«Washington Decoded After Thirty Years: Making Sense of the Assassination By Max Holland In the context of other books about the JFK assassination, ...»
After Thirty Years: Making Sense of the Assassination
By Max Holland
In the context of other books about the JFK assassination, Deep Politics by Peter Dale
Scott is an unremarkable work. The field already brims with books that conjure up
fantastic conspiracies through innuendo, presumption, and pseudo-scholarship while
ignoring provable but inconvenient facts. Deep Politics is simply another addition to this
literature. Yet there remains something truly remarkable and disturbing about Deep Politics, and it’s not that a tenured English professor wrote its opaque prose. Rather it’s that Deep Politics is a University of California Press book. According to the UC publicity office, this means an editorial committee consisting of 20 UC professors, including four senior historians, approved Deep Politics for publication. This peer approval by a major university press illustrates the boundless and utter disbelief in the Warren Report that exists even in the highest reaches of the academy, and it also reveals the gross inattention given to the subject by serious historians.
It’s instructive to compare scholars’ treatment of the JFK assassination with their output and stance toward the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the other event in recent history that seared the national consciousness. Like the assassination, the attack was the subject of an executive branch investigation followed by a separate congressional investigation. Like the assassination, conspiratorial theories about the surprise attack (mainly, that FDR knew in advance) have always dogged the official story. By and large, historians have promptly exposed distortions of the documentary record and faulty logic, thereby relegating December 7th conspiracy theories to the political fringes where they belong. In stark contrast, historians have forged nothing close to a consensus on the assassination; in fact their voice is rarely raised. Very few of the more than 450 books and tens of thousands of articles that compose the vast assassination literature published since 1964 have been written by historians. And when they do write about the Kennedy presidency history becomes bifurcated. The assassination is treated as a footnote or afterthought if it is addressed at all. Consequently, the field is left by default to the fevered imagination of authors like Peter Dale Scott, who banks on what H.L. Mencken once called “the virulence of the national appetite for bogus revelation.” Future historians will have to account for this abdication because it carries a meaning, just as the hound who didn’t bark in unlocked Sherlock Holmes’s Baskerville mystery.
Of course, in one sense it is too easy to understand why historians have steered clearof the controvery. Any assassination buff worth his or her salt will gladly stupefy a historian with countless variations on the Warren Report or altogether different theories. And any historian who delves deeply into the literature does so at considerable risk to his or her own sanity. JFK assassination literature is the contemporary strain of the resilent paranoid style in American politics, defined so memorably by Richard Hofstadter 30 Washington Decoded years ago. Or as one wag remarked after seeing Oliver Stone’s JFK, which feverishly wove several published theories into a meta-conspiracy, it was hard to leave the theater without momentarily double-checking your own whereabouts on 22 November 1963.
The disbelief attached to the Warren Report has to be grounded in unfinished business, some yearning that goes well beyond narrow questions like whether all pertinent government documents have been released. In a letter to The New York Times last year, William Manchester skillfully identified this unrequited need as well as anyone ever has.
The author of Death of a President wrote,
The desire to invest a national trauma with meaning was not something which developed gradually. It was evident within minutes of Kennedy’s death, as Death of a President vividly chronicles. Dallas was a fount of right-wing activity dating back to the 1920s, when it was known as “the Southwest hate capital of Dixie.” That reputation, plus the rough reception accorded U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson in October, prompted anguished presidential aides to assert that unspecified right-wingers were responsible in the hours right after the assassination. And once Oswald was arrested, there was a marked reluctance to shift the blame from ultraconservatives to a self-styled Marxist; in America, a liberal President being assassinated by a Marxist seemed to make no sense.
Jacqueline Kennedy’s first reaction, upon being told by Robert Kennedy of Oswald’s background, was to feel sickened because she immediately sensed Oswald robbed JFK of martyrdom. “He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights,” Mrs.
Kennedy said, according to Manchester. “It’s--it had to be some silly little Communist.” Significantly, the search for meaning extended outside the immediate Kennedy circle too.
It can be seen in such minor details as the media’s use of Oswald’s middle name, as if employing it gave him more stature. Prior to that Friday, no one called him Lee Harvey Oswald.
If great events demand great causes, as Manchester argues, thirst for a conspiracy will never be satisfied so long as Oswald stands as he does now. He is unequal to the task of assassinating a President who, fairly or not, is more esteemed in public opinion polls than Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt. But perhaps 30 years is sufficient time to reWashington Decoded examine this imbalance, if possible adjust the scales, and make the assassination coherent. In addition to the sheer passage of time, last November marked the first major anniversary since the geo-political rules changed and with them exaggerated passions and fears. New documentary evidence, not only about the assassination but also Kennedy’s Cuba policy, has been released, and many principal officials are talking, some after a long silence. It is more than just possible that our understanding of the assassination, like so much else, has been clouded by cold war exigencies.
Of course, it’s fashionable now to throw up one’s hands at the slightest mention of November 22nd, and suggest that the truth is unknowable. But one might just as well assert that history doesn’t matter. It is past time to incorporate the assassination into postwar history instead of treating the event as some unfathomable crossroads.
In his first Weekly published after the assassination, the independent journalist I.F.
Stone wrote a piercing column on the fallen President entitled “We All Had a Finger on That Trigger.” Let us ask ourselves honest questions. How many Americans have not assumed--with approval--that the CIA was probably trying to find a way to assassinate Castro? How many would not applaud if the CIA succeeded? Have we not become conditioned to the notion that we should have a secret agency of government--the CIA--with secret funds, to wield the dagger beneath the cloak against leaders we dislike? Even some of our best young liberal intellectuals can see nothing wrong in this picture except that the ’operational’ functions of CIA should be kept separate from its intelligence evaluations!... When the right to kill is so universally accepted, we should not be surprised if our young President was slain. It is not just the ease in obtaining guns, it is the ease in obtaining excuses, that fosters assassination.
