Many years ago I read Conspiracy by Anthony Summers, the book which I still consider the best single book written about the assassination in 1963 of US President John F. Kennedy.
I remember that I decided after reading this book that Lee Harvey Oswald almost certainly was Kennedy’s murderer and that he most probably acted alone (Summers took a different view) and that the key to the solving the many mysteries about the murder lay with him.
I say this because I did not think then and I do not think now that the evidence patiently assembled by Summers and by so many others like him of a conspiracy to murder Kennedy by the CIA, or by a rogue group within the CIA, or by the mafia, or by the Cubans or by the Russians was in the end convincing.
I also thought the most popular theory – that Kennedy was murdered by the CIA or the US ‘Deep State’ because it was unhappy about his recently announced policy of rapprochement with Russia – rested on a fundamental error: that on foreign policy and security policy specifically on the question of relations with the USSR Kennedy was some sort of foreign policy dove.
On the contrary Kennedy was a militant anti-Communist who had been a close friend and political ally of Senator McCarthy’s. His aggressive anti-Communist, anti-Russian and anti-Cuban policies had brought the superpowers closer to a nuclear war during the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 than has ever been the case both before and since.
The entire thesis that Kennedy was some sort of foreign policy dove rests on a single speech Kennedy delivered on 10th June 1963 at American University in Washington.
This speech – obviously made in order to calm public and international fears following the Cuban Missile Crisis which Kennedy had largely provoked through his extreme belligerence – attracted far more interest in Russia than it did in the US, where it went largely unnoticed.
This by the way is a consistent feature of US-Russian relations, with the Russians always far more interested in the possibility of a lasting rapprochement between Russia and the US than the Americans ever are.
Given President Kennedy’s previous record it is doubtful that many people in the US foreign policy, intelligence and defence bureaucracy took the speech especially seriously. It is only hindsight – formed following Kennedy’s murder – that has accorded the speech the importance popular mythology attributes to it today.
I would add in passing that I share the skepticism of those who doubt Kennedy’s long-term commitment to his October 1963 decision to begin withdrawing US troops from Vietnam – the other Kennedy decision which is sometimes taken as proof that he had become a dove.
That decision was conditional on US Defense Secretary McNamara’s and US General Maxwell Taylor’s
….judgment that the major part of the US military task can be completed by the end of 1965 …,’ [and] that ‘the long term program to replace US personnel with trained Vietnamese [could go forward] without impairment of the war effort.
(bold italics added)
Once it became clear that the “major part of the US military task” in Vietnam was not being completed by 1965 or by any other date – as would inevitably have been the case – I have no doubt that President Kennedy would have reversed his decision and would have sent US troops back to Vietnam.
In my opinion President Kennedy was no more willing to let “South Vietnam go Communist” than Lyndon Johnson was or than any other conceivable US President in the early or mid 1960s would have been.
I would add that Kennedy’s approach to the war in Vietnam in 1963 was essentially the same ‘stop-go’ approach we have seen more recently from Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump in relation to the war in Afghanistan. This amounts to make successive announcements of “mission accomplished”, with the numbers of US troops being drawn down on the back of them, only for the decisions to be reversed and for the troops to be sent back when it turns out that the mission has not been accomplished after all.
Overall my opinion of both President Kennedy’s American University speech and of his October 1963 Vietnam withdrawal decision is that they were intended to help President Kennedy win what many expected would be a difficult election in 1964. I doubt that they had any more significance than that or that anyone in the US government at the time thought that they did.
It follows from this that the hardliners in the CIA or the US Deep State had no reason in October 1963 to want to kill President Kennedy, and given the colossal risks involved in doing so I am sure that they had no plan to do so, and no part in his actual killing.
I would add that if hardliners in the CIA and the Deep State really had wanted to oust President Kennedy from the Presidency, nothing would have been easier, and they would have had no need to arrange his murder in order to do it.
Publication of the details of President Kennedy’s baroque sex life involving prostitutes and multiple mistresses – including a woman who was also the mistress of a Chicago gangster and a woman who was suspected of being an East German spy – together with disclosure of his chronic ill-health, would have shattered the Camelot illusion, and would have guaranteed his defeat in the 1964 election.
