The horror and anguish of November 22, 1963, will never die for many of us who lived through it. We remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when word reached us that President John F. Kennedy was dead.
Now, 25 years later, a younger generation is looking back on that fateful Friday with interest and curiosity, wondering about its effect on us. Many have never known a President who offered them direction, inspiration and hope, the way Kennedy did for so many, and so they don't know what it meant for us to lose that so suddenly and tragically.
Most important, they wonder what all the controversy is about, and why we still don't seem to know who actually committed the murder. For a generation tempered by Dirty Harry and Rambo, it's probably difficult to understand why a crime of this magnitude can't be solved and the villains apprehended the way they would in these fast-paced, scripted, celluloid fantasies.
But the JFK assassination is more convoluted than any Hollywood production. It has become, to borrow a phrase from Sir Winston Churchill, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." And its dark form and uncertain shape seem every bit as mysterious now as they did a quarter of a century ago.
Why? It was one of the most photographed and documented crimes ever committed; it was investigated by both the FBI and CIA; and it was adjudicated by a blue-ribbon Presidential panel of statesmen and, later, by Congress itself. And yet we are still unsure about who did it. Why, indeed.
One Murder Made a Villain
When the shots rang out in Dallas' Dealey Plaza 25 years ago, a President died, the governor of Texas was wounded, and a "lone nut" was born. Events moved inexorably toward naming Lee Harvey Oswald the sole, misguided, Marxist assassin of John F. Kennedy.
The case again him seemed clear enough. He was employed by and worked in the Texas School Book Depository, the seven-story building from which the shots were allegedly fired. Oswald left the scene soon after the murder and was violently apprehended shortly after the death of a Dallas policeman.
After looking into his past, officials were certain they had their man. A loner, Oswald had the unlikely life history of a U.S. Marine, a communist sympathizer, a defector to Russia and a re-defector back to America. He was linked to the mail-order purchase of a rifle found in the Depository, and one eyewitness claimed (off and on) to have seen him in the window pointing it at the motorcade.
The Warren Commission, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, accepted evidence supporting Oswald's guilt and sought to discredit anything or anyone that might say otherwise. Not surprisingly, as commission member Gerald Ford reaffirmed recently on national television, their investigation found that "Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin" and that there was "no evidence of a conspiracy, foreign or domestic."
Before he could come to trial and while he was in police custody, Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner, police confidante and underworld figure. Even though Ruby, while in custody, talked of conspiratorial knowledge and urged the Warren Commission to take him out of Dallas so that he could tell his story, no one ever put him to the test.
And so, the investigative agencies, the Commission and the government posthumously and without due process convicted Lee Harvey Oswald of the crime of the century. Then why all the furor?
The Rise of the Critics
Almost from the beginning of the official investigation, there arose a group of so-called "critics" who maintained that all the evidence didn't add up to Oswald's sole guilt. Attorney Mark Lane began what has become a life's work in discovering and reporting holes in the government's case. Over the years, the critics have been joined by hundreds of amateurs and professionals from all walks of life (housewives, journalists, pathologists, engineers and academics) trying to unravel the case.
What started as Lane's efforts to become, in his words, a "counsel for Lee Oswald" to assure his rights before the Warren Commission, soon became a widespread, full-scale, if unfocused and amateur, forensic probe into the murder. The burning question and rallying cry was, "Does the available physical and eyewitness evidence really point to Oswald as the lone assassin?"
No, said Lane and the other critics. They found that over two-thirds of the eyewitnesses in Dealey Plaza heard gunshots coming from behind a picket fence on top of a Grassy Knoll in front of the President's car, rather than behind him from Oswald's "sniper's lair." Also, the testimony of doctors who treated Kennedy indicated that at least one shot came from in front of the President, rather than from the rear (the location of the Depository).
And of course there was the Zapruder film. Taken by Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder, this 8mm home movie of the entirety of the assassination proved conclusively, the critics said, that Kennedy was killed by a bullet coming from in front of him. When the fatal bullet hit Kennedy's head, the film clearly shows a violent, backward thrusting of his body in response. Whoever was up on that Grassy Knoll, said the critics, was the real assassin.
These and many other pieces of evidence contradictory to or inconsistent with the findings of the Warren Commission began to fill numerous books that hit the market in the mid to late '60s. Among the first and most successful was Lane's Rush to Judgment, still a classic for assassination research. At first written off as kooks and conspiracy nuts, the critics and their determination and dogged research eventually won the minds of American citizens. At one point, a national poll showed that over 70 percent of the country did not believe Oswald acted alone.
