On November 25, as John F. Kennedy was being laid to rest, Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner with a taste for scandal, shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters. This event gave free rein to Khrushchev's wildest fears about the larger meaning of the tragedy. "The whole thing is obviously a crude provocation," announced TASS. Khrushchev could not understand why the security around Oswald had been so lax.
Intelligence coming to Khrushchev in the weeks following the assassination seemed to confirm the theory that a right-wing conspiracy had killed Kennedy. On November 25 the Mexican ambassador to Cuba told the members of his embassy's political section about his information that an "extensive conspiracy" had been behind the assassination that would bring "serious political consequences." This report likely came from Cuban intelligence. A source in Mexico City reported that the leader of the Mexican senate had quoted President Lopez Mateos as saying that Kennedy had died at the hands of "extremely right-wing elements that did not like his policies, especially his policy toward Cuba."
These Mexican hunches were bolstered by KGB information from its network in the French government. "The Quai d'Orsay," it was reported to the Kremlin, "has come to the conclusion that Kennedy's assassination was organized by extremely right-wing racist circles, who are dissatisfied with both the domestic and foreign policies of the slain president, especially his intention of improving relations with the Soviet Union." The French permanent representative to the UN, according to Soviet intelligence, believed that the assassination was a "carefully organized act" by a determined group on the far right of American politics.
The most striking information on the assassination came from a member of the Kennedy inner circle. In the first week of December, an emissary from Robert Kennedy flew to Moscow, with news that the Kennedy family believed that the former president had been the victim of a right-wing conspiracy. William Walton had been one of John Kennedy's closest friends. In March 1961 Life featured him in an article entitled "The Painting Pal of the President."" When John Kennedy narrowed his circle of friends after entering the White House, Walton remained close. A former journalist who had found a new calling as an abstract painter, he assisted Jacqueline in shaping the president's program for the arts. It was Walton who had led the campaign to maintain the architectural unity of Lafayette Park, facing the White House. Walton had last seen Kennedy, radiant and upbeat, on November 19, 1963. Kennedy spoke confidently of his chances for reelection in 1964 and informed his good friend that he intended to be the first US president to visit the Kremlin, as soon as he and Khrushchev reached another arms control agreement. Only three days later, Walton found himself participating in the sad decision over whether Kennedy's casket would be left open in the Rotunda of the Capitol. Walton and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., suggested to Robert Kennedy that the disfigured president not be the last image of Kennedy glimpsed by the nation. The casket was sealed.
Shortly before his death Kennedy had asked Walton to visit Moscow to meet Soviet artists. He wanted Walton to familiarize himself with the course of Soviet art and the future plans of the artistic community there. The trip had to be delayed because on October 31, 1963, the Soviets had picked up the Yale professor Frederick Barghoorn on a trumped-up charge of espionage. The Barghoorn case was settled quickly, and Walton had a ticket to leave for London and Leningrad on November 22. The shocking news from Dallas delayed his trip a second time. After the assassination Robert Kennedy urged Walton to go. Instead of bringing the greetings of a happy and confident president, Walton traveled east on November 29 in the shadow of the tragedy in Dallas."
In the wake of the assassination, Walton now had a secret mission besides his ostensible visit with Soviet artists. Robert and Jacqueline Kennedy wanted him to meet with Georgi Bolshakov, the man who for twenty months around the time of the Cuba missile crisis had served as the Russian end of a secret link between the White House and the Kremlin. The Kennedys wanted the Russian who they felt best understood John Kennedy to know their personal opinions of the changes in the US government since the assassination. Fearing interference from the Johnson administration, Robert Kennedy instructed Walton to meet Boishakov before he moved into the US embassy. The new US ambassador, Foy Kohler, was not considered a Kennedy admirer. Walton, Jacqueline Kennedy, and the attorney general bad opposed his nomination, and they assumed that Kohler knew this."
Boishakov and Walton met at the Sovietskaya restaurant. "Dallas was the ideal location for such a crime," Walton told the Soviet intelligence officer. "Perhaps there was only one assassin, but he did not act alone." Bolshakov, who had himself been deeply moved by assassination, listened intently as Walton explained that the Kennedys believed there was a large political conspiracy behind Oswald's rifle. Despite Oswald's connections to the communist world, the Kennedys believed that the president was felled by domestic opponents.
Walton described in some detail the aftermath of the assassination. The crime shocked the Kennedy inner circle and threw all of Washington into confusion. When Bobby Kennedy finally made his way to bed in the early morning of November 23, he spent the next few hours weeping, unable to sleep. In the first twenty-four hours following the assassination, Walton explained with a sense of drama, Kennedy's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, had run the entire country because no one else had quite his presence of mind in those trying moments.
More dismaying to Khrushchev, who would have understood Robert Kennedy's natural paralysis from grief, was what Walton told Bolshakov, and therefore the Soviet leadership, about Lyndon Johnson. The Kennedy clan considered the selection of Johnson a dreadful mistake. "He is a clever timeserver," Walton explained, who would be "incapable of realizing Kennedy's unfinished plans." Walton relayed his own and Robert Kennedy's fear that Johnson's close ties to big business would bring many more of its representatives into the administration. This was certainly not designed to please Khrushchev. Surprisingly, Walton believed that the one hope for US-Soviet relations was the former automobile executive Robert McNamara, who would probably remain in the cabinet as secretary of defense. Walton described McNamara as "completely sharing the views of President Kennedy on matters of war and peace." For the sake of good relations between Moscow and Washington, Walton assured Bolshakov, it was even more important that McNamara stay put than that Secretary of State Dean Rusk remain.
Walton's purpose was clear in his discussions of Robert Kennedy's political future. He said that Kennedy intended to stay on as attorney general through the end of 1964. He would then run for the governorship of Massachusetts to build up his political capital for an eventual run for the presidency. Walton, and presumably Kennedy, wanted Khrushchev to know that only RFK could implement John Kennedy's vision and that the cooling that might occur in US-Soviet relations because of Johnson would not last forever. He added that he was surprised to hear some Russians say that Bobby was more reactionary in his views on the Soviet Union than his brother. "This is untrue," asserted Walton. "If Robert differed from Jack, it was only in that he is a harder man; but as for his views, Robert agreed completely with his brother and, more important, actively sought to bring John F. Kennedy's ideas to fruition."
Bolshakov was not the only Soviet with whom Walton talked, but their conversation was the most open. Walton bit his tongue and said a kind word about Lyndon Johnson in front of Aleksei Adzhubei and Yuri Zhukov. The latter argued with keen persistence for a summit between the new president and Khrushchev by June of 1964: "Who else is there to talk to!" asked Adzhubei. "[British prime minister] Alec Home! Ha! The Germans -- Pfft. Gen. de Gaulle? Nobody can talk to him."
The Walton visit was the first of three by prominent Americans that seemed to confirm Khrushchev's fears that Lyndon Johnson would not continue Kennedy's efforts on behalf of detente. A little over a week after Walton lunched with Bolshakov, Kennedy's and now Johnson's special assistant for national security affairs, McGeorge Bundy, had his own long lunch with Anatoly Dobrynin. "On the whole this was the most searching and instructive conversation I have yet had with a Soviet diplomat," Bundy reported to Johnson afterwards. Indeed, over the course of the lunch, the men began to call each other by their first names.
But for Dobrynin the meeting spelled the end of his special channel through Robert Kennedy to the White House, and Bundy did not offer much of a substitute. Bundy told Dobrynin that "he could continue to rely on the Secretary of State, Ambassador Thompson, and myself with the respect to the most private communications." Dobrynin, however, was worried that his preferred link, Robert Kennedy, would not really be a player in this administration. Bundy later wrote to Johnson that he assured the Soviet ambassador that Kennedy would remain a very important member of the team. However, on behalf of Johnson, Bundy tried to steer Dobrynin away from the attorney general, "when the Ambassador asked in the most explicit way where he should go with his most private messages, I told him that I thought his best bet was Ambassador Thompson." Thompson, not a Johnson intimate, was not the intermediary Dobrynin had hoped for.
Three days later the Kremlin learned that the new White House was not really interested in these "most private messages" anyway. On December 21, when the much delayed meeting between Karpovich of the KGB and Salinger finally took place, the White House press secretary had discouraging news for the Soviets. Superpower talks were not on the immediate agenda of the new American regime. Johnson assured Khrushchev through Karpovich that in principle he shared his predecessor's belief in keeping as many lines open to the Kremlin as possible. But at the moment he saw no reason to maintain this confidential channel through the KGB. Johnson was interested in the Soviet reaction to his speech at the UN. Otherwise, he was consumed by the need to reassure Americans that their government was functioning despite the tragedy. Semichastny reported to Khrushchev two days after the meeting that Salinger had said that "at the present time Lyndon Johnson is devoting serious attention to the preparation of his State of the Union address, which he intends to deliver before Congress on January 8, 1964."
