Did Castro Ok The Kennedy Assassination?

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The effect of Lee Oswald's crime is tremendously paradoxical. On one hand, because of Lyndon Johnson's subsequent choices, Oswald single-handedly achieved his political goal: he ended the secret war against the Castro brothers. Because that small, proxy war had provoked a nuclear confrontation 13 months earlier, it could even be said that he reduced the chances of a big, hot war, simply by ending the little one. On the other hand, the fears his crime raised in the minds of international leaders, who worried over Oswald's Cuban contacts, were so great that it nearly provoked a new nuclear showdown. Johnson was essentially forced to do in November 1963 what Khrushchev had done in October 1962: he backed away from the endgame. Oswald's dual effect on international tension was analogous to his own inner duality: the odd gulf between the peacenik idealist and the gunslinger. That duality was hiding in plain sight in the screed he wrote on the SS Maasdam during his return voyage to America. His manifesto debated the relative merits and injustices of the world's two dominant systems and then ended with a prediction of an imminent nuclear war. In hindsight, it was both a prediction and a vow: the recognition that the superpowers might destroy each other and a promise, however unconscious, that he might one day help them along.

Internationally speaking, by averting nuclear war on one hand and increasing its likelihood on the other, Oswald's effect on the cold war was perhaps a wash. Domestically, however, his effect has been, up until now, more definitive. In the short run, his crime further polarized the United States in an already extreme moment. In the longer term, it split the country open and made it susceptible to a form of political decay that was nearly as insidious as the recoil of the crime itself.

Sections of this essay appear in Brothers in Arms by Gus Russo and Stephen Molton © 2008. Reprinted by arrangement with Bloomsbury.