Nov. 20, 2004 -- Journalist Evan Thomas says as attorney general, Robert Kennedy feared he had somehow gotten his own brother, President John F. Kennedy, killed.
Author of a biography of Robert Kennedy, Thomas describes his role in the Kennedy administration and his involvement in the investigation.
The following is an excerpt of ABCNEWS' interview with Thomas:
ABCNEWS: Can you describe the fears in America in the minutes and hours right after President Kennedy's assassination?
Thomas: This is the height of the Cold War. And the idea that a sneak attack from the Russians was very much on people's minds. So naturally the fear is that this was the first step in a general attack by the Soviet Union. Not just ordinary people, but at the top of government, that's the first thing that they're wondering about. Is this an attack to decapitate our leader, so they can come in and nuke us?
We had scared the hell out of each other in the Cuban Missile Crisis the year before. We have to remember that memory of that near miss was still fresh in people's minds.
ABCNEWS: How did the leaders and agencies of our government respond to the Kennedy asssassination?
Thomas: I think the most important thing the United States government wanted to do was reassure the public that there was not some plot, not some Russian attack, not some Cuban attack. It was to calm and soothe fears, real fears, that this was somehow some nefarious Communist plot. And that the number one goal throughout the upper levels of the government was to calm that fear, and bring a sense of reassurance that this really was the work of a lone gunman.
Lost Faith in Government
ABCNEWS: Was there any price that was paid for that?
Thomas: The price was not readily apparent. There was a price to that reassurance, to that soothing, because there was a bit of dissembling. And the bill did not come due until later. But they ended up shoving some things under the rug, covering up certain aspects of government activities, particularly assassination plots against Fidel Castro, that gradually seeped out later. In their haste to reassure everybody, they created an environment that was sure to come around and bite them. Because they covered things up that made it later look like that maybe they were covering up a plot to kill the president.
And so it was a delayed reaction. But when it came, there was a real cost. There was a real cost to faith in government, there was this pervasive and long-running conspiracy theory that President Kennedy had been killed as the result of a plot.
This belief, this belief that the CIA killed the president of the United States — think about that for a second — that our own government killed the president, has given people a sour and conspiratorial and I think ultimately dangerous view of the government. The CIA has done a lot of stupid and wrong things, but killing the president of the United States was not one of them.
I do think, though, that it's inevitable that when a young and handsome and heroic figure dies in his youth there are always gonna be legends and rumors and guesses about why he died. And it's just not good enough to say that some nut with a gun did it. People are gonna want to have a grander, darker, deeper explanation for it all.
Who Killed His Brother?
ABCNEWS: How did Robert Kennedy learn of the events at Dealey Plaza on November 22?
Thomas: Robert Kennedy is sitting by his pool. It's a warm day, warm November day, and he's sitting by his pool at Hickory Hill. He's having a conference about organized crime, actually. And the phone rings, somewhere in the house, I think, but there's a poolside phone as well. And he picks it up and it's J. Edgar Hoover telling him, the director of the FBI, telling Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, that John F. Kennedy's been shot in Dallas.
Bobby Kennedy later recalled that Hoover had no more emotion in his voice than if he was telling him that they just discovered a communist on the faculty of Howard University in Washington.
In other words, there was no grief, there was no sympathy, there was no inflection of surprise, just in a flat voice. The director of the FBI told Bobby Kennedy that his brother had been shot. He wasn't dead yet, but just shot. Bobby was of course stunned, put his hand up over his eyes, told the others there that his brother had been shot. Ethel came over and put her arms around him. Obviously, he was in a state of near-shock, although pretty quickly, and even after he finds out that his brother is dead, he gets on the phone and he starts trying to find out who killed his brother.
ABCNEWS: What went through Robert Kennedy's mind in the period right after his brother's death?
Thomas: Robert Kennedy had a fear that he had somehow gotten his own brother killed. That Robert Kennedy's attempts to prosecute the mob and to kill Castro had backfired in some terrible way, had blown back, as the intelligence folks say and, and in fact, he said to Ed Guthman, Robert Kennedy said to Ed Guthman as his spokesman, as they walked along that afternoon on Hickory Hill, right after JFK was killed, Bobby said there's been so much hate, I thought they'd get me. Bobby thought that he'd be killed, not his brother and now he has this daunting, horrible realization, or fear that all of his attempts to get the mob and to get Castro have in some terrible way blown up and come back to haunt his family and, and resulted in, in the death of the president, his brother.
