In this reviewer’s opinion, Professor John Newman has written two of the most important books on the JFK case in the last 25 years. The first was published in 1992. Since Newman was a professor of Asian history, he had done a lot of work on America’s struggle in Indochina. He had come to the conclusion that the mainstream media’s belief that President Johnson had continued President Kennedy’s policies in Indochina was false. So he decided to prove, in a scholarly way, that the MSM was wrong on this point.
Newman’s work was finally published in 1992. Entitled JFK and Vietnam, it was the first book length study to vitiate the establishment view that there was continuity between the Kennedy and Johnson administrations on the conduct of the Vietnam War. Newman’s book was the first systematic and categorical rejection of the Kennedy/Johnson continuity concept. In 460 pages of sober, careful, and documented text, Newman essentially rewrote the history of 1961-63 as far as American involvement in Vietnam went. He showed, among other things, that Lyndon Johnson was in the pocket of the Pentagon on this issue as far back as 1961. Unauthorized by Kennedy, but influenced by the military, he had offered the leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, the introduction of American troops into the theater. (See p. 72)
In addition to that, Newman also proved that while Kennedy was trying to disguise his withdrawal plan around the rosy and unrealistic reports of Diem winning the battle on the ground, LBJ knew the truth. From his military aide Howard Burris, Johnson was getting the actual intelligence reports, which showed the contrary: Diem was actually losing the war. (See pp. 225-27)
By the end of the book, Newman had exposed one of the great historical lies of the second half of the 20th century: namely, that American involvement in Vietnam was an inevitable tragedy. A myth that had been sustained, not just by the MSM, but also by self-proclaimed historians like David Halberstam and Stanley Karnow. Others have further mined the field Newman pioneered, and today we have good books by people like Gordon Goldstein and James Blight—Lessons in Disaster, and Virtual JFK—that have furthered Newman’s milestone thesis.
Newman had worked as a consultant on Oliver Stone’s film JFK. He was also commissioned by PBS to do some work on the Lee Oswald files, then just beginning to be declassified at the National Archives. This was in regard to the PBS 1993 anniversary program about Oswald. Stone’s film had created such a national outcry that congress created the JFK Act of 1993 to begin declassifying tens of thousands of records that had been, either wholly or partly, classified. That experience caused Newman to write his second book, Oswald and the CIA. Which was another milestone in the field. This time it was in the study of Lee Harvey Oswald’s relations to the intelligence community: from his defection to Russia to his return to Dallas from Mexico in 1963. Originally published in 1995, it was reissued in 2008. In his Afterword to the later edition, Newman squarely pointed his finger at James Angleton, the CIA’s longtime chief of counter-intelligence, as the ultimate control agent for Lee Harvey Oswald. In my opinion, the MSM deliberately ignored the revolutionary findings in this important book. (For my review of the reissue, click here).
There is a difference between the two books. Not just in subject matter. The first book was artfully organized and written. Therefore, although it was dealing with highly complex persons and issues, and it was dense with new information, it was quite readable. Newman had an editor on that book. As I wrote in my review, Oswald and the CIA is not as easy to read—perhaps because it was written in a much shorter time, maybe because it lacked a strong editor.
A few years after the publication of this book, Newman retired from the field of JFK studies. He resigned from his position as an instructor at the University of Maryland, and migrated to James Madison University in Virginia. He also became a yoga instructor. He then wrote a book about the historic parallels of that subject with mysticism and Christian theology. This was called Quest for the Kingdom.
Three years later, in 2014, Newman decided to re-enter the JFK field. Before he had left, he was planning a comprehensive study of the Kennedy administration’s relations with Castro. That book was tentatively entitled Kennedy and Cuba, and was to be issued in tandem with a re-release of JFK and Vietnam. Once John left the field, that endeavor was, in part, abandoned. I say in part, because in speaking to the author, he is now updating his first book in a plan to have it reissued. But secondly, it seems that the author kept many of his research files from his Cuba project, because they seem to form the backbone for his planned multi-book series entitled Where Angels Tread Lightly. We will discuss part one of that series here. But before beginning, it is important to note that because this is a multi-volume series, that is, a work in progress, any ultimate evaluation will have to be delayed until the last volume is published. So the reader should see this review as something of a descriptive marker, a buoy in a channel on the way to land.