The logical conclusion of this was, of course, that at best the massive government investigation had failed and at worst it had lied to the American people. All of this, you must remember, happened before Watergate.
Defending The Truth or Cover-Up
The official government position on who killed Kennedy remained, until the late '70s, that Oswald did it and that there was absolutely no conspiracy. Conspiracy, of course, requires a minimum of only two people, but the defenders of the Warren Commission were adamant in refusing to consider even one that small. This lone nut, they maintained, conceived of this heinous crime for his own demented reasons, and that was the end of it.
Books began to emerge to support this thesis, as well. Former Warren Commissioner Gerald Ford coauthored a book called Portrait of an Assassin, in which he attempted to show that Oswald's lone guilt can be explained in his mental state and deviant politics. David Belin, himself a veteran of the Warren Commission staff, took the critics on in their own style in his massive tome called November 22, 1963: You are the Jury.
In 1987, a book emerged by the one eyewitness whose inconsistent claims to have seen Oswald in the Depository aiming a rifle were seized on by the Warren Commission as its prime evidence. In the book Eyewitness to History, Howard Brennan steadfastly maintains that he saw Oswald in the sixth-floor window, that he saw a "get-away" car parked beside the Depository but never reported it and that he is certain no other shots were fired that day.
Critics have always been suspicious of Brennan's testimony, since on the day of the assassination, after having seen Lee Harvey Oswald on television, Brennan was unable to identify him in a lineup. This uncertainty persisted until about four months after the assassination, when he positively identified Oswald as the assassin before the Warren Commission. Further fanciful accounts in his book, such as Brennan's claim to have met and entertained in his home Kennedy's FBI "double," cast even graver doubts.
This conclusion stayed the "official" one, even after Richard Schweiker's Senate Intelligence Committee began to raise the possibility of conspiracy. Even the House Assassinations Committee, which was the first governmental body to acknowledge the existence of another gunman, said that all the shots that did any damage came from Oswald's rear position. So even when conspiracy was finally recognized, Oswald was still the "fall guy" he claimed to be.
Many of the critics focused as much attention on what they saw as the "cover up" of the crime as on the conspiracy to murder itself. David Lifton's mammoth volume Best Evidence weaves a compelling tapestry of intrigue, treachery and deceit to a startling, inescapable conclusion: Governmental agencies, including but not limited to the Secret Service, conspired to alter the physical evidence (including the "best evidence," Kennedy's body) to point to a lone assassin.
The questions this raises are enormous. Were there people in the government who knew (or thought they knew) who murdered the President, and who felt that disclosure of this information would harm the country? What possible combination of conspirators could have engendered that conclusion? And who was in a high enough position of power to make that decision and enforce it across several agencies? After reading Lifton, one comes to the conclusion that the conspiracy to cover-up is as important a mystery as the assassination conspiracy itself. But what was the cover-up trying to cover up?
One of the earliest theories to emerge was that the CIA had murdered President Kennedy, using Oswald as either a knowing conspirator or an unwitting patsy. Though this line of thought has been largely abandoned, it is actually not as far-fetched as it initially sounds. Certainly, the Central Intelligence Agency had reason to wish for another commander-in-chief, given Kennedy's recently announced intention to "break the CIA into a thousand pieces."
Ever since the Bay of Pigs invasion, for which disaster Kennedy and the CIA blamed each other, mutual distrust had been rampant. During the Cuban missile crisis, the intelligence community made strident calls for the invasion of Cuba as a way of deposing Castro. Kennedy ignored these suggestions, and his decision for a naval blockade was subsequently vindicated.
New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison is, to date, the only person to prosecute anyone for conspiracy to murder John Kennedy. The Clay Shaw trial became a notorious showcase for presenting evidence of a high-level intelligence assassination conspiracy, though Garrison came under attack for his methods and for ignoring the Mob (some say because of pressure by fellow New Orleans resident and Mafia chieftain Carlos Marcello).
Garrison was unable to prove CIA involvement by his suspects, so Clay Shaw was ultimately acquitted of the conspiracy charges. It was only later learned that CIA Chief Richard Helms repeatedly instructed his top aides to "do all we can to help Shaw" because of his former affiliation with the agency. Much of the evidence amassed by Garrison is contained in his 1970 volume A Heritage of Stone.
This idea of a CIA "Coup d'Etat in America" was further explored in a 1975 book by that name by Michael Canfield and Alan Weberman. It was here that the public first learned of Oswald's alleged call from the Dallas jail to a former U.S. Army Counterintelligence Officer in Raleigh, North Carolina. The authors point to the "Raleigh Call" and other actions by Oswald as evidence he was an intelligence agent.
