Last week the U.S. National Archives released some 13,000 documents connected to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. These documents are unlikely to contain new information that would disclose who might or might not have been involved in the assassination, or whether JFK was killed as part of a wider conspiracy against the United States. After all, anyone in government involved in such a conspiracy would not permit documentary evidence to be saved in agency files. In addition, it is certain that all such files would have been reviewed and (if necessary) cleansed on the day Kennedy was shot.

Nevertheless, the release of the files has revived popular and irrepressible theories that the president was the victim of a plot engineered by right-wingers in Dallas or by anti-Kennedy groups in the CIA or FBI. Tucker Carlson has advanced such a theory in a recent television broadcast, suggesting that, in view of the latest interventions by the CIA into national politics, the intelligence agency may have been involved as well in the assassination of JFK. Carlson pointed skeptically to the many coincidences in the assassination and the curious involvement of a CIA-related psychiatrist in evaluating Jack Ruby while he (Ruby) was being held for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. Others on both the right and left have joined in to support these claims, none of which is supported by the available evidence that demonstrates that Lee Harvey Oswald shot the president, and probably did so on his own.

These speculations about higher-level involvement in the assassination overlook the real conspiracy surrounding that momentous event. To wit: how an avowed Communist shot President Kennedy but Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedy family, the liberal news media, the CIA, and the FBI combined to blame the assassination on right wing anti-communists and bigots operating in Dallas and across the nation.

Their narrative controlled the interpretation of the assassination, at least in the short run: when the legend and the facts are in conflict, then run with the legend. Kennedy was a casualty of the Cold War, but the liberal leadership of the country spun his death as an event in the civil rights struggle. That interpretation was embodied in the rhetoric of the time, and at length incorporated into the Warren Commission’s official report on the assassination. It permitted Johnson to run for election in 1964 against the right-wing forces that (as everyone said) were responsible for Kennedy’s death—and thereby to win a landslide victory with consequences that we are still living with today. This represented the first important intervention by the so-called “deep state” to manipulate the politics and public opinion of the country.

On the morning after the assassination, The New York Times ran a banner headline across the front page: “KENNEDY IS KILLED BY SNIPER AS HE RIDES IN CAR IN DALLAS; JOHNSON SWORN IN ON PLANE.” In the middle column the editors ran a signed article by a reporter on the scene about Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspect arrested for the crime. The headline read “Leftist Accused,” with the subtitle “Figure in Pro-Castro Group is Charged.” Oswald, as the article said, had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and returned to the Dallas area in 1962. Since returning to the United States, he had been active in a pro-Castro organization in New Orleans called Fair Play for Cuba. Several fellow employees placed Oswald on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository where police found the rifle used in the assassination, while witnesses on the street reported seeing a gunman firing from an upper-floor window in that building.

Oswald fled before police could seal off the building, but he was arrested forty-five minutes after the assassination in another section of the city after a policeman was gunned down on the street. Witnesses to that crime directed police to a nearby movie theater where Oswald was arrested still carrying the pistol used to kill the policeman. Within hours local police identified the rifle used in the assassination as belonging to Oswald and ballistics tests confirmed that the bullets that killed President Kennedy were fired from his weapon. The hard evidence, as related by the Times reporter in Dallas, pointed strongly to Oswald as the assassin with his motives linked somehow to Castro, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War.

These facts as they circulated from Dallas sent shock waves across the world, suggesting that Castro or perhaps Soviet leaders were behind the assassination of an American president. Indeed, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s office in Dallas soon asserted that President Kennedy had been assassinated as part of a Communist conspiracy. It did not require great political sophistication to understand the explosive implications of this news. Officials in the Justice Department immediately contacted the District Attorney in Dallas to advise him to back off from claims about Communist involvement in the assassination. A senior official at the Justice Department sent a memorandum to President Johnson asserting that speculation about Oswald’s motivations should be cut off. Following that line, other public officials and journalists soon looked for ways to deflect attention from Oswald’s possible ideological motives and toward other explanations for the crime.

