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Unredacted Episode 9: Transcript of Interview with Burton Hersh

Burton Hersh is the author of The Old Boys and the new book Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America. The book puts a spotlight on the RFK-Hoover relationship within the context of the overall Kennedy saga.

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Listen to the interview while reading: (49 min)

REX: Welcome back to Unredacted, my name is Rex Bradford and I’m here with Burton Hersh, who is the author of several books including The Shadow President, which is a biography of Ted Kennedy, and The Old Boys about the origin of the CIA. His new book is entitled Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America, which retells the Kennedy saga with particular emphasis on the relationship between Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Burton, welcome to Unredacted.

BURTON: Oh, it's good to talk to you.

REX: Ok, the book is bigger than just the story of Bobby Kennedy’s relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, and you include extended treatment of father Joe Kennedy and other characters like Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Jimmy Hoffa and other figures in the larger Kennedy saga. I'd like to start with Joe Kennedy, who in your treatment cast a very long shadow over the entire saga. Who was Joe Kennedy and how was he alike and how was he different from his better-known sons?

BURTON: Well, Joe was a self-proclaimed, self-made entrepreneur and successful businessman basically, who came out of South Boston initially. His father had been a, had owned a couple of bars, had a liquor distribution concession, and was something of a backroom force in Boston politics. His father-in-law, Honey Fitz, was the mayor of Boston and for awhile was a U.S. Congressman, so there was a political side to the Kennedys on both sides...two political sides to the Kennedys I probably should say. This produced a sort of precocious political awareness in Joe Kennedy, who was a tall, rather charming, not particularly academic young man who, in part through his family’s influence, was sent along to Harvard where he was supposed to hobnob with the greats and found that his social access was limited, a source of lifelong resentment.

He came out of Boston, worked a number of jobs -…was a banker in Boston for awhile, the youngest major banker in the country. He was put in charge of a small South Boston bank through family influence, and ah, moved on after a bit to New York where he got into the stock and bond business and from there he proceeded to California where he put together some very sizeable communication networks, ultimately being the mastermind behind RKO. He then returned to the East in 1930, backed Franklin Roosevelt, was instrumental in getting William Randolph Hearst to support Roosevelt, which probably resulted in Roosevelt’s nomination and election in 1932, and in return Roosevelt awarded Joe Kennedy with several jobs. First was the first Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and then worked with the Maritime Commission. Ultimately, this in part as a result of Joe’s finagling with Jimmy Roosevelt, who was a very successful son of the President, Joe’s getting the choice post of Ambassador to the Court of St. James, certainly the first Irish-American ever appointed to that job.

REX: Now that, I’m sorry, I was just going to jump in and say, that Ambassadorship and what happened with the gathering storms of World War II was something that played a role in finishing off Joe Kennedy’s personal political ambitions, wasn’t it?

BURTON: Yeah, that’s the whole thing. He had a deep apprehension about the coming of World War II which he saw as something that would destroy his family, his political hopes...not for himself but for his children, and fought it, in other words conducted a kind of private foreign policy in opposition to the Roosevelt administration’s effort to support the British. He was ultimately found out and retired in some disgrace, in effect got thrown out by Franklin Roosevelt and thus ended his own political career, and he began to think in terms of prospects for his sons. The great setback was that the oldest son, Joe Jr., who was the obvious candidate, by far the most presentable of the children, got killed in a fluky accident towards the end of the war, so that set all these hopes back.

REX: And then Joe’s political ambitions devolved upon Jack, who was something of a sickly child and not Joe Kennedy’s first choice.

BURTON: That’s right, and Jack wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about a career in politics either. I mean he thought himself to be a more academic literary personality. He’d written a book which through the contacts of Joe Kennedy, had been pumped up and ultimately was something of a best seller and so forth, so Why England Slept, this direction - journalism, literature - that Jack was inclined to proceed with. Joe put the boots to him and he went into politics, became a congressman in 1946 and after a career - again a sort of unwelcome career in the Navy during which he found himself running PT boats in the South Pacific and ultimately when his boat was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer, turned into a kind of popular hero because he saved a member of his crew and brought them all back alive. So through this kind of fluky thing, the PT109 incident, Jack was projected as a military hero on a, a shining star really of his generation, something which he really was not. He was a very sickly fellow and had other ambitions but was pushed into politics and from there on, after awhile, his own ambition took hold and he proceeded in fits and starts towards the Presidency.

REX: You mentioned his book “Why England Slept” and while you point out in the book a number of examples of Joe Kennedy’s great influence with his sons it seems also like they were not always, even at that early stage, on the same page about foreign policy and other policy issues.