That nothing like that ever happened, so that the truth about Kennedy’s sex life, his ill-health and his chronic dependence on drugs only became public knowledge decades after his death despite being common knowledge within the US bureaucracy at the time shows that there was no plot within the CIA or the Deep State to get rid of him.
The same also applies to the other the three parties often assumed to have had some role in Kennedy’s death: the mafia, the Cubans and the Russians.
Whilst it is certainly true that the mafia and the Kennedy brothers were in conflict with each other at the time of Kennedy’s death, the mafia has no history in the US of murdering federal politicians (Leon Jordan – in whose 1970 killing the mafia may have had a hand – was a Representative in the Missouri House of Representatives, not a federal politician). It beggars belief that if the mafia ever were to start killing US federal politicians that they would begin by murdering the President. Besides it is impossible to see what advantage killing Kennedy would have conferred on the mafia anyway that would have outweighed the enormous risks for them if they had been caught.
The suspicion of mafia involvement in Kennedy’s killing seems to stem from the fact that Jack Ruby – the man who murdered Oswald – seems to have had at least some mafia connections and may at some point in his career have met with the notorious Florida mafia boss Santo Trafficante.
However the actual extent of Ruby’s dealings with the mafia are open to doubt, whilst there is no evidence that before killing Oswald Ruby had ever killed anyone. What is known about Ruby suggests that he was never anything more than a manager of nightclubs, strip-clubs and dance halls, a fact which makes it extremely unlikely – to put it mildly – that the mafia would have chosen him to murder Oswald. Besides it has never been made clear what the mafia could have offered Ruby in order to induce him to kill Oswald in the extremely public way that he did.
I would add that I place no credence in the claim made by an airport manager to US investigators and disclosed for the first time in the papers which have just been released that he saw Oswald and Ruby in the same group of young people who flew to Cuba together and that they therefore knew each other. That sort of sensational story is all but certain to appear in the aftermath of a sensational murder like those of Kennedy and Oswald, and I am pretty sure the airport manager either imagined his story or made it up, and I am sure the investigators who spoke with him thought so as well.
All the facts in fact point to Ruby’s murder of Oswald being the sort of spontaneous act of an unremarkable man desperate to gain fame and attention, which are all too common in the sort of highly charged atmosphere which events like Kennedy’s murder create, and which Ruby – along with many other incoherent things – said that it was.
As for the Cubans, Lyndon Johnson and (possibly) Richard Nixon apparently believed that Fidel Castro ordered Kennedy’s killing in retaliation for the CIA’s multiple attempts – ordered by the Kennedy brothers – to kill him.
No evidence for that has however ever come to light, and all the known facts actually argue strongly against it.
Oswald does appear to have had left wing sympathies, and did visit the Cuban consulate in Mexico City shortly before he killed Kennedy. He also seems to have had some contacts with an anti-Castro Cuban dissident group based in Mexico City during his trip there. This group was apparently heavily infiltrated by Cuban intelligence so it is possible that some of the things he told them – which may have included a statement that he intended to kill Kennedy – might have got passed back to Havana.
However Oswald’s dealings with the Cuban officials at their consulate – from whom he sought a visa to travel to Cuba on his way back to the USSR – appear to have been heated and acrimonious, with the Cubans initially refusing him a visa but eventually granting him one only to discover that by then he had returned to the US.
Kennedy’s murder came almost exactly a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis during which Fidel Castro would have learnt the limits of Soviet support for him. By October 1963 he would have been under no doubt that the USSR would not risk a nuclear war with the US on his and Cuba’s behalf.
It beggars belief that Fidel Castro – an extremely well-educated and highly intelligent man – knowing this would have nonetheless gone ahead and ordered the murder of the President of the United States when he would have known that the result when his role in the murder was discovered – as it was bound to be – would be a US invasion of Cuba and his own death. It was not after all as if there were not already plenty of people in the US in 1963 who were already itching to do just that.
Needless to say if Fidel Castro had nonetheless decided to do such a crazy and reckless thing it is all but inconceivable that Cuban intelligence would have recruited someone as obviously unbalanced as Oswald – with whom the Cubans had previously had only minimal dealings – to do it.
