JFK: Why He Died and Why It Matters
Even as a child of nine I could feel the fear, smell the doom in the air. Apocalypse was tangible, the coming of the dawn uncertain. I remember my best friend at the time being told by his parents not to stray too far from the house. The import of the statement did not need to be spelt out.
Such was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 16 - 28, 1962, likely the closest humanity has ever come to total annihilation.
Most everyone knew, during those dark days, of course, that matters were dire. What we didn’t know at the time was just how few individuals stood with their fingers in the dyke holding back the mounting tide of Armageddon. Indeed, as it turns out, not more than two individuals ultimately held back the baying dogs of war. Nikita Khrushchev and John Fitzgerald Kennedy were those two men. Had two lesser men been in their respective positions of power – and this especially true of the United States – it is almost certain that I would not be writing this here today, and neither would you be here to read it.
Now, I am conscious at this point of standing against a deep and erstwhile strain of leftist thought that classes Kennedy as a simple Cold War warrior, a leader essentially undifferentiated in terms of imperial criminality from those Presidents who went before or came after him. In this essay-cum-book review I will beg to demur. In so doing I will also set myself against those who accord Kennedy’s assassination as of minor moment, a crime without grave and systemic political consequence. Again, I will beg to demur.
My demurral is, I confess, really in the service of championing a new book (2008) by author James W. Douglass entitled, JFK and the Unspeakable. It is a work, however, whose general themes and points of view I have long privately held, whence my decision to jettison the artificial objectivity a book review of this sort normally demands. Not content as mere passenger on this here stagecoach, I intend, instead, to ride shotgun.
Subtitled, Why he died and why it matters Douglass’s book uncovers the remarkable, ostensibly subterranean political life of Kennedy, and this by way of establishing the context and motive for his later murder. Interleaved throughout, the author traces the equally remarkable – and highly improbable – steps leading the lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald to Dealy Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963. Relying on a host of newly declassified information (including material from Soviet archives), and the reports of witnesses who, in their old age, have forgone their fear of reprisal and have stepped forward to testify, the author seeks to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that Kennedy was assassinated by a right-wing conspiracy involving what, essentially, was then, and is now, a shadow government in the United States.[ii]
For the faint of heart or for those who reflexively recoil from the stigma attaching to conspiracy theories, I advise: read no further.
It is often dogmatically stated by many progressive writers that Kennedy, merely by virtue of having ascended to the highest office in the realm, was ipso facto an unrepentant imperialist. This is simplistic. It is true that Kennedy made many official decisions and public statements that naturally accorded with a rising star in the US political firmament. No one is denying that he was, in many ways, a classic exponent of American exceptionalism. But even in the earliest days of his political career there were also, as Douglass points out, clear signs of Kennedy marching to a different drummer.
JFK made numerous statements as a US Senator, for instance, supporting African nationalism. Indeed, he went so far as to openly support the cause of Algerian independence, a stance that stunned and even horrified many in US ruling circles. In fact, Douglass drops a bombshell in his book when he provides documentation of the fact, not just that the CIA gave the go-ahead for the assassination (by Belgian forces) of the Congolese nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba, a fact long known, but that the decision to do so was taken specifically to anticipate Kennedy’s accession to the Presidency; this to forestall any interference he might have offered to the project. Lumumba was murdered three days prior to Kennedy’s inauguration.
Then there was the Bay of Pigs. Again, many a reflexive argument has been advanced on this score to paint Kennedy as an unrelenting foe of Cuban independence. But, as Douglass points out (and as is otherwise well known in any case), the US support for the April 1961 attack on Cuba by an exile brigade of anti-Castro Cubans was largely inherited from the Eisenhower Administration. Moreover, when the attack failed the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA pressured Kennedy to launch an all-out invasion of the island by US forces. It turns out that Kennedy realized he had been set up by the CIA precisely to force him into such an invasion. Neither the Pentagon nor the top spooks thought that their young Commander-in-Chief would be able to resist their demands. They were wrong. JFK showed, to quote Tolkien, remarkable resistance to the ring’s power. Kennedy refused, later remarking instead that he intended to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.
This one act of defiance alone earned Kennedy the undying enmity not only of the Pentagon and the CIA, but of the extremist Cuban émigré community as well. To top matters off, Kennedy subsequently cut the CIA budget, deleted military operations from their field of responsibility, and fired the three top CIA personnel, including erstwhile CIA Director Allen Dulles, one of the most influential men in the entire Empire (and who would later be appointed, without the faintest trace of irony, to the Warren Commission investigating Kennedy’s murder).
As Douglass points out, this was Kennedy’s first Bay of Pigs, i.e. the real one. The second was his refusal during the Cuban Missile Crisis to accede to the demands of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to launch a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union. Thanks to the fact that Kennedy secretly taped the conversations with the Joint Chiefs during the crisis, we are today privy to the extraordinary pressure that was brought to bear on the young President. At one point on the tapes, for example, Air Force Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay openly goads Kennedy and equates his refusal to attack the Soviets to that of Chamberlain¹s appeasement of Hitler at Munich.
Fortunately, both Kennedy and Khrushchev were able to deflect their respective war counsels and, through the use of back-door communicational channels, were able to broker a deal. It is also interesting to note that Kennedy asked Khrushchev to back down first conceding that his generals were out of control. Khrushchev intuited the pressure Kennedy was under and graciously assented. It would not be the last time that Kennedy would have to confront his generals and nix their plans for nuclear Armageddon. Indeed, their plans for such extended right through his Administration prompting him to remark on more than one occasion to those close to him that, these guys are crazy.
