• Why JFK Was Murdered By the CIA

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    This book
    (JFK
    and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters
    ) is
    the first volume of a projected trilogy. Orbis Books has commissioned
    James W. Douglass to write three books on the assassinations of
    the 1960’s. The second will be on the murders of Malcolm X and Martin
    Luther King, while the third will be on the assassination of Bobby
    Kennedy.

    This is one
    of the few books on the Kennedy case that I actually wished was
    longer. In the purest sense, Jim Douglass is not a natural writer.
    But it seems to me he has labored meticulously to fashion a well
    organized, thoroughly documented, and felicitously composed piece
    of workmanship that is both comprehensible and easy to read. These
    attributes do not extend from simplicity of design or lack of ambition.
    This book takes in quite a lot of territory. In some ways it actually
    extends the frontier. In others it actually opens new paths. To
    achieve that kind of scope with a relative economy of means, and
    to make the experience both fast and pleasant, is quite an achievement.

    I should inform
    the reader at the outset: this is not just a book about JFK’s assassination.
    I would estimate that the book is 2/3 about Kennedy’s presidency
    and 1/3 about his assassination. And I didn’t mind that at all,
    because Douglass almost seamlessly knits together descriptions of
    several of Kennedy’s policies with an analysis of how those policies
    were both monitored and resisted, most significantly in Cuba and
    Vietnam. This is one of the things that makes the book enlightening
    and worthy of understanding.

    One point of
    worthwhile comparison would be to David Talbot’s previous volume
    Brothers.
    In my view, Douglass’ book is better. One of my criticisms of Talbot’s
    book was that I didn’t think his analysis of certain foreign policy
    areas was rigorous or comprehensive enough. You can’t say that about
    Douglass. I also criticized Talbot for using questionable witnesses
    like Angelo Murgado and Timothy Leary to further certain dubious
    episodes about Kennedy’s life and/or programs. Douglass avoided
    that pitfall.

    One way that
    Douglass achieves this textured effect is in his quest for new sources.
    One of the problems I had with many Kennedy assassination books
    for a long time is their insularity. That is, they all relied on
    pretty much the same general established bibliography. In my first
    book, Destiny
    Betrayed
    , I tried to break out of that mildewed and restrictive
    mold. I wanted to widen the lens in order to place the man and the
    crime in a larger perspective. Douglass picks up that ball and runs
    with it. There are sources he utilizes here that have been terribly
    underused, and some that haven’t been used before. For instance,
    unlike Talbot, Douglass sources Richard Mahoney’s extraordinary
    JFK:
    Ordeal in Africa
    , one of the finest books ever written on
    President Kennedy’s foreign policy. To fill in the Kennedy-Castro
    back channel of 1963 he uses In
    the Eye of the Storm
    by Carlos Lechuga and William Attwood’s
    The
    Twilight Struggle
    . On Kennedy and Vietnam the author utilizes
    Anne Blair’s Lodge
    in Vietnam
    , Ellen Hammer’s A
    Death in November
    , and Zalin Grant’s Facing
    the Phoenix
    . And these works allow Douglass to show us how
    men like Henry Cabot Lodge and Lucien Conein did not just obstruct,
    but actually subverted President Kennedy’s wishes in Saigon. On
    the assassination side, Douglass makes good use of that extraordinary
    feat of research Harvey
    and Lee
    by John Armstrong, the difficult-to-get manuscript
    by Roger Craig, When
    They Kill a President
    , plus the work of little known authors
    in the field like Bruce Adamson and hard to get manuscripts like
    Edwin Black’s exceptional essay on the Chicago plot. Further, he
    interviewed relatively new witnesses like Butch Burroughs and the
    survivors of deceased witnesses like Thomas Vallee, Bill Pitzer
    and Ralph Yates. In the use of these persons and sources, Douglass
    has pushed the envelope forward.

