During this 50th anniversary season, there has been a flourish of commentary in the mainstream news and entertainment media about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Publishers and producers know a good story when they see one. The New York Times editor, Jill Abramson, laments Kennedy’s blurry persona but finds “consensus” on the lone gunman theory; a Time magazine cover article notes “conspiracy theories rise and fall to the passions of each new era.” Some commentators see Dealey Plaza as being too small for such a big event. Others argue that the American people could not accept that a “nobody” changed the course of history. While still others suggest “we” let our emotions get the better of us because JFK was such a compelling figure.
Rarely is there an honest appraisal of the Warren Commission’s more outlandish distortions. Those who question the accuracy of the Commission are still called “buffs”; while enthusiasts for the government’s official line are “debunkers.” The fallback position focuses on Americans’ alleged inability to face the reality that random acts happen. The subtext to these lines of thought points to everything but a political assassination.
As many as seventy million Americans, along with television viewers in twenty-three other countries, were watching when the CBS News anchorman, Walter Cronkite, reported President Kennedy’s death. The nation’s shock and disbelief that JFK could be assassinated that way, cut down at the age of forty-six no less, melded with expressions of mourning. Back in Washington, live television added a new dimension to the four-day presidential requiem that followed with its formal military pageantry and Catholic ritual. The scholar of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell, recalled his own feelings, saying it was “the first and only thing of its kind in peacetime that has ever given me the sense of being a member of this whole national community engaged as a unit in the observance of a deeply significant rite.” (Campbell/Moyers interview, 1988, xiii-xiv)
My earliest conscious memory as a child was seeing my mother cry while watching the funeral on a black-and-white television in our suburban San Jose, California living room. I get the cultural significance. I get the importance of TV and film and imagery in recording the events in Dallas. I understand JFK was a compelling and attractive individual.
But I don’t have to then make a giant leap to accept the conclusions of the Warren Commission simply because the event was emotionally meaningful. After his murder, far more people claimed to have voted for Kennedy in 1960 than was numerically possible. Few contemporary reporters place the assassination in its historical context. They’re more comfortable discussing the semiotics of the Zapruder film than explaining why most people do not accept the official line. Put simply, the dominant interpretation of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination has been ahistorical, superficial, and condescending. “How could 61 percent of Americans believe in a conspiracy?” they ask.
Truman on the CIA
Rarely does a former President take a public stand calling for reining in a federal agency he had a hand in creating. Yet a month after President Kennedy was assassinated, former President Harry S. Truman published a thoughtfully phrased article in the Washington Post warning the American people about the dangers of the Central Intelligence Agency. On December 22, 1963 Truman wrote:
“I think it has become necessary to take another look at the purpose and operations of our Central Intelligence Agency – CIA . . .
“For some time I have been disturbed by the way the CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas.
“We have grown up as a nation, respected for our free institutions and for our ability to maintain a free and open society. There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel we need to correct it.” (Quoted in Douglass 2009, 332)
It might be a coincidence that President Truman chose that moment to call for reeling in the CIA, but it’s also possible he sensed something about the operational aspects of the assassination that disturbed him. “The CIA was set up by me for the sole purpose of getting all the available information to the president,” Truman wrote in a subsequent correspondence with the managing editor of Look magazine. “It was not intended to operate as an international agency engaged in strange activities.” (Quoted in Douglass 2009, 333)
In November 1963, the American people hadn’t a clue about the power the CIA amassed in the decade after Truman signed the National Security Act in March 1947. Rigging elections, overthrowing governments, arming mercenaries, engaging in propaganda, money laundering, blackmail, assassination, and so on. In the 1970s, events relating to the Watergate scandal forced the CIA to take a “modified limited hang-out” and admit to some wrongdoing in order to ensure that its “family jewels” remained concealed. (Victor Marchetti The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, 1974) CIA Director Richard Helms had no choice but to admit that in the early 1960s there existed CIA collusion with Mafia hit men to assassinate Fidel Castro. Once it was revealed that the CIA possessed an elaborate assassination capability the public outcry was loud enough to compel Congress to look into the Kennedy assassination.
