The Assassination of John F. Kennedy
as Coup D'Etat

by Christopher Sharrett

It occurs to me that two lines of discourse currently affect public understanding of the John Kennedy assassination. Both narratives obscure the reality of the assassination as a state crime carried out by the official enforcement apparatus, a coup d'etat.

One narrative that informs numerous conspiracy books details a plot to kill Kennedy consisting of some small, marginal grouping, usually including the Mafia and anti-Castro Cubans (although at times including pro-Castro Cubans), occasionally with support of one or two "renegade" CIA agents. This narrative, which has been in circulation at least since the 1970s, seems to me to have a particular function in shaping our perception of the assassination and events surrounding it.

The second narrative, which is becoming steadily more dominant, acknowledges that there was indeed an official cover-up of the assassination, but that this cover-up was "benign," in the interests of the American people, and spontaneously constructed in order to avoid a confrontation with the Soviet Union or Cuba, who were suspected by some in state power of being the real assassins. One recent variation of this narrative argues that this cover-up was put in place largely to protect the public from the consequences of the Kennedy brothers' depraved foreign policy. This narrative also argues that while Oswald was the lone assassin, Castro perhaps influenced him. But the whole affair comes down to the ruthless prosecution of the Cold War by the Kennedys, often against the sober counsel of others within state power.

The small-scale conspiracy model indeed dates to the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate period, when state power suffered one of many profound legitimation crises. The cover-ups of the assassinations of the 1960s had already unraveled; an issue for many who wished to relegitimate the state was the most efficient way to acknowledge the public's skepticism, and in so doing reconstruct the state's authority and credibility. The small-scale cabal is most efficient at the task, even as it defies reason. It offers a conspiracy that addresses many concerns, at least for those people who do not wish to look at the particulars of the assassination, its historical moment, and its context within similar acts known to history. The exposure of a conspiracy of the Mafia and some Cubans would have only further legitimated the state, since it offered a conspiracy that is an unfortunate, arcane aberration unrepresentative of true state interests. The CIA agents involved are described as "renegade" and "rogue elephants" for the same reasons. These agents are portrayed not as functionaries of the state, not as representatives of policy interests held by others in authority, but as loners working out of personal, pathological impulse or overzealous ideology. This is often suggested to be the case in the matter of David Atlee Phillips --- whose involvement in the assassination has been incontrovertibly demonstrated by Gaeton Fonzi --- even when we know that Phillips, the renegade, was given a major promotion within the executive ranks of the CIA. Another function of this form of narrative is the erasure of the historical moment and the presentation of the Kennedy period as ideologically seamless. The historical record tells us that the period leading up to the assassination was filled with conflict within the halls of state.

This conflict was actually reflected in contemporary press accounts of the period. One account is Harry S.Truman's Washington Post article, published exactly one month after the assassination (and not mentioned by anyone since) in which Truman expressed profound concern about the CIA's violation of its initial mandate. Another piece is Arthur Krock's Oct. 3, 1963 New York Times article, published just over a month before the assassination, detailing an "intra-administration war" directed at Kennedy from the CIA. These articles articulate real, material conditions of the Kennedy Administration that any reasonable person must examine if interested in motivations within the state to remove Kennedy from office.

Kennedy himself spoke to the importance of these matters. After reading the novel Seven Days in May in the wake of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy confided to his friend Red Fay that after one or two more such episodes (and we know about the Missile Crisis --- about which more in a moment --- the Test Ban Treaty, and the American University speech), he could be perceived as weak and "soft on Communism" by others in state authority, and a coup d'etat was conceivable.1 Kennedy encouraged director John Frankenheimer to film the novel in order to further sensitize the public to the political dynamics of the period.

Many critics argue that the leading and intimidation of witnesses during the investigation by governmental authorities may merely reflect the typical bullying by Hoover's FBI. But much of the investigation, and certainly its presentation to the public, was accomplished not by crude bullies but by sophisticated, erudite men learned and respectful of the law. Many critics also suggest that emotionalism and the panic of the moment could have motivated the prompt removal of Kennedy's body from the jurisdiction of the murder. Did emotionalism also motivate the removal and reconstruction of the presidential limousine, and subsequent destruction of forensic evidence? Did the panic of that afternoon motivate continued obfuscation about the smallest details of the assassination even thirty years after the crime?

