The partial release of the remaining documents in the government’s Kennedy assassination archive has revived an old legend: the Russian orchestration of the president’s murder. All it took was a few new tidbits from CIA and FBI reports about Lee Harvey Oswald’s visit to the Soviet embassy in Mexico City in September 1963.
Let’s suppose the plot was hatched when Oswald showed up at the embassy door in September 1963, just two months before John Kennedy was killed. The president’s Nov. 22 trip to Dallas hadn’t been set by then; Oswald didn’t have a job at the Texas Book Depository. To pull off the assassination, Russian case-handlers must have been not just evil cold warriors, but puppeteers possessed of amazing luck and clairvoyance.
Oswald went to Mexico seeking a Cuban visa. In the 20 minutes he spent with a KGB operative, he did not exactly present the image of a sophisticated hit man. But with their special powers, the puppeteers could no doubt ignore the cardinal rule in the recruitment of any foreign agent, much less a president’s assassin: reliability and access.
Oswald was well-known to the Soviets as a whack-job. They had embraced him when he attempted to defect to Russia in November 1959, awarding him with a handsome stipend. But it didn’t take. In the first year he spent in Minsk, he did not turn out to be the anti-American poster child they had imagined, and they yanked his financial support. Oswald was disgruntled too. Life in the Soviet Union was not all it was cracked up to be. He wanted to go home. His dossier, in which he was assessed as totally unreliable, remained in Russia.
The Russians could also have found out that Oswald had broken another rule of espionage shortly before he arrived in Mexico. A month earlier, he had made a spectacle of himself in New Orleans, handing out leaflets with other left wingers in the cause of Fair Play for Cuba, and had gotten himself arrested and photographed by the police.
But never mind, even if this walk-on was crazy and unreliable, the Soviet puppeteers could overlook that.
Here’s where their clairvoyance comes in. They must have known Kennedy would be coming to Dallas even before Kennedy knew it. The trip was still being debated that September: Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Johnson, and his United Nations ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, who had been physically abused in Dallas, were leery about the Texas event. Perhaps Dallas, with its right-wing nuts, was just too dangerous a place for the glamorous, liberal president to speak just then.
So the puppeteers had to know in September that Kennedy’s vanity would overrule the worrywarts. They had to know the president’s motorcade would pass right in front of the Texas Book Depository, even though the route was announced only three days before the trip. They had to know that their man would be able to get a job in the depository, and that on the sixth floor of that facility was an empty store room, perfect for an assassin’s nest. (There is so far no evidence that Oswald ever met or contacted a case-handler after Mexico City.)
Getting their man hired at the Texas Book Depository would have been crucial. He got the job just five weeks before the event. How did they manage it? Perhaps we’ll learn the answer when the redacted portions of the withheld documents are revealed.
The Russians’ magical powers keep piling up. Maybe instead of clairvoyance, it was their skill that established the motorcade route to coincide with the depository. This would mean they had penetrated the highest levels of Washington and Austin.
In the weeks before the November trip, hush-hush negotiations were underway between the White House and the office of the Texas governor, John Connally. For security reasons, the FBI wanted the president to speak at the auditorium in the Texas fairgrounds. It was larger and safer. But Connally insisted on the Merchandise Mart, a smaller facility but more pleasing to his big-business supporters. No, said the FBI, the Merchandise Mart was harder to secure.
No doubt it was the Russian puppeteers that made sure the FBI lost the argument, and Connally won. That way, instead of the president’s motorcade speeding through Dealey Plaza a full block away from the depository, it had to slow down to turn right onto Houston Street, and then slow even further a block later to turn left onto Elm Street in front of the depository to get to the Stemmons Freeway and then the chosen venue. The route was critical to the success of the conspiracy. Oswald wasn’t a good enough shot to have succeeded without the turns and the slow speed.
And finally, there was the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle they must have had Oswald purchase through the mail. Not exactly a professional hitman’s weapon of choice.
The Russian conspiracy theory is absurd.
It is no mystery why the majority of Americans believe that some grand plot, probably orchestrated by a foreign power, was behind the assassination of President Kennedy. For the greatest crime of the 20th century and perhaps of all American history, we demand a conspiracy of equivalent magnitude. That is the comfortable and lazy thing to believe.
Unfortunately, the real answer still lies in the demented mind of a wretched little man with a ninth-grade education, whose life was hopeless, and who was driven by anger, grudges and delusion.
James Reston Jr. is the author of “The Accidental Victim: JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the Real Target in Dallas.” A senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, and an Army intelligence officer from 1965 to 1968, his latest book is “A Rift in the Earth: Art, Memory, and the Fight for a Vietnam Memorial.”
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