Kennedy’s third Bay of Pigs, according to Douglass, was his Commencement Address at American University in Washington on June 10, 1963, just five and a half months before his assassination. It is a stunning document ¬ one that Douglass decided (rightly so) to include in an appendix to the book. In it Kennedy effectively calls for a general and complete disarmament. To kick things off he proposes then and there a unilateral halt to the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, this as a good-faith prelude towards negotiating a comprehensive test ban treaty. In addition, the speech is replete, not just with rhetorical odes to peace, but with repeated references to the need of Americans to re-examine our attitude towards the Soviet Union, and to re-examine our attitude toward the cold war, and to reject a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. The speech was, in short, a call for a complete cessation of hostilities. But to the US military-industrial complex it was tantamount to a declaration of war.
In the Soviet Union the speech was widely disseminated both by print and radio to millions of Soviet citizens, amongst whom it created enormous excitement. In the US, on the other hand, the speech was met with almost total media silence. Americans never came to know the revolutionary words of their own president. Only the ruling elite were listening. In truth, they had been listening in the months just prior to the Commencement Address, and what they heard had already set the alarms ringing.
Thus, despite having, in late 1961, authorized Operation Mongoose (a covert action program to help Cuba overthrow the Communist regime), Kennedy did an about face in March of 1963 by ordering a crackdown on CIA-backed anti-Castro groups which were conducting terrorist raids against the island. Then in May of 63 Kennedy issued National Security Action Memorandum 239 which committed his national security advisors to pursue both a nuclear test ban treaty and a policy of general and complete disarmament.
Douglass attributes Kennedy’s change of heart with regard to the Cold War to his and Khrushchev’s having undergone an epiphany of sorts whilst gazing into the nuclear abyss during the Missile Crisis. But even before the crisis the alarm bells were sounding for America’s ruling class. In April of 1962, for instance, Kennedy took on the US steel industry forcing it to rescind an across-the-board price increase that was in violation of a previously (Kennedy) brokered agreement. The fight got dirty. Realizing he had been brazenly and openly betrayed Kennedy immediately swung into action. Government contracts were immediately redirected from the offending companies, tax audits on both the companies and their chief executives were ordered, and anti-trust legislation initiated. Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, sent FBI agents to roust the executives in their homes. Within three days the steel executives capitulated. Kennedy had won. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. As Douglass notes, on the Boards of Directors of those steel firms sat most of corporate and finance America. So deep was the subsequent animosity that an editorial in corporate America’s flagship publication, Fortune, was entitled, “Steel: The Ides of April”. An ominous reference to Caesar’s assassination.
Kennedy’s fourth Bay of Pigs according to Douglass was the signing in late September 1963 of the Limited Test Ban Treaty. The latter had been vigorously opposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but to no avail. Kennedy had mounted a successful public relations campaign to garner both popular and Senate support for the treaty. Equally vexatious to the Pentagon and the CIA, however, were Kennedy’s back-door communications with both Khrushchev and Castro. With regard to the latter, it was becoming clear to the CIA that Kennedy was attempting to engineer a rapprochement with the Cuban government. But these weren’t the only thorns pricking their sides. In October Kennedy issued National Action Memorandum 263 which ordered the withdrawal from Vietnam of “1000 US military personnel by the end of 1963” and “by the end of 1965 the bulk of US personnel.”
In truth, Kennedy had been attempting to withdraw American forces from Vietnam for some time, but had, as Douglass documents, run up against fierce resistance both from within the military and from his own ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge.
Supplementing this long litany of grievances by corporate America, the Pentagon, and the CIA was Kennedy’s support of Indonesian independence. Indeed, noteworthy is the fact that almost immediately following Kennedy’s assassination that support was cut off. President Sukarno would then, in 1965, be overthrown in a CIA-backed coup, and the bloodbath that followed would see up to a million Indonesians butchered by the new American ally, Suharto.
[And, by the by, just as IBM would supply the wherewithal, i.e. the Hollerith punch card technology, to generate the lists and run the Nazi concentration camps in WW2, so too would the CIA provide the lists of those to be killed in Indonesia. In addition, the economics departments of various American universities ¬ especially Berkley – would also play their grisly role in the slaughter.]
Then, with Kennedy out of the way, Time Magazine could subsequently give voice to the sentiments of corporate America in declaring that Indonesia was once again, “open for business”.
A complementary sentiment with respect to Kennedy was near universal amongst America’s ruling elite: Long live the Empire, good riddance to the class traitor.
In his Farewell Address of Jan. 17, 1961 President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave warning of the troubling presence within the American polity of a relatively new and malign force: the military-industrial complex, the “conjunction” as he called it, “of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry that is new in the American experience.” His warning went unheeded. Only one month after Kennedy’s murder, another warning would be issued, this time by former President Harry Truman. “For some time I have been disturbed by the way the CIA has been diverted from its original assignment” he wrote. Truman well knew what that original assignment was as he was the man who created the CIA in 1947. Clearly, however, by late 1963 Truman had realized that the assignment had changed, and drastically. His warning, too, was met by total silence.
Douglass impresses upon us at virtually every turn in his book the hydra-headed monster that the CIA had become by the early 1960s. By then, the CIA not only encompassed specialty covert departments for the assassination of foreign leaders and for the overthrowing of unfriendly governments, but it had also become a subversive entity within the US polity itself. Its operatives were secreted into virtually every significant government agency, throughout the mass media and the intelligentsia. Douglass records at one point that even the head of the FBI, the legendary J. Edgar Hoover, was aware that there were CIA moles operating within his own tightly run organization. It had become, effectively, a shadow organization operating more or less totally outside democratic control.
