The order to assassinate the president came from on high. We know this beyond a doubt now, from multiple sources.
There had been plans, before Nov. 22, plans hatched by the Central Intelligence Agency, but they failed. This time, on Nov. 22, 1963, the murder weapon was placed into the assassin’s hands by a CIA operative whose name we also know: Desmond FitzGerald.
I’m speaking, of course, of the Kennedy administration plans to murder a president. The president named Fidel Castro. El Presidente. Somehow this crucial, perhaps determinative, aspect of the whole story is often left out of the JFK assassination narrative. We haven’t adjusted our perspectives, historically and morally, on how we look at the Kennedy brothers and the murder plots they instigated, despite the fact that plots like this came to light as early as 1976 with the Church Committee on Intelligence. And when we do consider these activities, we may have to adjust our perspective on the cause of the assassination itself.
The planned attempt on Castro was the latest in a succession of well-documented murder plots by Kennedy hirelings that led LBJ to say, disgustedly, the Kennedy brothers were “operating a damned Murder Incorporated” in the Caribbean.
Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot: Most of the JFK conspiracy theorists, among them my brilliant but addled Yale classmate Oliver Stone, would have you believe that the saintly JFK was just about to begin a reconciliatory bromance with fellow peacenik Fidel, just about to get the U.S. out of Vietnam, just about to take down the military industrial complex, end the Cold War and subsidize healthy vegan meals for all schoolchildren, when he was killed in Dallas.
But the truth about JFK is much more complex. That’s why it helps to look at what happened on Nov. 22 not in Dallas, but in Paris. That’s where a blue-blood Kennedy CIA operative, FitzGerald, supplied the ingenious poison-injection fountain pen murder weapon designed to kill the left’s hero, Fidel. Another James Bond wannabe fiasco by the pathetically inept CIA, although this plot may well have had tragic consequences. The Paris perspective is important and so is that of Mexico City. Especially when it comes to—as I shall attempt to explain—the remarkable new advance in the JFK cold case that former New York Times reporter Philip Shenon has made in his new 600-page book about the Warren commission, A Cruel and Shocking Act.
Most of the publicity about the book (which was only published on Oct. 29 after a strict no-galleys embargo) has dealt with its important, but not unexpected further revelations about the way the CIA and the FBI lied to and deceived the Warren Commission, and to his further substantiation of a story that one Warren Commission staffer had had a secret meeting with Fidel.
But Shenon has done more than the expected, more than he expected, as he told me in a phone call about his reporting. He unearthed late-developing leads and conducted interviews with figures in Mexico City who could shed light on the mysterious nearly weeklong trip Lee Harvey Oswald made there in the September before the November assassination. Late developments in his reporting in the spring and summer of 2013, Shenon told me, that led him, after five years’ work, to add a devastating author’s note, just written in September.
Late developments that climax with a final sentence from which one can glean what may at last be the answer to the real mystery of the Kennedy assassination.
The real mystery about the assassination, to anyone who has spent time examining facts (and not playing games with names, making unsupported “connections” among BadPeopleWhoDidn’tLikeJFKAndThereforeMustHaveKilledHim), is not whether Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots. But why he did it. What was going on in his mind, what was his motive? Did he have any assistance or encouragement from others? And if so, who?
I had suggested here in Slate earlier this year that a new paradigm that focused on Oswald’s trip to Mexico City was developing among students of the assassination but until very recently—in a dialogue with Errol Morris—I had expressed doubt we’d ever know for sure.
Now I’m not so sure about being not so sure. Now I think, with the Shenon book, we may have a plausible answer.
Yes, that’s right, I’ve become convinced that, 50 years after the act, a real reporter—not some chat-room know-it-all—has through actual, on the ground, person-to-person investigation, through nonstop digging, tugging at the tangled heart of the mystery, brought us to the brink of answer. An achievement that, I believe, merits the Pulitzer Prize and the thanks of a grateful nation. (I should note I’d never met or spoken to Shenon before our phone call in early November.)
