Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Cruel And Shocking Act (Part 1)

A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History Of The Kennedy Assassination
by Philip Shenon (2013)

I was in 7th grade and our teacher was absent when class was supposed to start after lunch.  We sat quietly, patiently waiting, but as the minutes passed we began speculating about what was going on.  Our teacher finally walked into the room crying, told us the President had been shot (I can't remember whether the news was that he was dead) and that school was dismissed.

After walking across the school athletic fields to our house across the street I found the front door ajar and no one home.  My mother, a Democratic party official, on hearing the news had gone to the nearby home of our former Democratic Congressman where many local party officials were gathering.

Vivid memories remain of watching TV that November afternoon; the death of Dallas Police Office JD Tippit and the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald.  In the evening we saw Air Force One land at Andrews Air Force Base, disgorging the coffin and watching Jackie Kennedy disembark.  On Sunday morning a friend came over and we, along with my sister, took a break from the constant TV watching to go to my room and play a game where you turned stick figures of hockey players.  Suddenly we heard my parents shouting, prompting us to run to the living room where we learned that Oswald had just been shot.  And then came the funeral on Monday.

John F Kennedy is the first president I distinctly remember.  In 1960, at the age of nine, I was a member of  Youth For Kennedy (and still have a clipping from the local paper with a picture of me as part of the group), and saw him speak at the train station in Bridgeport, CT on November 6, 1960, two days before the election (Connecticut was still a crucial swing state in those days).
Kennedy at train station(JFK in Bridgeport from Bridgeport Library)
Kennedy, Ribicoff(JFK in Bridgeport with Governor Abe Ribicoff second to the right from onlyinbridgeport)

Because of my mom's position in the state Democratic party we were able to stand next to the platform from which the candidate spoke, below and just to the right of JFK in this picture.  It was a bright sunny day and remember him pointing just as he is in the picture.  The area around the station was packed with an enthusiastic crowd and there were teenage girls jumping up and down screaming, just as they would for The Beatles three years later.

JFK's assassination changed things.  After his death came the Vietnam War, riots in American cities and a general sense that things were out of control.  It bred a more conspiratorial and, at times, paranoid mindset, a mindset that has stayed in place over the decades.  Ironically, the academic view was that the paranoia was from the right-wing; the best example being liberal Professor Richard J Hofstadter's influential November 1964 article in Harper's Magazine, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, a screed against the rise of Barry Goldwater, but as I can attest being a politically active young Democrat, it was JFK's death that set off an ever growing paranoid view of politics among liberals.  It became the conviction of large percentages of Americans that there was a conspiracy masterminded by dark forces in our society, thwarting a collective fantasy that but for that event we would have moved into "bright sunlit uplands", a viewpoint expressed in its most extreme form by the loony, but creative, director Oliver Stone (for more on him see Showtime's Agitprop) in the feverish conspiracy film, JFK, featuring the bizarre convoluted conspiracy theories of wacky New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison.

Stone's film, made in the early 1990s, merely reflected widespread views originating in the late 60s and early 70s.  After a brief honeymoon of public acceptance after its 1964 release, the credibility of the Warren Commission report with its conclusion that Oswald acted alone, quickly eroded and by the mid-60s more than 50% of Americans thought there was a conspiracy.  By 1975, 81% believed in a conspiracy and Gallup Polling over the years has always shown more than 70% supporting the conspiracy hypothesis until its most recent survey, in 2013, showed a drop to a still substantial 61%.  JFK assassination conspiracy theories have even become punch lines in Hollywood movies.

I read some of the early books attacking the commission's work and claiming there was a government conspiracy by authors like Mark Lane and, while living in the Boston area in the early and mid-1970s , knew people associated with the Assassination Information Bureau (AIB), founded by the radical former president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Carl Oglesby.  The AIB became command central for those who propagated a variety of assassination theories, all centered around a right-wing conspiracy, usually involving Lyndon Johnson and various combinations of the CIA, FBI, Mafia, Cuban refugees, defense contractors, the Pentagon and the Illuminati (just joking on the last one, I think).  It was quite an experience listening to them go on and on in an all-knowing way.  For some reason, they believed that a self-proclaimed Marxist and Communist, who had defected to the Soviet Union and two months before the assassination tried to get visas to go to the Soviet Union or Cuba, a failure who felt he deserved to be a big shot and cultivated feelings of resentment and anger, constantly taunted by his Russian born wife for his inadequacies, a trained Marine rifleman who for several months had been going to shooting ranges to brush up on his skills and, who in April 1963 tried to murder a notorious right-winger, Edwin Walker, who idolized Fidel Castro and was aware of Castro's threat to get the Kennedys if they didn't stop trying to kill him and who may, while in Mexico City, have attended a party where Cuban diplomats, spies and others made remarks about their desire that John Kennedy die (for more on these last two see below), apparently lacked the motive and means to kill the president on his own.

And, as I found out in doing research for this post, Hillary Clinton's long-time henchman and recent advisor on Libya, Sid Blumenthal, played a key role in the AIB, co-authoring the only book published by the organization.  By all accounts he remains as obsessively conspiratorial minded.

Today it is very clear to me, based upon the availability of more advanced computer based reconstructions of the timing and trajectory of the President's vehicle and the rifle shots, more accurate knowledge of his wounds, and thorough reexaminations of the evidence in several books including those by Gerald Posner (Case Closed) and Vincent Bugliosi (Reclaiming History), that there is no doubt that all of the shots came from the rifle of Oswald and were fired by him.  There was no second gunman.  There is also no doubt that there was not a conspiracy involving individually, or any combination of, LBJ, the Mafia, Jack Ruby, American right-wingers or the Russians.  What now seems obvious to me, however, remains controversial for many; just check out all the One-Star reviews for the two books mentioned above on Amazon.