Though the cache of papers that has just been released shows that one or two lower ranking Cuban officials were pleased when they heard the news of Kennedy’s murder (just as some lower ranking Iraqi officials were pleased when they heard the news of 9/11) reliable eyewitness accounts of Fidel Castro’s own reaction say that he was shocked when he heard of Kennedy’s murder and was filled with deep foreboding, being worried that he would be blamed for it.
This is logical, and since it is inconceivable that any Cuban official would have ordered Kennedy’s murder without first obtaining Fidel Castro’s permission, the theory of Cuban involvement in Kennedy’s murder – for which there is no evidence – is unsustainable and must be rejected.
As for the Russians, Oswald did ‘defect’ to the USSR in 1959 and did live for a time there. He was also attempting to return to the USSR shortly before he killed Kennedy, and was bombarding Soviet diplomatic missions in Mexico City and the US with requests to be allowed to return there.
The papers which have just been released however corroborate what has been known for some time: that the Soviet authorities did not see in Oswald a genuine ideological defector but rather a highly unstable individual with a personality disorder.
They were happy to let him go when he told them he wanted to leave the USSR and go back home, and they showed no enthusiasm in 1963 when he told them that he wanted to come back.
Of claims that Oswald received some sort of special training whilst he was in the USSR there is no evidence, and again it beggars belief that if the Russians had hatched a lunatic plot to murder the President of the United States – risking a nuclear war with the US in the process – that they would have selected an erratic and melodramatic individual with a history of a public defection to the USSR like Oswald to do it for them.
It is in fact all but inconceivable that the Russians would have wanted in 1963 Kennedy killed. Not only would the risks involved in murdering the President of the United States have been wholly out of proportion to any possible gains, but despite my own cynicism about Kennedy’s American University speech (see above) the Russians were obviously tantalised by it, with the Soviet media publishing it in full in the USSR unamended.
All the evidence points to the Russians hoping that President Kennedy’s American University speech would mark the start of a genuine rapprochement between the USSR and the US, which must in turn mean that the Russians so far from wanting Kennedy dead not wanted him alive but in 1963 but wanted him re-elected in 1964.
The papers which have just been released in fact show that the Russians were horrified and panicked by Kennedy’s murder and by the fact that Oswald, his murderer, had lived for a time in the USSR.
They seem to have genuinely feared that in the confusion and hysteria caused by the murder some paranoid US general would – Dr. Strangelove style – take it on himself to launch a nuclear attack on the USSR.
In their dismay the Russians seem to have clutched at various wild conspiracy theories of their own, with Soviet Premier Khrushchev and the KGB apparently believing that Kennedy was killed as a result of a right wing coup, with Moscow swirling with fantastic rumours – some of them apparently believed in by Premier Khrushchev himself, and passed on by the Russians to the US – including a particularly bizarre one that President Kennedy was killed as a result of a plot involving the Dallas Police Department.
These wild theories should be taken as a sign of the confusion and panic in Moscow following the murder. They are not evidence of how the murder was actually carried out. In 1963 the Russians would have had no means to find out the truth about a murder like the one of Kennedy which was carried out on US soil since they would have had no means to carry out an investigation of a murder carried out in the US. Their various theories about the murder should be treated as no more than the wild guesses that they obviously were.
One particular factoid (as opposed to fact) which has come to light in the recently published papers and which is attracting a disproportionate amount of media attention is that over the course his dealings with the Soviet consulate in Mexico City in the month before the murder Oswald at some point met the Soviet consul, who was an official called Valery Kostikov.
The US papers identify Kostikov as a KGB officer working for the KGB’s “13th Department” (actually the 13th Department of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate) which supposedly was responsible for “assassinations and sabotage”. This has inevitably led to some excited commentary about Oswald having supposedly met a “KGB assassinations expert” or even a “KGB assassin” in Mexico City a month before he killed Kennedy.
In fact Kostikov’s meeting with Oswald was simply chance, caused by Oswald’s increasingly frantic efforts to get himself a Soviet visa, which caused him to have multiple contacts with Soviet diplomatic missions both in Mexico and the US. Since Kostikov headed the Soviet consulate in Mexico City, it is not surprising that an increasingly agitated and desperate Oswald somehow managed to meet with him.