    But it’s not
    just what is in the book. It is how it is molded together that deserves
    attention. For instance, in the first chapter, Douglass is describing
    the Cuban Missile Crisis at length (using the newest transcription
    of the secretly recorded tapes by Sheldon Stern.) He then segues
    to Kennedy’s American University speech. At this point, Douglass
    then introduces the figure of Lee Harvey Oswald and his relation
    to the U-2 (p. 37). This is beautifully done because he has been
    specifically discussing the U-2 flights over Cuba during the Missile
    Crisis, and he subliminally matches both Kennedy and Oswald in their
    most extreme Cold War backdrops. He then switches back to the American
    University speech, contrasting its rather non-descript reception
    in the New York Times with its joyous welcome in Russia,
    thus showing that Kennedy’s efforts for détente were more
    appreciated by his presumed enemy than by the domestic pundit class.

    These artful
    movements would be good enough. But the design of the book goes
    further. As mentioned above, in his first introduction of Oswald
    Douglass mentions the Nags Head, North Carolina military program
    which launched American soldiers into Russia as infiltrators. Near
    the end of the book (p. 365), with Oswald in jail about to be killed
    by Jack Ruby, Douglass returns to that military program with Oswald’s
    famous thwarted phone call to Raleigh, North Carolina: the spy left
    out in the cold attempting to contact his handlers for information
    as how to proceed. But not realizing that his attempted call will
    now guarantee his execution. Thus the author closes a previously
    prepared arc. It isn’t easy to do things like that. And it doesn’t
    really take talent. One just has to be something of a literary craftsman:
    bending over the table, honing and refining. But it’s the kind of
    detail work that pays off. It maintains the reader’s attention along
    the way and increases his understanding by the end.

    II

    One of the
    book’s most notable achievements is the 3-D picture of the Castro-Kennedy
    back channel of 1963. Douglass’ work on this episode is detailed,
    complete, and illuminating in more ways than one. From a multiplicity
    of books, periodicals, and interviews, the author produces not opinions
    or spin on what happened. And not after the fact, wishy-washy post-mortems.
    But actual first-hand knowledge of the negotiations by the people
    involved in them.

    It started
    in January of 1963. Attorney John Donovan had been negotiating the
    release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners when Castro’s physician and
    aide Rene Vallejo broached the subject of normalizing relations
    with the USA (p. 56). Right here, Douglass subtly tells us something
    important. For Vallejo would not have broached such a subject without
    Castro’s permission. In approaching these talks, Dean Rusk and the
    State Department wanted to establish preconditions. Namely that
    Cuba would have to break its Sino/Soviet ties. Kennedy overruled
    this qualification with the following: "We don’t want to present
    Castro with a condition that he obviously cannot fulfill."
    NSC assistant Gordon Chase explained Kennedy’s intercession, "The
    President himself is very interested in this one." (pgs. 57–58)

    Because the
    State Department was cut in at the start, the CIA got wind of the
    opening. Douglass makes the case that David Phillips and the Cuban
    exiles reacted by having the militant group Alpha 66 begin to raid
    Russian ships sailing toward Cuba. Antonio Veciana later stated
    that Phillips had arranged the raids because, "Kennedy would
    have to be forced to make a decision and the only way was to put
    him up against the wall." (p. 57) The initial raid was followed
    by another a week later.

    Phillips did
    indeed force Kennedy into making a decision. At the end of March,
    the Justice Department began to stop Cuban exiles from performing
    these raids off of American territory. This resulted in crackdowns
    and arrests in Florida and Louisiana. And it was this crackdown
    that provoked a bitter falling out between the leaders of the CIA-created
    Cuban Revolutionary Council and President Kennedy. Dr. Jose Miro
    Cardona stated that the "struggle for Cuba was in the process
    of being liquidated" for "every refugee has received his
    last allotment this month, forcing them to relocate." (p. 59)
    The CRC had been a special project of both Phillips and Howard Hunt.
    As the Associated Press further reported in April, "The dispute
    between the Cuban exile leaders and the Kennedy administration was
    symbolized here today by black crepe hung from the doors of exiles’
    homes." (Ibid)

