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The Case That Will Not Rest

Conspiracy

by Anthony Summers
McGraw-Hill, 640 pp., $17.95

The question of who killed Kennedy puts off a lot of people. It is easy to see why. For one thing, cranks and eccentrics have dominated much of the debate, so it is hard to know which theories ought to be taken seriously. What, for example, should one make of the notion that there may have been “two Oswalds” wandering around for a while? This brings up a second problem. Even more than with Watergate, the assassination demands familiarity with an endless round of details. How many grains should a bullet lose if it passes through two bodies? How long would it take to walk from Oswald’s room on North Beckley to the side of the Tippit staying over on East Tenth? Or who was the “Leon”who visited Sylvia Odio’s apartment two months before Kennedy’s murder? If someone even passably expert gets going on such subjects, everyone else’s eyes glaze over.

But the main reason for the weariness is that if Oswald was not able, no one has come up with a clue suggesting who else may have been firing away. Nowhere do any of the investigations offer even a hypothetical hint on the identity of another marksman. And neither does Anthony Summers. Yet it would be sad if for that reason Conspiracy were dismissed as “just another” assassination book. It is an important piece of work, both for what it shows about the assassination and for the lucidity that Summers, a British television producer, has brought to the subject.

If Summers does not offer a name, he does the next best thing. To start with, he establishes, more convincingly than previously seemed possible, that Oswald was in no position to do any shooting at all. That done, he provides a chilling explanation why certain people decided Kennedy had to die. Indeed, they did more than come to that decision: they carried out a plan which in fact achieved that end. For all its melodramatic overtones, “conspiracy” is the only word we have to describe the case Summers develops. So he asks at the out set that we suspend our initial disbelief. As indeed we must, when told that the plot was a conjoint effort of anti-Castro’ Cubans, persons employed by the CIA, and representatives of organized crime.

Farfetched and overplotted though such a scheme may seem, Summers succeeds in coming across as an author one can trust. He makes use of eye-witness accounts, some secured by the Warren Commission and the House Assassinations Committee, but the most persuasive from his own interviews with people who were never approached before. When the evidence is ambiguous, he admits that this is the case. If there are facts we simply do not have, he leaves the spaces blank and builds the best he can around them. Moreover, the book is exceptionally well written, with all the tone and tension of an Eric Ambler thriller.

Summers begins with a simple question. Where, in fact, was Oswald at the time of the shooting? No one remembered seeing him on the sixth floor of the Depository, which is where the shots probably came from and where a rifle and shells were found. The President was scheduled to pass by the building at 12:25 PM, which means a marksman would want to be near his perch at least several minutes beforehand. Oswald’s story to the Dallas police was that he had passed up the motorcade, preferring to have a Coca-Cola in the lunchroom on the second floor. As it turns out, several employees who were in or near the lunchroom actually support his story. One was a secretary who recalled seeing him there at “about 12:15. It may have been slightly later.” At the same time, witnesses across the street from the Depository claimed they saw not one but two men at the sixth-floor window as early as 12:15 PM. Moreover, their dress differed markedly from what Oswald was wearing that day. And one, an observer added, “appeared to have darker skin than a white American.”

To this must be added the issue of Oswald’s skill as a marksman. He had taken Marine training six years earlier, but his scores were undistinguished and he spent most of his enlistment at desk assignments. While he obviously owned a rifle and brought one to the Depository, no evidence has emerged that he ever practiced with it. (Oswald could not drive a car, and rifle ranges or similar places for practice tend to be far afield.) If he was in fact the one who took a shot at General Edwin Walker, he missed a sitting target at a very easy range. In short, it seems most unlikely that Oswald could have done all that damage at Dealey Plaza in the space of several seconds. And while his palm-print was found on the weapon, it was on a surface that is only accessible when the gun is disassembled. Apparently some trouble was taken to ensure that a rifle owned by Oswald would be in the Depository, perhaps to be used by someone else and then left for the police.

Unknown to the Warren Commission, a motorcycle policeman in the Plaza had left his transmitter open while the shooting was taking place. Hence a soundtrack of what was happening was radioed in to headquarters and routinely kept on tape. Its value was not recognized until early in 1978, when the House Committee asked acoustical experts to make sense of the various sounds. Summers describes the processes, which not only timed the shots but fixed their source. Yes, there were three shots from the area of the Depository, just as the motorcade had passed. But there was also a fourth report, coming from a knoll facing the presidential car. The people who drew this conclusion from their analysis of the tape knew the difference between gunfire and a backfire, between an original shot and its echo. If there was a fourth shot, there had to be a second marksman.

