Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years
By David Talbot.
Free Press. 478 pp. $28
Editor’s Note: David Talbot’s book on John and Robert Kennedy, Brothers, has garnered almost as much attention as Vincent Bugliosi’s exhaustive book on the assassination of President Kennedy, Reclaiming History. Bugliosi staunchly defends the finding that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed the president, while Talbot is squarely in the camp of those who believe JFK was killed by men breathing together.
Both books cannot be true, so which one is false? Two major reviews of Talbot’s book, one in The New York Times and the other in The Washington Post, were both hedged and overly credulous, written as they were by authors who could not challenge Talbot based upon a superior knowledge of the facts. Washington Decoded thought it was time to subject Brothers to examination by an author, Don Bohning, with expertise in some of Brothers’ subject matter.
Bohning covered Latin America for The Miami Herald for almost four decades. His first-hand knowledge of the Cuban exile community, the CIA, and their anti-Castro activities from the late 1950s into the late 1970s is probably unrivaled among American journalists. Before and after retiring, Bohning spent 10 years researching the U.S. government’s secret war against Cuba, and in 2005 published a reliable and unsparing book about Washington’s fixation on Cuba from 1959 to 1965.
While Bohning does not address the assassination conspiracy issue head-on, it is reasonable to extrapolate that the defects he identifies in Brothers apply to the book as a whole.
By Don Bohning
David Talbot believes John F. Kennedy’s assassination was not the deranged act of a lone gunman, but the result of a much larger conspiracy.
Talbot’s prime suspects are identified in Brothers’ opening pages: “The CIA, Mafia and Cuba—Bobby [Kennedy] knew they were intertwined. The CIA had formed a sinister alliance with underworld bosses to assassinate Fidel Castro, working with mob-connected Cuban exile leaders.” Consequently, immediately after the assassination of his brother the president, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy began hunting for the responsible party within this trio of possible culprits, according to Talbot.
A central thesis of Brothers is that Robert Kennedy only gave lip service to the U.S. government’s official verdict. While publicly endorsing the Warren Commission’s findings of a lone gunman, RFK believed the assassination was a conspiracy and quietly dedicated himself to identifying those responsible. This quest, in turn, helped fuel his 1968 presidential run, which ended tragically with his own assassination in June of that year. Talbot was a teen-age volunteer in that campaign in which RFK won the California primary, only to be mortally wounded minutes after his victory speech. Undoubtedly, this was a formative moment in Talbot’s life; unfortunately, he shows little evidence of having moved on from a 16-year-old’s starry-eyed view of the Kennedys.
An inextricable sub-theme of Brothers involves the U.S. government’s efforts, beginning in late 1959 under President Eisenhower and persisting until 1965, to rid Cuba of Fidel Castro. Essentially, Talbot contends that unintended consequences from these efforts, or “blowback” in intelligence lingo, precipitated John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
I do not profess to be a student of the Kennedy presidency or the assassination per se, yet I do know something about the U.S. government’s secret war against Cuba. And when it comes to the subject of Cuba and the Kennedys, Brothers is not only a disappointment, but strives to turn that history upside down. Talbot attempts to do this via a familiar tactic: he draws from the recollections of staunch Kennedy friends and insiders, with proven track records of bending the historical record so that it reflects kindly on the Kennedy brothers. But in a new twist, Talbot also dredges up on the most dubious sources imaginable to further his argument.
An example of the latter is Angelo Murgado Kennedy, a Bay of Pigs veteran who claims to have been close to Robert Kennedy. Had Talbot asked any of Murgado’s fellow veterans, he would have heard him described as a “persistent liar,” “a charlatan,” and a man with “no credibility”—and these are the printable comments.
Murgado’s name first surfaced in Joan Mellen’s risible, mind-numbing conspiracy book, Farewell to Justice, in which she defended the indefensible—the 1967-69 persecution of Clay Shaw by an out-of-control New Orleans prosecutor named Jim Garrison. Prior to Mellen’s 2005 book, Murgado had been virtually unheard of amongst the Cuban fighters identified in the rather robust literature about the Bay of Pigs. Yet in Mellen’s book Murgado suddenly appeared as a member of the inner circle—he was part of RFK’s intelligence “brain trust” on Cuba.
Curious about Murgado’s bona fides, right after Mellen’s book appeared I asked Erneido Oliva, the deputy commander of the Bay of Pigs brigade, and the late Rafael Quintero, one of the first Cuban nationals to enlist in the brigade, about Murgado. Oliva and Quintero (who died in October 2006) were both known for having grown close to Robert Kennedy in the aftermath of the debacle. They told me then they had never heard of Murgado. Oliva went further and wrote in an e-mail that Mellen’s description of Murgado as having been part of RFK’s “brain trust” was BS, and spelled it with capital letters. When asked again about Murgado in light of Talbot’s book, Oliva repeated that he had never heard of Murgado until I brought up his name in 2005.
Murgado is not instrumental to Talbot’s tale, but he is exceptionally useful. Through him Talbot buttresses the notion that hard-line Cuban exiles hated President Kennedy, presumably to the point where they were motivated to kill him. Murgado, elaborating on the tale he first told Mellen, was so alarmed by the murderous talk in Miami’s exile community that he approached RFK and offered to keep an eye on the most dangerous exile elements for the attorney general. Murgado told Talbot how he and two other prominent Cuban exiles met with RFK at the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach. “I was thinking we have to control and keep a sharp look on our Cubans, the ones that were hating Kennedy,” Talbot quotes Murgado as saying. “I was afraid that one of our guys would go crazy. Bobby told us to come up with a plan and do it . . . . He was fanatic about his brother, he would do anything to take care of him.”
