Authors: David Talbot
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Copyright © 2007 by David Talbot
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication
Data Control No. 2007005119
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And to our sons, Joseph and Nathaniel,
as they seek their own newer world
must first express my gratitude to Karen Croft, who urged me to write this book and who worked with skill and dedication as my research associate. Her belief in the importance of this endeavor was a constant source of encouragement, through the dark days and the light.
I must also give special thanks to Jefferson Morley and Peter Dale Scott, two men whose research in the Kennedy assassination field long preceded my own. They generously agreed to read and comment on my manuscript and always made themselves available for enlightening discussions. Morley and Scott are owed a debt of gratitude from the nation for their long years of investigation, despite the many obstacles put in their way by government agencies and the discouraging attitudes of many of their press and academic colleagues.
I would also like to thank other experts in the Kennedy assassination field for their generous assistance, including James Lesar, Anthony Summers, Robbyn Swan, Malcolm Blunt, Ray Marcus, Vincent Salandria, Gaeton Fonzi, William Turner, Josiah Thompson, Dr. Gary Aguilar, John Simkin, Paul Hoch, Lisa Pease, Rex Bradford, Gus Russo, Eric Hamburg, and Andy Winiarczyk. They always put the higher goal of fully understanding the case above any private claims on their expertise in my dealings with them, selflessly sharing documents, sources, insights, and their time. They, too, should be heralded for their pioneering, and continuing, work in the field.
Cliff Callahan, an astute explorer of government catacombs, provided invaluable research assistance, tracking down important documents in the National Archives.
Stephen Plotkin, Allan Goodrich, Maryrose Grossman and Megan Desnoyers were helpful guides at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, although the continuing restrictions on Kennedy-era material remain a source of puzzlement and frustration for researchers.
Gary Mack and the staff of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas also provided assistance, as did the staffs of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, the U.S. Naval Institute, the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming, the Palm Beach Historical Society, the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills, and the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, whose archives were plumbed on my behalf by Scott Feiner.
My brother-in-law, Don Peri—whose youth was as lit up with the Kennedy flame as my own—funneled a constant stream of Kennedy artifacts from his personal archives to me.
Celia Canfield, Karla Spormann, and the staff of Tendo Communications provided shelter from the storm, and I will always be grateful.
Kelly Frankeny graciously put her bounteous design skills at the service of this project.
I was fortunate to have Martin Beiser of Free Press as my editor and sounding board. His wise judgment and instincts could always be relied upon. In an era when the art of line editing has been all but lost, Marty’s deft, pen-wielding skills seem all the more miraculous.
Sloan Harris, my agent, was also a source of sharp-eyed—sometimes,
Few writers are as blessed with in-house editorial counsel as I am. My wife, Camille Peri, is not just a source of inspiration, but my guiding light. She tells me where I have gone wrong, and where I have gone right. And I believe her.
Finally, I am deeply grateful to the dozens of Kennedy colleagues, friends, and family members who shared with me their memories of the lives and deaths of John and Robert Kennedy. Some found it exhilarating to explore these hidden chambers from the past in a new light. Some found it excruciating. I hope this book does honor to their commitment to the truth.
“I found out something I never knew. I found out
that my world was not the real world.”
—ROBERT F. KENNEDY, 1968
here are many fine books about the Kennedy presidency and its violent conclusion and I have learned from all of them. But this book does not seek to retrace the familiar steps of Kennedy memoirs, histories, and biographies, or to thrash out old arguments about the JFK assassination. Instead, it looks at this brief, but operatic, swath of American history through the eyes of Robert Kennedy, and the men around the Kennedy brothers, whom they also considered brothers. Bobby Kennedy was the president’s devoted partner, as well as the nation’s top lawman. It has long been a mystery why he apparently did nothing to investigate his brother’s shocking death on November 22, 1963. I have sought to understand this enduring mystery by not only immersing myself in the deep well of Kennedy scholarship, but by poring over newly released government documents—and most important, by reliving these years with the Kennedys’ “band of brothers,” as Bobby called them—the living links to the New Frontier—before this political generation disappears entirely.
What I discovered is that Robert Kennedy did not resign himself to the lone gunman theory, the official version of his brother’s death. On the contrary, he immediately suspected that President Kennedy was the victim of a powerful conspiracy. And he spent the rest of his life secretly searching for the truth about his brother’s murder. This book will not only shine a light on Robert Kennedy’s hidden quest, it will seek to explain why he came to such a dark understanding of JFK’s death.