The other prevalent narrative of the assassination, which argues that the lone nut scenario is valid and the cover-up benign, contains at its center the notion that the cover-up teaches us nothing except the essential benevolence of the state. Certainly the cover-up tells us nothing sinister about state policy assumptions. Some critics suggest that the full motivation of the cover-up is obscure, and is a topic for rumination. I would argue to the contrary that we could today, as we could the day of the crime, know precisely what motivated the cover-up, although there is an on-going effort to complicate the important political utility of this aspect of the crime. Because the cover-up today stands exposed, there has been an effort to present it as benign (so described by James Hosty in the documentary The Men Who Killed Kennedy), constructed --- in the best interests of the American people --- to prevent a nuclear war and to protect certain agencies and individuals (including the Kennedy family) from embarrassment.

One phase of this narrative is represented in Gus Russo's Live by the Sword. The moralistic biblical admonition of this book's title offers its thesis: Kennedy got what he deserved. Russo's conception of the Kennedy brothers portrays them as the ultimate Cold Warriors, with RFK the instigator of plots against Fidel Castro that LBJ wanted to hide in the aftermath of the assassination in order to prevent a war with the Soviet Union. According to this narrative, LBJ believed that "Castro killed Kennedy in retaliation," an idea that has long had currency in the mass media. But this discourse ignores a large part of the historical record. Marvin Watson, a Johnson staffer, told the Washington Post in 1977 that Johnson "thought there was a plot in connection with the assassination," and that "the CIA had had something to do with the plot."2

On the matter of RFK being the guilt-ridden instigator of the Castro plots, anguished that he had caused his brother's death due to his anti-Castro obsessions, we should note that Robert Kennedy exploded in front of assistants Peter Edelman and Adam Walinsky after he read the Jack Anderson column that put into play the idea of RFK as craftsman of the Castro assassination plots. RFK complained "I didn't start itÖI stopped it. I found out that some people were going to try an attempt on Castro's life and turned it off."3 A recent Canadian Broadcasting Company documentary on the Kennedy assassination includes taped remarks by RFK speaking very derisively of CIA covert operations specialist William Harvey. RFK termed Harvey's ideas "half-assed" and potentially very damaging to the United States 4. Recently declassified CIA documents about its use of hoodlums to penetrate the Cuban Revolution and assassinate its leaders demonstrate that the Agency didn't brief RFK. 5 Gus Russo perpetuates the claim that RFK was convinced that Castro killed his brother, ignoring evidence that RFK contacted Jim Garrison (since RFK took seriously the notion of a domestic plot), and that he was concerned with the possibility that the CIA may have had involvement in the assassination 6.

Throughout Russo's book and similar contemporary narratives, the impression is conveyed that the Castro assassination plots and Operation Mongoose were strictly Kennedy inventions (this overlooks the origins of anti-Castro projects before Kennedy was elected), and at all times under their control. In 1961 John Kennedy had a conversation with New York Times journalist Tad Szulc, during which Kennedy asked Szulc's counsel about the moral and political implications of attempting to assassinate Fidel Castro. Szulc said he thought such a plan would be disastrous. Kennedy agreed, but said that he was "under extreme pressure" (Szulc felt the pressure was coming from intelligence officials) to okay such a plan. Szulc left the meeting with the impression that the Kennedy brothers were firmly opposed to assassination politics. As Arthur Schlesinger has noted, if Kennedy was in the process of creating a covert operation against Castro, he would hardly have discussed this issue with a New York Times columnist.7 On the matter of Operation Mongoose, the "boom and bang" that the Kennedys created in the wake of the Bag of Pigs seems largely to have been a means of protecting their credibility with the right. Gen. Edward Lansdale, who commanded Mongoose, "complained not long afterward that there had actually been no high-level decision for follow-on military intervention."8

