New documents release old memories
Wednesday, November 22, 2017
November 22, 1963, the day of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, had the same kind of aftershock on American society as Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day, and 9/11/2001. Americans would get no conclusive, satisfactory answers to their questions about the killing which, several years later, would be followed by the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the near-fatal shooting of presidential candidate and Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
The legally mandated release late last month by the National Archives of 2,800 pages of JFK assassination-related documents did not answer those questions. The CIA and FBI persuaded President Trump to withhold some documents, at least temporarily, on the basis of national security. In fact, both agencies, as well as the Secret Service and other agencies, had years ago destroyed key documents related to the killing. People related to the killing and its investigations have been dead for many years. We thus are unlikely to ever get our answers.
I was in the middle of events of the time and have read related documents, books and articles and talked at length with conspiracy theorists, defenders of “the lone gunman” (Lee Harvey Oswald) theory endorsed by the Warren Commission, congressional and other investigators, and members of the Secret Service detail in Dallas on the day of the shooting.
My own conclusion: Oswald did not act alone. I do not find credible theories spawned by Oliver Stone’s film JFK and many others. I do believe the murder was planned and executed by the Chicago mob and ex-CIA anti-Castro operatives using Oswald as the “patsy” he said he was after his arrest in Dallas. Oswald was unstable and armed only with a notably unreliable Italian rifle.
First, the temper of the times.
The Civil Rights and Great Society domestic breakthroughs would not come until the Johnson presidency that followed Kennedy’s. The Cold War dominated everything in the 1950s and early 1960s. I had done my own military duty as an intelligence analyst specializing in Soviet affairs. There was hard stuff taking place on both sides.
When Sen. John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, he did so by running to the hawkish side not only of his Democratic primary opponent, the more liberal Sen. Hubert Humphrey, but also of the Republican nominee, Vice President Richard Nixon.
Among other things, Kennedy proposed (and later carried out) a huge buildup of the U.S. strategic missile force and pledged to go to war against the People’s Republic of China if it attempted to takeover small offshore islands.
In his inaugural speech he promised “to support any friend, oppose any foe” internationally and, once in office, made a fateful commitment to an intervention in Vietnam.
We came close to big war with the USSR during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Crisis (after erection of the Berlin Wall), and the failed CIA-planned Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was coordinating a secret mob-CIA effort to assassinate Castro.
I was living in Boston in 1960 and served as a spear-carrying volunteer at Kennedy campaign headquarters. Later, two months after JFK’s election, I was doing annual Army Reserve duty at the Pentagon and while there was invited to lunch at the White House mess and given a green carnation, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, from a silver bowl on his desk by President Kennedy. Six months later, I was at the Pentagon again, recalled to active duty during the Berlin Crisis. Afterward I stayed in D.C. and found myself helping the Kennedy White House pass free-trade and economic-stimulus legislation.
This was central to JFK’s 1960 pledge “to get American moving again”—that is, to jump-start a stagnant economy.
Nov. 22, 1963, was my wife’s and my sixth wedding anniversary. As I sometimes did as a former intelligence analyst, I was lecturing that morning at the Defense Intelligence School, then situated on the Capital Mall where the Vietnam Memorial now stands. Midway through my lecture, a Navy captain entered the room, moved me aside at the podium, and announced that, “President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and Texas Governor John Connally have been shot and killed in Dallas. Stand by for further information.”
There was a moment of dead silence. Not knowing what else to do, we continued. Those in the classroom were career officers from all branches of the service and therefore conditioned to do their duty in all situations.
Then a loudspeaker in the back of the room announced: “This is a correction and update. President Kennedy has been killed. Vice President Johnson is unharmed and has been sworn in as President. Governor Connally has been wounded and hospitalized.”
At that point we disbanded and left the classroom.
I walked as if compelled to Lafayette Park across from the White House. I found myself joined by perhaps 1,000 others, all standing in silence. Finally I realized it was twilight and I had been there for hours. I took a city bus home. The passengers were just as silent as we mourners had been in the park.
My wife and I spent our anniversary and the following morning before our TV set. Oswald arrested and jailed, information about his background as a former defector to the Soviet Union and pro-Castro sympathizer, and then Dallas strip-club owner Jack Ruby shooting Oswald, in the Dallas police station, in full view of cameras. Ruby said he had done it as a patriot.