Few men of Robert Kennedy’s generation knew as much about the dark side of American power as he did. Looking at the tumultuous Kennedy presidency, and its shattering conclusion, through his eyes is an enlightening exercise. As I was completing this book, I unearthed new evidence about President Kennedy’s assassination that suggested Bobby Kennedy’s suspicions about Dallas were correct. These final revelations brought the book’s narrative to a dramatic close.
Robert Kennedy understood that justice was an endless battle. The Kennedy brothers’ murders never received the full investigative scrutiny they deserved. But following RFK’s own trail is a useful place to begin.
I was a sixteen-year-old campaign volunteer for Robert Kennedy the night he was shot down in Los Angeles. It struck me then that his murder, following those of his brother and Martin Luther King Jr., had irreparably wounded America. And this feeling has never left me in all the years that have followed. For me, aggressively pursuing the hidden history of the Kennedy years was an attempt to find out where my country had lost its way, and perhaps to restore the hope and faith that I myself had lost as a young American growing up in the 1960s.
ike all Americans who lived through that day, Robert F. Kennedy never forgot how he heard his brother had been shot. The attorney general, who had just turned thirty-eight, was eating lunch—clam chowder and tuna sandwiches—with United States Attorney Robert Morgenthau and his assistant by the pool at Hickory Hill, his Civil War–era mansion in McLean, Virginia, outside the capital. It was a perfect fall day—the kind of bright, crisp Friday afternoon that makes a weekend seem full of promise—and the grounds of the rolling green estate were aflame with gold and red leaves from the shedding hickories, maples, and oaks that stood sentry over the property. Kennedy had just emerged from a mid-day swim, and as he talked and ate with the visiting lawmen, his trunks were still dripping.
Around 1:45 p.m., the phone extension at the other end of the pool rang. Kennedy’s wife, Ethel, picked it up—she held the receiver out to him. J. Edgar Hoover was calling. Bobby knew immediately something unusual had happened. The FBI director never phoned him at home. The two men regarded each other with a taut wariness that they both knew would only be broken when one of them left office. Each represented to the other what was wrong about America. “I have news for you,” Hoover said. “The president’s been shot.” Hoover’s voice was blunt and matter of fact. Kennedy would always remember not just the FBI chief’s words, but his chilling tone.
“History cracked open” for America on November 22, 1963, as playwright Tony Kushner observed years later. But the abyss that opened for Bobby Kennedy at that moment was the deepest of all. And it was Hoover, of all people, who brought him news of the apocalypse. “I think he told me with pleasure,” Kennedy would recall.
Twenty minutes later, Hoover phoned again to deliver the final blow: “The president’s dead,” he said and promptly hung up. Again, Kennedy would remember, his voice was oddly flat—“not quite as excited as if he were reporting the fact that he had found a Communist on the faculty of Howard University.”
Hoover’s curt phone calls confirmed that the “perfect communion” between the two brothers, as the
New York Times
’ Anthony Lewis described the bond between President John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy—a fraternal relationship unprecedented in presidential history—was over. But they also clearly conveyed that Bobby had suffered a death of a different kind. His own power as attorney general instantly started to fade, already to a point where the director of the FBI no longer felt compelled to show deference, or even common human grace, to his superior in the Justice Department.
For the rest of the day and night, Bobby Kennedy would wrestle with his howling grief—crying, or fighting against crying since that was the Kennedy way—while using whatever power was still left him, before the new administration settled firmly into place, to figure out what had really happened in Dallas. He worked the phones at Hickory Hill; he met with a succession of people while waiting for Air Force One to return with the body of his brother, his brother’s widow, and the new president; he accompanied his brother’s remains to the autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital; and he stayed coiled and awake in the White House until early the next morning. Lit up with the clarity of shock, the electricity of adrenaline, he constructed the outlines of the crime.
From his phone calls and conversations that day—and into the following week—it’s possible to trace the paths that Robert Kennedy pursued as he tried to unveil the mystery. “With that amazing computer brain of his, he put it all together on the afternoon of November 22,” his friend, journalist Jack Newfield, remarked.