 In the same issue of The New York Times, adjacent to the report from Dallas, readers found an unusual opinion article penned by James Reston, the Washington bureau chief of the Times and at that time the dean of national political journalists. The article was titled, “Why America Weeps: Kennedy Victim of Violent Streak He Sought to Curb in the Nation.” Reston wrote:

America wept tonight, not alone for its dead young President, but for itself. The grief was general, for somehow the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best. The indictment extended beyond the assassin, for something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence, had destroyed the highest symbol of law and order.

Reston seemed to be searching for an explanation for the assassination that reached beyond the assassin and his possible motives. “The irony of the President’s death,” he continued, “is that his short Administration was devoted almost entirely to various attempts to curb this very streak of violence in the American character.” Reston went on to observe that “from the beginning to the end of his Administration he was trying to tamp down the violence of extremists on the Right.” Reston suggested that violent tendencies emanating from the radical Right were somehow responsible for the death of the president.

Two narratives of the assassination were thus juxtaposed on the front page of The New York Times on the day after the event. One was based upon the facts, which pointed to Oswald as the assassin and to the Cold War as the general context in which the event should be understood. The other was a political narrative, entirely divorced from the facts, that pointed to “extremists on the Right” and a national culture of violence as the culprits in the assassination. Both interpretations could not be correct. Attentive readers might well have wondered which one would prevail in the days ahead as investigators sifted through the facts. If so, they did not have to wait very long for an answer.

Upon hearing of the assassination, Chief Justice Earl Warren, soon to head the official commission to investigate the assassination, issued a statement to the press: “A great and good President,” he declared, “has suffered martyrdom as a result of the hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots.” A few days later he would repeat these comments in a eulogy in Washington for President Kennedy. Chet Huntley, the chief newscaster for NBC, told millions of viewers that the assassination had been brought about by “a sickening and ominous popularity of hatred” across the United States and by influential “pockets of hatred” within the country. The President’s death, he said, is a “thundering testimonial of what hatred comes to and the revolting excesses it perpetrates.” Both Warren and Huntley were pointing in the same direction: toward anti-communist zealots and racial bigots as the likely perpetrators of the assassination. There was no evidence for this claim, but that did not deter them from making it.

Within days, Pat Brown, the governor of California, and Charles Taft, the mayor of Cincinnati, organized a series of candlelight vigils across the nation “to pledge the end of intolerance and to affirm that such a tragedy shall not happen in America again.” The influential columnist Drew Pearson published a syndicated column under the title “Kennedy Victim of Hate Drive.” The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell (also a congressman) issued a statement shortly after the assassination: “President Kennedy is a martyr of freedom and human rights and a victim of injustice as promulgated by [Gov.] Barnett and [Gov.] Wallace,” referencing the pro-segregation stances of the governors of Mississippi and Alabama. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that the assassination had to be viewed against the background of violence against civil rights workers across the American South.

The New York Times published an editorial three days after the assassination (and a day after Oswald was shot in Dallas while in police custody) titled “The Spiral of Hate,” in which the editors declared that “The shame all Americans must bear for the spirit of madness and hate that struck down President Kennedy is multiplied by the monstrous murder of his accused assassin.” Many followed the logic of this indictment to conclude that all Americans were complicit in President Kennedy’s death because they had tolerated hatred and bigotry in their midst. The murder of Oswald two days after Kennedy was shot undoubtedly played a large role in permitting this narrative to stick.

For his part, President Johnson saw that his job as national leader in that time of crisis was to attach some enduring meaning to the national tragedy. “John Kennedy had died,” he said later, “but his cause was not really clear. I had to take the dead man’s program and turn it into a martyr’s cause.” In his first speech before the Congress five days after the assassination, Johnson proclaimed that “no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” Kennedy, he suggested, had died due to his support for civil rights, an explanation favored as well by Jacqueline Kennedy and the Kennedy family in general. They much preferred to view him as a martyr to civil rights than a victim of Cold War politics.

