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Book Reviews: 'The Road to Dallas' by D. Kaiser and 'Brothers in Arms' by G. Russo and S. Molton

It does not take much imagination to believe that Oswald had an emotional investment in Fidel Castro. Oswald left the Soviet Union in 1962, after three years as a discontented defector, dissatisfied with the realities of Soviet life but still, it seems, enamored of the idea of revolution. In New Orleans, where he took his Russian wife and infant daughter, he set up a Fair Play for Cuba Committee that had precisely one member: himself. Oswald was 23 years old, full of hormones and political fantasies. He provoked conflicts with the local anti-Castro community that landed him in jail, but he also achieved minor celebrity on local radio and television as a token pro-Castro voice.

What Russo and Molton fail to provide is a credible link between this hot-headed, disturbed drifter and the Castro regime. Building on a documentary by Wilfried Huismann that appeared on German television in 2005, they rely on sources with assumed names for their key evidence. One, called Nikolai, is described as a source in the FSB, the post-Soviet organization that took over the domestic intelligence and security functions of the old KGB. He claims to have seen a document, dated July 18, 1962, saying the Soviet Central Committee had sent a copy of the KGB's file on Oswald to Cuban intelligence.

Over the course of 15 years, my late co-author, the Russian historian Aleksandr Fursenko, examined materials related to Cuba, the missile crisis and the Kennedy assassination in the archives of the SVR (successor to the foreign component of the KGB), the Central Committee and the president of the Russian Federation, and he never found anything even hinting at a Soviet-Cuban-Oswald triangle. It's possible that he missed this document, but even so, the document, as described, actually weakens the authors' case. In it, the Soviets supposedly warned the Cubans that Oswald was "ideologically unsound and psychically unstable," i.e., not good recruitment material. From another of the authors' sources, a former Cuban intelligence official with the pseudonym Oscar Marino, we are to believe that the Cubans did contact Oswald in 1962. Russo and Molton explain, however, that Marino "had nothing to do with Oswald directly."

There is no dispute that Oswald later met Cuban officials, but he did so in the most un-covert way imaginable: He walked through the front door of the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City in September 1963 to request a visa. If indeed he had been a Cuban agent involved in some kind of operation against Kennedy, would he have been instructed to walk through the front door of a Cuban Embassy in a country neighboring the United States? Would he have needed to ask for a visa, if he was so brazen as to show his face in an official Cuban facility? Nevertheless, Russo and Molton posit that Castro's Cuba was unambiguously behind Oswald's murder of Kennedy.

Kaiser's theory rests on even shakier ground. To believe it, one must assume that at some point the FBI, the Mafia or the anti-Castro underground recruited Oswald and instructed him to lead a double life as a Castro supporter. Kaiser has written some very good books, particularly his study of economic diplomacy before World War II. This one, however, is manic and unreadable. Kaiser borrows from Jim Garrison's hoary theories of the role of the right-wing New Orleans demimonde in recruiting Oswald and adds touches of the Mafia-did-it theory to explain why Jack Ruby silenced Oswald. Readers interested in why this concoction of hearsay and irrelevancies does not add up cannot do better than to read Vincent Bugliosi's encyclopedic "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy" or Max Holland's extensive work on the subject.

Both "Brothers in Arms" and "The Road to Dallas" provide plausible motives for the Castro regime and its enemies to kill Kennedy. But they ultimately fall short, largely because it seems so implausible that the unstable and indiscreet Oswald could have been part of a conspiracy larger than himself. Oswald lacked the stuff to be either a revolutionary or a covert operative. He was a volatile, self-absorbed loner who failed at everything he tried until, sadly, Dallas. Very few Americans defected to the Soviet Union in the Cold War, yet the KGB gladly let this one return home. Once in the United States, Oswald sought attention more than political change. "Look at me! Look at me!" he seemed to be crying.

Tone-deaf to Oswald's inadequacies as a professional conspirator, all three authors would have done better to listen to "Assassins," Stephen Sondheim's musical about the men and women who have tried to kill U.S. presidents. The Cold War no doubt shaped the fantasies in Oswald's mind, but there was something archetypal about the perpetrator of the most notorious U.S. political murder of the 20th century. The American assassin is the personification of the dark side of our love of celebrity. Unfortunately, one does not need a conspiracy to explain why Lee Harvey Oswald was holding the smoking gun.

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