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The Assassination of Kennedy Fifty Years Later: The Cuban Question Mark 1
An Essay by Charles Cogan, Affiliate, Harvard Kennedy School

November 22, 2013

The assassination of John F. Kennedy was intimately linked, if only in a subliminal fashion, to American actions against Cuba at the beginning of the 1960’s, which in turn formed part of an aggressive and interventionist policy that marked the early phase of
the Cold War.

The assassination itself was carried out by a sole killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, out of his admiration for Fidel Castro and his animosity toward the American Government and its President.

The question that remains open after fifty years gone by is whether Castro, who was perfectly aware of the Kennedy brothers’ plots against him – thanks to a Cuban double agent who had proposed to the CIA that he assassinate Castro – had ordered his intelligence services to collaborate with Oswald in his action. Until now, nothing solid has emerged to support this thesis.

In December 2006, The Atlantic, the prestigious magazine founded in Boston in 1857, published a list of the 100 most influential Americans in the history of the country. The list included, besides presidents, also writers and others, including…baseball players. But the list did not contain the name of John F. Kennedy. This was certainly not due to inadvertence. It was a slap, the motive behind which was unclear…unless it was a relic of the religious wars – Kennedy having been the first Catholic president of the United States.

I was astounded when I heard about the article in The Atlantic. Because, in spite of the meager legislative accomplishments of John Kennedy’s Administration and the brevity of his tenure – the ‘thousand days’ – cut short by the horrible attack at Dallas on November 22, 1963, it was he, and virtually he alone, who extricated the United States from one of the worst dangers in history –the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

At the end of the afternoon of October 27, 1962, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara paused on the steps of the Pentagon to look at the sunset, thinking at that moment that he might never see a sunset again2 – because on that day the Missile Cisis had reached its paroxysm: earlier in the day a U-2 observation aircraft had been shot down and its pilot killed. The attack had been carried out by Russian troops on orders of Fidel Castro.

I cite this anecdote of Robert McNamara to show that the margin between a political solution to the crisis and a nuclear holocaust was extremely thin throughout the thirteen days of the crisis – during which time the President warded off the insistent appeals by most of his senior military officers for an immediate attack on Cuba. In particular, Curtis LeMay, the head of the Air Force and the most hawkish of these officers, was disrespectful toward the ‘young’ President in person and railed against him during the latter’s occasional absences from the Situation Room.

The famous thirteen days comprised the period between the discovery of the missiles by the American U-2 airplane on October 15, 1962 and the move toward a political solution when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced on October 27 that he was removing the missiles from the island since Kennedy had agreed not to invade Cuba. During these thirteen days, the Soviet missiles had not become operational, giving President Kennedy a window of sufficient time to ponder a prudential solution to the crisis while avoiding the risk of a nuclear war with the USSR.

Another, and not negligible accomplishment of the Kennedy brothers at the dénouement of the crisis was their success in convincing the Soviets not to mention publicly that the solution that was found was more of a give and take than a humiliating retreat by the USSR: it was the withdrawal of the Jupiter missiles in Turkey against the departure of the Soviet missiles from Cuba. Attorney General Robert Kennedy succeeded in convincing the Soviet Ambassador in Washington, Anatoli Dobrynin, that, because of the U.S. legislative elections that were coming up in the following month, the Turkish side of the agreement had to remain secret – otherwise President Kennedy would look weak before American voters. The Soviets stuck to their word, respecting the agreement made by the two interlocutors. But because of this fact, and from the point of view of public relations, the Soviet Union came off as the loser in the missile crisis.

The danger had been so great during the missile crisis that President Kennedy made an effort to ensure that such a situation should never arise again. A hot line was established between the White House and the Kremlin. In addition, the first agreement on nuclear disarmament – the Limited Test Ban Treaty – was signed in the summer of 1963.

A year after the missile crisis, on Friday, 22 November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated at Dallas. The back story to this act still remains mysterious, from the fact that the killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself shot dead before then end of the weekend. Fifty years later, the shadow over this incident persists. One can certainly situate the motivation of the assassin, Oswald. He was a great admirer of Fidel Castro. He had participated earlier that autumn in a rally in New Orleans in support of the Cuban regime. Subsequently, he sought to get a visa for Cuba at the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City. It was granted but only after the fateful weekend of 22-24 November.

