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JFK: 40 years later

I'm wondering if I should start a category for "history"... :-)

Early this morning I was reading more of The Sword and the Shield, The Secret History of the KGB (that I've mentioned before, for example, here) and, what do you know, I get to a chapter that deals largely with the KGB's "active measures" (disinformation, black ops, etc) against the "Main Adversary" (the US). I finish reading the chapter and later I realized that today was the day. Weird.

Anyway, then I'm reading news, and of course today there was a lot of coverage on JFK all over the place. The New York Times has a special section with many articles and tons of information, particularly interesting is the note that the event signaled the arrival of TV as the most powerful medium, something that is not obvious now but scratching a little under the surface becomes quite impressive: round-the-clock coverage, more than 72 hours of live TV with no interruptions, all networks cancelled their programming---capturing not only everything that happened right before and after the shooting (though, in a nod to conspiracy theories, not the shooting itself!), to the killing of the suspect, Oswald, to the burial. Now we don't think twice about it, but TV before November 22, 1963, was a whole different universe.

Back to topic, over at the Washington Post I see an editorial that deals with the role of the KGB on conspiracy theories and such, and sure enough the information from The Sword and the Shield features prominently in it. Example:

Five months later, in June 1964, a freelance journalist named Joachim Joesten posited a strikingly similar analysis in his book "Oswald: Assassin or Fall Guy?" Following a chapter on "Oswald and the CIA," Joesten asserted that the agency was beyond presidential control and bitterly opposed to Kennedy's policy of "easing the Cold War." It has long been a matter of record that Joesten's book was the first published in the United States on the subject of the assassination. Until the notes of a former KGB archivist named Vasili Mitrokhin were published in 1999, however, it was not known that Joesten's publisher, the small New York firm of Marzani & Munsell, received subsidies totaling $672,000 from the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the early 1960s.
A lot of the information in the article is a direct quote of the information in the book, even though it does not mention the book explicitly. (Example, there's a reference to a document cited by Boris Yeltsin in his 1994 memoirs which is also referenced in the book.)

Now, this defense of the CIA by the Washington Post is fine (notwhistanding that I've seen interviews of many people, including reporters, that were there when it happened, that have mentioned that the idea of a conspiracy or a "coup d'etat" had run through everyone's minds at some point immediately when they heard of the shooting). But what is really interesting is what the editorial doesn't mention: that the KGB actually, truly, really believed that the Kennedy assassination had seen some CIA involvement:

The KGB reported that a journalist from the Baltimore Sun "said in a private conversation in early December that on a ssignment from a group of Texas financers and industrialists headed by millionaire Hunt, Jack Ruby, who is now under arrest, proposed a large sum of money to Oswald for the murder of Kennedy." Oswald had subsequently been shot by Ruby to prevent him revealing the plot. Khrushchev seems to have been convinced by the KGB viwe that the aim of the right-wing conspirators behind Kennedy's assassination was to intensify the Cold War and "strengthen the reactionary and aggressive elements of American foreign policy."

The choice of Oswald as Kennedy's assassin, the KGB believed, was intended to divert public attention from the racist oil magnates and make the assassination appear to be a Communist plot. The Centre [KGB Headquarters] had strong reasons of its own to wish to deflect responsibility for the assassination from Oswald. It was deeply embarrassed by the fact that in 1959 Oswald had defected to Russia, professing disgust with the American way of life and admiration for the Soviet system. Initially the KGB had suspected that he might have been sent on a secret mission by the CIA, but eventually concluded that he was an unstable nuisance and were glad to see the back of him when he returned to Texas with his Russian wife in 1962.

There is more mentioned afterwards that details how the KGB's own records show that they were suspicious of Oswald and his motives for defecting first and then attempting to re-establish contact with CPUSA (the US branch of the communist party) later.

So. None of this means, obviously, that there was such thing as a "CIA plot". But it does mean that the intentions of the Soviets were, quite likely, a lot less sinister than that the editorial from the Post describes. In large part, the KGB and by extension the Soviet Union where putting out information that would pre-empt a possible attempt to link them to the assassination. They saw themselves as being set up along with Oswald, and everything in that particular conspiracy theory fit their own paranoid view of the US (which I described in the previous post about the book, linked above).

More importantly, (and this is a matter of public record as well) the book describes how Khrushchev and Kennedy had established "backchannels" of communication (which were used extensively to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962). The Soviet Union knew that they were outgunned (the "missile gap" that Kennedy touted so effectively for the 1960 elections was in fact working to the US's advantage---the US had at that time ten times more intercontinental ballistic missiles than the Soviet Union), had hints that American military leadership was working on "first strike" plans and, in keeping with their pervasive paranoia, thought that the assassination was an "obvious" attempt to get Kennedy "out of the way". The strong possibility that Kennedy was thinking of withrawing from Vietnam starting in late 1963, with or without victory, and whiffs of that information only added the icing on the cake for the Soviets. (While the idea that Kennedy had decided to withdraw from Vietnam is heavily disputed, there's a couple of interesting articles on this here and here, and Robert McNamara himself, Secretary of Defense at the time, has said publicly that this was the case).

Since, in fact, there have been suggestions that Johnson pressured the Warren Commission to come up with a simple, "lone gunman" explanation for fear that anything else would lead to world war three, we could say that at a minimum the Soviets were not alone in their paranoia. Regardless of whether those suggestions are true or not (there's not a lot of evidence as far as I'm concerned) I think that anyone with half a neuron firing would see that this was a distinct possibility given the tension at the time, and that, had LBJ actually done that, it would not have been irrational of him to do so.

I find it interesting to see how far we can keep peeling layers on this. The KGB believed in a CIA plot. It spreads (dis)information to that effect. Then others react, saying that it was KGB disinformation, sometimes trying to cover their tracks, which spreads even more disinformation. Then the KGB tries to cover its tracks...

But who killed Kennedy then?

I'd respond: Does it matter?

What comes to mind is a small piece of dialogue in V for Vendetta written by Alan Moore, which is in my opinion one of the best graphic novels ever written. The main character, V, pulls a gun out of a would-be killer's hands, and says:

Did you think to kill me? There's no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill.

There's only an idea.

Ideas are bulletproof.

And isn't that what really matters?

"[...] in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

John F. Kennedy, June 10, 1963

Categories: geopolitics
Posted by diego on November 22, 2003 at 5:35 PM

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