The House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), even with its serious flaws and mismanagement, still unearthed new facts relating to Jack Ruby’s organized crime connections (that the Warren Commission had assiduously overlooked). The committee sought the testimony of the mobsters Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana, and the Russian oil geologist, George DeMohrenshildt, who had been Lee Oswald’s buddy in Dallas. It’s kind of a bummer that all three men were murdered before they could share their views about the assassination with Congress. (Belzer 2013, 213-225; 229-238)
George Joannides, the CIA agent who was brought out of retirement to serve as the Agency’s liaison with the HSCA, led the committee on wild goose chases and failed to divulge his background as an agent involved in the JM/WAVE anti-Castro mercenary effort run out of Miami in the early-1960s. The CIA has since sealed away its files dealing with Joannides’s Miami operations. Those files, at least 1,100 documents, the CIA has not released. There has never been an adequate explanation putting to rest the idea that the operational planning for the Kennedy assassination might have originated inside the cauldron of anti-Castro paramilitary activity in Miami under CIA aegis. These documents might shed light on this connection.
Goin’ to Texas
“To watch Lyndon Johnson during the transition,” Robert Caro writes, “is to see political genius in action.” (Robert Caro The Passage of Power 2012, xvi) Too bad Johnson didn’t deploy any of that “political genius” in working to resolve the rift between the business and labor factions in the Democratic Party in his home state. Robert Kennedy recalled a conversation he had with his brother not long before the Dallas trip: “Just before the president went to Texas, just that week, he spoke to me about the fact that Johnson wouldn’t help in the dispute in Texas.” President Kennedy didn’t understand it, RFK added.
He “always thought those things could be worked out. . . . He said how irritated he was with Lyndon Johnson who wouldn’t help at all in trying to iron out any of the problems in Texas, and that he was an s.o.b. . . . because this was his state and he just wasn’t available to help out or just wouldn’t lift a finger to try to assist.” (Quoted in Jeff Shesol Mutual Contempt 1997, 138)
Caro gushes: “[T]o see Lyndon Johnson take hold of presidential power, and so quickly begin to use it for ends so monumental is to see, with unusual clarity, the immensity of the potential an American President possesses to effect transformative change in the nation he leads.” (Caro 2012, xviii) Here it’s unclear whether Caro includes turning loose America’s right-wing Generals and its military industrial complex on Vietnam as being part of that “transformative change.”
Yet even Caro is forced to concede that the Kennedy assassination put to rest all of Lyndon Johnson’s brewing troubles associated with the Bobby (“Little Lyndon”) Baker prostitution scandal as well as those swirling around his close associates, Billy Sol Estes and Malcolm Wallace. (Roger Stone The Man Who Killed Kennedy 2013, 198-201) But Caro, one of the historians held in the highest esteem, drops examining the ramifications for LBJ of the criminal investigation as fast as the Senate did back on November 23, 1963. (Caro 2012, 318)
The swearing in ceremony on Air Force One that the new President Johnson orchestrated before leaving Dallas was an exercise in what we might call today “optics” and “atmospherics.” The gesture had no official significance. It was a photo-op designed, according to Johnson as well as his biographer Caro, to reassure the nation (and the world) that there was a new president at the helm. The famous photograph is best known for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s anguished appearance still wearing the dress she had on during the assassination. “Mrs. Kennedy’s dress was stained with blood,” Lady Bird Johnson later said.