What remains as a very slight possibility is Cuban involvement in one of two ways.  The first, and more probable of these still unlikely scenarios, involves Cuban intelligence, centered around Oswald's visits to the Cuban and Soviet embassies in Mexico City during his five day visit, September 27 through October 1, 1963 less than two months before the assassination.  Why might there be Cuban involvement?  Because JFK and Robert Kennedy were continuing to run, via the CIA, operations to kill Fidel Castro, despite the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis the previous fall.  Castro was well aware of these repeated attempts on his life though the American public was not at the time.  The Associated Press published an article on September 8, 1963, by a reporter who interviewed Castro and quoted him issuing a warning "U.S. leaders should think that if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe".  The AP story was published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that same week.  Oswald, in New Orleans at the time, and publicly demonstrating in support of Castro, was an avid reader of that paper during his sojourn in the city.  It was after New Orleans that Oswald made his trip to Mexico City and the Cuban Embassy.

The second is the possible involvement of anti-Castro Cubans, incensed by what they saw as JFK's betrayal at the Bay of Pigs, manipulating Oswald into believing he was working on behalf of Castro in killing Kennedy.

There are many reasons for doubting there was any conspiracy but here are two I found easy to grasp.

It was happenstance that gave Oswald the opportunity.  While visiting with some of her neighbors Marina Oswald heard one of them mention that the Texas School Book Depository was hiring.  Desperate to get her unemployed husband a job, she asked the other woman to inquire of her friend about a job for Lee.  The Depository was hiring at both its locations and Oswald was randomly assigned to the one in Dealey Plaza.  All this happened in mid-October 1963, after his visit to Mexico City.  While there had been a public announcement of JFK's trip to Texas in late September, Dallas was not added to the visit until November 9, and the motorcade route not published until November 19; a route which had the president's limousine not only pass directly in front of the Depository building, but required a sharp left turn just before which slowed the vehicle down making the president an easy target in the open back seat.
(from McAdams, though the note referring to "Originally Planned" route is in error, the route was always planned to take a right and then a left on to Elm St)

And what about Jack Ruby shooting Oswald on November 24?  The shooting occurred as Oswald was being transferred from Dallas Police to Federal custody.  The planned transfer was delayed because, at the last minute, a federal postal inspector requested he be allowed to ask Oswald some questions, and then Oswald asked that he be allowed to go back to his cell to put on a sweater before leaving.  Meanwhile, Jack Ruby was at the Western Union office across the street from police headquarters waiting patiently in line to wire $25 requested by one of the strippers at his night club, having left his beloved dog to wait in the car for his return.  Seeing the police activity when he left Western Union, Ruby (well known to Dallas Police as a hanger-on and cop wannabe) walked down the garage ramp and into history.  If not for the delays in Oswald leaving, Ruby never would have had the chance to shoot him and Ruby's actions that morning do not seem those of a man acting to some predetermined plan, rather he was, as those who interviewed him in 1964 concluded, psychotic and delusional.

I'm also strongly influenced by my own experience in doing investigations which has served to disabuse me of an easy acceptance of conspiracy theories.  Things that often look extremely suspicious at first usually end up as surprising, bizarre and unplanned chains of events leading to unfortunate incidents.  Even after completing investigations where those factors were clearly at play, I'm still amazed it happened without some grand plan.

The turmoil of 1960s America, both domestic and foreign, reduced the credibility of government.  Amid that growing cynicism some of the initial books questioning the commission seemed credible, contributing to a growing lack of public confidence in its conclusions.  Moreover, as we learned after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, in early 1964 the KGB started a covert disinformation operation to spread a message blaming the assassination on the American government, a theme initially gaining traction in Western Europe and then spreading to America, and prompted by a Kremlin worried that it would be blamed for JFK's death; a campaign that fed right into the growing suspicion and disillusionment over the Warren Commission.

But is also clear to many people that something went wrong within the Warren Commission which fed the growth of conspiracy theories.  Finding out what went wrong is the subject of the 2013 book by long time New York Times reporter, Philip Shenon, A Cruel And Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination.  It is the best comprehensive overview to understand how the White House, CIA and FBI managed to damage its credibility.

The book's title is drawn from the first line of the Warren Commission's introduction to its report: "The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was a cruel and shocking act of violence, directed against a man, a family, a nation, and against all mankind."

The book's subtitle "The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination" is misleading; more accurately it should be, "The Secret History of the Warren Commission", because it is the investigation undertaken by that Commission which is the focus of the book.  Shenon began his research in 2008 and was able to interview a number of the then still-living younger staff of the Warren Commission.   He also exhaustively review the commission and various government files as well as conducting interviews in Mexico City.

The author presents a fascinating intimate look at the operations of the commission, giving us vivid portraits of the often-reluctant commission members, particularly Chief Justice Earl Warren and Senator Richard Russell, both of whom were subjected to Lyndon Johnson's seductively persuasive arm-twisting tactics before agreeing to serve, and of the in-fighting among them from the time the commission began its work in December 1963 to the release of its report in September 1964.  He walks us through each step of the investigation, and the young, and often relatively inexperienced lawyers, who conducted much of it.  I was struck by the lack of seasoned investigators on the commission staff.

We learn about many of the key personalities, like the increasingly erratic and untrustworthy Marina Oswald, along with smaller moments such as Lady Bird Johnson's testimony about coming face to face with Jackie Kennedy, in her blood splattered clothes in that small hallway at the hospital in Dallas, "I think it was right outside the operating room.  She was quite alone.  I don't think I ever saw anyone so much alone in my life".

But it is the story of the suppression of evidence and why it occurred that is the backbone of the book.

PART 2 - WHAT WENT WRONG . . . Tomorrow

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