23 November 2008

Brothers in Arms: The Latest JFK Conspiracy

John F. Kennedy died 45 years ago yesterday, and many people still aren't certain how that happened. Despite the gigantic effort of Vincent Bugliosi two years ago to refute every possible conspiracy theory, many remain unsatisfied with Lee Harvey Oswald's ability to pull off the crime unassisted and on his own initiative. While it may be facetious to cite Sgt. Hartman from the movie Full Metal Jacket, who describes the assassination as an example of what a motivated Marine can do with his rifle, that does pretty much sum up my view. I remain intrigued by conspiracy theory and theorists, however, because the shifting tides of belief might tell us something about our own changing times as JFK's generation grows old and generations with no memory of the living man come to the fore.

Brothers in Arms is a collaboration of crime journalist Gus Russo and novelist/screenwriter Stephen Molton. Russo earns an occasional favorable mention in Bugliosi's massive tome, but probably won't win any kudos for this effort. While he concedes readily that Oswald acted alone and pretty much on his own initiative, he believes that the Cuban government had the opportunity and the motive to abet the assassin. Russo speculates that the Castro regime, or its spymasters in Mexico City, gave Oswald financial assistance on different occasions, and may have promised, once aware of his intentions, to help him escape from Dallas. Russo's own view is that Oswald would have been a sucker to believe this, as his suspicion is that the Cubans would have killed him to keep their ties to him secret.

Russo and Molton's most impressive achievement is portraying a milieu in Mexico City that makes their story look plausible. They emphasize the high-stakes spy game that the U.S. and Cuba were playing, with the USSR and the Mexicans kibitzing, the Russians often helping the Cubans and the Mexicans sometimes helping both. They strive to demonstrate that the Cubans were capable of assassination as a tactic, pointing out various alleged terror plots against the U.S. and assassinations of others around the world. Both sides were looking for every advantage, constantly attempting to turn people, so it does seem plausible that Oswald would be noticed in nearby New Orleans and during at least one trip to Mexico.

Oswald's own motive was fame as a revolutionary hero, the authors assert. While the title announces that the book is mostly about the blood feud between the Kennedy and Castro brothers, Russo and Molton follow Oswald's career in the footsteps of Norman Mailer and other researchers. They do a good job suggesting that Oswald's aspiring ruthlessness fits right in with his time, though it's more dubious of them to claim that he was a kind of vanguard figure of the drop-out rebels from later in the 1960s. I give Molton credit for making the cross-cut narrative of Kennedy plots, Castro counter-plots and Oswald's adventures freshly dramatic for a reader very familiar with the material.

While plausible, however, their thesis isn't really convincing. To get beyond conjecture, they must depend on unnamed Cuban sources and on "Nikolai," whom they credit with copying out super-secret documents from the KGB archives that prove greater Cuban knowledge of Oswald than the Castro regime cares to admit. The nature of the JFK conspiracy racket brings many fabricators into it, and Russo's vouching for Nikolai, who had assisted a German researcher for a film about the Cuban theory, simply isn't good enough.

Other sources for Cuban conspiracy theories have been dismissed by Bugliosi, but on reviewing his chapter on Cuba, he seems to accept too readily the premise that Fidel Castro was too rational to risk war with the U.S. by having any association with Oswald. Russo and Molton take Castro's struggle with the U.S. from the beginning, with special attention to the Missile Crisis to show that Castro had grown extremely reckless and seemed to insist on a world war. They state that Castro went so far during the crisis as to seize one of the missile sites from the Russians by force rather than have Moscow limit his options. This helps them make their case that Castro was capable of anything, but it doesn't prove that he actually endorsed Oswald in any way.

Russo and Molton also throw Bugliosi's rationalization into question by emphasizing the reasons Lyndon Johnson had for suspecting Cuba from the moment of the assassination, as well as LBJ's reluctance to do anything about it. The way Bugliosi tells it, Castro wouldn't attempt a decapitation strike because, were his role detected, an invasion would have followed automatically. But in Russo's account, Johnson is immediately conscious that, despite growing tension between Cuba and the USSR from the Missile Crisis forward, war with Cuba would mean war with Russia -- a nuclear holocaust. In this version, Johnson orders a cover-up in order to eliminate any risk of a war, while Bobby Kennedy is pursuing the same means to avoid exposing his brother's efforts to have Castro killed. This part of the story depends on what looks more plausible to you: Johnson's reticence as described by Russo, or a knee-jerk drive for war as assumed by Bugliosi.

