Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Down the JFK Rabbit Hole

Over the last several years I’ve spent an unexpected amount of time rooting around the John F. Kennedy assassination rabbit hole. As have many, and as many more will continue to do for a long, long time.

It could’ve only happened one way, right? There’s a single, unequivocal reality down in that rabbit hole somewhere. Has to be, even if I don’t expect there’s enough time in this lifetime to dig deep enough to find it.

I became piqued in part because of a growing curiosity about Richard Nixon’s life and career, an interest that necessarily had me also wanting to read and learn more about U.S. politics and government from the end of WWII through the mid-1970s. That meant learning more about Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and, of course, Kennedy.

The 50th anniversary of the assassination further ignited my inquisitiveness, in particular with all of the media coverage of the event (a lot of which got renewed attention in late November 2013). You can more or less relive the entire sequence right through the funeral in dozens of different ways now via YouTube, if you like. Additionally, it’s not hard at all to find most of the contemporary reporting on the event in newspapers, magazines, not to mention those first few books that began to emerge in the following years.

I’ve done enough reporting of my own (both about poker and otherwise) to be fascinated by the challenge journalists faced to report on the assassination as it was occurring, as well as what followed (including Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing by Jack Ruby). And as most know, the reporters themselves became a big part of the story during those four days in Dallas.

I’ll admit that by now I’ve become so familiar with all of the reporting and the early shaping of the story of the JFK assassination it has become like a song I’ve heard hundreds of times. Additional deep-diving has me in the position of being acquainted with a lot of the supporting cast in the crazily complicated story, although I wouldn’t claim to possess the sort of granular level of knowledge of those who’ve spent lifetimes studying-slash-obsessing over the event.

I’ve read The Warren Report, a.k.a. The Official Report on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It’s an amazing narrative, actually, one that reads a bit like a faith-based text deliberately designed to reassure and comfort.

Along the way hundreds of complications arise that potentially challenge the Commission’s central arguments that (1) Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, that (2) he fired three shots (one missing, two inflicting all wounds on Kennedy and Governor John B. Connally), and that (3) the Commission found no evidence of a conspiracy involving Oswald and/or Jack Ruby and others. However after each such challenge is acknowledged it is immediately declared invalid or inconclusive, which has a reassuring effect upon those inclined to agree with those central arguments while agitating those who are not.

I’ve also read the Report of the Select Committee on Assassinations of the U.S. House of Representatives that was produced in 1979 following a couple of years’ worth of study and investigation. Whereas the Warren Report has the effect of putting one’s mind at ease, the also flawed and incomplete HSCA report has precisely the opposite effect, inspiring suspicion and doubt about the Warren Commission’s conclusions without really offering anything concrete to serve as an alternate explanation of the assassination.

The HSCA report’s finding that “the committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy” is a frustrating one. I’m no fan of adverbs, generally speaking, but to throw a “probably” into a pronouncement like that is almost maddening. As it happens, that finding is based on another, less equivocal one having to do with an examination of acoustical evidence (from which it was determined four shots were fired), which was swiftly shown by others to be less than reliable.

Indeed, the HSCA report was so derided from all sides (including by some who worked on it and subsequently maintained the report didn’t reflect their findings) it has faded from the collective’s memory. Many still overlook that latter effort made by U.S. lawmakers to try to get to the bottom of the assassination, continuing to point back to 1964 and the Warren Commission’s conclusion as the government’s “official” and ultimate conclusion on the matter.

I was up on it all enough to know a long while back that the release of these new “JFK files” was coming last week, so I wasn’t surprised when the date approached and stories about the assassination again began to appear. (Nor was I that surprised the current administration appeared to bungle the release despite the date being known for 25 years, but that’s another matter.)

I’ve only heard bits and pieces about what is in the released files, but I’ll be intrigued to find out more. I’ve found myself coming around to a point of view that largely coincides with the one Edward Jay Epstein has articulated especially well (I think). As a young man Epstein published the first book raising some questions about the Warrent Commission, titled Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth (the first of several books on the assassination he’d eventually write).

Epstein’s book came out a few months before the bestselling Rush to Judgment by Mark Lane who I’ve always thought to have been much less admirable as a scholar, though nonetheless a compelling and important character in the early blossoming of the JFK conspiracy industry.