It certainly has been a turnaround for me, someone who’s written and read and retraced the assassination on the ground (and underground) in Dallas over the years. I’d always believed there was so much wrong with the Warren Report that its “lone gunman” conclusion could not possibly be valid. And rarely admitted to myself that even the worst investigation might, by some twist, come to the right conclusion. And what a twist it is. I’m not giving too much away when I say that it all comes down to a “twist party” in Mexico City, and what you believe happened there.
Shenon started his research five years ago, prompted by a call from a Warren Commission staffer who said the truth had never been told about how extensively they’d been lied to. (Here one must credit the O.G.s among the Warren Commission critics, even the deluded O. Stone and his nutso conspiracy film. Beautifully photographed—by the genius Bob Richardson—but intellectually worthless, the film nonetheless prompted the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act, which resulted in the declassification of hundreds of thousands of CIA and FBI documents, some of which, when sifted through, tell an appalling story, about how U.S. intelligence agencies monitored Oswald before the event and then scrambled to cover up their failure to flag him as a potential assassin.)
Shenon excavates some of this intelligence agency misbehavior, including the ongoing harassment of Oswald that (even though it wasn’t a direct order to kill JFK) could have helped destabilize him and drive him to become an assassin under the right circumstances, which, alas, prevailed on Nov. 22,1963. But Shenon points to a far more salient reason for Oswald’s act, one that most conspiracy theorists have shuddered at contemplating because they can’t bear the idea that there might be even a hint of Cuban involvement. Because they will go to any lengths to refuse to take Oswald at his word—that he was a pro-Castro fanatic. Shenon’s terrific reportorial instincts led him pull on a loose thread in the tangled heart of the story: Oswald’s trip to Mexico City and his involvement with personnel from the Cuban Embassy there. And he actually came up with something new.
To understand the meaning of Mexico City and what Shenon found there, though, it is necessary to start with Paris.
Paris on Nov. 22, 1963. It involves another blunder by the CIA, the climax of a series of criminal blunders by that agency that in fact might be more responsible for the JFK assassination than any deliberate plot posited by conspiracy theorists. It involved the CIA’s people once again being taken in by a double agent who was in fact a triple agent.
The agency thought it had recruited a close confidante of Fidel Castro to act as a double agent—and eventually assassinate Castro. His name was Rolando Cubela. But it turned out he was reporting back to the Cubans about the Kennedy/CIA assassination plot; he was a triple agent.
Here is a summary of that benighted plot from one of the original Warren Commission critics, Edward J. Epstein, who deserves credit for being the one of the very first to smell a rat in that investigation. And even though I don’t agree with Epstein’s ultimate conclusion (he thinks Castro ordered the assassination of JFK) his analysis (in his book The Annals of Unsolved Crime) of the misbegotten Cubela assassination plot is well documented:
Cubela had made an extraordinary request that the CIA case officer in Brazil reported to FitzGerald. Cubela, now code-named AM/LASH, wanted to meet personally with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and be assured that the Kennedy Administration was behind the operation. Such a meeting was out of the question, but FitzGerald, ever resourceful, sought an alternative way of satisfying Cubela’s demand. With the approval of his superiors in the CIA chain of command, he arranged to meet personally with Cubela and claim to be acting as a special emissary for Robert Kennedy.
The contact plan for the meeting stated: “FitzGerald will represent himself as personal representative of Robert F. Kennedy who traveled to [Paris] for specific purpose of meeting AM/LASH and giving him assurances of full support with the change of the present government…” … Their first meeting took place on October 29th 1963. FitzGerald explained he had been sent by Robert Kennedy. To further convince the assassin of his bona fides, FitzGerald wrote a “signal” into a Presidential speech, a phrase that described the Castro regime as a ‘small band of conspirators’ that needed to be ”removed” which would serve as an unambiguous alert to Cubela when President Kennedy himself delivered those very words, which he did in Miami on November 18th. The next meeting, where FitzGerald would deliver a weapon, was scheduled in Paris.
In other words, contrary to all the starry-eyed thinking the Kennedy idolaters hang on to about how the president wanted a reconciliation with Fidel at the end, because of the triple agent, Castro would have every reason to think the Kennedy brothers themselves, personally, not the institutional CIA, were at that very moment engaged in continued efforts to murder him—and using the rapprochement signals as a cover.
