JUST about all the people of the United States who were old enough, remember where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy was shot.
I was in my first semester at university and was on a bus heading to visit my brother in North Dakota for the Thanksgiving break.
Two women got on the bus and one asked the other who was the last president who was shot. Her friend replied Abraham Lincoln. William McKinley had been shot in 1901 and I thought to myself that it was extraordinary that a president was actually assassinated in the 20th century.
On entering the bus station at Des Moines, Iowa, where I was to change buses, I noticed an elderly black man sitting on his shoeshine stand with tears running down his face. He was listening to a radio as the announcer was talking in funeral tones similar to Irish radio following the death of Pope John XXIII earlier that year. Suddenly I thought of the woman’s question on the bus.
“Is Kennedy dead?” I asked the man on the stand.
“Yes, he was shot in Dallas.”
Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested within hours of the shooting, but he was shot dead by Jack Ruby on Sunday, Nov 24, 1963, in the basement of Dallas police station on live television, as he was about to be transferred to Dallas County Jail.
John F. Kennedy rides in a motorcade with his wife Jacqueline, right, Nellie Connally, left, and her husband, Gov. John Connally of Texas moments before the president was shot in Dallas on Nov 22, 1963
I was in Texas for Ruby’s trial. It amazed me how the media talked of Ruby as a small-time nightclub owner, whereas in Dallas he was widely recognised as a Mafia boss who controlled local prostitution.
While in Texas I joined a fraternity, which had around 40 members, mostly from various parts of Texas. One was a neighbour of Lyndon Johnson, who said that anyone who knew “Big Ears”— as he usually called Johnson — knew that he was probably involved in the assassination, because he had the most to gain. Locally Johnson was considered a talented and ruthless politician— amoral and corrupt but smart enough to get away with it. His only compass was self-interest.
In the following years Johnson probably did more for the civil rights of black people in the US than all of his predecessors combined. But to most white Texans it probably made them more suspicious of him.
There is no point here in dealing with the wild speculation, but some of the rumours were true. It is important to examine what was done about those.
On the night before the assassination, there was a party at the north Dallas home of a local oil magnate, Clint Murcheson. Guests included vice president Johnson, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and his deputy director Clyde Tolson (with whom he shared a house and a homosexual relationship).
Hoover was reportedly the honoured guest. Another guest was Jack Ruby. It may have seemed strange that Ruby and Hoover would be at the same party, but Hoover persistently maintained that the mafia did not exist.
The mafia reportedly had photographs of Hoover and Tolson together in flagrante delicto. They were essentially blackmailed into pretending that there was no organised crime in the United States.
When Bobby Kennedy took over as attorney general in 1961, he targeted organised crime, and the conviction rate increased seven-fold. This became grounds for suspecting that the mafia wished to eliminate president Kennedy in order to undermine his brother, as it was well known that Bobby and Johnson detested each other.
“He’s mean, bitter and vicious — an animal in many ways,” Bobby Kennedy later told an interviewer. “I think he’s got this other side of him in his relationships with human beings which makes it very difficult, unless you want to kiss his behind all the time. He’s able to eat people up.” Two days before leaving for Texas the President
talked to his secretary Evelyn Lincoln about the
1964 President election. “I was fascinated by this conversation and wrote it down verbatim in my diary,” she recalled.
“Who is your choice as a running-mate?” she asked.
He looked straight ahead, and responded without hesitating. “At this time I am thinking about Governor Terry Sanford of North Carolina,” he said. “But it will not be Lyndon.”
Johnson was already under a scandal cloud because of the behaviour of trusted aides —Billie Sol Estes and Bobby Baker. In Apr 1963 Estes was convicted of fraud in Federal court and sentenced to 15 years in prison. That September the Senate’s Rules Committee —under the chairmanship of senator John Williams of Delaware — had begun investigating Baker for corruption, and on Oct 7, 1963 Baker was compelled to resign his staff position in the senate for corrupt practices.
On the eve of the assassination, Madeline Brown, a paramour of Johnson, was at the party at Murcheson’s house. “After tomorrow,” Johnson told her, the Kennedys “will never embarrass me again. That’s no threat; that’s a promise.”
Next morning the focus of the investigation in Washington turned to Johnson himself.
Senator Williams and a member of his staff questioned defence contractor Don Reynolds, who testified that Johnson had been receiving kickbacks. Reynolds stated that he saw a suitcase containing a kickback of $100,000 in cash that Baker said was for Johnson from General Dynamics for a defence contract.
Reynolds produced documentary evidence of kickbacks that he had personally provided for Johnson. When similar allegations were later made against vice-president Spiro Agnew in 1973, he was forced to resign.
While Reynolds was giving his deposition, Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Johnson became president, and the allegations were covered up for years.
After what Johnson had said to her on the eve of the assassination Madeline Brown suspected that he was involved in the killing. “People are saying you are responsible for the assassination,” she told him some weeks later. He flew into a rage and denied involvement. “It was the oil people and the CIA,” he said.
As president Johnson moved fast to prevent speculation by appointing a high level commission to investigate the assassination. He put pressure on chief justice Earl Warren to head the seven-man commission. Others included the former director of the CIA Alan Dulles, and house minority leader and future president Gerald Ford, who, Johnson said, was “so dumb that he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.” Was that why he selected him?
Lyndon B. Johnson takes the oath of office as Jackie Kennedy looks on Nov 22, 1963 (far left).
