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Targets Of Opportunity

July 2024
5min read


“ASSASSINATION IS NOT an American practice or habit,” wrote Secretary of State William H. Seward on July 15, 1864, “and one so vicious and so desperate cannot be engrafted into our political system. This conviction of mine has steadily gained strength.

… Every day’s experience confirms it.” Nine months later John Wilkes Booth fired his bullet into the brain of Abraham Lincoln and Seward himself lay seriously wounded, stabbed repeatedly in the face and neck by Booth’s accomplice, Lewis Powell.

In recent years we have learned again and again how wrong Seward was. Lee Harvey Oswald, Arthur Bremer, James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, John Hinckley—these are just the names of those who managed to hit their political targets over the past twenty years; if those who missed were included, the list would nearly double.

Such puny creatures seem incapable of altering history on their own, and so we search almost desperately for What Really Happened, for the Something or Someone that must be Behind It All. Even before Lincoln stopped breathing on the boardinghouse bed to which he was carried from Ford’s Theater, a substantial number of Americans were persuaded he had been the victim of a vast plot directed by the leaders of the dying Confederacy. No one believed this more fervently than the man who directed the hunt for the assassin, Secretary of War Edwin M. S tan ton, and it is one of American history’s more absurd ironies that Stanton himself eventually became the prime suspect for a later generation eager to unearth a conspiracy.

A large body of literature has been published about Lincoln’s murder, most of it purporting to show that one or another group of unindicted men somehow pulled the strings—the Vatican, perhaps, or the Radical Republicans. One enthusiast recently suggested that Booth may have been entirely blameless, that the real killer was Maj. Henry R. Rathbone, Lincoln’s guest in the theater box. Another hinted that Mary Todd Lincoln herself might have been implicated in her husband’s death; although the President left her a comfortable legacy, she was often in financial difficulty in her later years: “Could her continued impoverishment suggest blackmail?”

THE LIBRARY of books on the Kennedy assassination may already be even larger. A few have been sober and substantive, aimed at solving the troubling puzzles left in the Warren Commission’s broad wake or answering new questions prompted by the sorry record of agency incompetence and cloak-and-dagger fumbling in the Caribbean that has emerged since that commission rendered its verdict.

But all too many books have been the work of deluded obsessives or of shameless cynics willing to exploit our worst fears with misrepresented or manufactured evidence for a quick profit. Among those who have been accused of complicity in the President’s murder or its concealment: Lyndon Johnson, the KGB, the Pentagon, Cubans (both pro- and anti-Castro), the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, the Dallas police department, “Texas oilmen,” and exotic, top-heavy combinations of any and all of the above—almost anyone, it seems, but Oswald. These charges have had their impact: a Newsweek poll published last November, two decades after Dallas, shows that three out of four Americans believe “others were involved” besides the accused assassin; only 11 percent think he acted on his own.

Two excellent new books—William Hanchett’s The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies (University of Illinois Press) and Oswald’s Game by Jean Davison (W. W. Norton)—should help put the focus back where it belongs, on the turbulent, embittered men who actually pulled the triggers. Both Booth and Oswald held distorted images of the world and of their own importance within it; each found in the murder of a President a dramatic part worthy of his most grandiose fantasies.

Professor Hanchett shrewdly demolishes in turn each of the tortuous plot theories that have flourished since 1865, sketches the fevered, antiLincoln atmosphere within which Booth acted, and offers the most plausible account we are ever likely to have of his real motivation. Booth did not act from professional frustration, as some have suggested; he was a good and successful actor, not a ham. But he was implacably attached to the Confederacy and persuaded that it was up to him to save it single-handedly. When his crackpot plan to kidnap Lincoln and spirit him away to Richmond fizzled in 1865, he seems to have given up in despair, downing a quart of brandy at a sitting to blot out his shame. “But so goes the world,” he wrote to his mother in apparent resignation in the early morning hours of April 14, 1865, “Might makes right.”

In fact he may have had no fixed purpose to murder Lincoln until noon that same day, when he strolled down to Ford’s Theater to pick up his mail and learned that Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant were expected at the evening performance of Our American Cousin . Sheer coincidence had now provided him with access to the object of his hatred—and by killing both Union leaders at once, he would at last be able, in his own words, to do “something decisive and great” to redeem the South—and himself. Had the President stayed away, as Grant did, Booth would likely be remembered only by historians of the American stage.

IN THE BOOK Oswald’s Game Jean Davison argues—persuasively, I think—that John Kennedy’s assassin was different in at least one respect: had coincidence not brought the presidential motorcade beneath the sixthfloor window of the Texas School Book Depository five weeks after Oswald happened to land a job there, he would eventually have found someone else to kill. (He had, in fact, already tried to shoot the feckless right-wing general Edwin A. Walker, in the apparent belief that by removing him he would save the country from fascism, and he may have been on his way to have another try when he was arrested.)

Oswald “wanted to be the boss or not play at all.”

It is impossible to do justice to Davison’s crisp, commonsensical book in this space, but it retraces the flat, dispiriting trajectory of Oswald’s entire life, beginning with a friendless boyhood spent in the care of his egomaniacal mother and already haunted by what a social worker then described as “fantasies of being powerful, and sometimes hurting or killing people. ” Lee “wanted to be ‘the boss’ or not play at all,” his older brother, Robert, remembered. “He was like mother in this respect.” He was like her, too, in his relentless loathing for authority.

Nothing ever worked for Oswald —school, the Marine Corps, the Soviet Union, marriage, friendships, the dreary succession of menial jobs from which he was fired and which he disdained as unworthy of his talents. Even the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, whose pamphlets he noisily distributed on a New Orleans street corner, eventually thought it best to ignore his shrill, self-advertising letters. He was by every sane measure a wretched failure. Yet in his own mind he was a bold, resourceful freedom-fighter: when he scrawled a phony, after-the-fact journal meant to cast his defection to Russia in a more flattering light, he called it his “Historic Diary.”

Davison points out that the Warren Commission did a remarkably thorough job of investigating Oswald’s career but was never able to say precisely what finally impelled him to commit the melodramatic act that was its logical culmination. That failure she attributes to the fact that the commission members did not then know of clandestine American efforts to eliminate Oswald’s revolutionary hero, Fidel Castro. But Castro did, and when he warned in September 1963 that “United States leaders” should not feel “safe” if they persisted in them, he indirectly provided Oswald with the heroic role he had been searching for: Oswald would become Fidel’s defender.

Three weeks later Oswald turned up at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City, seeking an entry visa. With him he brought a fat dossier he had compiled to impress the Cuban authorities with his all-round usefulness to the revolution: in it he claimed (mostly falsely) to be a skilled translator, specialist in “street agitation,” polished “radio speaker and lecturer,” organizer, ideologist, soldier, and potential spy. (Once the Cubans saw all this, he assured his weary, Russian-born wife, he would be welcomed eagerly in Havana; “You laugh now, ” he told her when she seemed doubtful, “but in twenty years, when I am prime minister, we’ll see how you laugh then.") As further evidence of his zeal, he loudly suggested that someone should kill Kennedy; that perhaps he would do it.

Castro himself is the source of this last revelation; on separate occasions he told at least two witnesses about Oswald’s threat, though he later denied having done so, probably for fear Americans might hold him even indirectly responsible for the death of their President. The Cubans turned Oswald away, in any case; the embassy official before whom he launched his tirade thought him either a madman or an American agent provocateur . And Oswald returned again to Texas and apparent obscurity. Then, as with John Wilkes Booth a century before, fortune brought his victim within range.

The possibility of conspiracy is always disquieting. More frightening still is the reality of madness and of chance.

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