What remains unknown is the question of contacts Oswald might have had with agents of the powerful Cuban intelligence service, the Directorate General of Intelligence (DGI), in Mexico City or elsewhere. And in the final analysis, the question remains open as to whether Fidel Castro himself might have been implicated in the assassination of the young American President. With fifty years having gone by, nothing concrete has emerged as to the involvement of the Cuban government or Cuban intelligence in the assassination; which leads to the conclusion — provisionally – that Oswald acted on his own, out of his admiration for Castro. Perhaps after the death of Castro more will be learned about the role of the Cubans.

Nevertheless Castro, because of his reckless temperament, and because of the information he possessed concerning the plots of the Kennedy brothers against his person, would make a perfectly credible sponsor of an operation to assassinate the President.

At the moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Castro seemed to want to bring on a nuclear holocaust which, though it would destroy the island of Cuba, would in his mind open the way to a communization of the world. The French newspaper Le Monde published on 23 November 1990 a series of letters exchanged between Castro and Nikita Khrushchev, in which the Cuban leader asked Khrushchev to initiate a nuclear war in the event that American forces attacked Cuba. (Subsequently the letters were published elsewhere, notably in The Armageddon Letters.3)

In sum, Fidel Castro was prepared to sacrifice his country for the benefit of a future world of communism. In a message to Khrushchev on 26 October 1962, Castro wrote, inter alia, the following:

If…the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it, the danger that this aggressive policy poses for humanity is so great that following that event the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike against it.4

The message was clear, although implicit: if the Americans invaded Cuba, the Soviet Union should launch a nuclear attack against the United States.
In a message of 27 October, Khrushchev informed Castro that a solution was in sight, as President Kennedy had promised not to invade Cuba. Khrushchev advised Castro not to be carried away by his emotions and not to respond to provocations, such as the attack he ordered against an American U-2 airplane on 27 October, which claimed the life of the pilot. “Yesterday you shot down one of these [planes] while earlier you didn’t shoot them down when they overflew your territory. The aggressors will take advantage of such a step for their own purposes.”5 (At this point, Khrushchev may have thought that Castro had gotten completely out of hand and that he had better, as a result, find some sort of solution with President Kennedy. It was on the same date as the shootdown, 27 October, that Khrushchev accepted the public compromise proposed by his American counterpart – that is, the withdrawal of the missiles in return for a commitment by the United States not to invade Cuba).
Castro replied the next day, 28 October. The following is an extract:

Earlier isolated violations were committed without a determined military purpose or without a real danger stemming from those flights. This time, that wasn’t the case. There was the danger of a surprise attack on certain military installations. We decided not to sit back and wait for a surprise attack…6
In a following message of 30 October Khrushchev made it clear he was perfectly aware of the implications of Castro’s reckless proposal:
In your [message]…you proposed that we be the first to launch a nuclear attack on the territory of the enemy. Obviously you are aware of what could follow. Rather than a single strike, it would have been the beginning of a thermonuclear war.7

Castro replied on 31 October to Khrushchev’s letter of the 30th. Here is an extract:

We knew, and one must not think otherwise, that we would be annihilated, as you indicated in your letter, if there was a nuclear war. But that didn’t lead us to ask you to withdraw the missiles. That did not lead us to yield.8

James Blight and janet9 Lang in The New York Times on October 26, 2012 recounted Khrushchev’s unvarnished reaction to Castro’s letter of October 26:
According to his son and biographer, Sergei Khrushchev, the Soviet premier received that letter in the midst of a tense leadership meeting and shouted, ‘This is insane! Fidel wants to drag us into the grave with him’! Khrushchev hadn’t understood that Mr.

Castro believed that Cuba was doomed, that war was inevitable, and that the Soviets should transform Cuba from a mere victim into a martyr.
Shortly after this exchange of letters, Khrushchev sent the seasoned diplomat, Anastas Mikoyan, to Havana to continue the discussions with the Cuban leaders. The following is an extract of an exchange between Mikoyan and Che Guevara on November 5, 1962:

Guevara: Even in the context of all our respect for the Soviet Union, we believe that the decisions made by the Soviet Union were a mistake. ..Mikoyan: But we thought that you would be satisfied by our act. We did everything so that Cuba would not be destroyed. We see your readiness to die beautifully but we believe that it isn’t worth dying beautifully.10

Fidel Castro, at a later time, had a different story to tell. In a report of an interview with Castro at Havana, published in The Atlantic on October 16, 2012, Jeffrey Goldberg recalled that he had had the following exchange with Castro a couple of years earlier:

Does what you recommended [that the Soviets launch a nuclear attack against the U.S.] still seem logical now? Castro answered, ‘After what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know, it wasn’t worth it all’.

