by JAMES PIERESON | Real Clear Politics
It is now largely forgotten, or airbrushed from history, but Castro played a large role in the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In the discussions surrounding Castro’s death, it is worth recalling this far-reaching episode in U.S. history.
On the morning after the assassination, The New York Times ran a banner headline across the front page: “KENNEDY IS KILLED BY SNIPER AS HE RIDES IN CAR IN DALLAS; JOHNSON SWORN IN ON PLANE.”
In the middle column the editors ran a signed article by a reporter on the scene about Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspect arrested for the crime. The headline read “Leftist Accused,” with the subtitle “Figure in Pro-Castro Group is Charged.”
Oswald, according to the article, had defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 and returned to the Dallas area in 1962. Since returning to the United States, he had been active in a pro-Castro organization in New Orleans called Fair Play for Cuba.
Several fellow employees placed Oswald on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository where police found the rifle used in the assassination, while witnesses on the street reported seeing a gunman firing from an upper-floor window in that building.
Oswald fled before police could seal off the building, but he was arrested 45 minutes after the assassination in another section of the city after a policeman was gunned down on the street.
Witnesses to that crime directed police to a nearby movie theater where Oswald was arrested still carrying the pistol used to kill the policeman. Within hours, local police identified the rifle used in the assassination as belonging to Oswald and ballistics tests confirmed that the bullets that killed President Kennedy were fired from his weapon.
The hard evidence, as related by the reporter in Dallas, pointed strongly to Oswald as the assassin with his motives linked somehow to Castro, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. These facts as they circulated from Dallas sent shock waves across the world, suggesting that Castro or perhaps Soviet leaders were behind the assassination of an American president.
Indeed, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s office in Dallas soon asserted that President Kennedy had been assassinated as part of a communist conspiracy. It did not require much political sophistication to understand the explosive implications of this news.
It was to be expected then that prominent public officials and journalists would look for ways to deflect attention away from Oswald’s possible ideological motives and toward other possible causes of the crime.
In the same issue of the New York Times, adjacent to the report from Dallas, readers found an unusual opinion article penned by James Reston, the Washington bureau chief of the Times and at that time the dean of national political journalists. The article was titled, “Why America Weeps: Kennedy Victim of Violent Streak He Sought to Curb in Nation.” Reston wrote:
America wept tonight, not alone for its dead young President, but for itself. The grief was general, for somehow the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best. The indictment extended beyond the assassin, for something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence, had destroyed the highest symbol of law and order.
Reston seemed to be searching for an explanation for the assassination that reached beyond the assassin and his possible motives. “The irony of the President’s death,” he continued, “is that his short Administration was devoted almost entirely to various attempts to curb this very streak of violence in the American character.”
Reston went on to observe that “from the beginning to the end of his Administration he was trying to tamp down the violence of extremists on the Right.” Reston suggested that violent tendencies emanating from the radical right were somehow responsible for the death of the president.
Two narratives of the assassination were thus juxtaposed on the front page of The New York Times on the day after the event. One was based upon the facts, which pointed to Oswald as the assassin and to the Cold War as the general context in which the event should be understood. The other was a political narrative, entirely divorced from the facts, that pointed to “extremists on the Right” and a national culture of violence as the culprits in the assassination. Both interpretations could not be correct.
Attentive readers might well have wondered which one would prevail in the days ahead as investigators sifted through the facts. If so, they did not have to wait very long for an answer.
Upon hearing that President Kennedy had died, Chief Justice Earl Warren, soon to head the official commission that investigated the assassination, issued a statement to the press: “A great and good President,” he declared, “has suffered martyrdom as a result of the hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots.”
A few hours later, Chet Huntley, the chief newscaster for NBC, told millions of viewers that the assassination had been brought about by “a sickening and ominous popularity of hatred” across the United States and by influential “pockets of hatred” within the country.
The President’s death, he said, is a “thundering testimonial of what hatred comes to and the revolting excesses it perpetrates.”
Both Warren and Huntley were pointing in the same direction: toward anti-communist zealots and racial bigots as the likely perpetrators of the assassination. There was no evidence for this claim, but that did not deter them from making it.
Within days, Pat Brown, the governor of California, and Charles Taft, the mayor of Cincinnati, organized a series of candlelight vigils across the nation “to pledge the end of intolerance and to affirm that such a tragedy shall not happen in America again.”
The influential columnist Drew Pearson published a syndicated column under the title “Kennedy Victim of Hate Drive.”
The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell (also a congressman) issued a statement shortly after the assassination: “President Kennedy is a martyr of freedom and human rights and a victim of injustice as promulgated by [Gov.] Barnett and [Gov.] Wallace,” referencing the pro-segregation stances of the governors of Mississippi and Alabama.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that the assassination had to be viewed against the background of violence against civil rights workers across the American South.
The New York Times published an editorial three days after the assassination (and a day after Oswald was shot in Dallas while in police custody) titled “The Spiral of Hate,” in which the editors declared that “The shame all Americans must bear for the spirit of madness and hate that struck down President Kennedy is multiplied by the monstrous murder of his accused assassin.”
