Waiting for the smoking gun
The Road to Dallas By David Kaiser Belknap/Harvard University Press €23)
After 45 years and with nearly 1,000 books in print on the subject, the "real story" behind the assassination of JFK seems unknowable. Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with the murder 12 hours after Kennedy was pronounced dead. Oswald himself was shot and killed by Jack Ruby less than 36 hours later. Oswald's murder, the incompetent police work, the chaos, the unlimited list of possible suspects, the tortured explanations like the "magic bullet" produced in the report of the Warren Commission, the official investigation into the assassination, all have served to make falsifiable claims about that event seem beyond reach.
So muddled is the picture that fiction seems better built for the task than history. Norman Mailer's own ruminations on the killing, in Harlot's Ghost or Oswald's Tale, seem more credible and more satisfying than most of the non-fiction accounts. Who needs facts at this point?
This may help explain the muted reaction so far to The Road to Dallas. Author David Kaiser is a respected military and political historian, lecturing at the prestigious Naval War College. This recently published work, often dense and scholarly, purports to be the first book about the assassination by a professional historian who has pored over tens of thousands of pages of recently declassified material.
So who does Kaiser believed killed Kennedy -- a lone gunman or a massive conspiracy? Both, actually. Kaiser argues, more or less persuasively, that Kennedy was killed by Oswald, who was no patsy but a paid assassin, recruited by a nexus of mafia and anti-Castro Cuban militants.
Kennedy's death was part blowback from failed attempts to kill or overthrow Fidel Castro, part revenge for the fanatical pursuit of organised crime by Robert Kennedy. And part the result of two sides of the American intelligence establishment working at cross purposes -- the CIA, illegally trying to induce the mafia to carry out an assassination of Castro, while the FBI was trying to put the same mafia figures out of business.
His book opens with a story of three men in Dallas, weeks before the assassination, visiting Silvia Odio, a Cuban woman who had fled Castro's rise to power. Odio identified two of the men as guns for hire working with anti-Castro militants, one of whom shared a prison cell with Florida mobster Santo Trafficante. The third man, Odio claimed, was Oswald.
Kaiser's account is well argued, but sufficiently scholarly that it is forced to conclude with a caveat so big that the reader might be forgiven for wondering if the time spent on the previous 417 pages were entirely worthwhile. There is no way, Kaiser argues, to rule out whether or not Oswald was originally a CIA agent, one even trained to assassinate Fidel Castro.
Because at this distance it seems like a turning point, after which American history careers down an increasingly dark path, from Camelot, through Vietnam and Watergate, to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
The unknowable truth of the JFK assassination remains an object that reflects our own prejudices. On the Left, you may be inclined to believe that Kennedy was killed by a cabal of shadowy intelligence figures. If the military-industrial complex is your thing, you might find compelling the theory in Oliver Stone's 1991 film, that JFK was killed because he supposedly was planning to withdraw from Vietnam.
If you see America's gun culture as a cancer, the idea of Oswald as a deranged lone gunman, inspiring future Columbinesque school shootings, may be persuasive, to the exclusion of other evidence.
If you think, as LBJ did and many on the Right continue to imagine, that Fidel Castro may have had some hand or part in the killing, the -- to many Europeans -- irrational trade boycott remaining in effect until Castro is finally dead seems like the least the US should do.
We may yet one day discover a "smoking gun" that makes all other theories fall away. Until then, Kaiser's book may rise to be the most plausible explanation we are likely to read.