In the summer of 1963, Murgado’s alleged surveillance work led him to New Orleans, of all places, where he came across a “curious gringo” named Lee Harvey Oswald. Murgado’s team, Talbot writes, “came to the conclusion that Oswald was an FBI informant,” and after returning to Florida the dutiful Murgado reported on his surveillance targets, including “the mysterious Oswald.”
Are we really supposed to find this bunkum credible? To believe Murgado is to believe that Robert Kennedy preferred to entrust his brother’s security to an obscure Cuban exile rather than the one agency actually charged with protecting the president, the U.S. Secret Service. More to the point, Murgado is a former building inspector for the city of Miami who plead guilty in 1999 to accepting bribes in return for zoning favors. Even criminals sometimes tell the truth, of course, but surely Murgado’s word is subject to a big discount, and his claims are not to be believed absent rock-solid corroboration. In place of confirmation, however, Talbot suggests that Murgado should be believed because his story has “not been refuted.”
Everything about Talbot’s credulous use of Murgado can also be applied to Talbot’s use of unproven assertions allegedly made by E. Howard Hunt, the recently deceased former CIA officer most noted for leading the Watergate break-in during the 1972 presidential campaign. Talbot supplies information that was not even directly propagated by Hunt, but comes from his long-estranged son, St. John Hunt, a meth addict for 20 years, meth dealer for 10 of those years, and twice-convicted felon.
St. John Hunt claims to have been privy to a death-bed confession by his father. E. Howard Hunt allegedly recalled that in 1963, he was invited by Frank Sturgis (later, a member of Hunt’s Watergate team) to a clandestine meeting at a CIA safe house in Miami. During the alleged meeting, a group of men discussed “the big event” coming up, which was a plot to kill President Kennedy. Late in the meeting, Sturgis ostensibly asked Hunt, “Are you with us?”
There are only a few problems with this story. Hunt, even when he was still alive, was not known for his veracity. And Sturgis, whom I personally knew quite well in Miami when he went by the name Frank Fiorini, was one source never to be believed or trusted, someone who was rather notorious even in a field brimming with con men and blowhards, most of whom hinted they were working for the CIA.
Another example of Talbot’s creative use of innuendo involves the late Dave Morales, a CIA officer of Hispanic origin who has been frequently linked by conspiracy theorists to President Kennedy’s assassination. Guilt-by-innuendo is a familiar tactic of buffs seeking to associate the CIA with the assassination. It’s exceedingly easy, given that the careers of officers in the clandestine service, like Morales, were shrouded in secrecy. It’s also cost-free. The libel is usually leveled when the target is dead, and like others who have been fingered as complicit, Morales is deceased and cannot defend himself.
Talbot eagerly joins in the well-trod defamation of Morales. “He has been connected to a bloody trail of CIA exploits,” writes Talbot, “from the 1954 Guatemala coup, to the hunting and execution of Che Guevara in 1967, to the violent overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973. (Morales later stated that he was in the palace when Allende was killed.)”
Having been part of the The Miami Herald’s coverage of both Guevara’s demise in Bolivia and the Chilean coup d’état, I found Talbot’s assertion puzzling since I had never heard of Morales being involved in either of these dramatic events. I contacted Tom Clines, Morales’s friend and CIA colleague in the 1960s at both the JMWAVE (Miami) station and later, in Southeast Asia. Clines stated flatly that Morales was neither involved in Guevara’s capture in Bolivia, nor in Chile at the time of the coup against Allende.
Clines’s denial was seconded by Larry Sternfield, the CIA station chief in La Paz at the time of Guevera’s capture, and someone who most certainly would know if Morales had been involved. Sternfield said during a recent telephone interview that “definitely no,” Morales was not in Bolivia.
Talbot’s thinly-sourced book (given the weighty allegations) provides no citation for the claim that Morales was in Bolivia. With respect to Chile, Talbot cites Anthony Summers’s 2000 book The Arrogance of Power. Since both Talbot and Summers exhibit a similar, elastic definition of the facts, citing Summers is not much of a reference. But it’s actually worse than that.
Summers’s cited sources were Robert Dorff, a novelist and self-styled expert on the JFK assassination, who reportedly once interviewed a childhood friend of Morales; Gaeton Fonzi, who worked for the House Assassinations Committee as an investigator; and Noel Twyman, a retired industrial engineer. Dorff’s work is rightly considered fictional, and his interview amounts to unsubstantiated hearsay. In 1979, the House panel flatly rejected all of Fonzi’s theories about CIA involvement, although that did not stop him from propagating them in a 1993 book, The Last Investigation. In any case, Fonzi does not put Morales in Chile. Twyman’s revelation was contained in a deservedly obscure 1997 book called Bloody Treason. And Twyman’s source for the ostensibly damning allegation about Morales? Well, Twyman simply doesn’t cite a basis for his assertion that Morales’s involvement in CIA activities “included heavy-duty assassination operations such as murdering President Allende of Chile in 1973.”
In this manner history is written, or at least Talbot’s version of it. Allegations never proven in the first place are recycled, as if repeating them enough times will turn them into the truth.
Notwithstanding these problems, there is something more troubling about this book than Talbot’s factual errors, use of innuendo, and credulous reliance on such questionable sources as Murgado and the Hunts. And that is Talbot’s persistent failure to provide the full context of several pivotal events during the height of U.S. efforts to topple Fidel Castro. Via the exclusion of many inconvenient facts, and the misrepresentation of specific events, he leaves the reader with a distorted perception of what actually occurred. The pattern is so persistent it appears to be calculated.