In the preface, the author reveals that the title comes from a phrase in a letter that one Catherine Taafe wrote to Bobby Kennedy in late April of 1961. She figures in the book. For she had been a CIA asset involved in Agency dealings inside of Cuba. She was writing the Attorney General about the humiliation he and his brother had just experienced over the Bay of Pigs debacle. In the following Prologue, Newman says this book will be about something he calls "dark operations". Later on, he will describe this specifically as the CIA’s attempts to kill Castro being a pretense for the boomerang theory: that is, the idea that these attempts formed the pretense for the murder of President Kennedy. And specifically the CIA’s plotting around Oswald, i. e., building a pro-Castro legend around him, while also manipulating his files concerning the Mexico City episode; this was all done while inbreeding the threat of nuclear war from his alleged visits to the Cuban and Russian embassies there. These were all elements of the plot.
Newman also writes that it is necessary to break into the CIA’s codes, that is, its pseudonyms and cryptonyms, in order to unmask these “dark operations”. For as he says:
Without unmasking the CIA’s pseudonyms, cryptonyms, and multiple identities, it will not be possible to find out … who was behind the assassination in Dealey Plaza, and how they got away with it.
As the author sees it, this is the key to unraveling the murder of President Kennedy. And at the end of the first volume, he assembles a long appendix, which features his deciphering of the multiple names, identities and cryptos used by say, Howard Hunt—along with several others.
Newman begins Chapter 1 with what he considers the bungling of the Eisenhower administration in the handling of a dual problem: the weakening of the regime of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, and the growth of overt civil disturbances against him. He notes that, even in the middle of 1958, the CIA was still funneling money to Castro’s forces. Castro was using men like Frank Sturgis to get weapons from a supplier in Miami. Sturgis was caught smuggling arms twice but released with the help of the CIA. He then was a captain in Castro’s army.
Castro grew bolder throughout 1958. He abducted personnel from Guantanamo Bay and seized the Nicaro Nickel Plant, a huge subdivision of powerful Freeport Sulphur. The CIA now stopped arms shipments to Batista, since they perceived him as being ousted soon. But they also begin to investigate if Castro was part of the international Comintern. The CIA and businessman William Pawley dreamed up a couple of last minute Hail Mary schemes to stop Castro from gaining power, but they both failed. In December of 1958, CIA Director Allen Dulles told the president that the indications were that Castro was a communist. But it was too late to stop his march to Havana. (Dulles would not inform Eisenhower until late March of 1959 that Castro was running a communist dictatorship.)
Chapter 2 begins with Castro’s takeover and the evacuation of thousands of Americans out of Cuba. Santo Trafficante was arrested, but he made a deal with Raul Castro. Castro declared martial law. Eisenhower now relieved the American ambassador, Earl Smth.
Castro was careful in the beginning to disguise who he really was. He distanced himself from the existing Cuban communist party. But some remnants of the anti-Batista movement suspected Castro was at least a commie sympathizer. Some of these men, like Pancho Varona, Rolando Cubela, and Carlos Tepedino actually were informers for the Agency on Batista. Once they began to realize who Castro was, and suspecting he would install a leftist dictatorship, those men now become the opposition to Castro. They will soon meet with two CIA officers. This was the beginning of the DRE, or the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil.
FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, was shocked by the rise to power of Castro in Cuba. In his files, Newman found evidence that Richard Nixon’s lifelong friend, Bebe Rebozo, fronted as a funnel for Mob money and investment in business ventures between Ambassador Earl Smith and Batista. Nixon was also getting a cut of this graft. The author has three sources for this. (Newman does not note it, but this makes three fonts of dirty money Nixon was getting prior to becoming president: from the Shah of Iran, from Romanian industrialist Nicolae Malaxa, and now Batista. JFK researchers like to point out how corrupt LBJ was. He had nothing on Nixon.)
Parts of the CIA, and a larger part of the State Department, were willing to wait on Castro. But another part of the Agency developed other informants on him. This included Sturgis—a relationship that was actually approved by CIA HQ—and military commander Camilo Cienfuegos.
When Sturgis had a falling out with Raul Castro, he was instructed to visit the American embassy in Havana. From there he was told to meet two CIA officers in Miami. It is there that he began his relationship with Bernard Barker. Barker and Sturgis were assigned to William Kent of the psy-war branch. Sturgis now began work with James Noel, chief of the CIA office in Havana, along with psy-war expert David Phillips. Phillips was undercover as one “James Stewart”, working for an advertising agency. (As the author notes, whenever one hears that the CIA had no formal relationship with Sturgis, we can now show this is a deception.)
Castro, at first, closed the casinos, and their gambling operations. But there were so many foreigners still on the island that he decided to reopen them temporarily. Castro asked Sturgis to work as his liaison to the casinos. It is here that Sturgis got to know Juan Orta, Castro’s secretary. Santo Trafficante will later recruit Orta to take part in the CIA-Mafia plots to kill Castro. But Sturgis had already volunteered to plant a bomb in the second floor conference room at an Air Force Base he regularly visited.
The author now introduces another female protagonist. She is June Cobb. Readers of Oswald and the CIA will recall that Newman spent a good deal of time with Cobb there, since she was a CIA infiltrator—one among many—inside the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. It seems that Cobb began her intelligence career as a double-dealing drug peddler. That is, she was dealing drugs in Cuba, but also working as an informant for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. This began as far back as 1957, when she actually informed on her boyfriend.
In 1959, when Castro first visited America, Cobb landed a job as a translator for Fidel. She actually translated his famous “History Will Absolve Me” speech. Castro liked her work and invited her back to Cuba. He put her in charge of English publications.
Frank Sturgis was also hard at work as an informant. In March of 1959, he went to Washington to inform the FBI about Castro. He did this at the behest of Pedro and Marcos Diaz Lanz, two commanders in Castro’s military. Sturgis told the Bureau that all three were alarmed about the growing communist influence in Cuba. They worried that Cuba could now become a communist forward base in the Caribbean, e.g., against Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. Both men were backed by the USA. In fact, Cuba did make very small incursions into both countries, along with Panama, in 1959. When this happened, certain soldiers of fortune now joined up in the battle against Fidel; e.g., pilot Leslie Bradley, trainer Gerry Hemming, and the man the FBI would wrongly accuse of being at Sylvia Odio’s door, Loran Hall. After joining the Cuban army, Hemming later engaged in training Nicaraguans. Hall did also. While in Cuba, Hall got to know Mafia Don Santo Trafficante.
n June of 1959, Raul Castro began to purge the military of all suspected informers and double agents. This included later CIA assets like Sergio Sanjenis. He especially concentrated on the higher ranks. Lanz took over Radio Havana on June 29, 1959 and criticized Castro’s leftward drift in a lengthy speech. Castro was outraged. He ordered Diaz Lanz under house arrest, and gave Juan Almeida his job as commander of the Air Force. Sanjenis and Pedro Diaz Lanz defected with the help of the CIA in June of 1959. Diaz Lanz became a prized asset of the CIA. He testified in public before Senator Thomas Dodd’s Internal Security committee. He would later take part in the Bay of Pigs invasion.
The Diaz Lanz defection really hit home with Fidel. He now turned even more to the left.
The first drastic piece of legislation moving Cuba toward a communist state was the Agrarian Reform Program. At first, this bill did not allow for compensation when Cuba confiscated property for future redistribution. As a result, the minister of agriculture, Sori Martin, resigned.
Castro’s program set up a body of local cooperatives that he labeled INRA (the National Institute for Agrarian Reform). Now, only Cubans could buy land on the island. INRA was a very powerful agency that shaped land distribution and all infrastructure projects in Cuba. Manuel Artime ran Zone 22.
It was the creation of INRA that now drove American business interests to lay siege to the White House, especially in light of the lack of promises by Castro to pay compensation for land. (Castro did tell the new ambassador Philip Bonsal that he would pay later, but not right now.) In the summer of 1959, these business interests wanted Eisenhower to start a formal program of counter-revolution. And now, people like Bernard Barker joined up with Manuel Artime (before his defection) to aid Mario Lazo. Lazo was a high level Cuban attorney under Batista. He served as corporate counsel for Freeport Sulphur on the island. Taafe used her contacts to steal inside documents from INRA.
In the fall of 1959, Castro came out of the closet. After keeping the communist party at arm’s length, he now appointed the leader of the party as Minister of Labor. He then began to appoint members of the party to all levels of his government. Thereafter, he announced that Cuba would be a fully communist country in three years. The CIA heard about this meeting announcement through Artime.
Through the Havana CIA station, David Phillips and Dave Morales now worked on the defection of Marcos Diaz Lanz. This decision went all the way up to Chief of the Western Hemisphere, J. C. King. Phillips and Morales were assisted on this by Bernard Barker.
