Monday, April 14, 2014

"A Cruel and Shocking Act" by Philip Shenon (2013)

If you believe that President Kennedy was killed by a lone assassin named Lee Harvey Oswald, then this is the book you have been waiting for. On the other hand, if you believe that President Kennedy was a victim of a conspiracy, then this is the book for you. Author Philip Shenon has gathered the memories of all the surviving staff members who assisted the Warren Commission in compiling its report, and in doing so has only bolstered the beliefs of both sides.

The Warren Commission Report was initiated by President Johnson, who later opined to Walter Cronkite that he believed there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, and therefore did not believe in the findings of the commission he himself had created. It was never signed by the man who chaired it; Chief Justice Earl Warren, who suppressed evidence in order to wrap things up neatly. And, finally, it was signed reluctantly by the man who would, 11 years later become the first unelected President of the United States, Gerald Ford.

If you ever want to explain why Americans don’t really trust their government, and embrace conspiracy theories in the first place, you have only to look at the dysfunction of the Warren Commission to prove your point. The infighting between the various agencies; such as the FBI and the CIA to withhold evidence and sources from one another, as well as the commission, are perfect examples.

The book goes into detail about the connection of Oswald’s supposed Mexican visit, which produced no known photos of him at either of the embassies he supposedly visited, raising the possibility of a double agent. His relationship with Silvia Duran, of the Cuban Embassy is also explored.

Of particular interest are the deals made by Marina Oswald in the days immediately surrounding her husband’s death at the hands of Jack Ruby. She sold her husband’s diary without even telling the police that there was one. She also burned what she thought to be the only copies of the now iconic photos of her husband posing with a rifle, handgun and a Communist newspaper. The fact that there were so many other copies floating about in the days before digital scanning, etc. makes me wonder. Who else had copies of these photos and why?

Her take from the various book deals and magazine articles amounted to about $300,000 in today’s dollars. She fired her business manager, James Martin, after having a brief affair with him while living in his home. She ended the affair by calling his wife and telling her that her husband was no longer employed as her manager, or lover.

Marina Oswald wasn’t the only widow taking in some immediate cash. Jackie Kennedy began work on her book with Arthur Schlesinger before the Warren Commission was even done with their report. The commission was not even going to call upon her for her testimony; wishing to spare her the ordeal; until they got wind of the book. If she could talk about it for money, then she could appear before the Commission. Still, when it came time to depose her, they went to her home in Georgetown, where she was living at the time.

Robert Kennedy would only appear before the Commission by a series of letters; ones which he wrote himself. The first one was a request from Chief Justice Earl Warren to him; written by RFK asking him to submit a reply. The Chief Justice signed that request and sent it back to RFK. A pre-approved reply was then sent to the Chief Justice.

The portion of the investigation dealing with Jack Ruby is a true riddle. The man had the opportunity to kill Oswald on Friday night at the infamous “news conference” at the City Jail, where he was paraded before the press. Ruby even took part in that event when he corrected DA Henry Wade on the correct name of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. He was that well known to the local police, yet no one noticed him entering the building on Sunday morning when he was finally able to kill Oswald.

Ruby ended up deranged before and during his trial for killing Oswald. He believed that since he had murdered Oswald the Jews of America were being tortured in retaliation. He was clearly insane; even judged to be so; yet he was still sentenced to death for his crime. He died before the sentence could be carried out. His chapter remains one of the most controversial among conspiracy theorists.

Arlen Specter, the architect of the “magic bullet” theory; which says that one pristine bullet caused 7 wounds to both Kennedy and Governor Connally before landing underneath a rubber mat on the gurney at Parkland hospital; is portrayed as an adequate investigator. His theory was doubted by just about everyone on the Commission. It has been the subject of numerous recreations using the latest technology to prove its validity. But think about this; if you intentionally set out to prove a theory correct, you must first start out by accepting that theory to be true. If you believe it to be false it is just as easy to prove that as well.

One of the most interesting events to come out of the Warren Commission’s investigation occurred when William Coleman; the lone African-American working for the Committee; went to a secret rendezvous off of Cuba to meet Castro and ask him; face to face; whether or not he, or the Russians, had anything to do with the President’s murder.

Castro had told the press in October of 1963 that the American government was targeting him for assassination; which they were under Operation Mongoose a black op being run by the CIA. He also promised to retaliate in kind; which many people think is actually what happened; Operation Mongoose got reversed by right wing factions within the United Sates, making Kennedy the target instead.

The most interesting thing about Coleman’s encounter is that he already knew Castro from the Cuban leader’s visits to New York, which had begun as early as the 1940’s. Apparently Coleman had met him in Harlem at the jazz clubs when Castro was on his honeymoon in 1948. They were both jazz fans. When they met again in 1964 aboard a Cuban navy boat, they discussed that visit and music before getting down to business. Castro denied any involvement in the murder, and Mr. Coleman took him at face value.

The investigators themselves; along with the 7 Committee members themselves, were often at odds over the direction and progress of the Commission. Some wanted to focus on the foreign conspiracy aspect of the crime more than others. As a result of the pre-determined outcome of the report; it must sate that Oswald acted alone, this was understood by all; any leads not leading back to Oswald as the sole shooter, were given short shrift.

Commission investigator Jim Liebeler was a hard working staff member. But he still found time to attempt the seduction of both Marina Oswald and Silvia Odio; the Cuban woman in Texas who claimed to have seen Oswald in the company of 2 other Latino men prior to the assassination. Silvia Odio is a possible key to the unexplored portions of Oswald’s Mexico City trip.

The other Silvia in this story is Silvia Duran, who was taken into custody within hours of the assassination by Mexican police at the request of the CIA. She was beaten and tortured in an effort to find out what she knew about Oswald and his activities there in Mexico.

All of these loose ends are what have Mr. Shenon concerned; and rightfully so; that there are still unexplored leads to the murder of President Kennedy in 1963. The latest ones involve Elena and Helena Garro, a mother daughter team who claim to have attended a party at which Oswald was present in Mexico prior to the assassination.

Whatever your beliefs about the Kennedy assassination may be, this book delivers all of the excitement you have come to expect from the crime which just won’t be solved. Mr. Shenon has done his homework well, and as a result has delivered an exciting book about the scenes behind the Warren Commission and the men who served on it.

In the end, it is also the story of the Warren Commission Report; a report which the Chief Justice for whom it was named refused to sign; and was only signed by Gerald Ford, who never believed it to be correct. And 11 years later he would become the first un-elected President of the United States.

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