As to the knowledge Castro had of American intentions against Cuba and against Castro himself, the Cuban leader was amply informed. After he had seized power, Castro became aware of the hostility of the United States towards his regime.

Even before he became President, John Kennedy had been alerted by his advisers of the danger that the new revolutionary regime in Cuba represented, and the possibility that Fidel Castro might invite the Soviets to establish forces on the island. A Soviet base 150 kilometers from American territory could not be permitted in the midst of the Cold War.

There followed the disaster of the Bay of Pigs, an operation inherited from the administration of Dwight Eisenhower, and during which Kennedy refused coverage of the landing beach by the U.S. Air Force, thereby clinching the failure of the operation.

The humiliation of the Bay of Pigs fiasco only doubled the determination of the Kennedy brothers to remove Castro. In October 1961, a covert operation, codenamed Mongoose, was launched against the Cuban regime, with at its head Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney- General. A so-called Augmented Special Group was created in the White House and set about planning lethal attacks on Castro himself and conducting sabotage operations on the island. Virtually all of these activities either failed or did not see the light of day.

But the essential point here is that Castro was well aware of the lethal intentions of the Kennedy brothers, and this could have incited him to retaliate against the American President, using his own Cuban intelligence service, the DGI. In fact, the DGI did use a “dangle” to learn about American intentions towards Castro and the Cuban Government.11

In 1961, a DGI agent, Rolando Cubela, let it be known through an intermediary that he was against Castro and was seeking a contact with the Americans.12 Later, in July 1962, Cubela met with a CIA officer during the World Youth Festival at Helsinki. The contact was dropped shortly afterwards, when Cubela refused to take a polygraph test.

In 1963, when the tempo of plots against Castro intensified, and as a result of a decision at CIA, a Spanish-speaking American operations officer, Nestor Sanchez, met with Cubela at Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Thirty years later the fact that from the outset Cubela had been a double agent was confirmed by a Cuban agent of the CIA.13 Thus it was that very early on Castro became aware that the Kennedy brothers were trying to have him killed.

The venue suggested for meetings between Sanchez and Cubela was Paris. Presumably this was at Cuban instigation, as Cuba had an embassy there and thus had agents available for counter-surveillance. By an irony of fate, a meeting was scheduled for 22 November 1963. By that point the CIA was preparing to have delivered to Cubela in Cuba a rifle with telescopic sights – ironically the same type of weapon that Oswald used against Kennedy. The assassination of the American President the same day cut off further attempts to assassinate Castro, although the CIA contact with Cubela was maintained until December 1964.

In sum, because of Castro’s temperament – his apocalyptic wish for the nuclear obliteration of Cuba followed by the communization of the world, plus the fact of the information from Cubela of the Kennedy brothers’ plans to assassinate him, Castro may well have decided to strike at Kennedy before he himself was attacked. It is worth noting in this regard that on September 7, 1963 at Havana, Castro gave an interview to an American journalist, Daniel Harker, in which he warned the Americans not to try to assassinate Cuban leaders, as otherwise “they themselves will not be safe.”14

The Castro regime, whether or not it was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, had every pretext to do so. In this regard, it is well to keep in mind the role of the CIA in the early

days of the Cold War and its interventions overseas, which today can appear excessive. Moreover, the ease with which the CIA overthrew the regime of Jacobo Guzman in Guatemala and that of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran created an atmosphere of invincibility around the CIA and gave rise to the idea that covert action was an effective tool of its own, between war and diplomacy. This led to the botched operation of the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. But this failure only redoubled the efforts of the Kennedy brothers to do away with Castro.

During the entire period of the Cold War the CIA seems to have underestimated the capabilities of Cuban Intelligence. In this regard, it is interesting to recall that, during the 1980’s, several dozen Cubans, supposedly agents of the CIA, had been in reality double agents run by the Cuban DGI.15 They had even been trained by the DGI in how to overcome the polygraph. One could speculate that, because of the high degree of professionalism of the DGI, that organization has been able to conceal all these years an involvement with Oswald. The mystery remains.

1 A slightly different version of this essay appeared in French on October 9, 2013 in Questions internationales (No. 64, November-December 2013, 110-114), a publication of “La Docmentation française.”

2 Sheldon Stern, The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2005), p. 186.

3 James G. Blight and Janet M. Lang, The Armageddon Letters, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham MD, 2012.

