By Max Holland
Alone on the evening of March 5, 1967, Clay Shaw quietly pondered the nightmarish fate that lay before him.
The week before, he had been a respected citizen and reasonably prosperous retired businessman. He fully expected that his toughest remaining decision would be to choose which of his sophisticated passions to indulge; he was equally fond of the theater, travel, New Orleans cuisine, and restoration of the French Quarter. Now all that seemed a conceit belonging to another man’s life, four days after being charged with the crime of the century by the district attorney for Orleans Parish.
Shaw knew the accusation was preposterous. He had no knowledge of President Kennedy’s murder other than what he had learned about the 1963 assassination from the media. And being a rational, educated man, he recognized that one day some court was bound to declare him not guilty. But that was small consolation. “I realized,” the 53-year-old bachelor later wrote, “that I was on the other side of what would be the great watershed dividing my life into two parts.” No matter how complete his vindication, he could never hope to eradicate the strain of the initial accusation. From this point on, Clay Lavergne Shaw would always be known as the second man ever arrested and charged with carrying out Kennedy’s assassination.
“Why me?” Shaw wrote in his new diary that evening. This question would baffle him until his death in 1974. Only now, 35 years after the arrest, has it become possible to piece together the complete but complicated answer to Shaw’s plaintive question. The full story goes well beyond the familiar tale of Shaw’s ordeal at the hands of a publicity-mad district attorney with few scruples. Indeed, Jim Garrison’s relentless persecution of Shaw only makes sense when one factors in this last secret: the hidden role played by an entirely unexpected actor, the Soviet KGB.
The KGB’s pernicious contribution is best understood by looking at the trajectory of Garrison’s public statements about the case. Initially, Garrison explained that in indicting Shaw, he was only assuming an unsought, even unwanted burden. The federal government’s bungling of the case left an honest prosecutor no other choice, he asserted. Soon that rationale was replaced by a far darker fable. Within two months of Shaw’s arrest, Garrison began articulating a truly radical critique that challenged not only the veracity of the Warren Report but the federal government’s very legitimacy. Ultimately, he would claim that the people’s elected leader had been removed in a CIA-led mutiny and that the plotters had been allowed to walk away unscathed. As he wrote in his 1988 memoir, On the Trail of the Assassins, “What happened at Dealey Plaza in Dallas on November 22, 1963, was a coup d’Etat. I believe that it was instigated and planned long in advance by fanatical anticommunists in the United States intelligence community.”
The fact that a New Orleans jury delivered a resounding verdict of “not guilty” at Shaw’s 1969 trial barely hindered Garrison’s ability to market this myth of CIA complicity. He would argue that the “validity” of his investigation ought not to be judged on its technical, legal results.
And one has to admit that, in the court of public opinion at least, Garrison, who died in 1992, by and large succeeded, albeit with Hollywood’s help.
Opening the Records
Until recently, it was impossible to revisit this episode as a historian would, by examining primary documents. Garrison’s records were in the possession of his descendants, and his successors in office; Shaw’s papers were in the hands of his attorneys and friends; CIA records were secured in agency vaults. But all that began to change after Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film, JFK, which breathed new life into Garrison’s decades-old charges. As the end of the Cold War eased concerns about secrecy, Congress in 1992 passed the far-reaching JFK Assassination Records Collection Act. It not only freed highly classified documents from government bureaucracies, but authorized the gathering of primary materials from nongovernmental sources.
What emerges from these papers, and from unexpected quarters, is an altogether new view of the Garrison story. The district attorney who legitimized the notion of CIA complicity emerges as an all-too-willing accomplice to a falsehood. Garrison allowed himself to be taken in by a lie, a lie that may well have been part and parcel of the Soviet KGB’s relentless propagation of disinformation during the Cold War.
To begin unraveling the complicated tale, one has to go back to February 17, 1967, when the New Orleans States-Item broke the sensational story that Garrison had opened a new investigation into the Kennedy assassination. A media firestorm erupted, with New Orleans at its center.