Seems Robert Kennedy was the problem. Since 1960 John Kennedy was US President, having been elected with, allegedly, some assistance from the Mob, egged on by Joe Kennedy Snr. The second generation of Kennedys might be said to have enjoyed the luxury of a rosier set of political ideals. John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s idealism, however, was tempered by pragmatism. When confronted he was capable of holding firm; he was also able to forge compromise, something that stood him in good stead in his dealings with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader. In the course of the Cuban Missile Crisis these two very different men careered along – diverting only at the last possible instant – the path towards blowing up the world. Yes, the Russian is said to have blinked first, but JFK also held back the hawks in his own administration, and showed leadership and restraint, both before and after the crisis.
But Bobby Kennedy was a hardball idealist. He seemed in hate with the very drug of venal power that had helped fuel his family dynasty. In his short reign as US Attorney General, he jailed nearly a thousand organised crime figures. Fidel Castro in Cuba had shut down the mobster’s casinos and heroin trade; now Robert Kennedy was doing the same on his turf. The mafia were enraged by this, and wanted a fix. Infiltration and subtle influence was not working effectively, so a plot was hatched to take out the President, the head of the Kennedy snake. But it would have been dangerous – even for the mob – to attempt this action unilaterally.
Anyway the mafia were not alone in wanting President Kennedy out of the way. There were the Anti-Castro Cubans, humiliated in the Bay of Pigs debacle (And there was crossover between these groups; the CIA had used mobsters as they plotted to murder Cuban leader Fidel Castro). In their eyes, Kennedy, when forced (by manoeuvering within the American intelligence and defence community) to show his hand against Castro, let them down. This led to war between the president and elements within the intelligence communities; Kennedy eventually fired the top three men at the CIA and most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The suggestion was made that the same forces that had conspired to kill Castro now turned their sights on Jack Kennedy. District Attorney Jim Garrison pointed the finger of blame to a group of ‘former CIA’ employees; people still on the books of the Intelligence community may or may not – according to him – have played an active role in the plot.
There are of course a multitude of conspiracy theories about the death of President John F. Kennedy; blogs and websites on the topic come in a dazzling variety of flavours. Vallancey tends to draw the line when space aliens, illuminati or Satanists enter the fray. I also find some scholarly works ultimately frustrating, fence-sitters like Michael Kurtz (Crime of the Century: The Kennedy Assassination from a Historian’s Perspective) or Larry J. Sabato (The Kennedy Half Century). The sheer volume of books and articles on the topic is mind-bending. There is always something new you haven’t heard of.
Analyse the blur
The literature available today might be roughly assembled in two categories; the journalistic; and scholarly or historical contributions. A broad generality might see the journalistic commentaries as mainly divided into two camps; either of conspiracy or ‘Oswald acted alone’; the historians, broadly speaking, are perhaps less inclined to reach definitive conclusions.
But there is a third stream inspired by the same set of events, which sometimes overlaps and feathers the other two; a join-the-dots body of fiction. One such is Libra, Don DeLillo’s 1988 novel. ‘Six point nine seconds of heat and light … Let’s call a meeting to analyse the blur. Let’s devote our lives to understanding this moment, separating the elements of each crowded second’. DeLillo observed that in 1963 ‘the power of television was utilized to its fullest, perhaps for the first time, as it pertained to a violent event’. The Zapruder silent colour film gave the illusion to most of the population of the planet that they had been (or could be, if they so chose) witnesses to the murder. This was a political assassination, but it was also a performance.
Robert Groden’s ‘X’ is an altogether different kind of performance. He maintains a white-painted symbol carefully at the point in the road in Dealey Plaza at the exact point where – he believes – the President was fatally hit. It is one of the most photographed spots in Dallas. Groden sells his assassination conspiracy books and CD’s on the Grassy Knoll. Above the Plaza, in the Sixth Floor Museum in the Texas School Book Depository, visitors can view – re-created behind glass walls – the sniper’s nest and window frame which Oswald is alleged to have used.
The destination of choice for white knight time travellers with murderous intentions is Hitler’s lair, closely followed by the Texas School Book Depository. This kind of literature represents our wish for history to have turned out different, with villians eliminated and consequent happy endings. Beyond this predictable orbit, a literary comet. Norman Mailer. Supreme master of reconstituting vigourous flesh on ragtag puzzles of historical bone; puppeteer of the past and sometimes the future. His Esquire article, Superman comes to the Supermarket had voiced and fertilised the instinctive attraction of Americans towards Kennedy the candidate.
‘Yes, the life of politics and the life of the myth had diverged too far. There was nothing to return them to one another, no common danger, no cause, no desire, and, most essentially, no hero’.
With the hero fallen, Norman Mailer took up his pen again, forging an 800 page plus, two-part novel, Oswald’s Tale, an American Mystery. He presents Oswald as complex and conflicted, and offers the qualified opinion that – so far as Oswald himself knew – he was the sole gunman. ‘Assuming that the facts chosen by the author have been salient – a sizeable assumption when dealing with Lee Harvey – it is still difficult not to believe that he pulled the trigger’. In the Third Stream, fiction and imagination floods in pools where no jittery film or hissy audio trace can be salvaged, in the dark swirl of events that lie behind the horrifying archival images.
A sub-genre of JFK murder fiction is represented by the work of people who were connected (or claim a connection) to the story in some way themselves. In Betrayal, published in 1976, Robert D. Morrow, who described himself as a former CIA contract employee, related in semi-fictionalized form, his participation in a secret war to destablise Fidel Castro. Morrow described the procuration of sniper rifles and specialized communication gear for the killing of Kennedy. He later wrote First Hand Knowledge : How I Participated in the CIA-Mafia Murder of JFK. The work of Morrow has been challenged; Ulric Shannon characterises the importance he places on his own role as ‘self-aggrandising’.
