Hit List

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I haven’t followed the literature on the assassination of John F. Kennedy very closely, but like most people I never thought the findings of the Warren Commission very believable. A lot of people have investigated the assassination and the events around it since then, and their findings don’t make the lone gunman theory any more digestible.
Richard Belzer and David Wayne’s Hit List concentrate on the number of witnesses with salient information who have died since, and it’s a mathematically impossible number. Many, if not most of the deaths have been violent, many coming shortly before the persons were scheduled to testify about the matter. The chances against so many people dying so conveniently assure that there was a conspiracy.
The first death was of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, killed at almost the same time as Kennedy, supposedly by Oswald. Belzer and Wayne cite evidence that Oswald and Tippit were in different parts of the city at the time. Tippit, they say, was part of an elite squad of the Dallas police department that cooperated with members of the American intelligence community to try to prevent the assassination from happening. That in itself is interesting.
The next killing was of Oswald himself, by Jack Ruby, in the middle of the Dallas police department without anyone even trying to stop him. In itself, pretty strange.
Ruby later asked the Warren Commission to move him from Dallas to some facility in Washington DC, because he said he wasn’t safe in Texas. The Commission declined, and Ruby died less than two years later, saying he had been injected with cancer cells. That part wouldn’t sound so likely, but Belzer and Wayne found that the CIA has been working on a fast-acting cancer virus with which they hoped to assassinate Fidel Castro. Dr.Mary Sherman had been one of the people working on this, and she was found in her apartment with one of her arms burned almost completely off. This, the authors say, was probably an accident rather than a murder, though Sherman’s work for the CIA could have been highly sensitive. Few things available at that time could have caused that kind of severe burning; one that was, was a linear particle accelerator, which she’d been using in research.
These were by no means all. A number of anti-Castro Cubans died, as did people from intelligence agencies, including six FBI agents in six months, plus a number of people from the Mafia.
This tends to confirm the thesis that I think is now generally accepted: the conspiracy included anti-Castro Cubans involved in trying to assassinate Castro, intelligence operatives and the Mafia. The effort to kill Castro had begun right at the top in this country, with Robert Kennedy. Intelligence people would have been involved in this effort too, and the Mafia were also brought in.
The authors say that this explains why Robert Kennedy didn’t do strenuous investigating after the murder: he knew the operation he’d helped set up was involved, and couldn’t afford to let that information out.
This, the authors say, was one of the reasons Robert Kennedy ran for president in 1968: he by then wanted to bring the information out, which may have been the reason he was killed.
So just why WAS John F. Kennedy killed? His father, Joseph Kennedy, had been a bootlegger, and thus involved with the Mafia. It’s by no means a new story that he asked the mob to fix the vote in Chicago that gave JFK the presidency. If in fact the mob did so, they were greatly disappointed when Robert Kennedy went after the Mafia, and Jimmy Hoffa (also notoriously connected) in particular.
Hoffa also seems to have been pushing for the killing. He and Robert Kennedy loathed each other. Kennedy had hurt Hoffa, so Hoffa wanted to hurt Kennedy, though he seems not to have been the only one. Carlos Marcello, the Mafia boss of New Orleans (where much of the plotting for the killing seems to have taken place) was deported by the Kennedys, though he managed to return to the country, so he had no particular love for them either. The authors suggest that Hoffa was killed because he was going to testify about the case in an effort to get back his presidency of the Teamsters Union. For similar reasons, Sam Giancana, Frank Roselli and the supposed best hitman in the country, who may have participated, were all killed.
But the person with perhaps the most to gain from the killing, as has been alleged before, was vice-president Lyndon Johnson. He had been made vice-president to bring in the Southern vote, but didn’t get along with the Kennedys, and the feelings were mutual. On top of that, Johnson had problems. He had been tied to corruption issues that could have cost him his political life. After the assassination, these all went away.
At least something of Johnson’s corrupt practices have been known a long time. The authors add that he was the one who approved the motorcade route in Dallas, which went into unsafe areas, against the advice of the Secret Service. Johnson also changed the formation of Secret Service personnel around the Kennedy limousine, also making the president less safe. So Johnson had motive and opportunity, whether he was actually involved or not.
That’s by no means all that’s been uncovered. Ruby and Oswald knew each other, and were frequently seen together. They also knew people like Guy Bannister and David Ferrie, who were both killed when New Orleans DA Jim Garrison wanted them to be witnesses in his inquiry.
The authors also say that Kennedy’s head was operated on post-mortem, but before the autopsy was done. If true, why would someone do that? Perhaps to obscure the bullet wounds, to make their trajectories less certain? That would have obscured evidence that there was more than one gunman, if that was the case.
Dorothy Kilgallen was a famous columnist at the time, and planned to break the story in a big way. She died first, found in a bed she never used, in clothes her friends said she would never wear to bed, and after an autopsy, with three different kinds of barbituarites in her system. She could have gotten them in her apartment; apparently her husband used them, though she was more known to be a drinker. But the quantities of each drug were very small: just enough to kill her when alcohol was added. If she had been suicidal, wouldn’t she have taken a lot more than that? She had given a copy of her notes on the case to a friend, who died THE NEXT DAY. Both sets of notes diappeared.
Irv Kupcinet was a famous columnist in Chicago, and was connected to the Mafia there. He asked one of them about Ruby, who was also connected to Chicago. Shortly after that his daughter was murdered, and he never inquired about the subject again.
Oswald’s landlady wasn’t murdered, but was harassed, probably because she said Oswald had gone to his room around the time that the murders were about to take place, and that there was a police car outside her house. Though she didn’t die violently, harassment may have contributed to her death. Someone didn’t want anyone to know what she said she’d witnessed.
A man said that Oswald was going to be killed the next day and that Frank Sinatra’s son was going to be kidnapped as a distraction from the assassination. Shortly after those things happened he was murdered.
A woman was beaten and put in the hospital, after having overheard things she wasn’t supposed to. She told the nursing staff, “This is when it’s supposed to happen,” and immediately afterward came news of Kennedy’s shooting.
Another woman who’d heard too much was found dead on property belonging to H.L. Hunt’s security chief. Hunt is someone frequently linked with the assassination (though I gather no one has proof) and his security chief had worked in the CIA.
Whether or not John F. Kennedy was involved in the plot to assassinate Castro, Robert Kennedy apparently was. Someone commented that whoever had killed JFK had used the plan evolved to kill Castro. It may have been that Kennedy found out about the plans for Castro, and was going to stop them. Another suggestion is that he had found out about elements of the CIA involved in the drug trade in Southeast Asia, and planned to put a stop to that. All these motives may have been involved, or maybe just some of them. In any case, a lot of people seemed to know about it, so it wasn’t a well-kept secret–until later.
Jim Reeves was a famous country singer who frequently landed his plane at military bases. He died in a plane crash, apparently after having recognized Oswald from a picture (he was famous for remembering people’s faces).
Francis Gary Powers, the famous pilot of the U2 that was shot down, also died in a plane crash, surprising for a pilot of his skills. Of course he too had been involved with the CIA.
If Lyndon Johnson was one of the principals in constructing the plot, his life is quite ironic, since he also got the Civil Rights Act passed. He may have thought this would give him black voters as allies, but Martin Luther King criticized him for the Vietnam war.
One of my friends told me he’d met someone who claimed to have known James Earl Ray, King’s supposed killer, and that Ray, though a criminal, was a nonviolent one, and clumsy. Even if he’d been inclined, he couldn’t have pulled the killing off. Ray’s lawyer claimed to have met with a member of a military assassination squad that was in Memphis that day, and was set to kill King, but beaten to it by someone else. The lawyer thought it was someone hired by the Mafia, and also thought he’d found the man. But who authorized the military to kill King, if the story is true? Lyndon Johnson was still President then, and Belzer and Wayne say that Johnson’s enforcer (who they say had been involved with several murders) was killed not long after Johnson took office.
Whether the motive the authors suggest for the murder of Robert Kennedy makes sense or not (I don’t know if he’d have been more willing to take responsibility for plots to kill Castro 5 or more years later or not), they do comment that Sirhan Sirhan couldn’t have done it, since he was never in the right position to fire the shots that killed him. Lots of strange things were going on in this country at the time. Have very many of them stopped going on?
After Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for President again, he retired to his ranch in Texas, and told his workers that he wanted it to be the biggest and best in the country. He died within a couple of years after that. That particular story, when I read it, seemed rather pathetic. Johnson’s fuel had been power, and power had been taken away from him. He couldn’t adjust to that.
Maybe he was as big a villain as the authors say, but the Civil Rights Act seems to say he had some decent impulses. It makes you wonder if we’ll ever know much more of the story than has seemed to emerge 50 years later, and it also makes you wonder about what the people who orchestrated the plot thought they were doing, and just why. If Johnson was the villain, I don’t think he greatly enjoyed what he got out of it. Maybe other, more shadowy figures enjoyed their gains more, at least for awhile.
The CIA continued to be powerful. J. Edgar Hoover, whom Belzer and Wayne say may have been murdered too, continued in power at the FBI. (The authors think that if Hoover was murdered it may not have been because of the assassination, but because Nixon didn’t want him around anymore). Some say that covert actions against Cuba continued for a long time after: sabotage of various kinds, to such an extent that it’s surprising Castro’s regime survived. The Mafia continued to be powerful, though its power began diminishing in the 1970s and 80s.
The one thing all these groups had in common was that they were covert, doing illegal things against the ideals of democracy. It became an open secret that heroin was coming to the USA from Southeast Asia. That the CIA and FBi had misused their powers. That the CIA had been complicit in overthrowing governments around the world that ours didn’t approve of. And there were more secrets that didn’t become open. The authors quote a hitman who said no one would believe how many assassinations happened, especially on the operating table. I doubt he was talking just about people with knowledge of Kennedy’s assassination.
So I think we can generalize that the assassination was the product of forces hostile to the very idea of democracy. They didn’t mind the country LOOKING like a democracy, but didn’t want it to actually be one. It was the “forces of reaction”, as Communists might put it, striking back at the Civil Rights movement that began as a way to change the status of black Americans, but then morphed into feminism, gay rights and other offspring movements. The same divide continues today. Conservatives often think of the 1960s as ruinous for the country, while others think of it as the time people tried to get America to live up to its ideals.
That’s how Jim Garrison, the District Attorney of New Orleans in the 1960s saw it, after having seen at least one of the Nazi death camps two decades before. He saw this country drifting into fascism in the name of anti-fascism. Belzer and Wayne see it coming the the name of National Security.

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