BURTON: You know, there was some distinction between the ideas of the father and both of the sons, particularly, for example, in Cold War. Joe Kennedy was very fundamentally isolationalist. He really didn’t like the idea of the United States getting into foreign involvements because he saw - he didn’t think this country was capable of operating in a grand imperial style. And in my opinion, he was probably right about that as recent events have begun to suggest. But Jack was pretty NATO supportive, admired much about Truman’s foreign policy. On the other hand, overall, the Kennedy’s were quite conservative if not reactionary in their politics and both the father and the surviving sons supported Joe McCarthy, and certainly Jack Kennedy never saw himself as much of a liberal, he saw himself as a conservative personality who probably was only a Democrat because he came from an Irish-Catholic family in Boston where that was the only political choice.

REX: Ok, umm, J. Edgar Hoover is also a primary subject of the book and you seem to take a somewhat middle of the road view of Hoover, neither a glorified super cop nor the ultimate snooping villain that he is to some people. More of a careful bureaucrat who resisted the attack on organized crime in large part because it was so tangled up with the country’s power structure. I’m wondering how you think - if you could expand on your view of Hoover and how you think history will ultimately judge him.

BURTON: Well you know, Hoover has been batted around quite a lot over recent decades. A close examination of his career suggests that he wasn’t the monster that the Left would make him out nor the hero that the Right would make him out. So I’ve taken a pretty good shelling from both extremes for treating Hoover as what he was, a somewhat power-hungry and apprehensive human being who was very, very concerned that he not be railroaded out of his job as Director of the FBI, perfectly willing to use his dossiers to blackmail anybody and everybody that threatened his job, but also with a certain kind of lingering determination to make sure the Constitution was not undermined beyond a certain point. And this showed up early and late. He was probably instrumental in stopping an attempt to putsch the regime of Franklin Roosevelt in the 30’s and in the very end of his career, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, he resisted the so-called Huston Plan - an effort to impose a kind of police state on the country under the Nixon administration. So he really - he had from a libertarian's point of view, he had some affirmative aspects, decisions, so I got, you know, took a pretty good shot in the New York Times for going soft on Hoover in my book. I didn’t go soft on him because it was never my intention to present him as a monster and I think mine is a fair and balanced treatment, as I like to think it is with all the Kennedys.

REX: Well on the Kennedys I would say that your book is certainly not in the category of a Kennedy hagiography, umm, it seems nuanced although not particularly, um, doesn’t present a particularly attractive view of either Jack or Bobby Kennedy. I wonder if you might pick one of those and talk a little bit about what you think about the person.

BURTON: Well, you know, I’m a historian not a cosmetician. My job is not to daub on the powder and rouge and lipstick. I really, ah, I knew these people, I mean I’ve done two books about Ted Kennedy: "The education of Edward Kennedy" which is still pretty much the standard biography and "The Shadow President" many years later, and I know him. I mean I’ve traveled with him, I’ve helped him out politically at various times, written speeches for him, had his whole staff at my house at one point during the New Hampshire primary when he was running for President. He is not a mysterious, distant august senatorial figure to me - I knew him in college…he was there at the same time I was. So I never had, you know, any exaggerated veneration of the Kennedys. On the other hand I never had, I do respect many of the things that they did and stood for. I mean I think that Jack Kennedy was a - once he became President and began to understand the terms of the job, he developed into a promising President. Unfortunately, his career was cut off prematurely by the assassination, but similarly with Bobby, whom I knew, I mean I knew socially, I went skiing with him. You know, I mean, I liked Bobby. I thought he had a wonderful underhanded sense of humor and kind of a rye take on the world and I have, in no way in Bobby and J. Edgar did I attempt to demonize these people. I attempted to show them as they really were, and I have many friends who were close friends of Bob Kennedy, some of whom have read this book and they all say the same thing: this is by far the most accurate finely etched portrait of Robert Kennedy that exists.

REX: Interesting.

BURTON: It isn’t an attempt to pull him down from his pedestal, it's an attempt to show what he did, what he didn’t do, what forces were at work on him, where he compromised and why.

REX: It seemed like one of the challenges of a writer is that there are so many stories that float around about the Kennedys from all sides including their enemies and I wonder, you know, when you pass on some stories for instance about Robert Kennedy tagging along on drug busts and confiscating some for himself, and having sex with women that are swept up in the busts and I just wonder given the bitterness that they created among so many people, how do you decide which of these stories to give credit to?