It is, then, with respect to the omnipresent tentacles of the CIA that we must ultimately repair when discussing the case of Lee Harvey Oswald, the lone gunman.
Oswald’s is a truly remarkable story, even more fantastic if we are to accept the Warren Commission’s view of the matter. His narrative begins on October 31, 1959 when he presents himself to the American embassy in Moscow for the purpose of renouncing his US citizenship and of defecting to the Soviet Union. At that time he also announces that he intends to give any and all information such as he possesses regarding his Marine training as a radar operator working out of Atsugi Air Force Base in Japan, a top secret facility whence originates the super-secret U2 reconnaissance flights over Russia. On May 1, 1960 a U2 flight is shot down over Russian territory and the pilot, Gary Powers, later openly questions whether his shoot-down may have been due to information that Oswald rendered to his new comrades. After working at a Soviet factory in Minsk for a year, Oswald decides to return to the US. He is accepted back with open arms. He is neither detained, imprisoned, nor in any way sanctioned for having committed open treason.
Now, one has to understand that this narrative occurs at the height of the Cold War, at a time when, for instance, numerous actors, directors and writers in Hollywood were still on blacklists, their careers ruined for having had the remotest connections with left organizations or causes. This was a time when even a public figure as famous as Charlie Chaplin had been formally exiled from the country for his leftist beliefs and when many of America’s premier intellectuals (including Albert Einstein) were under constant surveillance by the FBI and subject to government instigated yellow-journalism smear campaigns. Even Linus Pauling, the two time Nobel Prize winning father of modern chemistry had been, just a few years earlier, refused a visa to leave the country to visit Britain (to pursue the cracking of the DNA code) because, as he put it, “Apparently my anti-communist statements were not virulent enough.” And yet here we witness Oswald waltzing back and forth, to and from the epicentre of world communism, with not the slightest problem in the world. To top matters off, a year later he applies for a passport ¬ and receives it the very next day.
Upon arriving back in the States Oswald is quickly befriended by one George de Mohrenschildt, a White Russian émigré with significant CIA connections. After being handled by de Mohrenschildt for a year or so Oswald is then transferred into the care of Ruth and Michael Paine, both of whom, again have key CIA connections. Meanwhile, Oswald begins making much commotion and drawing attention to himself by handing out leaflets in support of a pro-Castro group called Fair Play for Cuba. He gets himself arrested. Strangely, however, witnesses later testify to the fact that Oswald is seen all during this period in the company of well known FBI and CIA agents.
Here the tangle of the narrative becomes too complex to fully explore in an essay, but just to render some of the highlights. Douglass is at pains to establish that not only was Oswald working for the CIA (and FBI), but that he was simultaneously being set up by them (or at least by the former) for a part in a broader, more sinister play. The author is also intent on establishing that the overall plot involved the attempt to finger Oswald as still working for either the Soviets or Cuba, this so as to ultimately incriminate one or other of those governments in the eventual assassination of Kennedy. To do so, they had to keep Oswald largely in the dark with respect to much of their attempt to incriminate him. And to do that they needed an Oswald double.
The Oswald double theory sounds at first blush, merely contrived and fantastic. Douglass, however, presents a cogent body of supporting evidence including a host of witnesses who identified Oswald in such a way as to place him on numerous significant occasions in two places at the same time. However, none of these evidentiary morsels are as clinching as when Douglass presents the actual transcript of J. Edgar Hoover’s conversation with Lyndon Baines Johnson, i.e. the new President, the morning after Kennedy’s murder. In that conversation LBJ asks Hoover about the significance of a provocative letter that was given over to the Soviet embassy in Mexico by Oswald just a month earlier and that seems to implicate the Soviets in Kennedy’s murder. [The Soviets, realizing they were being set up, had turned over the letter to US authorities at once, thereby thwarting the intended frame-up]. Hoover replies to the effect that, Well, that’s a bit confusing since we know that that guy who claimed to be Oswald and who looked like him clearly wasn’t Oswald.
Hoover: “In other words it appears as though there was a second person who was at the Soviet embassy down there.”
LBJ, not likely looking in any case to start a nuclear war (whatever his generals may have wanted), decides to drop the matter. Except, as Douglass points out, if the provocative letter was a fraud, and moreover, wasn’t delivered by the real Oswald, then two questions immediately arise, Who was that guy, and whence the origin of the provocative letter? The obvious candidate for the provenance of both was the CIA. LBJ would have figured that out in two seconds flat. But then if that was so, then the CIA would be numero uno on the Kennedy murder suspect list. Johnson, wanting to avoid opening that can of worms (and here we’re granting the benefit of the doubt that he wasn’t a part of the plot) elects, Douglass reasonably suggests, to promote the Œlone gunman theory. He then appoints Earl Warren to head up the investigative commission, but not before also appointing none other than former CIA Director Allen Dulles to help oversee it. The fox was now in charge of the investigative henhouse.
Contrary to the public perception that it came like a bolt from the blue, in the weeks leading up to the President’s assassination strange and ominous stirrings were rippling through the national security aether.