The Eisenhower Administration was hardly shy about subverting unsympathetic Third World regimes, and uncounted soldiers and civilians died during CIA-backed shadow wars and coups in the 1950s. But the trend apparent in 1959 raised a new question: if thousands of deaths were acceptable, why not the murder of particular persons? It might be a less costly way to nip unfriendly regimes in the bud, or on occasion, oust a repressive but pro-Western ruler who might engender a communist takeover. Perhaps Eisenhower was swayed by the tactics of the KGB, which occasionally used assassination--called “wet affairs”--to eliminate hostile emigre leaders and important defectors. In any case, “executive action,” the assassination of actual or potential leaders deemed inimical, was added to the CIA’s bag of covert tactics. In fragmented and frequently violent Third World polities, executive action appeared quite feasible, the rewards worthwhile, the risks tolerable.
In 1960, the consideration of four political murders became elements of wider covert operations designed to influence outcomes in the Congo, Iraq, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. The respective targets were Lumumba, Abdul Kassem, Rafael Trujillo, and Castro, who became a target of special urgency. If Castro’s radicalism succeeded Cuba promised to be become a model for other Latin revolutionaries, a bridgehead for Soviet subversion in the hemisphere, and a platform for signals intelligence facilities targeted against the United States. A major operational base in America’s backyard was Washington’s worst nightmare, and something the Kremlin had never dreamed possible.
By the time DCI Allen Dulles was giving briefings to President-elect Kennedy, Lumumba and Kassem had been “neutralized” though not as pure result of the CIA’s plotting. Kennedy needed little convincing about the continuing need to act with similar resolve in the Caribbean. He was highly impressed with the CIA’s ability to bend events in Third World countries, and covert operations were in keeping with the action-oriented pursuit of the cold war he intended. More to the point, during the 1960 campaign Kennedy had updated the “who lost China” debate by suggesting that Castro’s rise to Washington Decoded power was a clear symbol of America’s decline under Eisenhower. So eradicating Castro’s Cuba while simultaneously preventing another one became a centerpiece of Kennedy’s Latin American policy from the moment he took office.
Assassinating Castro was only one element, of course, in a far larger scheme to invade Cuba in the spring of 1961 and foment a counter-revolution. But the Bay of Pigs invasion proved a debacle and left Kennedy livid over the embarrassment caused his infant Administration. Heads had to roll, and the President toyed with the idea of replacing Allen Dulles with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Instead, he ordered his most trusted confidant and advisor to poke around the Agency and find out what had gone wrong. Operating with his usual zeal Robert Kennedy quickly immersed himself in Agency affairs, and as he came to understand the CIA’s capabilities he emerged its most ardent champion. Little more than a month after the Bay of Pigs this judgment was seemingly confirmed. Dominican dissidents in contact with the Agency assassinated Trujillo, and U.S. objectives were achieved with plausible deniability intact. The Agency, properly used, again seemed invaluable.
While Castro erected a sign near the invasion site that read, “Welcome to the Site of the First Defeat of Imperialism in the Western Hemisphere,” the Kennedy Administration resumed plotting against him in earnest. Precisely because the Bay of Pigs was such a catastrophe JFK became more determined than ever to see Castro deposed. By November 1961, another covert plan, under the umbrella code-name of MONGOOSE, was moving into high gear. This time the plan was to destabilize Castro’s regime rather than suddenly overthrow it. In concert with overtly hostile diplomatic and economic policies, every possible covert tactic would be brought to bear, including paramilitary sabotage, psychological warfare, and assassination. But the Agency did not have free rein. This time President Kennedy installed his brother as a kind of czar over the entire operation, in effect the unofficial but unmistakable overseer (with respect to Cuba) of the Agency’s Directorate of Plans, the covert action shop then run by Richard Helms. Robert Kennedy was there both to keep the pressure on and to guard against any unpleasant surprises. As Senator Harris Wofford (then a White House aide) wrote in his 1980 memoir Of Kennedys & Kings,
For the first nine months of 1962, MONGOOSE was the Administration’s top covert priority and Castro next to a fixation for Robert Kennedy. At one of the first meetings, RFK told assembled officials that his brother “really wanted action” and that “no time, money, effort, or manpower is to be spared.” Robert Kennedy made field trips to MONGOOSE facilities in Florida, and if a sabotage raid was scheduled he insisted on knowing such details as what sidearms the exiles would be carrying. RFK’s micromanagement extended to almost daily telephone conversations with Richard Helms, during which the Attorney General applied “white heat” pressure. As Helms recalled in Washington Decoded 1975 before a Senate subcommittee, “It was made abundantly clear... that the desire was to get rid of the Castro regime and to get rid of Castro... no limitations were put on this injunction.” did not envision U.S. military intervention until an internal revolt erupted, MONGOOSE but this tactical distinction was lost on Castro. He daily excoriated the Yankee imperialists and appealed to Moscow for tangible help against what he feared was an imminent invasion. In Nikita Khruschev he found a sympathetic listener. Initially, the Soviets had been wary of supporting Castro. He was not a card-carrying member of the Cuban Communist Party when he rode into Havana, and the Kremlin doubted his staying power given U.S. influence and sensitivity over events in the Caribbean. But the threat of another U.S.-backed invasion, and more importantly, the opportunity to redress a strategic nuclear imbalance, persuaded Khruschev to forego caution and order a Soviet military build-up in Cuba in 1962.