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The Key To The Warren Report
Seen in its proper historical context—amid the height of the Cold War—the investigation into Kennedy’s assassination looks much more impressive and its shortcomings much more understandable
November 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 7
For security-conscious officials, however, Oswald’s arrest meant replacing one Cold War scenario with another, and the second script filled them with no less dread than the first. Undersecretary of State George Ball ordered a search of federal files as soon as the networks broadcast Oswald’s capture. Dallas authorities found pro-Soviet and pro-Castro literature in Oswald’s boardinghouse room, and frantic searches of FBI, CIA, and State Department records revealed Oswald’s defection to the Soviet Union, his recent contacts with the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City, and his one-man Fair Play for Cuba committee in New Orleans. Top officials working through the night to assemble all the pieces had to wonder if the KGB had transformed a onetime defector into an assassin or if Castro had used an overt sympathizer to retaliate against an administration plotting his downfall. As Ball told the Washington Post in 1993, “we were just scared to death that this was something bigger than just the act of a madman.”
The government’s leading experts on the Soviet Union doubted it. Llewellyn Thompson, a well-regarded former ambassador to Moscow, argued that the assassination lacked the earmarks of a Soviet plot. Moscow might kill defectors but not heads of state, he insisted, and would never set such a precedent. Averell Harriman, another experienced Soviet hand, agreed that Oswald was not a likely instrument of the KGB and questioned his professed Marxism. The assassination, utterly inconsistent with recent Soviet behavior, just made no sense. What could the Soviets possibly hope to achieve through such a rash act in a nuclear-tipped world? Nor was there evidence of any effort to advance Soviet interests in the wake of the assassination. As for Cuba, even the mercurial Castro was unlikely to engage in such madness. He had to know that it would put the existence of his regime, if not his revolution, in extreme danger. But past history and common sense were not sufficient to banish all thoughts of Communist complicity. More hard evidence was desperately needed to rule it out.
Over the next two days, while a nation mourned, the entire intelligence community worked to learn everything it could about Oswald and his murky, superficially contradictory activities. New intelligence reports from Mexico City suggested a link between Oswald and the Cuban government. The supersecret National Security Agency and allied eavesdropping agencies went into overdrive to decipher intercepted conversations, cable traffic, radio, and telephone communications at the highest levels of the Soviet and Cuban governments, looking especially for unusual messages between Moscow and the Soviet Embassy in Washington and between Moscow and Havana.
In about forty-eight hours the intercepts showed beyond a reasonable doubt that both the Soviet and Cuban governments had been as shocked as anyone by the news from Dallas. “They were frightened,” says one knowledgeable source, “and we knew that.” Indeed, Moscow was so un-easy over its remote link to Oswald that the Foreign Ministry voluntarily gave the State Department a KGB account of his every movement inside Russia. Not only was Castro’s surprise genuine (he was being interviewed by a French journalist when the news came), he was panic-stricken. He believed that President Johnson would send in the Marines if LBJ decided the Cuban government was connected to the assassination.
That Oswald was not the instrument of a foreign power was an intelligence coup of the first order and of incalculable interest to an unsettled public. Late on Saturday, November 23, the State Department issued a public statement declaring that there was no evidence of a conspiracy involving a foreign country. Yet revealing the intelligence sources and methods that had helped form this determination was out of the question. Cold War-era communications intercepts were as prized as World War II feats of decryption, and the NSA’s capabilities were—and are—the most highly guarded of secrets. And because content reveals methodology, certain specifics of what had been learned were equally protected. The American public was told the truth but not the whole truth. It would not be the last time.
The commission decided to avoid ascribing to Oswald “any one motive or group of motives.”
With fears of foreign involvement ebbing, a third Cold War worry began to dominate thinking among high officials—that given Oswald’s extreme views, the assassination might stir dangerous anti-Communist emotions within the body politic. Anyone who had lived through the McCarthy era knew of the domestic dangers of untrammeled anti-Communism. It could threaten the mild détente achieved since the Cuban missile crisis; indeed, the public might even demand that President Johnson retaliate with a show of force. Already an LBJ aide had squelched language in the original indictment charging Oswald with killing the President “in furtherance of a communist conspiracy.” And the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Foy Kohler, had cabled Washington on Saturday expressing his own concern over the “political repercussions which may develop if undue emphasis is placed on the alleged ‘Marxism’ of Oswald … I would hope, if facts permit, we could deal with the assassin as ‘madman’ … rather than dwell on his professed political convictions.”