Book review: “A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination” by Philip Shenon

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Book review: “A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination” by Philip Shenon

Over the last half century, scores and probably hundreds of books have been published about the 1963 assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and its investigation by the Warren Commission. Many of these have been fueled with overheated prose and wide-eyed paranoia and have propounded conspiracy theories upon conspiracy theories.

Yet, after reading a several of the more meticulous of those books, including most recently Philip Shenon’s 2013 A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination, I keep going back to what I’ve thought all along.

shenon.cruel

Lee Harvey Oswald, a loner and a perpetual malcontent, acted alone when he put a rifle to his shoulder on November 22, 1963, and fired three shots, killing Kennedy and wounding Texas Gov. John Connally.

Why?

It all comes down to human nature.

Lee Harvey Oswald was a mope. He didn’t work with people. He didn’t work for people. He didn’t live his beliefs. He didn’t have any beliefs, really, except that he should be famous and important. He had a mother who was crazy as a loon, and he lived his whole live as a scream for attention.

He got it.

Consider this: When he began the handwritten journal in which he described his time in the Soviet Union from October, 1959, through March, 1962, Oswald wrote at the top “Historic Diary.”

Lee Harvey Oswald's Historic Diary. The entries cover to time that Oswald is in USSR--October 16 to October 21st 1959

He was a mope.

 

Sober and conscientious

Among assassination books, A Cruel and Shocking Act is distinctive for Shenon’s sober, conscientious and careful approach.

It is, in fact, two books.

The main one is a history of the efforts by the Warren Commission through its cadre of young lawyers to get to the bottom of the killing of the President. Told with the assistance of many of those now-aged attorneys, it details, virtually on a week-by-week and even a day-by-day basis, how those investigators went about their work.

It shows how they were hampered by the FBI, the CIA and the Justice Department under Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General and the slain President’s brother — how each of those agencies held back reams of important documents about Oswald’s activities in Mexico City shortly before the assassination and about earlier attempts by the U.S. government to assassinate Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, attempts that might have led Castro to want to turn the tables.

It also delineates how Chief Justice Earl Warren, the chairman of the commission, undercut the investigative efforts by being too protective of the Kennedy family, particularly the former First Lady Jackie, and by willingly agreeing to the requests of key figures, such as President Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, to avoid testifying at all. Johnson offered a written statement; Kennedy offered nothing except to sign a misleading and ultimately false memo.

 

The two Silvias

The other book contained within A Cruel and Shocking Act raises questions about the reports about two women — both named Silvia — who were linked to odd circumstances involving Oswald. If true, these stories might mean that Oswald had accomplices or at least acquaintances who might have known about his decision to try to kill Kennedy.

One woman was Silvia Odio, a young, attractive anti-Castro Cuban-American who lived in a Dallas suburb. She told investigators that, in late September, 1963, a group of three men visited her apartment. Two of the men were Latinos, and the third was an Anglo who was identified as “Leon Oswald.”

Odio said that one of the Latinos, known as Leopoldo, told her that Oswald was a former U.S. Marine and an expert marksman who was “kind of nuts.” According to Odio, whose story was backed up by her teenage sister Annie, Leopoldo said Oswald “told us you don’t have any guts, you Cubans, because President Kennedy should have been assassinated after the Bay of Pigs, and some Cubans should have done that.”

The other woman was Silvia Tirado de Duran, a pretty Mexican who worked at the Cuban consulate in Mexico City. She dealt with Oswald when he visited the consulate during his stay in the city from September 27 through October 2, 1963.

Her involvement with Oswald during his consulate visits was well-documented, but the Warren Commission was told nothing about a story that tied her and Oswald much more closely.

Mexican novelist Elena Garro de Paz said that she attended a twist dance party of pro-Castro sympathizers and at least three American friends, two “beatnik” types and Oswald. Also present was Duran.

Garro, whose story of the party was backed up by her adult daughter, said she later heard that Duran and Oswald had been lovers, that Duran had introduced the American around town to pro-Castro people and that Duran had arranged his invitation to the party.

 

Investigative irregularities

Shenon focuses on these two women because the Warren Commission knew little or nothing about them and because of irregularities in the investigations of their stories by the FBI and CIA.

With Odio, it appears that the FBI didn’t believe her and didn’t pursue its investigation of her story very far.

With Duran, it’s clear now, with so much of CIA material related to the Kennedy assassination having been declassified, that agents in Mexico City knew more about Oswald’s visit there than they told the Commission. So much, though, is missing, and it’s not at all clear if the CIA knew of any relationship between Oswald and Duran, or with any other possible conspirator.

This summary doesn’t do justice to Shenon’s painstakingly detailed research and well-written effort to marshal the evidence.

 

Something real?

But, for a moment, let’s say that there is something real somewhere here.

Even so, it seems that both aren’t likely to be true. Odio sees Oswald with anti-Castro guys, and Garro sees Oswald at a party for pro-Castro people, including his reputed lover Duran. Is Oswald pro-Castro or anti-Castro?

The timing doesn’t seem to work very well. Oswald is known to have arrived in Mexico City on a bus on the morning of September 27, 1963. That means he was travelling throughout much if not all of the previous day. The latest that he could have been at Odio’s apartment, then, is September 25. Odio said Oswald’s visit was in late September. Is September 25 late enough to qualify? Maybe it is. Maybe not.

And neither story, on its face, is obvious evidence of Oswald being part of a conspiracy.

 

Odio’s Anglo

Odio sees an Oswald who is traveling with anti-Castro Latinos, one of whom tells her that the Anglo thinks that the American Cubans who opposed Castro should have been so angry at the President’s failure to back up the Bay of Pigs invasion that they would have killed him.

OK, that has Oswald reportedly talking about Kennedy and assassination in the same sentence. But he’s not saying that he will carry out such a killing.

If there is a conspiracy here, does it involve Leopoldo and the other Latino talking Oswald into doing the murder himself? Remember, months earlier, in April, Oswald had tried to kill retired Army Major Gen. Edwin Walker, a prominent right-wing extremist in Dallas, and Oswald’s wife testified that he had also talked about killing Nixon.

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Oswald apparently didn’t need Leopoldo to suggest to him to take pot shots at major public figures.

 

Encouraging, not conspiring?

If Garro’s story points to a conspiracy, it would seem to have more to do with someone connected to the Cuban embassy or otherwise pro-Castro, such as Duran, encouraging Oswald to kill Kennedy, not actually conspiring with him in the sense of giving him direction or providing aid.

After all, Oswald already had his rifle. And aggressively detailed examination of his finances by the Warren Commission seemed to indicate that he received no money from anyone in Mexico City or anywhere else.

And here’s the thing: It is possible that, when he was in Mexico City, Oswald knew that Kennedy was going to visit Dallas on November 22 since the visit was made public in September. But the route of the motorcade wasn’t determined until November 18.

What that means is that, when Oswald got his job in late October at the Texas Book Depository, he couldn’t have known that the motorcade would drive past.

If there was any sort of a conspiracy here, it would have had to have been very loosey-goosey.

But I don’t think there was any conspiracy.

 

Human nature

Here’s where human nature comes in.

In dealing with the assassination, its investigation and the alleged conspiracies, it’s easy to forget that people are goofy, especially when they are under stress.

In a crisis, odd things happen, and odd things are reported, because emotions go into hyper-drive, actions get weird and memories go haywire.

So, let’s take the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

His colleagues in the Marines described him as a loner, a nonentity, who talked up Communism and the Soviet Union to the point that his nickname was “Oswaldovitch.” In other words, he was an anti-social guy who went out of his way to bring attention to himself, not exactly the sort of bloke that you’d want in a conspiracy.

Alfred Goldberg, a historian who helped investigate the assassination and write the Commission report, told Shenon that so much energy has been devoted to finding a conspiracy in Kennedy’s murder because it just doesn’t seem right that “such a pathetic little man” as Oswald could turn history on its ear, all on its own. “How could this pipsqueak do all this?”

The bottom-line question is: What government or group seeking to kill Kennedy would employ such as loser as Oswald?

He just happened to be a guy who discovered that there was a way to continue with his pot shots at political figures — and really bring attention to himself — when he saw Kennedy’s motorcade route in the newspaper.

He brought his gun. He fired it three times. Period.

 

When humans are involved

But Oswald isn’t the only one who, in Shenon’s book, does goofy stuff:

• Jackie Kennedy, at the risk of her life, crawled out onto the trunk of the limousine immediately after the shooting. Why? To get a piece of her husband’s skull.
• Robert Kennedy was so stricken with grief that, according to Shenon, he took to wearing his dead brother’s clothes.
• In its effort to assassinate Fidel Castro, one of the methods attempted by the FBI was exploding cigars.
• Earl Warren is quoted in the book as being against bringing Duran to Washington for on-the-record testimony because “You can’t trust a dedicated Communist to tell the truth.” Can you trust a run-of-the-mill crook?
• In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, when Hugh Aynesworth of the Dallas Morning News was working the story of his life, he played a trick on a gullible reporter at another paper by telling him, falsely, that Oswald was an employee of the FBI, thus fueling a line of conspiracy theorization that continues to the present day.

In the end, I’m with Alfred Goldberg. “How could this pipsqueak do all this?” — that’s the way life works.

When humans are involved, especially someone so human as Oswald, there’s no such thing as a well-oiled machine.

People are goofy. That’s why John F. Kennedy died.

Patrick T. Reardon
4.20.16

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