Johnson sent a private message to Khrushchev through Mikoyan just after Kennedy's funeral that was intended to prevent these misunderstandings from arising. "I should like you to know," Johnson wrote, "that I have kept in close touch with the development of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and that I have been in full accord with the policies of President Kennedy."
The Soviets wanted more proof of Johnson's intention to keep the faith. During the week before Christmas, Moscow received the second official US visitor since the assassination. But though Najeeb Halaby, the administrator of the Federal Aviation Agency, held out hope of a civil air accord, he was too minor an official to carry any special proposals from Johnson. The one feeler that Johnson apparently did send to the Kremlin was crude. The editor of the Saturday Review, Norman Cousins, met on two occasions with Soviet representatives at the behest of the new president. Cousins's statements seemed to imply that Johnson feared a Soviet hand behind the tragedy. Cousins told the Soviets, who then reported this to the KGB, that Johnson "had shown great interest in Soviet press reaction to the circumstances of the assassination of the president." Moreover, he explained Johnson's concern that "the USSR would engage in some kind of hasty, unilateral action," such as "harsh criticism of the US in connection with the Kennedy assassination." Khrushchev had paid attention to Cousins before. On the eve of the Vienna summit, Khrushchev had read his statements to a KGB source about the role of the CIA in American society. Cousins had then had harsh words about the Trotskyite" element that the CIA listened to in writing its assessments of the Soviet Union. These cast the American journalist in the light of an independent-minded critic. But now Cousins was speaking for Lyndon Johnson, of whom the Kremlin was wary, and this time he would not be listened to.
The KGB chose to ignore Johnson's promises to continue the Kennedy approach to foreign policy. The stream of information from the Kennedy circle, along with its own informants, confirmed a dark interpretation of the events in Texas. By the end of December, KGB analysts had concluded that an anti-Soviet coup d'etat had occurred:
"The assassination of JFK on November 22 of this year in Dallas was organized by a circle of reactionary monopolists in league with pro-fascist groups of the US with the objective of strengthening the reactionary and aggressive aspects of US policy. The aforementioned circle was dissatisfied with the independent features of Kennedy's foreign and domestic policies, in particular, various measures to normalize US-Soviet relations, the broadening of civil rights of the Negro population, and also a significant limitation of the interests of a part of the American bourgeoisie, above all the oil and metallurgical monopolies."
The KGB now had some details as to which members of the American right had been behind the murder. In late November a highly regarded Polish intelligence source, an American businessman who owned a series of companies, informed the Poles that three wealthy Texas oil wildcatters-Sid Richardson, Clint Murchison, and Harold Lafayette Hunt-had organized the plot against President Kennedy. All three were noted sponsors of southern racist and "pro-fascist" organizations." Moreover, a law passed in October 1962 had angered the oil industry by removing the tax provisions that had allowed profits reinvested abroad to be treated differently from repatriated oil profits. The oil lobby expected the situation to worsen in 1963. In talking up tax reform, Kennedy had implied that the oil industry's beloved oil depletion allowance was vulnerable.
The KGB soon received more information that implicated Hunt. In early December, Paul W. Ward, the longtime diplomatic correspondent of the Baltimore Sun, told a KGB informant that the Texas oilman Hunt headed the group that decided to have Kennedy killed. According to Ward, Hunt had instructed Jack Ruby in the name of the group to offer Oswald a large amount of money to kill the president. Fearing Oswald's capture, Ruby was to persuade Oswald to hide this contract from his (Oswald's) wife and his mother. Ruby, who was friendly with Oswald, knew that the young man was having money trouble, could not hold a job, and needed assistance to maintain his family. Oswald "was a most appropriate figure for staging the terrorist act against Kennedy because of his past -- he implicated the USSR, Cuba, and the Communist Party of the US."
Consistent with this the conspirators planned to launch an anti-Soviet propaganda blitz following Kennedy's removal from the scene to ensure that Moscow was held responsible. However, Ward added, the conspirators had not known that Oswald was psychologically deranged. Through their sources the conspirators learned that, under interrogation in the Dallas jail, Oswald had said he would tell all at his trial. It was then that Ruby decided to shoot Oswald to shut him up.