BURTON: Well, the stories, the clump of stories you just mentioned pretty much came from, ah, ah, a biography of Kennedy by David Heynmann. Now I talked to Heynmann at some length about some of these incidents and I accessed the tapes on which they were based, most of which are available in the Archives of the State University of New York. In other words, I cross-checked this material. I also talked to friends of Bobby who knew him in various connections whether this kind of behavior was possible and whether it made any sense and they all agreed that he could - he wasn’t the alter boy that his mother thought he was, in other words. So, although I didn’t use very much of that material, it certainly seems to have caught people’s eye, but there is very little of that kind of stuff in my book. It isn’t relevant to the basic concern of the book which is about Kennedy’s function as an Attorney General. But there was this sort of raw, let it rip side to Kennedy and it got more and more pronounced in the last years of his life to the point where people who knew him were worried about, ah, whether this risk-taking might not be almost suicidal in its impulse. And there was some of this going on almost at all points. He could get pretty crazy at times.

REX: Well certainly, you know, know from other works on Robert Kennedy, in particular a book called Eighty-Five Days that, you know, the campaign was a period in which Robert Kennedy seemed to sense his own impending doom. There is a story that I guess Fred Dutton had tried to close the curtains when there was a sniper sighted nearby and Kennedy just, without even looking, just said "If their going to shoot, they’ll shoot." I wonder how much, um, ah, I’m just getting at his fatalism and what was driving him in the last couple of years of his life.

BURTON: Well yeah, I think there, I mean I talked to people, for example, who went river rafting with him in Colorado. He would not only would he jump out of a raft in class 4 rapids, but he would encourage his children and other people along on the trip to do the same, and you know they were very lucky that a bunch of them didn’t get drowned a couple of times. That kind of thing you know, lets sort of test the fate attitude which became more and more pronounced. I knew Fred Dutton pretty well and I talked to him at great lengths a matter of weeks before he died, and he had the same kind of apprehension. Everybody close to Bobby wondered, you know, how far is this thing going to go, how crazy is this all going to get. That was all part of this sort of unleashed sensuality or risk taking or whatever, you know, the sexual stuff and the derring-do, were all part of the same impulse. Almost as if only by risking his life and coming close to the edge could he relieve underlying anxieties. If you were along, however, this may not have been such a good idea. If you were in that raft or in that airplane or trying to climb Mount Kennedy and getting your feet frozen, you might wonder about the wisdom of all this.

I talked to Goodwin who went down - I think they went to some tributary, I think it was the Oronoko River in the middle of Brazil, and they flew in and the natives said these rivers are full of piranhas so Bobby insisted on going skinny dipping with Goodwin, who wasn’t at all pleased with that activity. I mean he just did not want to turn into a skeleton because Bob Kennedy was testing his luck. That again and again became a recurrent scene with Bob Kennedy.

REX: I think your quote from that was that piranha are not know to have ever bitten a U.S. Senator.

BURTON: Yeah, that’s what Kennedy said. That was typical of his humor too, which - I always found him a very amusing fellow once he understood that, you know, you weren’t there to carry his bag, you were there as a colleague not a servant. There was always - the Kennedys are - they’ve been raised to regard the general population as available for their purposes and it’s very important to disabuse them of that notion.

REX: Interesting. Let's rewind a bit and talk about something which is a primary subject to your book which is the relationship between Robert Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover. RFK became Attorney General upon his brother winning the Presidency and was put as a nominal boss of Hoover. How did that play out?

BURTON: Not very well. I mean FBI agents in the period had remarked that Robert Kennedy tended to regard Hoover as his desk sergeant and that's not the role that Hoover had in mind. Hoover felt the FBI, which used up almost half of the Justice Department’s budget, was the heart and soul of law enforcement in America - the rest of the sections in the Justice Department were there to serve the FBI and the Attorney General was a passing figure, there for a few years then on to another Attorney General, whereas Hoover was a permanent institution. So when Robert Kennedy, who had the leverage of being the brother of the President, and speaking for the President, ah, came in, Hoover was very uncomfortable.

REX: Bobby also had a buzzer put on Hoover’s desk I guess and one of the first acts after John Kennedy’s murder was to have that removed.

BURTON: Yeah, sure, I mean sort of just to demonstrate his power, once in awhile, Bobby would hit the buzzer and Hoover would come shuffling in all red-faced and unhappy and report to the boss, and he never liked that process. He generally did everything he could through a great repertoire of passive-aggressive techniques to let Bobby know that he wasn’t interested in playing the role that Bobby had in mind. A grudge built up.