“One leg was almost entirely covered with it and her right glove was caked – that immaculate woman – it was caked with blood, her husband’s blood. She always wore gloves like she was used to them; I never could. Somehow that was one of the most poignant sights . . . [Mrs. Kennedy] exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood.” (Quoted in Caro 2012, 330)
Lady Bird noted the change in Jackie Kennedy’s tone from soft-spoken sorrow to “an element of fierceness” when she suggested to her that she change out of her bloodstained clothes. “No.” Mrs. Kennedy said. “I want them to see what they have done to Jack.” (Quoted in Caro 2012, 330 [original italics])
Toward the end of the two-hour flight from Dallas to Andrews Air Field the White House physician, Dr. George Burkley, also suggested to Jackie that she change out of her bloody dress. “No. Let them see what they’ve done,” she said. At 4:30 in the morning, at the time when the substandard autopsy of her husband was being completed at Bethesda Naval Hospital, the former First Lady was still wearing her blood-spattered pink suit. (Caro 2012, 358; 373)
Seventy-seven eye witnesses out of the 107 who gave formal statements on November 22, 1963 said they heard a loud explosion, “often accompanied by a flash and puff of smoke,” from the fenced-in area to the right of the motorcade near the train yard. (Hersh Bobby and J. Edgar 2007, 424) Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie, who were sitting in the jump seat directly in front of President and Mrs. Kennedy, would for the rest of their lives insist that the bullet that ripped into the governor’s back was a distinct shot from those that hit the president. (Talbot 2007, 249) Dave Powers and Kenneth O’Donnell, two of John Kennedy’s best friends from Boston, were riding in the car behind the presidential limousine. Powers later said it felt like they were “riding into an ambush”; O’Donnell told Robert Kennedy “they were caught in a crossfire.” (Talbot 2007, 3)
Moments after the shooting, Dallas Police Officer, Joseph Marshall Smith, ran up, along with two-dozen other people, toward the stockade fence where it appeared a shot had been fired. He said he smelled gunpowder as he approached. Officer Smith told the Warren Commission that a man stopped him in the parking lot behind the fence and flashed his “Secret Service” identification. “He saw me coming with my pistol and right away he showed me who he was,” Smith said. “The man, this character, produces credentials from his hip pocket which showed him to be Secret Service. I have seen those credentials before, and they satisfied me and the deputy sheriff.” (Quoted in Douglass 2009, 260)
The Secret Service assured the Commission that it had no agents that day stationed in the area where Officer Smith said he encountered one. This revelation led Smith to think more about the man’s appearance: “He looked like an auto mechanic. He had on a sports shirt and sports pants. But he had dirty fingernails . . . and hands that looked like an auto mechanic’s hands. And afterwards it didn’t ring true for the Secret Service.” (Quoted in Douglass 2009, 261) The Warren Commission never bothered to look into who was this man impersonating a “Secret Service” officer, or how one might have procured the phony credentials.
The HSCA reluctantly criticized the performance of the Secret Service:
“Surprisingly, the security measure used in the prior motorcades during the same Texas visit show that the deployment of motorcycles in Dallas by the Secret Service may have been uniquely insecure . . . it may well be that by altering Dallas Police Department Captain Lawrence’s original motorcycle plan, the Secret Service deprived Kennedy of security in Dallas that it had provided a mere day before in Houston.” (Secret Service Final Survey Report for the November 21, 1963, visit by President Kennedy to Houston, cited in Appendixes to Hearings before the HSCA, vol. 11, p. 529.)
On March 13, 1962, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Lyman Lemnitzer, laid out in a memo to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara his plans for creating a pretext for going to war in Cuba. Codenamed “Operation Northwoods,” the nation’s highest military commanders had signed on to Lemnitzer’s top-secret memo, which urged the Kennedy Administration to stage a diverse range of clashes to justify invading Cuba.
General Lemnitzer’s scheme for victory against the communists offers a glimpse into the mentality of the men who Kennedy sometimes called “brass hats” he inherited from Ike. Lemnitzer recommended steps to pave the way for the U.S. to invade Cuba, which included the following:
“3. A ‘Remember the Maine’ incident could be arranged in several forms: We could blow up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba. We could blow up a drone (unmanned) vessel anywhere in the Cuban waters. We could arrange to cause such incident in the vicinity of Havana or Santiago as a spectacular result of Cuban attack from the air or sea, or both. The presence of Cuban planes or ships merely investigating the intent of the vessel could be fairly compelling evidence that the ship was taken under attack. The nearness to Havana or Santiago would add credibility especially to those people that might have heard the blast or have seen the fire. The US could follow up with an air/sea rescue operation covered by US fighters to ‘evacuate’ remaining members of the non-existent crew. Casualty lists in US newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation.'” (Quoted in Douglass 2009, 97)
The goal here was to manipulate the American people and the press by creating a viable pretext for war, which is remarkably similar to the scenario that the Pentagon Papers later exposed regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Lemnitzer’s outline also pre-sages President Johnson’s top-secret National Security Action Memorandum, NSAM-273, he signed the day after Kennedy was buried. NSAM-273 approved an elaborate array of covert operations against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV North Vietnam), including OPLAN-34A and the Desoto missions that did result in the kind of “national indignation” that General Lemnitzer advocated with “Operation Northwoods.”
