Philip Shenon’s A Cruel and Shocking Act: Stunning reporting in new book may reveal why Oswald shot John F. Kennedy.

Why’d Oswald Do It? It May All Come Down to a Party in Mexico City.

Why’d Oswald Do It? It May All Come Down to a Party in Mexico City.

Scrutinizing culture.
Nov. 21 2013 11:48 PM

Why’d Oswald Do It?

It may all come down to a party in Mexico City.

Lee Harvey Oswald as a marine.
Lee Harvey Oswald as a Marine.

U.S. House of Representatives. Select Committee on Assassinations.

The order to assassinate the president came from on high. We know this beyond a doubt now, from multiple sources.

There had been plans, before Nov. 22, plans hatched by the Central Intelligence Agency, but they failed. This time, on Nov. 22, 1963, the murder weapon was placed into the assassin’s hands by a CIA operative whose name we also know: Desmond FitzGerald.

I’m speaking, of course, of the Kennedy administration plans to murder a president. The president named Fidel Castro. El Presidente. Somehow this crucial, perhaps determinative, aspect of the whole story is often left out of the JFK assassination narrative. We haven’t adjusted our perspectives, historically and morally, on how we look at the Kennedy brothers and the murder plots they instigated, despite the fact that plots like this came to light as early as 1976 with the Church Committee on Intelligence. And when we do consider these activities, we may have to adjust our perspective on the cause of the assassination itself.


The planned attempt on Castro was the latest in a succession of well-documented murder plots by Kennedy hirelings that led LBJ to say, disgustedly, the Kennedy brothers were “operating a damned Murder Incorporated” in the Caribbean.

Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot: Most of the JFK conspiracy theorists, among them my brilliant but addled Yale classmate Oliver Stone, would have you believe that the saintly JFK was just about to begin a reconciliatory bromance with fellow peacenik Fidel, just about to get the U.S. out of Vietnam, just about to take down the military industrial complex, end the Cold War and subsidize healthy vegan meals for all schoolchildren, when he was killed in Dallas.

But the truth about JFK is much more complex. That’s why it helps to look at what happened on Nov. 22 not in Dallas, but in Paris. That’s where a blue-blood Kennedy CIA operative, FitzGerald, supplied the ingenious poison-injection fountain pen murder weapon designed to kill the left’s hero, Fidel. Another James Bond wannabe fiasco by the pathetically inept CIA, although this plot may well have had tragic consequences. The Paris perspective is important and so is that of Mexico City. Especially when it comes to—as I shall attempt to explain—the remarkable new advance in the JFK cold case that former New York Times reporter Philip Shenon has made in his new 600-page book about the Warren commission, A Cruel and Shocking Act.

Most of the publicity about the book (which was only published on Oct. 29 after a strict no-galleys embargo) has dealt with its important, but not unexpected further revelations about the way the CIA and the FBI lied to and deceived the Warren Commission, and to his further substantiation of a story that one Warren Commission staffer had had a secret meeting with Fidel.

But Shenon has done more than the expected, more than he expected, as he told me in a phone call about his reporting. He unearthed late-developing leads and conducted interviews with figures in Mexico City who could shed light on the mysterious nearly weeklong trip Lee Harvey Oswald made there in the September before the November assassination. Late developments in his reporting in the spring and summer of 2013, Shenon told me, that led him, after five years’ work, to add a devastating author’s note, just written in September.

Late developments that climax with a final sentence from which one can glean what may at last be the answer to the real mystery of the Kennedy assassination.

The real mystery about the assassination, to anyone who has spent time examining facts (and not playing games with names, making unsupported “connections” among BadPeopleWhoDidn’tLikeJFKAndThereforeMustHaveKilledHim), is not whether Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots. But why he did it. What was going on in his mind, what was his motive? Did he have any assistance or encouragement from others? And if so, who?

I had suggested here in Slate earlier this year that a new paradigm that focused on Oswald’s trip to Mexico City was developing among students of the assassination but until very recently—in a dialogue with Errol Morris—I had expressed doubt we’d ever know for sure.

Now I’m not so sure about being not so sure. Now I think, with the Shenon book, we may have a plausible answer.

Yes, that’s right, I’ve become convinced that, 50 years after the act, a real reporter—not some chat-room know-it-all—has through actual, on the ground, person-to-person investigation, through nonstop digging, tugging at the tangled heart of the mystery, brought us to the brink of answer. An achievement that, I believe, merits the Pulitzer Prize and the thanks of a grateful nation. (I should note I’d never met or spoken to Shenon before our phone call in early November.)

John F. Kennedy, photograph in the Oval Office.
John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office on July 11, 1963

Photo by Cecil Stoughton/White House/NARA via Wikimedia Commons

It certainly has been a turnaround for me, someone who’s written and read and retraced the assassination on the ground (and underground) in Dallas over the years. I’d always believed there was so much wrong with the Warren Report that its “lone gunman” conclusion could not possibly be valid. And rarely admitted to myself that even the worst investigation might, by some twist, come to the right conclusion. And what a twist it is. I’m not giving too much away when I say that it all comes down to a “twist party” in Mexico City, and what you believe happened there.

Shenon started his research five years ago, prompted by a call from a Warren Commission staffer who said the truth had never been told about how extensively they’d been lied to. (Here one must credit the O.G.s among the Warren Commission critics, even the deluded O. Stone and his nutso conspiracy film. Beautifully photographed—by the genius Bob Richardson—but intellectually worthless, the film nonetheless prompted the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act, which resulted in the declassification of hundreds of thousands of CIA and FBI documents, some of which, when sifted through, tell an appalling story, about how U.S. intelligence agencies monitored Oswald before the event and then scrambled to cover up their failure to flag him as a potential assassin.)

Shenon excavates some of this intelligence agency misbehavior, including the ongoing harassment of Oswald that (even though it wasn’t a direct order to kill JFK) could have helped destabilize him and drive him to become an assassin under the right circumstances, which, alas, prevailed on Nov. 22,1963. But Shenon points to a far more salient reason for Oswald’s act, one that most conspiracy theorists have shuddered at contemplating because they can’t bear the idea that there might be even a hint of Cuban involvement. Because they will go to any lengths to refuse to take Oswald at his word—that he was a pro-Castro fanatic. Shenon’s terrific reportorial instincts led him pull on a loose thread in the tangled heart of the story: Oswald’s trip to Mexico City and his involvement with personnel from the Cuban Embassy there. And he actually came up with something new.

To understand the meaning of Mexico City and what Shenon found there, though, it is necessary to start with Paris.

Paris on Nov. 22, 1963. It involves another blunder by the CIA, the climax of a series of criminal blunders by that agency that in fact might be more responsible for the JFK assassination than any deliberate plot posited by conspiracy theorists. It involved the CIA’s people once again being taken in by a double agent who was in fact a triple agent.

The agency thought it had recruited a close confidante of Fidel Castro to act as a double agent—and eventually assassinate Castro. His name was Rolando Cubela. But it turned out he was reporting back to the Cubans about the Kennedy/CIA assassination plot; he was a triple agent.

Here is a summary of that benighted plot from one of the original Warren Commission critics, Edward J. Epstein, who deserves credit for being the one of the very first to smell a rat in that investigation. And even though I don’t agree with Epstein’s ultimate conclusion (he thinks Castro ordered the assassination of JFK) his analysis (in his book The Annals of Unsolved Crime) of the misbegotten Cubela assassination plot is well documented:

Cubela had made an extraordinary request that the CIA case officer in Brazil reported to FitzGerald. Cubela, now code-named AM/LASH, wanted to meet personally with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and be assured that the Kennedy Administration was behind the operation. Such a meeting was out of the question, but FitzGerald, ever resourceful, sought an alternative way of satisfying Cubela’s demand. With the approval of his superiors in the CIA chain of command, he arranged to meet personally with Cubela and claim to be acting as a special emissary for Robert Kennedy.
The contact plan for the meeting stated: “FitzGerald will represent himself as personal representative of Robert F. Kennedy who traveled to [Paris] for specific purpose of meeting AM/LASH and giving him assurances of full support with the change of the present government...” ... Their first meeting took place on October 29th 1963. FitzGerald explained he had been sent by Robert Kennedy. To further convince the assassin of his bona fides, FitzGerald wrote a “signal” into a Presidential speech, a phrase that described the Castro regime as a ‘small band of conspirators’ that needed to be ”removed” which would serve as an unambiguous alert to Cubela when President Kennedy himself delivered those very words, which he did in Miami on November 18th. The next meeting, where FitzGerald would deliver a weapon, was scheduled in Paris.

In other words, contrary to all the starry-eyed thinking the Kennedy idolaters hang on to about how the president wanted a reconciliation with Fidel at the end, because of the triple agent, Castro would have every reason to think the Kennedy brothers themselves, personally, not the institutional CIA, were at that very moment engaged in continued efforts to murder him—and using the rapprochement signals as a cover.

Epstein continues:

That meeting took place in a hotel room in Paris in the late afternoon of November 22nd. FitzGerald arrived with Cubela’s case officer. He handed over the ingeniously crafted poison pen to Cubela and explained that the longer-range weapon, the rifle with telescopic sights, was en route to Cuba. It was only at the end of that star-crossed rendezvous that FitzGerald learned that his commander-in-chief, and friend, had been gunned down in Dallas by another assassin using a rifle with telescopic sights.

Why is this important? Well, for one thing it’s important in the current media debate about moral equivalence in journalism and history, and for how we construe “equivalence.” I would raise this question: What is the moral difference between JFK trying repeatedly to murder Castro and Castro trying to murder him? One difference is that we don’t have any solid evidence that Castro tried to murder JFK.

And yet we are supposed to revere JFK and revile Fidel? Now there are many reasons to revile Fidel, for instance his repression of his people, of free speech, and of political prisoners. All deplorable. But JFK and RFK were accessories to multiple attempted murder plots. What's the moral equivalence algorithm here? The sentimental Camelot tributes don't want to touch it.