It strikes me that the function of many current renderings of the Kennedy years is to remove from our view the ideological conflicts and contradictions of the Kennedy period. We are shown everyone from the Joint Chiefs to Allen Dulles to William Harvey to David Ferrie in lockstep behind the Kennedy brothers. This thinking has been touted by a few sectors of the left, who suggest that since the Kennedy brothers were members of the ruling class, no one in their number would want to kill them. This thinking does a huge public disservice, since it prevents a nuanced understanding of an important phase of the Cold War, and of the internal strife within the state that overtook people such as John Kennedy. My own research into the Kennedy assassination has never been motivated by a desire to lionize John Kennedy. Kennedy was clearly a player in the Cold War, but a large part of the historical record shows that his was one of the very few centrist, essentially cooptative positions toward the socialist bloc at a time when virtually all sectors of state power were calling for massive incursions into the colonial domain picked up by the U.S. from its enemies and allies after World War II. A surprising amount of the historical record, much of which tends to ignore the assassination, shows that at the time of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, "Kennedy demonstrated that he would stand up to the belligerent advice from his closest aides."9 While Kennedy suggested a policy of restraint, Gen. Thomas Powers, commander of the Strategic Air Command, had other ideas: "Restraint? Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards. At the end of the war if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win."10 During the Missile Crisis, Powers raised the readiness of SAC to DEFCON-2, one step away from war, without JFK's authorization.11 After one meeting with the Joint Chiefs during the Berlin crisis, Kennedy left the room fuming, stating "These people are crazy."12

Throughout Kennedy's term in office his relationship with the military was extraordinarily strained, and "the generals and admirals did not think much of Kennedy's ideas, either."13 About Gen. Curtis LeMay, Chief of the Air Force, Kennedy remarked after one of his many walkouts on LeMay: "I don't want that man near me again."14 After feeling misled at the time of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy stated "...Those sons of bitches with all the fruit salad just sat there nodding, saying it would work."15

And while Russo and other current narratives have it that Allen Dulles and the CIA entranced Kennedy, the full record shows something much more complex. While Kennedy was indeed enamored of James Bond novels and the world of espionage and counterinsurgency, after the Bay of Pigs betrayal Kennedy said: "I've got to do something about those CIA bastards."16 An important book on the internecine battles that confronted Kennedy contains the following illuminating passage:

Pacing his office later, alone with his friend Red Fay, the President said: "I sat there all day and all these fellas all saying 'This is gonna work, and this won't go,' saying 'Sure, this whole thing will work out.' Now, in retrospect, I know damn well that they didn't have any intention of giving me the straight word on this thing. They just thought that if we got involved in this thing, that I would have to say 'Go ahead, you can throw all your forces in the thing, and just move into Cuba' ... Well, from now on it's John Kennedy that makes the decisions as to whether or not we are going to do these things."17

New scholarship is also useful in countering the revisionism that has Kennedy the architect of the Vietnam invasion. In a book on Vietnam, Francis X. Winters notes that while Kennedy approved of the coup against Diem, he was taken aback by his assassination. Kennedy's ultimate intent was to install a new, reformist government that would gain legitimacy with the public, co-opt the socialist agenda, and allow the government of Vietnam to do its own policing. In contrast, the Johnson Administration regarded the reformist strategy as "do-gooder" and opted instead for direct military intervention.18 Recently released tape recordings (presented on CBS News) show Kennedy disturbed by the murder of Diem, perhaps less for moral reasons than out of concern that the strategy behind the coup was already producing results opposite of what was intended.

On the matter of the assassination cover-up being put in place not out of official guilt but out of a desire to prevent a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets, I would have thought by now that this risible notion was long since put to rest. One recent book shows that not only were the Soviets appalled by the events of Dallas (this was known to U.S. state authority rather quickly), they were informed by an emissary of the Kennedy family that the Kennedys felt JFK to have been the victim of a rightist coup.19

Gaeton Fonzi's account of the Phillips affair and the HSCA non-investigation of the CIA contains much instructive material. As he recounts in his book The Last Investigation, the Congress knew that Phillips perjured himself on a number of important points in his testimony before the HSCA, yet chose not to recommend prosecution of Phillips. A recent book on the HSCA by one of its staff lawyers does not deal with this moment, although it offers yet another muddled, small-scale conspiracy narrative not associated with the political economy of the postwar American power structure. At the time the Congress became interested in reopening the assassination inquiry, Clare Boothe Luce, widow of Time-Life magnate Henry Luce and former lover of Allen Dulles, gave out a good deal of malarkey (about Cubans no less) to investigators designed to send them on a wild goose chase.

The Luce nonsense --- Clare was an official in an organization of retired CIA officers --- is especially instructive as we see it within the context of the overall cover-up's service to the national security state. In 1977, Carl Bernstein wrote an article for Rolling Stone in which he described virtually all of the major media as essentially handmaidens of the CIA and the rest of the state apparatus.20 A three-part article in the New York Times this same year did Bernstein one better by noting the ways by which the CIA used the media to discredit critics of the Warren Report.21 This activity continued long after fears of Soviet missiles flying at the U.S. had been abetted, long after the deaths of Johnson and RFK, long after a concern for Kennedy privacy had faded from the governmental agenda, as JFK was steadily portrayed as a profligate degenerate --- unworthy of serious study --- by these same media.