That meeting took place in a hotel room in Paris in the late afternoon of November 22nd. FitzGerald arrived with Cubela’s case officer. He handed over the ingeniously crafted poison pen to Cubela and explained that the longer-range weapon, the rifle with telescopic sights, was en route to Cuba. It was only at the end of that star-crossed rendezvous that FitzGerald learned that his commander-in-chief, and friend, had been gunned down in Dallas by another assassin using a rifle with telescopic sights.
Why is this important? Well, for one thing it’s important in the current media debate about moral equivalence in journalism and history, and for how we construe “equivalence.” I would raise this question: What is the moral difference between JFK trying repeatedly to murder Castro and Castro trying to murder him? One difference is that we don’t have any solid evidence that Castro tried to murder JFK.
And yet we are supposed to revere JFK and revile Fidel? Now there are many reasons to revile Fidel, for instance his repression of his people, of free speech, and of political prisoners. All deplorable. But JFK and RFK were accessories to multiple attempted murder plots. What’s the moral equivalence algorithm here? The sentimental Camelot tributes don’t want to touch it.
In any event, Cubela is important because, as a triple agent for Fidel, was making clear to Cuban intelligence as early as October 1963 that the CIA was attempting to foment yet another assassination plot against Fidel Castro. And it is no coincidence that Castro made a speech in October—after the Cubela signal—denouncing American attempts to kill him. Nor is it a coincidence that this speech was prominently reported in the New Orleans newspapers when Oswald was working in the city.
But Shenon’s reporting convincingly argues that it isn’t even necessary to posit that Oswald read the story of that Castro speech because of what Oswald could have learned about the assassination attempts the month before. In Mexico City.
Oswald’s trip there has always been the black hole in the Warren report, the black hole in the entire half-century of attempts to investigate the Kennedy assassination.
Oswald’s trip to Mexico City began on Sept. 25, 1963 with a long bus ride from New Orleans. After crossing the border in Nuevo Laredo and making his way to the Mexican capital he began buzzing around the Cuban and Russian consulates. He made at least two visits to the Cuban Embassy, purportedly seeking a visa to Havana and then to the USSR Two visits to the Soviet Embassy, supposedly seeking the same. One of the Soviet embassy people (a member of the KGB) even wrote a memoir about it.
Oswald bought a return bus ticket for Oct. 3.
But what was he really up to there? Did he want to go to Havana to help defend Fidel’s revolution, as he claimed to Cuban Embassy officials? Or was Havana going to be a transit point en route to the Soviet Union? Or was he setting up a false lefty identity for the benefit of the CIA (or the FBI or the Mafia or anti-Castro Cubans, or the military industrial complex, or rightwing Texas oilmen or all of them) so that when he shot the president he’d be nailed as a Commie, which would then provide the excuse for a full-scale invasion of Cuba to depose Castro.
Or was he trying to get to Cuba on behalf of the CIA, for yet another assassination attempt on Fidel?
None of these stories have held up. They are what the Jowett translation of Plato delicately calls “wind eggs.”
But then there is one story that has not been disproven: The twist party story.
I know, I know, but I can’t resist saying it: It is kind of ironic that the simple twist of fate that changed history may have taken place at a twist party. But Oswald’s alleged attendance at what has become known in Kennedy assassination lore since the time of the Warren Report as the twist party has become the twisted center of all the conspiracy theories that revolve around it like a whirlwind.
At last the culprit has been identified: Chubby Checker! You millennials: The Chubster was the guy who led the charts with “Let’s Twist Again” that year. The Twist was—at the time—revolutionary as the pop dance in which partners never touched, just jived away in proximity—which paradoxically made dancers seem more alluring (if they were women, who always look good doing it. Men almost always look bad—but not as bad as most of us are at formal ballroom dancing).
But anyway, the twist party. Oswald was in Mexico City for almost a week. And yet we have had, until Shenon’s book, only occasional glimpses of his activities there.
According to one source, his troubles attempting to get visas put him in such a state of rage against American travel restrictions to Communist countries that he actually declared, in the presence of witnesses at the Cuban consulate, that he wanted to kill JFK.
