Late in his life, former president Lyndon B. Johnson told a reporter that he didn’t believe the Warren Commission’s finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing President John F. Kennedy. Johnson thought Cuban president Fidel Castro was behind it. After all, Johnson said, Kennedy was running “a damned Murder, Inc., in the Caribbean,” giving Castro reason to retaliate. Murder, Inc., tells the story of the CIA’s assassination operations under Kennedy up to his own assassination and beyond. James H. Johnston was a lawyer for the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1975, which investigated and first reported on the Castro assassination plots and their relation to Kennedy’s murder. Johnston examines how the CIA steered the Warren Commission and later investigations away from connecting its own assassination operations to Kennedy’s murder. He also looks at the effect this strategy had on the Warren Commission’s conclusions that assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and that there was no foreign conspiracy. Sourced from in-depth research into the “secret files” declassified by the JFK Records Act and now stored in the National Archives and Records Administration, Murder, Inc. is the first book to narrate in detail the CIA’s plots against Castro and to delve into the question of why retaliation by Castro against Kennedy was not investigated.
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About the Author
James H. Johnston is a lawyer, writer, and historian in Washington, DC. He is the coauthor of The Recollections of Margaret Cabell Brown Loughborough: A Southern Woman’s Memories of Richmond, VA, and Washington, DC, in the Civil War and the author of From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, White House History, the Legal Times of Washington, American Lawyer, and the Maryland Historical Society Magazine.
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Castro, Oswald, and Kennedy
Fidel Castro was born in Cuba on August 13, 1926. His father was born in Spain and immigrated to Cuba. Young Fidel was raised Roman Catholic and attended Catholic boarding schools, but he fell away from the church before adulthood. In 1945 he began the study of law at the University of Havana, where he took an interest in a movement that advocated ousting dictators throughout Latin America. He also had personal political ambitions. In 1952 he ran for a seat in Cuba's House of Representatives. His plans were stymied when General Fulgencio Batista, who had been living in the United States, returned to Cuba to lead a coup. Batista took over the government, canceled the election, and put himself in power. Castro decided his only recourse was to overthrow the dictator running his own country.
Initially, Castro used peaceful means. When these failed, he commanded an armed attack on a Cuban army base, the Moncada Barracks, on July 26, 1953. Many of his followers were killed; the rest, including Fidel and his brother Raul, were captured, tried, and convicted. Castro received a fifteen-year sentence but was released after two years. He then moved to Mexico and organized what he called the Twenty-Sixth of July Movement with the aim of returning to Cuba with a guerilla force and driving out Batista.
On December 2, 1956, Castro and his small paramilitary contingent landed on a beach in Cuba. Author Tad Szulc opens his biography of the Cuban leader with Castro crawling through the sand with his favorite weapon in hand, a Belgian-made light automatic rifle known by the abbreviation FAL. The weapon, equipped with a telescopic sight, allowed Castro to kill from a distance. Inexperienced and poorly equipped, Castro's forces were nearly wiped out by Batista's army, but Fidel, Raul, and the Argentinean Ernesto Guevara escaped to the countryside, where they launched a guerilla war. Guevara has gone down in history as Che, which is slang in South America for an Argentinean.
Castro's Twenty-Sixth of July Movement gained popular support in Cuba and began to grow. The United States attempted to be neutral, striving to help neither Batista nor Castro. A later study prepared by the Department of the Army was highly critical of this neutrality. It noted that someone had said, sarcastically, that U.S. policy toward Cuba was "so inept and ineffectual that it was pro-Batista to Castro and pro-Castro to Batista." The study concluded: "On balance, it seems that Batista was favored as long as he was capable of benefiting from favors ... but, primarily because United States 'non-intervention' generally favored the status quo."
The administration of President Dwight Eisenhower held stubbornly to this policy to the very end, rejecting requests to meet with emissaries both from Castro and from the Cuban military, which wanted to offer an alternative to Batista. The result was that barely two years after Castro's landing, Batista gave up power and fled the country on January 1, 1959. Castro had won. In February he made himself premier. At first his victory was well received in the United States. When he went to Washington dc in March 1959, he was a guest on the popular television show Meet the Press.
