Monday, 23 October 2023 10:18

Former People by James Norwood

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Former professor James Norwood examines what happened to the true lives of Kennedy, Khrushchev and Oswald after their demises. Deliberate and careful legends replaced the facts.

James Norwood was a professor at the University of Minnesota for 26 years. Among the classes he taught was a semester course in the John F. Kennedy assassination. He has written for this web site previously. (Click here for one example) He has now published a book which is entitled Former People.

As Norwood immediately explains, that rubric was used in conjunction with former members of the Russian aristocracy. Many of whom were displaced after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. He then uses other examples from Russian history like the Mensheviks who were also retired to what Trotsky called the “dustbin of history.”

In relation to his current book, Norwood is going to use that term to describe what happened to Nikita Khrushchev, President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. It’s a unique concept, at least I cannot think of a predecessor in the field. But to point out one useful strophe: the cemetery where Khrushchev was buried was close for renovation because it had too many people visiting after his burial. (pp. 2-3).

In his discussion of Khrushchev Norwood makes the case that he ended up opposing what Josef Stalin had done since he had a role in some of those crimes, for example, he was complicit in the Great Purges of the thirties. (p. 7) But as most know Khrushchev fought well in World War II, particularly during the epochal battle at Stalingrad. (Norwood points out that, although he took credit for it, Khrushchev was not part of the planning for the Russian offensive there.)

Having learned the Machiavellian tactics of Stalin’s court, Khrushchev emerged triumphant during the struggle for succession after the tyrant’s death. Yet, he was quite inexperienced in the art of diplomacy and statecraft on the world stage. As the British prime minister Harold Macmillan wrote in his diary:

How can this fat, vulgar man, with this pig eyes and his ceaseless flow of talk, really be the head—the aspirant Tsar—of all these millions of people in this cast country? (p. 10)

Yet he was. Norwood hallmarks the strikingly important secret speech of 1956. This was Khrushchev’s repudiation of the terror and purges of Stalin. (p. 40) This speech was entitled, “On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences.” Khrushchev said, “Stalin had committed criminal violations of the law that would have been punished in any country—except for countries not governed by law at all.” (ibid) He then added that Stalin’s rule was much closer to that of the Russian tsars than the Bolshevik revolutionaries. He also pointed out Stalin’s disastrous leadership at the beginning of the German invasion in World War II. As Khrushchev later wrote, the delegates at the Communist Party Congress were thunderstruck especially since Stalin had taken these actions against both Old Bolsheviks and Young Communists.

Yet, in that same year, Khrushchev ordered the crushing of Hungarian Spring. Which resulted in tens of thousands of casualties on both sides, and hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled the country. (p. 43) The author makes the case that Khrushchev was probably influenced by the Soviet ambassador to Hungary Yuri Andropov, who would later run the KGB for 15 years and briefly reign as General Secretary. For whatever reason Khrushchev also banned the book Doctor Zhivago, although he later admitted this had been a mistake. It resulted in a great propaganda triumph for the CIA.

In dealing with Kennedy, Norwood describes his many childhood ailments, his heroism in the Navy during the famous PT-109 incident, and the death of his older brother Joe in an air explosion during World War II. (pp. 10-13) He briefly deals with both his political career--elected three times to the House, and twice to the senate—and his literary vocation, the penning of Why England Slept and Profiles in Courage. He points out for praise Senator Kennedy’s 1954 speech warning about further American support of the French war in Vietnam. But, curiously, he does not mention the famous 1957 Algeria speech which literally rocked the political and journalistic establishment. Alistair Cooke, the British journalist, noted that this anti-colonial speech--and the attention the Republicans had given it--had made Kennedy the frontrunner for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. (Richard Mahoney, JFK: Ordeal in Africa, p. 29)

