Nothing is more prejudicial to the success of a plot than to try to carry it out on the basis of safety. Security requires more men, more time, more favorable circumstances, increasing the chances of discovery.
President Kennedy's assassination was the work of magicians. It was a stage trick, complete with accessories and false mirrors, and when the curtain fell the actors, and even the scenery, disappeared.
But the magicians were not illusionists but professionals, artists in their way. Abraham Lincoln too had been murdered by artists. Lincoln's election to the Presidency by the abolitionists had been the signal for the start of the Civil War. He was the first President to proclaim a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Like Kennedy, he read Shakespeare, and he took long rides in the country, where he could dream far from the sounds of men. To a passing stranger he said, "If you have no friend, I will be your friend." Even Karl Marx eulogized him. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, there was a plot to kill Lincoln in Baltimore. He was warned by Pinkerton, however, and saved his life by crossing the town at night. Afterwards, the New York Times wrote: "This plot was hatched by politicians, backed by bankers, and it was to be carried out by a group of adventurers."
On January 31, 1865, slavery was abolished. On April 14, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre in Washington. The "assassin," John Wilkes Booth, was trapped and shot in a barn. Colonel Baker tore 18 pages out of a notebook he was carrying. Nevertheless, there was a trial, and the prosecutor, Bingham, proved that Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, was behind the assassination. Eight accomplices were condemned, and four of them were hanged. Jacob Thompson, the representative of the Confederacy in Canada, had deposited a large sum of money in Booth's account at the Bank of Ontario in Montreal. But Booth and his accomplices were only the executants. The men behind the plot went free. Lincoln was succeeded by Vice President Andrew Johnson, who, on Christmas Day, 1886, proclaimed an amnesty and complete pardon.
The war that Lincoln had tried to avoid was over before his death. He was killed out of vengeance. But it was an era when men killed for spite and made little attempt to hide it. An Alabama newspaper had taken up a collection to cover the cost of the assassination, and a Confederate officer had volunteered for the job. In those days of the Old Frontier, there were volunteers for all sorts of causes. Men then were driven by their emotions.
Today's killers have less emotions and stronger motives. William Manchester remarks that "some motives lie beyond the rules of evidence. Like the shadow, they are elusive." These motives, nevertheless, were strong enough to persuade Chief Justice Earl Warren to place "the good of the country " ahead of justice. "The good of the country" is always invoked with regard to an act contrary to the laws and justice of the nation. The report to which Mr. Warren lent his name may represent a political necessity designed to preserve the national unity, but was it the place of the Chief Justice to accept a responsibility so inconsistent with his vocation? Was it his place to disclose the testimony of witnesses before they had even appeared?(1) Was it his place, when Jack Ruby begged to be brought to Washington to testify, to reply, "Many things are at stake in this affair, Mr. Ruby," and let him meet his fate without ever having heard him?
History is filled with judges who, having attained the highest position and with nothing left to prove, with the exception perhaps of the magnitude of their responsibilities, have allowed their weakness or their senility to compromise their entire career. Would Joseph Warren have approved of Earl Warren?(2)
The Warren Commission was christened The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, and its report, dated September 24, 1964, and addressed to President Johnson, begins with the words: "Dear Mr. President: Your commission . . ." Could Earl Warren be hiding behind a syntax?
The plotters were correct when they guessed that their crime would be concealed by shadows and silences, that it would be blamed on a "madman" and negligence.
A madman . . . a committee . . . negligence . . . Now, really.
We believe William Manchester when he says that he filled eighteen volumes of transcribed interviews and twenty-seven portfolios of documents with the understanding that they "would be made available to qualified scholars after the death of all direct descendants of John F. Kennedy who were living at the time of his assassination."(3) Was Mr. Manchester afraid that his files might reveal something that contradicted his thesis? Did this "qualified historian" stoop to the worst vices of journalism under the guise of history?