A novel by David Atlee Phillips, a retired CIA Chief of Cuban operations, called The AMLASH Legacy, remains unpublished (except for a few extracts). Phillips successfully sued Donald Freed and Fred Landis for claiming (in a book called Death in Washington) that he was Oswald’s handler, using the alias ‘Maurice Bishop’, and was implicated in the JFK assassination. As described by Jefferson Morley in Our Man in Mexico, The AMLASH Legacy depicts a character unmistakably based on Phillips, who – if only in the world of its author’s imagination – was one of two case officers who handled Lee Harvey Oswald. There may be other examples of a fiction author suing someone for saying his story is true; I can’t think of one. In the novel, or novel outline, Oswald, given the mission of killing Fidel Castro in Cuba, sets out first to establish his Marxist credentials
We rehearsed the plan many times: In Havana Oswald was to assassinate Castro with a sniper’s rifle from the upper floor window of a building on the route where Castro often drove in an open jeep. Whether Oswald was a double-agent or a psycho I’m not sure, and I don’t know why he killed Kennedy. But I do know he used precisely the plan we had devised against Castro. Thus the CIA did not anticipate the President’s assassination but it was responsible for it. I share that guilt.
At the AARC Conference (September 26 2014) Mr. Antonio Veciana, a Cuban exile involved in several assassination attempts on Fidel Castro broke his lengthy silence and declared that Phillips was indeed the man he had known as ‘Maurice Bishop’. Veciana, himself the founder and former leader of a shadowy anti-Castro paramilitary organisation called Alpha 66, also asserted that CIA employees, plotting to kill Castro, had been implicated in the assassination of President Kennedy.
One of the farthest-out examples of close-to-the-bone Kennedy-related spy fiction is The Idle Warriors, based on the life of Oswald (the protagonist in the story is called ‘Johnny Sheldon’). Kerry Wendell Thornley was a writer, provocateur and prankster, and an admirer of right wing doyen Ayn Rand. Thornley helped create a spoof religion, Discordianism. He served in the Marines with Oswald, first in El Toro in Southern California, and later in Japan, and wrote his novel during this period, three years before Kennedy’s death. Thornley was also friendly with Robert Anton Wilson. While the contents of his ‘Oswald’ novel are fairly innocuous (the book ends with the defection to the USSR of Johnny Sheldon), the author did testify to the Warren Commission and Jim Garrison’s investigation; in later writings and interviews he claimed insider knowledge of the events surrounding the President’s assassination.
An independent lawyer who assisted the Warren Commission, David Belin, wrote November 22 1963: You are the Jury, and subsequently Final Disclosure: The Full Truth About the Assassination of President Kennedy. Belin argues that Oswald was the sole assassin, but that for various political reasons, the truth behind his contacts (and possible conspirators) was covered up at government level.
Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgement, a critical response to the Warren Commission Report, inspired Executive Action (1973), a ‘speculative agitprop’ starring Burt Lancaster and directed by David Miller. I enjoyed Oliver’s Stone’s JFK, which focussed on the endeavours of Jim Garrison to peel back the layers of what he believed was an elaborate conspiracy (Garrison himself also authored a book, On the Trail of the Assassins, One Man’s Quest to Solve the Murder of President Kennedy). On leaving the cinema back in the nineties I was thoroughly convinced by Stone’s case, only to have my conviction steadily eroded by various commentaries and analyses using 3D imagery, some of which reaffirmed or refined the findings of The Warren Commission (1964) while making Jim Garrison seem, well… a bit off-beam. The Warren Report had concluded that the bullets that killed Kennedy (and injured John Connally) were fired by Lee Harvey Oswald from a sixth-floor window in the Texas School Book Depository. Oswald was a sole assassin, acting alone. He was also a sad nutcase Marxist, out for fame.
Lee Oswald’s mother Marguerite, who, up to her death in the 1980’s, never relented on her claim that her son worked for the government, was crazy or evil, according to her depiction in mainstream news reports. I must emphasise that I have no pretentions towards expertise in this arena, relying on my instinct for what sounds like more cogent arguments over what sounds like the more catch-all conspiracy arguments. In matters conspiratorial I am inclined towards scepticism. Conspiracy buffs tend to turn me off. A small red light blinks on my display when I hear about shooters on the overpass, on the Grassy Knoll, or somebody tampering with the Zapruder film. But for me, and I suspect, for many others, it’s the unease, the uncertainty that is disturbing. I would love to believe something, to encounter one coherent thread among the tangle enmeshing Dealey Plaza.
Ted Cruz’s Father was Secretly Elvis
I was reminded of all of this during the US primaries when Donald Trump made allegations that Ted Cruz’s father was photographed distributing pro-Cuba leaflets in the company of Lee Oswald a few months before the Kennedy assassination. ‘I mean, what was he doing … with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death, before the shooting?’ Trump asked. ‘It’s horrible.’ Sounded like classic Trumpian zany mudslinging, and indeed Cruz’s response was to ironically agree that indeed the story – first aired in The National Inquirer – was true. He also volunteered that his father was secretly Elvis, and that Jimmy Hoffa was buried in his back yard, both headlines that would have melded seamlessly with The National Inquirer’s standard output. Trump later backed off the claims, saying all he was doing was referring to the newspaper story. He didn’t know, but in Trump’s world, it was a story published by a respectable news outlet.
Then the Washington Post published an article by Philip Bump which conceded that it was unlikely but theoretically possible that one of the men standing with Oswald in a photo was Rafael Cruz. The men were distributing leaflets for (according to Castro himself) an organisation that did not exist, the New Orleans branch of the Fair Play to Cuba Committee. Maybe it did exist, in Oswald’s mind, but if that was the case, he was the sole member. In the end Bump concludes that we will probably never know the truth. Anyway, it’s a pretty irrelevant detail. But looking at black and white pictures of Oswald offering leaflets to passers-by, I felt old doubts stirring.
‘I am going to kill Kennedy’
It seems plausible that Lee Harvey Oswald was never genuinely interested in Fair Play to Cuba. He may have been, as his mother insisted, an undercover operative of some kind, working for/assisting a government agency, and one possibility is that he was (rather deliberately and clumsily) building a cover for some future purpose or action. He had picked his lowly-paid leafleting assistants, whatever their identity, from an unemployment queue. And he made sure to get photographed. These future actions might or might not have included doing harm to the President, an individual for whom Oswald’s wife claimed LHO had some sympathy; Oswald had read books on and by Kennedy in 1963 and expressed admiration. He may not have known what his task was to be, and have been waiting for orders. And course he could have been lying to his wife, or she may not have given the full story. Robert Holmes, who wrote in A Spy like no Other that Oswald was acting at the direction of Soviet agents, might be right. I tend to think not.