4 BlightandLang,117.

5 Blight and Lang, 122.

6 Blight and Lang, 151-52.

7 Blight and Lang, 156.

8. Blight and Lang,162.

9 This lack of capitalization of Janet Lang’s first name accords with her preference.

Dr. Charles G. Cogan is an Affiliate vice Associate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. A graduate of Harvard, then a journalist, and then a military officer, he spent thirty-seven years in the Central Intelligence Agency, twenty-three of them on assignments overseas. From August 1979-August 1984 he was chief of the Near East South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations. From September 1984-September 1989 he was CIA Chief in Paris. After leaving the CIA, he earned a doctorate in public administration at Harvard, in June 1992. He lectures and writes in English and French.

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Why Lee Harvey Oswald Pulled the Trigger

by Steven M. Gillon
HNN   November 20, 2013

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Image via Wiki Commons.

It has been fifty years since that tragic day in Dallas, but Americans remain fascinated with both the details of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and its meaning. This year will see the publication of nearly a dozen new books, and a flood of reprints, as the assassination cottage industry shifts into high gear. A number of television networks have produced documentary specials devoted to the assassination.

The question that is appropriate to ask at this point is: Is there really anything new to learn? While writing my new book, Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live, I went back to the standard narrative of that day — the Warren Commission. How well does it hold up in light of five decades of attacks?

In September 1964, The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, popularly known as the Warren Commission, concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, had fired three bullets from the sixth floor of the school book depository building.

The Warren Commission initially received a warm reception. Before the release of the report, a Gallup poll found that only 29 percent of Americans thought Oswald acted alone, while 52 percent believed in some kind of conspiracy. A few months after the release of the report, 87 percent of respondents believed Oswald shot the president.

Over the next few years however, critics turned public opinion against the report. In 1966, Mark Lane published his best-seller Rush to Judgment. Later that year, a New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison, launched a highly publicized, but deeply flawed, investigation of his own which purported to reveal a vast conspiracy. At the same time Life Magazine published color reproductions of the Zapruder film under the cover: “Did Oswald Act Alone? A Matter of Reasonable Doubt.” The editors questioned the Commission’s conclusions and called for a new investigation.

Most of these early skeptics used the Warren Commission’s own evidence against it. They focused on contradictions among some of the witnesses about the number of shots and from where they were fired. Some witnesses claim they heard gunfire from the grassy knoll, an elevated area to the front, right of the presidential limousine. A favorite topic was the so-called “magic bullet.” According to the Warren Commission, Oswald fired three shots in less than eight seconds: the first shot missed, the second shot struck Kennedy in the back, exited through his throat, and then hit Governor Connally, breaking a rib, shattering his wrist, and ending up in his thigh. Critics claimed the bullet, which remained largely intact, could not have been responsible for all of the damage. Also, if Connally and Kennedy were hit by different bullets in a fraction of a second, then it meant there had to be another shooter.

The most serious threat to the Commission’s credibility, however, came not from the army of investigative reporters and self-styled assassination experts, but from new government investigations.

In 1975 the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence headed by Idaho’s Frank Church, revealed that American intelligence agencies had systematically hidden important evidence from the Warren Commission. Both the FBI and the CIA had lied by omission to the Warren Commission. One prominent senator told a television audience that “the [Warren] report… has collapsed like a house of cards.”

These revelations led to the creation of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). In December 1978, after two years of work, the committee was prepared to issue a report that supported all the major conclusions of the Warren Commission. It found no evidence of a conspiracy. No second shooter. But in the final weeks the committee changed its opinion and concluded that although Oswald was the assassin, there was a conspiracy involving a second gunman.

The committee relied on the highly questionable, and now  discredited, acoustical analysis of a police dictabelt recording from Dallas police headquarters. It contained sounds from a police motorcycle in Dealey Plaza whose radio transmitting switch was stuck in the “on” position. Two acoustics experts said there was a 95 percent certainty that the recording revealed that four shots had been fired at the presidential motorcade. As a result the House Committee came to the bizarre conclusion that a second shooter fired at the president but missed.

Coming in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, the HSCA report added to public cynicism about the Warren Commission conclusions. At just the time that Americans were learning that the government lied to them about Vietnam and Watergate, they now discovered it had lied about aspects of the assassination of President Kennedy. If the CIA and the FBI had lied to the Commission, the reasoning went, then they clearly had something to hide.

There were now two conspiracies: The conspiracy to assassinate the President and, potentially, an even larger and more insidious plot among powerful figures in government and the media to cover it up.