On the international front, Johnson also feared an escalation of tensions with the Soviet Union and another McCarthy-style “witch-hunt” against leftists should the public conclude that a Communist was responsible for the assassination. Johnson was well aware that Oswald’s Communist background might provoke a backlash among the American people against the Soviet Union and Cuba. From Washington’s point of view, it was better to deflect blame for the assassination from Communism to some other unpopular target.

In doing so, the U.S. government adopted a line parallel to that promoted by the Soviet Union and Communists around the world. Given Oswald’s background, Soviet and Cuban leaders were understandably concerned that they might be blamed for the assassination. That would have been a reasonable inference from Oswald’s stay in the Soviet Union and his work on behalf of Castro. The Soviet press soon issued statements to the effect that “rightists” were responsible for the assassination and that the arrest of Oswald was a plot to pin the blame on Castro or the Soviet Union. A Soviet spokesman said, “Senator Goldwater and other extremists on the right could not escape moral responsibility for the president’s death.” Castro said much the same thing: The assassination was a “Machiavellian” plan to discredit the Cuban government. Leftists around the world were quick to disown Oswald for fear that his deed would contaminate their cause.

These were the myths and legends that grew up around the Kennedy assassination: That JFK was a victim of hatred and bigotry, a martyr in the crusade for racial justice, and a casualty of extremist politics from the Right. This interpretation flowed naturally from the narrative Reston set forth within hours of the assassination. Strangely enough, this narrative took hold and nourished wild conspiracy theories about the assassination, with most of them fingering the “radical right” or the mafia or the CIA as likely perpetrators. These legends remain potent to this day.

But the facts pointed in a different direction and to an entirely different interpretation, toward Castro and his revolution in Cuba as the background for the assassination. If President Kennedy was a martyr, then he was a martyr in the Cold War struggle against Communism and in his frustrated campaign to rid Cuba of the Castro regime.

Oswald was a Communist, or a “Marxist” as he liked to call himself. He defected from the United States to the Soviet Union in 1959, vowing when he did so that he could no longer live under a capitalist system, while telling U.S. embassy officials in Moscow that he possessed high-level intelligence information to offer the Soviet Union based upon his service in the Marine Corps. Oswald had served for a time on a U.S. air base in Japan where he and others saw U-2 aircraft take off for clandestine reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union. Six months after his defection, in May of 1960, one of those planes was shot down over the Soviet Union, leading to a propaganda victory for Premier Khrushchev and acute embarrassment for President Eisenhower. After the U.S. pilot, Francis Gary Powers, returned home in 1962 in a prisoner swap, he suggested that Oswald may have given the Soviets the information they needed to bring down his airplane.

Oswald returned to the United States with his Russian wife in 1962 in disappointment with life under Soviet Communism but without giving up his Marxist beliefs or his hatred of the United States. By 1963 Oswald had transferred his political allegiance to Castro’s Communist regime in Cuba. Oswald was like many radicals of that era who rejected the bureaucratic Communism of the Soviet Union but embraced third world revolutionaries like Castro, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh as the harbingers of the socialist future. Oswald knew that Kennedy had implemented a new doctrine of challenging Communist movements in this new theater of revolution. Curiously, despite Oswald’s earlier promise to turn over intelligence information to the Soviet Union and the embarrassing shoot-down of the U-2, the CIA did not debrief Oswald when he returned to the United States to find out what he may have learned in his three years in the Soviet Union or—more importantly—what information he may have given to Soviet officials. Oswald should have been a prize defector, and a highly suspicious one in view of his background, but the CIA did not treat him as such.

In April of 1963, Oswald fired a rifle at retired Gen. Edwin Walker as the general sat at his dining table working on his tax return. Walker was the head of the Dallas chapter of the John Birch Society and a figure then in the news because of his opposition to school integration and his demand for the overthrow of the Castro regime. A few weeks earlier Oswald had purchased a scoped rifle (later used to shoot President Kennedy) for the purpose of assassinating Gen. Walker. Oswald carefully staked out his prey and planned an escape route. One of the policemen who investigated the crime told reporters that the gunman “meant business” and that Walker was fortunate to have survived. It was not until after President Kennedy was killed seven months later that Dallas police found documents in the possession of Oswald’s wife that identified Oswald as Walker’s would-be assassin.