Epstein has written many times about what he thinks happened on November 22, 1963 with his thoughts scattered through many books and articles. If you’re curious, you can hear him summarize his view in a fairly succinct way on a podcast recorded in 2015 for The New Criterion, one titled “Edward Jay Epstein on the mysteries surrounding the Kennedy assassination.” You can search around online for more thorough versions of his argument, shared by Epstein himself and by others who have presented and commented on his analysis.

I won’t rehearse Epstein’s entire argument, although even a highly abbreviated version takes a little while to get through. It begins with an assertion that while Oswald was most certainly the lone shooter that day, he certainly had made some interesting and meaningful contacts with others, in particular with both the Russian and Cuban embassies in Mexico in late September-early October 1963.

Epstein notes how failed attempts by the U.S. to remove Fidel Castro from power (including by assassination) had understandably gotten the attention of the Cuban leader. On September 7, 1963, Castro gave an impromptu interview to an AP reporter in Havana in which he shared his intention to respond to attacks both against the country and himself, and a couple of days later an article including some of Castro’s quotes appeared.

A couple of days later an article including quotes from Castro was published in various newspapers, including in the Times-Picayune in New Orleans where Oswald was (and assuredly read the article). Castro speaks out against the U.S. aiding rebels’ attacks in Cuba.

“Prime Minister Fidel Castro said Saturday night ‘United States leaders’ would be in danger if they helped in any attempt to do away with leaders of Cuba,” the article reports. “Bitterly denouncing what he called U.S.-prompted raids on Cuban territory, Castro said, ‘We are prepared to fight them and answer in kind. United States leaders should think that if they are aiding terrorists’ plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe.’”

Differently edited versions of the AP article appeared in other places, and in fact the versions showing up in The New York Times and Washington Post didn’t include the threatening line from Castro, which meant most Americans weren’t aware of it. In fact even after the assassination few were attaching much significance to the statement (including the Warren Commission who didn’t reference it at all).

Epstein suggests Oswald, already a Castro-supporter, might have been inspired by the threat. While the specific purpose for Oswald’s Mexico trip is hard to pinpoint, he surmises it was motivated in part by Oswald’s desire to offer his services to support Castro and Cuba. Included in there is Oswald apparently making explicit his willingness to kill JFK, perhaps even delivered in the form of a threat. Such a threat was delivered to officials in the Cuban embassy and was passed along to Castro. The CIA may or may not have been aware of Oswald’s threat as well, since they periodically monitored conversations there. The FBI knew about it, too.

Meanwhile Epstein spells out a parallel plot to assassinate Castro playing out, and in fact on the day of the JFK assassination a meeting occurs in Paris between a U.S. representative and a confidant of Castro’s named Rolando Cubela to advance that plot. The U.S. thought Cubela who had close access to Castro and could pull off an assassination was working with them as a double agent, but in fact he was reporting back to Castro about the plot. (In fact Cubela was the source of knowledge from which Castro was drawing when making his statement about U.S. attempts to kill him.)

The parallel plot is fascinating, and relevant to speculation about whether or not Oswald was acting at the direct behest of Castro and Cuba when he killed Kennedy. In that podcast I link to above, Epstein leaves that as a somewhat open question, saying that Oswald could well have still been acting on his own (though inspired by Castro’s obvious motive), or perhaps Oswald could have misinterpreted statements from Cuban officials in response to his stated threat.

All of which is to say I’m fairly convinced both that Oswald acted alone and that there were many different entities -- including Castro and Cuba, the Soviets, and American intelligence agencies privy to Oswald’s pre-assassination actions and statements -- who had knowledge of and/or contact with Oswald beforehand and thus motive not to publicize that knowledge and/or contact afterwards. In other words, there were plenty of actual “conspiracies” surrounding the assassination, though I believe they likely had more to do with covering up potentially compromising-looking relationships and connections after the fact than with planning and executing the actual event.

I don’t think anyone is expecting anything definitive enough to convince everyone of a single, unequivocal narrative to explain what happened. The newly released files may shed some additional light on Oswald’s Mexico adventure. They may also include something more about those who knew about the trip when it happened and afterwards.

Even so, I imagine it’ll remain quite dim way down the JFK rabbit hole.

Image: z161 from Zapruder plus view reenactment, public domain.

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