Kennedy and Communism


On November 22, it will be 50 years since I sat in my typing-for-infants class and heard a radio voice coming over the PA system. “There are reports,” it said, “that shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas, Texas.” My teacher, a model of business efficiency, concluded very plausibly that someone in the principal’s office was playing around with the equipment. Unfortunately, she was wrong.

I can’t say that I regard Kennedy’s death as a world-historical event. He was a brighter and, to me, a much more interesting and sympathetic personality than his kinfolk or most of the other political figures of the time. Several times in his life he faced the virtual certainty of death, and faced it with courage and cheerfulness. He learned enough about economics to advocate a large tax cut that vastly increased the nation’s wealth. He also helped to get us into the Cuban missile crisis — and then rather skillfully got us out of it. I don’t know what he would have done about Vietnam. I do know that he fostered a cult of military masculinity (fifty-mile hikes!) that produced some very sorry thinking and acting. He believed that Robert McNamara was a real smart guy; he had a soft spot for can-do fools like that. The scion of a gangsterlike family, he plotted to make his brother Robert and then his brother Edward presidents after him. He lied habitually and outrageously about almost every aspect of his own life. He accepted the Pulitzer Prize for a book he didn’t write, and became angry when people suggested that he hadn’t written it. There is reason to believe that in 1960 he was able to defeat his good friend Richard Nixon because his allies in Texas and Illinois stuffed the ballot boxes for him. Sadly, the evil part of Kennedy’s legacy was passed along, and amplified; most of the good died with him.

About the assassination I have little to say. To my mind, David Ramsay Steele made a conclusive case for Oswald as the sole assassin; see his article in Liberty in November 2003. Since then, no evidence has been discovered that threatens Steele’s argument, and much analysis has confirmed it. I am bothered, however, by something closely connected with the assassination (but not with Kennedy himself), something that appears not to bother anyone else. It is a strange idea: the idea that communism was never of any significance in America; that either there weren’t any communists or they never really did much of anything (such as killing President Kennedy). Even intelligent and well-disposed people believe this.

Sadly, the evil part of Kennedy’s legacy was passed along, and amplified; most of the good died with him.

But of course there were communists, and they did lots of things. They were very busy bees. It’s not for nothing that the 1930s were once called the Red Decade in American intellectual life, or that a ton of intellectual autobiographies were written from the standpoint of “I was a communist although later I quit.” About communist influence in the popular media during the 1930s and 1940s, take a look at Red Star Over Hollywood by Ronald and Allis Radosh — and even the Radoshes couldn’t get all the red influences into a book. In 1948, the Democratic Party was split by a conflict between anticommunists, communists, and communist stooges; out of it came the Progressive Party, an outfit managed by communists and their friends. Its presidential candidate was the former vice president of the United States, Henry Wallace. In 1956, there were still American intellectuals fighting it out over the issue of whether Khrushchev should have trashed the memory of Stalin.

How does all this connect with Kennedy? The connection is that the person who shot him, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a communist activist. Oswald defected to the Soviet Union and upon returning to the United States became a professional defender of Castro. He denied being “a communist” but proclaimed himself “a Marxist.” He had his picture taken holding a gun in one hand and militant literature in another; his wife wrote “Hunter of fascists” on the back of it. Oswald lay in wait for and attempted to murder Edwin Walker, a rightwing general. When the fervently anticommunist President Kennedy came to Dallas, Oswald succeeded in murdering him. Now, why do you think he did that? Do you think that communism might not have had something to do with it?

According to most conspiracy theories, however, Oswald either didn’t shoot Kennedy at all, or he was the least important member of a murder group that had nothing to do with communism. The theorists believe that Kennedy was murdered by rightwing CIA operatives, or rightwing oil companies, or rightwing militarists — anyone on the right will do. Even sensible people have trouble with the simple notion that Oswald was a freak for communism. Consider Fred Kaplan, writing for the Washington Post on November 14. Kaplan says that he himself, in his callow youth, accepted various conspiracy theories, only to discover that they weren’t decently based on fact. (I can say something similar about my own intellectual development.) But then he says:

The only remaining mystery, really, is Oswald’s motives — and yet, here too, no convincing evidence has emerged that links his action to the Mafia, the CIA, the Cubans, or anything of the sort. The most persuasive theory I’ve read — first put forth in a New York Review of Books article by Daniel Schorr (later reprinted in his book Clearing the Air) — is that Oswald killed Kennedy, believing the deed would earn him favor with Castro. But who knows? The mystery at the heart of the matter (why did Oswald do it?) remains unsolved.