A fascinating source of information is the Mary Ferrell Foundation website. There you can read that before his death in January 2007, CIA master spy and convicted Watergate conspirator Howard Hunt ‘confessed’ to peripheral involvement in the Kennedy assassination, and named a number of other plotters, including David Morales, CIA Chief of Operations in Miami, David Phillips, Antonio Veciana, William Harvey and Cord Meyer. He also claimed that a ‘French gunman’ had fired on Kennedy from the Grassy Knoll. But Hunt’s main target was Lyndon Johnson, the vice president, and Kennedy’s replacement as President. None of Hunt’s claims are proveable. It is entirely possible that this was a re-trenchment rather than an honest confession, another peel-away heatshield layer of half-truth. Hunt may have been puffing up his own importance, or deflecting from a more awkward scenario; but there is little doubt he possessed valuable information, and some of the names he mentions crop up again and again.
‘Y, además, era importante que algun calgara con la culpa de la asesinato‘. Conspirators in secretly killing a President, in the real or fictional world, have lots of problems. The logistics of the assassination have to be developed in tandem with the work of creating a fall guy (or guys), a straw baddie who will publicly take the rap, cloaking their own role and channelling public ire strategically.
Only hours after President Kennedy’s death U.S. Ambassador Thomas C. Mann told colleagues in the American embassy in Mexico that he was certain Lee Harvey Oswald had not acted alone. Mann knew of an incident in the Cuban embassy in Mexico City in late September 1963, where Oswald had loudly demanded that he be granted a visa to visit Havana. He was on a six day trip to Mexico; Phillip Shennon suggests that many answers may reside in this little ‘holiday’; ‘—it is startling to discover how many credible government officials—beginning with Ambassador Mann and CIA station chief Scott—have suggested that evidence was missed in Mexico that could rewrite the history of the assassination.’
According to Antonio Veciana, Oswald’s approach to the Cuban embassy was organised by David Phillips as a staged event. Phillips knew Oswald would be rejected, but the paper trail generated by this action would link Castro and Lee Harvey Oswald for future investigators. This was an important phase in the work of Oswald’s handlers in building a persona. A recently released letter dated June 1964 from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to the Warren Commission tells how Oswald was reportedly overheard threatening Cuban embassy officials, ‘I’m going to kill Kennedy for this‘.
If Lee Oswald was on an undercover mission, it was surely not a knowing suicide mission. An intelligent but vain loner, he thought he was smart and important. The conflict between how Oswald saw his role and how the drama played out, shown by his reaction after the killing, ought to contain pointers to the truth. Leaving work, taking a bus back to his lodging house during work hours, Oswald paused briefly to collect his jacket and (allegedly) a revolver. Then he (allegedly) shot a policeman, Tippit. And hid in a movie theatre. But he didn’t seem to have an escape plan, and after his arrest he didn’t maintain his Marxist cover. He didn’t grandstand. Instead, he claimed innocence; ‘I didn’t shoot anyone’. In custody, he complained of police brutality, of being treated no better than prisoners in the Soviet Union. Jim Garrison, an eccentric investigator both praised and criticised by historians, would wind up thinking Oswald was framed in an elaborate deception, an arc of perfect cynicism. He toyed with the idea that Oswald might even have been an American hero. Some bloggers make that reading their starting point.
Who was Lee Harvey Oswald? He was born on October 18, 1939 in New Orleans, Louisiana, in fairly modest social circumstances, making him 24 years old at the time of his death (How young many of the players in this drama seem!). His mother said that Lee used to climb on top of the roof with binoculars, looking at the stars. Lee studied animals, their feeding and sleeping habits… ‘That is why he was at the Bronx Zoo when he was picked up for truancy’. Lee read history books, books too deep for a child his age. Oswald dropped out of high school in the 10th grade to volunteer for the Marine Corps, where he became a radar technician. For some years he was based in a US base in Japan. Shortly after being discharged from the Marine Corps, in October 1959, Oswald defected to the Soviet Union. He lived in the Belarusian city of Minsk until June 1962, then returned to the United States with Marina, his new Russian wife, and eventually settled in Dallas. That takes us to his little ‘scene’ at the Cuban consulate of the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City, and his rejected visa application. This is the man who lies in a nondescript grave in the Shannon Rose Hill Memorial Park, Dallas, and who, according to four Federal government investigations, shot and killed Kennedy and wounded Governor John Connally as they travelled by motorcade through Dealey Plaza in November 1963.
‘I am a Patsy’: The Baron’s Story
Among the ranks of zany and unbelievable JFK assassination books Baron George de Mohrenschildt’s I am a Patsy is right up there. Except this is not a book about conspiracy. De Mohrenschildt was a petroleum geologist and professor; a white Russian aristocrat who hung out with Cuban and Haitian dictators, a man who lived in bathing trunks. His father was a director of Nobel Oil in Sweden, owned by the Nobel’s of Nobel Prize fame. He sought out and then befriended Oswald, beginning an unlikely alliance in the summer of 1962. Mailer wrote of the ‘well-born friend’
‘If there is any place where a narrative of Oswald’s life is bound to take on the seductive ambiguity of a spy novel, it is with the entrance into Lee’s affairs of Baron George De Mohrenschildt, a tall, well-educated, powerful, handsome fifty one year old with an incomparable biography.’
It was de Mohrenschildt who suggested that Oswald should move to Dallas. I am a Patsy is an anti-conspiracy book from a player at the very heart of the story. The author informs readers that; (a) De Mohrenschildt had no associations with the intelligence community and (b) that Ruth Paine, a school psychologist and associate of de Mohrenschildt’s – who assisted Oswald in getting the job in the Texas Book Depository building – was a decent and upright citizen and everything she appeared outwardly to be. The book (c) characterised Oswald as a lonely, violent and disturbed individual. And why might we doubt this account? J. P. Phillips:
‘In May 1938 Georges de Mohrenschildt arrived in the U.S. aboard the SS Manhattan carrying a Polish passport … Three years later, as the U.S. entered the war on the Allied side, FBI agents placed him under arrest, charging him with illegally sketching the U.S. naval installation at Port Arthur, Texas. It was during his brief detention in FBI custody that it was discovered that he was carrying two different sets of identification, one of which revealed he was of Swedish nationality, the other that he was a “Greek Catholic” who was born in 1914. … like a chameleon changing colours, de Mohrenschildt would prove his adeptness at altering his identity as well as his allegiance, almost at will’.