However that finding became something of a letdown, because the fourth shot simply missed. It hit neither the president nor Governor Connally and apparently went astray. Whoever fired it ran to a waiting car and quickly drove away. There has been a continuing controversy over whether Kennedy was also struck from the front, especially as he lurched backward at the time of the crucial hit. However Summers accepts the forensic finding that both bullets which reached Kennedy entered from the rear, which means they came from the Depository or a building adjacent to it. (The backward movement was a “neuromuscular reaction” of a kind that can occur.) Still the presence of a second rifleman, even if he muffed his job, means that at least two people were involved, which implies some prior planning.

Given that there had been planning, Oswald played some part in at least some of the proceedings. The full story starts six and a half years earlier, when Oswald joined the Marines at the age of seventeen. This saga has received its full recounting in Edward Jay Epstein’s Legend, a source Summers draws on and regards with respect.* As a teenaged Marine in Japan, Oswald led an atypical life. He spent much of his spare time with a high-priced nightclub hostess, whose normal rates ran to more than a private earned in a month. Upon hearing of his unit’s transfer to the Philippines, Oswald shot himself in the arm and got twenty day’s hard labor. Even so, he was kept at his sensitive radar job, and took an uncommon interest in the U-2 flights originating from his base. Upon reassignment to the United States, he subscribed to Marxist publications and started studying Russian on his own, regaling his fellow Corpsmen with how the Soviet Union had “the best system in the world.” Apparently none of this troubled anyone in charge, even though these were the late 1950s when files on subversive activities were being kept on kindergarten teachers. Upon his discharge he applied for a passport, specifically stating his intention to travel to Russia and Cuba. It came without delay.

Did all this mean that Oswald was, as Summers suggests, “merely masquerading as a Marxist,” working up a background so the Soviets would accept him as a defector? The Pentagon claims to have destroyed all its files on the assassination, which presumably included its observations on Oswald’s curious antics. As Richard Schweiker, who had been on a Senate panel investigating the CIA, put it to Summers: “Either we trained and sent him to Russia, and they went along and pretended they didn’t know to fake us out, or in fact, they inculcated him and sent him back here and were trying to fake us out that way.” The former seems more probable. Indeed, when Oswald returned thirty months later, with a Russian wife who got her Soviet passport also with surprising speed, the CIA showed an “extraordinary lack of reaction” toward a disillusioned defector. They made no attempt to debrief him, if only for a little mundane data on traffic conditions in Minsk.

However Summers found another connection which, even if circumstantial, has serious implications. While in the Dallas jail, Oswald was allowed two telephone calls, one of which went to the house where his wife was staying. The other was to a number in Area Code 919, which covers the eastern half of North Carolina. Neither his address book nor any other inquiries have shown that Oswald had contact with anyone in that region. However as it happened, his freedom to make calls was not wholly unrestricted. Two men with federal credentials stationed themselves by the switchboard and, on hearing the request for the 919 number, instructed the operator to tell Oswald that the call could not get through. Who might Oswald have been calling in his final hour of need? The only hint comes from Victor Marchetti, who recollected to Summers that Naval Intelligence had a program at Nags Head, North Carolina, for selected sailors and marines, “who were made to appear disenchanted, poor, American youths who had become turned off and wanted to see what communism was all about.”

If Oswald had some kind of intelligence relationship, indeed a continuing one, then he wasn’t the absolute loner be so often sought to seem to be. The same suspicion applied to his sojourn in New Orleans, where he made a very visible show of supporting Fidel Castro, handing out “Hands Off Cuba!” leaf-lets and engaging in a not-so-spontaneous fistfight at a public intersection. One problem is that the pamphlets he passed out gave as an address a building which housed several anti-Castro operations. More than that, Oswald showed up there at least once to volunteer his services. Nor, considering that he held erratic, ill-paid jobs, is it clear where he got the kind of cash required for his New Orleans activities. Similar questions surround his equally strange trip to Mexico City, where he (or someone like him) made a memorable fuss at the Cuban Embassy demanding permission to go to Havana. This was toward the end of September 1963, two months before the assassination. Everything he was doing had to do with Cuba.

