The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy BY David Kaiser. Belknap Press. Hardcover, 536 pages. $35.

The cover of The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy

Late this winter, a minor media furor rose up around the tirelessly debated question of ultimate culpability for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Dallas district attorney Craig Watkins announced at a press conference that he had discovered a cache of documents and effects deposited in a safe decades ago by one of his predecessors, Henry Wade, that seemed to open new avenues of controversy in the who-shot-JFK industry. One especially sensational find—labeled a potential “smoking gun” in breathless cable-news coverage—was a transcript suggesting that Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby had openly plotted to kill the president on October 4, 1963, at Ruby’s Dallas nightclub.

In short order, though, the smoking gun proved a dud. Oswald is known, via the testimony of numerous witnesses, to have been at home with his wife in Irving, Texas, on October 4. Making matters worse, it appears this explosive passage was drawn from a polygraph interview the DA’s office conducted with a drunk named Carroll Jarnagin shortly after the assassination. Jarnagin claimed to have overheard the Oswald-Ruby conversation in question—but failed every question on his polygraph, save two: “Were you drinking that night?” and “Were you drunk?” Tellingly, the cache of Wade materials includes correspondence to involve the Dallas DA in a movie script about the assassination; most sober observers concluded that Wade was rejiggering the Jarnagin nonsense for a film that never got made.

It would be fitting for a screenplay to have touched off this last bout of credulous conspiracy speculation, since the disheveled state of inquiry into the assassination also has a great deal to do with a movie: Oliver Stone’s 1991 fantasia JFK. When Stone’s film was first released, its marketing slogan promised to plumb “the story that won’t go away.” In one sense, that claim proved too modest: The runaway success of JFK transformed the assassination saga from a mere story into the stuff of political myth—or “countermyth,” as Stone himself later chose to characterize the film.

With this added appeal, it didn’t much matter that the version of events portrayed in JFK—based on the endlessly suggestible, ego-driven legal work of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison—was pulled haphazardly together by ominous-seeming threads of coincidence, guilt by association, plot and character invention by noncredible witnesses, and flat-out paranoia. Indeed, later studies, such as Gerald Posner’s Case Closed (1993), all but demolished any myths of a domestic conspiracy (a foreign version remains the lone lingering possibility). But even then, it was too late: Millions of Americans had seen the sinister Mob- and spook-enabled cabal with their own eyes and heard with their own ears the damning snippets of testimony evincing all manner of grandiose, if absurd, plotting. Posner might have just as effectively published a renunciation of the Virgin Birth; he was bringing a legal case against a system of belief, rather than a set of empirically verifiable suppositions about the nature of a vast political plot to kill a president.

David Kaiser, author of a study on the origins of the Vietnam War, American Tragedy (2000), parts company with the Stone myth in two important ways: He keeps Oswald as a marksman on November 22, 1963, despite holding out for the possibility of another unsuccessful shooter, and he seems to exclude LBJ from the cabal. But in the rest of The Road to Dallas, his new study of the Kennedy assassination, he gives wide berth to just about every other speculative twist and turn in the arcane world of JFK conspiracy theory. Kaiser strongly suggests that Oswald was a career CIA agent—which, given the seedy state of cold-war intelligence in the wake of Fidel Castro’s succession to power in Cuba, also places Oswald at the heart of a lethal, shadowy nexus of players, including “mobsters, hit men, intelligence agents, Cuban exiles, and America’s Cold War foreign policy.” And basically every such character in Oswald’s orbit was able to bend him to a moment’s fresh conspiratorial whim—by twisting, one imagines, a key in his back marked cia directives. Thus Kaiser has Oswald not just serving as the lead gunman in Dallas but entertaining murderous designs on Kennedy’s nemesis Castro. And in citing a Fort Worth businessman named Fred Claassen as an authority on the assassination, Kaiser gives indirect, and certainly unmerited, credence to a theorist quoted in other JFK studies who endorses the view that, for good measure, Oswald also forged a criminal alliance with the plotters of—yes—the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Had this jumpy criminal mastermind lived, he probably would have taken out Paris Hilton, just for the sheer sport of it.