Many followed the logic of this indictment to conclude that all Americans were complicit in President Kennedy’s death because they had tolerated hatred and bigotry in their midst. The murder of Oswald two days after Kennedy was shot undoubtedly played a large role in permitting this narrative to stick.
For his part, President Johnson saw that his job as national leader in that time of crisis was to attach some enduring meaning to the national tragedy. “John Kennedy had died,” he said later, “but his cause was not really clear. I had to take the dead man’s program and turn it into a martyr’s cause.”
In his first speech before the Congress five days after the assassination, Johnson proclaimed that, “no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”
On the international front, Johnson also feared an escalation of tensions with the Soviet Union and another McCarthy-style “witch-hunt” against leftists should the public conclude that a Communist was responsible for the assassination. Johnson was well aware that Oswald’s pro-Communist background might provoke a backlash among the American people against the Soviet Union and Cuba.
From Washington’s point of view, it was better to deflect blame for the assassination from Communism to some other unpopular target.
In doing so, the U.S. government adopted a line parallel to that promoted by the Soviet Union and Communists around the world. Given Oswald’s background, Soviet and Cuban leaders were understandably concerned that they might be blamed for the assassination. That would have been a reasonable inference from Oswald’s stay in the Soviet Union and his work on behalf of Castro.
The Soviet press soon issued statements to the effect that “rightists” were responsible for the assassination and that the arrest of Oswald was a plot to pin the blame on Castro or the Soviet Union.
A Soviet spokesman said, “Senator Goldwater and other extremists on the right could not escape moral responsibility for the president’s death.”
Castro said much the same thing: The assassination was a “Machiavellian” plan to discredit the Cuban government. Leftists around the world were quick to disown Oswald for fear that his deed would contaminate their cause.
These were the myths and legends that grew up around the Kennedy assassination: That JFK was a victim of hatred and bigotry, a martyr in the crusade for racial justice, and a casualty of extremist politics from the right.
This interpretation flowed naturally from the narrative Reston set forth within hours of the assassination. Strangely enough, this narrative took hold and nourished wild conspiracy theories about the assassination, with most of them fingering the “radical right” or the Mafia or the CIA as likely perpetrators. These legends remain potent to this day.
But the facts pointed in a different direction and to an entirely different interpretation, toward Castro and his revolution in Cuba as the background for the assassination.
If President Kennedy was a martyr, then he was a martyr in the Cold War struggle against Communism and in his frustrated campaign to rid Cuba of the Castro regime.
Oswald was a communist, or a “Marxist” as he liked to call himself. He defected from the United States to the Soviet Union in 1959, vowing when he did so that he could no longer live under a capitalist system, while telling Soviet officials that he possessed high-level intelligence information to offer them.
He returned to the United States with his Russian wife in 1962 in disappointment with life under Soviet Communism but without giving up his Marxist beliefs or his hatred of the United States.
By 1963 Oswald had transferred his political allegiance to Castro’s Communist regime in Cuba. Oswald was like many radicals of that era who rejected the bureaucratic Communism of the Soviet Union but embraced third world revolutionaries like Castro, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh as the harbingers of the socialist future. Oswald knew that Kennedy had implemented a new doctrine of challenging communist movements in this new theater of revolution.
Nor was Oswald a bigot. He sympathized with the civil rights movement and the ideal of racial equality. In his eyes, racial bigotry was an evil inseparable from American capitalism. Oswald hated the United States, the capitalist system, and everything associated with the “radical right.” He was a creature of the far left, but in contrast to academic or armchair radicals, he was on the lookout for opportunities to act out his radical convictions.
In April of 1963, Oswald took a shot at retired Gen. Edwin Walker as the general sat at his dining table working on his tax return.
Walker was the head of the Dallas chapter of the John Birch Society and a figure then in the news because of his opposition to school integration and his demand for the overthrow of the Castro regime.
A few weeks earlier Oswald had purchased a scoped rifle (later used to shoot President Kennedy) for the purpose of assassinating Gen. Walker. Oswald carefully staked out his prey and planned an escape route. One of the policemen who investigated the crime told reporters that the gunman “meant business” and that Walker was fortunate to have survived.
It was not until after President Kennedy was killed seven months later that Dallas police found documents in the possession of Oswald’s wife that identified Oswald as Walker’s would-be assassin.
The next month, fearful that he might be identified as the assailant in the Walker shooting, Oswald left Dallas for New Orleans where in June of 1963 he established a local chapter of Fair Play for Cuba, a pro-Castro front group ostensibly dedicated to gaining diplomatic recognition for Castro’s regime but in reality designed to provide Oswald with pro-Castro credentials that would gain him admittance to Cuba.
Oswald was filmed in New Orleans circulating leaflets on behalf of the Castro government and was jailed briefly following a street altercation with anti-Castro Cubans.
Soon thereafter he appeared on a local television program to debate American policy toward Cuba and was embarrassed when one of his adversaries pointed out that he had earlier defected to the Soviet Union—a revelation that implied that Oswald’s organization was a Communist front and the Castro regime a “puppet” of the Soviet Union.