One of Canfield and Weberman's most intriguing charges is that former CIA operatives and Watergate burglars E. Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis were involved in the assassination plot and were among three "tramps" arrested in Dealey Plaza that day. The "tramps," so called because of their rumpled clothing, were arrested and released without any record other than photographs of them being led away by police. Hunt has denied being in Dallas that day, claiming to be in Washington, D.C. Sturgis has boasted that "if anyone could kill the President," it was Frank Sturgis, but he denies he did.
The Communists: KGB
Two main theories have emerged that lay the blame for the assassination at the Kremlin's doorstep. Suspicions began to arise as early as January, 1964, two months after Dallas, when Yuri Nosenko defected to the United States. Nosenko, a top Soviet Intelligence official, surprised everyone during his debriefing by announcing that he had brought with him a copy of Oswald's KGB file developed after Oswald's defection to Russia.
The folder's, and hence Nosenko's, major message seems to have been that the Soviets had thought of using Oswald for some activities but had never done so because he was too "unstable." Suspicions began to be raised, even inside the CIA, that Nosenko was a "plant" by the Soviets to cleanse themselves from any blame for the Kennedy murder.
In 1977, English author Michael Eddowes published The Oswald File, in which he maintained that the real Oswald who defected to Russia in 1959 never surfaced again. The Soviets, he claimed, substituted a "member of Department 13, the sabotage and assassination squad" of the KBG. It was this man, whose identity is unknown, who was arrested in November 1963.
American officials, according to Eddowes, discovered the switch after the assassination, but decided not to release the information "to avoid the possibility of World War III." Though he cites some intriguing physical and forensic evidence to support his claim, Eddowes fails to address adequately the fact that this "imposter" returned to the United States and convinced Oswald's mother, brother and friends.
Another KGB plot theory was published in 1978 by Edward Jay Epstein, whose book Inquest was one of the earliest exposes of the deficiencies of the Warren Commission's investigation. In his book Legend, Epstein posits that Oswald was recruited, or turned, as an agent of the KGB, who gave him a new identity shortly after his defection to the Soviet Union.
It would be through Oswald, and George De Mohrenschildt (the man Epstein believes was Oswald's "handler" in this country), that the KGB would achieve its end of assassinating the American President. Long a figure of great interest to students of the JFK murder, De Mohrenschildt was suspected of working with many countries' intelligence agencies, and was the only person in the entire story who could claim acquaintance with both Jacqueline Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald.
De Mohrenschildt finally agreed to be interviewed by Epstein and to testify before the House Assassinations Committee. But after one session with Epstein and before the Congressional committee could get him to Washington, De Mohrenschildt apparently took his own life at his home in Florida. The very beginnings of what would have been a fascinating story are revealed in Epstein's book.
The Communists: Castro
Ever since the mid '70s, when Richard Schweiker's Senate subcommittee on Intelligence revealed that the CIA hired Mafia hit men to assassinate Castro during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, speculation has been rampant that Kennedy's murder was the Cuban leader's revenge. The package is a neat one, with one country's plot to kill the other's head of state being turned around on itself. An added bonus here is that the Communists would be to blame, so no one need look in America for villains.
Syndicated columnist Jack Anderson has been having a field day writing columns and producing television spectaculars claiming to have "the secret truth" that Castro killed JFK. And he based that belief on what Johnny Roselli, the Mafia hit man hired by the CIA to coordinate the killing of Castro, told him in a series of interviews in the '70s.
Here's how it was supposed to have worked: Three Mob assassins go to Havana to kill Castro from a rooftop with high-powered rifles. They are captured, tortured, turned, and sent back to America with Castro's personal instructions to murder Kennedy. This they do, with the help of Florida Mafia strong man Santos Trafficante, who in the Anderson/Roselli version is actually a stooge for Castro. Proof of Trafficante's deal with the communist regime or of how three low-level hit men could have persuaded the Mob infrastructure to do Castro's bidding is woefully lacking in Anderson's account.
Another interesting Castro theory is expounded in Henry Hurt's book Reasonable Doubt. The author relates his interviews with Robert Easterling, who claimed to have been hired by a mysterious Hispanic, who operated under the pseudonym Manual Rivera, and who was one of the chief architects of the plot to kill Kennedy. Though Rivera first told Easterling he worked for the CIA against Castro, he later revealed he was a double agent actually doing the Cuban leader's bidding.