The author now addresses a weird episode. Both the Dominican Republic and Cuba had plans to invade each other almost at the same time in the summer of 1959. Because he was informed of the Trujillo action in advance, Castro struck first by about four days. But he was not informed of the CIA backing of Trujillo’s invasion of Cuba. The American Ambassador to Cuba, Philip Bonsal, did not back the Dominican Republic invasion, since he thought it had little chance of success, and would therefore strengthen Castro. Through informants and agents, Allen Dulles pushed for the Cuban invasion of the Dominican Republic, but said little to the NSC about the Dominican Republic invasion of Cuba. Both attacks were failures. But Trujillo’s was much worse since Castro rounded up about a thousand POW’s. After this there were even more defections to the USA, since Castro now started a purge of the military of all suspected American allies.
After this victory, in September of 1959, Castro announced that Freeport Sulphur’s 75 million dollar plant at Moa Bay would come under property review. Since the regime needed money, Raul Castro actually wanted Fidel to directly expropriate the property. In reaction, business leaders now called for an emergency meeting with both the State Department and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. As a result, David Phillips became a PR advisor for the business interests still on the island. But he reported back that these interests wanted more than PR, they wanted action.
Short of an American invasion, it was probably too late. For, in October of 1959, Castro wearied of all the defections by people like Sturgis, Sanjenis, and Diaz Lanz. The last one was Manuel Artime, a project that, again, Phillips and Morales worked on. Fidel now made his brother Raul minister of defense. Bonsal wired Washington that, in and of itself, this was a disturbing development, since Raul was considered even more leftist than Fidel. Further, Fidel Castro cracked down on all suspects who he thought were about to defect: for example, jailing former Commander Huber Matos. A week later, Artime began the MRR, an anti-Castro exile group, with Sergio Sanjenis.
Also in October, the State Department announced a new policy paper in regards to Cuba. It was titled “Current Basic United States Policy Towards Cuba”. Part of the objective entailed the removal of Fidel Castro from power by no later than the end of 1960. President Eisenhower adopted this paper in November, along with CIA Director Allen Dulles. In January of 1960, it extended to the Pentagon.
At the White House, Vice-President Richard Nixon demanded an action plan. From the outside, William Pawley—former diplomat and now businessman—wanted another invasion of Cuba through the Dominican Republic. But Allen Dulles vetoed that move. In December of 1959 Dulles, Deputy Director of Plans, Richard Helms, and Western Hemisphere Chief J. C. King now began to devise a covert action plan against Cuba. When it was completed, Dulles presented it to the National Security Council.
After Phillips worked on the exfiltration of Artime, he began work on getting Rolando Cubela out of Cuba. Cubela was another government employee who became disenchanted with Castro’s leftward drift. But the CIA decided that Phillips was becoming overexposed. So they recalled him back home. Two cohorts of Phillips handled the Cubela operation: the Cuban friend of Cubela, Carlos Tepedino, and CIA official Tony Sforza. In talks with Cubela, the CIA learned that government official Manolo Ray was also disenchanted with Castro. But, as time went on, Cubela decided to stay on the island to fight Castro. Sforza then focused on Juanita Castro, sister of Fidel, as a possible exfiltration target.
Newman notes that in the middle of all these fateful and furious debates about Cuba, the Russians had stayed hidden in the shadows. This minimized the specter of a Cuban/Russian alliance. But in late 1959, through Air Force General Curtis LeMay and former Air Force Secretary, and now Senator, Stuart Symington, there began to be talk about a Missile Gap—in favor of the Soviets. Since Symington was planning on running for the White House the next year, this is probably what motivated him to take part in this nonsense. As it did Lyndon Johnson, who said the Russians would have a 3-1 advantage in three years. The facts were that the USA was already two generations ahead of the Soviets in ICBM technology. The USSR was still testing its first delivery systems while Eisenhower was debating whether to bypass the Atlas rocket for the Minuteman and the Polaris. This gap in America’s favor would, of course, set the stage for the Missile Crisis.
This book is exceedingly rich in detail. Much more than I can begin to convey in a relatively concise review. What the author is doing has three layers. First, he is giving us a history of the Castro revolution. At the same time he is showing how the USA reacted to that epochal turnover, stage by stage in its evolution. Third, he is tracing certain people and movements who will return to the stage in 1963, after Kennedy changes policy, and begins a détente attempt with Cuba. Other authors have tried this before, but never on this scale or with this intricacy.