    Clearly, Kennedy
    was changing both speeds and direction. At this time, Donovan visited
    Castro and raised the point of Kennedy clamping down on the exile
    groups. Castro replied to this with the provocative statement that
    his "ideal government was not to be Soviet oriented."
    (p. 60) When newscaster Lisa Howard visited Castro in late April,
    she asked how a rapprochement between the USA and Cuba could be
    achieved. Castro replied that the "Steps were already being
    taken" and Kennedy’s limitations on the exile raids was the
    first one. (p. 61)

    As Douglass
    observes, every Castro overture for normalization up to that point
    had been noted by the CIA. And CIA Director John McCone urged "that
    no active steps be taken on the rapprochement matter at this time."
    (p. 61) Deftly, the author points out that – almost simultaneous
    with this – Oswald inexplicably moves from Dallas to New Orleans
    to begin his high profile pro-Castro activities. And later that
    summer, CIA case officers will secretly meet with Rolando Cubela
    to begin another attempt on Castro’s life.

    Oblivious to
    this, the back channel was now picked up and furthered by Howard
    and William Attwood. Howard reported that Castro was even more explicit
    now about dealing with Kennedy over the Russian influence in Cuba.
    He was willing to discuss Soviet personnel and military hardware
    on the island and even compensation for American lands and investments.
    The article she wrote at this time concluded with a request that
    a government official be sent to negotiate these matters with Fidel.
    (p. 70) This is where former journalist and then diplomat Attwood
    stepped in. Knowing that Attwood had talked with Castro before,
    Kennedy instructed him to make contact with Carlos Lechuga. Lechuga
    was Cuba’s ambassador at the United Nations, and Kennedy felt this
    would be a logical next step to continue the dialogue and perhaps
    set some kind of agenda and parameters. Howard arranged the meeting
    between the two opposing diplomats. Attwood told Lechuga that Kennedy
    felt relations could not be changed overnight, but something "had
    to be done about it and a start had to be made." (p. 71) Lechuga
    replied that Castro had liked Kennedy’s American University speech
    and he felt that Castro might OK a visit by Attwood to Cuba. This,
    of course, would have been a significant milestone.

     


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    A funny and
    revealing thing happened next. Both sides alerted the other that
    they would be making boilerplate anti-Cuba and anti-America speeches.
    (Adlai Stevenson would be doing the anti-Cuba one at the UN.) This
    clearly implies that the players understood that while relations
    were warming in private, motions had to be gone through in public
    to please the pundit class.

    Howard then
    requested that Vallejo ask Castro if Fidel would approve a visit
    by Attwood in the near future. Attwood believed this message never
    got through to Castro. So Kennedy decided to get the message to
    Castro via Attwood’s friend, French journalist Jean Daniel. (p.
    72) What Kennedy told Daniel is somewhat stunning. Thankfully, and
    I believe for the first time in such a book, Douglass quotes it
    at length. I will summarize it here.

    Kennedy wanted
    Daniel to tell Castro that he understood the horrible exploitation,
    colonization, and humiliation the history of Cuba represented and
    that the people of Cuba had endured. He even painfully understood
    that the USA had been part of this during the Batista regime. Startlingly,
    he said he approved of Castro’s declarations made in the Sierra
    Maestra Mountains. He added, "In the matter of the Batista
    regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries.
    That is perfectly clear." Daniel was somewhat taken aback by
    these sentiments. But, Kennedy continued, the dilemma now was that
    Cuba – because of its Soviet ties – had become part of the Cold
    War. And this had led to the Missile Crisis. Kennedy felt that Khrushchev
    understood all these ramifications now, after that terrible thirteen
    days.