Norwood builds his early narrative structure around two events: the Missile Crisis and Kennedy’s American University Peace Speech. Norwood considers the Russian leader’s decision to place missiles, bombers and 45,000 men in Cuba a result of his aforementioned lack of diplomatic sophistication and serious misjudgment of Kennedy. Norwood also thinks it was part of Russian vozhdism or one person rule. Khrushchev had put the question to the Kremlin leaders. There were no serious objections at this time, but there were would be many later recriminations. (Norwood, p. 23) As the author notes, it should have been clear to Khrushchev that the U 2 overflights would eventually pick up the installations, especially since the troops on the island had not practiced consistent camouflage and disguise techniques. A fact that enraged the Russian leader when he found out about it. The overflights did discover the installations on October 14th. Kennedy had learned from the Bay of Pigs and now changed the command style. It was not just the Pentagon, CIA and NSC. Kennedy felt that had failed him. So this was expanded into something called the Ex Comm which now included Bobby Kennedy and Ted Sorenson.

Kennedy had been a great admirer of Tuchman classic The Guns of August. Kennedys was determined that no such book could be written about the Missile Crisis, one depicting a march to folly and destruction out of stupidity and impulsiveness. (p. 32) In fact, journalist Jordan Michael Smith wrote that “quite possibly Kennedy’s careful reading of the book helped prevent a nuclear war.” (p. 32)

If this is so Kennedy had to pretty much bypass his Joint Chiefs of Staff. Who considered the blockade route much too soft and giving way to much lenience to a provocation like this. To them, it was a time for aggression and attack. Although Norwood has Marine General Shoup tell Kennedy that he was in a pretty bad fix, it was actually Curtis Lemay who said it. (Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, The Kennedy Tapes, p. 182)

Once the deployment was discovered, and the blockade option was approved by Kennedy, Khrushchev was in a precarious situation. One which invited a terrible escalation by either side which could result in atomic war. The only realistic option the Russians had was to negotiate out a settlement. But the Russian ships stopping at the blockade line was not a victory as Dean Rusk exclaimed it was. Because it was later discovered that all the ICBM’s and tactical weapons—162 missiles in all-- had been landed on the island before the blockade was secure. (The Armageddon Letters, by James Blight and Janet Lang, p. 257) So the Russians knew that their tactical weapons would incinerate any invading armada crossing the Caribbean. They also knew that with the armada burning at sea, the combination of ICBMS, bombers and submarines could deliver a formidable first strike. The Russian has achieved his goal of placing a hedgehog on Kennedy’s breakfast plate. (Norwood, p. 27) But General Thomas Power, commander of SAC, took it upon himself to raise the DEFCON alert from level 3 to 2. Which was one step short of war. (Norwood, p. 29). And there were three events which almost caused a shooting war to break out: the downing of a U2 over Cuba by Castro, another U 2 that flew off course and over Soviet air space where MIGS scrambled to intercept, but other planes came to the rescue in time. The last was when American surface ships were hurling grenades and depth charges at a nuclear tipped submarine off the coast of Cuba. With all the explosions, the Russians did not know if a war was going on but luckily the commander directed the sub to surface and find out before firing. (Norwood p. 30)

Having achieved what was for all intents and purposes a (lucky) standoff, the two sides now began to formulate negotiation positions. Adlai Stevenson reputedly brought up the idea of trading the UN Turkish and Italian missiles for the Russian missiles inside of Cuba. Robert Kennedy was determined to go around the Ex Comm through Soviet contacts with diplomat Georgi Bolskakov, and later with the Russian ambassador Anatoli Dobyrnin. And this is where the promise not to invade Cuba came into play.

The so-called peaceful outcome was not welcome to the hawks on both sides. The Pentagon concluded that Kennedy had blown a perfect chance to get rid of Castro. The Kremlin felt that Khrushchev had luckily dodged a bullet by enacting a hare-brained scheme. Norwood insinuates that the result of that crisis echoed through the next two years, eventually deposing them both.