Let me make it country simple. The evidence in the assassination of John Kennedy was taken control of and represented to the public by those sectors of state and private power that despised Kennedy and his policies, and who saw them as representative of a long-term trend within the state to avoid the direct military interventionism that would be a great boon to many components of American capital. It is true that Mafia types and various exile groupings appear within the assassination scenario. These same groups appear within Watergate and Iran/Contra. Does appreciating the presence of these groups go very far in aiding our understanding of these events as state crimes, in fact as crimes against the Constitution and the people of the U.S. carried out by state authority? Does the presence of these groups make these crimes other than state crimes? More important, would the American media and much of officialdom continue to attempt to bolster the various official narratives as a favor to the Mafia and some Cuban exiles? Would they do this to prevent a member of the Kennedy clan, or Allen Dulles or J. Edgar Hoover, from being "embarrassed"? Would they do this to prevent hostile relations with other lands, even years after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Many critics suggest that data long in the hands of researchers, such as the Joseph Milteer tapes, point to the source of the plot within crazed rightist groupings. Did not the federal authorities have access to these tapes many years ago? Were they attempting to assist a southern racist group by hiding Milteer's connections to the assassination? I suggest that these provocative tapes, which have been ensconced in the public imagination as symbols of the plot, were another small attempt to divert public attention from the state's implication in the assassination.

I would hope that eventually we would have no more talk of Shadow Governments and Cabals. The invisible government discussed by various researchers is no more invisible than our political-economic system. This system is synonymous with the postwar national security state. Kennedy was killed when he became a flashpoint for a debate that began immediately with the creation of this state. The Great Depression brought U.S. capitalism to its knees; this terrible economic collapse was halted only by the wartime military build-up. The collapse threatened an immediate return after the war, and was prevented by the government's hooking the economy to military production. The public was forced to subsidize the biggest military expansion in history as corporations began to depend on public revenue for their survival.

Many within state power saw the potential problems of the new "Pentagon system." Senator Arthur Vandenberg told President Harry Truman: "You are going to have to scare the hell out of the public" in order for them to accept a huge increase in taxes, and an economic system that would give extraordinary authority to the military and the intelligence agencies, who soon became essentially lobbyists for sectors of capital involved in military production. Indeed, fear became the currency of the national security state. Although the Soviet Union suffered twenty-seven million dead in World War II, with most of its major cities and industrial plants destroyed, the American public coughed up billions of dollars to support the U.S. "free enterprise" system and its expansionist aims, as public programs soon went begging.

Cold War propaganda gave legitimacy to the national security state, although debate raged on within state and private power against the backdrop of the sleepy fifties.22 Many felt that the creation of the "garrison state" would bring about an enormous deficit and weaken us in relation to our Western capitalist rivals. Kennedy was not the first victim of the fierce internecine battles that began almost immediately with the creation of the national security state. Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal became a victim in 1949 of what was referred to as "the revolt of the admirals." As each sector of the military fought over their share of public revenues, with the Joint Chiefs "at each other's throat" in a climate of unbridled avarice, Forrestal attempted at least to inject a note of civility as the military sensed its unprecedented authority. Forrestal was eventually "ground down by the bickering and backstabbing in the Pentagon." He was "under constant attack from the admirals and generals he supposedly commanded." The national security state's lapdogs in the press, including Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, ridiculed Forrestal, terming him a "liar and a coward."23 Forrestal suffered a nervous breakdown and eventually committed suicide.

Like many in the previous administration, Eisenhower faced problems in reigning in the national security state. Long before he spoke of the "military-industrial complex," Eisenhower warned America and the world "humanity was hanging from a cross of iron." He stated that every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired," represented "a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."24

Into this arena entered John Kennedy, at first arguing that the U.S. faced a bogus "missile gap" in its competition with the Soviets, but soon arguing against the plans of the Joint Chiefs and the CIA for massive military incursions into Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. The body of John Kennedy, and all evidence related to his murder, was commandeered and represented to the public by the military and the intelligence agencies. After the assassination, Cuba was placed on the back burner (under a terrible economic blackmail), as the state undertook a massive incursion into Southeast Asia that was a major boondoggle for corporate America. This incursion proved ultimately disastrous both to America's economy and its credibility with its own people and those of the world.