In Act of Retribution: The Military-Industrial-Intelligence Establishment And The Conspiracy To Assassinate President John F. Kennedy, Phillips describes de Mohrenschildt as having openly expressed pro-Nazi sentiments in Mexico in the forties, and suggests that his subsequent ascent in U.S. society followed his being turned and recruited by American spy agencies. Phillips (on page 84 of his book): ‘In view of the evidence surrounding de Mohrenschildt’s intelligence connections, it is no exaggeration to suggest that he was more than likely Oswald’s CIA contact in Dallas‘.
In a cauldron of heat and light, it is possible to overlook dark patches. The story of the killing of Kennedy is told and retold in interviews on video or in transcript form, hours and hours of them. There is Ruth Paine, thin face, fringe and big spectacles, ageing from YouTube clip to YouTube clip, sticking to her story of being a good friend to a needy family (Marina and her daughter, and sometimes Lee Oswald, stayed at her house). To my eyes she seems credible, if coy, under cross examination on a surreal TV-staged ‘trial’ of Oswald made by Showtime in 1986. Your first impression is that it is real; the caption doesn’t give much away. Then you pick up on the health warning; it’s an amazing quasi-real event, starring many of the actual star witnesses; Reality TV of the Third Order.
An Escher Painting
Back in the world of official jurisprudence, and describing his first encounter with Oswald, ‘someone’ – according to his own testimony – gave De Mohrenschildt Oswald’s address and, in the company of his ‘friend’, Colonel Lawrence Orlov, the Swede drove to Fort Worth to seek out the ex-Marine, freshly returned from the Soviet Union. According to Robert Howard, Orlov, who used a P.O. box address in Dallas, was an American oil man, ex-military, of Russian descent (the mysterious Orlov told an interviewer (Epstein) that when that meeting took place that it was obvious the Oswald’s and the de Mohrenschildt’s had met before). On arrival, Mohrenschildt (and presumably Orlov) made small talk with Marina Oswald until her husband returned from work. De Mohrenschildt expressed amazement that Oswald had read, in Russian, such difficult writers as Gorky, Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Tolstoy. He had never seen such proficiency in his best senior students… Anyway, the pair became friendly, the Russian-speaking Oswald and the white Russian ‘Baron’, he of the incomparable biography.
De Mohrenschildt gave The Warren Commission its lengthiest testimony; indeed the authors of the House Select Committee on Assassination‘s final report (1978) even appended the text of his yet-to-be-published book to its twelfth volume. His, to all intents and purposes, became the official version, broadly confirmed by the findings of both reports.
In the famous series of images called the ‘Backyard Photos’ Oswald posed, dressed in black, holding the ‘assassination weapon’, a rifle with a telescopic sight. He wears a revolver on his hip. In his left hand he holds up copies of two radical newspapers, The Militant and The Worker. On the edge of one print – in Oswald’s hand – is written ‘to my friend, George.’ The question of the timeline and sequencing of the ‘discovery’ of these images, taken by Oswald’s wife, Marina, are too complex to go into here. Oswald supposedly told police the images were faked, but assuming they are real, what do they depict? The best comment I saw was that holding up a Stalinist and Trotskyite paper is like demonstrating your allegiance to religious fundamentalism by brandishing both a Bible and a Quran. It was also somehow akin to Thomas Gerome Newton, the space alien, arriving dressed like a-man-about-town, kitted out with a pocketful of everyday items, part of his toolkit for insertion into human society. In Tevis’ novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth, the aliens’ replica cigarette boxes and trinkets and coins are designed by an alien team after careful research using a space telescope. But the props lack essential detail. The Oswald of the Backyard Photos is redolent of how their opponents imagine the left to be; a smorgasbord of ideological horrors, rather than the nuanced, fragmented and complex sub-worlds, each one with their own detailed filigree of grievance, of the actual left. The Backyard Photos, if they are as real as most experts contend, suggest that Oswald was either a highly deluded poser, or that his self-portrayal in those images was fraudulent.
Willem Oltmans, a Dutch investigative journalist investigated De Mohrenschildt and established his CIA links. On April 2, 1977 Oltmans testified to the House Select Committee on Assassinations that De Mohrenschildt had, in interviews, implicated himself in the conspiracy to kill President Kennedy. De Mohrenschildt told him he had discussed the assassination with Lee Harvey Oswald from A to Z. Oswald had acted at De Mohrenschildt’s instructions; he knew Oswald was going to kill Kennedy. ‘I am responsible. I feel responsible for the behaviour of Lee Harvey Oswald… because I guided him. I instructed him to set it up.’
In 1977 De Mohrenschildt agreed to disclose further information to Oltmans, but was found dead before the meeting could be convened, apparently by suicide. But De Mohrenschildt did speak prior to his death to at least two journalists, a freelancer called Dick Russell and investigative journalist and respected academic Edward J. Epstein.
De Mohrenschildt told Russell a revised version of his Oswald story. ‘I will tell you this. I am sure he did not shoot the President … Lee was too good in his knowledge of the Russian language not to have been instructed by someone before he took his trip to Europe’. By this time De Mohrenschildt was short of cash, isolated and scared, which may or may not alleviate scepticism. He described how J. Walton Moore, a CIA contact, had prompted him to engage Oswald. ‘I would never have contacted Oswald in a million years if Moore had not sanctioned it,’ On the 20 March 1977, Epstein, in the midst of a four day interview for an article for The Readers Digest (a $4,000 “honorarium” had been agreed), had lunch with Mohrenschildt; the Russian’s body, with a shotgun blast to the head, was found later that day. George Mohrenschildt’s widow Jeanne insisted that his demise was not by suicide. She, according to Russ Baker (Family of Secrets), said that Lee Harvey Oswald was an agent of the US, possibly of the CIA, and she believed he did not kill JFK. She finished ‘they may get me too … but I am not afraid, it’s about time somebody looked into this thing’. Baker’s book, whose main focus is the Bush family, has its critics, but George and Jeanne Mohrenschildt’s accounts remain problematic for those who entirely discount the Kennedy conspiracy.