Representative of these was the uncovering by the FBI on Oct. 30, 1963 of a plot to assassinate the President in Chicago three days later, on Nov. 2. Curiously, the Chicago FBI office had received the initial tip-off from an informant identified only as “Lee”. A day later, however, they received another call from a landlady at a boarding house who had become suspicious of four new tenants harbouring rifles with telescopic sites. Of the four suspects, two were picked up while two eluded capture. Strangely, the two apprehended individuals would later be released and all trace of their existence disappear from FBI files. In the meantime, however, another (seemingly independent) assassination suspect had been identified.
Thomas Arthur Vallee was, like Oswald, very much in the public relations mould, as Douglass notes, of a gun-toting malcontent. Interestingly, he too was a former Marine and had worked at a U2 base in Japan where he had come under CIA influence. In fact, he had eventually been employed by the CIA in training Cuban exiles to assassinate Fidel Castro. And just as Oswald would find convenient employment in a building overlooking the President¹s motorcade in Dallas, so too did Vallee find convenient employment in a building overlooking the upcoming Presidential motorcade in Chicago.
With two suspects in custody, one (Vallee) under surveillance, and with two still on the loose, the President’s visit to Chicago was called off at the very last minute on the morning of Nov. 2. Douglass notes, though, that it was strange that the authorities only picked up Vallee effectively after the President’s visit had been cancelled ¬ almost, he suggests, as though Vallee was being shadowed until the President was shot.
Also peculiar was the case of FBI agent Abraham Bolden, the first African American agent to serve on the Presidential security detail, a position for which he had been personally selected by Kennedy himself. Bolden would, however, not remain at his post long. In a remarkable testament to the poisonous atmosphere surrounding Kennedy even during his early tenure, Bolden would soon resign his position as presidential bodyguard in protest over the lax security demonstrated by his fellow agents. Indeed, he is on record as reporting that during after-hours drinking bouts with the latter he was stunned to hear them give voice to their hatred for Kennedy, many of them opining that they would step out of the way rather than take a bullet for him.
As fate would have it, Bolden was working in the FBI office in Chicago on Oct. 30 when the conspiracy to kill the President was uncovered. He immediately noted some odd goings-on. Following the cancellation of the President’s visit, for instance, Special Agent in Charge, Maurice Martineau, ordered that the secret service agents turn in their notebooks on the case. Oral reports were then rendered and transcribed into a top secret file that was delivered to Washington Chief, James J. Rowley. This in itself was unusual, but Bolden would notice something more, for the fact of the matter remained, of course, that two snipers were still on the loose; yet none of this information was seemingly ever employed in any way such as to help prevent Kennedy¹s murder only a few weeks later in Dallas.
Bolden would also note in January of 1964, barely a month after Kennedy’s murder, that the Secret Service had taken the highly unusual step of having all of its agents turn in their identification booklets for replacement. Bolden suspected that this was to extinguish any evidence that Secret Service credentials might have been used as a cover device on the day of the assassination. As we’ll see, some of the strongest and most forthright evidence for a conspiracy stems precisely from this quarter.
It is worth noting at this point that strong, if indirect, evidence also stems from the way in which many key witnesses came to be treated by the authorities. Many, in truth, ended up conveniently dead. Others were merely harassed mercilessly and formidably by the State. Bolden was no exception. Thus, following an attempt to contact the Warren Commission on May 17, 1964, Bolden was arrested the very next day by fellow agents on trumped up charges of conspiracy to counterfeiting. In his own later trial, his accuser ¬ the actual counterfeiter Bolden had been investigating ¬ shocked the court by admitting that he had perjured himself in fingering Bolden. No matter. Bolden’s conviction was never overturned and he served almost four years in federal prison.
If there were strange waves rippling through the security aether prior to Nov. 22, none of them compare to the almost surreal lapses in security on the day of the assassination.
Thus, only two hours before Kennedy was to arrive at Dealy Plaza, Dallas Sheriff Bill Decker gave orders to his one hundred or so plainclothes men and detectives that they “were to take no part whatsoever in the security of that [presidential] motorcade.” Instead they were to “stand out in front of the building, 505 Main Street, and represent the Sheriff’s Office.”
In addition, Deputy Police Chief Jesse Curry gave orders that his officers were to end their supervision of the crowds at Dealy Plaza at Houston and Main¬ that is, just a block before the dog-leg turn from Houston on to Elm where the motorcade would be at its most vulnerable spot (and where Kennedy would subsequently be hit).
Both Decker and Curry had received their marching orders from the Secret Service. The Secret Service also made three more critical changes to the security shield guarding the President. First, they withdrew the motorcycle escorts that would normally ride alongside the presidential motorcade (and which would partially screen the President from any gunfire). Second, and even more critically, they withdrew the secret service agents that normally stood on the back of the presidential limousine (which served to screen attempted assassination attempts from the rear). Both of these changes one can easily check oneself by reference to the Zapruder film of the assassination.
Third, the decision to approve the dog-leg turn from Houston on to Elm St. was made by Secret Service advance man Winston G. Lawson on Nov. 18. It was a decision, however, that was in gross violation of the Secret Service’s own rule that set a forty-four-mile-an-hour minimum for the presidential limousine.
Now, no one denies that these changes were made, nor denies that they were anomalous or, indeed, that they had never occurred before. So how did the Warren Commission explain these security breaches? The explanation given was that it was Kennedy who had requested them. Thus, according to papers submitted by the Secret Service to the Warren Commission, it was the President himself who was being difficult, and who, on that day, shunned security specifically asking, instead, that agents not ride on the back of the limousine nor motorcycles ride along side it. The Warren Commission then simply accepted these statements on faith, never bothering to investigate any further.