What’s more, Kaiser largely replicates Stone’s slapdash methodology—in spite of his boast in the introduction that The Road to Dallas stands out in the thickly populated field of JFK-assassination books because it “is the first one written by a professional historian who has researched the available archives.” That may sound like an authoritative claim of expertise, until one inspects the book’s end matter and learns of the many, many archival sources Kaiser apparently hasn’t consulted. Even though the chief criminal actors in Kaiser’s nexus of guilt are Cuban exiles, mobsters, and spooks, his source notes contain no mention, for instance, of the voluminous files of the Chicago Crime Commission and the New Orleans Crime Commission; the KGB’s Oswald file; the enormous array of material on the Cuban-exile community in numerous academic institutions; the Brigada archive in South Florida, which has collected documents from Bay of Pigs veterans and Cuban thugs who moved in Oswald’s general orbit; Washington’s Assassination Archives and Research Center; the Oswald file of the Mexican secret police housed in the Mexico City archives; and the FBI Reading Room, not to mention the private holdings of numerous Dallas cops and federal agents.

Such omissions are significant—and not just because most of the papers collected in these archives flatly contradict the case for Oswald being Mobbed-up, Cuban exiled–up, or CIA’ed-up. Consulting these sources would have supplied crucial historical, administrative, and political context for the sources Kaiser does use—assorted documents accumulated by the Assassinations Records Review Board at the National Archives. This huge body of raw data isn’t more reliable by virtue of its unvetted state; indeed, it cries out for close critical analysis, which is why most students of the Mob-CIA convolutions in the JFK case spend decades fleshing out the background before putting pen to paper.

Likewise, Kaiser shuns the most valuable sources of interpretive guidance here: personal interviews with living sources who were present at the various nexuses of power on the road to Dallas, who could shed light on both the actual course of events and the various routine policy mandates and interested agendas at work in outposts such as the CIA, the FBI, and the Department of Justice. Even though there are still hundreds of such sources available for interview, Kaiser records only a handful of personal interviews here—and just one with a contemporaneous source familiar with the assassination and subsequent efforts to investigate it.

It’s little surprise, then, that Kaiser’s version of events, like Stone’s, proceeds on a bumpy path of plausible-sounding, but empirically unsupported, insinuation. Presented with a minimum of elaboration—and without noting the many, many factual lapses, too numerous to catalogue here—Kaiser’s core argument goes like this: Oswald, the chief gunman in the Kennedy hit, was possibly working with US intelligence when he went to the USSR for two and a half years. He then returned to the US to possibly be recruited by the FBI into its illegal antidissident cointelpro operation, before trying to go to Cuba to kill Castro (and before deciding to kill Kennedy). He was also possibly under the wing of both the CIA’s head of Cuban operations (and later chief of Western Hemisphere operations), David Atlee Phillips, and New Orleans Mob boss Carlos Marcello (of whom more later), who pulled together many of the assassination’s logistical elements—possibly among them the decision to employ a sharpshooter to fire on the president from fifty feet away, but who instead missed Kennedy’s entire limousine. Marcello also possibly represented a crucial link to Chicago’s Sam Giancana and Johnny Rosselli, one of whom contracted Mob hit man Jack Ruby to kill Oswald.

Got that? Good, because it gets better—particularly when Kaiser unveils the character of Oswald, world-class überspook, 169 pages into his narrative. By Kaiser’s lights, Oswald was (of course) a possible CIA agent, who defected to the USSR, where he was accepted possibly because he held U2 spy-plane secrets—developments darkly hinted at in Stone’s kitchen-sink conspiracy movie as well.