That source: Fidel Castro himself. You didn’t know about this? Neither did the Warren Commission. But they should have—or so it seems from Shenon’s reporting, because in June 1964, when the commission was still investigating, J. Edgar Hoover supposedly sent them a letter reporting Oswald’s threat. The FBI had a super-duper double agent code-named SOLO (real name Maurice Childs) who’d managed to insinuate himself into the presence of a worldwide array of communist heads of state including Khrushchev and Castro. In any case SOLO emerged from a post-Nov. 22 confab with Fidel to say that Fidel told him Cuban consulate and Cuban intelligence people there in Mexico City had witnessed an enraged Oswald declare in the consulate that he wanted to kill JFK. According to SOLO’s account, Castro said they didn’t take him seriously enough to warn JFK. Make of that what you will.
Hoover’s letter about Oswald’s Cuban Consulate threat, according to Shenon’s reporting, never seems to have reached the Warren Commission. It was lost for years until a copy of it finally turned up in the declassified CIA files on the JFK case. Maybe it was lost on purpose. The overwhelming desire of the government post-assassination was not to find out any inconvenient truths. No one, from LBJ on down, wanted to be forced into war with Fidel and then potentially the Russians—who maintained a military presence in Cuba post-Missile crisis—if we excavated some awful truth. Better it all be blurred lines.
But the Hoover letter about Oswald’s vow to kill JFK, did exist, and Shenon found it in the declassified CIA files where the only copy remained.
So if we believe SOLO (and his reports have panned out on many other matters), Oswald put himself on the radar of Cuban intelligence in Mexico City. But Castro and the consulate people all described him as too nutty to take seriously, and even as a possible CIA plant.
This is where the whole story of the twist party comes in, because it suggests that, instead of keeping Oswald at arm’s length, Cuban and Fidelista leftists in Mexico City took him in and inculcated him with stories of Kennedy administration assassination plots against Fidel.
That’s the bottom line. To get there Shenon started with what became known as the Thomas/Garro Memo.
Charles Thomas was an American diplomat stationed in Mexico City in the year after the assassination. Over the course of his time there he made the acquaintance of one of the town’s leading lights, Elena Garro, the wife of Nobel Prize–winning poet Octavio Paz, and a respected and successful novelist in her own right.
Garro told Thomas a different narrative of Oswald’s stay.
She told the American diplomat that she had met Lee Harvey Oswald at a party—the twist party!— where people connected to the Cuban Embassy had been present. One of them, Eusebio Azque, ran the consulate visa department that Oswald had been pestering.
Azque, Shenon says, “was believed to be a high ranking official of Castro’s spy service.” And according to the memo Thomas wrote about his conversation with Garro, she said “she had heard Azque speak openly of his hope that somebody would kill the American president, given the threat that Kennedy posed to the survival of the Cuban government.” (Referring, no doubt, to the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the continuing assassination attempts, including the one that climaxed in Paris but took months to develop.)
Garro also claimed that Oswald had a relationship with one of the secretaries at the Cuban Consulate, Silvia Duran. It was at the home of Duran’s brother in law that the notorious twist party took place. There has been much speculation about this, because Duran denied it—admitted being at a twist party, but denied being at a twist party with Oswald. And yet she had plenty of reason to deny it. The information that Oswald was actually in deeper with the Cubans in Mexico City than people at first suspected was dangerous knowledge. For one thing it implicitly accused the CIA of dereliction of duty for failing to flag Oswald for surveillance there—or for destroying evidence that they had surveilled him and flagged him as a possible threat.
Thomas wrote a memo of his conversation with Garro immediately after it happened, on Christmas Day 1965. He gave it to the CIA head of station Winston Scott, who did nothing with it for reasons that remain obscure if not sinister. Then in 1969 he sent a memo to then Secretary of State William P. Rogers and six days later found himself out of a job for reasons that remain obscure if not sinister. Rogers passed the memo to the CIA, where “master spy” James Angleton allegedly declared there was no need for further action, for reasons that seem pretty clear. Another CIA failure at the very least.