A few days after taking that shot, Oswald was visited in his home by George de Mohrenschildt, a businessman and member of the Russian community in Dallas who had befriended Oswald when he returned to the United States in 1962. Some have speculated that de Mohrenschildt may have acted as an undercover “de-briefer” on behalf of the CIA. During that visit, de Mohrenschildt saw Oswald’s rifle and asked in a joking manner if Oswald had been the person who took a shot at General Walker. That “joke” passed awkwardly, but de Mohrenschildt, who had connections with the CIA, claimed to have passed that information along to the Agency, which, in turn, should have passed it along to the FBI or the Dallas Police—in which case Oswald would not have been free to assassinate President Kennedy. Within days, de Mohrenschildt and his wife left Dallas to pursue a business opportunity in another city, and never saw Oswald again.

After a few weeks, fearful that he might be identified as the assailant in the Walker shooting, Oswald left Dallas for New Orleans where in June of 1963 he established a local chapter of Fair Play for Cuba, a pro-Castro front group ostensibly dedicated to gaining diplomatic recognition for Castro’s regime but designed to provide Oswald with pro-Castro credentials that would gain him admittance to Cuba. Oswald was filmed in New Orleans circulating leaflets on behalf of the Castro government and was jailed briefly following a street altercation with anti-Castro Cubans. Soon thereafter he appeared on a local television program to debate American policy toward Cuba and was embarrassed when one of his adversaries pointed out that he had earlier defected to the Soviet Union—a revelation that implied that Oswald’s organization was a Communist front and the Castro regime a “puppet” of the Soviet Union. That confrontation destroyed Oswald’s campaign in New Orleans.

With his campaign in New Orleans now blown, Oswald sent his wife and child back to Dallas and then left the city in late September to travel to Mexico City in pursuit of a visa that would permit him to travel to Cuba and then to the Soviet Union. It was then illegal for American citizens to travel to Cuba but supporters of the Cuban revolution circumvented that ban by travelling back and forth via Mexico City. Oswald took along a dossier of news clippings on his pro-Castro activities to establish his revolutionary bona fides with personnel at the Cuban and Soviet embassies.

While in Mexico City, Oswald made several visits to the Soviet and Cuban embassies in pursuit of a travel visa, on one occasion (as was revealed later) threatening the life of President Kennedy to officials at the Cuban embassy. One of Oswald’s calls to the Soviet embassy was picked up by the CIA in a clandestine tap of embassy telephones, which set off alarms in agency headquarters where it did not take long for officials to figure out who Oswald was. The CIA immediately tipped off the FBI about Oswald’s visit, and that message was transmitted to FBI investigators in Dallas, who opened a security file on Oswald and embarked upon a search for him.

Oswald, however, was then living apart from his wife under an alias. FBI agents interviewed his wife, who (on instructions from Oswald) did not tell them where Oswald was living but that he was employed by the Texas School Book Depository. Oswald, upset to learn that the FBI had sent agents to interview his wife, stormed into FBI headquarters complaining about harassment and leaving a threatening note with agents (conveniently destroyed after the assassination). But the FBI never managed to track Oswald down, notwithstanding the security information that was piling up and information provided by his wife about where he was employed. That was an oversight that infuriated J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, who quietly disciplined several agents over the matter and declared (privately) that their incompetence had compromised the Bureau’s reputation as a world class investigative agency. In communications with President Johnson, Director Hoover did not disclose that the FBI had an open security file on Oswald at the time of the assassination.

