An In-Depth Review of Gus Russo’s Live By the Sword
By W. Tracy Parnell ã 2000
As a believer in the guilt of Lee Harvey Oswald, I was intrigued by the thesis of Live By the Sword: The Secret War Against Castro and the Death of JFK (Bancroft Press, Baltimore-ISBN 1-890862-01-0). That thesis, stated simply, is that the Kennedy brothers’ “secret war” on Castro (during which they tried to remove him from power through invasion, counterinsurgency, and even assassination) backfired resulting in JFK’s death at the hand of Oswald. This concept, while not new, does go a long way toward providing the long sought motive for Oswald’s actions and at the same time reinforces his guilt.
The author, Gus Russo, is a long time JFK assassination researcher who worked on the highly regarded 1993 PBS Frontline documentary on the life of the enigmatic “Marxist Marine” (Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald). Russo admits to being schooled in the assassination by early Warren Commission critics such as Mark Lane. This could explain his disturbing tendency to lend legitimacy to otherwise unsupported observations by a few of the “thousands” of persons whose interviews he accessed (and conducted) for this book. One has the sensation when reading certain passages that it could be authored by Jim Marrs after undergoing a conversion at the hands of Gerald Posner. This certainly does not destroy the value of the book but it does diminish it. In fact, for most serious researchers, Live By the Sword is bound to be something of a mixed bag.
The book’s prose is generally very well-written. However, I did notice several typos that may be more the fault of the editors at Bancroft Press than Russo. There is a 32-page photo section near the center of the book that includes some never before published items. Live By the Sword features an “Additional Materials” section that includes three appendices, a bibliography, and 70 pages of endnotes which contain citations and the type of supplemental information sometimes found in footnotes. Russo divides his work into five “Books”. These are Kennedy, Oswald, New Orleans, The Fall of Camelot, and A Coverup.
Note: Russo mentions a companion volume called Live By the Sword: Supplements and Key Documents. Unfortunately, this project has apparently been shelved for unknown reasons.
In this section of his book, Russo first provides the reader with a brief history of 20th century relations between the United States and Cuba. He traces the beginnings of the “Secret War” to the Eisenhower administration and then Vice President Richard Nixon in particular. According to Russo, the Kennedy administration inherited the idea of removing Castro and far from reversing the policy, they escalated it. When the “Bay of Pigs” invasion by US backed Cuban exiles failed, John Kennedy implemented “Operation Mongoose” with his brother Robert ostensibly in charge. The goal of the operation was the removal of Castro with any means justifying the end. Efforts to remove him began in January 1961 and would continue until the last day of the administration. It is also in this section that Russo begins to chip away at the Camelot myth and to show the Kennedy brothers to be more calculating cold warriors than reformers interested in shattering the CIA into a thousand pieces.
Overall, Russo does a good job in this biographical section of explaining who Oswald was and what factors may have motivated him. However, perhaps because I have studied Oswald’s life in some detail, it was here that I first noticed some of the previously mentioned problems with Russo’s work. The first inkling of trouble comes on page 88 when Russo refers to Ed Butler as, “the host of a New Orleans radio show on which Oswald appeared”. Butler was actually the Executive Director of the Information Council of the Americas (INCA) an anti-Communist organization. He indeed appeared on the show with Oswald, but I checked several sources and they agree that William Stuckey was the host of the program not Butler. Russo compounds the damage by repeating the same mistake twice on page 450.
Another case in point are the observations of Allen Campbell who was in the Bethlehem Children’s Home with Oswald. According to Campbell, the priest who headed the orphanage raped girls at the home after they achieved the age of 16. Campbell states that terrified of being killed, the girls asked some of the boys (one of whom was Oswald) to watch while the rapes occurred. “It was the only defense mechanism these girls had”, according to Campbell. It seems amazing that anyone suffering the indignity of being raped would want their peers to witness such an act. One also has to wonder what these boys could do about it if the priest did try to do further harm since they were presumably too physically small to intercede. If they could tell someone who could stop the priest from murder, why not tell about the rapes as well? On page 103 when discussing the issue of Oswald’s suitability for intelligence work, Russo quotes Campbell again, “Lee was the biggest geek in the whole world”. According to the Warren Report, Lee entered the home in December 1942 at the age of three and left in January 1944 at the age of five. I have never heard a three to five year old boy described as a “geek”. Such a characterization would be appropriate for an adolescent but not a preschooler. Campbell’s observations should have been scrutinized more closely by Russo in my opinion.
