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.

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The memo only surfaced again during the 1976-77 House Select Committee on Assassinations investigation which failed to resolve it. Not the way Shenon finally did. In a way that vindicates Thomas, one of the lone truth tellers in this seamy morass of lies and cover ups. Decades later, with what seems to be a finely honed reporter’s instinct for finding something hidden, something that just doesn’t add up, Phil Shenon decides to see what is at the bottom of all this. He finds Thomas’ widow, who has his papers. He goes down to Mexico City and dives into what used to be called shoe-leather reporting. With the help of a Mexican reporter, Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab, he discovers that Silvia Duran and some other key people are still alive. He tracks down Duran. She maintains the story that she absolutely never had any contact with Oswald outside the consulate.

Shenon’s not satisfied. He tracks down Duran’s sister-in-law, who insists that Duran did go on at least one coffee date with Oswald and names the restaurant: Sanborns. Despite Duran’s repeated insistence she “never, never, never” saw Oswald outside the embassy, much less at a twist party.

Conspiracy theorists believe that Silvia Duran was working for the CIA, despite her leftist public persona, and that’s why she won’t talk. Which could be true. But the real question is whether she served as Oswald’s guide into the world of Cuban operatives and leftist Fidelistas in Mexico City, during the course of which Oswald was inculcated with the prevailing scuttlebutt that the Kennedy administration was fomenting assassination plots against Castro. Which might well have implanted in him the idea of a mission, a purpose in history. Even if only by implication. That Oswald heard others advocate the assassination of JFK—as Shenon’s reporting concludes—is the first evidence I’m aware of that the matter was put in his mind by others.


Then the Shenon team found three witnesses who’d never given testimony before. They found Elena Garro’s daughter, who confirmed that she’d always heard her aunt and mother had both “encountered Oswald ... as well as Silvia Duran, at the twist party.”

Then Shenon learned about “two men—both prominent Mexican newspapermen, both friendly with Silvia Duran in the 1960s,” who had long kept silent about what they knew about Oswald in Mexico City. One of them, Oscar Contreras, had already reported that “he had spent time with Oswald.” But in 2013 he told Shenon more: “He not only encountered Oswald at the university; he also saw him again at a reception a few days later at the Cuban embassy.” (Also a party, but not the twist party—Oswald was apparently getting around.)

The other, Shenon writes, was “arguably the most important, most credible witness of all: Elena Garro’s nephew Francisco Guerrero Garro,” another prominent newspapermen,“who has kept his silence for half a century about what he knew.”

His secret: “He said he had been at the party where his aunt had encountered Oswald and Silvia Duran. In fact, he had driven his aunt and his mother … to the party. And he said he is certain that he saw Oswald too.” He has a distinct memory of Oswald “standing there, next to the chimney ... His face was unmistakable," he told Shenon.

He recalls the remarkable scene in the immediate aftermath of the assassination when his mother and aunt gathered in front of a television “and became hysterical as they realized that they had seen the president’s assassin at a family party a few weeks earlier. ‘Yes, yes, that’s him, that’s him!’ ” they yelled.

His mother decided, he said, “to keep her silence forever about what she had seen … She was a dedicated Communist.”

But, Guerrero says, his aunt Elena went to the American Embassy and spent four hours there telling the authorities about it. (That’s another outrage—the way this key fact about Oswald was criminally suppressed or by the embassy or deep-sixed by the Warren Commission.)

So from an investigation of the “twist party” a whole new picture emerges of Oswald in Mexico City. He’s not some bus-riding nutso bum, holing up in a cheap hotel while badgering the Cuban (and Russian) consulates for transit visas. He’s practically the toast of the town among Cuban and Mexican Fidelistas. Well, not exactly, but he gets around—he’s at a university gathering, a diplomatic reception and of course, the twist party. He’s taken in by prominent Fidelistas connected to the Cuban Embassy. He’s among people who know about and—like Azque—talk about the Kennedy attempt to assassinate Castro and are outraged by it.

