Gus Russo's book LIVE BY THE SWORD

Live by the Sword

The Secret War Against Castro and the Death of JFK

by Gus Russo

[An Excerpt]

On November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I was a 13-year-old freshman attending Mount St. Joseph's High School, a Catholic school in Baltimore, Maryland. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the first whispered rumor-in the hallway on my way to a sixth period biology class. I recollect just as distinctly what I heard: "Some Cuban guy working for Castro shot the President!" It wasn't long before I heard a new explanation for the president's murder: "It was a Russian agent working for Khrushchev!' None of us knew which was the more shocking or potentially dangerous rumor.

In the blur of that first horrible day came yet another news report, this one stating that the President had been shot by a former Marine hiding in a book warehouse and using a German Mauser-type rifle. Hours later, the Dallas police took such a man into custody five miles away, in a Dallas movie theater. Two days later, by the end of that paralyzingly sad weekend, the story of JFK's assassination had turned 180 degrees: Now, according to most of the reports, the President had been shot in the back of the head by a Castro sympathizer using an Italian rifle.

I couldn't help but be intrigued.

After the suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, was gunned down on the way from one Dallas jail to another, President Lyndon Johnson put together an august body, headed by Supreme Court Chief justice Earl Warren, to find out definitively (or so it was thought) who had killed the president and why. Ten months later, without any equivocation, it concluded that Oswald, an American and a former Marine, had acted alone with no clear motive, and certainly without evidence of any involvement by Cuba, the Soviet Union, or any other foreign nation.

My own initial skepticism over the 1964 Warren Commission findings was fueled by the naivete (perhaps it was the arrogance) of a seasoned teenager who had read all the James Bond novels. I knew about spies, and fake defectors, and sharpshooters, and patsies. The government couldn't fool me! My suspicions were heightened by the obvious government secrecy over the investigation, especially the sealing of the Warren Commission records for 75 years. Thus, I, like many of my age group, became an amateur investigator pursuing the ultimate truth-what exactly happened on November 22, 1963.

In 1966, with the publication of Mark Lane's book Rush to Judgment; I became convinced that the government itself was covering up the true nature and cause of the JFK assassination. Others, encouraged by the popularity of Lane's book, accused the federal government of conspiring to murder JFK. Years later, I would come to realize Lane's tome for what it was: a lawyer's masterful brief for his "client," the deceased Lee Oswald. Reading it as a teenager, I had no inkling of the ease with which a competent attorney could find discrepancies in any murder investigation, let alone one In which 25,000 interviews were conducted. In truth, Lane went far beyond the pale, taking evidence and testimony so far out of context that their original import (if any) was unrecognizable. His treatment of Jack Ruby's testimony was a virtual masterpiece of lawyerly obfuscation. But it took a while for me to come to this realization.

In 1968, I gravitated to the anti-war candidacy of Robert Kennedy, spending many an after-school evening as a volunteer in his presidential campaign headquarters. It was there that a senior RFK aide told me obliquely of Bobby's secret investigations into his brother's death. In June of 1968, I was to attend a picnic, for campaign volunteers, at RFK's Hickory Hill home, where I hoped to ask the Senator about his interest in President Kennedy's death. Instead of a picnic, however, there was a funeral. The tragic assassination of Robert Kennedy in June of 1968 only strengthened the sense of paranoia many of us were feeling. My interest in JFK's murder intensified. I was hooked.

In my early "investigations," which began soon after Bobby's death, I called witnesses on the phone and heard their stories first-hand. I tracked down some hard-to-find players (and got them to talk). I began assisting on research projects that others were doing for books, magazine articles, and television specials.

With the bootleg release of the Zapruder film in 1975, conspiracy fever reached its high mark. The home movie seemed to show JFK reacting to a shot from the front, while Oswald's "sniper's nest" (as termed by the Warren Commission) had been behind the presidential motorcade. Like many others, I was convinced that the Zapruder film proved Kennedy was shot from the front. I also was persuaded that Oswald wasn't a talented enough shooter to pull off the shooting alone. On both counts, I was wrong.

This entire period-from 1963 through 1975--was marked by a continual barrage of ideologically-driven books on the Kennedy assassination. Ideologues are dangerous enough, but the books and authors of this time inspired a clique of followers, all with a pathological hatred of the US. government. These "conspiracy would make any leap of logic necessary in order to say that Lee Oswald had been an unwitting pawn of the evil government conspirators. And anyone believing otherwise was branded as a CIA agent (more than one prominent critic has labeled me as such), or a gullible lackey. The atmosphere of intellectual anarchy frightened off almost every serious historian. If they looked at the Kennedy murder, they concluded, they too would be branded as "kooks."

When the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) began gearing up in 1978, I spoke often with its staff members, directing them to areas I believed important. It was their meticulous photographic, forensic, and ballistic work that convinced me that Oswald alone shot President Kennedy. From that point on, only one question remained for me to answer: Was Oswald a hired gun?

Over the next dozen years, I suggested to numerous broadcast entities that they should reinvestigate the Kennedy assassination in a long-form TV documentary. PBS showed some interest, and a research grant I was given produced some interesting interviews. But none of the media wanted to pursue the matter further.

Temporarily abandoning the idea of a documentary I resuscitated an old fictional screenplay I had written as a roman A clef on the Kennedy killing. However, in the Hollywood of 1990, the number of directors interested in making political statements could be counted on one finger His name was Oliver Stone.

The brilliantly talented Stone seemingly showed interest in my screenplay By sheer coincidence, and unbeknownst to me, the powerful filmmaker had recently decided to write and direct a film on JFK's murder. I was invited to meet with Stone in Dallas. To my shock, Stone informed me, apparently without consulting anyone who had studied the case for decades, that he would base his film on the most flawed and controversial character ever connected with it, the District Attorney of New Orleans, Jim Garrison. Stone said he rejected my screenplay, among other reasons, because it was a work of fiction. In the drink-filled haze of the Stoneleigh Hotel bar I tried to tell him that Garrison's story was fictional, too. At the same time, Stone also plunked down $80,000 for the rights to an obviously concocted story peddled by some local "entrepreneurs." Their tale purported to prove that a Dallas cop, moonlighting as an intentional assassin, really had shot Kennedy.

I headed back east to pitch PBS' Frontline on my documentary idea. I hooked up with Emmy Award-winning reporter W. Scott Malone, who joined with me in drafting a proposal for Frontline. Months later, I came back to Dallas. Stone had graciously granted me total access to his movie set, where he sought to recreate the shooting. Walking with Stone one day, I heard him tell a tagalong press member about the sinister sealing of the Warren Commission records for seventy-five years. I was stunned. Although that had been President Johnson's original intention, public pressure had actually forced the release of most of the Commission's records within three years of the 1963 murder.

I managed to pull Stone aside, and informed him that the records we investigators really coveted were the HSCA's sealed files, numbering hundreds of thousands of pages, as well as those of other federal agencies, whose holdings could be in the millions of pages. He asked me to write down this information, which I did. I also suggested that Stone use the outcry his film was sure to generate to demand that these records be released. I proposed two things: first, that the last thing the movie audience should see was a statement informing them of the hidden records; and second, that pre-addressed postcards be handed out at theaters, given to patrons wishing to lobby Congress for a law bringing all these documents to the public's purview. I envisioned millions of postcards flooding Congressional offices.

Next I made a trip back east to confer with former HSCA investigator Kevin Walsh. Since his days with the HSCA, Walsh, now a private detective, had become a one-man lobby. For ten years, he had mounted a behind-the-scenes campaign to encourage legislation freeing the HSCA's material. Kevin gave me a letter he had been trying to get to Stone that essentially corroborated what I had been trying to tell the Oscar-winning director. Upon returning to Dallas, I hand-delivered the letter to Stone. By now, he was convinced.

The closing credit phrase was inserted, and while Warner Brothers printed up some postcards, the film's distributor eventually backed out of this strategy. Instead of giving up, a few volunteers and I decided to stand outside theaters to hand out the few hundred postcards we managed to obtain.

As I had hoped, Stone's film, while completely misleading, created a hurricane of controversy, and made the Congress see the political benefits of freeing the records. A number of us began working feverishly with the relevant politicians to draft legislation. Among those who deserve acknowledgement are Kevin Walsh, Jim Lesar, Eric Hamburg, and Mark Zaid. Oliver Stone himself should also be recognized for his travels to Capitol Hill. They encouraged the legislation's passage. As it turned out, public support for the bill was virtually unanimous, many on the outside of the policy-making loop were convinced that total disclosure would indicate the government's role in JFK's assassination, while the politicians they implicated were convinced the released material would vindicate them. The legislation (the so-called JFK Act) passed easily in 1992.

In 1994, the JFK Review Board (mandated by the new law) was seated, and within a year, the documents began flowing. The board ceases to exist on September 30, 1998, and by then, it is estimated that over three million pages will have been released.

For information on the Assassination Records Review Board click here.