The most disturbing passage from this part of the book comes not from the main text but in the endnotes (# 19 of Chapter 4) when Russo flatly states, “There is some evidence that Lee might also have suffered brain damage”. He cites an incident that allegedly occurred when Lee was five in which a chest of drawers fell from a moving van onto the youngster. Russo then makes the startling statement, “He was unconscious for eight days”. I have never heard of this incident or anything like it in my years of research dating back to 1984. I contacted several well-known assassination researchers and none of them had heard of it either.
I think it is fair to say that if someone is “unconscious for eight days” that would be akin to being in a coma. I am quite sure that if Oswald had ever been in a coma, the Warren Commission (and the HSCA and the FBI and hundreds of independent researchers) would have thoroughly investigated such a potentially life altering event. The source of this “information” is Secret Service agent Mike Howard who apparently was repeating (and perhaps embellishing) something Robert Oswald told him. Until such a time that independent collaboration for this incident can be produced, it must go in the same file as “The Three Tramps” and “The Umbrella Man”. That Russo would use such a story (even in an endnote) without confirmation may, in the minds of many researchers, call into question the quality of his sources and the methodology used for the entire project.
On the bright side, Russo fares better during much of this part of his work. He makes excellent use of interviews conducted in Russia for the Frontline special to reveal Oswald during this crucial time. Similarly, his assertions that Oswald was debriefed by the CIA and that Oswald showed significant interest in Cuba while a Marine are compelling and interesting.
In this section of the book, Russo lays the groundwork for his contention that the activities of RFK’s New Orleans agents inspired Oswald (perhaps with Cuban instigation) to kill the President.
Russo discusses what he considers the true role of Guy Banister in the “Big Easy” quagmire. He argues very plausibly that, while on opposite sides of the political spectrum, Banister shared with the Kennedy brothers a desire to unseat Castro. Russo also cites evidence that Banister was shocked by JFK’s death and closed his office out of respect – a far cry from the characterization seen in Stone’s JFK.
Similarly, Russo sees David Ferrie not as a co-conspirator involved in the assassination, but as a major player in the New Orleans anti-Castro movement allied with the Kennedy administration. Since Ferrie worked for Banister’s detective agency and shared his anti-Castro views, it was only natural that they would become allied in activities supporting the Cuban exiles. Sergio Arcacha Smith, a prominent exile leader whose office was in the same building as Banister’s, was befriended by Ferrie and they became important cogs in the anti-Castro machine. The glue binding these three individuals, according to Russo, was Robert Kennedy who knew of and sanctioned their anti-Castro activities. A cover-up of the Banister-Ferrie-Smith operations in New Orleans did occur. Its purpose, however, was to conceal the extent of the Kennedy administration’s involvement in the overthrow of Castro rather than cover-up any evidence of a plot to kill JFK.
While providing no direct evidence, Russo makes the case that Oswald may have become aware of the plots against Castro either by infiltrating anti-Castro groups or through contacts with Cuban agents. He outlines Oswald’s well known pro-Castro stance in the summer of 1963 and gives his own interpretation of events from this crucial time. Obviously if Oswald had become aware of a government sanctioned anti-Castro program and been motivated by it, this could explain RFK’s seeming disinterest in the Warren Commission investigation and his general silence on the question of his brother’s death. He would have known that Oswald had killed his brother and why. Unfortunately, as stated previously, Russo can provide no hard facts in support of any of this.
Oswald’s infamous visit to Mexico City begins this fourth major division of the book. Russo uses six “stories” to convey the plethora of possibilities surrounding this journey. Again, as in the previous section of the book, Russo can provide no real evidence to support these allegations and seems to be unsure himself which are true. These range from the familiar (Oswald and Sylvia Duran at a twist party) to the more dubious (Castro knew of Oswald’s plan to kill JFK).
