Fidel Castro, the CIA, and John F. Kennedy’s Assassination

    It’s been 54 years since the assassination of JFK, and the mystery surrounding his death still haunts us.

    On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas—his wife Jackie at his side. 

    The shooter was revealed to be Lee Harvey Oswald, though even that fact has been disputed. Adding to the mystery, Lee Harvey Oswald was shot and killed two days later while in police custody by Jack Ruby—resulting in authorities never hearing the full story from Oswald's mouth, as he denied involvement during the initial interrogation.

    Numerous conspiracy theories have surfaced in the wake of Kennedy's death. One particularly bizarre theory centers on the so-called "Umbrella Man," who was said to have shot a poisoned dart into JFK’s neck, thus paralyzing the president so other gunmen could take him out. Errol Morris' short doc, "The Umbrella Man," does an excellent job at investigating this strange claim.

    The Warren Commission, which was established by Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the assassination, found that Oswald acted alone. However, in 1979, the United States House Committee on Assassinations concluded that Kennedy was “probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.” Additionally, the U.S. government recently released 52 previously closed documents pertaining to the JKF assassination through the National Archives—providing even more information for researchers and conspiracy theorists to scrutinize. 

    What really happened on that fateful day in Dallas? Pulitzer Prize finalist Anthony Summers produced one of the finest books on the JFK assassination. Not in Your Lifetime sifts through the evidence, including clues about the CIA and the Cuban and Soviet governments, hoping to make sense of the mystery that has puzzled the world for more than 50 years.  

    Read on for an excerpt from Not in Your Lifetime, and then download the book. 

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    Not in Your Lifetime

    Before Dallas, the President was to visit Chicago—on November 2—and Miami—on November 18. In Chicago, three days before Kennedy arrived, the Secret Service learned of a potential threat to his life. Police arrested a former marine with a history of mental illness named Thomas Vallee, who was found to be in possession of an M-1 rifle and three thousand rounds of ammunition. Vallee, a member of the John Birch Society, was an outspoken opponent of the Kennedy administration. According to a former Secret Service agent there was also another threat in Chicago, involving a four-man team armed with high-power rifles. One member of the team, the agent said, was a Hispanic.

    The visit to Chicago was canceled at the last minute, when crowds were already massing to greet the President. It is not clear whether the reason for the cancellation was a crisis following the assassination of President Diem in Vietnam, or because the President was feeling unwell—or in light of a murder threat.

    On November 6 in Dallas, Oswald left his note at the office of the FBI, the note Bureau officials would destroy after the assassination.8 On November 9, in Miami, the head of police intelligence sat listening to a fuzzy tape-recording of a conversation between a known right-wing extremist, Joseph Milteer, and a trusted police informant. The transcript, made later that day, ran as follows:

    Informant: I think Kennedy is coming here on the eighteenth, or something like that to make some kind of speech… .
    Milteer: You can bet your bottom dollar he is going to have a lot to say about the Cubans. There are so many of them here.  
    Informant: Yeah. Well, he will have about a thousand body guards, don’t worry about that.
    Milteer: The more bodyguards he has, the easier it is to get him.
    Informant: Well, how in the hell do you figure would be the best way to get him?
    Milteer: From an office building with a high-powered rifle He knows he’s a marked man… .
    Informant: They are really going to try to kill him?
    Milteer: Oh yeah, it is in the working.
    Informant: Boy, if that Kennedy gets shot, we have got to know where we are at. Because you know that will be a real shake if they do that.
    Milteer: They wouldn’t leave any stone unturned there, no way. They will pick somebody up within hours afterwards, if anything like that would happen. Just to throw the public off.

    Captain Charles Sapp, head of Miami’s Police Intelligence Bureau, and his team of a dozen detectives had worked closely with the Secret Service during a previous presidential visit to Miami. Now, with the President due on November 18—four days before the shots that would kill him in Dallas—Sapp had new cause to worry.

    Milteer, the extremist on the tape, was a wealthy agitator and member of a galaxy of ultra-right-wing groups including the National States Rights Party, which had close links to anti-Castro­ extremists. Sapp passed on the remark that the President’s assassination was “in the working” to other agencies. The Secret Service did check on Milteer’s whereabouts, and there was an assassination alert on November 18, when Kennedy arrived in Tampa, his first stop in Florida.

    The second stop was in Miami, where the President addressed the Inter-American Press Association about Cuba, a speech that—Arthur Schlesinger was to write—had been carefully crafted for listeners across the straits in Havana, Cuba.