The reason the US found out about the meeting between Kostikov and Oswald was because on 1st October 1963 – three days after the meeting supposedly took place – Oswald telephoned the consulate on an open line and demanded news about the progress of his visa application. He seems to have mentioned his meeting with Kostikov in order to get the official who took his call to pay attention to him.
It beggars belief that if Oswald really was a Soviet agent involved in a dangerous plot to murder the President of the United States that he would have been engaging in open contacts of this sort with people like Kostikov, or that he would have been blabbing about meeting Kostikov on an open line given that both he and the Russians would have known that phone calls to the consulate were being monitored.
As it happens the Soviet government took a formal decision in 1959 to prohibit the KGB from assassinating enemies of the USSR on foreign territory (the last person to have been assassinated by the KGB on foreign territory – immediately before the prohibition was put in place – was the Ukrainian fascist leader Stepan Bandera).
It is generally acknowledged that for the rest of the Cold War the KGB abided by this prohibition, though it took some time before the West became aware of the fact. That means that whatever Kostikov was before 1959, he cannot have been an “assassinations expert” or indeed a “KGB assassin” in 1963.
If there was no conspiracy by the CIA, the mafia, the Cubans or the Russians to murder President Kennedy, was there a conspiracy by someone else?
The papers which have just been released do not provide a definite answer to that question. Whilst such a thing is therefore possible, I have to say that I think it is unlikely.
The two things that come across to me most strongly from the papers are (1) Oswald’s unbalanced personality and (2) the widespread knowledge of him on the part of the US intelligence and security agencies.
The arc of Oswald’s life in fact bears out the Russian assessment of him as an individual suffering from a severe personality disorder.
Like many such people he seems to have suffered from delusions of grandeur, which he struggled to reconcile with the mundane reality of his existence. The result – very common with such people – was to make him extremely angry and disruptive as his life came to centre on an increasingly desperate quest to attract attention.
Thus Oswald’s ‘defection’ to the USSR, his suicide attempt whilst he was there, his decision to return to the US, his increasingly chaotic and restless life following his return to the US, his frantic attempts to go to Cuba and to return to the USSR, and eventually – when everything else failed – his decision to kill Kennedy.
It is inherently unlikely that such a person could have carried out a complex plot to murder Kennedy along with other people.
No wholly convincing evidence for such a plot has ever come to light.
The papers which have just been published say that a newspaper in Britain received an anonymous tip-off to call the US embassy about some “big news” 25 minutes before Kennedy’s murder. Some people will no doubt see that as proof that some sort of conspiracy existed.
Though the FBI very properly took this information extremely seriously, it seems unlikely that it actually had anything to do with Kennedy’s murder.
The suggestion that the newspaper call the US embassy suggests that (assuming the call was not a hoax call, of which newspapers receive many) the caller was giving a tip-off about other news which he or she was expecting to come out of the US but which would not make immediate headlines as the murder of the President of the United States certainly would.
If the call was about President Kennedy then one possibility must be that it was about Ellen Rometsch – the alleged East German call girl who had apparently slept with Kennedy and who was suspected of being an East German agent – who had recently been deported from the US.
There are some reasons to think that in November 1963 the scandal about Rometsch was about to break, only to be swept away by the news of President Kennedy’s death. If so then it is possible that the tip-off to the British newspaper was about that.
It must be said however that the British newspaper in question – the Cambridge News – is a purely local paper and hardly seems an obvious newspaper for someone intent on giving an anonymous tip-off about “big news” coming out of the US to call.
The reporter who claimed to have taken the call was said to be a “sound and loyal person with no security record”. However it must be possible that he simply made the whole story of the call up in order to give himself importance and to involve himself if only fictitiously in the gigantic news story of the moment, which was Kennedy’s murder. That sort of reaction following an event like Kennedy’s murder is unfortunately only too common.
As for the various other claims concerning evidence of a conspiracy which have become such a staple of the literature – the eyewitness claims of a second gunman behind the grassy knoll etc – all I will say here about them is that I have never been at all convinced by them.