Other writers have explored the role of such players as David Morales in this story, and connected a weave of CIA/Cuban stories that leave the reader with (to borrow the metaphor of Adam Gorightly) the feeling of being adrift in an Escher painting, where up is both up …and down.
The Girl on the Stairs, and other Questions
But let us return to Lee Harvey Oswald. Who, we ask again, was this young man? James W. Douglass records that from September 1957 to November 1958 Oswald was a Marine Corps radar operator at Atsugi US Air Force Base in Japan, forty five km north of Tokyo. Atsugi was the CIA’s main operational base in the Far East. This was where the top-secret U-2 spy planes took off on their flights over the Soviet Union and China.
Callow as he was, to those who engaged with him, Lee came across as contrary, sharp, wiry and tough. The Dallas Postal Inspector testified that he kept three P.O. Box addresses in Dallas and one in New Orleans. As De Mohrenschildt observed, he spoke Russian without an accent. He was accepted back to America without question after his ‘defection’ and marriage to a Russian. He was even flown back to the US on a military transport. It has escaped no one’s notice that the fingerprints of intelligence were all over him. He allegedly shot Kennedy from the building where he worked, apparently having smuggled his rifle to work that morning.
Conspiracy theorists love to point out that the timing of the crucial moments, the circumstantial evidence against Oswald, is far from straightforward. Ninety seconds after the shooting (allegedly from a 6th floor window of the Book Depository Building), a police witness (Officer Baker) saw Oswald in a lunchroom on the 2nd floor of the building, drinking a Coke. He was not out of breath or flustered and – if he was the shooter – he has already wiped his fingerprints off the gun, stashed it and traversed the stairs (the elevator, mysteriously, was temporarily out of action). He had also been seen on the 2nd floor 10 minutes before the shooting. Perhaps he was a trained assassin, whose normal reactions had been drilled out of him.
Vicky Adams and her friend Sandra Styles watched the Kennedy motorcade from a fourth floor office window. Fifteen to thirty seconds after the shots, Adams and Styles entered the only stairwell in the building and went down the stairs. They saw no-one. Styles was interviewed once by the FBI and ignored from then on. The evidence of these witnesses cast grave doubt whether Oswald entered the stairwell during the crucial ninety seconds between the last shot and when Patrolman Marrion Baker confronted Oswald on the second floor (Barry Ernest’s book, The Girl on the Stairs and his interviews provides greater detail). In short, there seems a solid case that Oswald did not fire a rifle that day, and it seems questionable, despite the findings of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, whether, after leaving his boarding house, and before he was arrested in a nearby theatre, he shot and killed Officer J. D. Tippit. Jim Garrison didn’t think he was involved in that shooting, either.
‘We suspect that cartridges had been previously obtained from Oswald’s .38 revolver and left at the murder site by the real killers as part of the setup to incriminate Oswald. However, somebody slipped up there. Of the four cartridges found at the scene, two were Winchesters and two were Remingtons — but of the four bullets found in Officer Tippit’s body, three were Winchesters and one was a Remington!’
Oswald’s first action after the Kennedy shooting was to return to his boarding house, for only the briefest of visits. While he was there his landlady Earlene Roberts saw a police car (with two uniformed occupants) slowing outside and tooting its horn twice, then drive slowly on Beckley toward Zangs Boulevard. Oswald went to his room, got a short coat, and left again, walking fast. But here is found a calamitous collapse of the official version of events.
Hugh Trevor-Roper, Professor of History at the University of Oxford, in the introduction to Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgement, asks
On what evidence did the Dallas police suspect Oswald ?
The police never mentioned Oswald’s name in their broadcast descriptions before his arrest. Although Police Chief Jesse Curry said that Oswald became a suspect ‘after the police had found on the sixth floor the rifle they believed was the assassination weapon,’ that can simply not be true. According to the Warren Commission, Tippit was slain at 1.15/1.16, before the murder weapon was supposed to have been found (at 1.21, according to the Commission timings). Trevor Roper’s critique is devastating
‘We are led to suppose that Tippit was seeking to arrest Oswald as the murderer of the President. But allowing this to be so, how was it that, in all Dallas, the police, in the person of Patrolman Tippit, contrived, almost at once, to pounce on one man and one man only, and that man was, according to their subsequent insistence, the real murderer? According to the ‘Summary and Conclusions’, the attempted arrest was made in consequence of a description broadcast by the police [starting at 12.44 – ed], and this description in turn was based ‘primarily’ on the observation of one Howard L. Brennan, who is said to have seen Oswald, through the sixth floor window of the Dallas Book Depository, from the street‘.
Bill Simpich in Chapter 6 of State Secret, Wiretapping in Mexico City, Double Agents and the Framing of Lee Harvey Oswald;
Fourteen minutes after the shooting, a 12:44 pm radio call in Dallas gave a description of a man with a rifle on the 6th floor of the Texas Book Depository. This radio call was based on (…) an “unknown white man’s” report to police inspector Herbert Sawyer. “Slender white male about 30, five feet ten, 165”.
Simpich reminds his readers that Ann Egerter and the FBI had repeatedly used that particular inaccurate formulation – “5 feet ten, 165” – to describe Oswald since his time in the USSR in 1960. (Oswald was 5′ 9″/140).