With his campaign in New Orleans now blown, Oswald sent his wife and child back to Dallas and then left the city in late September to travel to Mexico City in pursuit of a visa that would permit him to travel to Cuba and then to the Soviet Union. It was then illegal for American citizens to travel to Cuba but supporters of the Cuban revolution circumvented that ban by travelling back and forth via Mexico City.
Oswald took along a dossier of news clippings on his pro-Castro activities to establish his revolutionary bona fides with personnel at the Cuban and Soviet embassies.
While in Mexico City, Oswald made several visits to the Cuban embassy, on one occasion (as was revealed later) threatening the life of President Kennedy.
It was not clear to investigators why Oswald wanted to travel to Cuba, though his wife told them that he wanted to confer with Castro about how he might assist the Cuban revolution. Nevertheless, he returned to Dallas empty-handed after being told that his application would take weeks to process.
Within weeks, officials in Cuba approved his application, though on the condition that he also received a visa to travel from there to the Soviet Union. He was still waiting to hear final word on these applications when he read in early November about President Kennedy’s forthcoming visit to Dallas that would include a motorcade through the downtown area and past the building where he now worked.
Oswald’s motives in shooting President Kennedy were almost certainly linked to his desire to block Kennedy’s campaign to assassinate Castro or to overthrow his government.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Kennedy pledged to abandon efforts to overthrow Castro’s regime by force. But the war of words between the two governments continued, and so did clandestine plots (unknown to the public at that time) by the Kennedy administration to eliminate Castro by assassination.
In early September, Castro (aware of these plots) declared in an interview in Havana with an American reporter that U.S. officials would not be safe if they continued efforts to assassinate Cuban leaders. “We are prepared to fight them and answer in kind,” he said.
A transcript of the interview was circulated in the United States on the Associated Press wire and published in the local paper in New Orleans where Oswald was then living.
It may have been Castro’s remarks that sent Oswald off on his trip to Mexico City a few weeks later in pursuit of a travel visa. Investigators later speculated that Oswald may have interpreted Castro’s remarks as a call to assassinate President Kennedy.
U.S. intelligence officials were alarmed at this escalation in Castro’s rhetoric and the implied threat conveyed by these comments. Was Castro aware of U.S. plots to assassinate him? If so, how did he know? Did he intend to retaliate by promoting reciprocal plots against American leaders?
They concluded that among various things Castro might do, he was unlikely to risk an assassination attempt on a U.S. leader. In any case, Castro’s threats had little effect on Kennedy’s determination to get rid of him.
On November 18, four days before he was killed, Kennedy delivered a speech in Miami in which he described the Castro government as “a small band of conspirators that has stripped the Cuban people of their freedom.” Kennedy pledged to restore U.S. assistance and friendship “once Cuban sovereignty has been restored.”
Oswald, an admirer of Castro and other third-world revolutionaries, was acutely attentive to the smoldering war between the American and Cuban governments and to the personal and ideological war of words between Castro and Kennedy.
Nearly a year after the assassination, the Warren Commission issued its official report that identified Oswald as the lone gunman on the basis of a large body of physical evidence that pointed in his direction.
Even so, the Commission, while setting forth conclusive evidence that Oswald alone shot the President, contributed to the confusion by suggesting that he did so for a mix of personal reasons (he could not hold a job, he was having marital problems, etc.) unrelated to his Communist ideology or his admiration for Castro.
In this sense, the Report carried forward the “official” view that required the suppression of ideological motives in the assassination. Though the Commission identified Oswald as the assassin who fired the shots that killed the President, it could not rule out the possibility that he may have acted as part of a broader conspiracy.
Did Castro, or someone in his government, encourage Oswald to carry through on his threat to kill President Kennedy?
This is an intriguing possibility, though admittedly the evidence for it is scanty. Edward J. Epstein, the historian and intelligence expert, has pointed out that Castro (as Castro later acknowledged) was told of the threat Oswald issued while visiting the Cuban embassy in Mexico City. Nevertheless, the Cuban government approved Oswald’s application for a travel visa.
Epstein has also uncovered evidence to prove that Castro was aware of Kennedy’s continuing plots against him. It turned out that officials in the Central Intelligence Agency were confiding in a double agent who reported those clandestine plots back to Havana. It was this information that provoked Castro to issue his threat against American officials in his interview with the American reporter in Havana, and it was this interview when published in the American press that sent Oswald off on his expedition to the Cuban embassy in Mexico City.
Did someone in the Cuban embassy connect the dots between Castro’s threat and Oswald’s visit a few weeks later? Did Oswald connect the dots for them in making his threat against President Kennedy? Did Cuban officials encourage Oswald or, more alarmingly, renew contact with him in some way after he returned to Dallas?
These are intriguing questions that, unfortunately, are unlikely ever to be answered in a conclusive way.
The facts surrounding the JFK assassination make it all the more mysterious as to why liberals and leftists who claim to have admired President Kennedy continued to lionize Castro as some kind of noble idealist.
It was, after all, one of Castro’s supporters who killed President Kennedy – and there is the lingering possibility that Oswald may have been something more than just a supporter.
James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute.