John McAdams: Debunking JFK conspiracy claims made by David Kaiser

Roundup: Talking About History

[John McAdams is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University and webmaster of the Kennedy Assassination Home Page. He received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1981.]

At first glance, David Kaiser’s book [The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)] promises to be one of the more sensible volumes on the JFK assassination. Published by an esteemed press, it is written by a reputable, experienced historian. Kaiser, moreover, is one of the first from his profession to plumb the voluminous collection of once-secret documents assiduously collected, at some cost to the US taxpayer, by the Assassination Records Review Board in the 1990s.

In several respects, Kaiser does not disappoint. He cheerfully concedes that Lee Harvey Oswald killed the president in Dealey Plaza, and accepts the single bullet explanation.[1] He supplies a solid account of Kennedy-era assassination plots against Fidel Castro (which originated under President Eisenhower), and he provides a workmanlike narrative of the Kennedy administration’s campaign against organized crime. Unlike so many authors writing about the assassination, Kaiser is not in Camelot’s thrall, and he does not whitewash any of the questionable actions of the Kennedy brothers.[2] Among other things, he describes the tactics of the Senate “Rackets” Committee, of which Robert Kennedy was the top staffer, as “reminiscent of” those used by the far more notorious House Un-American Activities Committee, as well as Joe McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee on investigations.[3]

But not far into the book, Kaiser’s judgment deserts him. He tries to make the case that the Kennedys’ anti-Castro plots and crusade against organized crime climaxed in the president’s assassination, and he hammers the facts until they fit this thesis. The result is a clanking, Rube Goldberg-style conspiracy contraption that falls of its own weight. Far from uncovering an “appalling and grisly conspiracy,” as the book’s catalog copy asserts, Kaiser merely recycles hoary claims that have been debunked for decades, while putting back into circulation innuendo and unproven allegations. Kaiser ignores very stubborn facts whenever they are inconvenient to his smoke-and-mirrors history.

Links Where There Are None

Kaiser has a penchant–one fatal to serious history–for the most unreliable evidence and the most implausible scenarios.

Take, for example, his attempt to link Oswald’s murderer, Jack Ruby, to the Mafia in a way that might implicate Ruby in a conspiracy to kill JFK. Kaiser claims that in 1959, Ruby visited Santos Trafficante in Trescornia prison in Cuba not long after Castro’s overthrow of the Batista dictatorship. If true, the encounter would seem to be highly significant, because it would tie Ruby to a high-level mobster soon to be involved in the CIA’s efforts to eliminate Castro.

Kaiser correctly cites John Wilson-Hudson, a British journalist, as the source for this claim. But Wilson-Hudson could hardly be more unreliable as a source, and he is also the sole source for the alleged visit. Years before the assassination, one CIA document from 1959 labeled Wilson-Hudson as being “mentally unbalanced.”[4] Another document, from 1963, reported that “altho[ugh] Wilson [is] intelligent, erratic behavior indicates mental unbalance”; in addition, he was deemed “violently anti-US.”[5] Even the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), which was all but determined to pin the assassination on the Mafia regardless of the evidence, treated Wilson-Hudson’s claim gingerly. HSCA’s final report refused to embrace Wilson-Hudson’s allegation, most likely because a committee staffer reviewed the journalist’s CIA file, which included other evaluations such as “believe on first returns from FBI check he [is] likely [to] be [a] psychopath.”[6]

Yet for Kaiser, none of these red flags matter sufficiently. Wilson-Hudson’s story is too pivotal to the conspiracy Kaiser is determined to construct, no matter how flimsy the foundation.

Another key piece of evidence Kaiser presents to implicate Ruby involves long-distance phone calls Ruby made to various mob-upped people around the country in the days immediately prior to the assassination. Ruby’s contemporaneous explanation was that he was having trouble with the strippers’ union, the mob-connected American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA). The Warren Commission left it at that, but in the late 1970s, HSCA reopened the matter and it analyzed these calls in detail. Its investigators found that most of them could easily be accounted for by Ruby’s problems with the AGVA, although HSCA did leave the door open for some of the calls having been suspicious.[7] Subsequently, author Gerald Posner investigated three calls that HSCA thought might be worrisome, but he only found that they, too, were related to Ruby’s labor troubles.[8]

None of this bothers Kaiser, who prefers innuendo.[9] He somehow fails to notice that there were too many calls for them to be conspiratorial. Are we supposed to believe that six or eight hoodlums, from all over the country, were being directed to catch a plane to Dallas and show up in time to help cover-up the killing of Kennedy? Of course, Kaiser might say that only one or two of the calls were conspiratorial. Even so, he has to admit that a large number were exactly what Ruby and the people who received them said they were: appeals for help in dealing with the AVGA. And if most of the calls were, it’s perfectly plausible that all of them were....

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