We believe him when he says, "I crawled over the roof of the Texas Book Depository and sat in Oswald's sixth floor perch. I rode his Dallas bus, watch in hand. Before taxi driver Bill Whaley died in Dallas he picked me up at the spot where he had picked up Oswald, drove me over the same route in the same taxi at the same speed, and dropped me off at the same curb . . . I went over the stretch of Elm Street where the President laid down his life. In Washington, Hyannis Port and elsewhere, I studied each pertinent office, embassy and home -- over a hundred of them -- right down to the attic mentioned on the last page of the epilogue . . . I even had the damaged Dallas-to-Bethesda coffin uncrated for inspection."(4)
But we admire him somewhat less when a careful examination of his sources(5) reveals that he claims to have interviewed eight different people in a single day, September 25, 1964, at Dallas, five of whom -- Dallas oilman H. L. Hunt, General E. A. Walker, Dallas Police Chief J. F. Curry, J. W. Fritz, Chief of the Dallas Homicide Squad, and E. M. Dealey, publisher of the Dallas Morning News -- were crucial witnesses. In addition, Mr. Manchester claims to have seen two newspaper editors(6) and funeral director Vernon B. Oneal, all of whom were capable of providing enough interesting details to justify his spending more than a few minutes with them. How much time did he have left for the others? Did they refuse to answer his questions? Apparently not, since he states that "only one, the assassin's widow, refused to respond to my request."(7) Whatever the reason, Mr. Manchester spent little time in Dallas. Instead, he returned to his favorite haunts, where he interviewed John Metzler, Superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery, four times, and Mary Gallagher, Mrs. Kennedy's personal secretary, six.
Is Mr. Manchester afraid to tell what he knows? To whom was Senator Fulbright referring when he spoke of the "responsibility for the national heritage of Pharisaism and puritanism and the tradition of the vigilantes, those citizens who take the law into their own hands"?(8)
For commodity's sake, modern decisions in the domain of politics or organized crime must be group decisions, particularly when the subject is a political crime. Sixteen people had met at Hyannis Port on October 28, 1959, to plan the most scientific electoral campaign ever organized. Nothing was left to chance. Kennedy's Brain Trust relied on unemotional computers and public opinion polls. They analyzed living standards region by region and made detailed studies of local problems. They assembled statistics and established hypotheses. They weighed, they evaluated, they double-checked.
The men who organized the assassination, henceforth referred to as "The Committee," were not as brilliant, but their task was simpler, for it is easier to kill a President than to get him elected. Later, we shall see why.
It is impossible to keep an assassination plot a secret. The decisions reached at the top secret meetings of such government bodies as the National Security Council are always known to at least 100 people within a few days. "Nothing is more prejudicial to the success of a plot than to try to carry it out on the basis of safety. Security requires more men, more time, more favorable circumstances, increasing the chances of discovery," wrote Francesco Guicciardini. The Committee's plot required the participation of several dozen people, and the number of people who knew what was going to happen on November 22 was probably much higher than that.
Hitherto, we have attempted to pinpoint the reasons that impelled the Committee to act. Later, we shall see how the atmosphere of the moment and the cooperation of certain individuals and organizations contributed to its success.
Nearly all of the active members of the Committee came from either Texas or Louisiana, but they had technical advisers from New York, California and Washington. The multiple problems involved were discussed at technical conferences in New Orleans, Shreveport, Houston and Chicago.
"The southern states settle their internal problems themselves," said Senator William Howard Taft, but since his time the old opposition between the industrial North and the romantic South has been replaced by a multiplicity of conflicting interests that are geographically more dispersed. Most of the Americans who felt threatened by Kennedy's policies, the big corporations for example, and even the big oil companies, were unwilling to be directly implicated in the assassination. They left the plotting to the Titans and to the professionals in their hire.
The only force that can bring the South and certain Americans to their knees is a President who is not only determined to act, but who also has the time. In the spring of 1963, Kennedy's re-election in November 1964 was almost a certainty. Only 49.7% of the voters had favored him in 1960, but his popularity, aided by a program that his adversaries attacked as "demagogic," continued to grow. In June 1963, a Gallup poll found that 59% of the population approved of him.