Johnson's role raises an abstract question that we've addressed in the past. If Russo and Molton are right, then Fidel Castro, however indirectly, practiced the policy of assassination as an alternative to war. History seems more certain that, after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, John Kennedy was doing the same. My colleague Crhymethinc has suggested that making this a common practice would make full-scale wars less likely. My skepticism toward the idea follows from an assumption that the public, at least in a democratic republic, would demand war if they learned that an enemy power had done the deed. In Russo's account, Johnson is determined to keep the public from learning about the Cuban connection, fearing that they, goaded by the Republican party, would indeed drive him toward war. But if Russo is right, then Cuba at least gave LBJ room to cover things up and keep their ties from Oswald from public awareness. True or not, that suggests how assassination as an alternative to war would have to work. It could never be a blatant attack by an explicit agent. It would have to be orchestrated in secret through disgruntled citizens of the targeted leader's own country, arranged so that the public would have the least chance of seeing foreign fingerprints on the crime. The leader's successor may figure out what actually happened, but the point of the exercise would have been to deter him from pursuing the policies that got his predecessor killed.

Speculating that way raises a further question. Assuming for argument's sake that Russo and Molton are right and that Johnson had good reason and some evidence to suspect Cuban involvement in the assassination, was his cover-up the act of a coward? Is the assassination of a leader, especially one who was elected democratically, an act which, if attributable to a foreign power, requires war in response as a matter of national honor or duty? Or was Johnson right to weigh costs against benefits? In this book, LBJ is somewhat aware of the Kennedy plots against Castro and doesn't really approve -- just as, ironically in retrospect, he advised JFK against deeper involvement in Vietnam. If Johnson decided that Kennedy had reaped what he had sown, how should that have altered the balance of calculations? If he learned the lesson Crhymethinc would say he should have learned -- and Russo suggests that he did -- might his refusal to go to war for Kennedy's sake have actually been the act of a statesman?

Because Russo and Molton can't really seal the deal until their sources are more forthcoming, any speculation about Johnson's response to the assassination is really for amusement purposes only. But the fact that they get you thinking about such things is one of the virtues of their book. With some details necessarily blurred, they paint a compelling picture of a dangerous period in American history. They lay on the schmaltz at the end with their portrayal of Bobby Kennedy attempting to atone for his role in the feud, and a hint at the very end that Raul Castro may do the same, but otherwise it's an often powerful and evocative book. It's probably unusual among conspiracy books that you can probably read it and not agree and still not feel like your intelligence has been insulted.


crhymethinc said...

To clarify my theory, in my imagining of war through assassination, the public would be fully aware of what is going on. The idea being that, instead of the masses of working class people being sent to the slaughter, the politicians who are responsible for policy making would be held personally accountable. I believe the public would fully support this idea once the fact that they would never have to go to war sinks into their heads.

From a political point of view, one might compare this to Darwin's theory of "natural selection". Those politicians with better policies would survive. Those with bad policies wouldn't. The ultimate outcome is that political leaders in all nations would learn that cooperation is better.

Samuel Wilson said...

The practical question becomes how long it will take for your notion to sink in to enough people's heads. In 1963 there may well have been a mass clamor for war if it were publicly verified that Cuba had helped Oswald. Even today or next year you might see it if an identified foreign agent killed or was involved in killing President Obama. The danger of a war fever is greater in democratic countries where people are more likely to feel possessive toward their government and might take a strike against a president as an attack on their own sovereignty. I suppose your system could accommodate this if it's understood that the people through Congress could authorize the assassination of the enemy leader, but there are plenty of people in this country, at least, who'd wouldn't be satisfied by anything less than bombing the enemy leader's country back to the stone age. Hopefully they'd be in the minority or else bound by the new laws of war.