Meanwhile, in 1991, I began a professional association with PBS' Frontline program, researching the life of Lee Harvey Oswald. The 1993 production, "Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?" was a massive undertaking with executive producers David Fanning and Michael Sullivan showing great courage to get it made and aired. With a huge research budget, we divided into four teams. All of us were given great latitude. I was allowed to follow up on every lead (conspiratorial and otherwise) I had always wanted to test. We went everywhere Oswald went, from Minsk, Russia to Atsugi, Japan. I crisscrossed the U.S. for eighteen months. It was a dream assignment, and the first (and likely, the last) undertaking of its kind.

The research generated literally thousands of interviews, most of which, because of the program's time constraints, were never aired. The "Oswald" portion of this book greatly benefited from those previously unseen interviews, which Mike Sullivan graciously allowed me to draw upon.

My combined work over the years with PBS and other media interests allowed me to interview thousands of individuals who claimed to know some. thing about the case-from Sergio Arcacha, who ran the Cuban Revolutionary Council in New Orleans, to Master Sergeant James A. Zahm, head of training at the Marine Quantico unit-and everyone in between. Many were helpful, but some seemed only too aware that one of the easiest ways to turn a profit or attain celebrity status was to feed off the public's natural paranoia regarding THE GOVERNMENT.

During many of my years of research, I was convinced that all the truths surrounding the Kennedy assassination would never be known-that a complete story could never be told. After the House Committee's work of 1979, I was more convinced than ever of Oswald's complicity. But there were huge gaps in the case that left me with the pervasive feeling that all was not being told. My inquiries were purely personal; I never intended to write a book on this case. In fact, I never thought anyone could write a good book on this subject because all the secrets were well beyond the grasp of anyone without subpoena power To my complete surprise, and when I least expected it, two key events forced me to change my mind.

It was while in New Orleans for Frontline that I had my first Inkling of the "ultimate truth," the one explanation that resolved everything for me: Oswald's apparent lack of a motive; the Kennedy family's reluctance to say anything about Jack's death; Robert Kennedy's unrelenting grief-, the secrecy surrounding the two key cities in Oswald's life (New Orleans and Mexico City).

More important by far was the release of the JFK documents required by the JFK Act. Measured in man-hours, I spent practically a full year combing the files. They enabled me to see that the big question wasn't WHO done it, but WHY.

Aided by the decision of RFK intimates to tell me their stories, and the Review Board's release of over three million pages of previously classified documents, I am able, for the first time, to speak the unspeakable. My research has convinced me that John and Robert Kennedy's secret war against Cuba backfired on them-that it precipitated both President Kennedy's assassination and its cover-up.

Conspiracy books usually treat John and Robert Kennedy as innocent babes who would not have thought about dirty tricks -- much less assassination plots -- against Castro. But the reality is very different. See:

On April 19, 1994, I was back at my alma mater, giving a lecture about my interest in the Kennedy assassination. I stood perhaps 50 feet from the place where, 31 years earlier, I had first heard of JFK’s death. Here at Mount St. Joseph's High School I now learned that the president's widow, Jackie Kennedy, had died. The eerie synchronicity of being in virtually the same spot for both events was almost beyond description. For years, I had continued to hero worship the Kennedy’s. Jack and Jackie had been my idols--they seemed part of my Italian Catholic family. Now I knew for sure that "Camelot" was indeed over, though for years, I had intellectually recognized the Kennedy-Camelot comparison for what it was: myth.

In the ensuing years, not only have Jack and Jackie been turned into caricatures, but so have Oswald, Jack Ruby (the man who killed Oswald), the FBI, and the CIA, to name a few. There certainly are one-dimensional individuals in this world-people who are either pure good or pure evil. Those "types," I have learned, had nothing to do with JFK's murder.

I learned that the Bobby Kennedy I so admired in 1968 had been a polar opposite as his brother's Attorney General: dangerously inexperienced, and, worst of all, reckless. In the time it took for a hyper-velocity rifle bullet to traverse 100 yards, Bobby was converted to an introspective man of peace. He and other members of the Kennedy clan went on to give much to the country. Their contributions to the impoverished, the handicapped, and the racially excluded have been legendary and heroic. After the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., when Bobby pleaded to enraged blacks "Make gentle the life of this world," he truly meant it, and many listened.

But a different Bobby Kennedy, five years earlier, had berated government officers 20 years his senior for their slow pace in eliminating Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

More than most, Bobby himself appreciated the importance of his personal transformation following the assassination. Toward the end of his life, he mused, "I have wondered at times if we did not pay a very great price for being more energetic than wise about a lot of things, especially Cuba."

He was right.

Live by the Sword, © 1998 by Gus Russo. Published by Bancroft Press.

Buy book from Amazon.comClick here to purchase.
Return to Kennedy Assassination Home Page