This article will serve as a brief overview of the theories of Communist involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which was mentioned by BAP in Episode 38 of Caribbean Rhythms. Whodunnit JFK theories are a cottage industry, and have been ever since 1963. I will not attempt to argue for or against this particular scenario, which could easily be a book-length study, but rather to present a guide to its proponents and some of the evidence that they cite. There are two main versions of this theory, one being that the Soviet Union was the main force behind the assassination, and the other alleging that Fidel Castro’s Cuba was the main agent.
Allegations of communist responsibility for the assassination began immediately after the event. Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade had wanted to formally charge Lee Harvey Oswald with killing Kennedy “in furtherance of an international communist conspiracy,” but was prevented from doing so because of the provocation this would have caused. Anti-Castro Cuban exile groups also were quick to blame Castro for the assassination. The DRE — a group which Oswald had had contact with, allegedly attempting to infiltrate them — quickly put out a broadsheet with photos of Oswald and Castro under the heading “The Presumed Assassins.”
Revilo Oliver, who will be known to people in right-wing circles as a classicist and staunch anti-communist, one of those purged by William F. Buckley, published an article in the John Birch Society’s American Opinion magazine entitled “Marxmanship in Dallas” in February, 1964. Oliver was actually called to testify before the Warren Commission to answer questions about his allegations of communist conspiracy.
It is now known that the Warren Commission was established by Lyndon Johnson not to find the truth of the Kennedy killing so much as to present a cover story. Earl Warren initially refused to head the inquiry, but Johnson, known for being very pushy, called Warren in for a private meeting in order to persuade him. As Johnson related it to Senator Richard Russell, who also served on the Commission, “we’ve got to take this out of the arena where they’re testifying that Khruschev and Castro did this and did that and kicking us into a war that can kill 40 million Americans in an hour.” He then told Warren “what Hoover told me about a little incident in Mexico City.” The story of that “little incident” brought Warren to tears, and convinced him to do as Johnson asked.
It’s telling that Johnson was not concerned with whether Krushchev or Castro actually were involved or not. As early as November 25, only three days after the assassination and one day after Oswald’s murder by Jack Ruby, and before any real investigation had taken place, Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach put out a memo stating, “The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial. … Speculation about Oswald’s motivation ought to be cut off, and we should have some basis for rebutting [the] thought that this was a Communist conspiracy or (as the Iron Curtain press is saying) a right-wing conspiracy to blame it on the Communists. Unfortunately the facts on Oswald seem about too pat–too obvious (Marxist, Cuba, Russian wife, etc.).”
The “little incident in Mexico City” that LBJ told Warren about was Lee Harvey Oswald’s visits to both the Soviet and Cuban Embassies there in early October, 1963, only two months before the assassination. Oswald was already known to be a professed Marxist, having given himself a very public profile as a pro-Castro street agitator in New Orleans the previous summer, where he was arrested and did interviews with the local press. He was also a “former defector” to the Soviet Union, having left the U.S. for the U.S.S.R. in 1959 after serving in the Marine Corps. He allegedly attempted to renounce his U.S. citizenship, and stated his intention to make known to the Soviets all the information he had learned in his military service. Oswald had been trained as a radar operator and stationed in Atsugi, Japan where the U2 spy planes were based, and so this threat was not insignificant.
But despite Oswald’s apparently treasonous activities, after living in the Soviet Union from October 1959 through June 1962, in the city of Minsk, he was allowed to return to the U.S., bringing his Russian wife Marina and their newborn child. He even claimed indigence, and the U.S. State Department loaned him $435 for travel expenses.
The question about Oswald’s defection to Russia has always been whether or not he was part of a U.S. operation to send false defectors to the Soviet Union to gather intelligence. Such programs are now known to have existed, but the U.S. government has always denied that Oswald was part of one — as of course they would, even, or especially, if he had been. Many early critics of the Warren Commission — the people that the CIA labeled “conspiracy theorists,” a perjorative that has been with us ever since — thought that Oswald was working for U.S. intelligence in some capacity, either the CIA or, more likely given his Marine background, the Office of Naval Intelligence. That he openly espoused Marxist beliefs while serving in the Marines, and was allowed to study the Russian language, both without reprimand, certainly raises suspicions. If he was part of a false defector program, we will likely never know, as I’m sure all records of such would have been destroyed hours after the assassination, if not before.
