Eric Norden: The Death of a President

(First published in The Minority of One, January 1964, pp.16–23)

A review of the many inconsistencies and mysteries involved in the investigation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy

Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!

A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
shall cumber all the parts of Italy;

And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.

(Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I)

When the mighty fall, they do not fall alone. The sniper’s bullet that snuffed out the life of John F. Kennedy on a bright autumn noon in Dallas, Texas has shaken the United States of America to its moral and political foundations. As the fabric of John Kennedy’s life shattered and dissolved into nothingness, the continuity and stability of American political life suffered a wound as grave, and perhaps as irrevocable. The murder of John Kennedy was a personal, human tragedy of monumental proportions; his death may portend disaster for all men.

If John Kennedy were an ordinary man, it would be possible to restrict our reaction to his death to grief. But the nature of his office and the circumstances of his death deny us even this solace. As Chief Executive of the United States Kennedy represented a set of ideas, values and policies which were as much a target of the assassin’s bullet as his person. To understand the implications of his death for the nation and the world, we must first consider who would wish to destroy these policies, and why. The motivations of Kennedy’s assassin can lead us to the assassin himself.

Kennedy was killed either by a lone madman or by an organized conspiracy. If the first, the damage is limited to Kennedy, his immediate family, and the human sensibilities of all men who recoil from the senseless waste of their brothers; if the second, a simultaneous blow has been struck at the whole abstract fabric of American society.

If indeed the act was a conspiracy, what forces in America are likely to have been behind it? Three main groups felt themselves, rightly or wrongly, sufficiently threatened by Kennedy and his policies to resort to the ultimate treachery: the ultra–right, the racists, and the die-hard militarists, within and without the Pentagon. These three groupings are not entirely separate; they are often interlocked, and all were united in bitter opposition to Kennedy and his policies. The ultra–right, because they saw in Kennedy’s liberalism, tepid as it was, a vital threat to their privilege and power; the racists, because his support of racial integration, halting as it too was, endangered their entire power structure in the South; and the militarists, because Kennedy’s steps toward a nuclear test ban treaty and a détente in the Cold War, though equivocal, seemed to them a betrayal of America’s military and political interests in the East–West struggle. All three, to a varying degree, had a motive, at least in their own minds, for fearing and hating John Kennedy; and it would require a highly cultivated sense of naivete to doubt that such fevered minds would freely envision the subjugation of races and the nuclear annihilation of whole peoples and yet shrink from the death of one man, however highly placed. The motive was surely there; the question remains, was the will?

The life and death of Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin, is, to borrow Churchill’s description of the Soviet Union, a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Press accounts of Oswald’s alleged role in the murder of the President, his whereabouts, at the time of the killing and afterwards, his possession of the murder weapon and his background and motives are all so replete with contradictions and inaccuracies that it is difficult to assess Oswald’s true role, if any, in the President’s assassination. When the F.B.I. report on the tragedy and the findings of the special Presidential commission are made public, certain specific points may be cleared up; but it is highly doubtful that any official report will conclusively establish the whole truth of the assassination and its aftermath.

In the coils of the spider, the web of a death
Ungodly, entangled thou diest.
Oh me, I lament thy unkingly bed,
With a sudden stroke of sharp
Two–edged treachery felled and slaughtered,

(Aeschylus, Agamemnon)

The Rifle: Mauser or Mannlicher–Carcano?

Even on such a basic question as the type of gun used to kill the President, there is no unanimity of press or police opinion. First reports from the scene quoted police as describing the murder weapon as a German Mauser. Dallas Police Captain Patrick Gannaway reported on the day of the assassination that a Mauser rifle was found on a fifth floor landing of the Texas Textbook Depository, the building from which Kennedy was believed shot. Ed Wallace of the New York World–Telegram & Sun reported a day later that “the rifle which killed the President was a 7.65mm. Mauser, a military weapon made in Germany long before World War Two, first produced in 1891, and made obsolete by other Mauser models adopted in 1895 and 1909.” According to Wallace, “the older Mauser was a highly accurate military weapon, and the rifle used yesterday may have been chosen because it had passed through many hands and tracing ownership would be made more difficult than weapons of later manufacture…” (New York World–Telegram & Sun, Nov. 23, 1963.) A United Press International dispatch dated November 23 was equally unequivocal on the make and caliber of the murder weapon. “Police also found the imported rifle with the telescopic sight which fired the fatal bullet into Kennedy’s brain … The 7.65 (roughly 30–caliber) bolt action Mauser German army rifle with four–power sniperscope was found tucked among books.” On November 24, the New York Post referred to the assassination weapon as “the high–power 7.65 Mauser rifle which fired two 2½–inch long bullets into the Chief Executive…”