238 Glencairn Drive. 223 S. Ewing. 1026 N Beckley. Officer Tippit, Jack Ruby and Oswald all lived within a 7 mile radius. If you navigate SE from Oswald’s rooming house in Google Maps to Jack Ruby’s apartment, Google’s preferred route takes 25 minutes to walk 1.2 miles. Two thirds of the way along you come to 404 East Tenth Street, the spot where Tippit was killed. Can the timeline of hospital records in the Methodist Dallas Medical Centre (where Tippit was declared dead at 1.15), be reconciled with the Tippit timeline? Tippits movements were curious, first speeding, making an urgent phone call from a shop, then crawling in his patrol car. Why was Tippit a regular visitor to the place he was killed? Did he and Oswald know each other? Did Tippit try to kill Oswald? Did unknown people try to kill them both? Tippit was murdered in a hit-style execution (although some witnesses identified Oswald at the scene, and in police line-ups, one witness described a short heavy shooter, not at all resembling Oswald). Afterwards Oswald was arrested in the Texas Theater, a movie house. This part of the account, at least, is true. What was he doing there? It was suggestive of the move of a spy, trying to meet a contact. The killing of Tippit, close to where Oswald lived, after the killing of Kennedy, close to where Oswald worked, is a story which seems to invite speculation and doubt. Much of the police evidence as to these events changed over the course of its telling.
There are other ways to approach the question of Oswald’s reactions. If he was so cool after shooting the president, why did he behave so erratically afterwards? If he was a CIA operative or informant, as many conspiracy theorists suspect, why did he appear so disinterested in events going on around him? Did he watch the motorcade passing?
Another issue is that of Oswald’s dual identity. He was said (in the Warren Report) to carry two ID’s. One was for Lee Harvey Oswald, and the other for an Alek James Hidell; both bore Oswald’s photograph. This issue is examined here. After his arrest, in between long sessions of questioning, Oswald attempted to make a phone call from the police station, which was intercepted by two strangers upstairs in the police station. The call, which was never put through, was to a ‘John Hurt’ in Raleigh. An operator called Mrs Trion kept a written record of the call, which never came to the Warren Commission. It seems (according to Grover B. Proctor) that Hurt (a volatile and troubled character) had associations with Military Intelligence.
Though Lee Oswald was interrogated for many hours by Dallas police (and FBI agents) over the weekend of his arrest, no recordings or transcriptions of these interviews were made at the time (‘several’ of Oswald’s questioners gave accounts from memory). But his chief interrogator, Dallas police Chief Jesse Curry (who of course also wrote a book) said in 1969, ‘We don’t have any proof that Oswald fired the rifle. No one has been able to put him in that building with a gun in his hand’. Yet within hours, the police paraded the rifle in front of cameras, and pressmen were told that ‘without any doubt’ Oswald, who had not yet seen a lawyer, never mind a trial, was guilty of shooting the President. It was (in Eric Norden’s words) ‘a campaign of official smear, innuendo and vilification almost without parallel in Western juridical history‘. Mark Lane, who wrote Rush to Judgement noted that although the Warren Commission had set up panels to investigate why Oswald had shot the President, no panel had been set up to determine whether he had shot him.
In custody, Oswald vehemently pleaded his innocence; ‘I didn’t kill anyone’. ‘I am just a patsy’. Then, on November 24, two days after the president’s murder, Oswald, like Kennedy, was assassinated in public. Oswald’s killer was the guy who lived a 25 minute walk from his boarding house, nightclub owner Jack Ruby, a man with strong associations with the mob. In custody, Jack Ruby did not toe the official line, telling a reporter
‘Everything pertaining to what’s happening has never came to the surface. The world will never know the true facts of what has occurred, my motives. The people who had so much to gain, and who had such an ulterior motive for putting me in the position I’m in, will never let the true facts come above board to the world‘.
The journalist asked if these were people in very high places. Ruby said ‘yes‘. But in his testimony Ruby said ‘there is no conspiracy’. He denied knowing Oswald. But he also said he feared for his life, and that he could not testify fully from the Texas jail.
‘I have been used for a purpose, and there will be a certain tragic occurrence happening if you don’t take my testimony and somehow vindicate me so my people don’t suffer because of what I have done’.
The Bolden File
There was great scepticism about the official story among the American populace in 1963. But what was the view of the Kennedy family? Robert Kennedy Junior told an audience in the Winspear Opera House, Dallas in 2013 that he didn’t know if James Douglass’ conclusions (regarding a conspiracy to kill JFK) were right or not, ‘but a lot of the evidence, at this point, anyway, is very convincing, there was not a lone gunman’. Douglass book is called JFK and the Unspeakable. In one part he documents dual assassination plots, almost exact replicas of each other, based in Chicago and Dallas in late 1963. Both employed a patsy, with CIA training, who had worked on the U-2 spy planes in Japan. The patsy or fall guy in Chicago for the November 2 attack was called Thomas Arthur Vallee. He is described as;
‘…an alienated ex-Marine who was a “disaffiliated member of the John Birch Society”, a far right organization obsessed with Communist subversion in the US. Vallee was described as a loner, a paranoid schizophrenic, and a gun collector. He perfectly fit the “lone nut” profile that would later be used to characterize ex-Marine Lee Harvey Oswald’.
Abraham Bolden, a secret service agent who was later imprisoned on trumped-up charges, tried but failed to have this information included in the Warren Commission. (Don DeLillo described the Warren Commission Report as ‘the novel that James Joyce might have written if he had moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred’). Bolden, the first black to serve on the Secret Service White House detail, there at the personal invitation of President Kennedy, alleged that shortly before November 2, the FBI notified the Secret Service that it had received a message warning of an attempt on the President’s life by a four-man team using high-powered rifles. Eventually the Chicago visit by the President was cancelled. The planned Chicago attack was also flagged in a tip-off from an unknown informant called ‘Lee’. Two of the sharpshooters were arrested, as was Vallee. Even though the men were surveilled and arrested, even though witnesses had seen them with guns, even though a report was completed, it was buried forever. The two men’s names are not recorded.
Conspiracy theorists have wondered aloud as to the identity of the informant ‘Lee’. Could it have been Lee Harvey Oswald? Did he think his actions were protecting the President? One of the deepest mysteries of the case is what Oswald believed he was doing. Did he plan to kill Kennedy or have some supporting role in the plot? Why did he appear to be feigning Communist sympathies? Was he a double agent? Was Texas Governor Connally, as argued by James Reston Jr, his real target? Was his priority to hinder the plot or to infiltrate a cabal of assassins? Did he believe he was involved in a staged failed attack on Kennedy, that would be blamed on Castro? Was he on a practice run of some kind? Who could he have trusted?
