THE TOURIST TO DALLAS, Texas, can visit two museums in the neighbourhood still known as Dealey Plaza. This urban park, frequently used for parades, is bound by large office buildings, including the Texas State Book Depository and by a pergola and a grassy knoll. In this plaza on November 22, 1963, a sniper or snipers shot and killed President John F. Kennedy at exactly 12:30 p.m. local time. Both museums are dedicated to that event and about the only thing they agree on is the date and time.
The Sixth Floor Museum, in the Book Depository, subscribes to the premise that Lee Harvey Oswald, an ex-Marine with Communist leanings, acting alone, shot and killed the president from a “sniper’s nest,” which is now reconstructed for the visitor. This official version, established in 1965 by the commission headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, has never changed, in spite of six subsequent investigations into what else might have happened that day in Dallas.
The Conspiracy Museum around the corner is dedicated to the premise that something else did happen that day, involving possibly the FBI, the CIA, the Mafia, Cuban president Fidel Castro, and the right-wing John Birch Society, all of whom have apparently covered up their conspiracy for more than forty years. Glass cases of photographs and diagrams, interview transcripts and newspaper clippings share the space with a large wall mural called ‘The Conspiracy Tree’ in which various American assassinations of the twentieth century, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, are linked in one masterpiece of paranoia.
When the Conspiracy Museum lost its lease and was forced to close at the end of December, there was much tongue-in-check comment in the press about whether this was yet another conspiracy to pervert justice. But, while it’s easy to mock the wacky theories of the conspiracy buffs, it’s not so easy to explain away the discontent that persists forty-three years after the Kennedy assassination.
Ultimate Sacrifice: John and Robert Kennedy, the Plan for a Coup in Cuba and the Murder of JFK by Lamar Waldron and Thomas Hartmann aspires to be yet another of “the last word” narratives. With a pile of new evidence – documents only recently declassified and interviews with key figures in the Kennedy administration – the authors conclude that the president was killed by a conspiracy of Mafia dons whom the president’s brother Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General of the United States, was prosecuting.
The historical background is laid out by the authors with facts that no one disputes. Soon after Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in 1959, the United States government started plotting his overthrow. Besides the government, however, mobsters such as Santo Trafficante, Johnny Roselli, and Carlos Marcellos also wanted to get rid of Castro so that they could get back the casinos they had run profitably for many years in Cuba. Finding themselves in strange agreement, the Mafia and the CIA tentatively joined forces to try to kill Castro. These efforts culminated in the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961 in which about 1,500 Cuban exiles were killed or captured and imprisoned by the Cuban government. All of these CIA-backed efforts drove Castro further into an alliance with the Soviet Union. In the autumn of 1963, his new allies began to build silos for medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a critical test of the young President John F. Kennedy’s mettle. Though he passed the test, political conservatives continued to pressure the president to get rid of the Communist menace in the Caribbean.
At this point, according to Waldron and Hartmann, Bobby Kennedy provided the President with a plan. Working through Cuban exile groups in the United States, Bobby Kennedy discovered that Juan Almeida, a hero of the revolution and then head of the Cuban Army, was disenchanted with Castro, disliked the Cuban alliance with the Soviet Union, and was prepared both to overthrow Castro’s government and to kill Castro. Bobby Kennedy seized the opportunity. The coup would be quite public. The assassination, however, would be done privately and would then be blamed on an innocent, unsuspecting “patsy” provided by the CIA, someone with connections to the Soviet Union. This “patsy” would then be murdered to prevent any thorough investigation of the crime.
Following the coup, a large force of United States military would invade Cuba to “stabilize” the situation. To make certain it didn’t look like an American coup, Bobby Kennedy arranged for a small group of Cuban exiles to lead the military invasion in the way the Allies had allowed the Free French the token privilege of liberating Paris in the Second World War.
Waldron and Hartmann call Kennedy’s plan “C-Day” in order to distinguish it from the many other plans to overthrow Castro run by the CIA. This plan, the authors claim, was quite different from the others because he ran it out of his office at the Department of Justice, with only minimal involvement of the CIA, the Defense, and the State Departments.
At this point, the authors bring in the second strand of their story. While planning “C-Day,” Bobby Kennedy was also prosecuting Trafficante, Roselli and Marcello. The Attorney General knew that these men had previously worked with the CIA, but he thought that the association was finished. This was not true. The mobsters were still working with the CIA and, through their contacts, they were learning bits and pieces of Bobby Kennedy’s “C-Day” plot.