    The president
    concluded with this, "…but so far as Fidel Castro is concerned,
    I must say I don’t know whether he realizes this, or even if he
    cares about it." Kennedy smiled and then ended Daniel’s instructions
    with this: "You can tell me whether he does when you come back."

    Daniel then
    went to Havana. On November 19th Castro walked into his hotel. Fidel
    was fully aware of the Attwood/Lechuga meetings. He was also aware
    of Kennedy’s briefing of Daniel. He had found out about this through
    Howard. In fact, he had told her he did not think it would be a
    good idea for him to meet Attwood in New York. He suggested that
    the meeting could be arranged by picking up Attwood in Mexico and
    flying him to Cuba. Castro also agreed that Che Guevara should be
    left out of the talks since he opposed their ultimate aim. Attwood
    said that Lechuga and he should meet to discuss a full agenda for
    a later meeting between himself and Castro. This was done per Kennedy’s
    instructions, and JFK wanted to brief Attwood beforehand on what
    the agenda should be. Things were heading into a higher gear.

    Daniel was
    unaware of the above when Castro walked into his room for a six-hour
    talk about Kennedy. (pgs. 85–89) I won’t even attempt to summarize
    this conversation. I will only quote Castro thusly, "Suddenly
    a president arrives on the scene who tries to support the interest
    of another class … " Clearly elated by Daniel’s message,
    Castro and the journalist spent a large part of the next three days
    together. Castro even stated that JFK could now become the greatest
    president since Lincoln.

    On the third
    day, Daniel was having lunch with Fidel when the phone rang. The
    news about Kennedy being shot in Dallas had arrived. Stunned, Castro
    hung up the phone, sat down and then repeated over and over, "This
    is bad news … This is bad news … This is bad news." (p.
    89) A few moments later when the radio broadcast the report stating
    that Kennedy was now dead, Castro stood up and said, "Everything
    is changed. Everything is going to change." (p. 90)

    To say he was
    prophetic is putting it mildly. Attwood would later write that what
    it took 11 months to build was gone in about three weeks. By December
    17th it was clear that President Johnson was brushing it all aside.
    Retroactively, Attwood came to conclude that it had all really ended
    in Dealey Plaza. He finalized his thoughts about the excellent progress
    made up to that point with this: "There is no doubt in my mind.
    If there had been no assassination we probably would have moved
    into negotiations leading toward normalization of relations with
    Cuba." (p. 177)

    Douglass has
    done a real service here. Gus Russo will now have an even more difficult
    time in defending the thesis of his nonsensical book. No one can
    now say, as the authors of Ultimate
    Sacrifice
    do that these negotiations were "headed nowhere."
    And if they do, we will now know what to think of them.

    III

    Equally as
    good as the above is Douglass’ work on Kennedy and Vietnam. Especially
    in regards to the events leading up to the November coup against
    Ngo Dinh Diem and the eventual murder of both he and his brother
    Ngo Dinh Nhu.

    Taking a helpful
    cue from David Kaiser’s American
    Tragedy
    , Douglass begins his discourse by analyzing Kennedy’s
    single-minded pursuit of a neutralization policy in neighboring
    Laos. (pgs. 98–101) Douglass exemplifies just how single-minded
    JFK was on this by excerpting a phone call the president had with
    his point man on the 1962 Laos negotiations, Averill Harriman: "Did
    you understand? I want a negotiated settlement in Laos. I don’t
    want to put troops in." (p. 104)