RFK’s search for the truth about the crime of the century has long been an untold story. But it is deeply loaded with historic significance. Kennedy’s investigative odyssey—which began with a frantic zeal immediately after his brother’s assassination, and then secretly continued in fitful bursts until his own murder less than five years later—did not succeed in bringing the case to court. But Robert Kennedy was a central figure in the drama—not only as his brother’s attorney general and the second most powerful official in the Kennedy administration, but as JFK’s principal emissary to the dark side of American power. And his hunt for the truth sheds a cold, bright light on the forces that he suspected were behind the murder of his brother. Bobby Kennedy was America’s first assassination conspiracy theorist.
Predictably, the first phone call that Bobby made on November 22 after his initial conversation with Hoover was to Kenny O’Donnell. JFK’s chief of staff had accompanied the president to Dallas and was with him at Parkland Memorial Hospital when he was pronounced dead at 2:00 p.m. Tough, taciturn, Boston Irish, O’Donnell was second only to Bobby himself in his political guardianship of the president. A close friend since they roomed together at Harvard and played on the college football team, O’Donnell was the man Bobby would have wanted at the scene of a crisis if he couldn’t be there himself. As a B-17 bombardier, he had flown thirty missions against Nazi Germany, was shot down and then escaped from enemy prison. In his final, legendary game as quarterback at Harvard, he ran for the winning touchdown against archrival Yale on a broken leg.
Bobby ran upstairs to phone O’Donnell from his bedroom, while Morgenthau and his assistant were led to a TV set in the drawing room at Hickory Hill. Not finding O’Donnell at the hospital, Kennedy spoke instead to Secret Service agent Clint Hill, the only officer who had performed heroically on the president’s behalf that afternoon. Images of Hill rushing to leap onto the back of JFK’s moving limousine would forever become part of the iconography of that eerie day.
It’s not known precisely what Bobby learned that afternoon from the Secret Service man. But there was a darkness that immediately began growing in Hill and O’Donnell about what they’d seen and heard in Dallas. Neither man would ever be the same after November 22.
O’Donnell was riding immediately behind Kennedy’s limousine in the Dallas motorcade, just ten feet away, along with fellow Boston Irishman Dave Powers, the White House aide and court jester. They were front row witnesses to the assassination. Powers would later say it felt as if they were “riding into an ambush.” O’Donnell and more than one Secret Service man would tell Bobby the same thing that day: They were caught in a crossfire. It was a conspiracy.
Bobby Kennedy came to the same conclusion that afternoon. It was not a “he” who had killed his brother—it was a “they.” This is how he put it to his friend, Justice Department press spokesman Edwin Guthman. The former Pulitzer Prize–winning
reporter had become close friends with Kennedy during the 1950s when they both put themselves on the line to investigate corruption and thuggery in the Teamsters’ union. Guthman was one of Bobby’s “band of brothers,” as the attorney general years later inscribed a picture of his young, idealistic Justice Department team. The battle cry from Shakespeare’s
appealed to Bobby’s sense of heroic mission: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers / For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother…/ And gentlemen…now a-bed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here.” If the perfect communion between Jack and Bobby was at the heart of the Kennedy administration, it was this wider circle of brothers—all intensely devoted to the Kennedy cause—who gave the New Frontier its blood and muscle. Bobby would quietly turn to several of these trusted aides to help him on his quest for the truth.
Guthman was having lunch with a congressman from Seattle on Capitol Hill when someone came rushing in to tell them the president had been shot. He immediately drove to Hickory Hill, where he spent the rest of the afternoon with Bobby. By now, Kennedy family members were gathering at the Virginia estate. But Bobby was also surrounding himself with “brothers” like Guthman. The two men paced endlessly together, back and forth on the backyard lawn. “There’s so much bitterness I thought they would get one of us, but Jack, after all he’d been through, never worried about it,” Kennedy told Guthman.
“Bob said, ‘I thought they would get me, instead of the president,’” Guthman said, recalling the conversation years later. “He distinctly said ‘they.’”
Guthman and others around Bobby that day thought “they” might be coming for the younger Kennedy next. So apparently did Bobby. He was normally opposed to tight security measures, which he found intrusive and perhaps even a sign of cowardice—“Kennedys don’t need bodyguards,” he had said, even after he began receiving death threats as the crime-busting attorney general. But that afternoon, Kennedy allowed the Fairfax County police, who rushed to Hickory Hill after the assassination without being summoned, to protect his home. Later, the police were replaced by federal marshals, who encircled Kennedy’s estate after Guthman and other RFK aides spoke to Chief U.S. Marshal Jim McShane.