REX: How did Hoover react to the organized crime program that went into gear under the Justice Department.

BURTON: Well, Hoover always had connections with the chief personalities in organized crime, especially in the New York, Washington and Eastern system. He was a pretty good, sort of off-the-record friend of Frank Costello who was the godfather of the mafia in the New York area for many years, and also was Joe Kennedy’s partner during the bootlegging days, so that was a sort of common friend that Joe and Hoover had. Actually, Joe Kennedy and Hoover had been, they'd sort of come up during the 30’s, during the Roosevelt administration to the power that they had, and they were social friends. Every once and awhile Hoover and Clyde Tolson, his inevitable sidekick, would go down to Palm Beach and spend a couple of days with the Kennedys and so forth. So Joe and Hoover traded favors all through their lives, although that didn’t prevent Hoover from sticking a knife in Joe’s back when he felt it would please whoever happened to be President. This is what, I sort of go back and forth through this complicated interwoven relationship.

REX: One of the things you bring out in the book is the extent to which organized crime of course was tied in with the power structure in America, and how this became a problem for Robert Kennedy as some of the investigations touched upon more powerful people, including his own father.

BURTON: Yah, well I don’t think Bobby really understood. I mean in '56 when Bobby - Bobby was very impressed by the fact that Estes Kefauver offer made his national reputation conducting hearings on organized crime, and as soon as Bobby’s unhappy, um, stint as subordinate to, to Roy Cohn in McCarthy’s committee was over, he talked Senator McLellan, who was in charge of that end of things, into instituting the Rackets Committee so he could play as the, um, special counselor could play the role that would, he felt through which he could present himself and his brother Jack as crime fighters. This is the role he thought would get them the kind of national attention that would, you know, move them towards the Presidency. So the Rackets Committee was a pretext in a way for them to move on, to become considered eligible for that kind of candidacy.

So Bobby was, you know, he put together, being an extreme like his father - Bobby Kennedy was an extremely efficient organizer and leader and user of men and women, and he put together a very effective operation that pulled in a lot of the, especially the secondary figures in organized crime and sent a number of them to jail and so forth. He showed his extraordinary ability as a manager, I suppose, most obviously in the Rackets Committee.

Unfortunately even then there was a certain leakage of information suggesting that his father knew some of these varied people. For example, in his book on organized crime, The Enemy Within, Bob Kennedy refers to a guy named Longie Zwillman who he says was a disreputable Philadelphia leader and whiny exponent of this and that. He didn’t investigate deeply enough to find out that his father had worked closely with Zwillman over the years and ultimately sold his own importing business, Somerset Importers, to Zwillman. There was a lot of mob-related activity on Joe Kennedy’s part that Bobby only gradually picked up on and every time he came across a corner of it he would get upset. Barry Goldwater used to laugh about that.

But he really didn’t understand the extent of it all I think until he became Attorney General and he realized, for example, the number one mafia figure in the country at that time, Sam Giancana, was a business partner with his father's in several enterprises both in Las Vegas and in California. He was pushing the FBI to get the goods on Giancana and when they did, and they hauled Giancana - they indicted him and hauled him up, Bobby had to quash the indictment for fear that his father’s name would come into it. That became a big problem and my book revolves around the complexities of that situation.

REX: mm...hmmm...I think you also describe another few instances where, ya know, Bobby had hired some basically incorruptible lieutenants to run the programs and then was faced with situations where he had to decide whether to try to call off those people as they went after political figures that were a little higher up the food chain.

BURTON: Yeah, it was a difficult problem for Jack particularly, who was by then a pretty well-informed politician, you know, as Bobby would go after some of the people he himself knew he would be dependent on to get re-elected. At one point he turned to one of his aides and said "what this administration needs is an Attorney General we can fix."

REX: (Laughter....)

BURTON:: That was the problem and, you know, another time Jack said about Bobby that he was such a natural cop that if he couldn’t get anybody else in his sights he would go and clap the cuffs on Rose and send her away for five years just to keep the machine turning over, you know. The brothers were very different. I mean Jack was a live-and-let-live type and Bobby, you know, once he decided that you were an evil doer, he was very moralistic and he would keep pursuing you until, ah, it was all over, until he had you or he couldn’t do anything more about it. So it was - they were not - the two brothers, contrary to some recent book, were not particularly compatible and saw very little of each other socially.