“Really”? Do people talk this way about Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley because Czolgosz was an anarchist and McKinley wasn’t? Do people talk this way about Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President Garfield because Garfield failed to gratify Guiteau’s insane idea that he deserved to be appointed ambassador to France? Do people talk this way about John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln because Wilkes was a supporter of the Confederacy and Lincoln had just destroyed it? Do people talk this way about . . . oh, why go on? If a member of the American Nazi Party, or the NRA, or even the PTA had killed John F. Kennedy, there would be no “unsolved mystery.”

The real mystery is why even well-meaning, well-educated Americans can’t just accept communism for what it was (and is): a political movement capable of interesting people and inspiring them, even inspiring them to violent action — which it has often praised and rewarded. Oswald killed Kennedy because Oswald was a communist, and acted up to it.

So silly is the cover-up-the-communists routine that the hosts of movies on my beloved Turner Classics are always alleging that someone was “blacklisted” or otherwise injured by “accusations” of communism, without ever wondering — just as a subject of curiosity, now that we’re discussing old so-and-so’s difficult life — whether he or she may actually have been a communist.

And speaking of cultural authorities, I recently (don’t ask me why) looked up the Wikipedia article on Ed Sullivan, the prune-faced impresario of early television song-and-dance shows, and discovered that its account of Sullivan’s life occupies itself mightily with the question of whether Sullivan excluded communists from his program. I have to admit that I am an agnostic on this grave moral issue. If I were Ed Sullivan, maybe I’d have had communists on my show, and maybe I wouldn’t have. I probably would have, if they were good enough dancers — but if you substitute “Nazis” for “communists” in this thought experiment, fewer people would say that my decision should be obvious. But look at what the Wikipedia entry says: “[A] guest who never appeared on the show because of the controversy surrounding him was legendary black singer-actor Paul Robeson, who . . . was undergoing his own troubles with the US entertainment industry's hunt for Communist sympathizers.”

If a member of the American Nazi Party, or the NRA, or even the PTA had killed John F. Kennedy, there would be no “unsolved mystery.”

All right; I guess so. But Robeson didn’t need to be “hunted”; everybody knew where he was on the ideological spectrum. And his politics ensured that he had other troubles, of the intellectual and moral kind, troubles far worse than not getting on the Ed Sullivan show. The facts are simple. Robeson had a great voice. He could even act. He was also America’s best-known communist. He was proud of this morally repellent role. Accepting the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953, he said, among many other things:

I have always insisted — and will insist, even more in the future on my right to tell the truth as I know it about the Soviet peoples: of their deep desires and hopes for peace, of their peaceful pursuits of reconstruction from the ravages of war, as in historic Stalingrad; and to tell of the heroic efforts of the friendly peoples in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, great, new China and North Korea — to explain, to answer the endless falsehoods of the warmongering press with clarity and courage.

For Robeson’s tribute to the “deep kindliness and wisdom” of Joseph Stalin, go here.

Wikipedia’s own page on the “Political Views of Paul Robeson” does its best for him, but it concludes, “At no time during his retirement (or his life) is Paul Robeson on record of mentioning any unhappiness or regrets about his beliefs in socialism or the Soviet Union nor did he ever express any disappointment in its leaders including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Moreover, only a few sources out of hundreds interviewed and researched by two of his biographers Martin Duberman and Lloyd Brown agreed with the claims made in the mainstream media of Robeson's supposed embitterment over the USSR.”

Why bring these things up? Mainly because there’s a significant historical question at stake: were there communists or not, and were they important or not? That’s enough, but there are political reasons too. The abolition of communism from American history has been a way of arousing sympathy for the authoritarian Left and any ideas or people associated with it. It has been a way of keeping the Left from self-criticism, the kind of criticism that, one is given to believe, would automatically lead to such excesses as “witch-hunts” against “alleged communists.” Denying the presence of communism has been a way of obeying the old slogan, “No Enemies on the Left.” There is a danger here, similar to the danger of forgetting the sometime appeal of fascism.