Since the turn of the century, only two Presidents had been defeated for re-election -- Taft in 1912 (after the Bull Moose split from the Republicans), and Hoover in 1932, as a result of the Depression. Kennedy still had a few weak points on the electoral map,(9) but the Republican Party, already certain of defeat, had no strong candidate to oppose him.
In December 1963, a few weeks after the assassination, 65% of the people declared themselves in favor of Kennedy. This post-mortem enthusiasm was undoubtedly influenced by sentiment, but Kennedy probably would have gotten nearly as many votes as Johnson's 61% against Goldwater in 1964. It was no secret among the young President's friends and advisers that once he had a solid majority behind him, he intended to lead a frontal attack on the ills and problems of the nation. A new America would emerge in the years to come.
During his second term, Kennedy would be rid of all party obligations, the compromises required by a close election, and the perspective of a second campaign. Owing no one anything, having no reason to humor anyone, he could go right to the heart of the problem. And his actions would be irreversible, as irreversible as the abolition of the monarchy, the enactment of free public education, or the creation of a state monopoly. "We've seen what he can do and what he has done with Congress on his back. Imagine how far he'll go in 1965!" said Roy Cohn.(10)
What would be the advantages and the consequences of Kennedy's disappearance? General Walker answered that question after the assassination when he declared, "Even if they aren't noticeable immediately, there will be considerable changes,"(11) and Robert Kennedy remarked, "People just don't realize how conservative Lyndon really is. There are going to be a lot of changes."
Once the decision had been made to eliminate the President, the members of the Committee turned their attention to political camouflage and technical arrangements. Secret operations in wartime, and even propaganda campaigns, employ techniques that to all appearances are illogical. They had to find a way to divert public anger. They needed a scapegoat, a "madman."
History has often made use of a "madman" to shift the blame for a perfectly rational act. A "mad" assassin, captured immediately, would act as a magnet for public resentment. He would absorb the embarrassing questions and serve as a cover for the obvious accomplices. Quickly removed from the scene, he would leave behind him only the hatred inspired by solitary killers and the respect of the public for famous men now dead.
But the madman was only a detail. The Committee knew from its legal counselors that the assassination of a President is not a federal crime, and that the local authorities are legally competent to conduct an investigation. They would make sure it went wide of its mark.(12)
The collaboration on which the Committee was dependent, and the cooperation of those who did nothing to stop it, turned the assassination into a national conspiracy in which not only the local police and certain judicial officers, but also the FBI through its negligence and the CIA through its double agents and its operational units, the Army with its dissident generals, Congress and its corruption, and the entire economic system through its ideals and certain members of the Committee were implicated.
A plot on this level is equivalent to a revolt. Kennedy's assassins were the arms of a counter-revolution. The scandal would be suppressed. The United States isn't a banana republic, where a government can be overthrown by conspirators. Aided by the silence of the old regime, the new national leaders would dispel the unhealthy rumors, disguise the evidence, and camouflage the doubts. There was still a certain amount of risk, however, and the Committee was undoubtedly prepared to see certain compartments collapse under the pressure. But it also knew that America is not a romantic nation -that it buries its dead and then turns its attention to the living, and that its primary concern is for domestic tranquillity. There would be talk of negligence, but life would go on without Kennedy.
The Committee took a chance and won. On December 9, 1963, Vermont Royster, editor of the Wall Street Journal, washed the hands of the nation:
"In the shock of these past few days it is understandable that Americans should find their grief mingled with some shame that these events should happen in their country. We all stand a little less tall than we did last Friday morning.
"Yet, for our own part, we find past understanding the remarks of some otherwise thoughtful men who, in their moment of shock, would indict a whole nation with a collective guilt. It seems to us that they themselves have yielded to the hysteria they would charge to others, and, in so doing, show that their own country is past their understanding.
"Anyone who has been reading the newspapers, listening to the radio or watching television has heard these men -- they include public commentators, members of our Congress and men of God. And the substance of what they charge is that the whole of the American people -- and, by inclusion, the ways of the American society -- are wrapped in a collective guilt for the murder of a President and the murder of a murderer.