‘Thou Shall seek the Truth’
‘Do innocent people take guns to the movies, assault a police officer and try to shoot him?’ asked Gary Mack in a TIME article, suggesting that photographs of Oswald’s arrest may ‘prove’ his guilt, and even represent an end to conspiracy (Mack, who died in 2015 was curator of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza). Pictured later by a police camera, Oswald is pale and tight-lipped, a shiner on his left eye. Cop killer. The pathos of Oswald’s utter isolation is operatic. Maybe he slept for an hour or two, on that Saturday. He tried to phone his wife, in the few hours between interrogations and identity line ups. Twice he got Ruth Paine on the phone. Could he speak to Marina? Marina wasn’t there. Could Ruth get him a particular lawyer? She would try (she said she tried but failed to get through to one). When a Dallas lawyer, H. Louis Nichols, eventurally showed up, Oswald said he wanted a New York lawyer named John Abt or a lawyer associated with the American Civil Liberties Union to represent him. Oswald wanted a lawyer ‘who believes as I believe, and believes in my innocence.’ He refused Nichols offer of assistance. After his death, Marina reluctantly accepted her husband’s guilt, saying that Lee Oswald had practised firing a rifle before the assassination, that he had opened fire on General Edwin Walker at his home, and that he planned to kill Richard Nixon (Only much later did Marina express the view that Oswald had been wronged). The Warren Commission concluded that Marina Oswald had repeatedly lied to the Secret Service, the FBI, and the Commission. In the end, only Oswald’s mother, Marguerite, stood firm.
Eventually, my guess is, the truth of Dallas 1963 will come out. President Bill Clinton ordered the release of a huge tranche of previously secret files during his term. Another batch is due to be declassified in late 2017. Some stories are just too radioactive to contain, as shown by the telling in fictional form, the bubbling and leaking and whispering over the years. Even with the information currently available, the picture is slowly becoming clearer. My sense is that three Kennedy assassination theories, each with their own motivation, help to clarify the picture somewhat.
- Fidel Castro ordered the killing. This Communist Conspiracy Theory is still being advocated today. This was the preferred narrative for those who wanted both Kennedy and Castro out of the way. If the Cubans were publicly believed to be responsible, the outcome would have been the invasion of Cuba (and quite possibly a World War).
- The Lone Loony Gunman Theory. Robert Kennedy and other politicians, including Lyndon Johnson, pushed the ‘Oswald acted alone’ story, partly because they were pushing against The Communist Conspiracy Theory, the veracity of which, in the immediate wake of the assassination, was unclear. This narrative – from these advocates point of view – was intended to keep a lid on an unstable and explosive political situation. It may or may not have been true, or but it was certainly politically expedient. David Slawson, one of the lawyers working on the Warren Report told Philip Shennon in an item published in Politico in 2015 that he now suspects a cover-up. Robert Kennedy might also have been trying to conceal his own role in plots against Castro. One important note: it is possible to have an ‘Oswald acted alone’ scenario and a conspiratorial cover up; for example if people in the Intelligence Community knew about Oswald’s plans, but for reasons of their own decided not to intervene. And of course, as others have observed, the Lone Loony Gunman Theory has to be in the plural, as Jack Ruby has to fit in this story too, somehow.
- The DRE/Alpha 66 ConspiracyTheory, that Kennedy was killed by group centred in Mexico City and Miami, comprised of particular CIA factions (but not CIA headquarters), and Alpha 66 elements, supported by members of the mafia. The original focus of this group had been the assassination of Castro. They set up Oswald, who was either one of a number of shooters on this day, the sole shooter, or didn’t fire on Kennedy at all. The House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded in the Seventies that there was evidence of a conspiracy but that – according to the evidence before them – the conspirators did not include any government agencies or organised crime elements (They also excluded Soviet and Cuban influence). Robert Blakey, Chief Counsel of the Committee, later changed his opinion regarding CIA co-operation with the investigation. Indications had emerged that the CIA’s special liaison to the Committee researchers, George Joannides, was involved with some of the same organizations as Lee Harvey Oswald in the months prior to the assassination. One of these was an anti-Castro group, the DRE, linked to the CIA. In whose interest could it be to promote this theory? Leftists, or sympathisers with Cuba, for a start (but the doubters come from a very wide political constituency). Seekers after intrigue, and those suspicious of the motives of the ‘establishment’.
It is hard to disagree, I would say, with the official reports that Castro or the Cubans were not involved in killing Kennedy. It looks very like the Lone Loony Theory was a concoction, and that Oswald, while he was in some way involved, was not the assassin. The reason the cover-up succeeded for so long was that too many people had too much to lose for the truth to come out. Not all of these motivations were nefarious. The upper echelons of the CIA were effectively blackmailed by the actions of people who were supposed to be under their control. The political establishment were concerned with security, social unrest and the prospect of world war. So diverse and opposing forces, driven by pragmatism and circumstance (and sometimes collusion), came to agree on the least toxic formulation, the Lone Gunman Theory. However Rex E. Bradford contends on the basis of spy recordings and transcripts from Mexico released in 1999 that – while Oswald was in custody – Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover knew that the Oswald-Soviet/Cuban connection was in fact a plant.
You have to consider that within the U.S. Intelligence Community of the time were many factions. There were undoubtedly elements loyal to the Kennedys. There were those who just did their jobs and there were Kennedy opponents. Playing both sides was the name of the game. Very young, Lee learnt about running with the hare and the hounds. In this hall of mirrors, Oswald may have ended up pretending to be something he actually was, or once was. If he was undercover as a Russian sympathiser, Oswald started very early, back in 1959. Then, while in the Marine Corps, he sang Russian songs, used the expressions ‘da’ and ‘niet’ when he got the chance and enjoyed the nickname “Oswaldskovich”. He argued with other cadets that ‘Communism is the best religion’. At that time, at least, he really does come across as a Russian nut.