The U.S. government, on the other hand, continued its policy of neutrality, and the policy continued to be a failure. Claiming it was not taking sides, the United States did nothing as the new Cuban government nationalized industry, seized American-owned enterprises, and instituted farm collectives. Cuban government appropriation of private land holdings began in June 1959. It was a mammoth undertaking. For example, all told, Atlantica del Golfo Sugar Company lost more than four hundred thousand acres of land.
In January 1960, a year after Castro's takeover, President Eisenhower reiterated that the United States would not intervene in the domestic affairs of any country, including Cuba, although he mildly complained about certain actions of the Cuban government that were contrary to international law and the rights of American citizens. When a plane sent by Cuban exiles bombed Cuba and crashed, killing its American pilot, Eisenhower insisted on maintaining neutrality and ordered the U.S. government to stop any more such air attacks on Cuba.
But with its eyes on the upcoming presidential election in November 1960, the Eisenhower administration soon took a harder line toward Cuba and began verbal sparring with the Soviet Union about the island country. In February the administration rejected a Cuban offer to negotiate differences, while the Soviets took the friendly approach of sending Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan to Cuba to work out a trade deal and to announce that the Soviets would send "technicians" to the island.
In May the Eisenhower administration said it would end military aid to Cuba within a month and end all economic aid by the end of the year. The administration upped the ante in July by using new legislative authority to cut Cuban sugar sales to the United States by 95 percent. This action alone cost Cuba an estimated $92.5 million in revenue. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev taunted the U.S. military cutoff by saying, "Soviet artillerymen can support the Cuban people with their rocket fire if the aggressive forces in the Pentagon dare to launch an intervention against Cuba." When Eisenhower responded that the United States would not be deterred by Soviet threats, Che Guevara fired back, "We are defended by one of the most powerful military forces in history" and added that the Monroe Doctrine, which warned European countries not to get involved in Latin America, was dead.
The verbal fight between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated. Khrushchev suggested he might put Russian missiles on the island, forcing Eisenhower to respond that he would not "permit the establishment of a regime dominated by international Communism in the Western Hemisphere." But in August Eisenhower confused his message by warning simultaneously that he would take "definite action" if Cuba fell under the control of the Communists and then contradicting himself by adding that he did not see "how the United States could properly object or intervene" if the Cuban people freely chose Communism. The same month, under prodding from the United States, Latin American foreign ministers to the Organization of American States warned the Soviet Union not to "export its doctrine or otherwise intervene in the Western Hemisphere through the gateway of Cuba."
In September Fidel Castro thumbed his nose at the United States by going to New York and speaking at the United Nations. He interjected himself into the American presidential campaign as well. Though no fan of Eisenhower or his vice president, Richard Nixon, who was locked in a close presidential race against John Kennedy, Castro took a swipe at Kennedy, calling him "an illiterate and ignorant millionaire."
In October Nixon said the United States should impose economic sanctions against Cuba. The next day the United States embargoed all exports to Cuba except medical supplies and food. On November 1, less than a week before the presidential election, President Eisenhower restated that the United States would defend its naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba.
Cuba was naturally an issue in the presidential campaign. When a moderator at one of the famous debates between Nixon and Kennedy asked Nixon, "Mr. Vice-president, Senator Kennedy said last night that the Administration must take responsibility for the loss of Cuba," Nixon answered that the country wasn't lost. Kennedy continued to hammer away on the issue. In campaign stops in Florida, he said variously, Cuba had been "lost to the Communists," "in Cuba the Communists have gained a satellite," and "I wasn't the Vice President who presided over the Communization of Cuba." Realizing the damage this was doing to his campaign, in the last debate with Kennedy, Nixon called for one more debate limited solely to Cuba.