The Warren Commission reported in 1964 that Oswald was the lone gunman. He fired three shots from the window of the School Book Depository building. One missed and hit a kerb, the second — the so-called “magic bullet”— supposedly passed through Kennedy’s throat and then changed direction and wounded Governor John Connolly. The third, an exploding bullet, hit Kennedy on the side of the head.
There were any number of stories about a second shooter on the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza, or even from the storm drain at that side of the road within yards of where Kennedy was hit by the fatal bullet. Some 50 witnesses stated that they believed the shots were fired from the grassy knoll, but the Warren Commission only interviewed one of those witnesses.
People in Dallas had little faith in the report. There were already serious grounds for believing that not only Johnson but also the CIA wished to get rid of Kennedy, because he had undermined CIA’s plans to oust Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961.
On realising that it was badly planned, Kennedy pulled the plug on the operation.
Alan Dulles, the Director of the CIA, was held responsible and ousted.
Military hawks tended to see Kennedy as weak, and they were alarmed when he signed an order on Oct 11, 1963, to withdraw 1,000 of the 16,000 American troops then in Vietnam. Kennedy indicated that all of the American troops would be withdrawn by 1965.
Even before the assassination, Oswald had come to the attention of the CIA. In 1959 he had supposedly defected to the Soviet Union, where he married a Russian woman, before returning to US with her in 1962. He then became involved in shady activities with both pro- and anti-Castro Cuban elements.
Oswald was in Mexico from Sept 27 to Oct 3, 1963, during which he supposedly entered the Soviet embassy and Cuban consulate on at least five occasions. The CIA was bugging the telephones at the embassy. The CIA reported that Oswald made telephone calls, trying to arrange a visa to return to the Soviet Union via Cuba.
Tapes of the calls and photographs of the visits were forwarded to CIA headquarters.
Hoover told Johnson on the telephone on Nov 23 that the evidence against Oswald was “not very, very strong.” The person on the telephone to the Soviet embassy spoke liquid Spanish but very poor Russian, whereas Oswald spoke fluent Russian but had no Spanish. Moreover, the photographs were obviously not of Lee Harvey Oswald. “It appears that there is a second person who was at the Soviet embassy down there,” Hoover told Johnson on the day that Ruby shot Oswald.
Nicholas Katzenback, the deputy attorney general, recognised that the reports from Mexico were grounds for suspecting either that Oswald was implicated with the communists in the assassination, or that the whole thing was a right wing conspiracy to blame the communists.
Katzenback was anxious that the White House should be in a position to repudiate both conspiracy scenarios.
The film of the shooting, taken by Abraham Zabruder on a home movie camera from the side of the grassy knoll, shows a woman on the grass on the other side of the road with a movie camera. She might well have filmed a shooter on the grassy knoll. The police seized that woman’s film immediately and it promptly disappeared. Why? When the room in the School Book Depository from which Oswald reputedly fired the shots was dusted for fingerprints, all the prints but one were identified as those of members of the staff.
The FBI and the Warren Commission did not pursue the unidentified fingerprint on one of the boxes that formed the sniper’s nest in the corner of the room by the window.
They concluded that Oswald was the lone assassin and that he was operating alone. I never met anyone who believed that during the nine years that I was in Texas.
Referring to members of the Warren Commission, Johnson told Walter Cronkite in a 1969 television interview: “I don’t think that they or me or anyone else is always absolutely sure of every thing that might have motivated Oswald or others that could have been involved.” Was this reference to “the others that could have been involved” a classic Freudian slip? In 1984 his former aide Billie Sol Estes testified that Johnson was not only behind the assassination of Kennedy, but also at least eight other murders going back to the 1951 slaughter of John Douglas Kinser, a golf professional who was having an affair with Johnson’s sister Josefa, who allegedly gave Kinser some information that he used in an attempt to blackmail Johnson. Kinser was also having an affair with the wife of Malcolm (Mac) Wallace, one of Johnson’s staff.
Wallace killed Kinser and was convicted of first-degree murder, but was given a five-year suspended sentence. Johnson was credited with using his extraordinary influence on the man’s behalf.
On Jun 3, 1961 Henry Marshall, a local official was found dead by his truck, after he had begun investigating Estes and some of those close to Johnson.
Estes said that Wallace shot Marshall five times with Marshall’s own rifle, which he left beside the body.
The sheriff insisted it was suicide without even checking the weapon for fingerprints.
Many people in Texas believed that Johnson was associated with such killings.
After two jail terms for corruption Billie Sol Estes found religion and had qualms of conscience about the Vietnam War, which he felt he could have prevented by exposing Johnson. “If I’d made the right move, there would have been no Vietnam War,” he said.
According to Estes, Wallace recruited Jack Ruby, who in turn recruited Oswald to kill Kennedy. Ruby and Oswald were seen together at least twice in the fortnight before the assassination. Estes also stated that Wallace fired the fatal shot from the grassy knoll.
Wallace died in a car accident in 1971.
Was there any corroborative evidence to suggest that Wallace was associated with Oswald, Ruby, or the assassination of Kennedy? Remember the unidentified fingerprint on the box that was part of the sniper’s nest in the School Book Depository. In 1998 that fingerprint was finally identified as belonging to Malcolm (Mac) Wallace.
Probably the simple explanation for why did the FBI and the Warren Commission miss that, was that they were not looking for anybody else.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved