Editor’s note: This article first appeared at The American Spectator.
President Trump recently authorized a mass declassification of documents relating to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Among the material subsequently released, one document that instantly grabbed headlines was a December 1966 FBI memo reporting the reaction of Soviet and Communist Party USA officials to the Kennedy shooting. The document was headlined in (among other publications) the New York Post, which, in turn, was flagged at the top of the Drudge Report, which attracted a lot of readers. Old JFK conspiracy theorists picked up the torch and were off and running.
"The Soviet Union theorized that President Lyndon B. Johnson could have been behind JFK’s assassination," began the New York Post, "and also learned Moscow could be blamed and attacked, according to documents in a major release of files related to Kennedy’s slaying."
This sounds very intriguing, and very new. It isn’t new. And it also requires crucial historical context, especially as certain conspiracy theorists thump their chest in quasi-vindication. Here I’d like to offer that context before delving into the contents of the newly declassified FBI memo.
I provide the context in a book that was published in May. That book, A Pope and a President, focused on Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, and deals at length with the Soviet role in the shooting of John Paul II, but also deals with the Soviet disinformation campaign launched in response to the Kennedy assassination.
The Soviets were extremely cynical and extremely shrewd. In late November 1963, they immediately saw how the American left reacted to the Kennedy shooting. American liberals didn’t waste a minute hysterically blaming everything and everyone but Lee Harvey Oswald and his love of communism, the USSR, and Castro’s Cuba. Of course, those were the obvious motivations behind the bullet fired into the head of America’s young president. And yet, liberals back then, in November 1963, attempted to blame the shooting on "right-wing hysteria," on "conservatism," on right-wing "hate." They smeared the entire city of Dallas as a "City of Hate." They fingered right-wing "extremism," "paranoia," "kooks," gun violence, and an assorted list of bogeymen on the right. They even oddly hurled stones at the rightist, intensely anti-communist John Birch Society. This was an especially brazen charge given that Oswald in April 1963 had tried to assassinate Edwin Walker, a retired U.S. Army general who headed the Dallas chapter of the Birch Society; in fact, Oswald used the same rifle to shoot Kennedy.
Nonetheless, American liberals had their narrative, and it did not take long for them to run with it to besmirch their domestic political opponents.
No sooner than the very afternoon of the assassination, Chief Justice Earl Warren blamed Kennedy’s shooting on "the hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots." In his eulogy at Kennedy’s funeral, Democratic Senator Mike Mansfield attributed the shooting to "bigotry, hatred, and prejudice." Popular columnist Drew Pearson blamed the shooting on a "hate drive." In his first column after the assassination, James "Scotty" Reston, longtime liberal columnist for the New York Times, lamented the "violent streak" and "strain of madness" plaguing America, which he placed at the feet of "extremists on the right." Since the beginning of his administration, Kennedy had been "trying to damp down the violence of the extremists on the Right." "America wept," said Reston, not only for its dead young president, "but for itself."
Nowhere in Reston’s article ascribing blame at America and her alleged deadly conservatives were these three words: Lee Harvey Oswald. And certainly nowhere were the words communism, Cuba, or the Soviet Union as driving inspirations of Oswald.
James Burnham, the conservative intellectual and convert from atheistic communism, once famously stated that "for the Left, the preferred enemy is always to the Right." Reston’s reaction was spot-on confirmation of the Burnham maxim. The New York Times rewarded it with a prominent page-one display.
And thus, no doubt sensing how easy this could be, with a more-than-receptive audience on the American left, the Soviets wasted no time doing what they did best: concocting malicious disinformation. If the American left was looking for phony demons as culprits for the Kennedy killing, Kremlin sorcerers were more than willing to conjure them up.
Detailing all of that here is too much, but two later sources were especially revealing in regard to these Soviet efforts: 1) the 1994 book, The First Directorate, by Oleg Kalugin, who spent 32 years in the Soviet KGB, rising to the rank of major general and chief of foreign counterintelligence, and 2) Ion Mihai Pacepa, in his 2013 book (co-authored with Ron Rychlak) Disinformation and his 2007 book on the Soviets and the Kennedy assassination.
As for Kalugin, he was the highest-ranking KGB officer to record his story. In November 1963, Kalugin was deputy station chief in Washington for the KGB. Kalugin notes that immediately after the disclosure that Oswald had Soviet connections (more on that in a moment), he and his fellow agents in Washington began receiving "frantic cables from KGB headquarters in Moscow, ordering us to do everything possible to dispel the notion that the Soviet Union was somehow behind the assassination" (which, to Kalugin’s limited knowledge, it was not). The Kremlin, he noted, was "clearly rattled by Oswald’s Soviet connection." So, how to dispel that notion? Kalugin explained their orders: "We were told to put forward the line that Oswald could have been involved in a conspiracy with American reactionaries displeased with the president’s recent efforts to improve relations with Russia." And so, said Kalugin, "I spoke with all my intelligence assets, including Russian correspondents and various U.N. employees, and told them to spread the official Soviet line. In the end, our campaign succeeded."
It sure did. American liberals swallowed the Soviet line. They not only reflexively accepted Soviet innocence, but they heartily and happily pointed the finger at American conservatives — their preferred enemy.
As for Ion Mihai Pacepa, he argues two primary points: 1) The KGB had a thorough, ongoing, and very successful disinformation campaign to blame the Kennedy assassination on domestic elements in the United States, from "right-wingers" and anti-communists to the CIA (as Kalugin affirmed); and 2) Picking up from his 2007 book, Programmed to Kill: Lee Harvey Oswald, the Soviet KGB, and the Kennedy Assassination, Pacepa believes (and I cannot confirm) that the Soviets were involved in the actual assassination, or at least in earlier steps leading toward or helping to precipitate the event.
As to the first point, Pacepa recalls the date November 26, 1963, four days after Kennedy’s death. On that day, Soviet General Aleksandr Sakharovsky landed unannounced in Bucharest, where he met with Pacepa and other high-level members of Romanian intelligence and leadership. This was to be his first stop in a "blitz" tour of top KGB "sister" services in the Communist Bloc. "From him," recalls Pacepa, "we in the DIE [Romanian intelligence] learned that the KGB had already launched a worldwide disinformation operation aimed at diverting public attention away from Moscow in respect to the Kennedy assassination, and at framing the CIA as the culprit." Nikita Khrushchev himself, said Sakharovsky, wanted it made clear to the sister services that "this was by far our first and most important task." It was crucial "to spread our version about the assassination before Washington could spread its own, so that our disinformation machinery could plant the idea on virgin soil that the CIA was responsible for the crime." They also circulated rumors that Lyndon Johnson specifically and the "military-industrial complex" generally had been involved.
To repeat: The Kremlin peddled deliberate disinformation about the alleged role of LBJ in killing Kennedy.
The effort would be called Operation Dragon. It became, said Pacepa, one of the most successful disinformation operations in contemporary history. Pacepa points to Hollywood film director Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie, JFK, which blamed the Kennedy assassination on a cabal that included the CIA, Lyndon Johnson, and the military-industrial complex. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and won two.
The material from Pacepa is just one source for this information. There are other excellent sources, but I need not lay them out here. Generally, they show how Moscow did its dirtiest to direct eyes of suspicion elsewhere, especially toward "ultra-right" elements in the United States. Pravda would claim that American "reactionaries" were exploiting Kennedy’s death to try to "fan anti-Soviet and anti-Cuban hysteria."
That’s the context we already knew — or should have known — prior to the new Trump declassification of a December 1, 1966 FBI memo titled, "Reaction of Soviet and Communist Party Officials to the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy."
That document (click here) begins by noting that "officials of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union believed there was some well-organized conspiracy on the part of the ‘ultraright’ in the United States to effect a ‘coup.’ They seemed convinced that that assassination was not the deed of one man, but that it arose out of a carefully planned campaign in which several people played a part. They felt that those elements interested in utilizing the assassination and playing on anticommunist sentiments in the United States would then utilize this act to stop negotiations with the Soviet Union, attack Cuba and thereafter spread the war."
As I’ve shown in the historical context above, this was precisely the Soviet Party line. Thus, this longtime secret FBI memo — only now released — merely reflected the Communist Party’s propaganda line at the time.
Speaking of which, in the next paragraph in the memo, the FBI repeated the Soviet line that sought to deflect any blame for the shooting on the far left, which is where it belonged: "It was the further opinion of the Soviet officials that only maniacs would think that the ‘left’ forces in the United States, as represented by the Communist Party, USA, would assassinate President Kennedy."
Yeah, right. Only maniacs. This was classic communist mendacity.
The memo also added that "Soviet officials claimed that Lee Harvey Oswald had no connection whatsoever with the Soviet Union. They described him as a neurotic maniac who was disloyal to his own country and everything else."
That was half-true. Yes, Oswald was disloyal to the United States of America, but he was fully loyal to the deadly ideology of communism.
The memo also reported — here going by a second unnamed source — that all the diplomatic personnel at the Soviet Mission in the United States were just broken up by the news of Kennedy’s death. It was a "considerable shock," which they "very much regretted" to hear.
Sure, comrade. I bet the boys in the Kremlin were all torn up. Crocodile tears in Moscow for their beloved JFK. The Soviet leadership just loved Jack Kennedy.
Never stopping with just one lie, or a series of prevarications, the KGB whoppers lathered the FBI memo. Yet another unnamed Communist Party source alleged that "now" the KGB was suddenly "in possession of data purporting to indicate President Johnson was responsible for the assassination of the late President John F. Kennedy."
Yes, LBJ. And on this blockbuster… well, that data was never supplied in the memo.
The remainder of the memo repeated the Kremlin’s pleas of innocence that it had no connection between Oswald and the Kennedy shooting, even as both the memo and Kremlin itself unavoidably acknowledged that Oswald had indeed visited the USSR in 1959, had expressed his desire to defect to the Soviet Union, had shared his willingness to offer his services to the communist cause, and had even met his wife back in the USSR. The noble apparatchiks (allegedly) rejected Oswald as "mentally unstable" and sent him home.
As usual, you see, the Kremlin’s hands were squeaky clean — no dirt, no blood. This ghastly regime that murdered tens of millions graciously "had no interest" in a U.S. Marine looking to enlist his sniper rifle in their righteous cause.
As if all of that hogwash isn’t enough to make one sick at the putrid pile of bilious prevarications, the memo then claimed that "President Kennedy was held in high esteem by the Soviet government."
Now that is pure bilge. No one, not even the most naïve Camelot liberal usually easily duped by the Kremlin, buys that bunkum.
And still worse, the final two pages of the six-page memo concluded with (at last) a named source. Who was this source? It was one Gus Hall, longtime head of Communist Party, USA, and a corrupt Party hack that even Moscow didn’t trust. Comrade Gus chimed in on December 4, 1963, not even two full weeks after the Kennedy shooting, assuring an unnamed FBI source that the assassination "could have been done by no one other than the ‘ultraright.’"
After that, Gus Hall literally headed back to his regular duty of pilfering Kremlin cash sent to subsidize his Party’s activities and cronies at CPUSA.
And finally, the FBI memo did, at last, mercifully, note that this angle on the Kennedy shooting by Communist Party USA had been set forth clearly in the Daily Worker. Yep, it sure had. The memo observed this common Party line was being used in Moscow as well — namely, in Pravda, Izvestia, and other "news" organs.
So, in short, what we have here with this widely publicized declassified document from December 1966, released three weeks ago to great and growing fanfare in some circles — including conservative ones — is merely a rehash of once-moribund Soviet and Communist Party USA malicious misinformation.
The stirred up stench of old Kremlin lies still smells so bad — with the denials and propaganda and disinformation so shameless — that it makes one wonder what Moscow was really seeking to cover up in November 1963.
—Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book (April 2017) is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century. He is also the author of 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.