Burying the Lead is an exceptionally readable history of the half-century of deception and propaganda surrounding the JFK assassination that has been promulgated by the mainstream media, who as Hyman aptly demonstrates, were instrumental in maintaining the “Big Lie”. Chronologically structured, Hyman centers his survey of the media on their coverage of events immediately after President Kennedy's death and extends his analysis to the later congressional probes into the CIA's dirty tricks bag, the Reagan and Bush administrations' handling of the declassification of sensitive documents, and the eventual breakthrough event that was Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK, which led to a renewed public interest in the psychic trauma of the assassination and, eventually, the further release of thousands of sealed documents. The book succeeds in doing what so many like it have failed to do: 1) It circumscribes the players likely involved in the crime of the century; 2) Provides a cogent and compelling motive that even die-hard true believers in the official version of the JFK narrative will be hard pressed to refute; and 3) Manages to keep the reader not just glued to the page, but emotionally invested in a case whose repercussions directly affect us today.
Mal Hyman—former public school teacher, U.N. liaison and U.S. Congressional candidate, and current college professor—draws on a lifetime of reading and primary source research to bring readers one of the most robust and compelling sagas of the United States at mid-century. He is particularly interested in the inclusion of foreign views on both U.S. foreign policy and the conclusions of the Warren Commission. The first chapter, “Crisis Coverage,” is written in a racing, almost stream of consciousness fashion, with Hyman describing AP wires which at first were sending dramatically conflicting reports of the mayhem unfolding in Dallas following Kennedy's assassination. From the four different rifles cited as the murder weapon—an Argentine Mauser, a .30-30, a British Enfield with a high power scope, and finally the infamous Mannlicher-Carcano; to wildly divergent motives cited (Cold War Soviets, a pathological loner, the Mob sick of harassment, a Castro revenge plot)—Hyman shows that left to their own devices, there were some serious journalists questioning the curious events and findings that afternoon in Dallas. Many accurately cited the dozens of witnesses who heard shots from the grassy knoll or the triple overpass. Some reporters tried to get a closer look at the bullet hole in the limousine's windshield before being turned away by the Secret Service. But within hours of the assassination and the subsequent arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, the propaganda and disinformation apparatus spooled up to high gear and successfully silenced any and all opposing narratives of those six fateful seconds in Dealey Plaza.
Consider the following, which Hyman expounds on throughout the opening chapters: FBI Director Hoover immediately phoned a recently sworn in Lyndon Johnson to tell him “we have our man.” This is fascinating given the actual reports flooding FBI headquarters which directly contradicted this. No one, to my knowledge, can also explain unless the obvious setup was already firmly in place, just how or why Lee Harvey Oswald was picked up at the Texas Theater. No reliable witness saw him in the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository building. The excuse that he was the only employee not at his post has also been refuted. The official tip-off for the APB has never been identified. People like Aquila Clemons, who witnessed the later Tippit shooting in nearby Oak Cliff, saw two people shoot the officer, neither of which resembled Oswald; automatic shell casings were first reported at the site of the Tippit shooting, yet Oswald had a .38 revolver, which does not eject shells. Law enforcement paraffin tests concluded Lee had not fired a rifle that day, regardless of his whereabouts. Why did seven police cars rush to the Texas Theater during a presidential assassination to investigate a man who didn't pay for a movie ticket? None of it makes sense. And yet, despite all of these clearly established facts, which were known that day or shortly thereafter, the mainstream media conveyed almost none of them.
What we got, instead, was a ready-made, Life magazine profile of a lone Marxist weirdo who, in a final disgruntled act of defiance, shot JFK—perhaps the most progressive and pro-détente president in American history—because he … um … well, he was a nut! As Michael Paine, Oswald's Dallas acquaintance who was part of a State Department/CIA related family, told the Washington Post (a CIA-infiltrated newspaper) in the following few days:
After the assassination there were reports that the killer took his time and aimed his rifle deliberately. That would be characteristic of Lee Oswald … He had little respect for people … He saw them as pawns. (Hyman, Burying the Lead p. 39)
The irony of that statement really can't be topped considering it was Michael’s FBI friendly wife Ruth Paine and himself who moved the intelligence community pawn Lee Oswald and his wife Marina into the Fort Worth area and helped him find the job in the TSBD. And the list goes on, but this minor vignette showcases what Hyman so well outlines in dramatic fashion: a massive cover-up whose perpetrators reach deep into the corporate, military, intelligence and media organizations of the United States. As he notes:
The CIA has at times owned or subsidized more than 50 newspapers, news services, radio stations, periodicals, and other communications entities, sometimes in the country, but mostly overseas … At least 22 American news organizations had employed, though sometimes only on a casual basis, American journalists who were also working for the CIA. The organizations included ABC, CBS, Time, Life Newsweek, the New York Times, Associated Press and United Press International, the Scripps-Howard chain of newspapers, the Hearst newspaper chain, the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, the Louisville Courier-Journal, Forbes … College Press Service, Business International, the McLendon Broadcasting Organization, and the Copley News Services, among others. (Hyman, p.56)
All of this was part of CIA Deputy Director of Plans Frank Wisner's Operation Mockingbird, colloquially referred to in the agency as “Wisner's Wurlitzer”. With this apparatus, he could make the press dance to whatever tunes best fit the intelligence community's agenda. It's interesting to note that propaganda was officially outlawed by Congress in the United States under the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948.