"A Senator said that the responsibility lay 'on the people of Dallas' because this is where the events took place. A spokesman for one group of our people said the nation was 'reaping the whirlwind of hatred.' One of our highest judges said the President's murder was stimulated by the 'hatred and malevolence' that are 'eating their way into the bloodstream of American life.' A newspaper of great renown passed judgment that 'none of us can escape a share of the fault for the spiral of violence.' And these were but a few among many.
"Such statements can only come from men who have not been abroad in the land, neither paused to reflect how the events came about nor observed in what manner the whole American people have responded to tragedy.
"A President lies dead because he moved freely among the people. He did so because he was beloved by many people, respected by all, and because everywhere people turned out in great numbers to pay him honor. In a society of tyranny the heads of state move in constant fear of murder, cordoned behind an army of policemen. It is the fundamental orderliness of the American society that leads Presidents to move exposed to all the people, making possible the act of a madman.
"In the tragedy there is blame, surely, for negligence. In retrospect, perhaps, it was negligent of a President himself not to be aware that there are ever madmen in the world, yet it is a negligence born of courage and confidence. It was negligent of the police authorities not to search and cover every corner, every window, which might shield a madman, yet it was negligence born of years of proven trust in the crowds of Americans through which Presidents have safely moved.
"It was most certainly a terrible negligence on the part of the local police authorities which permitted one man to take vengeance into his own hands. It was an outrageous breach of responsibility for them to have moved a man accused of so heinous a crime in so careless a fashion. It was outrageous precisely because all the American people were themselves so outraged by the crime of assassination that anyone who knew these people ought to have known that one among them might be deranged enough to do exactly what was done.
"Yet the opportunity for negligence came because here the accused was being treated as any other accused, his detention in the hands of the local police, the procedures those followed for the ordinary of murders. In another land he would have been efficiently buried by a secret police in a Lubyanka Prison, never again to be seen or heard of until his execution.
"One might say, we suppose, that some of this negligence could be laid to all of us. It is, after all, the eager interest of the people in the persons of their leaders that brings them into open caravans, and it is the desire of the people to follow the normal ways even in murders of state that left the accused to bungling local police.
"In sum, there is in all of this -- let there be no mistake -- much to grieve, to regret, to blame. We can't escape remorse that there are madmen in our midst, that a President is dead, that we have been denied the right to show in open court the virtue of a free society. Now we pay the price of all sorts of negligence.
"But this is something different from the charge in the indictment. It is more than nonsense to say that the good people of Dallas, crowding the streets to honor a President, share a murderous guilt; or that the tragic acts of madmen cast a shadow on the whole of America. Such an indictment is vicious.
"Of reasons for shame we have enough this day without adding to them shameful injustice to a mourning people."
The word "negligence" appears seven times, the word "people" ten. When a writer isn't used to certain words, he repeats them over and over again. For the Committee, this "negligence" was nothing but obstacles to avoid and accomplices to pay.
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1. Marina Oswald's declarations of February 3 to 6, 1964.
2. General Joseph Warren, killed at Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War.
3. Death of a President, page 11.
4. Ibid., page 12.
5. Ibid., "Sources," page 741.
6. A. C. Greene, editor of the Dallas Times-Herald editorial page, and Joe Dealey, editor of the Dallas Morning News.
7. Death of a President, page 13.
8. Manchester failed to interview such eminent businessmen as Edgar R. Crissey, Nelson Bunker Hunt, and H. R. Bright, nor did he question Joseph P. Grinnan, head of the Dallas branch of the John Birch Society, nor Robert A. Surrey.
9. In addition to the South, Kennedy was concerned about Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kentucky, Illinois, Michigan, Virginia, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
10. At the Stork Club in 1963.
11. Quoted in US News and World Report. Another military man as interested and active as General Walker, Colonel Laurence E. Bunker, General MacArthur's staff aide, declared, "It's Kennedy or death."
12. In 1963, there was no difference, in the eyes of the law, between the assassination of the President and the murder of a drunk in a bar. The Dallas assassination was covered only by Texas state law. Unless it could prove he was part of a conspiracy, the FBI had no right to arrest the assassin. It was a federal crime to threaten the President, but not to kill him. This loophole has since been mended.
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