The theory that the Russians were behind the assassination begins with Oswald in Minsk. Did the KGB recruit and train him? Note that it would not matter whether he was a real defector or not, he could have been recruited either way. If he was a real defector and committed to the Soviet cause, he would have been a “useful idiot,” and if he was a fake, he could have been turned, through blackmail or some other means. It is known that Marina Oswald’s (nee Prusakova) uncle was in the KGB, and there has always been speculation about whether the marriage was a set-up in order to control and/or keep tabs on Oswald.
In this version of events, Oswald would have returned to the U.S. as a sleeper agent, perhaps feeding intel to the Soviets such as from the job he took at Jaggers Chiles Stovall in Dallas, which processed classified photographs from spy planes. (This again raises the question of how someone with Oswald’s background could have been hired for such work in the first place.) Then, when the decision was made to eliminate JFK, Oswald would have been “activated.”
Another theory was put forward by British author Michael Eddowes in the 1970s, who alleged that Oswald defected to the Soviet Union and never returned — the Russians replaced him with a double who was sent back in his place. Eddowes noted various discrepancies in Oswald’s appearance before and after his travel to Russia, such as his height appearing in various documents as either 5’9” or 5’11”, and, most significantly, the absence of a scar from a mastoidectomy operation that Oswald is known to have had as a child.
Eddowes published his theory in two books, Krushchev Killed Kennedy in 1975, and The Oswald File two years later. Amazingly, he was able to convince the surviving family of Lee Harvey Oswald to have the body exhumed and its identity verified. The coroner’s report of the examination said that the remains in the Oswald grave were in fact those of Lee Harvey Oswald, based on matching dental records, which seemed to mark the end of Eddowes’ Double theory. However, several years later, Paul Groody, the mortician who buried Oswald in 1963, gave a remarkable interview for a television documentary which again renewed suspicion:
“Three weeks after I buried Lee Harvey Oswald, the Secret Service came to me and they said ‘Paul did you see any scars, such as the scars on his wrist where he was supposed to have tried to commit suicide in Russia?’ And I said of course I wasn’t looking for the likes of this, and really in my own mind did not feel as though I remembered much about this, but I didn’t remember seeing any marks of that kind. And the Secret Service agent told me at that time, ‘Well Paul, we just don’t know who we have out there in that grave.’ ”
“At the time of the ’63 burial time, I put Lee Harvey Oswald in a steel reinforced concrete vault. That vault was hermetically sealed. The vault is guaranteed not to break, crack, or go to pieces, it’s heavy concrete with steel in it with an asphalt lining. And when I opened the grave in ’81 and found that that vault had been broken and the bottom of the vault was the part that was broken, the top was still intact, I noticed at that time that the casket had been disturbed, I questioned in my own mind what had been going on. When I opened that casket the first time, I sent my wife Virginia to Marina to tell her, ‘Yes, there is a body in that grave’ because that was her concern. And then we did go to Baylor, there was an examination by a medical person who was this forensic pathologist. And she determined that yes, these were the teeth of Lee Harvey Oswald, but it took two years for her to make that determination before the report was actually done.”
“Of course, I was the one that had to handle the body in the morgue at Baylor. And as we removed the body from the casket, or at least worked with the body, I could recognize that this clothing was the clothing that I had put on that body. And yet when I saw the head of this body and it was removed from the casket and removed from the body in order that they might x-ray it and take pictures, I could see that there was no autopsy on that head. When an autopsy is done and the skull is cut in order to remove the cap in order to remove the brain, there is a distinctive line of where all the fissures and all of the skull has been parted. Now, it’s going to cause a bit of a mark no matter what you try and do, it’s going to show. And knowing that I handled the body originally and there was an autopsy on that head and now to see that there was no autopsy on the head made it, in my mind, pretty clear that something had transpired that had caused this.
“I feel as though someone had gone to the cemetery, off hours, had taken the head of, really of, Lee Harvey Oswald that now was dead — how he got that way I don’t know but at least it was the head — and had brought the vault to the surface as best they could being a heavy item as it is, a tripod lifting that body. lifting the body and the vault out of the grave. In the process the bottom of the vault fell, breaking the vault causing the casket to deteriorate to a degree. Then of course, removed the head of the one that was there that had been autopsied and put this head in its place so that we would find the teeth of Lee Harvey Oswald. That’s my theory, this is what I think happened. Whoever caused that is the same faction that caused the assassination in the first place. In my mind, a cover-up had taken place.”
Cuba has always been at the heart of the mystery of the JFK assassination. One of the most popular theories has it that anti-Castro Cubans in league with elements of the Mafia and the CIA killed Kennedy as revenge for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. There have been hundreds of books putting forward variations of this theory, and it also forms the core of Oliver Stone’s film JFK.