On December 2, after the election, the United States officially declared Cuba a "Communist-controlled" country. On January 3, 1961, two years after Castro's takeover, the outgoing Eisenhower administration finally severed diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Castro had more than enough enemies in America. First among these were Batista supporters who had fled to the United States, particularly southern Florida where they could easily return to Cuba if things should change. Thus Castro's most bitter enemies were alive and well and in the United States. This exile community would swell over the years from a steady flow of Cubans that fled for a variety of reasons. Second were the American businesses whose properties had been nationalized. Third were conservatives to whom any man who called himself a Communist was anathema. And last was the matter of Castro's ties to the Soviet Union. For almost 140 years, the United States had followed the Monroe Doctrine to prevent meddling by European nations in the Western Hemisphere, yet now the United States' most dangerous adversary, the Soviet Union, had a toehold on an island only ninety miles offshore. The long and short of it was that regardless of the effect Castro's policies had in Cuba, they gave him many enemies and few friends in his giant neighbor to the north. He was not in an enviable position. Things would get worst once John Kennedy became president.
* * *
Lee Harvey Oswald was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on October 18, 1939. His parents, Robert Edward Lee Oswald and Marguerite Claverie Oswald, were married in the Lutheran church. It was the second marriage for both. Oswald's father died of a heart attack two months before his son was born.
Marguerite remarried, but this third marriage was not a happy one. She and Oswald's stepfather fought repeatedly. In January 1947 they moved to Fort Worth, Texas, but the fighting continued, and the marriage finally ended in divorce with a jury placing the blame on Marguerite.
In August 1952 she moved with Oswald to New York City to be close to another of her sons and his wife, who had an apartment there. By the time he was fourteen, Lee Oswald was running into trouble with authorities. Repeatedly truant from public school, he was placed in the Youth House for psychiatric study. According to the Warren Commission Report of President Kennedy's assassination, social workers at the Youth House found that Oswald "was a withdrawn, socially maladjusted boy, whose mother did not interest herself sufficiently in his welfare and had failed to establish a close relationship with him."
In January 1954, Marguerite and Lee Oswald returned to New Orleans. She apparently moved to get out of the jurisdiction of the New York court, which was bent on ordering her difficult son into custody. Lee stayed out of trouble once he was back in Louisiana but dropped out of high school in his sophomore year and went to work as a clerk and messenger for several companies.
In August 1956 Marguerite moved again to Fort Worth, and Oswald went with her. He reentered high school but only for a few weeks. Paradoxically, he wrote the Socialist Workers Party in New York, announcing that he was a Marxist and asking for more information on its youth league, and a few weeks later, when he turned seventeen, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. On the corps's aptitude tests, his overall score was two points below average but "significantly above average in reading and vocabulary and significantly below average in arithmetic and pattern analysis." He qualified on the M1 rifle as a sharpshooter, which, despite the impressive name, meant his aim was average for a marine.
Oswald spent his first few months in the corps in training at bases in San Diego, California; Jacksonville, Florida; and Biloxi, Mississippi. In July 1957 he shipped off for Japan, where he was assigned to air controller duties. This meant that in combat he would help direct marine pilots to enemy aircraft or ground targets. It was a tactically but not strategically important job. During his service in Asia, he was court-martialed twice. The first occasion was when he was struck by a bullet from his own pistol that fell from his locker onto the floor and discharged. He was court-martialed a second time for getting drunk and insulting a noncommissioned officer.
Throughout his time in the Marine Corps, Oswald continued his interest in Communism. He studied Russian, listened to Russian music, and subscribed to Russian newspapers. He also took an interest in Castro and the revolution that was under way in Cuba. Nelson Delgado, a fellow marine who knew Oswald when they were both stationed in Santa Ana, California, in 1959, testified that Oswald talked to him about going to Cuba to help Castro and about how to get there. Delgado said Oswald knew a little Spanish. He thought someone from the Cuban consulate in Los Angeles came to see Oswald once and spent about an hour and a half with him one night. In short in the Marine Corps, Oswald's disaffection with the U.S. government and his interest in Communism grew, although he may have done this at least in part to draw attention to himself and prove he was different from, and superior to, his peers.
On September 11, 1959, Oswald was discharged from the Marine Corps three months early on the basis of his claim that he needed to take care of his mother. In fact within a week he was on board the freighter the SS Marion Lykes, sailing from New Orleans to France. From there he wound his way through England and Fin- land bound for Moscow.