Bobby trusted McShane and his men. James Joseph Patrick McShane was a street-tough Irish New York cop. He had worked with Bobby as an investigator for the Senate Rackets Committee in the late 1950s and had served as bodyguard for JFK during the presidential campaign. He and his men had put their lives on the line in the civil rights battles of the South, saving Martin Luther King Jr. from a howling mob that had surrounded a church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was preaching in May 1961. The following year, McShane and his ragtag troops had again formed a thin, bloodied line in defense of James Meredith, the black student who set off a fiery white uprising when he enrolled at the University of Mississippi. McShane was “built like a tank, had the crushed nose of the Golden Gloves boxing champ he once was, and the puffy face of a man who enjoyed booze in his off-hours,” observed one chronicler of his exploits. As a New York cop, he had survived seven shoot-outs on the streets and received the NYPD’s medal of honor.
It’s telling that Bobby turned to McShane and his band of federal irregulars in his hour of dread, and not Hoover’s more professional G-men. Even when his brother was still alive, Bobby had learned that Hoover’s men could not be trusted in the administration’s most dire showdowns, like those in the South. Nor did he turn to the Secret Service for protection that day. He was already trying to figure out why the agency entrusted with the president’s personal safety had failed his brother.
With their youth, ambition, and deep sense of family entitlement, the Kennedys had come into office confident they could take charge of the federal government and put it at the service of their cause. But on November 22, Bobby Kennedy immediately suspected something had broken inside the government and that his brother had been cut down by one of its jagged shards. In these hours of unknown danger, Bobby followed his old tribal instincts, turning not to the appropriate government agencies, but to the tight band of brothers whom the Kennedys had always most relied upon. None of the intensely loyal men gathered around Kennedy at his home that day knew if Bobby’s life too was now in danger. Nor did they know for certain in these fearful hours where the threat might come from or on whom they could depend. But they were sure that they could count on Jim McShane and his men to give their lives for the surviving Kennedy. He was one of them.
While McShane’s marshals staked out the front gate at Hickory Hill and fanned out along the perimeters of the estate, Bobby worked to put faces to the conspiracy that he suspected was behind his brother’s death—to find out who “they” were. No one knew more about the dark tensions within the Kennedy administration than he did. As President Kennedy struggled to command his government, clashing with hard-liners in his national security bureaucracy, he had given more and more responsibility to his brother Bobby. Among the items in the attorney general’s bulging portfolio were the CIA, which the Kennedys were determined to overhaul after the agency led them into the Bay of Pigs disaster; the Mafia, which Bobby had declared war on, telling his fellow Justice Department crusaders that either they would succeed or the mob would run the country; and Cuba, the island nation around which raged so much Cold War sound and fury. When it came to administration policy on Cuba, Bobby was “president,” General Alexander Haig, one of the Pentagon’s point men on the issue, would later say.
The CIA, Mafia, and Cuba—Bobby knew they were intertwined. The CIA had formed a sinister alliance with underworld bosses to assassinate Fidel Castro, working with mob-connected Cuban exile leaders. Bobby thought he had severed the CIA-Mafia merger when the agency finally told him about it in May 1962. But he also knew the agency often defied higher authority. He would later describe CIA actions during the Bay of Pigs as “virtually treason.” It was this shadowy nexus—the CIA, Mafia, and Cuban exiles—that Kennedy immediately focused on during the afternoon of November 22.
After phoning Dallas, Kennedy made a call to CIA headquarters, just down the highway in Langley, Virginia, where he often began his day, stopping there to work on Cuba-related business and trying to establish control over the agency’s “wilderness of mirrors” for his brother. Bobby’s phone call to Langley on the afternoon of November 22 was a stunning outburst. Getting a ranking official on the phone—whose identity is still unknown—Kennedy confronted him in a voice vibrating with fury and pain. “Did your outfit have anything to do with this horror?” Kennedy erupted. Whatever the anonymous CIA official told Bobby that afternoon, it did not put his suspicions about the agency to rest.
Later that day, Kennedy would take his question to the top of the CIA. John McCone, director of the agency, who was eating lunch in his Langley office when his aide Walter Elder burst in to tell him the news from Dallas. McCone immediately phoned Bobby, who told him to come right over to the house in McLean. McCone later recalled that he was with Bobby and Ethel in their second-floor library when Kennedy received the call telling him his brother was dead. “There was almost nothing we could say to one another,” recalled McCone. “We were seized with the horror of it.”