This month witnessed another anniversary besides that of the Kennedy assassination. Thirty-five years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978, a man named Jim Jones engineered the murder-suicide of more than 900 people, mostly Americans, at Jonestown, Guyana. People think of Jones as some kind of offbeat Christian who got a little more offbeat. What he did is regarded as a warning against religious cultism. But he wasn’t, and it isn’t. Jones was a political agitator who used a pretense of religion — and it was a pretty feeble pretense — to sell what he called “revolutionary communism.” This approach enabled him to become a major player in San Francisco politics. Some of his fellow politicians covered up for him, ignoring or denying his communism; others were actually inspired by him — by his politics, not by his “religion.”

If you go to yet another Wikipedia page — “Peoples Temple” — you will learn a lot of things about this, although you won’t learn why the Jonestown episode isn’t seen as Americans’ most impressive and also most disastrous attempt to build a communist utopia. Yet the take-home message can still be found. It appears in the clichéd slogan that was posted behind the speaker’s stand from which Jones delivered his death decrees: “Those Who Do Not Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It.”

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Scott Robinson

First, I must admit that I haven't done any more research on JFK's asassination than watch Oliver Stone's movie and see the recent special on CNN. So, I should heed your advice, Jon Harrison, and study the many research publications about this, maybe first the often metioned Warren Report.

Second, I also am suprised about the nonconsideration of communism when discussing Lee Harvey Oswald's motivation or the reasonability of him being the lone suspect in the crime. When I saw the CNN documentary, I found it unbelievable that Oswald was dishornorably discharged from the Marines, defected to the USSR, denounced his US citizenship, was rejected by the KGB, and then somehow just left the USSR after living there for a while and was given back his citizenship and a ticket to America. Really, the same America that had McCarthyism that every middle and high school student reads about? This gives support, in my mind, to the conspiracy theory of Roger S (I don't remember his full last name) that LBJ orchestrated the asassination of JFK and that Lee Harvey Oswald was just the convienent patsy.

I agree with you Steve, conspiracy theories are really a definition of impossibility. I have critically considered the possiblity of some conspiracy theory explanations, and they require that there is some "sumpreme orchestrator" who jumps through a dozen hoops while juggling six balls to get many different people to fulfil his or her wishes. It is better, although perversely unsatisfying, to take the simple, straight forward explanation. It still leaves the need to explain Oswald's defection/refection and what's the full, true story. I'll have to check out David Ramsay Steele's article. Do you suggest any others?

Happy Thanksgiving,

Stephen Cox

Thank you, Scott, and happy Thanksgiving to you. I do have some suggestions about books on the assassination:

Gerald Posner, Case Closed
Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History, and his later, more accessible Four Days in November
Jean Davison, Oswald’s Game (now available in Kindle)
A very good book about the life of John Kennedy is Thomas Reeves, A Question of Character. Despite the moralistic title, this is not a sensationalistic book, although it includes what people call “sensational revelations.” It’s a book of considerable human interest.

By the way, the Liberty review by Jon Harrison, to which Jon refers below, is in our Nov. 2007 issue:

Jon Harrison

Thank you, Mr. Robinson, for admitting at the outset that you are virtually ignorant of the facts in this case. That is the first step toward knowledge.

I am not going to make a long argument here refuting my friend Steve, who is an intelligent and erudite gentleman, but obviously has conducted no research of any consequence into the JFK assassination.

What I will do here is provide a list of books and articles that will allow you to begin (begin only, I stress) to comprehend the facts of this case.

1) "Breach of Trust" by Gerald McKnight (Univ. of Kansas Press, 2005).

2) "Spy Saga" by Philip Melanson (Praeger, 1990)

3) "Six Seconds in Dallas" by Josiah Thompson (Bernard Geis, 1967)

4) "Deadly Secrets" by Hinckle and Turner (Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992)

5) "Brothers" by David Talbot (Free Press, 2007) - reviewed by yours truly in the Nov. 2008 Liberty.

6) "Deep Politics and the Death of JFK" by Peter Dale Scott (Univ. of California Press, 1993)

Scott's book should be read last of these six, as it is not easily accessible for readers who lack knowledge of the case or of the "deep politics" of post-WWII America generally. It is, nevertheless, an important work.

There is of course a vast literature claiming conspiracy in the JFK assassination. Much of it is garbage. I was struck by the authors Steele mentioned in his 2008 Liberty piece -- guys like Harrison Livingstone, Robert Groden, James Fetzer. These are not writers one should look to for unbiased, fact-laden accounts of the case. I make a partial exception of Groden, who published a very interesting book, "The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald" (with a forward by Cyril Wecht), published by Penguin in 1995.