Oswald arrived in Moscow on October 16. Almost immediately he set about trying to defect to the Soviet Union, but it did not prove easy. Arguably despondent over the possibility that he would not be allowed to stay, Oswald slashed his wrist, an action that the Warren Commission referred to as "an apparent suicide attempt." This is an overstatement, however. Oswald slit a vein in his arm. A Russian doctor who treated Oswald later told the writer Norman Mailer that the wound was superficial. It was an inch long and required only four stitches. Oswald's mood at this time is reflected in a letter he wrote to his brother in America, saying, "I will never return to the United States which is a country I hate."
The Russians were suspicious. Oswald not only wanted to live in the Soviet Union; he also wanted citizenship. According to Russian documents turned over to the United States many years later, two other foreigners had previously been given citizenship and later left the country. The embarrassing incidents were not something the Russians wanted to repeat. Besides, they didn't know enough about Oswald.
Finally, on January 4, 1960, the Soviet government notified Oswald that he would be allowed to stay in the country but that his request for citizenship was denied. He was sent to Minsk, 450 miles southwest of Moscow, and told to report to work in a radio factory. Oswald was paid a salary, which was doubled by a special supplement, and given an unusually nice apartment at a low rent.
Oswald had higher aspirations. Sometime during this period, he applied for admission to the Patrice Lumumba Friendship University in Moscow. The university had been established by Nikita Khrushchev in 1960 for the stated purpose of educating "students from underdeveloped countries so they [could] return to their homelands to become the nucleus for pro-Soviet activities." In fact, as John Barron points out in his book KGB, the university was created as a front for educating students from Third World countries who might be useful to the Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB. The vice rector and many on the faculty were kgb officers. Academically promising students from Third World countries were typically not placed at Patrice Lumumba but rather at one of the many legitimate universities in the Soviet Union. Soviet experts at the CIA jokingly referred to Patrice Lumumba University as "TU" or Terrorist University because of the KGB sponsorship. In May 1961 Oswald was notified that his application was turned down because he was not from an underdeveloped country. But the fact that he knew of the university raises the possibility that he had met students from Third World countries such as Cuba who were attending.
About this time Oswald discovered he didn't like the Soviet Union any better than he liked the United States. On the first anniversary of his being told he could stay, he wrote in what he grandiosely called his "historic diary" that he was starting to reconsider his decision: "The work is drab. The money I get has nowhere to be spent. No nightclubs or bowling allys [SIC] not places of recreation acept [SIC] the trade union dances. I have had enough." In point of fact, the Central Committee had stipulated that the question of Oswald's receiving citizenship would be resolved after a year. Thus, while there is no record that such a decision was made, conceivably Oswald was told he would not be made a citizen, and his sudden unhappiness with the Soviet Union stemmed from this. In March 1961 Oswald met a nineteen-year-old Russian girl named Marina Prusakova at a dance in Minsk. They married within a month. She later told the Warren Commission that Oswald had expressed admiration for Castro even while they still lived in Russia.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder, Inc."
Copyright © 2019 James H. Johnston.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Chapter 1. Castro, Oswald, and Kennedy Chapter 2. The Bay of Pigs Chapter 3. Mongoose Chapter 4. Missile Crisis Chapter 5. The Brigade Chapter 6. Fidel and Hidell Chapter 7. Oswald in New Orleans Chapter 8. Assassins and Spies Chapter 9. AMLASH Chapter 10. Mexico City Chapter 11. Hubris Chapter 12. Carpe Diem Chapter 13. The Plot Accelerates Chapter 14. The Last Weekend Chapter 15. A Barrier Once Removed Chapter 16. John Kennedy and the Rogue Elephant Chapter 17. Washington, Paris, and Dallas Chapter 18. November 22, 1963 in Dallas Chapter 19. November 22, 1963 in Other Cities . Chapter 20. The Days After Chapter 21. The Investigation, What’s in a Name Chapter 22. The Investigation Sputters On Chapter 23. Regime Change Chapter 24. The Warren Report. Chapter 25. The Never Ending Investigations. Chapter 26. John Kennedy and the CIA Chapter 27. Lyndon Johnson and the CIA Appendix A. Where It Might Have Led Appendix B. Richard Helms Testimony on the Assassination Investigation Appendix C. Sources and Secret Files Acknowledgements Bibliography