Was Richard Nixon afraid that the Watergate scandal would reveal the killers of John F. Kennedy?
Dozens of stories have been written recently commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. The journalistic heroes of the story, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, published a lengthy piece in the Washington Post detailing Nixon’s war on the Constitution, on the press, on democracy.
But the most tantalizing aspect of Watergate has been ignored: The possibility that Nixon worried that the investigation could reveal the truth behind the JFK assassination.
To a large extent, Nixon did himself in by taping his White House conversations. The famous Watergate tapes revealed him to be duplicitious, paranoid and profane. One particular recording may also reveal that the president was fearful that the unfolding scandal could lead to a story far bigger than slush funds or political dirty tricks.
The bungled break-in at the Democratic National Committee office, at the Watergate hotel complex, occurred on June 17, 1972. Less than a week later, on June 23, Nixon engaged in an intense conversation with one of his top aides, H.R. Haldeman.
A transcript of the conversation shows the two talking about how to contain the investigation.
Nixon refers to the Bay of Pigs
At one point, Nixon says, “When you get these people, when you get these people in, say, ‘Look, the problem is that this will open the whole Bay of Pigs thing …”
At another point in the same conversation, Nixon says, “this is a Hunt, you will – that will uncover a lot of things. You open that scab and there’s a hell of a lot of things that we just feel that it would be very detrimental to have this going further.”
Hunt was E. Howard Hunt, a longtime CIA operative and one of the Watergate burglars.
In his memoir, Haldeman wrote that he believed “Bay of Pigs” was Nixon’s coded way of referring to the JFK assassination.
Bay of Pigs – the botched invasion by CIA-trained Cuban exiles – occurred on April 17, 1961, during JFK’s first few months in office. It was a plan JFK had inherited from the Eisenhower administration.
An initial U.S. air strike was ineffectual, and failed to knock out Cuba’s Air Force. JFK refused to call in a second air attack. The invaders were crushed. About 100 were killed by Cuban forces, and more than 1,200 were captured.
The aftermath was toxic. Military hawks were enraged at the president for not calling in more air support. JFK was livid at the CIA, which he vowed to “splinter into a thousand pieces.” Hatred is too polite a word for what anti-Castro Cubans felt toward JFK.
Nixon was not in office when the Bay of Pigs played out. Why would he refer to it when talking about the Watergate break-in?
In the decades since JFK’s assassination, a mythic golden hue has been cast over him and his administration. He is a Democratic Party icon. His image is mounted in the living rooms of admirers from Boston to East Los Angeles.
Some dangerous people hated JFK
But at the time he was killed, JFK was reviled by a number of forces: Cuban exiles who felt betrayed, arch-conservatives who hated his stance on civil rights, mobsters who were livid that the administration’s Justice Department, led by the president’s brother Robert, was going after organized crime. There were probably hundreds of people at the time who would have stood in line to take a shot at JFK.
The initial official story, dispensed via the Warren Commission, contended that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, used a World War II-era Italian-made Mannlicher-Carcano rifle to fatally shoot JFK from the sixth floor of the Texas Bookstore Depository on Nov. 22, 1963.
The idea that Oswald killed JFK is not only preposterous, it is an insult to anyone who takes a few minutes to study the evidence.
At its core, the assassination was a homicide, a crime. As with any crime, one needs to follow the evidence. The Warren Commission released a 888-page report that claimed to prove Oswald killed JFK.
An untenable official theory
As one Warren Commission critic put it, the commission’s findings are a series of small and medium lies, based on one big lie: The magic bullet theory.
Boiled down, the magic bullet theory – authored by former Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter, who was a commission staffer – holds that Oswald fired three shots at a moving target in six seconds. FBI sharpshooters were unable to duplicate this feat with that weapon.