The "Encyclopedia of the JFK Assassination" by Michael Benson, published by Facts On File in 2002, is a useful reference tool. It may still be in print in softcover. The hardcover is scarce and expensive.

There are some interesting monographs out there - for example, "Oswald, Mexico, and Deep Politics" by Peter Dale Scott (Skyhorse Publishing, 1995). But this again is not for the uninitiated. Also of interest are some of the articles in "The Assassinations" (Feral House, 2003). And at some point it's worth reading Carl Oglesby's "The Yankee and Cowboy War" (McMeel, 1976). Parts of the book are dated, but it's interesting how much Carl was able to discern way back in the mid-1970s).

The Oswald as lone gunman literature is also large, though not as extensive as the pro-conspiracy corpus. I wish I could recommend some books that favor the lone-gunman theory, but I have yet to find one of any quality. The two most well-known books, by Posner and Bugliosi, are absolutely riddled with omissions and misstatements of fact.

Unfortunately, you would also be wasting your time if you looked for truth in the Warren Report. It has been comprehensively discredited by many authors; McKnight (mentioned above) is the most recent and probably the best. The House Committee on Assassinations investigation was a little better, but still went wrong; "The Last Investigation" by Gaeton Fonzi (recently reissued) explains how and why.

The Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), which sat, if I remember correctly, from 1994 to 1998, was not charged with investigating the crime, but rather with getting records out into the public domain. It brought some astonishing new evidence to light. To cite just one instance, check out the testimony of FBI agents Sibert and O'Neil, who were present at the JFK autopsy. What they had to say about the wounds they saw, particularly at the rear of JFK's head, and the conflict between the observations of these trained observers and the autopsy report and photographs (those that remain in the record: it is accepted fact that many of the photos and X-Rays catalogued at the time of the autopsy are inexplicably "missing" and were never seen by any investigative body including the Warren Commission) is astonishing.

With respect to the media, please understand two things: 1) The American media in general was heavily penetrated by US intelligence during the Cold War; Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) documented this comprehensively in a famous article published in "Rolling Stone" in, I think, 1977. Additionally, parts of the media at least came to realize that they dropped the ball on the Kennedy murder, and decided nevertheless to fall into line with the official theory. Scott makes the point in "Deep Politics" that admitting the possibility that Kennedy was killed by a domestic conspiracy, including perhaps people who wielded power and influence in American society, brings into question the legitimacy of the entire American socio-political-economic order. Mainstream journalists belong to this same order, and are not necessarily keen to see it discredited (and possibly overthrown), for purely selfish reasons.

The CNN, Nova, and Frontline programs on the assassination were terribly disappointing. Again, misstatements and omissions of key facts abounded. I was particularly disappointed in Frontline, as it has put out many fine programs in its time. Why they dropped the ball so badly on JFK, I can only speculate. I hasten to add that I have never seen a pro-conspiracy television presentation (such as one can find on The History Channel) that had any value whatsoever. Perhaps the medium is the problem; I'm not sure.

On the related issue of what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam had he lived, see the following:

1) "Death of a Generation" by Howard Jones (Oxford, 2003).

2) "JFK and Vietnam" by Major John Newman (Warner Books, 1992)

3) "American Tragedy" by David Kaiser (Harvard, 2000)

4) "Exit Strategy" by James Galbraith (article in "The Boston Review" for Oct.-Nov. 2003; available online)

For Kennedy's sometimes conflicting statements on Vietnam in the last year of his life, "The War Conspiracy" by Peter Dale Scott (2008 edition published by Skyhorse) is informative. It should be understood that Kennedy often tried to please or placate all important audiences, for political reasons. This was one of his great weaknesses, in that he did it far too often, and too well.

A final word. I do not believe that we are likely ever to know who the shooters were in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. If Oswald was among them (which I doubt; he was a notoriously poor shot), I daresay he didn't use the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle found (planted?) in the book depository. In addition to being an old and inferior weapon, its telescopic sight was found to be misaligned, and had to be adjusted by the FBI when it reenacated the shooting. In any case, it boggles the mind to think that Oswald ordered the murder weapon by mail, thus tying it to himself, when he could've walked into any gunshop in Texas and bought that or any other weapon anonymously.

Oswald's history is fascinating. Study his "defection" to the USSR, and you will find that he had to have high-level help in traveling as he did and as quickly as he did. Oswald is a riddle wrapped in an enigma inside a mystery. Unravel that if you can, and you might find the plot revealed.

