Robert F. Kennedy, left, and his brother President John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1962.
Robert F. Kennedy, left, and his brother President John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1962.
Brothers (by David Talbot)

Beyond the Grassy Knoll

Speaking from his Georgetown home on Dec. 16, 1960, President-elect John F. Kennedy announces that his brother, Robert, would be his choice for Attorney General.
Speaking from his Georgetown home on Dec. 16, 1960, President-elect John F. Kennedy announces that his brother, Robert, would be his choice for Attorney General. (AP)
Reviewed by Matthew Dallek
Sunday, June 17, 2007


The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years

By David Talbot

Free Press. 478 pp. $28

In June 1964, Robert Kennedy was in Poland when a student asked him who was responsible for John F. Kennedy's assassination. "There is no question that [Lee Harvey Oswald] did it on his own and by himself," Kennedy unequivocally replied. Privately, however, he had his doubts. Confiding his suspicions to a few confidantes, Kennedy became "one of the first -- and among the staunchest -- believers in a conspiracy," David Talbot writes. He instructed aides to investigate the killing and, had he lived and won the White House in 1968, he would have pursued these suspicions more vigorously.

Talbot, the founder and former editor-in-chief of Salon, has written a fast-paced narrative of Kennedy's search for his brother's killers. Talbot is careful to sidestep the question of who was actually responsible for the assassination. He dismisses the lone gunman theory as a crock and wonders about the CIA, Cuba and Mafia involvement. He bases his conclusions on more than 150 interviews he did with aides to the Kennedys, relatives of ex-CIA agents and anti-Castro exiles. His sources believe for the most part that Oswald didn't work alone, and their suppositions form the heart of Talbot's Manichean chronicle of two brothers who battled forces of darkness for the soul of modern America.

By 1963, Talbot says, President Kennedy "was determined to demilitarize relations between the nuclear powers before catastrophe could strike" and "was no longer a Cold War liberal." What's more, Kennedy had confronted America's "war establishment." In Talbot's view, the president wanted peace with communists across the globe, enraging the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Some Cubans had also come to loathe Kennedy for refusing to liberate Cuba, and the Mafia scorned his brother, who led a crackdown on organized crime as attorney general.

Although his claims of Kennedy's dovish intentions are exaggerated, Talbot does several things well in this book. First, he offers a solid overview of the conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy's 1963 assassination. Second, he reveals that some trusted Kennedy aides believed in a conspiracy; that a few Congressional investigators felt that the CIA and other government institutions stonewalled the inquiry; and that right-wing criticism of Kennedy on such issues as communism and civil rights was such a staple of early '60s politics that the Kennedys began to fear for their lives at the hands of home-grown extremists. Finally, Talbot reveals that Robert Kennedy had his doubts, hidden from public view, about the Warren Report. He ably recounts the more progressive impulses of both brothers -- detailing President Kennedy's admirable restraint during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and Robert's stirring worldwide crusade against the twin evils of racial injustice and economic deprivation -- a campaign waged from Johannesburg to Indianapolis.

Yet the evidence of a conspiracy in Dallas is circumstantial and thin. Talbot interviews friends and relatives of CIA operatives, who were possibly involved in the plot to kill the president. He depicts higher-ups in the "national security bureaucracy" who said nasty things about Kennedy and presumably had murderous intentions, and he quotes from Kennedy loyalists who want to get to the bottom of the crime. But none of this adds up to a conspiracy. Because Robert and some of his aides doubted that Oswald acted alone doesn't mean that a plot existed. Nor does it follow that verbal sniping by CIA agents or the Joint Chiefs is evidence of government involvement in the murder or a cover-up.

Talbot is convinced that the Kennedy brothers were assassinated because of what they believed and what they did. They sought to usher in an era of nuclear arms control, advance social justice, and attack the criminal underworld. They confronted the most sinister impulses in American politics -- and were cut down. Thus, the assassination of each man is infused with meaning. But history doesn't normally unfold in such compellingly moral patterns.

Conspiracy buffs and Warren Commission critics are likely to praise Brothers as a courageous book -- a stiff challenge to the mainstream media and complacent political establishment. Indeed, Talbot's book is among the more engaging works in the JFK-conspiracy literature. But there is little here to establish a convincing link between Kennedy's 1963 murder and his brother's assassination five years later, and it is hard to trace the convoluted motivations, connections and whereabouts of the various possible plotters who allegedly were pulling the strings in Dallas. In the end, then, it is unlikely that Brothers will alter the terms of the assassination debate: A majority of Americans will continue to believe that there was a conspiracy in Dallas. But the historical evidence -- as Vincent Bugliosi's newly released Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy shows -- will continue to point to a lone gunman. ยท

Matthew Dallek is an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company