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Monday, October 19, 2009

Who Killed Kennedy? Memories of a Unique Class and Teacher

Scott Shane's story in last Saturday's NYTimes on the CIA's continuing resistance to disclosing its files on its relationship with anti-Castro Cuban militant groups, including some who clashed with Lee Harvey Oswald on the streets of New Orleans in the summer before the assassination, brought to mind my happy days in Miami and a remarkable class at UM Law taught be my friend, the late John Hart Ely.  Ely, who became a giant of constitutional scholarship, was as a young man was summoned by Chief Justice Warren (for whom he was about to clerk) to serve as staff for the Warren Commission.  Ely spent years defending the Commission's results by the late 1990s he had come to the conclusion that history had shown the Commission's sources to be deeply and deliberately truncated.  He doubted that any of the more sweeping conspiracy theories were credible, but he had come to conclude that someone, Castro perhaps, or a mob boss, had indeed played a role in setting Oswald in motion.  To satisfy himself, if not history, John organized a seminar on the topic of who killed JFK? at the University of Miami Law School in or around 2000. Along with a handful of curious students and very distinguished lawyer and friend of John's (whose name is eluding me this morning), I took the class.

The University of Miami, where I served on the faculty for 11 years and John for almost as long before his untimely death in 2003, was the chief location of the CIA's largest field station in the 1960s and 1970s, code named JMWave. It was easy walking amidst the tropical garden like grounds of the campus on hot humid nights to imagine all sorts of plots.  John rejected the theory that the CIA itself had killed Kennedy (let alone a vast military industrial conspiracy along the lines of Oliver Stone's JFK).  Because Kennedy had clearly tried to kill Castro, John found it plausible that Castro might have decided to turn tables.  John may have been influenced in this perspective by his wife, Gisela Cardonne Ely, a Cuban American jurist in Miami of great intellectual force.

My own views, ran along the lines of the conspiracy sketched by novelist Don Dellilo in Libra, a plot among a small group of anti-Castro militants and their low level CIA handlers.  These folks, like Castro, had personal reasons for revenge against the handsome young President.  They had seen scores of their brothers and colleagues lost during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion which many blamed on Kennedy's decision to withhold American air support, and which the President himself accepted blame for.  Unlike Castro or the mob, they were a loose and informal network of actors who presented no major target for backlash. 

It is very unlikely, in my view, that the top leadership of the CIA would have agreed to this conspiracy.  Indeed, they would have lacked all the emotional heat about the matter that murder requires, and probably highly identified with the dashing young President who shared their belief in a James Bond like war against Communism.  However, and this brings us back to Shane's story, it is  plausible that the CIA's top management would have conspired to cover up their relationship with the individual or individuals who belonged to the conspiracy and their failure to terminate this treasonous plot, (a motivation that could be shared even by their current leaders).  I did get John to agree to that plausibility, but he did not find it convincing.  

Does Kennedy's assassination deserve a place in law school curriculum's?  Perhaps not as a regular offering, but courses that use legal skills and materials to investigate pivotal moments of history might indeed have an important intellectual and even pedagogic role to play. 

Posted by Jonathan Simon on October 19, 2009 at 10:16 AM in Jonathan Simon, Law and Politics | Permalink


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Thanks for the recommendation. I haven't had time to digest Bugliosi's volume, but following regular claims to close the case every decade or so, wasn't Gerald Posner the last one to resolve all doubts, would you blame me for being a bit skeptical? Moreover, John's point and mine would be that as long as the record is fundamentally flawed by the absence of records that any fair minded person would consider relevant. At the time of the Warren Commission that included vast amounts of critical information, including the administration's war on Castro. No doubt the gaps are much smaller today, but the CIA files on it's relationship with anti-Castro militants remain important.

Posted by: Jonathan Simon | Oct 19, 2009 8:32:17 PM

The personal remembrance and honoring of John Hart Ely is moving.

I can't answer the curriculum question, but as to who was responsible for the assassination of Kennedy and the various theories contrary to the conclusion of the Warren Commission, I would think that Vincent Bugliosi's massive tome* has settled this question once and for all. Incidentally, this reminds me of the ongoing debate as to who crucified Jesus (although in this case, of course, the killing was perfectly legal as a form of punshment for sedition): while not a few folks would have had good reasons for wanting him to disappear (no pun intended), it was Pontuius Pilate, in his legal role as the Prefect of Roman Judea, who was responsible for his crucifixion. In both cases we can readily imagine those who might have welcomed or dreamed of the deed, but the question of responsiblility seems considerably narrower and clearer, if not beyond doubt.

*Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (2007) (If the story of Kennedy's assassination finds a place in the curriculum, that's one heck of a course text!)

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 19, 2009 2:12:57 PM

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