Which bring us to Shenon’s shocking penultimate sentence. When I came upon it and studied it, I realized that’s as far as Shenon, a cautious reporter, is going to go. But it’s pretty damn far. And pretty heartfelt:

My commitment [was] to try to determine if what Elena Garro had told Charles Thomas all those years ago was true—that Lee Harvey Oswald was invited by Silvia Duran to a dance party in Mexico City attended by Cuban diplomats and spies, as well as Mexican supporters of Castro’s government, and that some of the guests had spoken openly of their hope that someone would assassinate President John F. Kennedy, if only to ensure the survival of the revolution in Cuba that Kennedy had been so desperate to crush.

He adds this final sentence, which leaves no doubt where he stands:

“The fact is we saw Lee Harvey Oswald at the party.” Francisco Guerrero Garro insists today. “We met and saw and spoke with someone who then went and killed the president of the United States.”

Shenon paints a compelling picture, even though he doesn’t give his book the obvious subtitle:  “How Oswald got the idea to kill Kennedy,” or “why” he did. Because all he can attest to is Oswald’s exposure to the idea (and, if we believe SOLO, Oswald’s own publically stated vow). If it was in his head already, it seems to have been reinforced by those who got close to him in Mexico City. They gave him a specific rationale: The Kennedy murder plots against Fidel.

Of course, being exposed to the idea doesn’t necessarily mean he would follow through. Who could have known then that JFK’s motorcade would pass beneath Oswald’s window. Oswald didn’t yet have the job at the Texas School Book Depository, and JFK’s Dallas trip wasn’t even planned when Oswald was in Mexico City. And so it may have just been malignant fate that an already unstable Oswald used anger over a domestic dispute to take his revenge on the world that had defeated his hopes.

But it looks as if the idea was already in his mind when fate placed JFK in his hands.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like someone to blame. Someone more than Oswald. Which is why conspiracy theories thrive. And in fact, if you look at it in a larger sense, remove the aspect of chance that put JFK in Oswald’s sights, you can find those to blame.

You could, if you want, blame the Fidelistas in Mexico City. But then if you looked deeper into it you would find that the CIA, with its bungling murder plots and compromised double agents, put the idea in their mind.

And who put the idea in the CIA’s mind? Well you could stop there and tie the whole long chain of causality to the CIA, whose Bay of Pigs was such a bloody fiasco, probably led to the Cuban Missile Crisis and could have led to nuclear war. Perhaps we got off lucky that they only led to an assassination rather than a species-extinction event.

But to stop with the CIA is to fail to cross the final bridge. To assign blame to the usual suspects, the conventional villains, as brutally vicious and incompetent they were. The final bridge: to the Kennedys themselves. It’s been widely reported that Bobby Kennedy shied away from a thorough investigation of the assassination, perhaps because he feared what it might turn up. Recently I came across an interview with RFK biographer Evan Thomas in which he verifies the basis for this supposition:

Robert Kennedy had a fear that he had somehow gotten his own brother killed. That Robert Kennedy's attempts to prosecute the mob and to kill Castro had backfired in some terrible way, had blown back, as the intelligence folks say. ... [And] that afternoon on Hickory Hill, right after JFK was killed, Bobby said there's been so much hate, I thought they'd get me. Bobby thought that he'd be killed, not his brother and now he has this daunting, horrible realization, or fear that all of his attempts to get the mob and to get Castro have in some terrible way blown up and come back to haunt his family and, and resulted in, in the death of the president, his brother.
Robert F. Kennedy, Cabinet Room, White House, Washington, DC.
Robert F. Kennedy.

Photo by Yoichi R. Okamoto/LBJ Library via Wikimedia Commons

Nor can we stop at Bobby. In a terrible tragic way, by authorizing everything from the Bay of Pigs to the murder plots against Fidel, JFK may well have set in motion his own death. In effect: killed himself. Or, signed his own death warrant.

I take no satisfaction in saying this. In fact, I find it unbearable. It’s all an unbelievable tragedy and most tragic of all is that John F. Kennedy may not have died for the good he did, and tried to do, much of which was noble, however incomplete. He may have died because he tried to kill another president. I think it’s time for us as a nation to admit this.

I will probably never overcome some genetic-level affection for the Kennedys, no matter what I’ve learned. Especially for the figure RFK became in the wake of his brother’s death. What he stood for. What could have been. That line from Aeschylus he read to the tearful crowd on the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination applies to the whole sorrowful saga of that family:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

I don’t know exactly what that wisdom is. But there’s another line that I came upon recently that applies to Warren Commission. It’s attributed to Winston Churchill: “The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes.”