In 1991, filmmaker Oliver Stone tapped into these doubts, and added his own paranoid twist, to create the wildly popular movie JFK. The film portrayed an elaborate web of conspiracy involving Vice President Johnson, the FBI, the CIA, the Pentagon, the KGB, pro-Castro and anti-Castro forces, defense contractors, and assorted other officials and agencies. The movie makes it seem that First Lady Jackie Kennedy was the only person in Dealey Plaza that day who was not planning to murder the president.

The movie ended with a plea for audience members to ask Congress to open up all Kennedy assassination records. The plea worked. In 1992, Congress passed a sweeping law that placed all remaining government documents pertaining to the assassination in a special category and loosened the normal classification guidelines. The legislation led to the most ambitious declassification effort in American history — more than five million documents in total.

What we have learned from the new government investigations and from the flood of declassified documents is that Warren Commission got it mostly right. There have been no shocking revelations to challenge the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Moreover, there has emerged no convincing alternative explanation of what took place in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Yet the new information does highlighted one major flaw with the Warren Commission: its failure to present a convincing explanation for why Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. Much of the final commission report represented an indictment of Oswald. It failed to ascribe a single motive, but it made a strong case that Oswald was little more than a disaffected sociopath who was in desperate need of attention. It spent a great deal of effort showing how the events in his childhood – growing up without a father, feeling isolated, moving often, and dealing with an overbearing mother – turned him into an angry, embittered sociopath.

Many of the new documents and information, while fragmentary and often contradictory, reveal that Oswald was driven as much by ideology as he was by personal demons. None of the information reveals a conspiracy, or proves the involvement of any outside group, but it does reinforce a possible political motive to the assassination, highlighting that Oswald was driven by a desire to prove his fidelity to the Cuban Revolution, gain Castro’s respect, and possibly travel to Cuba as a conquering hero. In his fantasy world, Oswald probably assumed that he would be welcomed in Cuba as the man who killed the American devil, not appreciating that neither Castro nor the Soviets would wish to incur the wrath of the United States by harboring JFK’s assassin.

Why did the Warren Commission fail to highlight Oswald’s political motives? Cold War fears likely chilled the Commission’s desire to place too much emphasis on Oswald’s pro-Castro activities. The Commission knew a great deal about Oswald’s politics: his early embrace of Marxism, his defection to the Soviet Union, his involvement in pro-Castro groups in New Orleans, and his attempted assassination of right-wing retired general Edwin Walker a few months before he killed JFK. It pointed out that while he was being interrogated Oswald asked to be represented by a lawyer, John Apt, who represented many Communist party figures. It mentioned that Oswald had traveled to Mexico City where he shuttled back and forth between the Soviet embassy and the Cuban consulate in search of a visa. Yet it refused to connect the dots.

More importantly, the Commission lacked the proper context for evaluating Oswald’s motives because it was denied relevant intelligence information. Recently declassified document reveal that American intelligence agencies had kept close tabs on Oswald in the months before the shot JFK. The CIA took pictures of Oswald outside the Soviet embassy and even recorded his phone calls. But none of this evidence was turned over to the Commission, and all of it was later destroyed. The Commission, for example, never saw a memo prepared by J. Edgar Hoover that reported that Oswald had threaten to kill JFK during his trip to Mexico City just three weeks before the assassination.

In the most important omission, the CIA refused to provide the Commission with any of the information related to its activities in Cuba, including proposed assassination plots against Castro. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who oversaw the administration’s anti-Castro campaign, deliberately misled the Commission, denying that he was aware of any relevant information.

The final Commission report states, without any supporting evidence, that Oswald became disillusioned with Castro and Cuba after he was denied a visa to enter that country in late September. There is tantalizing evidence that just the opposite is true: As the Hoover memo suggests, it is more likely that Oswald killed Kennedy in order to convince Cuban authorities to accept his petition for a visa.

If the Commission had known about the administration’s covert campaign against Castro it would have seen Oswald’s pro-Castro actions in a new light, and could have investigated further some of his actions and associations.

The new more complicated portrait of Oswald does not change the fact that he pulled the trigger, but it does muddy the waters about why. Since he was killed before he confessed or was placed on trial we will never know for sure. Unfortunately, the Warren Commission’s incomplete portrait of Oswald and his motives has fed the conspiracy frenzy and served to undermine public faith in its lone-gunman theory.

Steven M. Gillon is the Scholar-in-Residence at The History Channel and professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live.

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