The memo only surfaced again during the 1976-77 House Select Committee on Assassinations investigation which failed to resolve it. Not the way Shenon finally did. In a way that vindicates Thomas, one of the lone truth tellers in this seamy morass of lies and cover ups. Decades later, with what seems to be a finely honed reporter’s instinct for finding something hidden, something that just doesn’t add up, Phil Shenon decides to see what is at the bottom of all this. He finds Thomas’ widow, who has his papers. He goes down to Mexico City and dives into what used to be called shoe-leather reporting. With the help of a Mexican reporter, Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab, he discovers that Silvia Duran and some other key people are still alive. He tracks down Duran. She maintains the story that she absolutely never had any contact with Oswald outside the consulate.
Shenon’s not satisfied. He tracks down Duran’s sister-in-law, who insists that Duran did go on at least one coffee date with Oswald and names the restaurant: Sanborns. Despite Duran’s repeated insistence she “never, never, never” saw Oswald outside the embassy, much less at a twist party.
Conspiracy theorists believe that Silvia Duran was working for the CIA, despite her leftist public persona, and that’s why she won’t talk. Which could be true. But the real question is whether she served as Oswald’s guide into the world of Cuban operatives and leftist Fidelistas in Mexico City, during the course of which Oswald was inculcated with the prevailing scuttlebutt that the Kennedy administration was fomenting assassination plots against Castro. Which might well have implanted in him the idea of a mission, a purpose in history. Even if only by implication. That Oswald heard others advocate the assassination of JFK—as Shenon’s reporting concludes—is the first evidence I’m aware of that the matter was put in his mind by others.
Then the Shenon team found three witnesses who’d never given testimony before. They found Elena Garro’s daughter, who confirmed that she’d always heard her aunt and mother had both “encountered Oswald … as well as Silvia Duran, at the twist party.”
Then Shenon learned about “two men—both prominent Mexican newspapermen, both friendly with Silvia Duran in the 1960s,” who had long kept silent about what they knew about Oswald in Mexico City. One of them, Oscar Contreras, had already reported that “he had spent time with Oswald.” But in 2013 he told Shenon more: “He not only encountered Oswald at the university; he also saw him again at a reception a few days later at the Cuban embassy.” (Also a party, but not the twist party—Oswald was apparently getting around.)
The other, Shenon writes, was “arguably the most important, most credible witness of all: Elena Garro’s nephew Francisco Guerrero Garro,” another prominent newspapermen,“who has kept his silence for half a century about what he knew.”
His secret: “He said he had been at the party where his aunt had encountered Oswald and Silvia Duran. In fact, he had driven his aunt and his mother … to the party. And he said he is certain that he saw Oswald too.” He has a distinct memory of Oswald “standing there, next to the chimney … His face was unmistakable,” he told Shenon.
He recalls the remarkable scene in the immediate aftermath of the assassination when his mother and aunt gathered in front of a television “and became hysterical as they realized that they had seen the president’s assassin at a family party a few weeks earlier. ‘Yes, yes, that’s him, that’s him!’ ” they yelled.
His mother decided, he said, “to keep her silence forever about what she had seen … She was a dedicated Communist.”
But, Guerrero says, his aunt Elena went to the American Embassy and spent four hours there telling the authorities about it. (That’s another outrage—the way this key fact about Oswald was criminally suppressed or by the embassy or deep-sixed by the Warren Commission.)
So from an investigation of the “twist party” a whole new picture emerges of Oswald in Mexico City. He’s not some bus-riding nutso bum, holing up in a cheap hotel while badgering the Cuban (and Russian) consulates for transit visas. He’s practically the toast of the town among Cuban and Mexican Fidelistas. Well, not exactly, but he gets around—he’s at a university gathering, a diplomatic reception and of course, the twist party. He’s taken in by prominent Fidelistas connected to the Cuban Embassy. He’s among people who know about and—like Azque—talk about the Kennedy attempt to assassinate Castro and are outraged by it.