    It was freighted with significance. “It is important to restate what divides Cuba from my country …” Kennedy told his listeners. “It is the fact that a small band of conspirators has stripped the Cuban people of their freedom and handed over the independence and sovereignty of the Cuban nation to forces beyond the hemisphere. They have made Cuba a victim of foreign imperialism … a weapon in an effort dictated by external powers to subvert the other American republics. This, and this alone, divides us. As long as this is true, nothing is possible. Without it, everything is possible… . Once Cuban sovereignty has been restored we will extend the hand of friendship and assistance.”

    This has become known as the “signal” speech. The headline over the UPI report of the speech in the following day’s newspapers was “Kennedy Virtually Invites Cuban Coup.” The report said the President had “all but invited the Cuban people to overthrow Fidel Castro’s Communist regime and promised prompt U.S. aid if they do… . The headline over the UPI report of the speech in the following day’s newspapers was “Kennedy Virtually Invites Cuban Coup.” The report said the President had “all but invited the Cuban people to overthrow Fidel Castro’s Communist regime and promised prompt U.S. aid if they do… . The President said it would be a happy day if the Castro government is ousted.”

    According to a 1976 Senate Intelligence Committee report, the CIA’s Desmond FitzGerald, had helped write the speech. Word was passed to Castro aide Rolando Cubela, with whom FitzGerald had met so recently to discuss the murder of the Cuban leader, that the reference to a “small band of conspirators” was to the Cuban government—a reference designed to reassure him that the President personally supported a coup.

    Whomever in Havana the “signal” message was precisely intended for—and it seems to this author that it sent encouragement to any and all of Castro’s enemies—it conflicted directly with the ongoing peace feelers entrusted to William Attwood. Even as the President flew home from Florida, Attwood was on his way to another tussle with the telephone in reporter Lisa Howard’s apartment. As they strove to nail down an acceptable formula for talks, he and Castro’s aide Vallejo had continued to be thwarted by telephone delays and broken connections. Now at last, in the early morning hours of November 19, they did have a proper conversation.

    According to a 1976 Senate Intelligence Committee report, the CIA’s Desmond FitzGerald, had helped write the speech. Word was passed to Castro aide Rolando Cubela, with whom FitzGerald had met so recently to discuss the murder of the Cuban leader, that the reference to a “small band of conspirators” was to the Cuban government—a reference designed to reassure him that the President personally supported a coup.

    Whomever in Havana the “signal” message was precisely intended for—and it seems to this author that it sent encouragement to any and all of Castro’s enemies—it conflicted directly with the ongoing peace feelers entrusted to William Attwood. Even as the President flew home from Florida, Attwood was on his way to another tussle with the telephone in reporter Lisa Howard’s apartment. As they strove to nail down an acceptable formula for talks, he and Castro’s aide Vallejo had continued to be thwarted by telephone delays and broken connections. Now at last, in the early morning hours of November 19, they did have a proper conversation.

    Though Attwood did not know it at the time, he was effectively speaking to Castro himself—the Cuban leader was seated at Vallejo’s side throughout the conversation. Castro still hoped a U.S. representative would come to Cuba. There was no way he could himself come to the United States, yet this was a matter only he could deal with. The Cuban side, for their part, would submit an agenda for the proposed talks. Castro gave an assurance, meanwhile, that Che Guevara, his close comrade and a hardliner who favored maintaining the relationship with the Soviets, would not be involved.

    Later on November 19, at an initial meeting with Castro in Havana, the French journalist Jean Daniel briefed the Cuban leader on his recent talk with President “Kennedy. For now, Castro responded, he could not discuss the future of Cuba’s links with Moscow. Nevertheless, he said, he saw new hope for a breakthrough in relations with the United States—under Kennedy as President.

    He still has the possibility,” Castro said, “of becoming, in the eyes of history, the greatest president of the United States, the leader who may at last understand that there can be coexistence between capitalists and socialists, even in the Americas… . I know, for example, that for Khrushchev, Kennedy is a man you can talk with… . Personally, I consider him responsible for everything, but I will say this: He has come to understand many things over the past few months; and then, too, in the last analysis, I’m convinced that anyone else would be worse.”

    When Daniel saw the President again, Castro added, he could “tell him that I’m willing to declare [leading Republican contender of the day Barry] Goldwater my friend if that will guarantee Kennedy’s reelection! … Since you are going to see Kennedy again, be an emissary of peace.”

