of the Warren Report did not understand many of the aspects of the context in which the crime took place,” he said, speaking earlier this month from his Watertown home.
Kaiser is the author of “The Road to Dallas” (Belknap Press; 509 pages, $35), a six-year undertaking. Prior to retirement, the historian was a professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the Naval War College.
“They didn’t know anything about the CIA assassination plots against (Cuban Prime Minister Fidel) Castro and they didn’t have any sense of the importance of (U.S. Attorney General) Robert Kennedy’s ongoing war on the mob and how that may have played into it,” Kaiser said.
Buttressing Kaiser’s argument is veteran New York Times reporter Philip Shenon.
“A big theme of my book is the destruction of evidence and the destruction begins within hours of the president’s death,” the writer told NPR’s Dave Davies this past October. Shenon is the author of “A Cruel and Shocking Act” (Holt & Co.; 640 pages, $19).
“I suspect that both the FBI and the CIA were determined to hide just how much they had known about Oswald in the weeks before the assassination,” he said. The alleged assassin made a trip to Mexico City where his visit to the Cuban embassy and possible contacts with Russian personnel were monitored by the agencies.
“(It) was just a situation where the dots weren’t connected,” Shenon said.
Silvia Duran, who worked in the Cuban consulate in Mexico City, had spoken with and may have socialized with Oswald. The Warren Commission never called upon her.
The Warren Commission had no independent investigatory team and was reliant upon FBI and CIA communications. Interviews were undertaken by lawyers who called upon 552 witnesses and documented 3,100 exhibits. Critics note that the first half of the report suggests a conspiracy, while the remainder of its pages discredit or ignore what seem to be compelling statements.
For example, in his 1987 book “Man of the House” the late Tip O’Neill, one-time Speaker of the US House of Representatives, quoted White House aide Ken O’Donnell, who was in the Dallas motorcade: “I told the FBI that I had heard two shots from behind the grassy knoll fence (indicating a second gunman), but they said it couldn’t have happened that way ... So I testified the way they wanted me to.”
Among those who disbelieved its conclusions were Warren Commission member Senator Richard Russell, President Lyndon Johnson and, as recently revealed by Robert Kennedy Jr., his father. It’s been said that the people who believe in the Warren Report are those who have never read it.
A different era
It’s difficult for a younger generation to comprehend how the grave threat of nuclear war with the Soviets overshadowed both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. In an open letter in Life Magazine’s September 1961 issue, President Kennedy advised readers to consider building fallout shelters.
In 1959, Fidel Castro had toppled a US-backed regime in Cuba and installed himself as a communist dictator aligned with the Soviet Union. Kennedy inherited a $13 million CIA-sponsored covert operation, planned by the Eisenhower Administration. The Bay of Pigs invasion of April 17, 1961, intended to foment an uprising against Castro, was a failure.
As Kaiser documents in his book, a faction of expatriate Cuban extremists felt betrayed by Kennedy.
What Kennedy also inherited were ongoing covert CIA plots to assassinate Castro, with assistance from mobsters such as Santo Trafficante. The mob had lost millions with Castro’s closure of gambling casinos, drug and arms smuggling and other illicit activities.
“By enlisting these very mob leaders to assassinate Fidel Castro in 1960, the CIA had inevitably weakened any inhibition about killing a head of government,” Kaiser wrote.
In 1975, Senator George McGovern met with Castro and received a “Black Book” from the dictator that identified 24 failed CIA attempts on his life.
Researchers, such as Kaiser, have noted that some of the mob kingpins who were in collusion with the CIA were also targets of Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department for entirely different reasons. According to one author, mob indictments tripled during the Kennedy administration. Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, Trafficante and America’s wealthiest mobster, Carlos Marcello, were on the hot seat.
In his aptly titled 1994 book “Mob Lawyer,” Frank Ragano, who represented all three men, wrote that Hoffa had asked him in May of 1963 to convey to Trafficante and Marcello the suggestion of assassinating either Bobby Kennedy or the president. In later years, the lawyer suggested that Trafficante had hinted as to his complicity. An FBI file on Marcello states that he spoke of his involvement with the JFK slaying to a cell mate in 1985.
The red herring
While living in New Orleans, Oswald, a onetime defector to the Soviet Union, was the conspicuous lone member of the “Fair Play for Cuba Committee,” a pro-Castro organization. He also became known to the Cuban community and had an uncle with links to organized crime.
“There was an aspect of the conspiracy that, while it didn’t work quite as well as the conspirators hoped, it worked well enough,” Kaiser said. “They had hoped to pin it on Castro.”
Such a conclusion might well have led to a U.S. invasion of Cuba and, raising the ante, possibly all-out war with the Soviet Union. Just 13 months earlier, we’d narrowly avoided a potential nuclear war with the Soviets over intermediate range missiles discovered in Cuba.
A week after the assassination, President Johnson called FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, asking him to shift his investigation away from Soviet Premier Khrushchev and Castro or risk “kicking us into a war that can kill 40 million Americans in half an hour.”
Something was in the wind. In his book “JFK and the Unspeakable,” (Orbis Books; 510 pages; $30) author James Douglass describes a plot similar to the Dallas shooting. A former Secret Service agent, Abraham Bolden, confirmed that 20 days before Dallas, a suspicious Chicago landlady found four high-powered rifles in a rented apartment overlooking an upcoming presidential motorcade route. Two men were arrested on suspicion and later released. Kennedy’s Chicago trip was canceled.
Days after the assassination, both the Miami Herald and Tampa Tribune published accounts of another thwarted assassination attempt during Kennedy’s Nov. 18 trip to Florida. J.P. Mullins, who served as Miami police chief during that period, spoke publicly about the incident in 1996.
Supporting the idea of conspiracy is the unshakable testimony of Cuban refugee Sylvia Odio. Interviewed by Warren Commission staffers, she explained that, two months prior to the assassination, she was visited by three men. They asked her about fundraising for their anti-Castro organization. One man, introduced as “Leon Oswald” remained quiet. Soon after, she received a phone call from a man identified as “Leopoldo,” who described Leon as “loco” and noted that the quiet American suggested that Kennedy should be killed over the Bay of Pigs disaster. Odio later recognized Oswald on television.
“The FBI did absolutely nothing to follow that up,” Kaiser said. “(It) was only on the eve of the report’s release that they were really getting somewhere and then it was just dropped.”
With the release of the 1992 records act, the Rose Cheramie story, which begins the JFK movie, was confirmed. Two days before the assassination, she forecast the killing.
Kaiser reinterviewed Edward Martino, whose father, an anti-Castro extremist, also predicted the assassination.
The author said that, for researchers, a chief annoyance is that there is no single physical fact, cut in stone, to indicate a conspiracy.
“That’s the trump card of the Church of the Lone Assassin, because if there’s no physical proof of a conspiracy, everything else they can handle,” Kaiser said.
Had Kennedy lived, the Vietnam War may have never accelerated. The Cold War may have quickly thawed, since both Kennedy and Khrushchev had realized how close they’d come to apocalypse. Many dreams had died with John Kennedy at 12:30 p.m., Central Standard Time, Nov. 22, 1963, on the streets of Dallas.
Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994.