DAVID KAISER - THE ROAD TO DALLAS: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy



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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Despite the government's best efforts, hundreds of books humping the lame theory, the artful lies of conniving politicians, shrill hectoring from true believers and the implausible conclusions of several commissions and so-called experts on this and that forensic matter, I have never bought into the premise that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone nutjob who acted without direction or fellow plotters in murdering President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.

The goal of the fumbling Warren Commission and its laughable conclusions immediately following the assassination was not to find out who concocted the murder of a president and why. It was to soothe a nation in danger of coming undone.

Almost every time they take a poll on JFK's assassination, the results show a majority of fellow Americans believe as I do. The events of that awful November weekend stand out so clearly in the memory of older Americans, it seems impossible the 45th anniversary of that despicable act is only four months away. There will be plenty of recollections and columns such as this one.

Time molds history, and history often sweeps away the mists of confusion. Powerful people with something to lose if the real story comes out -- and an interest in covering up the truth -- eventually die off. Geoffrey Chaucer was correct: Murder will out.

Now, a most interesting book on the JFK killing -- much better than almost all the rest -- was published a few months ago by Harvard University Press. It is "The Road to Dallas," by respected historian David Kaiser, a professor at the Naval War College who teaches strategy and policy. It is 509 pages long, costs $35, and is well worth the time and money.

It clearly makes one of the many theories advanced throughout the ensuing decades exceedingly probable: The Mob did it, with moral and tactical support from anti-Castro Cuban exiles -- angry at JFK for botching the Bay of Pigs invasion and failing to topple Fidel -- who were trying to provoke a new invasion of Cuba by making it appear the bearded dictator was behind it all.

As the author correctly states in the introduction, "most of those who believed that Oswald was the assassin ... have argued vehemently, in the face of a great deal of contrary evidence, that he acted without any help or encouragement from anyone."

No way. John F. Kennedy, states the author on Page 2, "was assassinated by a conspiracy for which Lee Harvey Oswald was simply the trigger man."

Continues Kaiser: "A conspiracy of mobsters and misfits got away with assassinating a president." The House Select Committee on Assassinations and its chief counsel G. Robert Blakey reached the same conclusion 15 years after the assassination, but this book explains in much clearer language and detailed connections why and how.

How did Kaiser shed new light on such old questions? Unlike some authors and historians, he actually read the source material. It didn't draw much attention from preoccupied media in a frenetic election year, but some three decades after the foul deed, the Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 released a veritable mountain of documents on all aspects of the Kennedy murder:

  • All the original FBI files on the investigation of the assassination.
  • FBI files on numerous key organized crime figures, including Carlos Marcello, Sam Giancana, Santo Trafficante, John Martino, Jimmy Hoffa and Johnny Roselli.
  • Materials the CIA provided to the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1977-78, and the HSCA's own extensive investigative files.
  • CIA files on a large number of Cuban exiles and exile groups.
  • All the original testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities (the Church Committee) of 1975-76, convened to study federal government violations of law in its intelligence operations.

This trove of official material has been sifted by some (not as many as one might expect) writers and historians in the intervening years, but by none exhibiting Kaiser's dogged approach, application of logic, clear writing style, understandable presentation and impressive analytical ability.

Meticulously footnoted throughout, "The Road to Dallas" also forthrightly draws a clear connection between JFK's womanizing in the White House with motivations by organized crime to kill him.

Both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations -- recognizing that prominent Mob chieftains were losing hundreds of millions of dollars after Castro's revolution shut down the Cuban casinos they were running -- foolishly let the CIA climb into bed with known mobsters by hiring them to knock off Castro.

The crime bosses failed, of course. (Fidel Castro has now held power for almost 50 years, longer than any other political leader of the 20th century, and as Kaiser points out, has survived a strong U.S. embargo, hundreds of assassination attempts, the fall of his Soviet Communist patrons and nine U.S. presidents.) But the incredible alliance between the criminal underworld and the federal government spelled disaster for Kennedy.

Frank Sinatra -- by now demonstrably well-connected to the Mafia -- in February of 1960 introduced his friend JFK (still a senator and campaigning to be president) to a beautiful brunette Californian divorcee, Judith Campbell Exner, in Las Vegas. This woman and JFK began an affair about two weeks later in New York City. Just a few days later, Sinatra invited her to Miami Beach's famed Fontainebleau Hotel, where she met Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana, one of the Mob leaders recruited by the government to help kill Castro.

"She continued to see both Kennedy and Giancana during 1960," writes Kaiser. In 1961, she also "began spending time with John Roselli," according to the FBI records relied upon by the author. Roselli was the gangster perhaps most actively involved in recruiting Castro assassins (six different failed plots between 1960 and 1963: two poisonings and four shootings).

In later years Roselli hinted publicly so many times -- usually in journalist Jack Anderson's column -- that there were more figures behind JFK's death than just Lee Harvey Oswald, the Church Committee in 1976 called him to testify. In a roundabout way, Roselli linked Santo Trafficante to the Castro assassination plots. Two months later Roselli disappeared and his body was found floating in an oil drum off the Miami coast. Giancana, contacted in 1975 about testifying before the Church Committee, was already dead by the time Roselli died -- having been rubbed out in 1975 with seven shots to the face and head in the basement of his Chicago home, a still unsolved murder.