Understanding that Cold War tensions might give rise to the continuing expansion of WWII-style propaganda, the Smith-Mundt Act, as it became known, enjoined the State Department to
… tell the truth; explain the motives of the United States; bolster morale and extend hope; give a true and convincing picture of American life, methods, and ideals; combat misrepresentation and distortion; and aggressively interpret and support American foreign policy. (Sarah Nilsen: Projecting America, 1958. p. 4)
And while this thoughtful and prescient legislation had good intentions, little did those signing it understand the monster that was forming right down the block out of the remains of the OSS.
Hyman spends a considerable amount of time balancing a fascinating and nuanced history of the formation of the CIA with the media's contemporaneous reporting on both the agency's dirty deeds and the critics of the Warren Commission. He also includes some previously—at least to my knowledge—unexplored clippings from international newspapers around the time of the assassination, including some prescient Indian and French takes on things like the ease with which Jack Ruby shot Oswald, the conspicuous lack of Secret Service protection in Dallas that day, and the almost cartoonish serendipity with which CE399 -the pristine magic bullet—was found in Parkland Hospital after the fact. Concurrent with his coverage of this is his survey of the history of the media's infiltration by, and increasingly close ties with, the CIA. With only a few dissenting voices during the height of the Cold War, Hyman does an excellent job showing readers just how rare it was for anyone in a position of influence in the media to challenge the dominant narratives of the age. John Swinton, Chief of Staff for the New York Times, in a bold gesture at the 1953 New York Press Club gala, told the audience:
There is no such thing, at this date in history, as an independent press. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dare to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print … any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. (Hyman, pp. 54-55)
The author also cites Walter Karp of Harper's, who lamented, “It is a bitter irony of source journalism that the most esteemed reporters are precisely the most servile. For it is by making themselves useful to the powerful that they gain access to the 'best' sources.” (Hyman, p.46)
And yet the vast majority of the MSM, both then and now, did precisely that. This reinforced the myths promulgated by the power elite and advanced the belief that if any major abuses of power from the top were actually as grotesque and far-reaching as what the evidence surrounding the assassination of JFK suggests, Americans would have turned on the evening news or opened the morning newspaper over breakfast to discover the truth of the matter. Let's not forget that it was around this time that the CIA, in an internal memo, advised its embedded sources in the press to promulgate the buzzword “conspiracy theory” to discredit anyone challenging the Warren Report. As this declassified 1967 cable explains:
Conspiracy theories have frequently thrown suspicion on our organization, for example by falsely alleging that Lee Harvey Oswald worked for us. The aim of this dispatch is to provide material for countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists, so as to inhibit circulation of such claims in other countries.
In other words, legitimate investigations—which by definition seek to expose conspiracies of one sort or another—are to be attacked.
Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by an extensive conspiratorial network involving overseas agents; Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot by conspirators in an open car in broad daylight, which precipitated World War I; secret backroom deals between the OSS, the Vatican, U.S. politicians and other opportunists secured the release and expatriation of thousands of high-ranking Nazi war criminals to South America and the U.S. at the end of World War II. The 1954 overthrow of Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala was a CIA-planned conspiracy involving hundreds of people sworn to secrecy. An international conspiratorial cabal involving officials from U.S., Belgium, and Katangese rebels planned the capture and murder of Patrice Lumumba seven years later. All of these are demonstrably provable conspiracies. But in the face of all that, the evidence that might erode the great shining lie surrounding the assassination of our nation's progressive leadership in the 1960s, this evidence is shunted off as “conspiracy theories.” And, of course, no one can prove theories, which in actual scientific discourse are not qualitatively less significant than say “laws,” but actually denote a separate but equally sound paradigm based on complex natural or physical interactions rather than the direct relations of say two objects in a gravitational field. Darwin's concept of evolution by natural selection is a theory. Newtonian gravity is a law. Einstein's notion of General Relativity is a theory, but is understood as true. As I've always said, I am a proud conspiracy theorist, as should any historian be. It's our job to investigate the relationships of human beings, some of which have ulterior motives. The above-cited memo is itself proof that conspiracies are real; a secret team of intelligence officers decided to discredit critics of a major American mystery. We were not privy to this meeting and it was intended to obfuscate the truth. A textbook conspiracy if ever there was. But only if you believe in that sort of thing.
Hyman also does a fine job detailing the various congressional committees that during the mid to late seventies first opened Pandora's box and discovered that the CIA's surveillance of American citizens' mail was just the tip of the iceberg. From assassination units, both domestic and foreign, to witch doctors like Sidney Gottlieb—who from a CIA-sponsored laboratory had cooked up his exotic poisons and killing devices—to the CIA's bizarre but very real trauma-based mind control experiments on unwitting American subjects, it wasn't looking good for the intelligence community. And yet, as Hyman notes, the fallout was essentially inconsequential. What could and should have been a legal mandate for the Central Intelligence Agency to come forward with its tax-payer-funded ledger of dirty deeds turned into the smug reply of people like Counterintelligence Chief James Angleton, who famously told committee members, “It is inconceivable that a secret arm of the government has to comply with all the overt orders of the government.”
Perhaps the most significant achievement of this book, besides its comprehensiveness and exquisite delivery, is Hyman's treatment of JFK's foreign policy. Only a handful of authors, I feel, have sufficiently addressed just how much John Kennedy diverged, both practically and philosophically, from his Eastern Establishment colleagues and advisers in the White House and Pentagon. Hyman takes readers through each of the struggles of the Third World that faced a young JFK during his brief tenure in office, from the inherited Congo Crisis, to Sukarno's bid to nationalize Indonesia's natural resources, to the infamous thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.
There is now enough evidence, both from declassified documents and in the form of fine secondary sources, to adamantly make the case that JFK's primary antagonism with the power elite– and what ultimately led them to assassinate him—stemmed from his radically progressive views of the developing world. While he and his brother Robert strove to effect tangible street-level change on America's domestic race issue—and did, to a large extent through things like affirmative action, legal investigations of racist hiring practices and meetings with prominent civil rights leaders—they attempted to apply their visions of a better human future most boldly in the Third World. Consider, as Hyman does, Kennedy's absolutely prescient analysis of the Middle East in 1951:
The fires of nationalism are ablaze … A Middle East Command operating without the cooperation and support of the Middle Eastern countries … would intensify every anti-western force now active in the area, [and] from a military standpoint would be doomed to failure. The very sands of the desert rise to oppose the imposition of outside control on the destinies of these proud people … Our intervention on behalf of England's oil interests in Iran directed more at the preservations of interests outside of Iran than at Iran's own development … Our failure to deal effectively after three years with the terrible tragedy of more than 700,000 Arab refugees [Palestinians], these are things that have failed to sit well with Arab desires, and make empty the promises of the Voice of America.
Already, just years after its creation, the CIA had overthrown the secular democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mossadeq in their first ever orchestrated coup. This ushered in nearly three decades of violent oppression and torture under Shah Reza Pahlavi, who happened to be future CIA Director Richard Helms' pal from Swiss boarding school. The proximate motive given was that Iran was exhibiting strange communist tendencies in its decision to keep the profits of its own oil sales from Britain, a nation that had extorted billions from what it essentially viewed as a backwater desert satrapy.
Thus was born a classic CIA playbook: using the mantra of an international communist conspiracy to disguise its ulterior motives of protecting corporate interests. Similarly, Jacobo Árbenz, the 25th president of Guatemala, exhibited these same nationalist economic tendencies in 1954. When he requested a fair return on land owned by the United Fruit Company—which had been ripping off Guatemala to the tune of millions in back taxes for years—the CIA-backed paramilitary army of Carlos Castillo-Armas marched into Guatemala City and staged a coup. With CIA assets going so far as to plant Marxist literature in Árbenz' private study, later dumping a large crate of Soviet weapons near a beach, just in time for CIA-approved reporters to discover them. President Eisenhower presided over this operation, codenamed PBSUCCESS, which he viewed as a spectacular covert feat. Castillo-Armas, a brutal ex-chief of police who had been living in exile in Honduras, was featured on the cover of Time magazine a year later, with a glowing review of his visit to the United States entitled, “Guest from Guatemala.” (Time, Nov. 7, 1955)
Kennedy had already recognized the folly of this behavior. Consider his 1957 speech on Algeria to the U.S. Senate:
The most powerful force in the world today … is man's eternal desire to be free and independent … We did not learn in Indochina … Did that tragic episode not teach us that whether France likes it or not, or has our support or not, their overseas territories are sooner or later, one by one, inevitably going to break free and look with suspicion on the Western nations who impeded their steps to independence … The time has come to face the harsh realities of the situation and to fulfill its responsibilities as leader of the free world. (Hyman, p.457)
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, along with brother and Director of CIA Allen Dulles, both suggested to Eisenhower that dropping nuclear bombs on the Vietnamese threatening to overtake the French forces trapped at Dien Bien Phu could win the war. To say that Kennedy's and the viewpoints of figures like Allen Dulles slightly differed, as is so often regurgitated in the mainstream histories of his presidency, is not just inaccurate but dishonest. They were diametrically opposed. And this played out in dramatic fashion when the two were forced to work together after the 1960 election. Similarly, the author notes this sentiment of solidarity with the Third World was a theme running deeply throughout Kennedy's tenure as both a senator and as president, not a grandstanding ploy or an appeal to the far-left voter base. As he told the Senate two years later, in 1959, regarding Central African turmoil, “Call it nationalism. Call it anti-colonialism … Africa is going through a revolution … The word is out—and spreading like wild fire in nearly a thousand languages and dialects—that it is no longer necessary to remain forever poor or forever in bondage.”
These words eerily parallel the 1960 victory speech given by president elect Patrice Lumumba to throngs of ecstatic Congolese:
We are deeply proud of our struggle, because it was just and noble and indispensable in putting an end to the humiliating bondage forced upon us. That was our lot for the eighty years of colonial rule and our wounds are too fresh and much too painful to be forgotten. We have experienced forced labor in exchange for pay that did not allow us to satisfy our hunger, to clothe ourselves, to have decent lodgings or to bring up our children as dearly loved ones. (“Speech at the Ceremony of the Proclamation of the Congo's Independence, June 30, 1960”)
President Eisenhower refused to meet with Lumumba when he flew to Washington, and later signed off on his assassination.
Too often critics of non-mainstream JFK assassination theories smugly resort to arguing lack of motive for a non-Oswald shooter, or intelligence community backing. Why, we've heard again and again, would other rich white Eastern Establishment power elites assassinate one of their own? Even I, who have an extensive background in 20th-Century foreign policy, was reminded of this in my graduate training, with a few memorable professors conceding that basically Jack Kennedy was a cooler, younger version of say, Eisenhower, or a more sophisticated version of Johnson with a better tailored suit. But he was not fundamentally any less hawkish than either of his presidential bookends. Yes, Oliver Stone suggested Kennedy's likely withdrawal of advisers from Vietnam as the contributing cause of the military-industrial complex's decision to remove him. But, they would remind me, we all know that's just a theory. Had they read NSAM 263? Did they not also realize there were no combat troops in Vietnam in November 1963 when Kennedy was killed? Kennedy presided over Operation Mongoose and the “failed” exile-invasion of Cuba, they often repeated, so he was no stranger to using gunboat diplomacy.
Let's examine these claims, as Hyman does to a great extent in his final and excellent last chapters. As authors like James DiEugenio, Richard Mahoney, Col. Fletcher Prouty and others have shown, President Kennedy had an immediate, actionable withdrawal and de-escalation order effective upon his return from Dallas that month. This was not a verbal agreement or handshake over drinks that has been anecdotally passed through the research community. It's all clearly spelled out in NSAM 263, a National Security Action Memorandum that concretely establishes JFK's divergence from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Central Intelligence Agency's cold warrior, Manichean view of the free and communist worlds.
As we know through John Kenneth Galbraith’s biographer Richard Parker, Kennedy had previously tried for an appeal to Hanoi for a neutralist diplomatic solution to the Vietnam problem with Nehru of India playing the broker. As Gareth Porter showed in his book The Perils of Dominance, this effort was sabotaged by the State Department’s Averill Harriman. Similarly, we know, from a variety of his foreign policy dealings in the Third World, that President Kennedy was entirely more nuanced in his understanding of nationalism than most people in the room during briefings. Kennedy correctly understood that the quick and sloppy conflation of liberation, decolonization, or resource-redistribution movements in places like the Congo, Indonesia and ultimately, Vietnam, with Soviet Communism, was a dangerous game to play. Because it dismissed the forces of nationalism.