The problem is that this is all outright fantasy. While Kaiser consistently refers to Oswald as a “defector—going so far, indeed, as to name one of the book’s chapters “A Defector Returns”—no such defection ever occurred. The Soviets never accepted the then nineteen-year-old as its newest comrade when he sought to renounce his citizenship; when he arrived in Moscow in 1959, he was still an American—just as he was when he returned stateside. The Soviets merely baby­sat the addled Yankee for more than two years while they decided what to do with him. Furthermore, as a low-level radar operator at a marine U2 base in Japan, Oswald had no information on the U2 that he could bargain with—something the KGB sussed out within minutes of speaking with him.

Both US-intelligence and KGB records are in total agreement on this. And other written sources and countless witnesses can readily confirm these elementary facts—as would, for that matter, any common-sense appraisal of the real Lee Harvey Oswald’s biography. Oswald was an emotionally disturbed, dyslexic high school dropout with no foreign-language skills and virtually no technical expertise—not exactly A-list material for CIA recruiters dispatching operatives on high-risk missions past the iron curtain during the highest pitch of cold-war hostilities.

To this day, no one has been able to offer an example of another CIA agent with such a ludicrous profile. Indeed, had Kaiser put out an informational call to any actual agency employee, he would have learned that the agency expects recruits to possess at least a high school diploma. He could also have learned that it would have defied every imaginable deployment policy for the CIA to insert agents into remote locations far out of its range of oversight—places like Minsk, where Oswald lived—and to send them out into the field without the standard months-long training regimen at the Virginia facility called the Farm and/or the agency’s California language school. Almost every day of Oswald’s life is accounted for, and there is no possibility that he could have undergone such training.

It’s a shame that Kaiser can’t make the case for Oswald the fake defector–cum-spook—because no other explanation can account for Kaiser’s portrayal of Oswald’s wildly swinging political sympathies. Twice, Kaiser makes passing mention of Oswald’s possible role in plans to assassinate Castro, supposedly at the behest of the gunman’s possible agency handler Phillips. Even though Kaiser says that he’s “not convinced” by such talk, even the merest speculation along these lines contradicts Oswald’s well-documented political sympathies, which ran to far-left adulation of Castro. As a teen, Oswald became infatuated with doctrinaire Marxism—and went on to spend his short-lived tour in the marines as a pariah on base because of his reverence for Castro and the Cuban revolution. He even visited the Cuban Consulate in California in the hopes that he could fraternize with revolutionary comrades. Back in Minsk, expecting a child with his new Russian wife, Marina, Oswald announced he’d name the newborn Fidel if it were a boy. (It turned out to be a girl, lucky for her.) But of course, none of this material finds its way into the 536 heavy-breathing pages of The Road to Dallas, which nods in the direction of Oswald’s career leftism, but only as evidence of his brilliant career as a “left-wing provocateur” who was only “staying in character as a left-wing activist.” Even then, Kaiser seems inclined to hedge his bets by reciting uncritically a separate account, courtesy of Claassen, which argues, in classic unsubstantiated wheels-within-wheels conspiracy fashion, that Oswald was a diehard Castro supporter but was duped into killing Kennedy for anti-Castroites. Oh, and these same cunning Castro haters, according to Claassen, also helped engineer Robert Kennedy’s assassination in California five years later.

Robert Kennedy—attorney general at the time of his brother’s assassination—indeed claims a key supporting role in Kaiser’s version of the Mob end of the assassination plot. At the time Oswald returned to the US, in 1962, the country was in the midst of Bobby Kennedy’s assault on organized crime. Among his main targets were Giancana, Rosselli, Marcello, and Mob-friendly Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. Kaiser asserts that Marcello, Hoffa, and Giancana (Rosselli claims a more ambiguous part) all wanted to murder President Kennedy. But here again, Kaiser substitutes fantasy for fact, resorting to a woefully cartoonish view of organized crime, to say nothing of the virulent anti-Kennedy sentiment he attributes to the mobsters at the heart of his tale. He approvingly quotes, for instance, Senator Estes Kefauver’s characterization of Marcello as “one of the most sinister criminals” in America—a swaggering handle indeed for a New Orleans mobster best known for running an illegal subscription race wire for bookies. His “family” of confreres numbered a mere twelve—well shy of the head counts of the far more wealthy and violent combines of the Eastern Seaboard—and Marcello himself had a reputation as a placid make-do boss, greasing the palms of local law enforcement and donating generously to charities and New Orleans civic-improvement projects while never once being charged with a violent crime.