Johnson’s NSAM-273 also nullified President Kennedy’s earlier memorandum, NSAM-263, that he signed on October 11, 1963, approving a withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. military personnel from Vietnam by the end of December 1963, with “the bulk” of the troops withdrawn by the end of 1965. (John Newman JFK and Vietnam 1992, 407-442) Kennedy, not wanting to open himself up to attacks from the war hawks going into the 1964 election campaign, directed that there would be no formal announcement of the withdrawal order until he gave the go ahead. (Douglass 2009, 188) Kennedy’s NSAM-263 contained the proviso that “no formal announcement be made of the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963.” (Dallek 2003, 680) Even so, the historian Robert Dallek notes that during a news conference on October 31, 1963, Kennedy himself told the press he planned to remove a thousand troops from Vietnam before the end of the year. “If we’re able to do that,” he said, “that would be our schedule.” (Quoted in Dallek 2003, 680)
Other aspects of “Operation Northwoods” that sprung from the mind of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs were equally chilling because they went beyond blowing up ships outside the United States, but urged other operations closer to home:
“4. We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington. The terror campaign could be pointed at Cuban refugees seeking haven in the United States. We could sink a boatload of Cubans en route to Florida (real or simulated). We could foster attempts on the lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicized. Exploding a few plastic bombs in carefully chosen spots, the arrest of Cuban agents and the release of prepared documents substantiating Cuban involvement, also would be helpful in projecting the idea of an irresponsible government.” (Quoted in Douglass 2009, 97)
This kind of operation using patsies and forged documents to hoodwink the public looks a lot like the modus operandi of the Kennedy assassination. General Lemnitzer and Air Force General Curtis LeMay were among the most extreme right-wingers in the military establishment that President Kennedy inherited from the Eisenhower Administration. Other kindred souls ran the Central Intelligence Agency, including Allen Dulles, Richard Bissell, George Cabell, and Richard Helms.
Initially, these war hawks viewed Kennedy as a lightweight and believed he would go along with their aggressive aims in Cuba and Vietnam. But they soon discovered that Kennedy possessed an unanticipated steel in his use of executive power. He did not hesitate to fire powerful national security personnel if he concluded they were either undermining his leadership or double-crossing him. He sacked Dulles, Bissell, and Cabell after they misled him about the chances for success of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. And when it became apparent to Kennedy that Lemnitzer’s prejudices were affecting his judgment, Kennedy sent the father of “Northwoods” to the equivalent of Siberia when he dumped him as Joint Chiefs Chair and named him Supreme Commander of NATO where he would be far from Washington policy circles.
Kennedy was surrounded by a Joint Chiefs of Staff that were ideologically far to his right. They were a staff of Generals who learned many of the wrong lessons from World War Two and were obsessed with the growing Soviet threat and apparently believed the United States could “win” a nuclear war. They resembled the military officers in Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant 1964 satire, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Lemnitzer and LeMay looked like real life “General Jack Rippers.” In another Hollywood anecdote, Kennedy pushed for (but didn’t live to see) the release of the movie, Seven Days in May (1964), which portrayed anti-communist military chiefs pulling a coup d’etat against civilian authority.
JFK and Cuba
President Kennedy did not only have to contend with the hardliners in his military and intelligence establishment, but with an American population that had been whipped up into a frenzy about the Soviet threat since the days of the McCarthy witch hunts. In Maximum Danger: Kennedy, the Missiles, and the Crisis of American Confidence (2001), the historian Robert Weisbrot argues that the Congress and the press were already primed for a U.S. military strike against the Western Hemisphere’s preeminent “threat” of communism. Kennedy’s effort at some kind of action directed against Castro, even a failed one, was widely seen as superior to doing nothing at all.