However, as Douglass records, researcher Vincent Palamara interviewed a series of former Secret Service agents and former aides to Kennedy to check whether he really was a difficult president who routinely shunned security concerns. What Palamara discovered was exactly the opposite. According to these sources, Kennedy was always very cooperative with his security personnel and rarely questioned their advice. Indeed, it was Gerald A. Behn who, as Douglass notes, was the initially cited source of the official Secret Service / Warren Commission claim that JFK stripped away his limousine security, who, when speaking to Palamara, revealed that: “I don’t remember Kennedy ever saying the he didn¹t want anybody on the back of the car.”
But so it was. On the day of the perfect criminal storm, Kennedy’s motorcade rode into a perfect security vacuum.
Mindful of the fact that eye witness testimony is often unreliable, it would yet be simply perverse to negate such testimony out of hand especially without regard for either the credibility of the source or the mutual consistency of the reporting. In the case of the Kennedy assassination Douglass assures us that there are, indeed, a chorus of unimpeachable eyewitness accounts whose corroborative nature is deeply impressive. As these are extensive we must restrict ourselves to a few, meagre highlights.
After Kennedy had been shot a number of witnesses instinctively stormed the infamous grassy knoll from where they thought shots had been fired.[iii] One of the first to arrive at the top of the knoll with pistol in hand was Dallas Police Officer Joe Marshall Smith. According to his testimony, not only did he smell gun powder, but he was immediately confronted by an individual who produced Secret Service credentials and who then ordered Smith to leave the area. Smith, though puzzled by the casual attire of the Agent, recognized the credentials as authentic and complied.
A number of other witnesses also claimed to have been confronted by individuals brandishing Secret Service credentials. Moreover, all camera and movie film of the presidential motorcade was confiscated from these witnesses by the agents. None of this confiscated film was ever seen again.
Now, what is significant here is that the Warren Commission itself more or less openly admits that the Secret Service agents on the grassy knoll could not have been genuine since all of the Secret Service agents “assigned to the motorcade remained at their posts during the race to the hospital” and that the first Secret Service agent to return to the scene of the assassination some 20 minutes later was Special Agent Forrest V. Sorrels. If correct then this fact, in and of itself, is prima facie evidence of a conspiracy.
Another witness whose testimony would not come to light until many years later was Ed Hoffman. His failure to report at the time, however, would not be for want of trying. Hoffman was a twenty-seven year old deaf mute who, on the day of the assassination had positioned himself on Stemmons Freeway overlooking Dealy Plaza. As Douglass relates, Hoffman, “in the forty-five minutes before the presidential motorcade arrived, became completely absorbed in watching the activities of two men behind the stockade fence at the top of the grassy knoll.” Being deaf, Hoffman was not distracted by the noise around him. When the President’s limousine eventually appeared he noticed a puff of smoke arise from one of the men, the suit man. He then witnessed the man throw a rifle to the other, the railroad man, who immediately broke it down with a twist, thrust it into some sort of tool bag and who then started to run along the railroad tracks. At this point a train came by and obscured Hoffman’s view of the railroad man. Shortly after, Hoffman noticed that a police officer had come up with his revolver drawn and confronted the suit man. The latter flashed some sort of identification and Hoffman watched as the police officer left.
Finally, looking back to the limousine and seeing Kennedy’s prone figure, Hoffman realized he had been witness to the President’s assassination. He immediately went home and told his father, Frederick, and his uncle, Detective Robert Hoffman. Both understood immediately the implications of his testimony and, in no uncertain terms, told Ed to keep quiet lest he too wind up dead. Though apparently frantic to see justice done, Ed Hoffman reluctantly took his father’s and uncle’s advice, that is until 1967 when he attempted to communicate with the FBI. With no interpreter, present, however, his testimony was sorely misrepresented. In 1976 he again attempted to communicate his knowledge but again the FBI report bore little resemblance to what he had said. Only in 1989 did his story come fully to light in Jim Marrs’s book Crossfire.
The fear that encompassed many a witness was not limited to those present at the scene of the crime itself. After being shot at 12:30 p.m. in Dealy Plaza, Kennedy was transported to Parkland Hospital where at 12.52 p.m. he was pronounced dead. Of particular significance is that in their earliest public statements following the President’s demise, twenty-one out of twenty-two of the attending doctors and nurses said that Kennedy had suffered a massive head wound located in the right rear of his skull (indicative of a large exit wound stemming from a frontal shot). Later, almost all of these individuals would, under pressure from the Warren Commission (amongst other sources), change their testimony and say that they had been mistaken.
One who did not change his testimony was Dr. Charles Crenshaw. He continued to advocate not only for a large exit wound in the right rear of the skull, but also a small entry wound in the front midline of Kennedy’s throat. Crenshaw would suffer years of vilification and public attack for his stance. In addition, Drs. Malcolm Perry and Kemp Clark drew similar conclusions as Crenshaw and announced them in press conferences shortly following Kennedy’s death. Perry would later retract his statements, though many years later Secret Service agent Elmer Moore would admit to a friend that he had acted on “orders from Washington and Mr. Kelly of the Secret Service Headquarters” to pressure Perry to change his testimony.
In yet a further anomaly that day, once Kennedy had been pronounced dead his body was hastily transferred to Bethesda Naval Hospital. This was in breach of Texas law and in defiance of Coroner Earl Rose who attempted, unsuccessfully, to stop the transfer. Once at the controlled, military environment of Bethesda, Kennedy’s autopsy was overseen by Admiral Calvin Galloway who, according to numerous eyewitnesses, repeatedly badgered doctors so as to prevent them from investigating the President’s wounds, especially the front throat wound. One of the witnesses, hospital corpsman, James Jenkins, was so disgusted with what he took to be a cover-up that he later stated: “I was 19 or 20 years old. From that point on in time, I have had no trust, no respect for the government.”