They were an effective combination because Jack wasn’t much of an administrator and Bobby was, and Jack simply turned over almost every tough problem that came up to Bobby. Plus Jack was quite sick off and on throughout all of his life, even into the Presidency, so he needed somebody who could function as an alter ego and Bobby, whether he liked it or not, played that role.

REX: What’s your take then on the theory that whatever one of the brothers knew the other one knew. For instance if Robert Kennedy was involved in particularly nasty operations against Castro would Jack have necessarily been in on them?

BURTON: Yeah, I think so. Oh sure, I’m sure that Jack Kennedy knew that the, you know, the arrangement to have the mob dust Castro, which had been arrived at in the last months of the Eisenhower administration and was continued, and in fact expanded during the Kennedy years. There is no reason why he wouldn’t know that. I don’t know that it was ever spelled out to him. For example, I doubt that he was fully cognizant of the mechanism that led to the extinction of the Diem brothers for example. I’m not - I’ve seen no historical evidence that he knew the extent to which the CIA was involved in the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, but it seems to me that he knew quite - I mean he understood that these things did not happen against the wishes of the administration.

REX: Sure. Your book - I guess Richard Bissell - you talked to him and he apparently told you that JFK even knew that Castro’s murder was planned for the Bay of Pigs, which was a new twist for me, um, at least that JFK would have been aware of such. And I guess I want to return to this issue of believability of some of the sources; Richard Bissell who was fired by Kennedy, Sam Halpern, and then Richard Helms, in particular. How do you know when they're telling the truth and when they have an agenda?

BURTON: Well, you know, I wrote a book called The Old Boys. At this point, after having taken the usual shelling for telling too much of the truth that the right people didn’t want out there, ah, has now been established as the standard work on the early decades of the CIA, and I interviewed all these people at great length. I knew, had interviewed Bissell a half dozen times at least. At that point, he was an old man, you know, there was no reason for him to lie to me, for him to try - he in fact liked the Kennedy’s. He was a sailing partner of Jack Kennedy’s on occasion. The idea that the CIA was out to get the Kennedys is ridiculous. They all came from the same social circles in Washington, they were all friends. I certainly, and Helms whom I knew quite well, I’m quite sure he wasn’t attempting to mislead me when he indicated who knew what and when and why, and I don’t think Bissell did, and I don’t think - and Halpern was, you know, he was a...(hesitation)

REX: So when they told, ah...

BURTON: It happened. Everything checked out and if he said it happened, the documents sooner or later demonstrates that it did. He was sort of the nuts and bolts guy that was the intermediary, so if they all said that the Kennedy’s were driving the whole process, I think its reasonable to assume the Kennedy’s were.

REX: So when they...

BURTON: They had no reason to lie. They weren’t - they didn’t have this animus about Castro that the Kennedy family did. They regarded, just the way a lot of people in government did, they regarded Iraq as an unnecessary involvement, they regarded this huge brouhaha over Cuba as - there were other ways to deal with Castro, through subversive warfare and other things and they didn’t see any reason to back a benighted invasion of fifteen-hundred patriots of a Soviet-trained army of 200,000. I mean they knew better than that. Everybody anywhere near that situation, including Helms once he understood what was going on, refused to go to the meetings and stayed away from the whole thing. So my guess is that Helms was telling me the truth - why wouldn’t he?

REX: I guess the thing that makes it tricky for some people is that, you know, these same people under sworn testimony to the Church Committee, um, said that they had not informed their superiors, and obviously you can take the position that they're protecting the Kennedy’s at that point, um, but it does present a dilemma that they’ve said different things privately than they gave in testimony.

BURTON: Well it was the - the problem that Helms had in the Church Committee wasn’t over the Bay of Pigs, it was over Chile, and the Allende administration. That’s where he lied.

REX: No, No (Burton interrupts) - but also - (burton interrupts) I’m sorry, but they also told the Church Committee that there had been no Presidential authorization, per se, for plots against Castro.

BURTON: Well, per se is, yeah know, I mean that’s just a very big trap door.

REX: (Laughter) I understand.

BURTON: That means that the President didn’t write out, you know, a finding that he wanted these people to go ice Castro. That doesn’t mean that they, that Bobby Kennedy didn’t say to Bissell: "How fast can we get this guy out of the picture?"

REX: mm hmmm, yeah...

BURTON: I mean I’ve talked to a lot of people in the Agency and the assumption that they all made when they put the Bay of Pigs together, was that Castro would be out of the picture. And the only way he could have been out of the picture was through assassination. So that, you know, that was no...

REX: Did they tell you how that got messed up?