In the administrations of the 1970s, the temptation toward such severe military adventure was avoided. During the Reagan years, the state began testing the waters of public opinion as it propagandized this public with new Cold War rhetoric. The Reagan crowd undertook murderous counterinsurgency against socialist movements in Central America --- but with a huge military strikeforce waiting in the wings. Again, the other side of the imperialist table --- the side that demanded an immediate financial payoff from overwhelming military contracts --- began to show its clout.

The Reagan/Bush years saw the shift within the state toward massive military intervention, first on the small scale blitzkrieg level (Libya, Grenada, Panama), then larger adventures (the Gulf War) with the advance of the new Rambo mindset within the American public. Over these many years, intelligence satraps in the heavily corporatized "liberal" (can there be a bigger red herring than public acquiescence to this notion?) mass media, have lauded these adventures as they continue to present the official stories of the assassination. They are the same people and organizations who advocate for the new supranational corporate state that guarantees the immiseration of millions.

There is nothing arcane about the murder of John F. Kennedy. It is no more cabalistic than the political-economic system we have come to accept. Calling the assassination a coup d'etat does not necessitate the notion that the plot was overwhelmingly massive, or that everyone within the state agreed that Kennedy should be dismissed. On the contrary, there is rarely uniform consensus within state or private power about any policy issue. But this does not mean that the crime is any less a function of ruling authority. We should not view the assassination as a coup in the traditional sense --- obviously there was no imposition of martial law, no prolonged period of bloodletting (discounting murdered witnesses and such). Such a blow against the public would have been intolerable in a major Western democracy after European fascism, and the issue in any event was not about suppressing a popular movement (here we can refer to the effect of the Martin Luther King and Black Panther assassinations on the civil rights movements), but about resolving a disagreement within the state at a time when financial stakes were extremely high.

Only if we choose to shed our denial about the assassination's historical context --- and refuse to immerse ourselves in further endless ruminations about oddball plotters and Dealey Plaza minutiae --- can we come to terms with the assassination's meaning to our present circumstances, its relationship to the murderous path of the state as it continues to enforce the greed of the few.


1. Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power (New York: Simon &Schuster, 1993), pp.303-305. I am grateful to Vincent Salandria and Ray Marcus for continuing to insist on the importance of this book.

2. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Robert Kennedy and His Times (New York: Ballantine books, 1978), p. 665.

3. Ibid., 532.

4. "The Murder of John F. Kennedy: A Revisionist History," The Passionate Eye, CBC Newsworld, Nov. 22 and 29, 1998. I am grateful to Joe Martines for bringing this film to my attention.

5. One of these documents is published in Steve Jones and Barbara LaMonica, "New Evidence in the Assassination of JFK," privately printed, Philadelphia, PA, 1998.

6. Schlesinger, pp. 664-665.

7. Ibid., p. 529.

8. Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 34.

9. Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing, Cold War: An Illustrated History, 1945-1991 (New York: Little, Brown &Co. 1998), p. 212.

10. Ibid. p. 232.

11. Reeves, pp. 401-402.

12. Ibid., p. 222.

13. Ibid. p. 306

14. Ibid. p. 182.

15. Ibid. p. 103.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid. p. 104.

18. Francis X. Winters, The Year of the Hare: America in Vietnam, January 25, 1963-February 15, 1964 (Atlanta: University of Georgia Press, 1997), pp. 115-116. Winters firmly subscribes to the notion that Kennedy planned to withdraw all American forces from Vietnam after the 1964 elections.

18. Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, "One Hell of a Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy 1958-1964 (New York: Norton, 1997), pp. 344-346.

20. Carl Bernstein, "The CIA and the Media," Rolling Stone, October 20, 1977, pp. 55-67.

21. John M. Crewsdon, "CIA: Secret Shaper of Public Opinion," New York Times, Dec. 27, 1977, p. 1.

22. See Michael J. Hogan, A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State 1945-1954 (Cambridge,UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

23. Ibid. pp. 184-186.

24. Ibid. p. 417.

Christopher Sharrett
Dept. of Communication
Seton Hall University
South Orange, NJ 07079

Return to Main Page

* * *