But how then did the government cover up the physical evidence of Kennedy’s X-rays? According to Douglass, in 1993-95 Dr. David W. Mantik, a radiation oncologist with a Ph.D. in physics tested the autopsy X-rays stored at the National Archives. Using a densitometer he determined that the back rear portion of the skull was clearly too thick relative to the front. He concluded that an X-ray patch had to have been placed over the rear portion of Kennedy’s skull. In short, the X-rays are bogus.
If Oswald’s itinerary prior to Nov. 22 was improbable, his movements and whereabouts on the day of the assassination are even more so. According to at least half a dozen witnesses, including Deputy Sheriff Roger Craig, Oswald was seen departing Dealy Plaza in a light green Rambler station wagon. The Warren Commission, however, inexplicably threw out Craig’s testimony and went with reports from other witnesses who insisted, instead, that Oswald left the scene of the crime on a bus. The Oswald bi-location problem would surface many times more over the next two hours.
Thus, following his alleged murder of the President at 12:30 p.m. Oswald is then thought to have returned home by 1:00 p.m., left again, casually murdered Officer J. D. Tippit at 1:15 p.m. (leaving, as he went, a convenient trail of shell casings, and which were never shown to match-up with the bullets found in Tippit’s body), and then proceeded to the Texas Theatre where he was arrested by police at 1:50 p.m.[iv]
The problem with this scenario is that the concession stand operator at the theatre, Warren H. Butch Burroughs, confirmed that Oswald bought popcorn from him at 1:15 p.m. and had to have arrived even before that. When author Douglass interviewed Burroughs and asked him why he hadn’t said that to the Warren Commission, Burroughs replied that the Commission never solicited that information from him, asking, instead, simply whether he had seen Oswald come in to the theatre? to which he responded, truthfully, “No”. No further questions your honour.
In fact, another witness, patron Jack Davis, also noticed Oswald in the theatre before 1:15, this because of Oswald’s odd behaviour. Oswald, according to Davis, appeared to be looking for someone and successively sat down next to a number of different moviegoers, including himself, before moving on.
Oswald was finally arrested by police at 1:50 and taken out the front entrance of the theatre. However, Burroughs witnessed another arrest only minutes later in which a man remarkably resembling Oswald was taken out the rear of the theatre. An independent witness, Bernard J. Haire, saw this rear arrest from a different perspective. He had gone to the alley at the back of the theatre hoping to escape the crowds in the front and arrived just in time to see Oswald being put in a police car and driven off. Haire never testified before the Commission because, for years, he was convinced that the Oswald he had seen was the Oswald who was shortly to be killed by Jack Ruby. Only in 1987 did he learn, to his amazement, that the real Oswald had been taken out the front of the theatre.
Burroughs and Haire weren’t the only witnesses to a second Oswald that afternoon. At 2:00 p.m. T. F. White, a sixty-year old, long-time employee of Mack Pate’s Garage, hearing all the commotion coming from the Texas Theatre only a block away, looked out onto the street and noticed a red 1961 Falcon drive into the parking lot of the El Chico restaurant. Suspicious of a passenger in the back who appeared to be hiding White walked up to investigate. A man turned and looked him full in the face. Only later when he saw him on TV would White recognize him as Oswald. But this was well after the real Oswald was, as Douglass says, sitting handcuffed in a Dallas police car on his way to jail. Indeed, not only did White get a good look at the second Oswald, but he also got a take on the license plate of the Falcon, a car later traced to a man with CIA connections.
The list goes on. Indeed, likely the most fascinating double Oswald narrative in Douglass’ s book involves the remarkable case of U.S. Air Force sergeant Robert G. Vinson but I’ll leave that as a teaser and invitation to take up the volume itself.
It is finally worth briefly discussing the man who so conveniently disposed of Oswald, the only (officially acknowledged) witness to the assassination. Jack Ruby, in what is by now an old refrain, had significant CIA (and mob) connections. He first came to the CIA’s attention in the late 1950s when he was running guns to a young Cuban revolutionary by the name of Fidel Castro. Later, after Castro took power, Ruby worked with the CIA smuggling guns to anti-Castro Cubans.
In what turns out to be one of the more provocative sections of Douglass’s book, we are told that Ruby was everywhere on the day of the assassination. Thus, according to the unflinching testimony of eyewitness Julia Anne Mercer, we are told that Ruby was seen driving a pickup truck that delivered a man with a rifle onto the grassy knoll an hour and a half before Kennedy’s murder. Mercer never wavered either in her assertion regarding the man with the gun or in her confidence in her identification of Ruby as the driver. Moreover, when, as Douglas describes, Mercer was shown the statements purported to be her testimony before the Warren Commission, she simply shook her head and remarked, “These have all been altered. They have me saying just the opposite of what I really told them.” [Eventually, Mercer would go underground in fear for her life, never, however, having relinquished her testimony.]