The fascinating aspect of the Hurt/Easterling story is that it makes some allegations which, though they don't tally with the "official version" of things and seem bizarre on the face of it, might explain some long puzzling contradictions. And what little of the story that could be checked was ultimately verified. Unfortunately, as Hurt goes to great lengths to point out, Easterling's credibility is otherwise extremely low, due to some of his outrageous accounts of his prolonged history as a mental patient.
Certainly the most widely accepted view today is that John Kennedy was the victim of a Mob "hit." Many reasons are put forward, including the Kennedy brothers' crusade against organized crime and the Teamsters Union leadership; the Mafia's long-time association with Joseph Kennedy and their purported feeling of betrayal by these prosecutions; and John Kennedy's dalliances with Judith Campbell, girlfriend of Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana.
The House Assassinations Committee ascribed motive, means and opportunity to only two men in their report, and it is beyond question that they are referring to Mob bosses Santos Trafficante and Carlos Marcello. And the first and most obvious tie to organized crime has always been Jack Ruby.
When Ruby gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas jail, questions immediately arose concerning how he got into the jail with a gun, how he was unchallenged by the police and who ordered him to "silence" the suspect. Former Detroit News reporter Seth Kantor, who knew Ruby personally, brought to light Ruby and his connections in a singular little book called Who Was Jack Ruby?
Kantor was the first to codify and organize the links in Ruby's life into a coherent whole. From his numbers running days in Chicago in the Capone mob, to his gambling concessions in Dallas, and his ultimate friendships with most of Dallas' police Department, Ruby was the tailor-made low-level mobster for the job. Starting with Ruby, the connections to organized crime began to surface wholesale.
Peter Noyes' 1973 book Legacy of Doubt traced the convoluted life of at least one Mob-connected player in Dallas that day, but it would ultimately be the assertions of G. Robert Blakey, the Chief Counsel of the House Assassinations Committee, that would make the strongest claims, In interview after interview, Blakey has made no secret of who and who alone killed the President. The title of his 1981 book tells it all: The Plot to Kill the President: Organized Crime Assassinated JFK.
Blakey and coauthor Richard Billings use the investigation of the House Select Committee as the backdrop, and principal source, for relaying a story of strong probable cause against the Mafia in the assassination. They deal with Kennedy's associations, good and bad, with Mob leaders, and dispel theories of Castro involvement. They give a post mortem of the failures of the Warren Commission, and "reconsider" the roles of Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby as lone players in an American tragedy.
The two newest books to hit the stands also take a "Mob did it" approach, David Scheim's The Mafia Murder of President John F. Kennedy and John Davis' Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Scheim follows the trail outward from Jack Ruby and finds a byzantine labyrinth of Mob figures in, around and controlling the Dallas tragedy. Following this trail, he weaves together his view of how the assassination plot was hatched, and who was immediately and ultimately responsible. But further, he pursues these same figures beyond Dallas, ending with three challenging chapters named "More Assassinations," "Richard Nixon and the Mob" and "The Reagan Administration."
Carlos Marcello has long been eyed by students of the assassination as a possible suspect, not least because of his hatred of the Kennedy brothers and what he saw as their persecution of him personally. In fact, shortly after Marcello's illegal return to the United States after Robert Kennedy succeeded in having him deported, Marcello is alleged to have said of them, "Livarsi na petra di la scarpa!" or literally "Take the stone out of my shoe."
Davis' book is the first to blatantly accuse anyone other than Oswald of the crime of the century, and as such it is a milestone. It traces Marcello's rise in the Mafia to his control of much of the American Southwest from his vantage point in New Orleans. Marcello's troubles with the Kennedys are explored, though events through the end of 1963 cover only about the first third of the book.
The rest explores the holes in J. Edgar Hoover's and the FBI's investigation into the assassination, particularly as it benefited Marcello, and then follows the Crime Boss up through his 1983 imprisonment. But perhaps the most intriguing part of Davis' account is his chapter on the silence of the Kennedys, especially Robert, throughout all of the investigations, a subject many have wondered about.
The latest to embrace the conspiracy theory that involved the Mob is Oswald's widow, Marina. In a recent Ladies Home Journal interview, and later on Jack Anderson's television extravaganza, she stated for the first time that she believes "that Organized Crime was involved in the plot to kill John F. Kennedy, but I'm not saying that Lee was involved in the plot. He was implicated in the plot." When asked if that means she doesn't think Oswald pulled the trigger in Dallas, she replied "Absolutely." Actually, she joins several critics who believe that Oswald was merely what he claimed to be, a "patsy."