Making this even more unfortunate was the mutual attempt at détente by both men e.g., the limited test ban treaty, the direct hot line. This was capped by Kennedy’s Peace Speech, which—like Columbia professor Jeff Sachs-- the author spends some time explicating. (pp. 46-52). As a result, Norwood writes, “For a brief moment in history, between June and November of 1963, there was a genuine opening for rapprochement.” (p. 52)

Khrushchev wept when he heard the news of Kennedy’s death. He suspected American right-wingers had murdered the president in order to sink their attempt at a US-Soviet détente. (pp. 66-67). In some ways, Kennedy’s murder set the stage for Khrushchev’ own removal, since none of the tangible things the two men were working on were now going to be enacted. Therefore, the conservatives in the Politburo set up a plot to get rid of a leader who was actually contemplating with Kennedy a complete demobilization. (p. 75). Norwood argues, with some justification, that the USSR changed for the worse after this removal. A period of reform had now come to the end, economic stagnation ensued plus the formal imposition of the Brezhnev Doctrine. (p. 64). The true circumstances of Kennedy’s murder were covered up, and his achievements went largely unnoted in history textbooks. As far as Khrushchev went, the new Russian hierarchy began to write him out of history. (p. 66)

The last part of the book deals with the formal methods used to conceal the true circumstances of Kennedy’s death and a probing of the mystery of Oswald. First, he deals with how the MSM, and people like Walter Cronkite, placed a stamp on the three-bullet scenario right out of the gate. Like many before him, including the recently discussed Bart Kamp, Norwood squarely places the official blame for the JFK cover up on J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. He spends more than a few pages on how eager Hoover was to close the case with Oswald as the lone gunman. (p. 92ff). But he also exposes how people inside the FBI, like William Sullivan and Laurence Keenan, and Hoover himself, understood just how flawed the FBI inquiry really was. For instance, Hoover once said about the Oswald case, “If I told you what I really know, it would be very dangerous to this country. Our whole political system could be disrupted.” (Norwood, p. 101) But since the Warren Commission was so overwhelmingly reliant on the Bureau it more or less had to go along with Hoover’s very quickly drawn official conclusions.

Norwood ends with Oswald. He spends several pages on a real enigma about the man: How and where did Oswald learn to speak good Russian. He lists several witnesses who came to this conclusion about his fluency: Natalie Ray, Peter Gregory, George Bouhe, Elena Hall Rosaleen Quinn. The last is quite interesting since she conversed with Oswald in Russian before he left for the Soviet Union. (pp. 121-23). But then in Russia, many people have said that Oswald feigned not being able to speak the language. Norwood concludes this was part of his ruse as a fake defector since if he advertised that he could speak Russian the authorities would realize he was sent there by the Navy or CIA to be a spy. I would beg to disagree with Norwood’s portrayal of Ernst TItovets’ take on Oswald. (pp. 138-39) First, Ernst really was not a Johnny Come Lately to the case, as he was in the 1993 PBS special Who was Lee Harvey Oswald? And when I encountered the man in 2014 at the AARC Conference in Maryland, TItovets told me that when he met Oswald, he spoke good Russian.

Norwood is an advocate of the John Armstrong theorem of there being two Oswalds from an early age. He chalks up the long incubating experiment in doubles to CIA official Frank Wisner who used many people on the displaced persons list from World War !! as part of covert operations across Europe. And he notes that Robert Kennedy assistant William Vanden Heuvel on December 4, 1963 noted that “files of the IRC (International Rescue Commission) contain information pertaining to Oswald.” (p. 155) In an appendix, the author depicts Oswald’s Certificate of Enlistment for the Marines. He notes that the original name on the card was Harvey Lee Oswald, corrected to Lee Harvey Oswald. (p. 197). Another appendix lists a useful timeline in milestones on the JFK case beginning with Oswald’s defection and concluding with Oliver Stone’s two recent documentaries on the case, JFK Revisited and JFK: Destiny Betrayed.

In sum, Norwood’s book is unique in concept, mercifully concise, and adroitly argued. All the more impressive since it is his first book on the case.

Last modified on Monday, 23 October 2023 10:33
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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