In his collected letters and notes written in the last years of his life, we meet a new Oswald, a critic of the American Communist party, dreaming a novel idealist dream. Here, he is every bit The Man Who Fell to Earth. He advocates a political system of his own invention, called an Atheian system, in which – post some kind of apocalypse – war and segregation (and weapons of mass destruction) are outlawed and Democracy operates at a local level with no centralized State. It is a critique of both Capitalism and Communism. Taking a stance which appears entirely at odds to the leftist, pro–Soviet and pro–Cuban attitude of the Oswald of the leafleteer, or of the Backyard Photos, he drafted speeches in which he attempted to balance the merits of the two great competing world systems from his experiences in both. This version of Oswald speaks in the voice of a human spirit outside of human history, looking in. He offers an explanation as to why he returned to the U.S.
‘Nowadays most of us read enough about certain right wing groups to know how to recognize them and guard against their corrosive effects. I would never jump on any of the many right wing bandwagons … our two countries have too much to offer to each other to be tearing at each other’s throats in an endless cold war. Both countries have major shortcomings and advantages but only in ours is the voice of dissent allowed opportunity of expression. In going to Russia I followed the old principle, “Thou shall seek the truth and the truth shall make you free.” In returning to the U.S., I have done nothing more or less than select the lesser of two evils’.
A cynic could conclude that Lee was happy to tell whichever system he was currently defecting to, what he thought they wanted to hear, then perhaps return to his customary critical posture. Yet he took considerable risks to smuggle parts of his manuscript out of Russia, a document heavily critical of Stalinism and brutally honest about the current Soviet regime. ‘When elections are initiated in the USSR, a whole huge mechanical apparatus is started, not only to ensure victory, but to safeguard the State from any voice of dissent, either in absenteeism or opposition‘. Allowing for changes in opinion and emphasis, even over relatively short time scales, some versions of Oswald have to be works of fiction. He wrote in 1959 in his application to Albert Schweitzer College, Switzerland that Hemingway and Norman Vincent Peale were his favourite authors, and of his ambition to become ‘a short story writer on contemporary American life‘.
He himself would become part author of his polyphonic narrative, but only part. It seems clear that there was more than one character bearing the name Lee Harvey Oswald moving around the south of the US and Mexico in the time leading up to the Kennedy assassination. Jim Garrison described how, before the assassination, a calculated effort was made to implicate Lee Oswald in the events to come. Some of this activity (wittingly or unwitingly) was carried out by Oswald himself, but not all. Jeremy Bojczuk in his 22 November 1963 site writes
‘A young man approximating Oswald’s description and using Oswald’s name — we believe we have discovered his identity — engaged in a variety of activities designed to create such a strong impression of Oswald’s instability and culpability in people’s minds that they would recall him as a suspicious character after the President was murdered.
In one instance, a man went to an auto salesroom, gave his name as Lee Oswald, test–drove a car at 80 miles an hour — Oswald couldn’t drive — and, after creating an ineradicable impression on the salesman by his speeding, gratuitously remarked that he might go back to the Soviet Union and was expecting to come into a large sum of money. Parenthetically, the salesman who described this “second Oswald” was subsequently beaten almost to death by unknown assailants outside his showroom. He later fled Dallas and last year was found dead; it was officially declared a suicide.
In another instance, this “second Oswald” visited a shooting range in Dallas and gave a virtuoso demonstration of marksmanship, hitting not only his own bull’s–eye but the bull’s–eyes of neighboring targets as well — thus leaving an unforgettable impression of his skill with a rifle. The real Oswald, of course, was a mediocre shot, and there is no evidence that he had fired a rifle since the day he left the Marines. Consequently, the fact that he couldn’t hit the side of a barn had to be offset, which accounts for the tableau at the rifle range’.
If your objective was to cloak a crime of this magnitude inside a conspiracy of the scale proposed by doubters of the official version of events, you were engaged in creating a very challenging piece of theatre. To bring the story to the desired conclusion, you had to be prepared to take immense risks. Chance events or serendipity had to worry you very deeply. What if someone missed a cue? This would by definition be street theatre, involving multiple bystanders not in on the plot. What if an alibi-providing interloper stumbles onstage at any of a series of critical points? What if the mark survives? What if the patsy survives, or is lost prematurely? One answer to this last potential difficulty is to provide stand-ins, body doubles.
Former military intelligence officer and history professor John Newman detailed the existence, post-assassination, of “Oswald” Mexico City tapes in a presentation to the JFK Lancer Conference 2000 (Rex E. Bradford was my original source for this transcript. Also of interest here are Newman’s Where Angels Tread Lightly: The Assassination of President Kennedy Volume 1, and Countdown to Darkness: The Assassination of President Kennedy Volume II).
At 10:01 AM on the morning of November 23, 1963, less than 24 hours after the assassination, at a time when Oswald was being held in a Dallas jail, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover spoke by phone to the new President Lyndon Johnson. Hoover told Johnson that he was aware of more than one man playing the role of Oswald in Mexico.
LBJ: Have you established any more about the visit to the Soviet embassy in Mexico in September?
Hoover: No, that’s one angle that’s very confusing, for this reason—we have up here the tape and the photograph of the man who was at the Soviet embassy, using Oswald’s name. That picture and the tape do not correspond to this man’s voice, nor to his appearance. In other words, it appears that there is a second person who was at the Soviet embassy down there.
Don DeLillo told Rolling Stone that ‘someone who knew Oswald referred to him as an actor in real life, and I do think there is a sense in which he was watching himself perform’. It seems that the more productive question is not who was Lee Harvey Oswald, but what was he?
Besides the links in the article, I have listed below in no particular order, and not comprehensively, some sources I came across during my research, to which I may not have provided links in the text. There is also the JFK Lancer website, an extraordinary article from Vanity Fair (1994, updated 2001) by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan called The Ghosts of November – which I am just in the process of digesting – and a number of blogs to which I have only provided links.
Joe McBride Into the Nightmare
John Newman Oswald and the CIA
Peter Dale Scott Deep Politics and the Death of JFK
Stephen Hager Killing Kennedy: The Real Story
Philip H. Melanson Spy Saga: Lee Harvey Oswald
Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann Legacy of Secrecy: The Long Shadow of the JFK Assassination
Jefferson Morley Our Man in Mexico, Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA
Harold Weisberg Whitewash: The Report on the Warren Report
Be sure to look up Lisa Pease on James Angleton and Lee Oswald.