Book review: A Cruel and Shocking Act
Oswald's crucial visit to Mexico the month before he shot JFK . . .
A Cruel and Shocking Act, Philip Shenon Little, Brown, €20.99, hbk, 625 pages. Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
There is no doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald shot US President John Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. The doubts since are whether Oswald acted alone or was the front man for a conspiracy, whether there was another gunman, and whether the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination discovered the whole truth of what happened.
In 2008 Philip Shenon, a veteran New York Times investigative journalist, was approached by a former staff investigator on the Warren Commission, now an eminent lawyer, who urged Shenon to tell the story of the Warren Commission "to explain what really happened".
Five years of painstaking research followed, which has resulted in this impressive book.
What was to have been an inside history of the Warren Commission evolved into an account of how much had not been told about the assassination and how much of the evidence failed to reach the commission, some covered up, some destroyed.
What emerges overall is a picture of agencies and individuals acting in their own self-interest, shifting blame and suppressing information.
The Warren Commission was flawed from the beginning; understaffed, politically manipulated, deceived and misled by the CIA and the FBI, both of which conducted extensive cover-ups.
The approach taken by commission chairman Chief Justice Earl Warren compounded matters. Warren, convinced from the outset that Oswald had acted alone, was keen to wrap up the report as quickly as possible to minimise distress to the Kennedy family. He originally envisaged the commission holding few hearings, conducting no independent investigations and doing no more than reviewing the evidence already gathered by the FBI, the CIA and other agencies.
The other commission members baulked at this and the mandate was broadened, but the auspices were not good. The junior staffers, who did the work, including some brilliant lawyers, dubbed Warren "Grumpy" or "Dopey" among the "Seven Dwarfs" of the commissioners. Warren took shortcuts that left the field open for later conspiracy theories. From the outset there were rumours of a cover-up. The naval surgeon who presided at JFK's post-mortem destroyed his original notes – stained with the president's blood – lest they became grisly souvenirs.
He had already bowed to pressure from the Kennedys to suppress evidence that JFK suffered from Addison's Disease. Later, Warren refused to allow anyone else view the post-mortem photos and X-rays, provoking a near rebellion among the commission staff.
The FBI, with J Edgar Hoover bent on damage limitation, suppressed vital evidence and leaked material in attempts to steer the investigation. The night Oswald was shot, the FBI Dallas office, which had been monitoring him for months, destroyed a threatening note that Oswald had hand-delivered several weeks earlier.
They also failed to place Oswald's name on the Internal Security Index provided to the secret service prior to the president's visit. Hoover, while publicly denying FBI failures, secretly authorised disciplinary action against several dozen agents for dereliction of duty.
The CIA tried to bury the full story of Oswald's five-day visit to Mexico City from September 27, just weeks before he shot the president, even though this was of critical importance to investigating any Cuban connection. While there, Oswald visited both the Cuban and Soviet Embassies, ostensibly to apply for visas. Attempts to investigate claims that he was seen receiving $6,500 from a Cuban agent were frustrated by the CIA, as was another story that he had a brief affair with an embassy employee who introduced him to Cuban agents.
The CIA seems to have been at pains to keep secret the surveillance operations it was conducting on the Soviet and Cuban embassies and staff in Mexico City. The damage limitation worked. The commission was heavily dependent on the CIA for information and its final report was far less critical of the CIA than the other agencies involved. Bizarrely, the FBI learned later from Fidel Castro, indirectly through a double agent, that while in the Cuban Embassy, Oswald made threats to several agents to kill Kennedy.
A top secret memo from Hoover to the commission on the incident, written in June 1964, never arrived, though decades later a copy was found at the CIA. Another cover-up?
More bizarrely, Castro, clearly anxious to distance Cuba from Oswald, met secretly with a representative of the Warren Commission on a boat off Cuba. He denied any Cuban involvement, remarking that he actually admired JFK!
What motivated Oswald? The commission sat on some of its own records regarding suspicions about Oswald's sexuality. Later, one commission member suggested a possible sexual explanation, saying his wife Marina's mocking of his impotence eventually pushed him over the edge.
Fifty years on, there are still no definitive answers. The "what ifs" remain. What if the driver of the presidential car had accelerated immediately after the first bullet hit, which was not fatal, making JFK less of an easy target? Crucially, what if Oswald had been picked up, as he should have been, prior to the visit?
The sad postscript is the conclusion of Hoover's successor, Clarence Kelley, that if the FBI in Dallas had been aware of what was known elsewhere in the FBI and CIA, "JFK would not have died in Dallas" and "history would have taken a different turn".
Sean Farrell is a former Irish Consul to the US.