Ward was a celebrated journalist who in nearly thirty years as a diplomatic correspondent had a record of shaping as well as covering great events. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for a series of articles called "Life in the Soviet Union." But it was his work in the twilight of European appeasement before World War II that first earned him notice. Ward interviewed Neville Chamberlain and wrote before the Munich conference that the British leader was "going with a plan and, if the plan works, the result may be worse than war. When Ward's prediction came true that Hitler would swallow the rest of Czechoslovakia after consuming the Sudetenland as an appetizer, the British Manchester Guardian wondered in its pages why MI6 was not as well informed as Paul Ward.
The KGB report to the leadership did not indicate Ward's sources on Hunt, in December 1963, however, Ward was not alone in his suspicions. Harold Lafayette Hunt was a notorious supporter of right-wing causes in Texas. He sponsored a radio show called Lifeline, which regularly excoriated Kennedy and his administration. In much the same way that contemporary reactionaries were criticized following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 for having incited terrorism through their antigovernment rhetoric, in the days following the assassination of John Kennedy, H. L. Hunt was castigated publicly. The New Republic editorialized that Hunt's last radio broadside on Kennedy, broadcast the morning of the assassination, was "[t]he kind of program . . . that the brooding Oswalds of the left- or right-wing listen and sometimes act on."
Ward's report -- and by extension the KGB's best estimate on "Who killed JFK?" -- probably derived from a discovery made by the FBI in late November that tied the Hunt family to the events in Dallas. In Jack Ruby's notebook, bureau agents found the name "Lamar Hunt," H.L.'s second son from his first marriage. By the time Ward's report reached Moscow, the distinction between Lamar and H. L. Hunt was lost. Indeed, for a while the US government wondered whether the Lamar Hunt connection was significant. On December 17 the FBI interviewed Lamar Hunt about Jack Ruby. Hunt denied ever having known Ruby. In jail Ruby agreed.
The reporting of a seasoned American journalist like Ward was a boon for the disinformation team in the KGB, which was looking for ways to shift world attention away from Oswald's Soviet connections. For the chairman of the KGB, Semichastny, disinformation was a means to "enhance the prestige of the Soviet Union. Under him disinformation became a standard weapon in the KGB's war against the CIA. In December 1963, with the Soviet Union fearful of the rise of the political right in the United States, any evidence could be exploited, however flimsy, that tied American political primitives like H. L. Hunt to the murder of the president."
The KGB likely did not wait for Ward to send this kind of information through its Wurlitzer of disinformation. The CIA reported to Bundy on December 5 that just two days earlier a "known Soviet intelligence officer in New Delhi" had tried to use the communist party of India to send telegrams to President Johnson, Chief justice Earl Warren, and Robert Kennedy. These telegrams, ostensibly from Indian youth groups, legal personalities, and other important representatives of Indian society, were to call for a full investigation of the Kennedy assassination.
In Khrushchev's mind these intelligence fragments were annealed into a strong belief that a right-wing conspiracy had killed Kennedy. Khrushchev's wife, Nina Petrovna, was also sure that Jacqueline Kennedy was a widow because of an American conspiracy. The Khrushchevs revealed their suspicions to Drew Pearson and his wife, when the latter visited at the end of May 1964. In English, which she spoke quite well, Nina Khrushchev expressed her affection for Jackie Kennedy and her concerns about her welfare. The conversation then turned to the wife of Earl Warren, a mutual friend. When the women began discussing the Warren commission, Khrushchev joined in.
"What really happened?" Khrushchev asked Drew Pearson through his interpreter. Pearson said that the newspapers had gotten it right. Oswald was the lone assassin. Khrushchev refused to accept this. It was impossible for him to imagine that the US security services were so inept as to have allowed a madman to kill the president. No doubt recalling what the KGB had reported, Khrushchev asserted that the Dallas Police Department had been part of a larger conspiracy. None of this surprised the Pearsons. Mrs. Pearson later told the CIA that the Soviet leader's conspiracist mind-set was typical "of every European [she had] ever talked to on this subject." The Pearsons tried to persuade their Soviet guests. "We Americans are peculiar people," Drew Pearson said, as a way to explain away the seemingly fantastic. His efforts were met "with a tolerant smile." The Khrushchevs remained convinced that the official version of the assassination story was false.
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