BURTON: Well, the problem with the whole situation was it was a favorite project of Bissell, and to some extent of Allen Dulles, who himself realized towards the end that this thing wasn’t going to work and made sure he pulled as far shy as he could of the whole thing. It had been developed during the Eisenhower administration and I think the action officer in the White House had been Richard Nixon. They all thought this was a good idea, but people like Robert Amory who ran the analytic, the intelligence side - the intelligence director - were prevented from even finding out that this thing was in the wind, because their information was that Cuba was locked up tight by the Communists at that point and that it would never work. And the operations people didn’t want that information to be seeping in and undermining confidence on the other side. Also, Helms particularly was very upset because he knew how leaky the Cuban situation was. He knew that everything that happened was going to be getting back to Castro before it ever got to Washington. That was the problem - it wasn’t a moral hesitation on these people’s part, it was, it was an operational sense; a sense that this thing was being atrociously planned, couldn’t work, and would blow up in everybody's face.

REX: But the ace in the hole as you said, was the idea that Castro would be bumped off before it happened, and I’m wondering if they gave you indication as to how that got screwed up or what the plan had been.

BURTON: Well, it got screwed up because the central personalities in the mafia who were supposed to do the job didn’t really, weren’t very interested in taking any chances. Trafficante was probably playing both ways on the situation. In order for himself to get out of Cuba, he obviously and to retain his drug smuggling operation in Cuba and through Cuba, he obviously made a deal with Castro. And he told Castro everything that was going on. The three people that were hired to actually do this thing were Sam Giancana, Johnny Roselli and Trafficante. And Trafficante was working both sides of the street, um, Giancana was totally uninterested in taking any risks on behalf of this thing, and Johnny Roselli was caught in the middle. He was very resentful of what his boss, Giancana and Trafficante did. He felt they, and he hoped the program had was spiked from the very beginning but the administration, and ultimately the CIA even after the Kennedys were out of the picture continued with these rather desultory efforts to kill Castro even though their contacts were thoroughly penetrated by Castro’s agents.

REX: Ok, well...

BURTON: I mean, ah, I think that history is pretty plain on that - I don’t think - the fact that Jack Kennedy didn’t sign any orders saying to, um, Bissell or anybody else, or Bill Harvey would have been the obvious guy that would have received the order, you know, go out there and blow Castro away. I mean the President didn’t do that - and that’s why the Church Committee ultimately helped develop the whole finding system where everything of that sort has to come down from the office of the President in the form of a Presidential paper finding, authorizing these people to operate this way. In those days there was no such thing, they just, you know, it was sort of a nod from the King and off went a head. There was no formal order given or received.

REX: mm...hmmm. Okay, in the few minutes we have left; let’s turn to the assassination of John Kennedy which our website is primarily devoted to.


REX: And I want to first applaud you for not doing what most authors do, which is to skip as fast as possible from mid-November 1963 to early 1964. I’ve only listened to one of the interviews you’ve done, um, in which the interviewer didn’t bring up the assassination which you do write about at some length in the book, and I’m curious if that’s common. Is the subject still taboo or are people just tired of the unanswered questions or, um, has that part of your book gotten much comment?

BURTON: Yeah, it’s gotten a lot of comment and the people that don’t like the book always seize on that. They say that, they refer to the information I have, you know, the forensic studies, and the autopsy studies and the interviews that I had with key figures and the whole thing and they refer to this information as factoids. I don’t know what a factoid is, but I do know as a lifelong investigative reporter that there's nothing in that chapter in Bobby and J. Edgar, which is called the Patsy; which is remotely made up or conjectural. Every bit of that comes from hard evidence, much of which I got myself and most of which was in reputable sources of all kinds and in FBI reports and in all kinds of other places. I don’t know - there is, um, for some reason a lot of surviving reputations seem to hang on the fact that all would be lost if the single shooter theory was mysteriously disputed. We see book after book coming out, basically, based on fraudulent FBI material... (laughter)...I think that...

REX: Well, maybe you haven’t heard that Vincent Bugliosi has reproven the Warren Report in 1600 pages.

BURTON: Yeah, I know, I haven’t read his work but I read Posner's work already. All that stuff comes out of doctored FBI documents and the memories of people who were carefully coached to remember what they didn’t remember.

REX: What’s interesting - you’ve talked to many Kennedy insiders and of course at minimum they have had great silence on the matter over the years, and I’m curious if you have a feeling for what's going on within the inner circle.