    In the United States, meanwhile, William Attwood had called the White House to report on his latest stint on the phone to Cuba. Adviser McGeorge Bundy had again briefed the President. As had been mooted earlier, Attwood was to “see what could be done to effect a normalization of relationship.” The President would decide “what to say to Castro” and brief Attwood as soon as Havana came up with an agenda. Kennedy would not be leaving Washington, Bundy said, except for a brief visit to Texas …

    Dallas.

    not in your lifetime excerpt
    Ruby about to shoot Oswald who is being escorted by Dallas police detectives Jim Leavelle and L. C. Graves.
    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

    On November 21, according to an informant reporting to the Secret Service, a Cuban exile named Homer Echevarría fulminated against the President while negotiating a covert arms deal. The money for the guns would be ready shortly, he said, “as soon as we take care of Kennedy.” Later investigation would establish that Echevarría’s associate in the arms deal had been the military head of the DRE—that group again—and financing was coming from “hoodlum elements”—the Mafia.

    On the morning of November 22, CIA’s Cuba chief Desmond FitzGerald held a meeting to discuss plans—said to have been in their final stages—for Castro’s removal. The meeting was “the most important I ever had on the problem of Cuba,” recalled Enrique Ruiz-Williams, a Bay of Pigs veteran and member of the inner coterie of the administration’s anti-Castro deliberations.

    Were coup plans indeed in their final stages? “If Jack Kennedy had lived,” FitzGerald would tell colleagues four months after the assassination, “I can assure you we would have gotten rid of Castro by last Christmas.”

    On November 22, at a further meeting in Paris—with FitzGerald’s knowledge and approval—CIA case officer Nestor Sanchez handed Cubela—the presumed traitor—an alternative assassination device with which to kill Castro, a Paper Mate pen modified to serve as a poison syringe. Just two days earlier, barely twenty-four hours after John F. Kennedy had approved pressing on with peace feelers toward Castro, CIA technicians had worked through the night preparing the weapon. As Sanchez and Cubela ended their meeting, news came through that the President had been shot dead in Dallas.  

    Desmond FitzGerald died four years later, never having told official investigators of his role in the plots to kill Castro. According to his family, he would never afterward speak of the President’s assassination.

    Lisa Howard, the CBS journalist who had acted as go-between to Castro officials during the Attwood peace initiative, died two years after the assassination. “Lisa had seen herself as a Joan of Arc,” her friend Gore Vidal recalled, “rushing between the two sides to help bring peace. Castro had told her of the efforts by the CIA against him, and it upset her to think that the Kennedys had been talking peace when they were also out to do him in. I think all this is why Bobby never really wanted Jack’s assassination investigated. Because the more they dug up, the more quickly they would ask whether Castro had done it to forestall the Kennedys. And the Kennedys would come to be regarded as American Borgias.”

    not in your lifetime
    President Kennedy with Robert Kennedy, 1963.
    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

    Two hours after hearing that his brother was dead, Robert Kennedy placed a call to the Ebbitt Hotel on H Street NW, in Washington, DC, a nondescript establishment the CIA used to lodge Cuban exiles. His call was to the room of Enrique Ruiz-Williams, just back from the meeting to discuss plans for Castro’s violent overthrow and now in conversation with the author Haynes Johnson, who was working on a book about the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy spoke with them both, and said something remarkable. “Kennedy was utterly in control of his emotions when he came on the line,” Johnson was to write, and was studiedly brisk as he said, ‘One of your guys did it.’ ” The public face of alleged assassin Oswald, of course, was the very opposite of an anti-Castro activist.

    Robert Kennedy flailed around in his immediate first suspicions. “At the time,” he was to tell his aide Walter Sheridan, “I asked [CIA director] McCone … if they had killed my brother, and I asked him in a way that he couldn’t lie to me, and they hadn’t.” McCone was a Kennedy appointee, though, and some of those handling the dark side of anti-Castro operations may not have kept him fully informed. The President’s brother came to realize that.

    On December 9, 1963, Arthur Schlesinger discussed the assassination with Robert Kennedy. “I asked him, perhaps tactlessly, about Oswald. He said that there could be no serious doubt that he was guilty, but there was still argument whether he did it by himself or as a part of a larger plot, whether organized by Castro or by gangsters. He said that the FBI thought he had done it by himself, but that McCone thought there were two people involved in the shooting.”

    In spite of his doubts, Robert played no role in the ensuing investigation, although as Attorney General he was the nation’s senior law officer. “There was no way of getting to the bottom of the assassination,” wrote Harris Wofford, a former special assistant in the Kennedy White House, “without uncovering the very stories he hoped would be hidden forever. So he closed his eyes and ears to the cover-up that he knew (or soon discovered) [former CIA Director] Allen Dulles was perpetrating on the Warren Commission, and took no steps to inform the Commission of the Cuban and Mafia connections that would have provided the main clues to any conspiracy.”

    Further inquiries were undesirable, the President’s brother told William Attwood, for “reasons of national security.”

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    Featured image: Wikipedia

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