Yet in Kaiser’s telling, Marcello swells into an important schemer in the JFK cabal—even though no credible witness or surveillance evidence has ever placed any gangster directly in Oswald’s orbit, or indeed implicated American mobsters in any political murder whatsoever. The evidence for a Marcello-Oswald connection is no more plausible—Kaiser deduces that since Oswald’s uncle Dutz Murret subscribed to Marcello’s wire two decades prior to the assassination, he was a key link between the crime boss and Oswald. So without knowing so much as whether Oswald could master a slingshot, Marcello—supposedly steamed at the Kennedy Justice Department for arranging his deportation on an immigration charge for eight weeks in 1961— prevailed on the nephew of a long-ago bookie associate to carry out the murder of the century, which would in all likelihood have been Marcello’s first-ever murder plot. Talk about starting your career at the top.

However, consensual reality again supplies a great deal of evidence that plainly contradicts this line of theorizing, starting with Marcello’s refusal to blame the Kennedys for his deportation. When an associate of muckraking political columnist Drew Pearson tracked Marcello down in a Guatemalan hotel during his 1961 sojourn out of the country, the New Orleans boss said the chief culprit in his removal had been Immigration Commissioner Joe Swing. “He did the same thing a few years ago,” Marcello said. “I don’t blame Kennedy; Swing is just trying to show him [the attorney general] what he can do.” And again, the testimony of just one knowledgeable contemporary witness is all it would have taken to knock Kaiser’s theorizing about Marcello into a cocked hat: Former New Orleans US attorney and assistant DA John Volz, probably the preeminent authority on crime in the Crescent City, says it’s “absurd” to cast Marcello as a lead plotter in the Kennedy killing—or, indeed, in any murder case. “Marcello, almost exclusively, was into gambling,” Volz says. “He was more myth. His reputation was much worse than he was. . . . He had a reputation for being violent, which he wasn’t, and he loved it because it scared a lot of people.”

And don’t even get Kaiser started on Jack Ruby, the one player in the JFK drama with bona fide (though even then quite attenuated) Mob connections. Suffice it to say, it’s a very special sort of hit man who brings along his dog on his alleged assignment to kill Oswald after the Kennedy assassination, as Ruby did. In addition, by tagging Ruby as the man hired to silence the Mob’s patsy in the affair, Kaiser runs into the same problem of infinite regress that all these Mob-based speculations do: Why wouldn’t these crime lords, having gone to such already extra­ordinary lengths, have subsequently hired out another killer to dispatch their errand boy Ruby (a celebrated loudmouth)—and another to kill Ruby’s killer, and so on?

But such, it seems, are the hazards of transporting the Oliver Stone school of storytelling into the discipline of academic history, complete with the imprimatur of the Harvard University Press. Political myths are potent things, and The Road to Dallas stands as a sobering reminder of how they can work to distort the course of open-minded research and good-faith debate. The tacit challenge Kaiser’s book poses for later academic ventures into the JFK industry is to move beyond the force field of Stone-inflected conspiracy theorizing, back into the less overheated and less glamorous business of determining how the evidence stacks up into a plausible reconstruction of events. And the relevant authority here is neither Stone, nor Jim Garrison, nor Kaiser, nor the host of other operators who now feed the great American conspiracy industry. It is, rather, Ambrose Bierce, who famously remarked, “God alone knows the future, but only an historian can alter the past.”

Gus Russo is the author of Live by the Sword: The Secret War Against Castro and the Death of JFK (Bancroft Press, 1998) and Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America’s Hidden Power Brokers (Bloomsbury, 2006).