That's all I'm going to say. I've barely touched the surface. If you want to begin to understand this case, it will take years of dedication and research. It's probably not worth it. But if you do choose to remain ignorant, don't publish about the matter. It's irritating for the knowledgable reader, and ultimately embarassing for the author.

Andy Hanlen

Thanks for a thoughtful and interesting piece, sir. I always enjoy your ruminations.

-Andy Hanlen


This is a great (as usual) read, Mr. Cox. I hope it gets widely distributed.

Jon Harrison

Pretty much agree with your analysis of Kennedy the man.

Regarding the assassination, perhaps you've forgotten my review of David Talbot's "Brothers"
(in the Nov. 2008 "Liberty", if I remember correctly). As someone who has actually spent hundreds of hours studying the assassination, I can tell you that your idea that no evidence has turned up that threatens the case for Oswald as the lone assassin is, frankly, ridiculous.

We have a terrible habit around here sometimes of pontificating about subjects that we know little about. An article by Steele is not the alpha and omega of the Dallas story, believe me. Your statements here regarding the event reveal pnly one thing: that you are largely ignorant of the facts in the case. I say this without the slighest trace of rancor, Steve. Regarding this particular historical event you need to spend quite a bit more time studying before you pronounce judgement.

Bill Merritt

I'm constantly amazed and gratified by the erudition of the good people associated with LIBERTY. This discussion has led me down paths I haven't taken in years, so thanks, Guys.

I'm left with the feeling, though, that the part about what Stephen knew about what could have or might have or might not have happened in Dallas or on Air Force One on the flight to Andrews misses the point. Seems to me what he was writing about was the eerie failure of our public intellectuals to draw the obvious conclusion about Oswald's motives. Doesn't surprise me though . . . the part about the public intellectuals, I mean. I've been waiting for more than two decades to hear an apology for all the apologies about Stalin and the Great Helmsman and Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh they dished out in the Sixties while I was in college.

Besides, Castro was behind the assassination.  Nothing could be more obvious when you look at the evidence nobody wants to look at: Lots of Cuban-exile don't like Castro. I know a lot of Cuban exiles. Oswald went to Cuba. Kennedy tried to get Castro to smoke a poison cigar. Castro likes cigars and had to take out Kennedy before a bogus stogie got through. And, then, there's the creepy fact that Jimmy Carter, the candidate who would never lie to us, promised honor bright he would normalize relations with Cuba if elected and, when elected . . . and filled in on what really happened to Kennedy . . . never normalized squat. Just like the way he swore to tell us what was really going on with flying saucers, which he never did either.

Jon Harrison

Bill, I can only reply to you as I did to Mr. Robinson. Take the time to really research the case before you come to any conclusions.

There's really no good evidence to indicate Castro killed Kennedy. And why would he take the chance of having his regime eliminated by a U.S. retaliatory invasion? We certainly had the power to conquer the island and take out the Castros, and there were many important people who wanted to do just that (they almost got their way at the time of the Missile Crisis). Why would the U.S. government cover up Cuban involvement? To prevent World War III? The Russians were in no position to fight a world war against us or even defend Cuba in 1963. And Castro (who by the way was conducting back-channel talks with the Kennedys in 1963) was not suicidal. LBJ's famous comment to persuade Earl Warren to chair the presidential commission, that a war that might kill 40 million Americans had to be avoided, should be read in the light of the quite strong evidence that the plotters contrived to put the blame on Castro in order to provoke a US invasion of the island, and perhaps even a final showdown with the Soviet Union. The books I indicated in my reply to Robinson do a good job of laying out the evidence for this.

I came to the case without any predetermined view. I looked at the possibility of Castro striking back in retaliation for the CIA's attempts on his own life . . . and came up practically empty-handed. The existing evidence just doesn't support that thesis. I have to say that just as there are people who hate the American Right and want to pin the assassination on it, there are people whose hatred of communism leads them to believe (without a critical examination of the evidence) that the communists/Castro did it.

In addition to the other things I pointed to in my earlier comment, I will mention one more item. Read the transcript of the Milteer tape, in which the aforesaid Mr. Milteer indicates a general foreknowledge of the plot while talking to an FBI informant. This occurred about two weeks before the assassination. I think the tape is at either the National Archives or the JFK Library; perhaps it can even be listened to online.

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