Giancana, who had contributed to JFK's 1960 campaign, was perhaps the all-time record holder for being wiretapped by the FBI. During the Kennedy years, he was bugged several times spewing resentment over the actions of the president's younger brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, in zealously targeting top organized crime members for prosecution.

By early 1962, the FBI was aware of Judith Campbell's affairs with both Giancana and Roselli, and in checking her Los Angeles phone records, learned she had been calling JFK's White House secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, in late 1961. Further investigation by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's sleuths revealed that corrupt Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, Bobby Kennedy's top crime target, knew about the president's affair. The FBI learned that Hoffa, writes Kaiser, had hired the nation's best private wiretappers to gather "information about West Coast prostitutes who might have slept with either John or Robert Kennedy -- information that Hoffa felt would allow him to 'bury' the Kennedys."

The avalanche of wiretap recordings also showed the FBI something else -- that "news of the President's indiscretions, indeed, had traveled through mob circles around the country."

One unidentified mobster is heard asking, "Since when is f--king a federal offense? And if it is, I want the President indicted, because I know he was whacking all those broads Sinatra brought him out. ... I would gladly go to the penitentiary for the rest of my life, believe me," the hood continued, if he could manage to kill Kennedy.

Kaiser notes: "Having accepted favors, he seemed to be saying, the Kennedys had no right to move so hard against the mob."

The author, in a final chapter labeled "Conclusion," agrees with the House Select Committee on Assassinations chief counsel, Robert Blakey, that "John Kennedy, because he accepted women as favors through Frank Sinatra (and perhaps in other contexts as well), had lost the immunity from retaliation that truly incorruptible public officials generally enjoyed."

Kaiser also points to the Central Intelligence Agency: "By enlisting these very mob leaders to assassinate Fidel Castro in 1960, the CIA had inevitably weakened any inhibition about killing a head of government. In addition, Robert Kennedy's campaign against the mob -- fought with every available weapon, and without many of the legal tools that later became available -- fell outside traditional rules as well. The attorney general indicted suspected mobsters for any offense, no matter how trivial. When he discovered in 1962 that he could not indict Giancana because of his CIA connection, he pushed the FBI surveillance of him even harder."

All these Mob capos knew, writes Kaiser, that Jimmy Hoffa's comment about the attorney general and president's little brother -- "that Robert Kennedy would not rest until Hoffa was behind bars -- was true for them as well. These were desperate times that called for desperate measures."

Hoffa -- referred to by mob bosses as "Marteduzzo" (the Little Hammer) -- pops up in every chapter. Facing long imprisonment under Bobby Kennedy's ruthless inquisition, in July of 1963 Hoffa urges Trafficante and Marcello -- through Hoffa's lawyer Frank Ragano (also Trafficante's attorney) -- "to get rid of him, kill that son-of-a-bitch John Kennedy. This has got to be done."

I think David Kaiser, who also sprinkles condemning mid-1963 mobster quotes throughout the book specifically predicting JFK's imminent death in Dallas, has hit the nail right on the head in confirming the astute Blakey's earlier investigation and conclusion that organized crime was primarily behind the murder. In the minds of Mob leaders, they had ample motivation.

After all, here were tough and hardened criminals who had not only supported the president's election with money, but had become business partners with Kennedy's government in illegal and murderous pursuits in what they saw as a semi-patriotic yet profitable venture, who had let him screw their women, who had warned his younger brother to back off his pursuit of trusted associates, who had sent their emissary Sinatra to both brothers to plead for a break, and watched it fall on deaf ears -- and yet the humiliation and business loss continued. This violated all their codes of behavior, skewed as they may have been from the norm.

The author also shows something of which many students of the assassination have been ignorant -- that Lee Harvey Oswald's family had lifelong connections with organized crime through Oswald's maternal uncle Charles "Dutz" Murret, a bookie who operated under New Orleans chief Carlos Marcello. Oswald spent the first four years of his life growing up in Murret's home, and routinely took loans and favors from his connected uncle as an adult.

Kaiser also smoothly weaves Jack Ruby -- the strip club owner and lowlife mobster who rubbed out Oswald on national TV two days after the assassination so he couldn't talk -- into lifelong association with organized crime. "Ruby had connections to all three of the most likely mob conspirators," he writes, and the author even recounts Ruby sneaking into Cuba in 1959 to visit Santo Trafficante in a Cuban jail. Ruby grew up "with Giancana's Chicago mob and still kept up with some of its members." Ruby's dingy strip clubs in Dallas, later probes showed, were "a subsidiary branch of Marcello's New Orleans empire."

Ruby (real name Jacob Rubinstein) told Dallas detectives he killed Oswald because he wanted to spare the grieving Jackie Kennedy the painful necessity of returning to Texas to testify at the Oswald murder trial for her husband's assassination -- an obvious crock later proved to have been provided Ruby by his first public defender as an extemporaneous, on-the-spot excuse. Ruby, the author believes, took out Oswald at the Mob's direction.

This is a dynamite book -- understandable, readable and as vivid as the best crime novels. Only this hit job happened. And it changed our world.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com July 1 2008