Also examined here is the two-track policy of the Kennedy administration toward Cuba. Track one was to induce Castro to make peace with the US on their terms. Track two was the one to which the most energy and resources was devoted -simply assassinate Castro and invade Cuba (although the US backed Bay of Pigs invasion had failed, a second invasion was being planned for late ’63 or early ’64). In support of the latter goal came Cuban Army major Rolando Cubela (AM/LASH) who made an offer through the CIA to kill Castro in conjunction with a coup d’etat. The bottom line, according to Russo, was that RFK was aware of AM/LASH and at the very least let the project go forward. Mafia plots against Castro initiated earlier by the administration also continued to move forward in support of track two.
Russo believes Castro became aware of the plots against his life and subsequently issued an ultimatum through a September 1963 speech. Castro said at that time, “… if U.S. leaders are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe”. It is widely believed Oswald read coverage of the speech in the New Orleans papers. If he did, he could have perceived it as a call from Castro for action. This alone could have provided sufficient motivation for him to kill JFK.
Russo devotes considerable space in this section to the events surrounding the shooting at Dealey Plaza. He attempts to break new ground here, especially in the area of sightings of Oswald before the assassination.
Critics of the Warren Commission have always pointed to these sightings, including those of Oswald at shooting ranges, as proof of an Oswald impersonator – a sure indication of conspiracy. According to witnesses, Oswald was seen at the ranges (notably the Sports Drome) in the company of another young man who provided transportation for the pair. “Oswald” had a rifle similar or identical to the 6.5 Manlicher-Carcano used in the assassination. Russo believes that it was indeed Oswald at the shooting range and cites the fine marksmanship he displayed as evidence that he was capable of committing the murder. He also believes he knows the identity of the man who accompanied Oswald as the driver – none other than Buell Frazier, the man who drove Oswald to the TSBD on November 22.
He bases this belief on the following factors:
The problems with the theory of Frazier being the driver are obvious:
Russo fares much better later in this section with his description of the assassination scene. He offers his own answer to the question of why Oswald didn’t shoot when JFK was on Houston Street (I’ll keep you wondering on this one). Suffice it to say that his conclusions about how the shooting happened will in general please advocates of the “lone gunman” scenario more than conspiracy believers. I personally found this part of the book to be one of the more plausible.
Other subjects of note in “Book IV” are the possibility that LBJ had decided to voluntarily leave the ticket in 1964 and a discussion of mysterious events after the assassination.
Book V : A Coverup
A cover-up did indeed begin on November 22, 1963, but not the kind usually thought of, according to the final major segment of the book. The much disputed and suspected autopsy of the President was botched by many factors, but conspiracy was not among these. The Kennedy family pressured the autopsy physicians in two ways. First, they continually asked them to hurry their work (RFK actually showed up in the morgue) thus insuring an incomplete post-mortem. Secondly, they asked that not all organs be examined. According to Russo, they were specifically seeking to hide the fact that JFK suffered from Addison’s disease and chronic Gonorrhea.
As to the possibility of cover-ups by government agencies, the CIA was primarily interested in keeping the death plots against Castro secret. An additional problem for them was the Mexico City incident in which they failed to identify Oswald at the embassy or knew he had been there and decided to cover it up (depending on your viewpoint). In any event, they were not high on the idea of an investigation in this area. As for the FBI, there is evidence that their investigation became focused on Oswald (Katzenbach memo) and narrow-mindedly disregarded other evidence.
The Warren Commission was doomed from the start, in Russo’s view, due to several factors. First RFK “stacked the deck” by making sure that former CIA chief Allen Dulles was on the Commission. RFK knew that Dulles would make sure that the “Secret War” remained secret. Also, FBI Director Hoover led the Commission to believe that a complete investigation had been conducted which wasn’t the case. The Commission hurt its own cause by not demanding testimony from key witnesses, including RFK. Additionally, Russo points out that all but two of the Commissioners later expressed misgivings about the panel’s results as did LBJ.
Russo touches on many other areas in this section, including RFK’s feelings of guilt, the LBJ-RFK feud, the Garrison investigation, the HSCA, the Rockefeller and Church Commissions, and even the “missing brain” issue. At the end of “Book V”, he offers the following “well-supported and critical conclusions”:
Appendix A is a summary of the evidence showing Oswald’s guilt as lone gunman. It is clearly one of the most complete yet concise documents on this issue seen anywhere. I was more than ready to give it my stamp of approval and vote for the Pulitzer Prize when another problem reared its ugly head.