The day after the assassination, officials in the Mexican government sought to arrest Silvia Duran, an employee of the Cuban embassy in Mexico City who had met with Oswald during his visit two months earlier. Police in Mexico City wanted to question her about her contacts with Oswald and any associations between Oswald and the Cuban government. According to Edward Jay Epstein in his informative biography of Oswald, the CIA sought to stop the arrest, fearing that Duran might reveal under questioning that the Cuban government was behind the assassination. In that case, the U.S. government would need time to figure out what to do. In the event, Duran acknowledged that she had dealt with Oswald, but only to process his visa application. In addition, it also turned out that Mexican officials did not want it known that Oswald might have conspired with Cubans on Mexican soil to assassinate an American president.

It was not clear to investigators why Oswald wanted to travel to Cuba or what other business he may have had in Mexico City, though his wife later said that he wanted to confer with Castro about how he might assist the Cuban revolution. Nevertheless, he returned to Dallas empty-handed after being told that his application would take weeks to process. Within weeks, officials in Cuba approved his application, though on the condition that he also received a visa to travel from there to the Soviet Union. He was still waiting to hear final word on these applications when he read in early November about President Kennedy’s forthcoming visit to Dallas. Articles about the visit later published in newspapers revealed that the President’s motorcade would proceed through the downtown area and past the building where he was employed.

Oswald’s motives in shooting President Kennedy were almost certainly linked to Kennedy’s campaign to assassinate Castro or to overthrow his government. After the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Kennedy pledged to abandon efforts to overthrow Castro’s regime by force. But the war of words between the two governments continued, and so did clandestine plots (unknown to the public at that time) by the CIA (authorized by the Kennedy administration) to eliminate Castro by assassination.

In early September, Castro (aware of these plots) declared in an interview in Havana with an American reporter that U.S. officials would not be safe if they continued efforts to assassinate Cuban leaders. “We are prepared to fight them and answer in kind,” he said. A transcript of the interview was circulated in the United States on the Associated Press wire and published in the local paper in New Orleans where Oswald was then living. It may have been Castro’s remarks that sent Oswald off on his trip to Mexico City a few weeks later in pursuit of a travel visa that would allow him to travel to Cuba. Investigators later speculated that Oswald may have interpreted Castro’s remarks as a call to assassinate President Kennedy.

U.S. intelligence officials were alarmed at this escalation in Castro’s rhetoric and the implied threat conveyed by these comments. Was Castro aware of U.S. plots to assassinate him? If so, how did he know? Did he intend to retaliate by promoting reciprocal plots against American leaders? They concluded that among the various things Castro might do, he was unlikely to risk an assassination attempt on a U.S. leader because that might provide a rationale for an American invasion of his island.

In any case, Castro’s threats had little effect on Kennedy’s determination to get rid of him. On November 18, four days before he was killed, Kennedy delivered a speech in Miami in which he described the Castro government as “a small band of conspirators that has stripped the Cuban people of their freedom.” Kennedy pledged to restore U.S. assistance and friendship “once Cuban sovereignty has been restored.” Oswald, an admirer of Castro and other third-world revolutionaries, was acutely attentive to the smoldering war between the American and Cuban governments and to the personal and ideological war of words between Castro and Kennedy.

Did Castro, or someone in his government, encourage Oswald to follow through on his threat to kill President Kennedy? This is an intriguing possibility, though admittedly the evidence for it is scanty. Edward J. Epstein, the historian and intelligence expert, has pointed out that Castro (as Castro later acknowledged) was told of the threat Oswald issued while visiting the Cuban embassy in Mexico City. Nevertheless, the Cuban government approved Oswald’s application for a travel visa.

Epstein has also uncovered evidence to suggest that Castro was aware of Kennedy’s continuing plots against him. It turned out that officials in the CIA were confiding in a double agent who reported those clandestine plots back to Havana. It may have been this information that provoked Castro to issue his threat against American officials in his interview with the American reporter in Havana, and it was this interview when published in the American press that sent Oswald off on his expedition to the Cuban embassy in Mexico City. Did someone in the Cuban embassy connect the dots between Castro’s threat and Oswald’s visit a few weeks later? Did Oswald connect the dots for them in making his threat against President Kennedy? Did Cuban officials encourage Oswald or, more alarmingly, renew contact with him in some way after he returned to Dallas? These are intriguing questions that, unfortunately, are unlikely ever to be answered on the basis of official evidence.