Less popular, though no less influential, is the theory that it was Fidel Castro who was behind the assassination. It is now well-known that elements of the U.S. government were involved in intensive efforts to kill Castro all throughout the Kennedy presidency and before. And so, when JFK was shot and the apparent assassin turned out to be a pro-Castro Marxist, an activist for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee who had been to the Cuban embassy only two months earlier, the obvious conclusion was the one that Lyndon Johnson allegedly held for the rest of his life: “Kennedy tried to get Castro, but Castro got Kennedy first.”
The most well-researched and persuasive argument for the Castro-did-it theory is the pair of books by Gus Russo, Live By The Sword and Brothers In Arms. Russo’s evidence was also presented in a documentary film by Wilfried Huismann, Rendezvous With Death. That evidence was also more recently reviewed and partially endorsed by Philip Shenon’s A Cruel and Shocking Act, which details the Warren Commission’s cover-up and failure to investigate early leads in Mexico City pointing to Cuban and Soviet involvement.
It should be noted that the Cuban and Soviet theories are not necessarily in opposition to each other except in details. Cuba was a client state of the Soviet Union and a proxy for it — Castro would not likely have taken such drastic action without Soviet approval at some level.
It should also be noted that the JFK case is filled with so much conflicting evidence that it will make your head explode, just like Kennedy’s in the Zapruder film. The counter-arguments made by researchers against the evidence of Soviet and Cuban involvement is that, as Katzenbach noted in his November 25 memo, it’s all a little too obvious, so much so that one has to wonder if it’s a ruse. Would the Russians use an American defector who openly professed Marxism as their assassin? Perhaps, if, as BAP suggested, he was never meant to be caught. Indeed, there are stories of getaway planes waiting at nearby Redbird Air Field, and other stories of high level Cuban intelligence agents allegedly departing from Dallas that day in private planes, as related by Russo in Brothers in Arms. (Review with summary here.)
But another possibility is that the evidence pointing towards the Soviets and Cubans was fake, planted by other conspirators in order to force a cover up because, as LBJ said to Earl Warren, if “the truth” got out it would lead to a nuclear war. That’s very convenient for LBJ if, as Roger Stone and others allege, it was actually he and his Texas friends who were behind the assassination.
I doubt we will ever know the truth with any degree of certainty. Too much time has passed, too many leads were never followed up, the truth was never a priority for all but a few solitary researchers, and even many of them had their own agendas or quirks. From the very beginning, the assassination and what one believed about it became an emblem of one’s politics. A large number of the earliest researchers were leftists and many were also Jewish: Harold Weisberg, Mark Lane, and Edward Jay Epstein were three of the biggest names in mid-1960s JFK research. For them, JFK was a symbol of their liberal ideals, and he was necessarily struck down by “The System,” the same System that they had all been railing against anyway.
Epstein, it should be noted, went on to become more of a neocon, becoming a confidante of and mouthpiece for CIA super-spook and Mossad liason James Jesus Angleton. Epstein’s last book about the assassination, 1978’s Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald, is strongly influenced by Angleton’s worldview and suggests the possibility of KGB involvement in the assassination, though it doesn’t go as far as Eddowes. Angleton is a central character in the JFK assassination story, though his true role may never be known. Researcher John Newman makes the case that Angleton was manipulating Oswald’s CIA files in the weeks leading up to the assassination, either in preparation to frame Oswald or for some other, unrelated purpose. More recently, French author Laurent Guyenot argues that the Israeli Mossad had Kennedy killed in order to overcome opposition to Israel acquiring nuclear weapons, which did happen under LBJ, who was perhaps the most pro-Israeli politician in US history. In this scenario, Angleton would have been a key figure, perhaps the key figure in the American government, helping to cover up and deflect attention from the Israelis, just like the early counter-cultural “conspiracy theorists” pointing at the CIA, the Mafia, the Texas oil men — just about anyone except the communists or the Israelis.
According to the papers of Russian defector Vasili Mitrokhin, the KGB was actively engaged in promoting conspiracy theories that blamed the CIA and the American right wing for the Kennedy killing. They funneled money to left-wing activists like Mark Lane, and even forged a letter from Lee Harvey Oswald to a “Mr. Hunt,” interpretable as either CIA agent E. Howard Hunt or Texas oil magnate H.L. Hunt. The purpose of this Soviet propaganda was to sow distrust and division in American life, and it that regard, it was successful, although one can hardly attribute American decline to Soviet propaganda alone.
Regardless of who killed JFK and why, the assassination remains a pivotal moment in American history. To study it is to leave the world of mere appearances behind and to delve into the murky underworld of espionage, conspiracy, power politics, intrigue, scandal, and deception.