Which bring us to Shenon’s shocking penultimate sentence. When I came upon it and studied it, I realized that’s as far as Shenon, a cautious reporter, is going to go. But it’s pretty damn far. And pretty heartfelt:
My commitment [was] to try to determine if what Elena Garro had told Charles Thomas all those years ago was true—that Lee Harvey Oswald was invited by Silvia Duran to a dance party in Mexico City attended by Cuban diplomats and spies, as well as Mexican supporters of Castro’s government, and that some of the guests had spoken openly of their hope that someone would assassinate President John F. Kennedy, if only to ensure the survival of the revolution in Cuba that Kennedy had been so desperate to crush.
He adds this final sentence, which leaves no doubt where he stands:
“The fact is we saw Lee Harvey Oswald at the party.” Francisco Guerrero Garro insists today. “We met and saw and spoke with someone who then went and killed the president of the United States.”
Shenon paints a compelling picture, even though he doesn’t give his book the obvious subtitle: “How Oswald got the idea to kill Kennedy,” or “why” he did. Because all he can attest to is Oswald’s exposure to the idea (and, if we believe SOLO, Oswald’s own publically stated vow). If it was in his head already, it seems to have been reinforced by those who got close to him in Mexico City. They gave him a specific rationale: The Kennedy murder plots against Fidel.
Of course, being exposed to the idea doesn’t necessarily mean he would follow through. Who could have known then that JFK’s motorcade would pass beneath Oswald’s window. Oswald didn’t yet have the job at the Texas School Book Depository, and JFK’s Dallas trip wasn’t even planned when Oswald was in Mexico City. And so it may have just been malignant fate that an already unstable Oswald used anger over a domestic dispute to take his revenge on the world that had defeated his hopes.
But it looks as if the idea was already in his mind when fate placed JFK in his hands.
I don’t know about you, but I’d like someone to blame. Someone more than Oswald. Which is why conspiracy theories thrive. And in fact, if you look at it in a larger sense, remove the aspect of chance that put JFK in Oswald’s sights, you can find those to blame.
You could, if you want, blame the Fidelistas in Mexico City. But then if you looked deeper into it you would find that the CIA, with its bungling murder plots and compromised double agents, put the idea in their mind.
And who put the idea in the CIA’s mind? Well you could stop there and tie the whole long chain of causality to the CIA, whose Bay of Pigs was such a bloody fiasco, probably led to the Cuban Missile Crisis and could have led to nuclear war. Perhaps we got off lucky that they only led to an assassination rather than a species-extinction event.
But to stop with the CIA is to fail to cross the final bridge. To assign blame to the usual suspects, the conventional villains, as brutally vicious and incompetent they were. The final bridge: to the Kennedys themselves. It’s been widely reported that Bobby Kennedy shied away from a thorough investigation of the assassination, perhaps because he feared what it might turn up. Recently I came across an interview with RFK biographer Evan Thomas in which he verifies the basis for this supposition:
Robert Kennedy had a fear that he had somehow gotten his own brother killed. That Robert Kennedy’s attempts to prosecute the mob and to kill Castro had backfired in some terrible way, had blown back, as the intelligence folks say. … [And] that afternoon on Hickory Hill, right after JFK was killed, Bobby said there’s been so much hate, I thought they’d get me. Bobby thought that he’d be killed, not his brother and now he has this daunting, horrible realization, or fear that all of his attempts to get the mob and to get Castro have in some terrible way blown up and come back to haunt his family and, and resulted in, in the death of the president, his brother.
Nor can we stop at Bobby. In a terrible tragic way, by authorizing everything from the Bay of Pigs to the murder plots against Fidel, JFK may well have set in motion his own death. In effect: killed himself. Or, signed his own death warrant.
I take no satisfaction in saying this. In fact, I find it unbearable. It’s all an unbelievable tragedy and most tragic of all is that John F. Kennedy may not have died for the good he did, and tried to do, much of which was noble, however incomplete. He may have died because he tried to kill another president. I think it’s time for us as a nation to admit this.
I will probably never overcome some genetic-level affection for the Kennedys, no matter what I’ve learned. Especially for the figure RFK became in the wake of his brother’s death. What he stood for. What could have been. That line from Aeschylus he read to the tearful crowd on the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination applies to the whole sorrowful saga of that family:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
I don’t know exactly what that wisdom is. But there’s another line that I came upon recently that applies to Warren Commission. It’s attributed to Winston Churchill: “The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes.”