It is Summers’s contention that three groups came together to arrange the murder of the President of the United States. All had an interest in ending John Kennedy’s tenure before the year was out, and for all death was already a stock-in-trade. One element consisted of Cuban exiles, based both in Miami and New Orleans, who realized that the only hope for overthrowing Castro was a stepped-up paramilitary campaign with strong support from the White House, Yet by 1963, Kennedy had become their enemy rather than an ally. They believed that the Bay of Pigs invasion ended in disaster because the President himself refused the necessary aircover. (They saw nothing untoward in dropping loads of bombs bound to hit civilians.) To them even the missile crisis was handled in a halfhearted way, with only a verbal assurance from Khrushchev that the ships were in fact taking the weapons back. And now Kennedy was moving toward “normalization of relations” with Cuba, permitting unofficial meetings of intermediaries and envoys.

Some of the most extreme members of the Cuban exile community decided that Kennedy had to die. Even if they had no specific knowledge of his successor’s views, they had reason to believe that if the person arrested as the assassin were found to have a pro-Castro record, Cuban-American relations would inevitably deteriorate.

The American intelligence community is so sprawling a creation that it spawns compartments where not even those in charge can be sure what is going on. One such was its anti-Castro division, consisting in 1962 of 600 Americans, most of them case officers, plus upward of 3,000 contract agents in and out of Cuba. The Americans no less than the exiles were committed to their cause. Summers takes time out to describe in detail the extent to which they would go. There was the proposal, for example, to infuse Castro’s shoes with a chemical compound which would cause his hair to fall out. (Once bald and unbearded, his charismatic charm would disappear.) Also a specially treated cigar, to make him incoherent during one of his speechmaking marathons. Or spraying LSD in his broadcasting studio for much the same effect.

But it was not all fun and games. Within the American intelligence network there existed a “renegade element” (Summer’s phrase) with no qualms at all about subverting White House policy. For them, undoing the Cuban revolution was still the order of the day, even if it required eliminating their chief executive. Needless to say, these agents kept in contact with some of the bitterest of exiles. And it is also entirely plausible that they held Oswald on some string. As one CIA officer told the House Assassinations Committee, someone like Oswald “could have been run as part of a vest pocket operation without other Agency officials knowing it.”

Moreover, the anti-Castro operation had already established ties with representatives of organized crime, who had reasons of their own for bringing capitalism back to Cuba. For them, Havana had been a lucrative port, not only from its casinos but also as a staging area for drugs slated to move north. Castro had ended these enterprises, and here was Kennedy exploring possible relations with a communist administration bent on keeping its capital city clean. No less important, the President’s attorney-general had expanded his Organized Crime Section, raising racketeering indictments to an unheard of level. While both brothers were objects of enmity, the warning of crime boss Santos Trafficante concerned the President: “Mark my word, this man Kennedy is in trouble, and he will get what is coming to him‌. He is going to be hit.”

Putting a contract out on the President of the United States? It’s one thing to rub out a competitor who moves in on your side of town. From time to time, organized crime will do in local prosecutors who get a bit too zealous. However Floyd Fithian of Indiana, a member of the House Committee and also a professor of history at Purdue, believes they were quite ready to take on a head of state. “Organized crime had the means to kill John Kennedy,” he wrote in the spring of 1979. “It had a motive. And it had the opportunity.” Professor Robert Blakey of Cornell Law School, who served as chief counsel to the House Committee, puts it even more positively: “I am now firmly of the opinion that the mob did it.”

If they did, or joined with others, they covered their tracks at Dealey Plaza. However Summers makes a persuasive case that organized crime took an active part in one respect: making sure that Oswald would not live to tell whatever it was he knew. Fortunately they had someone on the scene who could carry out that job.