In April 1961, in a White House press statement, Kennedy bore “sole responsibility” for the failure of the CIA’s ill-fated adventure. Yet his approval rating jumped ten points in the months following the Bay of Pigs to 83 percent. (Dallek 2003, 370) After the invasion, a Gallup poll showed that 71 percent of respondents believed Castro could not win “a free and fair election” in Cuba, and a majority wanted to continue the flow of U.S. money and material to anti-Castro fighters. (Weisbrot 2001, 49)
Weisbrot places the Bay of Pigs in its Cold War context and points to Kennedy’s political necessity of not being perceived as an “appeaser.” “In contrast to the moral criticisms scholars have since expressed,” he writes, “Kennedy’s countrymen typically expected more ruthless actions with concrete results, not passive musings on Castro’s rights as a legitimate head of state.” (Weisbrot 2001, 49)
Congress later made its opinion official in a resolution calling for a tougher U.S. policy against Cuba that sailed through the Senate by a vote of 86 to 1, and passed in the House by 384 to 7. (Weisbrot 2001, 91) Weisbrot observes that even the popular culture amplified the notion that Castro was a murderous tyrant. An October 1961 episode of Rod Serling’s CBS television drama, The Twilight Zone, featured a thinly veiled caricature of Castro as a megalomaniac whose paranoia ultimately leads him to commit suicide. (Weisbrot 2001, 50)
Yet by the summer of 1963, through two different backchannels to Castro, Kennedy, at the time of his death, was seeking a rapprochement with Cuba. Having already promised Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in resolving the missile crisis that the United States would not invade the island, he was intent on normalizing relations with Cuba. He told a friend if the U.S. recognized Cuba “they’ll buy our refrigerators and toasters and they’ll end up kicking Castro out.” (Talbot 2007, 227)
A Treaty and a Speech
In early 1963, when President Kennedy opened up serious negotiations with the Soviet Union on atmospheric nuclear testing he faced considerable opposition from the hardliners. The nuclear physicist, Edward Teller, for example, lambasted Kennedy for helping the Russians shield their tests from scrutiny; he and his ideological soul mates were less interested in keeping Strontium-90 and other radioactive poisons out of the bones and teeth of the world’s children than they were concerned about monitoring Soviet tests. Kennedy came under withering attack when he decided unilaterally to suspend U.S. atmospheric nuclear tests to reinforce his desire for what would be the first nuclear arms control treaty ever signed by the superpowers. (Douglass 2009, 35) Kennedy put his presidency (and his re-election) on the line in winning popular support for the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty.
Although historians have widely praised Lyndon Johnson’s skills at passing legislation, John Kennedy expended considerable political capital and pushed and prodded his former colleagues in the U.S. Senate to support the agreement. On September 24, 1963, the Senate ratified the Limited Test Ban Treaty by a vote of 80 to 19. Theodore Sorensen “noted that no other single accomplishment in the White House gave the president greater satisfaction.” (Douglass 2009, 54)
President Kennedy’s June 10, 1963 commencement address at American University deservedly has been widely acclaimed to be among the greatest speeches ever delivered by an American president. In it, Kennedy presents a vision of world peace where the superpowers can find common ground and move beyond the hostilities of the Cold War. He called for a “genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children – not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women – not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.” (Quoted in Douglas 2009, 36)
Chastened by the close call of the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy had emerged from that crucible determined to find a way forward that lessened the possibility of nuclear annihilation. He believed the Limited Test Ban Treaty was the first step in what would be a long journey. Speaking directly to the people living in the Soviet Union, Kennedy noted: “Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war.”
“Almost unique, among the major world powers, we have never been at war with each other. And no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union suffered in the course of the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including nearly two-thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland – a loss equivalent to the devastation of this country east of Chicago.”
“Today, should total war ever break out again – no matter how – our two countries would become the primary targets. It is an ironic but accurate fact that the two strongest powers are the two in the most danger of devastation. All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first 24 hours.”
“In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours – and even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their interests.”
“So, let us not be blind to our differences – but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” (Quoted in Douglass 2009, 348-349)
One of the reasons why the Kennedy assassination continues to affect millions of people the way it does, even fifty years later, is the sense that we are still fighting the same battle today. On one side, is a military-industrial-intelligence complex with its global reach and surveillance state, its CIA and its NSA; on the other side, is a vision of an American future that values peace and refuses to measure the country’s “greatness” by its ability to wreak death and destruction. Our current president’s legacy includes being the first to assassinate an American citizen with a flying robot. The same corporations that made a killing on the Vietnam War, such as Brown and Root (later KBR), continue to profit from the warfare state. It appears that the conflict in which Kennedy found himself embroiled at the time when he was killed remains unresolved. It’s a domestic struggle between whether the United States is going to be a republic or an empire, a democracy or a police state; a choice of “visions” between General Lemnitzer’s “Operation Northwoods” or JFK’s American University speech.