The Fingerprints of Intelligence
There is so much disparate and irrefutable evidence to back up all of the above theories that no one of them seems capable of explaining the whole truth. Did the Mafia and no one else do it, as Robert Blakey believes? Where do the Cubans, both pro- and anti-Castro, fit in? And why does so much of Oswald's life read like one of Howard Hunt's cheap spy thrillers?
The answer probably lies in the Indian proverb about the blind men and the elephant. Each accurately describes that part of the beast he can reach out and touch, but none has the perspective to put it all together. When all of the pieces of the JFK assassination puzzle are finally on the table and properly arranged, it will probably be established that (to whatever extent) elements of Organized Crime, the American intelligence community and anti-Castro Cubans conspired to kill the President
Can we place all of these elements into one political bed? The scenario is entirely in line with allegiances forged in the South in the early '60s. The CIA was using Mobsters in their attempts to kill Castro, and their efforts in training anti-Castro Cuban guerillas to invade and liberate Cuba were made perfectly clear at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy's efforts to jail the very Mob elements the CIA was using to accomplish foreign policy, plus the Cubans' and CIA's belief that Kennedy "knifed them in the back" at the Bay of Pigs, made him universally hated in this alliance.
This tripartite arrangement is spelled out in what is quite likely the finest book on the assassination to date, Anthony Summers' Conspiracy. Summers, a BBC television producer, takes a reasoned, dispassionate "outsider's" look at the controversy, and concludes that some combination of these three groups probably murdered the President.
Certainly, the involvement of Organized Crime has been established beyond doubt at this point. Even the government, through the report of the House Assassinations Committee, is on record as saying that the Mob (along with recruited members of the anti-Castro Cuban community) were the logical movers and shakers. And the sudden and violent deaths (some say gangland executions) of Mobsters Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana in the '70s point to efforts on someone's part to silence those who knew.
But what about the "fingerprints of intelligence" that Senator Schweiker found all over Oswald? Summers gives equal weight to this side of the story, exploring theories that Oswald either was, or was told he was, acting as an agent for someone's intelligence force. There is simply too much evidence to turn away and ignore it.
Summers explores evidence that Oswald was recruited out of the Marines to participate in a program the CIA was running at that time out of Nags Head, North Carolina, to send bogus defectors to the Soviet Union to see if they could either gain information or perhaps be picked up by the KGB as agents. Victor Marchetti, former assistant to the Deputy Directory of the CIA, confirmed the existence of that program and indicated that Oswald was following standard procedure for an agent in trouble when he attempted to call John David Hurt in Raleigh, North Carolina, from the Dallas jail.
In fact, whether he was working for American intelligence or (more likely) was merely led to believe he was, Oswald's Raleigh call is one of the true focal points of the case. Hurt, a former U.S. Army Counterintelligence agent, denied receiving a call from or knowing Oswald, and after his death, his wife claimed that Hurt had actually been the one to call the Dallas jail while extremely drunk.
Despite this, G. Robert Blakey, who doesn't believe there are any "fingerprints of intelligence" on Oswald, nevertheless believes that the call came from Oswald from inside the jail, and he has called the problem it presents "deeply disturbing." Was Oswald trying to get word out or to establish his intelligence bona fides? The answer may never really be known, but at least one very credible witness claims to have seen Oswald prior to the assassination in conversation with a man he knew to be a CIA agent.
Antonio Veciana, a highly respected member of the Cuban resistance movement, had a CIA contact he knew by the pseudonym Maurice Bishop. Veciana reported to House Assassinations investigator Gaeton Fonzi that in September 1963 he saw a man he would later recognize as Oswald talking with Bishop. When the possibility was raised that "Bishop" was really CIA Western Hemisphere Chief David Phillips, Fonzi brought Phillips and Veciana together. Though Veciana refused to identify Phillips as "Bishop," the House Committee Report indicated it had reason to believe he "was lying."
Murder Will Out
Will we ever know who killed John F. Kennedy? Bits and pieces of the puzzle have, almost accidentally at times, dropped in investigators' laps. But no one, case-breaking revelation or confession has yet emerged.
Unfortunately, the very fact that we are observing the 25th anniversary means that the likelihood that the story will be known may be getting slimmer. Chief Justice Earl Warren, whose Commission some credit with having legitimized the first lies, ominously predicted that we might not know the full truth in our lifetimes.
And probably nothing short of a deathbed confession by a key player in or conspirator to the murder will tell us all. One of Robert Blakey's favorite quotes indicates his optimism that one day the full story will be known. He quotes Chaucer who affirms that "Murder will out."
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