Editor's note: Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States.
We were in Havana shooting a scene with Fidel Castro for Pierre Trudeau's memoirs. After the filming, at a private dinner with Castro hosted by the Canadian ambassador, Julie Loranger, I asked the Cuban leader if he had seen the recently released Oliver Stone film JFK.The movie had debuted a few weeks earlier. Castro said someone had entered a Miami theater and filmed the movie surreptitiously. They sent him the poor quality copy. He said from what he saw, he admired the film.
I was keen to hear Castro speak of the murder first hand. I knew a few days before the assassination, a French journalist, Jean Daniel, had been in Washington to interview Kennedy. The president asked Daniel to take a message to Castro. Kennedy was reaching out to Castro in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis. Daniel was with Castro when the bulletin arrived announcing Kennedy had been murdered.
Castro said it wasn't long before authorities announced the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald as the assassin. Sure enough it was revealed that Oswald had Cuban connections. "Right away I suspected they were going to try and pin the assassination on me." In the months before Oswald had traveled to Mexico city in an unsuccessful attempt to get a visa for Havana. He also tried to infiltrate the left-leaning Fair Play for Cuba Committee.
This brought up a Montreal connection. In August of 1963, someone posing as Oswald was in Montreal, joining a Quebec-Guantanamo-Washington March for Peace. A Canadian postal inspector, Jean Paul Tremblay, witnessed the Oswald imposter handing out leaflets on behalf of the Fair play for Cuba committee, and reported the event to a U.S. counterpart. The Warren Commission reliably places Oswald in New Orleans that summer, so without question the Montreal Oswald was an imposter. Incredibly, what Oswald was doing in August in New Orleans was leafleting on behalf of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee! Mexico City was the spy-infested Casablanca of its day.
I made several attempts to access RCMP files on the Montreal event, but all attempts came back blacked out. Similar attempts in the U.S.A. finally won the release of a heavily redacted FBI memo and some photographs. Those photographs are in the ARRB collection in the national archives, filed under Oswald in Montreal. But the quality is too poor to make out faces. Still, how is it that more than 1,000 Oswald files still have an Ultra clearance. Even successive presidents from Nixon to Clinton have tried to see them with no success.
Throughout the JFK mystery one or more Oswald imposters appear with sinister regularity, saying and doing provocative actions seeming to cast Oswald as a left wing Kennedy hater. One Oswald was known to the intelligence community as "Harvey," the other by his co-workers and family as "Lee"
The record shows that Lee Oswald spoke in deep admiration to his wife Marina about JFK, predicting that by his peace moves JFK was courting a military coup. As his admiration for the president deepened, he took out of the local library the same books that Kennedy said he was reading, including James Bond.
For years after the murder, the "blame Castro" movement was at work.
The man who succeeded Kennedy as president, the Texan Lyndon Johnson, told Walter Cronkite of CBS news that he believed in a conspiracy. He declared Castro probably was behind the murder.
During our dinner, Castro told me this was a classic case of misdirection. "Why should I want to kill Kennedy, a leader who twice refused to invade my island?" Castro believes that CIA-trained anti-Castro Cubans were deeply involved in the murder, "but they could not have acted alone."
Castro said he knew something strange was afoot when he heard that the rifle Oswald allegedly used to kill Kennedy was a Second World War Manlicher Carcano rifle. "We tried it out during the revolution. It was a terrible weapon -- inaccurate and unreliable."
Castro asked some telling questions about the murder. "How did they catch Oswald and name him as the assassin so quickly?" He said this has the footprints of a CIA operation, something Castro knew well.
He observed that when Oswald defected to the Soviet Union, promising to spill military and intelligence secrets, there was no retaliation when he recanted and came home. He was not even interviewed. "Can anyone who has said that he will disclose military secrets return to the United States and not go to jail? How is it when he came home his passage was paid by the U.S. government?"
Like the Soviet leader Khrushchev, Castro admired Kennedy's June 1963 American University speech, in which he extended an olive branch to America's enemies. "I speak of peace because of the new face of war. It makes no sense in an age where a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all the allied air forces in the Second World War. It makes no sense in an age when the deadly poisons produced by a nuclear exchange would be carried by wind and water and soil and seed to the far corners of the globe and to generations yet unborn."
The speech was a direct affront to what President Eisenhower had called the "military industrial complex."
Observed Castro: "One of the characteristics of Kennedy was courage. He was a courageous man. A man capable of revising a policy, because he had the courage to do so."
Jack Kennedy did not fear death. Jim Douglass, the Canadian peace activist whose volume JFK and the Unspeakable is the best book ever written on the JFK murder, has an apt phrase: "Jack Kennedy walked with a raven on his shoulder."
As a youngster Kennedy almost died of scarlet fever. At boarding school he was cursed with a near fatal blood disease. As a Second World War PT boat commander his craft was cut in two by a Japanese destroyer. He swam for miles trying to rescue crew members, and almost died in the attempt. For the rest of his life he suffered terrible back pain. The surgery to correct it almost killed him. His brother Bobby said Jack lived with pain virtually every day of his life.
He also had a premonition of approaching death. He spoke often of Lincoln’s assassination, quoting Lincoln's prayer: "I believe there is a god -- and I see a storm coming. If he has a place for me, I believe I am ready"
The storm was nuclear war. Led by the ultimate hawk, General Curtis Lemay, of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was pressuring Kennedy to launch an overwhelming first strike against the Soviet Union. Kennedy refused. He also refused to invade Laos and Berlin. Twice he refused to invade Cuba. In October 1963 he ordered the first 1,000 military advisers removed from Vietnam, promising the rest would be gone after the next presidential election. To top if off, he personally took charge of successfully negotiating a nuclear test ban treaty with the Russians. For all these moves toward peace the CIA and military denounced him as a traitor.
On their honeymoon Jack had taught Jackie his favorite poem, written by Alan Seeger, a young Harvard graduate who went off to fight and die in the First World War. It begins: "I have a rendezvous with death."
One sun drenched autumn morning, not long before the assassination, Caroline interrupted her father as he met with his national security heads in the Rose Garden. Kennedy stopped the meeting and turned his full attention to his daughter. She was five, and taught well by Jackie.
“I HAVE a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air --
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath --
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
He did not. He took the bullet and preserved the world from nuclear war."
Image adapted from wikipedia commons and flickr/snre
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