<I>Ellipses</I>... Exploring Depths of Experience in Arts, Letters, Science and Ideas
A Failure to Tell the Truth: A Conversation with Richard Billings, co author of Fatal HourGo Back to Table of Contents
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Ellipses: Were there power structures in place before Kennedy that were indifferent to whom people elect into office? One gets the feeling of frustration in the Kennedy Administration--of orders that did not go through, of a failure to comply with the Administration’s will--

Billings: That’s a very good question. Many suspect there were. But I think concretely there were forces beginning in 1947 that said we have to organize against the Soviet structure, and that by 1954 we started engaging in covert activities that--some suspected--the American people might find repugnant. The rationale was that we had to conduct these operations anyway to assert our lives against the Soviet menace. Now that is a wartime mentality. But you are not supposed to put wartime policy into effect without congressional cooperation and approval. This was the beginning of a domestic conflict between some elements of the State Department, the CIA, and Congress that have characterized an inner government struggle right up to Iran-Contra. I think Kennedy came into this struggle without being fully informed. You have to understand that the Cold War was a real war for the intelligence agencies and the bureaucratic councils. No matter what side you are on in this debate, it is a problem, because to what extent should these agencies and councils be conducting foreign policy?

Ellipses: It always comes as a revelation to laypersons that there may be covert policy on the part of the government that has little to do with power checked by democracy. Now, if that becomes so strong that it tampers with and manipulates the other seats of power--including the electorate--then manipulation, and not choice or due process of law, becomes the means of securing power in the state...

Billings: That, I think, has been the dialogue within the government itself, and it is not just checks and balances, but the manipulation of the system of checks and balances, which has characterized a good deal of internal dealings within the government. I think, to a degree, the event of Kennedy’s assassination was a part of that, perhaps on both sides--the administrative as well as other departments. I don’t know.

Ellipses: Was the assassination of Kennedy more tragic because of his charisma?

Billings: I think as concerns Kennedy as an individual, I must say as the years pass, he appears much less of a figure then he did at the time of his death. Not only in the way he behaved in his love life, but a kind of inability to get control of both private and public affairs. He was a very engaging fellow. We liked him. He had wit and style. But even that can get in the way of the attempt to discover the truth of his policies, and there was a lot of antagonism going on in a conflict between covert policy of the CIA, Hoover’s agenda in the FBI, and the Kennedy style.

Ellipses: Then what was hidden was a two-edged sword?

Billings: I think so. Kennedy was a Cold War president. He was pretty militaristic in this regard, and a lot of people who like him today tend to forget that he was the one who came closest to bringing us to nuclear war in that period. He certainly was willing to take a nuclear gamble. As far as his involvement with Cuba, we still don’t know what went on there--although Cuba is the common thread connecting Kennedy, Oswald, Ruby, the CIA, and organized crime. Maybe when Castro dies, things might open up and we will discover more.

Ellipses: Would “our times” have changed if he had not been killed?

Billings: All we can do is guess. I don’t know if we would have been in Vietnam, if that’s where you are going. Nobody knows that. Certainly the sequence of office holders and historical flow that followed his death was turning off the event of his death and would have changed. We would be in a different place now. He might have perpetuated the Cold War. He was, after all, a Cold War president. The point is, however, you can’t let whether you liked or disliked Kennedy interfere with the way in which you perceive his assassination or the whole point is lost. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was not about the death of one individual, but the extent and the means by which power can be manipulated at the highest levels of our government, and it is revealing of the kind of watered-down answers we are willing to settle for when we are faced with this fact.

Ellipses: The fact of his assassination?

Billings: Yes. The fact of his assassination. The guy got his head blown off, and we still don’t know who the hell blew his head off. Blakey sat with Bob Kennedy in memoriam after the assassination. Blakey said to me once, `That poor son of a bitch, they blew his head off!’ Maybe that’s the best I can do for you--is remember.

Ellipses: Should there be a check, some way of guarding against forces that have internalized themselves in the American system--that can reach out and adjust and manipulate that system the way they choose? Is there a loophole in the system of checks and balances?

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