Jack Ruby got his start as a small-time hood running errands for Al Capone. Later he was transferred to Dallas, which was then opening up as syndicate territory. However he never made it big, running a series of seedy nightspots which plunged him into debt. Still, to keep these clubs going he cultivated Dallas policemen, particularly those prepared to avert their eyes at propitious times and places. In addition, Ruby had helped to run guns into Cuba, making several trips to Havana as part of that assignment. As Summers reconstructs it, Ruby got a call soon after Oswald’s arrest instructing him, very simply, to rub the young man out. The deal was that Ruby’s debts would be paid off forthwith. Indeed later that day he appeared with $7,000 in bills, considerably more cash than he had ever been seen to have. Ruby learned from one of his police informants when Oswald’s was to be transferred, and then that obliging officer let him in by a seldom-used sidedoor. Ruby announced he did the deed to spare Jacqueline Kennedy from having to appear at Oswald’s trial, a story he later recanted. During his last days in prison he worried aloud to a visitor, “Now they’re going to find out about Cuba, about New Orleans, about everything.” But he died without elaborating.

And Oswald’s in all this? After his arrest he claimed he was a fall guy (“I’m just a patsy”) although he never said for whom. A retired CIA operative who had followed Oswald’s to Mexico City told Summers: “I think he was set up.” A Miami businessman who worked with the CIA as well as organized crime remarked that “the anti-Castro people put Oswald’s together,” adding that “Oswald’s didn’t know who he was working for.” It seems clear that Oswald’s was constantly working. From his performance as a Marxist Marine, through his New Orleans and Mexico City capers, down to his decision to go for a Coke as the motorcade was coming. If he was “set up,” it was as someone on whom the assassination could be pinned. If he was “put together,” it was to appear as a left-winger and a strong supporter of Castro. And if all this is in any way true, he was being handled by extremely skillful people, who may have let him think that he was using them.

But to assign Oswald’s so crucial a part raises some serious problems. Summers says that a group of very seasoned men planned the President’s murder, investing an impressive amount of effort. One of the things they did was to get someone to go around Dallas passing himself off as Oswald’s, first at a firing range and later at a gunsmith’s, and then taking a wild test drive at an automobile salesroom. But is it likely that so complicated a plot would all depend on the unwitting cooperation of one mercurial young man? Suppose on November 22 he awoke with a temperature of 102 and called in sick? The whole plan would have fallen apart.

Then there is the very remarkable coincidence that the man they had been putting together ended up with a job in a building that would overlook the motorcade. Neither Summers nor anyone else has suggested that it was the conspirators who led Oswald’s to obtain employment at the Depository. (The idea came from the woman with whom his wife was staying.) Moreover, according to Summers the setting up of Oswald’s began long before Kennedy decided to come to Dallas, let alone when anyone knew what his local route would be. Perhaps having Oswald’s in the Depository was, for the plotters, a fantastic stroke of luck. Yet one wonders what they would have done had Kennedy deleted Dallas from his travel plans. For that is where Oswald’s was, and he was essential to the plan.

Summers opens with a passage from Francis Bacon: “Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted‌but to weigh and consider.” Conspiracy deserves no less. It is a book that must be read with as open a mind as possible, for it contains enough evidence to compensate for the stillunanswered questions in this tangled, scary story. If it is only a half-told tale, will we ever know the rest?

That the Warren Commission was less than interested in the truth is now fairly well accepted. Its charge from Lyndon Johnson was to show that the slayer was a lone, unstable drifter. For at the time the alternative explanation was that Castro had ordered the killing; and that, Johnson feared, could lead to “a war which would cost forty million lives.” The more recent House Assassinations Committee was always a stepchild of the Congress, loaded with junior representatives who could never arouse their parent body. In his preface, Summers remarks that the American press has never risen to the challenge posed by the assassination. The problem, as noted at the outset, is that it is a story which requires, from reporters and readers alike, a willingness to keep abreast of all those countless details involving events and persons and places. (Summers prints a lengthy “cast of characters” containing 186 names, and even that is incomplete.) Moreover there is the ambiguity of whether the identity of the participants is a puzzle to be solved, or an outrageous act of treason crying for justice to be done. Summers talks as if it is both, but they evoke two quite different temperaments which do not always work in tandem.

If even a fraction of what Summers writes is true, then there are people still around who know what really happened. While none of those in on the scheme has fully broken silence, Summers has recorded enough elliptical statements to show that much more can be said. We may never know who fired the fatal bullets, but we are closing in on why the deed was done. It is not a case at rest.

  1. *

    McGraw-Hill, 1978. Reviewed by Andrew Hacker (“Who Was Oswald?”) in The New York Review, May 4, 1978.

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