Again, such evidentiary morsels, though appetizing, would be less convincing if not for the little things that lend them additional support. Thus, shortly after Kennedy was shot, well respected White House correspondent, Seth Kantor, was one of those who rushed to Parkland Hospital to pick up the trail of the evolving story of the President’s shooting. As he related to the Warren Commission, once there, he encountered Jack Ruby who tugged on his coat and asked him the President’s condition. Kantor knew Ruby by sight having met him a number of times before. No big deal one would have thought. Except that Ruby denied being at Parkland Hospital and, what’s more, the Commission inexplicably accepted Ruby’s word over that of Kantor’s. As Douglass relates, for many critics, this one glaring, arbitrary decision tolled, in and of itself, the death knell of the credibility of the Warren Commission. [Kantor’s version, by the way, would later be officially validated.]
If that wasn’t enough, Ruby was also spotted at, of all places, the Texas Theatre on the afternoon of Nov. 22 by patron George J. Applin, Jr. When police entered the cinema looking for Oswald, Applin removed himself from the action and turned to another moviegoer advising him to get out of the way as well. Only later while watching television would Applin recognize his silent interlocutor as the killer of Oswald.
The plot only thickens when, early on Sunday morning, Dallas Police Officer Billy Grammer received a call warning that Oswald was about to be killed. Grammer recognized the voice as that of Ruby. Two similar warning calls were made to the Dallas County Sheriff’s office at about the same time. In spite of these calls, authorities insisted on transporting Oswald in the most vulnerable possible way, i.e. through the maelstrom of a media circus, that led straight to his ambush. [Again, I’ll leave it to the book to tie all these disparate threads together.]
Indeed, one is repeatedly struck by the long litany of these little things in the JFK case that just smell bad, really bad. Why, for instance, (even apart from the prior death threats) would authorities choose to transport Oswald (and not just once, but twice on Sunday morning) in such a way as to blatantly expose him to possible assassination? After all, what if he really had been working within a conspiracy? Would law enforcement officials not have wanted to know this, and thus to protect him at all costs?
Equally incredible is the fact that of the twelve hours over three days of Oswald’s interrogation, an historic interrogation one would have thought if there ever was one, ¬supposedly no tape recordings or stenographic notes of any sort were recorded from the interviews.
And though we might think to treat with some scepticism Oswald’s repeated assertions of innocence and his statement before the media that he was “just a patsy”, it is rather more difficult to so casually dismiss the later statements of Jack Ruby who, in confidential medical interviews, confessed, “Everything pertaining to what’s happened has never come to the surface. The people [who] have so much to gain and had such an ulterior motive will never let the true facts [be known] to the world. I am doomed. I do not want to die, but I am not insane. I was framed to kill Oswald.”
Then, of course, there are the many technical details of the shooting itself. Though Douglass refrains from rehashing these, this old material is still a bedrock of the case for conspiracy.[v] The mystery of the magic bullet, for instance, yet retains its allure. The significance of the bullet resides in the fact that it allegedly struck both Kennedy and Governor Connelly, wounding them in several places each, and over a period of 1.7 seconds. Quite apart from its remarkable hang time, its suspect provenance (found lying loose on a stretcher in Parkland Hospital), its pristine condition (despite having smashed Connelly’s rib and wrist), and the total failure to confirm any later chain of evidential possession for it, the 1.7 seconds was key to the Commission’s risible decision to accept the one bullet theory. Why? Because Oswald, even the Super-Oswald who, using an old, bolt-action rifle with lopsided scope, allegedly fired-off three preternaturally accurate shots in 5.6 seconds (unmatched in later tests by the FBI’s best marksmen with properly sighted rifles), could hardly have fired two bullets within 1.7 seconds and with sufficient accuracy, i.e. given that this feat of marksmanship has never been duplicated, even on stationary targets, and is considered to be virtually impossible. Ipso facto, the two bullets that struck Kennedy and Connelly had to be the one magic bullet.
Worthy of note, and as just another of those little things, Governor Connelly told Life Magazine in 1966: “They talk about the one bullet or two-bullet theory, but as far as I’m concerned, there is no theory. There is my absolute knowledge that one bullet caused the President’s first wound, and that an entirely separate shot struck me. It’s a certainty. I’ll never change my mind.”
Of course, all of these little things, and, indeed, all of the big things mentioned prior could constitute merely a vast tissue of coincidences. But as assassination investigator and author, Henry Hurt, has written, the JFK case raises coincidence to a rare art form. Moreover, when placed alongside the formidable body of evidence pointing towards conspiracy as uncovered from later investigations, the enormous litany of gaps, inconsistencies, contradictions, misattributions, obstructions of justice, obfuscations, selective choice of witnesses and evidence, shoddy investigative work and outright falsehoods of the Warren Commission speak to something much more than mere coincidence. Indeed, Douglass notes several instances where the Warren Commission blatantly covered up the truth. Some of the most significant of these concern Oswald’s intelligence connections.
Thus, in a closed door meeting on January 27, 1964 the Commission’s own general counsel, J. Lee Rankin, brought forth evidence showing that Oswald was on the FBI payroll (receiving some $200 per month) right up until the time of the assassination. This was only uncovered ten years later, and after a lengthy legal battle, by researcher Harold Weisberg. The Commission also assiduously downplayed any connections Oswald may have had with the CIA. However, in a 1978 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Jim and Elsie Wilcott, who worked at the Tokyo CIA Station from 1960 ¬ 1964, declared unequivocally that, “It was common knowledge in the Tokyo CIA Station that Oswald worked for the agency”. That former CIA Director Allen Dulles, who was front and centre on the Commission, could have failed to know this, or to ferret it out, is to raise not just coincidence, but credulity to a rare art form.