Nearly a year after the assassination, the Warren Commission issued its official report that identified Oswald as the lone gunman on the basis of the large body of physical evidence that pointed in his direction. That evidence is overwhelming: there can be no doubt that Oswald fired the shots that killed President Kennedy and wounded Governor John Connally, while sending the country into a state of shock and bewilderment.

Even so, the Commission, while setting forth conclusive evidence that Oswald alone shot the President, contributed to the confusion by suggesting that he did so for a mix of personal reasons: he was alienated; could not hold down a job; was having marital problems; wanted to make a mark on history. The Commission stressed motives and explanations unrelated to Oswald’s left-wing ideology, hatred of the United States, and admiration for Fidel Castro. In this sense, the report carried forward the “official” view that required the suppression of ideological motives in the assassination in favor of the view that Oswald was a lone gunman acting out personal grievances.

The official view had the support of President Johnson, the Kennedy family, and the national press, for reasons outlined above. It was preferable and more comforting to view Kennedy as a victim of right-wing culture than as a casualty of the Cold War gunned down by a disgruntled Communist. For their part, the FBI and CIA preferred this conclusion as well. The FBI, for public purposes, was culpable if agents had allowed the president to be gunned down by a Communist activist but could not be blamed if he had been the victim of a lone gunman encouraged by right-wing fanatics. Hoover and other officials, while aware of the real facts, were satisfied to go along with the lone gunman theory. CIA officials, on the other hand, were all too aware of their active plots against Castro but anxious about revealing information about them to the public for fear of receiving blame for the assassination as “blowback” from their anti-Castro campaign. For this reason, information about those plots was withheld from the public and the Warren Commission, even though Allen Dulles, former director of the CIA, served as a member of the Commission and those plots had some connection to the assassination. (That information was revealed more than a decade later in the 1970s during further congressional investigation of the assassination.) Officials at the CIA and FBI, if they had revealed at the time what they actually knew about the assassination, would have blown apart the official interpretation.

Because of this “official” interpretation of the assassination, Oswald’s motives in shooting President Kennedy remained obscure at the time, and remain so today. To some extent, the official theory gave rise to various conspiracy theories because it made little sense in connection with the underlying facts. Some of these theories boomeranged back on President Johnson, the FBI, and the CIA, as many armchair investigators were convinced that they must be covering up something about their own role in the assassination. In fact, they were covering up something, but not what the conspiracy theorists were searching for. They did not participate in the assassination itself, so the evidence tells us, but were actively involved in massaging the public understanding of the event in order to protect their own reputations.

The facts surrounding the JFK assassination make it all the more mysterious as to why liberals and leftists who claim to have admired President Kennedy continued to lionize Castro as some kind of noble idealist. It was, after all, one of Castro’s supporters who killed President Kennedy—and there is the lingering possibility that Oswald may have been something more than just a supporter.

Further reading:

  1. Readers seeking to document or pursue the themes developed above should consult three indispensable books by Edward Jay Epstein: Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth (1966); Counterplot (1968); and Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald. The latter volume—Legend—remains the single best source of information on Oswald.

  2. Oswald’s Game by Jean Davison (1983) is also an excellent source of information, drawn from a variety of sources.

  3. Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (2007) provides a comprehensive account of the facts.

  4. My own book, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism (Encounter Books, 2007) focuses less on the assassination itself and more on the interpretive aftermath through which Oswald the Communist assassin was turned into Oswald the lone and alienated gunman.

  5. There is also the official report from the Warren Commission, published in several volumes in 1964 and later abridged into a single volume. The House of Representatives conducted a subsequent inquiry in 1977–78, summarizing its finding in its Report of the Select Committee on Assassinations of the U.S. House of Representatives.

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