The fallout from the intelligence and military communities' efforts to prop up pro-U.S. dictators has been much explored by authors like William Blum, (Killing Hope), David Schmitz (Thank God They're On Our Side), and Max Friedman (Rethinking Anti-Americanism), and is beyond the scope of this review to accurately survey. Suffice it to say, Hyman does an excellent job of unpacking these critical departures between an increasingly isolated John and Robert Kennedy during times like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Or to use another example, in a June 20th, 1961 meeting, General Lemnitzer and Allen Dulles “proposed an official plan for a surprise nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.” (Hyman, p. 424.) Like he did before and would do again, Kennedy, according to aides present, walked out in disgust. Around this same time, people like General Lucius Clay in West Berlin were mobilizing their tanks to make a move against the Soviets. Strategic Air Command, without the president's authority, began deploying nuclear-equipped long-range bombers, even going so far as to cross established international airspace parallels which essentially signaled to the Soviets that this was not a routine drill. It's amazing, at least to me, that not only did the nuclear-armed superpowers not destroy humanity during the Missile Crisis, but that the world's most important two-week vigil landed in the lap of figures like John and Robert Kennedy. Replay the events with Eisenhower/Nixon in power. It doesn't end well. We now know that had a full blown invasion with U.S. air support taken place it would have faced over a quarter of a million Cuban and Soviet ground troops who had dozens of tactical nuclear missiles poised to repel an amphibious invasion.
It also cannot be stressed enough that the Bay of Pigs invasion was both thrown in his lap due to its delayed planning during the Eisenhower/Nixon administration, and designed to fail without full-blown U.S. naval and carrier-based air support—and likely the landing of 100,000 ground troops. The myth that Kennedy got “cold feet,” as my grandpa Marcel used to tell me back in Florida, was a pure creation of … wait for it … the CIA! Allen Dulles and E. Howard Hunt paid a CIA-cleared journalist to ghostwrite their completely honest, objective, 100-percent transparent evaluation of President Kennedy's failure of nerve in Fortune magazine, a journal run by … wait for it … a CIA asset on payroll! We know this through documents revealed in Allen Dulles' personal papers at the Princeton University collection. And Kennedy knew this intuitively. As Hyman cites him telling his friend, Undersecretary of the Navy Paul Fay:
Now in retrospect, I know damn well they didn't have any intention of giving me the straight world on this … Looking back at the whole Cuban mess, one of the things that appalled me was the lack of broad judgment by the heads of the military services. They wanted to fight and probably calculated that if we committed ourselves part way and started to lose, I would probably give the OK to pour in whatever else was needed. (Hyman, p. 424)
We are arguably all still here because of JFK's acumen during the Cuban Missile Crisis, yet this is almost never explored by the media, who portray the harrowing events and their unspectacular, negotiated resolution as somehow inevitable. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Hyman spends considerable time hammering this point home in his final chapters. Which, I should add, follow a lengthy and extremely interesting unpacking of Lyndon Johnson's behavior after the events of Dealey Plaza, which should appeal to those on the fence regarding his culpability and seeming complicity at times with the conspirators.
Philosophically, as Hyman conclusively shows readers, John F. Kennedy represented a psychic break from the entrenched corporate/military/industrial power elites, whose post-traumatic irrationality, myopic reductionism and retrograde colonial opportunism dominated American politics at mid-century. Shaken to the core by the implications of Soviet dominance over vast reaches of Europe and Asia in the wake of the Second World War, and seeking a much-needed bogey man to fulfill their Hegelian negative-identity criteria, by which national worth can only be defined in opposition to a foreign adversary or internal enemy, U.S. policy makers at the height of the Cold War largely viewed the Kennedys as traitors. Traitors to the great mantle of tremendous military might fortuitously bequeathed to an otherwise backwater new nation called the United States in the wake of the Second World War's global carnage. Traitors to the corporate interests who cared little what a million Congolese suffered under CIA-backed dictators like Mobutu, so long as their diamond and cobalt mines in Katanga poured forth abundance. Traitors to the then-as-now accepted postwar view that the United States is an exceptional nation with an exceptional, quasi-religious historical mission which despite hundreds of overthrows, embargoes, assassinations, lies, and disinformation campaigns by its politicians and intelligence officers, is fundamentally well-meaning and just.
Anyone interested in tracing the origins of this dark legacy will be doing themselves a favor by picking up Burying the Lead. It is one of those rare things: a balanced, engaging, fascinating look at the slimy underbelly of the American power structure. And the hired guns of the media who cover up for them.