President Johnson quickly appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren to head an official commission inquiry into the murder. The commission rushed its work. Its investigations were far from exhaustive. Everyone involved, it was clear, wanted the matter pit quickly to rest. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover urged in a written memo that Oswald be identified as the lone assailant and the matter ended. That was, in fact, what happened.
Why the rush?
If the Soviet Union were found to be involved, it could have led to a war no one wanted. The FBI and CIA had reason to hide their earlier knowledge of Oswald and failure to act on it—and perhaps their knowledge of and ties to others whose names arose in the investigation. The Kennedy family did not want it disclosed that Robert Kennedy was coordinating a Castro murder plot or that Joseph Kennedy, the President’s father, had earlier ties to the Chicago mob and might have obtained its support in the presidential campaign.
President Johnson, at the time, told White House staff and friends he did not believe the Warren Commission lone-gunman conclusions. Moreover, as Vice President, he had been kept in the dark about Castro assassination plots and expressed surprise that “we were running a damn Murder Inc. operation down in the Caribbean.” He had warned JFK not to go to Dallas because he feared the fevered right-wing temper there at the time. United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been spat upon during a visit there a few days previously.
After the assassination, I would serve as Vice President Humphrey’s assistant in the Johnson White House and, then, as policy director of several subsequent Democratic presidential campaigns. I came to know well all the principal figures in the Kennedy and Johnson years. John F. Kennedy Jr. returned to the capital, for the first time since his father’s death, as a college intern in my office. (He had no memory whatever of his father). I also was contacted frequently by Kennedy assassination theorists and investigators, including staff members of a House of Representatives committee that concluded in the 1970s that Oswald had not acted alone. They were chagrined to learn, later, that the CIA officer assigned to liaison with the committee had in fact known Oswald and many of the pro-Castro figures with whom he had associated. He also had known, but not informed the committee, of Oswald’s contact with a Soviet intelligence officer, specializing in assassinations, in Mexico City prior to the killing.
I have always thought it possible, but not likely, that the USSR was actively behind the shooting. It would have been too great a risk to take. And to what end—to replace JFK with Texan Lyndon Johnson, who was less sophisticated in foreign affairs than Kennedy?
On the other hand, the mob and anti-Castro types had their reasons. The Chicago outfit, as mentioned, had ties to father Joseph Kennedy and was thought to have helped JFK’s election campaign—in Illinois, in particular, where JFK finally won the election with a late barrage of votes from Chicago. Then, after the election, Attorney General Robert Kennedy had begun an anti-organized-crime crusade aimed directly at them. Ruby, the Oswald shooter, was a low-level member of the Chicago mob and his killing of Oswald would have fit the “shoot-the-shooter” policy often used to clean up mob killings. There were a number of bitter ex-CIA alumni of the Bay of Pigs fiasco who might have bought into a JFK assassination plot. Among the “tramps” detained, after shooting was alleged from their grassy-knoll perch at the murder scene, was one who bore a marked resemblance to Howard Hunt, later implicated in the Nixon Watergate break-in and scandal. All were quickly and mysteriously released from custody. The mobsters and ex-CIA types had gotten to know each other through their joint administration-sponsored efforts to murder Castro.
Looking back, it should be noted that JFK was not merely a Cold Warrior—as most politicos were at the time—but also intelligent, articulate and a person of great charm. He had a dark side as a serial exploiter of young women and as a sufferer from serious health problems he always denied. He had been a genuine World War II hero, saving his crew when his PT boat had been sunk in the Pacific. He had a sense of realpolitik that, had he lived, I thought would have led him to abandon the mistaken Vietnam intervention. The people around him were attractive and tough-minded. JFK was no reformist liberal, as Stevenson or Humphrey, or even as dedicated to domestic change as Johnson, but he nonetheless was on the right side of such issues and no doubt would eventually have taken up the agenda Johnson enacted in 1964-1965.
Contrary to mythology, there never was a Camelot. But there was a sea change in the national climate in 1960, when the generation that had fought World War II succeeded their elders who had led that war. It seemed a hopeful beginning that was cut short abruptly and shockingly less than three years later.
Ted Van Dyk, a Bellingham native now retired here, was active for many years in Democratic national policy and politics.
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