The most preposterous aspect of the theory holds that one bullet strafed through the back of the president’s neck, stopped in mid-air, turned, went through Texas Sen. John Connally’s wrist and chest, and finally through the senator’s thigh. The alleged bullet was “discovered,” hours later, in pristine condition on a stretcher at the Dallas hospital JFK and Connally were taken to.
Fired bullets do not change direction in mid-air. Bullets which pass through muscle and bone do not remain in pristine condition. For the magic bullet theory to work, the laws of physics, for starters, would have had to have not been in effect.
And then there’s the Zapruder film, which show’s JFK’s head snapping backward when the fatal bullet strikes his cranium. The footage clearly indicates the fatal shot was fired from in front, probably from the infamous grassy knoll.
The public has never bought the Warren Commission findings
The American public had serious doubts about the official account from the beginning. Those doubts have not dissipated with time. In 2004, a Fox News poll found that 66 percent of the American public believed JFK was killed as part of a conspiracy, and 75 percent believed there was a cover-up.
Most likely, JFK was killed by a collaboration of anti-Castro Cubans, the Mob, and CIA operatives. There is no doubt security people were involved. Moments after the shooting, a Dallas police officer ran toward the grassy knoll. He was met by a man in a suit who flashed what appeared to be official credentials. The man said he was with the Secret Service and told the cop the area was covered. The Secret Service did not have anyone assigned to that area. That’s not a Mob move.
The cover-up included the killing of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, a Mob-connected strip club owner. Initially, Ruby explained he killed Oswald – in front of a passel of cops – to spare JFK’s widow, Jackie, from having to go through a trial. Please. A couple of years later, Ruby told the Warren Commission he would tell what he knew, but he begged to be moved out of Texas. The commission didn’t take him up on his offer.
As researchers and authors dug into the assassination, much suspicion fell on CIA man Hunt. There is a famous photograph of three so-called tramps who were near the assassination scene and were briefly detained by Dallas police. Some researchers have argued that Hunt was one of the three.
Some people are skeptical that such a huge crime could be kept under wraps for so long. The fact is, it really hasn’t been kept secret. For whatever reason, the mainstream press has, almost universally, simply not pursued the story.
Over time, significant aspects of what really happened have been revealed:
- In 1978, an article by the Spotlight, a weekly publication of the hard-right organization (now defunct) the Liberty Lobby, implicated Hunt in the JFK hit. Hunt sued for defamation. In a civil trial a few years later, the Liberty Lobby was defended by JFK assassination researcher Mark Lane, a Washington, D.C., attorney. Lane won.
- In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, after a lengthy probe which included public hearings, determined that JFK was “likely” killed as the result of a conspiracy.
- In 2007, Rolling Stone reported on the deathbed confession of Hunt, who died in January of that year. In a series of tape recorded talks with his son, St. John Hunt (known as “Saint”), the dying spy named about a half-dozen CIA operatives. He minimized his own involvement, and suggested Lyndon B. Johnson spearheaded the cover-up.
- In 2009, a book revealed that Carlos Marcello, the Mafia kingpin of Texas and Louisiana, declared following the assassination, “Yeah, I had the son of a bitch killed. I’m glad I did. I’m sorry I couldn’t have done it myself!” The admission was contained in FBI files and was contained in a book, “Legacy of Secrecy,” by Lamar Waldron.
Based on the evidence, it is likely that JFK was killed by a coalition of anti-Castro Cubans, the Mob, and elements of the CIA. There are some excellent books which detail the events surrounding the killing, including “Conspiracy” by former BBC correspondent Anthony Summers and “Plausible Denial” by Lane, the attorney who defended the Liberty Lobby.
Out of context, Nixon’s reference in the Watergate tapes to the Bay of Pigs may sound like a non-sequiter. As the evidence shows, there is plenty of context. Nixon may well have feared that the Watergate scandal could have led to the truth about the JFK assassination.
(Check out Hunt’s deathbed confession here.)
Ruben Castaneda is the author of S Street Rising. He covered courts in Maryland for The Washington Post from 1997 to 2011.