BURTON: Well my feeling is, as I’ve said a lot of these people are friends of mine and they’ve talked to me off the record so I’m not going to identify anybody, but I think if you look at Bobby’s role in this, you see that he as much as Hoover attempted to paper over and cover over information that was, that came out of that situation. I mean he, you know, he apparently had Kenny O’Donnell take the body away from the Texas medical people and authorities, literally at gunpoint, and started back to the plane, fly it to Washington and have the autopsy, such as it were, in Bethesda. Under control, Bobby was right there in the next room when it all happened.

REX: Did you get a sense for why Bobby Kennedy would be moving into a cover-up mode so quickly.

BURTON: Yeah, I think so. I mean I think I understand what happened. I think, you know, if you understood, as he must have almost immediately, that this thing was perpetrated by the mob in conjunction with a few Texas wheeler dealers who apparently put up some of the money and so forth, then you're talking about very much the same people who, ah, were behind the attempt to assassinate Castro and most of the more dubious activities of the Kennedy administration. And furthermore, you’re going to find out that Jack Kennedy was pretty sick, that he had Addison's Disease, he wasn’t functional a lot of the time. A lot of secrets are going to come out of an honest examination of the forensic evidence.

And Bobby, who couldn’t bring his brother back and obviously felt somewhat implicated in having dealt actively with some of these personalities whom he probably was smart enough to understand, were behind this assassination. You know, tried to use them as they tried to use him, wasn’t interested in having the whole story come out because ultimately would have wrecked his career, his prospects. So he took the whole thing over almost immediately and, ah, made sure that the physical evidence disappeared almost at once, he ran off with the brain, other things, key photographs disappeared. The whole, the basis of - the minute you admit, as ultimately even Rob - the most conservative guy who ever looked at this stuff - Robert Blakey, had to admit that there were several shooters involved and that probably the essential bullet that killed Robert - Jack Kennedy, came from the front, if not from the grassy knoll, from some place near it; then you're talking about a conspiracy. If you’re talking about a conspiracy, the question is who the conspirators were and some of these are people like Johnny Roselli who had almost lifelong associations with his father. So none of this was welcome news and then the prospect of all that being dragged before the press was, it was...

REX: Roselli, in particular, seems to have signaled in late '66 and early '67, you know, that bad things would come out if this were pursued.

BURTON: Yeah, sure he did and ultimately when he was dragged before the, you know, in the '70s when he was dragged before Sliker and those people and gave some testimony and was on the point of giving more, um, he was disposed of too. I mean he was found in an oil barrel floating around Chesapeake Bay. You know, there’s no question that a lot of people - it's not hard to figure out who, were very uninterested in having this information surface and some of them were on the Kennedy side of the line too. The whole, the whole - they were very obviously apprehensive about some of the things they’d done and felt that the Kennedy assassination was a consequence. So they all stand fast by the single shooter thesis. That I think is what’s behind it.

REX: Again, moving so quickly to cover it up I wonder do you think this was primarily because of some indication that Oswald was connected to the anti-Castro operations. It still seems like things moved awfully quickly in the hours after Dealey Plaza.

BURTON: An hour! I mean, less than an hour between the time Jack Kennedy was shot and Oswald was discovered in the movie theater and surrounded by dozens of professional police. Having gone home, changed clothes, supposedly shot Officer Tippit; none of that puts together very well in terms of the logistics. How did they all know it was Oswald right away, within minutes and track him and find him and all that stuff? I mean it had to be, you know, he was clearly a designated patsy they’d been building up an alternate version of what he had been doing for the previous months. The other thing that I came upon and was able to corroborate and it's a very important bit of evidence is that Oswald was, without much question, a paid informant of the FBI for most of the year before the Kennedy assassination and, ah...

REX: Did you find new evidence of that, I mean...

BURTON: I talked to FBI people who saw the paperwork.

REX: No kidding.

BURTON: And other writers have talked to people who have done that, you know, short of actually coming up with the paperwork, all of which I’m sure is deep, deep classified, if not destroyed at this point. This seems to me a very central piece of evidence because this is fundamentally what drove Hoover to distraction. The fear that this piece of evidence would come out and would look as if the FBI was the, you know, had orchestrated the assassination, and without a doubt was not the case; but what was true - the FBI had many informants who were working both sides of the street. You know, people who were seemingly sympathetic to Castro but were in the pay of the FBI. That’s how they worked. It’s not at all out of the question. Every time Oswald got in trouble, he turned to the FBI when he, you know, when he got picked up and thrown in jail for a night in New Orleans he immediately summoned the local FBI people and so forth. His history was one of - he treated them as if they were his support organization. You know, he chewed out Hosty in Dallas when Hosty bothered his wife, in effect saying I could tell a lot of stuff about you guys so back off, that kind of thing. I think the FBI’s relationship to Oswald is sort of interesting. I think there was obviously some CIA connection too. I mean, he was in, you know, Angleton had a program that sent the defectors into the Soviet Union, then they would be brought out and they would be debriefed and so forth. My guess is that was also a part of...