While discussing the issue of tests purporting to duplicate Oswald’s “shooting feat” Russo states, “By far the most impressive testing was performed in 1994 by independent researcher Todd Vaughn”. Russo adds, “Todd Vaughn had never received any formal firearms training, had never been in the military, had never worked a bolt action weapon, and had never even fired a high-powered rifle before”. To make a long story short, Vaughn was able to score between 2 and 4 hits over the course of four sets of three shots with a time of 8.25 seconds or less for three of the four sets. The implication of all this is, of course, that the “shooting feat” was no feat at all and even a novice could perform the shots. I wondered what the exact conditions of the test were. To my knowledge, only the 1967 CBS tests had used moving targets and could therefore really be considered an accurate representation of the conditions Oswald faced.
I was able to contact Vaughn via the Internet (Re: Question for Todd Vaughan (sic), alt.conspiracy.jfk, January 18, 2000) and asked him to verify the exact test conditions. He promptly responded with the following revelations:
1. Moving targets were not used.
2. He attempted to simulate moving targets by aiming below the target, moving toward it, and firing the instant he gained the target.
3. Far from being a novice, he had hunted all his life albeit with .22’s and shotguns only.
4. Most disturbing of all, the 60 foot height used in other tests to simulate Oswald’s height in the TSBD was not used!
I had assumed that the 60 foot height standard had been used and had not even asked about this. At one point as the thread I started expanded, Vaughn said, (paraphrasing) “These were the conditions of the test and I never said they were otherwise”. This indicates to me that Vaughn may have had the veracity of his tests called into question before as a result of Russo’s lack of full disclosure.
Obviously Vaughn’s tests (I don’t doubt his sincerity and I certainly don’t blame him for Russo’s misstatements) were not as “impressive” as the ones performed by CBS news (at least not in their attention to exact replication of conditions) who used both moving targets and the proper 60 foot height. This is yet another instance of Russo’s inclusion of information intended to strengthen a given argument that instead has the opposite effect.
Appendix B is a welcome (but too brief) discussion of the topic of eyewitness reliability while “C” attempts to pinpoint Jack Ruby’s motive for killing Oswald using previously unreleased material. To Russo’s credit, both are extremely well done.
Supporters of the Warren Commission defend its work by saying that despite flawed methodology and other gaffes, they were correct in their basic conclusions. This statement is analogous to my feelings for Gus Russo and Live By the Sword. He makes some excellent arguments over the course of the book’s 617 pages, but has failed to tie everything together – an admittedly difficult if not impossible task. Russo may have hurt his work by trying to “throw in everything but the kitchen sink” in an effort to prove his thesis. The sad thing is, he probably didn’t have to. He certainly seems to have had enough legitimate material (his bibliography covers eleven and a half pages) to make his case without using some of the more questionable data – especially certain interviews. This “information overload” may be partly explained by Russo’s frustration at the failure of the Kennedys to release RFK’s private papers.
As one who believes Oswald acted alone, I was certainly ready to embrace Russo’s book with open arms. It is definitely an appealing hypothesis. If the central thesis were more factually grounded, you could even think of it as Case Closed with a greater emphasis on motive. The truth is, history may ultimately prove Russo to be at least partly correct. However, wanting something to be fact doesn’t make it so – at least not yet. Gus Russo has not proven his case with Live By the Sword. He comes very close in some areas but more often than not he leads the reader in a tantalizing dance only to stop the music. Having said that, I still recommend the book to any serious assassination researcher. There is plenty of food for thought and enough twists and turns to offer something for everyone. In fact, Live By the Sword may be remembered as being the first book on the JFK assassination that tried to be all things to all people.
Russo will win no new friends among believers in the myth of Camelot. His book shatters that myth and shows John and Robert Kennedy to be what they were –human beings. They were no more or less heroic or villainous than many leaders before or since. They made mistakes (some more serious than others) and enjoyed victories as well. They suffered from vices of the flesh and spirit as well as petty jealousies and burning ambition. This pragmatic interpretation of Camelot is likely to be Russo’s literary gift to the body of JFK assassination research.