Initial reports from Dallas appeared unanimous as to the type of rifle used in the assassination. But within two days of the first announcement by Dallas police that the rifle used to kill the President and left behind in the Textbook Depository was a German Mauser, the story abruptly changed. Dallas authorities began referring to the murder weapon as an Italian Mannlicher–Carcano. Captain Will Fritz, head of the Dallas police homicide bureau, said the rifle was Italian and “of an unusual, undetermined caliber.” (New York Times, November 23, 1963.) Was the discrepancy a result of the near–panic that swept over police and press alike within the first frantic hours of the President’s death? Or could it be that a gun had to be supplied which could be readily traced to Oswald? The New York Herald–Tribune reported on November 24, 1963 that “it was Mrs. Oswald who told police early yesterday that her husband owned a rifle that was the same as the Italian 6.5 Mannlicher–Carcano used to shoot the President.” The New York Times reported on November 25 that “the bullets were fired by a 6.5 mm. Italian made Mannlicher–Carcano rifle … the rifle was traced to Oswald.” Was the fact that Oswald owned an Italian rifle the reason why the first, minutely detailed descriptions of the weapon as a German Mauser were dropped, and the weapon characterized henceforth as a Mannlicher–Carcano?

Even if we accept the murder weapon as a Mannlicher–Carcano, another question arises. How could the gun in question, a Model 1938, 6.5–mm. bolt action rifle, be operated quickly enough to fire three shots into the President’s car within five seconds? The rapidity of the shots led most observers at the scene of the assassination to assume that an automatic weapon had been used. A Mannlicher–Carcano must be laboriously loaded with one shell at a time into the chamber before firing, unless a charger, or clip, is first loaded with six cartridges and then inserted into the action of the rifle, thus permitting more rapid firing. There is no indication from Dallas authorities that the alleged murder weapon was equipped with such a charger, in which case it would have been impossible for the assassin to snap off three shots at the President and Governor Connally in such rapid succession. While there has been little speculation on this problem in the United States, the European press openly doubts that a Mannlicher–Carcano could have been used as the assassination weapon. The Italian newspaper Corriere Lombardo of Milan wrote on November 26 that if the Model 38 Mannlicher–Carcano were used and that if more than one shot were fired “there must have been a second attacker.” In France, Paris Jour declared flatly that a non–automatic rifle could not have been used to pump two bullets into the President and one into Texas Governor John B. Connally within a matter of seconds. In Vienna, Hubert Hammerer, the Olympics champion shot, stated that the initial shot could have come from a bolt–action weapon, but according to a Reuters dispatch, he did not believe that one man could have fired three shots in a few seconds with the weapon used. There is thus considerable doubt that the weapon held by the Dallas police was, or even could have been, the weapon used to assassinate President Kennedy.

Oswald’s Marksmanship

Apart from the make and operation of the murder weapon, doubts have been raised that Oswald was a skilled enough marksman to pick off the President and Governor Connally with such deadly accuracy. Ed Wallace of the New York World–Telegram & Sun reported that “gun devotees cannot agree that marksmanship was the fatal ingredient in the chemistry of Lee Harvey Oswald. He used a strange gun; there is no evidence he had done any practicing; he was an unstable figure on a mission that would shake the nerves — and the trigger finger — of a much cooler man.” According to the World–Telegram & Sun analysis: “The shots which killed the President and wounded the governor of Texas, were fired from a range of 75 to 100 yards. There were six people in the open automobile, into which three shots were fired at chosen, moving targets. Only the two people an assassin would want to kill were hit — and in vital parts of their bodies. Slightest variation in sighting, the precise instant of trigger pull, movements of the rifle and movements of the intended victims, conditions of light and shadow, uniformity of ammunition used — these and countless other conditions and variables could have changed the deadly moment to produce misses, or minor wounds. Oswald, since the age of 13, had been a mentally disturbed person; he had been growing progressively more explosive and less stable. Accuracy with a rifle and pistol depends almost entirely upon an individual’s ability to overpower and control his nervous system.” (December 4, 1963.)

Oswald’s Location

Oswald’s whereabouts at the time of the murder and immediately afterwards are ambiguous and fraught with contradictions. Police said that he was seen in the Texas Schoolbook Depository Building, from which the assassin fired, at 12:45 P.M. (The President was shot at 12:31 P.M.) But Mrs. R.C. Roberts, who works at the rooming house where Oswald lived, several miles from the scene of the assassination, said he dashed in at 12:45 P.M. Oswald himself claimed to have been in the Texas movie theatre in Oak Cliff, four miles from the Textbook Depository Building, from before the shooting until his arrest. Equally confusing is a report that Oswald was seen seated in a cafeteria in the Textbook Depository Building, immediately after the assassination. R.S. Truly, head of the book depository, told the New York Herald Tribune that right after the shots were fired “I rushed into the building with a policeman. He thought the shooting came from the roof and we ran up the stairway. On the second floor he stuck his head into a snack bar we have and saw Oswald sitting at one of the tables. ‘Does this man work here?’ the policeman asked. I said, ‘Yes, he does,’ and we continued up the stairs.” (New York Herald Tribune, Nov. 27, 1963.) If anything is certain about the reports of Oswald’s whereabouts during the President’s assassination, it is their uncertainty.

Press Reports of J.D. Tippit’s Murder

Equally disturbing are the circumstances surrounding Oswald’s alleged shooting of Dallas Patrolman J.D. Tippit. Not only is there an apparent lack of eye–witness accounts conclusively identifying Oswald as Tippit’s murderer, but there is confusion, at least in press reports of the slaying, as to where and how Tippit died. First reports on the policeman’s death say he was shot by Oswald as he attempted to arrest the alleged assassin in the Texas movie theatre. The New York Herald–Tribune’s account of Oswald’s capture states that he was “dragged screaming from a movie theatre in Dallas’ Oak Cliff suburb where police say he shot a policeman…” According to the Tribune report, “Police got a call that a man answering the description of the suspected assassin had entered the Texas Theatre. Patrolman J.D. Tippit and M.N. MacDonald followed … They spotted the slim, balding, 5 foot nine–inch man crouched near a red–lighted exit door. They yelled. Patrolman Tippit fired once. Oswald fired once and Patrolman Tippit fell dead. Patrolman MacDonald then rushed Oswald and they struggled. Oswald was subdued.” (New York Herald Tribune, November 23, 1963.) But like so much else in the Oswald case, this story too was shortly to be changed. A report later the same day in the New York World–Telegram & Sun reported Tippit’s death in this manner, later to become the officially accepted version: “Patrolling in Oak Cliff was Officer J.D. Tippit, 38, and father of three. He was about five blocks from the Texas Theatre … It was near 1 P.M. — the time Kennedy was pronounced dead — but the exact time is not known. Tippit fell to the street, shot twice. How he accosted his slayer is not known.” (New York World–Telegram & Sun, November 23, 1963.) One explanation for the contradictions in the two stories would be pure human error, though the Herald–Tribune report, if false, is so detailed as to indicate mendacity rather than inaccuracy. Another explanation could be that the Dallas police force, in its haste to obscure the real circumstances of Tippit’s death, issued two contradictory cover stories before finally settling on one. If the latter, it might be significant that early radio and TV news reports of Tippit’s slaying said that an unidentified Secret Service man was wounded with him. With him — or by him?

Oswald: Madman or Scapegoat?

Foul whisperings are abroad: unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets.

(Macbeth, Act V, Scene I)

Questions as to Oswald’s exact role in the assassination of the President do not end with his whereabouts and activities on the day of the murder. Grave doubts inevitably arise about the whole pattern of his recent actions, doubts that have the gravest implications for the peace and security of the United States and the entire world. Was Oswald carefully groomed by powerful forces for his role as assassin of the President? Was he an innocent scapegoat for the real murderers? Or was he, as so many of us would wish to believe, merely an isolated madman acting on his own in a shadow–world of twisted passions? Events in his recent past may well provide a clue.

On June 25, 1963, Lee Oswald applied for a passport in New Orleans for travel to Europe, including the Soviet Union. Passport applications warn that it is illegal for a member of the Communist Part either to apply for or make use of a passport. The applications also require the applicant to swear that he has not been a member of a Communist organization for 12 months or “ever sought or claimed the benefits of the nationality of any foreign state.” On the basis of what we now know of Lee Harvey Oswald, it would seem a foregone conclusion that his passport application would be denied. Not only was he reported to have publicly stressed (perhaps, over–stressed?) his alleged Communist associations and sympathies, but he had attempted to become a Soviet citizen in 1959, after his much–publicized “defection” to the Soviet Union. In November, 1959, he wrote out an affidavit in Moscow, declaring “I affirm that my allegiance is to the Soviet Socialist Republic.” Though denied Soviet citizenship, he stayed and worked within the Soviet Union for three years, before returning to the U.S. with the cooperation of the American Embassy in Moscow. Nevertheless, despite this record and despite the explicit provisions of the passport application requirements, Oswald was granted a passport — and in record time. Reported in the New York Herald–Tribune on November 26, 1963: “The passport was issued one day later. It still isn’t clear how it was processed so rapidly.” Armed with this passport, Oswald traveled to Mexico on September 26 and attempted to obtain visas to Cuba and the Soviet Union. He approached both the Russian and Cuban consuls in Mexico City, but stormed out in anger when informed that a period of three to four months would have to elapse until his visa could be cleared by the Cuban and Soviet Foreign Ministries. For some reason, Oswald seemed desperately eager to get to Cuba and/or the U.S.S.R. And for some reason time was of the essence.