REX: That was my next question. I mean given the many intelligence connections to Oswald and given that the mob had been hired by the CIA to do in Castro, um, I guess I wonder how sure you would be that the mob is who is behind the assassination as opposed to being just people on the ground and not, you know, in league with CIA or other forces. I mean Robert Kennedy himself collared John McCone, the head of the CIA on the afternoon and asked if he was behind it.

BURTON: Yeah, well I don’t, you know, I mean, I don’t think, I certainly don’t think anybody like McCone was...was...

REX: Oh sure, not McCone per se.

BURTON: Having had many years of close personal association with some of the principles in this situation - I knew David Phillips pretty well, and so forth. I just don’t think those guys would go along with a plan to assassinate a sitting President. For one thing, they’re liable to lose their pension if they did something like that which was very important to these bureaucrats. And for another thing, they were basically pro-Kennedy. They felt that he was the guy that - and they were much happier when Eisenhower went out and Kennedy came in. I mean people like Frank Wisner and key figures in the Agency were vigorously supportive of the Kennedy administration. These people were not crypto-fascists. They tend to be kind of, um, people like Bissell were, were, were - Bissell was a liberal economist who put a lot of the point four programs together and so forth. Worked with Harriman and those people to make sure that Europe was properly rebuilt. In fact a lot of early CIA operations were done through these programs. I mean the offices were shared and so forth. These people were not Republicans; they were not reactionary personalities at all. They were either apolitical or they were affirmative about the Kennedys. In an operation like the CIA, if they really were involved in the planning of the murder of the President, a lot of people would have found out. There is no way to keep something like that from leaking among the offices. There is no way to compartmentalize that stuff beyond a point. I just don’t think that the CIA was, or the FBI, were sort of the formal organizer of this thing. I think it’s much more likely that some of the oil speculators like Murchison and so forth, you know, one of Hoover’s closest friends put up the money and were very apprehensive that Kennedy would continue to move in the direction he was talking about; cutting back the oil depletion allowance, and they were worried about that. And they, in turn, were dependant on money from Hoffa’s pension fund to continue wildcatting and Hoffa was, you know, being remorselessly pursued by Robert Kennedy and the mob in general was using that pension fund money to build Las Vegas. That was their only source of major capital. So, you know, there were a lot of forces at work that suggested Robert Kennedy was in the way, the father had promised that the Kennedys would take it easy on the mob, they'd helped get Jack into office, and now this. So, next came the piece of history we are talking about.

REX: Ok, um, well thanks very much for your time - I have one last question I’d like to ask, which is, the subtitle of your book refers to the transformation of America in the wake of the relationship between Robert Kennedy and Hoover, and I wonder if you could explain what you mean by that?

BURTON: Yeah, no, I think that’s a very important thing. I mean individual situations like the Giancana situation, Bobby was forced to back off. But overall, he retooled the Justice Department and to some extent the FBI, to go after organized crime, which Hoover had denied existed really. He tuned them up and gave them the tools and a lot of the things like the Rico Act, you know, any number of provisions which people like Robert Blakey were able to get into the laws in the ensuing years, came right out of Robert Kennedy’s shop. He turned the attention of the Federal Government on organized crime to find that - determined who the major practitioners were, how the institution was structured and created a situation which allowed the FBI and other federal instrumentalities to ramp up and actually go after these guys and ultimately take them down. And that was a very, very important direction because they were taking over whole industries in this country at the time Robert Kennedy became Attorney General. And similarly, once the Kennedys woke up to the whole civil rights situation which they were very slow in coming to, they put pressure on especially the surviving people in the Johnson administration, they put pressure on the administration, and Johnson was sympathetic, to begin to deal with the whole civil rights issue. The FBI was brought in and to some extent, against his will, Hoover mandated that the FBI infiltrate and destroy the Ku Klux Klan which was the enforcement arm of segregation in America. Once that had happened, you know, real integration, real social justice was possible in the racial area. So, both these enormous initiatives came out of Robert Kennedy’s Attorney Generalship, and I think he has to be given credit for, in affect, turning the boat and getting things heading in that direction.

REX: Ok. Burton Hersh, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me this morning.

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