The three Mafiosi, along with Jimmy Hoffa, had previously considered killing Bobby Kennedy, the authors claim. But they were afraid that this would only bring the wrath of the President down on them. Instead, they had the better idea of killing the President, which would have the effect of removing Bobby Kennedy from his position as Attorney General of the United States. The Mafiosi then cast about for a way to cover up their own involvement in the assassination of a president. They then decided to use “C-Day” for their own purposes in two ways. Waldron and Hartmann believe that the Mafia dons hired professional hit men to assassinate Kennedy while he rode in an open car in a public parade. They would then pin their crime on the same “patsy” that the CIA had groomed for the murder of Fidel Castro on “C-Day.” The CIA “patsy” was Lee Harvey Oswald, who then became the mafia’s “patsy” for the killing of John Kennedy.
According to this theory, Oswald was planning to travel to Cuba on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, in order, he thought, to take part in the overthrow of the Cuban government. Instead, he found himself in the midst of the assassination of a president for which he was arrested and charged. Any chance that Oswald might have had to exonerate himself ended when Jack Ruby, a well-known mob associate, gunned him down in the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters on the morning of November 24 in front of dozens of reporters, policemen, and a live television audience of millions. Meanwhile the actual assassins, mafia hit men who had operated from the pergola on the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza, escaped without detection. As the conspirators had hoped, there was no thorough investigation of the assassination, because Bobby Kennedy and the new President, Lyndon Johnson, knew that this would have uncovered the Kennedys’ plans to overthrow a foreign government and kill its leader.
Is any of this believable, or even likely? The book is written for those who already believe in a conspiracy, or, as the publisher calls these readers, the “passionate niche.” And who else would read over eight hundred pages of stupefying detail from questionable sources, with baffling leaps of logic, and theories that the authors admit often rest on spy fiction? Lamar Waldron was himself once the writer of science fiction comic books. Thom Hartmann has written other books about public affairs and is a regular on Air America Radio, a well-respected, left news network.
What the authors view as an intricate web of incriminating evidence appears to this reader as an inchoate tangle of miscellaneous facts thrown in to give the theory more heft than it merits. The authors revel in detail, piling it on, suffocating their story in minutiae. The narrative is held together with string and spit. Mafia figures and CIA agents are “linked” or “known associates.” “We believe that” and “we feel the evidence shows” are speculation, not proof. There are frequent references to countless pages of “assassination-related” documents awaiting declassification in the next decade. If they haven’t been declassified, how do the authors know that they are “assassination-related” or incriminating in any way?
Further, the assembly of material presented here comes from a wide variety of sources: National Archive documents, sworn affidavits, magazine articles, television broadcasts and secondary sources such as other books of conspiracy theory. These are treated as if they had equal weight and deserved equal respect. There is also a tendency to pick testimony that works with the theory, regardless of its source. Can the authors denigrate the Warren Commission’s investigation while also citing it as a source? Can they support their argument with Congressional testimony from CIA agents who have admitted to lying frequently to Congress?
Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann claim that Bobby and John Kennedy were trying to bring true democracy to Cuba. In the midst of all the silly and sinister American plots against Castro, theirs was of a higher order. Bobby Kennedy thought he had arranged for the Mafia to be kept out of his coup. He wanted no crime rings, drug trafficking, and gambling in the new Cuba. Cuban exile groups from all across the political spectrum, including socialists, would insure a freely-elected government there. John and Bobby Kennedy both knew that this effort would subject the President to the vengeance of the Mafia. The title, then, refers to the Ultimate Sacrifice that John Kennedy made for the freedom of Cuba. Is that believable? It isn’t.
The national security expert Gregory Treverton has written about the difference between puzzles and mysteries. More information will solve a puzzle. But a mystery requires judgment, analysis, and an appreciation of what we don’t and maybe can’t ever know. The authors of Ultimate Sacrifice assume that there is an explanation for everything. They do not allow that events can be ruled by chance, accident or tragedy – somewhere there must be an organizing hand and a few more documents will make that hand’s owner and motives clear. They have treated a mystery as if it were a puzzle to be solved.
So, again, is any of this narrative believable, or even probable? Strangely, parts of it are quite perturbing, if only in turning the official certainties into plausible mysteries. Presidential aides Kenneth O’Donnell and Dave Powers claimed that they did indeed see a sniper on the grassy knoll, as did others. None of them had any reason to lie about what they saw and heard that day. The President’s own physician had serious misgivings about the autopsy results and what it revealed about the entry and exit wounds, and the trajectories of the bullets that killed Kennedy. Jack Ruby had well-documented dealings with the Mafia. Would such a man murder Oswald in front of millions of witnesses if he didn’t fear something far worse than a lifetime in prison?
Lee Harvey Oswald comes across as a Walter-Mittyish figure, enamoured of a television show, I Led Three Lives, in which an ordinary citizen, secretly a Communist, is also an agent of the C.I.A. When he is arrested in the Texas Theatre he is carrying half a box-top, just like a spy in a story. Did anyone have the other half?
ULTIMATE SACRIFICE: JOHN AND ROBERT KENNEDY, THE PLAN FOR A COUP IN CUBA AND THE MURDER OF JFK
by Lamar Waldron and Thomas Hartmann