    Unfortunately,
    no one felt the same way about Vietnam. Except President Kennedy.
    The Pentagon, the CIA, Lyndon Johnson and the Nhu brothers all looked
    askance at Laos as a model for Vietnam. (p. 106) Even the one general
    that JFK favored, Maxwell Taylor, told him to send in combat troops
    as early as 1961. (Ibid) After Taylor’s visit there, Ambassador
    Frederick Nolting wired Kennedy that "conversations over the
    past ten days with Vietnamese in various walks of life" showed
    a "virtually unanimous desire for introduction US forces in
    Viet Nam." (p. 107) In other words, his own ambassador was
    trying to sell him on the idea that the general populace wanted
    the American army introduced there. Finally, both Secretary of Defense
    Bob McNamara and his assistant Ros Gilpatric also joined the chorus.
    As Taylor later recalled, no one was actually against it except
    President Kennedy "The president just didn’t want to be convinced
    … . It was really the President’s personal conviction that U.S.
    ground troops shouldn’t go in." (Ibid) But in 1961, Kennedy
    was not yet ready to withdraw. So he threw a sop to the hawks and
    approved a new influx of 15,000 advisers.

    In April of
    1962, John K. Galbraith sent a memo to Kennedy proposing a negotiated
    settlement with the North Vietnamese. The Joint Chiefs, State Department,
    and Harriman vigorously opposed the idea. It was too much like Laos.
    (pgs 118–119) But Kennedy liked the proposal. And in the spring
    of 1962 he instructed McNamara to initiate a plan to withdraw American
    forces from South Vietnam. In May of 1962, McNamara told the commanders
    on the scene to begin to plan for this as the president wanted to
    see the blueprint as soon as it was ready.

    To put it mildly,
    the military dragged its heels. It took them a year to prepare the
    outline. In the meantime Kennedy was telling a number of friends
    and acquaintances that he was getting out of Vietnam. Douglass assembles
    quite an impressive list of witnesses to this fact: White House
    aide Malcolm Kilduff, journalist Larry Newman, Sen. Wayne Morse,
    Marine Corps Chief David Shoup, Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson,
    Asst. Sec. of State Roger Hilsman, Sen. Mike Mansfield, Congressman
    Tip O’Neill, and newspaper editor Charles Bartlett, among others.
    Mansfield, for one, wrote that Kennedy had become unequivocal on
    the subject of withdrawal by the end of 1962. (p. 124)

    In May of 1963,
    at the so-called SecDef meeting in Honolulu, the generals in Vietnam
    finally presented their withdrawal plan. McNamara said it was too
    slow. He wanted it revised and speeded up. In September, Kennedy
    and McNamara announced the order – NSAM 263 – to begin
    the withdrawal. It consisted of the first thousand troops to be
    out by the end of the year. Which, of course, would be reversed
    almost immediately after his death. (See Probe, Vol. 5 No.
    3 p. 18.)

    The parallel
    story that Douglass tells – with grim skill and painful detail
    – is of the tragic demise of the Nhu brothers. It is the clearest
    and most moving synopsis of that sad tale that I can recall. It
    begins in May of 1963 with the famous bombing of the Hue radio station
    during a Buddhist holiday. A Buddhist rally was in progress there
    to protest another discriminatory edict passed by the Catholic Diem.
    The importance of this bombing, and the subsequent firing into the
    crowd – which left seven dead and fifteen wounded – cannot be minimized.
    As many commentators have noted, this localized incident mushroomed
    into a full-blown political crisis, spawning huge strikes and large
    street demonstrations. The twin explosions that shook the building
    were first blamed on the Viet Cong. Then on the South Vietnamese
    police. Which enraged the Buddhist population against Diem even
    further since his brother Nhu was in charge of the security forces.
    It was a milestone in the collapse of faith by the State Department
    in Diem. And it eventually led them to back the coup of the generals
    against the Nhu brothers.

    What Douglass
    does here is introduce a new analysis based on evidence developed
    at the scene. Because of the particular pattern of destruction on
    both the building and the victims, the local doctors and authorities
    came to the conclusion that it had to have been caused by a certain
    plastic explosive – which only the CIA possessed at the time.
    A further investigation by a Vietnamese newspaper located the American
    agent who admitted to the bombing. (p. 131) This puts the event
    in a new context. Douglass then builds on this in a most interesting
    and compelling manner.