Why It Matters
The death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was not just some inconsequential struggle and transfer of power within elite imperial circles. Rather, it signaled the start of a global, decades-long free-world holocaust. [vi] In Indo-China alone 3 to 4 million people would be annihilated and the region bombed virtually back into the Stone Age. In Indonesia up to a million communists would be murdered with direct CIA, Pentagon, and US intelligentsia complicity. Another 200,000 people would be massacred a decade later in East Timor with direct US complicity. And in Latin America the reign of the US-backed death-squad democracies would likewise blossom and flourish.
The holocaust continues. With Africa riven by US-backed wars and genocides (including the Congo, Rwanda and Somalia), with Yugoslavia dismembered, Iraq turned into rubble, Afghanistan invaded and occupied, and now Iran threatened, the endless war that was only a satirical figment in Orwell’s imagination is now a grim, if surreal, reality.
War and the potential for nuclear annihilation is the spirit that animates much of JFK and the Unspeakable. Early on in the book Douglass invites us to see Kennedy as a man who, due to his own lived experience, entertained both a deep horror of war and a profound appreciation for the tragic sense of life. We are given quotations of Kennedy referring to the policy makers surrounding him as utterly devoid of such sentiments, a vacuum which made him cringe. Douglass also informs us that Kennedy was keenly aware of his own political ¬ and physical ¬ vulnerability. He knew he had set himself against a vast imperial structure, against the business of war, and knew what the price of that opposition could ultimately be. Kennedy’s aides and confidantes were often taken aback at how openly the President would discuss his own death, and occasionally, the possibility of his own assassination. Douglass is unerring in choosing to reveal this side of Kennedy, as it lends both a sense of the man, and reaffirms the thesis of how profoundly he had upset the status quo.
There are many fine volumes focused on the Kennedy assassination, but here Douglass has done something very special. Having placed the assassination within a larger contextual setting, he has brought into bold relief the heart of the crime and pointed to that very aspect which the Warren Commission found so disquieting with regard to Oswald, (for which they could find none) ¬ the motive. All the superficial situational reconstructive documentaries lately pumped out by the corporate media (an attempt, I proffer, to quell the growing public jaundice with respect to official explanations in general), will, of course, never touch that baby.
It is, then, not just a matter of setting the record straight that we should hearken unto author Douglass’s reappraisal of JFK. Neither is it just about establishing a more complete theoretical analysis of our political reality on behalf of constructing a properly informed praxis. And nor is it just about tallying the sacrifice of a man who, whilst clearly aware of the growing possibility of his own assassination, yet managed a remarkable confrontation with power. As valuable as these notions are, it is also about recognizing what was lost that day in Dallas. For what was lost was an historic opportunity, the opportunity to have begun the turn from a culture of empire to one of peace. It is not at all certain that we will ever have that opportunity again. Certainly, given the likes of the moral dwarves who have succeeded JFK, there is little hope of change stemming from that quarter. Indeed, given the precedent of Nov. 22, 1963, what future leader, even given the vision, would have the courage to depart from the script of empire?
Finally, if we accept Douglass’s view of Kennedy, then those of us who believe in a better world and daily fight for it, must hold a special place in our hearts for this unlikely man who, in the most unlikely of roles, actually died for it.
And if then we are to ask, for whom the bell tolled on that dark day in Dallas over forty-six years ago, the answer, in light of the trajectory we have since travelled and the precipice upon which we now stand, must always be, for ourselves. The bell tolled for us. It does yet.
Douglass actually cites three principals in the narrative of peace that lead to the negotiation of the Cuban Missile Crisis: Khrushchev, Kennedy and Pope John XXIII. The latter, however, played a distinctly minor, if yet important, role. I leave discussion of that role to the book itself.
[ii] Whence the title of the book, the Unspeakable, i.e. A viewpoint ¬ and discussion point ¬ that, if not taboo in theory, is certainly treated as such in mainstream political and media culture.
[iii] In fact, shots were likely fired from the Texas School Book Depository as well. Numerous witnesses testified to seeing two men on the 6th floor of the depository moments before the shooting. Indeed, a film (the Bronson film) was later shown to contain images of the two men at precisely this time. See p. 94, Reasonable Doubt by Henry Hurt (Holt, Rinhart and Winston, 1985).
[iv] The dog’s breakfast that represented the investigation of Tippit’s murder is typical of what passed as truth for the Warren Commission. Chocker-block full of the most egregious contradictions, inconsistencies, selective inclusion and omission of witnesses, failure to pursue prime investigative leads, etc, the investigation was, in fact, merely a rubberstamp on the preconceived ¬ and, indeed, necessary – notion that a desperate Oswald killed the policeman. Why necessary? Because the Commission was already labouring under the burden of concocting a motive for Oswald’s killing of Kennedy. By validating for the public record that the otherwise mild-mannered Oswald was, in truth, a vicious, sociopathic killer who would not hesitate to murder an innocent police officer, the issue of motive was thereby rendered null and void.
[v] For a meticulous and thoroughly absorbing examination of these technical aspects of the case, see, again, Henry Hurt’s Reasonable Doubt. Though a superb accounting of such minutiae, the book is somewhat dated in terms of its final interpretative schema, i.e. more or less pointing the conspiracy finger at the mob or the Cubans. Douglass (and I, amongst many others) take exception to this. The level of planning, execution, and later control of evidence and information etc speak to a very high level of state involvement. Though the CIA and Pentagon do certainly make use of mafia connections around the globe for various black-ops, the power hierarchy is decidedly from the State down, not the other way round.
[vi] In the resonant phrasing of Noam Chomsky.