Oswald as a Communist

What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?

(Macbeth, Act V, Scene I)

If, indeed, powerful forces were behind the assassination of the President, and if they had carefully selected Oswald as their instrument, what better way of both diverting suspicion from themselves and destroying any reduction of Cold War tensions than by having their tool return from Cuba or Russia to murder the President of the United States? The tenuous link between Oswald and Communism so carefully constructed over the years would then be unbreakable. At the best, relations between Washington and the Socialist nations would hit a new low, and at the worst an invasion of Cuba or “hard” actions in Europe and Asia would be precipitated. In one swift blow, the forces of war would have eliminated the President who frustrated their plans and irrevocably destroyed his policies as well. This possibility did not escape Cuban authorities. The Cuban Foreign Ministry stated on November 26th that the Oswald application for a visa to Cuba “was among details confirming our suspicion that the Kennedy assassination was a provocation against world peace perfectly and minutely prepared by the most reactionary sectors of the United States. It is evident that these sectors planned beforehand to involve Cuba and the Soviet Union in these events.” Had Oswald been granted his visas, world peace may well have died under the same sniper’s bullet that killed John Kennedy.

Oswald Was Under Surveillance

Another intriguing aspect of Oswald’s trip to Mexico is a report that his activities there were scrutinized by a “federal agency.” William M. Kline, Chief of the U.S. Customs Bureau’s investigative services in Laredo, Texas, stated on November 25 that Oswald’s movements were watched at the request of “a federal agency at Washington.” (New York Post, November 25, 1963.) Eugene Pugh, U.S. agent in charge of the Customs office on the American side of the bridge at Laredo, Texas, said that Oswald had been checked by American Immigration officials on entering and leaving Mexico. Mr. Pugh admitted to the New York Herald–Tribune that this was “not the usual” procedure. He said Americans were not required to check in with Immigration when crossing the border, “but U.S. Immigration has a folder on Oswald’s trip.” (New York Herald–Tribune, November 26, 1963.) Pugh’s statements, according to the New York Post, “made it apparent that at least one federal agency was aware of Oswald’s movements.” (New York Post, November 26, 1963.)

If Oswald was shadowed in Mexico by an unnamed federal agency, why was he not under surveillance in Dallas, also? Are there forces in Washington whose interest in Oswald was more than investigative?

The interest of the unnamed “federal agency” apparently was not restricted to Oswald’s stay in Mexico. Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry indicated that the F.B.I. had knowledge of Oswald’s presence in Dallas before the assassination, but did not inform the local police force. He said that the F.B.I. interviewed Oswald on November 16th, only six days before the President’s death. “It is customary for the F.B.I. to notify local police when someone with a subversive background arrives in the area,” Curry said. (New York World–Telegram & Sun, November 23, 1963.) Chief Curry later backed down somewhat on his original statement, stating “I do not want to accuse the FBI of withholding information.” (New York Herald–Tribune, November 24, 1963.) Gordon Shanklin, F.B.I. agent in charge at Dallas, denied that his agency had interviewed Oswald before the President’s visit (New York Times, November 25, 1963). His denial was apparently unconvincing. Commented the London Daily Telegraph: “There is going to be a tremendous outcry in Congress about the fact that the F.B.I. apparently knew about Oswald’s presence in Dallas, but failed to report it to the local police.” On November 29, John D. Harris, in a Hearst Headline Service report from Dallas to the New York Journal–American reported: “The F.B.I. interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald, accused slayer of President John F. Kennedy, as late as September of this year … The September interview took place in the nearby community of Irving … The other two sessions were in Fort Worth in 1962 after Oswald’s return from his defection to the Soviet Union, and in New Orleans last summer … The F.B.I. declined comment on these reports.” (New York Journal–American, November 29, 1963.) David Wise, Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Herald–Tribune confirmed the Journal–American report on December 3.

Lee Oswald was under surveillance by a “federal agency at Washington” during his trip to Mexico to obtain visas to Cuba and the Soviet Union. He was interviewed by the F.B.I. in Dallas, according to Chief Curry, within four days of the shooting, when the F.B.I. knew of the President’s visit and must have known that Oswald worked in a building overlooking the route of the proposed Presidential motorcade. And yet nothing was done to alert local authorities to the presence in Dallas of such a volatile political personality, to put him in “protective custody” during Kennedy’s stay in Dallas, or to inform the Secret Service, whose job it was to compile lists of known agitators who might cause trouble during a Presidential visit. The F.B.I. appears to be guilty of either an incredible dereliction of duty, or something far more sinister. Is the hand that reached out from Washington to insure Oswald a passport, to trace his travels in Mexico, and perhaps to guide him in even more shadowy activities, also the hand that felled John Kennedy?

The Route of the Motorcade

How many ages hence
Shall this lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

(Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I)

If there is indeed a possibility that the strands of treachery were spun in Washington, an explanation at least provides itself to the question of how the alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald could have known in advance of the route the President’s motorcade would take through Dallas. Oswald accepted a job at the Texas School Book Depository on October 15th, weeks before the planned Presidential motorcade was made public. If his alleged assassination of the President was more than the impromptu gesture of a deranged individual, Oswald must have chosen his place of work with some definite knowledge that it would give him a good view of the Presidential car. It was announced on September 28th that the President would visit Dallas, but at first it was thought there would be no motorcade.

Detailed plans for the Presidential stay in Dallas were not made until a few weeks before the visit, and the parade route itself was not published until November 21st, the day before the assassination. If the murder of the President was a prearranged affair there must have been an advance leak on the Presidential plans to the conspirators. If the accused assassin, Oswald, was acting on his own, it must have been an incredibly spur–of–the–moment decision, unlike all previous assassinations in U.S. history which, even when carried out by obviously deranged individuals, were detailed and long–thought–out affairs. The building itself, so perfectly suited for an attempt on the passing Presidential car, would seem to indicate the existence of more than a coincidental convergence of chance factors. In a dispatch from Dallas to the New York Times on the day of the assassination entitled “Ambush Building Chosen With Care,” it is stressed that “The building in which President Kennedy’s assassin hid today could hardly have been more suited to the use made of it … The Texas School Book Depository is a seven–storey brick building that looms above the route Mr. Kennedy’s motorcade took through Dallas. It is … set back and above the street on which Mr. Kennedy’s car was traveling. The killer fired a high–powered rifle from the southeast corner window of the sixth floor. Jack C. Cason, president of the Depository, said someone could have hidden on that floor for several days without being discovered.” (New York Times, November 23, 1963.)

While the Secret Service could not check every room in every building overlooking the Presidential motorcade, it is surprising that a building so strategically placed on the Presidential route was not even given a cursory check. (The New York Post’s Dallas correspondent reported on November 25th that “there is still no indication of what, if any, advance security arrangements were made about the textbook warehouse from which the fatal bullets were fired.”) Certainly it would have been simple, since the building was barred to unauthorized persons, to obtain a list of its employees and check them against the names of known political agitators or mentally disturbed persons. But no such precaution was taken. As remarkable as the F.B.I.’s failure to inform local authorities of Oswald’s presence in Dallas is the failure of the Secret Service to discover him through its own intelligence service, the Protective Research Section, whose function, according to Robert J. Donovan, author of The Assassins (Harper & Brothers, 1955) “is to spot the assassin or potential assassin before he appears.” According to Donovan, “agents accompanying the President on trips or preceding him on the advance detail which is the harbinger of every Presidential journey out of Washington carry photographs of … suspects and would, upon seeing them, bar them from the President’s presence … Often when the Secret Service has reason to be concerned about a person — a mental case for example — in a city the President is to visit, it will ask his family to keep him home while the President is in town. A local policeman will be posted outside to make sure the promise is kept. When such a voluntary arrangement is not possible, local police, at the behest of the Secret Service, will keep the person under surveillance until the President has departed.” According to the New York Times of November 23rd, the Dallas police gave Secret Service agents “a list of known agitators who might cause trouble. The agents studied their pictures and habits. Buildings along the route were checked.” (New York Times, November 23, 1963.)

Secret Service agents have “a list of known agitators who might cause trouble.” But they knew nothing of Lee Harvey Oswald, a man of erratic background and dubious activities who worked in a key building on the Presidential route. “Buildings were checked” but not the one offering probably the best shot at the President along the route. All precautions were taken, and no precautions. The minnows were safely netted, but the shark (or sharks) remained free.