    As mentioned
    above, the Hue atrocity caused even the liberals in the State Department
    to abandon Diem. So now Harriman and Hilsman united with the conservative
    hawks in an effort to oust him. In late August, they manipulated
    Kennedy into approving a cable that gave the go-ahead to a group
    of South Vietnamese generals to explore the possibility of a coup.
    (Afterwards, at least one high staffer offered to resign over misleading
    Kennedy about McNamara’s previous approval of the cable.) The leading
    conservative mounting the effort to dethrone Diem was Henry Cabot
    Lodge. Kennedy had planned to recall Ambassador Nolting and appoint
    Edmund Gullion to the position. And, as readers of the Mahoney book
    will know, Gullion was much more in tune with Kennedy’s thinking
    on Third World nationalism. He had actually tutored him on the subject
    in 1951 when Congressman Kennedy first visited Saigon. But Secretary
    of State Dean Rusk overruled this appointment, and suggested Lodge
    for the job. Lodge lobbied hard for the position because he wanted
    to use it as a springboard for a run for the presidency in 1964.

    Many, including
    myself, have maintained that if there was a black-hatted villain
    in the drama of Saigon and the Nhu brothers in 1963, it was Lodge.
    Douglass makes an excellent case for that thesis here. Before moving
    to Saigon, Lodge consulted with, of all people, Time-Life
    publisher Henry Luce. He went to him for advice on what his approach
    to Diem should be. (p. 163) Kennedy’s foe Luce advised Lodge not
    to negotiate with Diem. Referring him to the work of a journalist
    in his employ, he told Lodge to engage Diem in a "game of chicken".
    What this meant was that unless Diem capitulated on every point
    of contention between the two governments, support would be withdrawn.
    The ultimate endgame would be that there would be nothing to prop
    up his rule. And this is what Lodge did. With disastrous results.

    From the time
    of the August cable, Lodge plotted with CIA officer Lucien Conein
    to encourage the coup and to undermine Diem by ignoring him. Even
    though, as Douglass makes clear, this is contrary to what JFK wanted.
    Kennedy grew so frustrated with Lodge that he sent his friend Torby
    McDonald on a secret mission to tell Diem that he must get rid of
    his brother Nhu. (p. 167)

     


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    It was Lodge
    who got John McCone to withdraw CIA station chief John Richardson
    who was sympathetic to Diem. Lodge wanted McCone to replace him
    with Ed Lansdale. Why? Because Lansdale was more experienced in
    changing governments. Richardson was withdrawn but no immediate
    replacement was named. So in September of 1963, this essentially
    left Lodge and Conein in charge of the CIA’s interaction with the
    generals. And it was Conein who had been handling this assignment
    from the beginning, even before Lodge got on the scene. Around this
    time, stories began to emanate from Saigon by journalists Richard
    Starnes and Arthur Krock about the CIA being a power that was accountable
    to no one.

    It was Lodge,
    along with establishment journalist Joe Alsop – who would later
    help convince Johnson to create the Warren Commission – who began
    the stories about Diem negotiating a secret treaty with Ho Chi Minh.
    (p. 191) This disclosure – looked upon as capitulation – further
    encouraged the efforts by the military for a coup. In September,
    Kennedy accidentally discovered that the CIA had cut off the Commodity
    Import Program for South Vietnam. He was taken aback. He knew this
    would do two things: 1.) It would send the South Vietnamese economy
    into a tailspin, and 2.) It would further encourage the generals
    because it would convey the message the USA was abandoning Diem.
    (p. 195)

    On October
    24th, the conspirators told Conein the coup was imminent. JFK told
    Lodge he wanted to be able to stop the coup at the last minute.
    (Conein later testified that he was getting conflicting cables from
    Washington: the State Department was telling him to proceed, the
    Kennedys were telling him to stop.) At this time Diem told Lodge
    he wanted Kennedy to know he was ready to carry out his wishes.
    (p. 202) But Lodge did not relay this crucial message to Kennedy
    until after the coup began.

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    December
    15, 2009

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