Taken together with what is known about Oswald’s personality, the lack of convincing evidence of a conspiracy to murder Kennedy makes me doubt that there was one, and makes me think that the official view that he acted alone is right
Unsurprisingly an individual as unbalanced and melodramatic as Oswald with his multiple contacts with the Russians and his ‘defection’ to the USSR could not fail to attract the attention of the US’s massive intelligence and security apparatus, and it seems in fact that he was being kept under continuous surveillance from at least the time of his first contacts with the Russians in 1959.
Given Oswald’s increasingly erratic behaviour and the increasingly wild threats he was making – including a threat in a handwritten letter to the FBI to blow up the FBI office in Dallas – the situation obviously called for action to put him and those he might put in danger out of harm’s way.
Instead nothing was done, with the US’s various intelligence and security agencies failing to share information about Oswald with each other, and failing to take any action to stop him before disaster struck. It was this inactivity – which in the circumstances amounts to gross negligence – which was the single most important cause of President Kennedy’s death.
What followed was the most sinister part of the whole affair.
Instead of making a clean breast of what had happened and assisting the Warren Commission to carry out a proper investigation of the murder, the US intelligence and security community closed ranks to covered up the evidence of its own negligence.
The result was that evidence was destroyed – including Oswald’s letter in which he threatened to blow up the FBI’s Dallas office – whilst intercepts of Oswald’s communications with the Russians were not disclosed, and the extent of the US intelligence community’s knowledge of Oswald was kept from the Warren Commission and the American people.
It did not help matters that the Dallas Police Department seems also to have botched its investigation of Kennedy’s death and disregarded warnings from the FBI that Oswald needed to be kept secure.
To say that there were no conspiracies connected to Kennedy’s murder is therefore wrong. A conspiracy did happen, though it is not the one that is most widely suspected. It was not a conspiracy to murder Kennedy, but a conspiracy to conceal from the American people the incompetence of the intelligence and security agencies which caused his death.
It was the existence of this conspiracy which has ever since led to the theories about the others. Coming across evidence of this conspiracy the countless numbers of researchers who have studied the murder have naturally seen in this evidence proof of a conspiracy to murder rather than a conspiracy to conceal the incompetence of the intelligence and security agencies who failed to protect him.
Along the way the researchers also discovered many ghastly truths about the many other bad things the US intelligence and security agencies had been up to, such as the CIA’s plots to murder Fidel Castro, and its attempts to enlist the help of the mafia in order to do it. Needless to say, on the principle that people who habitually do bad things are capable of any crime, that made many people even more convinced that President Kennedy was killed because of some plot by the US’s own intelligence and security agencies.
Rumours of this plot continue to run rife to this day, and the US intelligence and security community appears to have learnt nothing from this. Incredibly, fifty years after President Kennedy was killed, they have pressured President Trump into blocking publication of hundreds of documents relating to the murder.
It is all but inconceivable that publication of these documents today could have any national security implications. Today these documents are purely historic. Almost certainly their concealment reflects the continued wish of the US intelligence and security bureaucracy to hide the evidence of their own incompetence. However by doing so they simply feed the rumours which publication of the documents was supposed to suppress.
The other consequence of the conspiracy to conceal the truth about the incompetence of the US intelligence and security community is that no senior US official was ever punished for its negligence or paid the price of losing his job. The result was that a culture of impunity took hold which continues to this day, as has been made all too obvious by the serial leaking which has taken place over the course of the Russiagate scandal.
Meanwhile the same incompetent officials who were running the US intelligence and security agencies before President Kennedy was killed continued to do so after. It was these people who went on to botch the US intelligence effort during the Vietnam war, which they largely authored. Moreover since it is their direct lineal successors who run the US intelligence and security agencies to this day their malign legacy continues still and is the cause of the US’s other repeated intelligence disasters, such as 9/11 and the claims about WMD in Iraq.
The American people have paid a heavy price for this self-protection of people who supposedly work to protect them. With hindsight it was in 1963 that the US intelligence and security community began to make itself unaccountable. That was the key moment when the culture of impunity and lawlessness took hold which persists to this day.
In a sense it was on that day – 22nd November 1963, when President Kennedy met his death – that the US “Deep State” began.