Robert’s Role in Kennedy Administration
ABCNEWS: What role had Robert Kennedy played in his brother's presidency?
Thomas: Robert Kennedy played a role that today would be impossible. The president's brother, also the attorney general of the United States, essentially running covert actions to get rid of America's number one enemy. There is not a chance in hell something like that could happen today. Partly because it happened then.
It begins with the Bay Of Pigs. Very early in the Kennedy administration, the CIA convinced President Kennedy that they could knock off Castro with the CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba by a thousand Cuban exiles. Total disaster. Cubans driven into the sea, huge embarrassment for the Kennedy administration. President John F. Kennedy's response was, boy, I'm not going to get fooled again by these guys in the CIA and the military.
I want my brother on this case, [said Kennedy]. I want my brother to protect me. So he brought Bobby in. And in fact, he considered making Bobby head of the CIA. That would have been a mistake. They didn't do that. But instead he essentially gave his brother Robert the Cuban account. You take care of Cuba. Now, a more cautious person, after the Bay Of Pigs, might have said, we're not going to make that mistake again.
In fact, let's cool it on Cuba. Robert Kennedy did the opposite. He was angry, and embarrassed that his brother had been embarrassed by the Bay of Pigs. So his response, when he saw this disaster, was not to hit, see a yellow light and slow down, or a red light and stop. It was to see a green light and hit the gas. He assembled, or had assembled, an immense covert operation.
Castro Assassination Plots?
ABCNEWS: Did these covert actions against Cuba include assassination plots against Castro?
Thomas: I think it's clear that when Bobby really took over the Cuba account in the fall of '61, they did consider assassination. They started talking about it, thinking about it. But Bobby never wanted to get too close to it. It's, in that realm of deniable. Things that policy makers don't want to know too much about.
So Robert Kennedy made a lot of noise about get them, get them, get this guy, get rid of this guy. And the CIA took that as an order to reactivate the Mafia plots. I don't think initially they told Robert Kennedy they were doing it. He found out later, through a series, almost Keystone Cops series of coincidences. He found out that they were doing it later. But I think initially they didn't tell. They did it because of the pressure he was putting on them, but to preserve plausible deniability, they didn't tell him about it.
ABCNEWS: Do you think President Kennedy knew of these assassination plots against Castro?
Thomas: I'm pretty convinced based on fragmentary and circumstantial evidence that President John F. Kennedy discussed assassinating Castro. He kind of uneasily went along with the idea that, but always had reservations. And one reason why was pushed down the ranks, and pretty well-hidden, was because he didn't want to know too much, and I think had qualms about it.
I think that, that there were glancing conversations, probably in the Oval Office, about getting rid of Castro. But I'm pretty sure that President Kennedy made it clear at the time that he was uncomfortable with the idea of assassination. He understood instinctively that it was a two way-street, and a dirty thing you shouldn't get into. I don't think he ever said don't do it. He didn't want to know too much, and it was a subject that made him uncomfortable. And it was a subject I think they kept away from him as much as possible.
Preserving JFK’s Image as Noble President
ABCNEWS: Why didn't Robert Kennedy play a greater role in the official investigation of his brother's death?
Thomas: It is a little odd that Robert Kennedy didn't help the government commission to find out who killed his brother, but there's several reasons for it. One is just denial. He didn't wanna know. His wound was too raw. But the bigger reason is that he didn't want the government poking around into what he, Robert Kennedy, had been doing. He did not want an official government investigation into Robert Kennedy's plots to get Fidel Castro.
Robert Kennedy was always thinking about his brother's reputation. And Robert Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy, the president's widow, from the get-go, want to leave only one image behind and that is of the noble Jack Kennedy who tried to do the right thing. The Camelot figure. Jackie was a master spinner of this image. So, Jackie and Bobby wanted to spin this myth of not necessarily Camelot, but of a president who was noble and above the fray. And didn't dirty his hands. The last thing the needed was some government inquiry into assassination plots.
Difficult to Prove Assassination Theories
ABCNEWS: Who do you think killed President Kennedy, and was there more than one person involved?
Thomas: I believe that Oswald, operating alone, killed President Kennedy. I can't prove it, and I have about a two or three percent doubt in the corner of my mind about that it's conceivable, possible maybe, in a very remote circumstance that either Marcello, the mafia don, somehow had some piece of it, or possibly some fringe Cuban community. But this is an exceedingly marginal possibility and I only raise it because I can't absolutely rule it out.
ABCNEWS: Can we ever be 100 percent certain about what happened in the death of President Kennedy?
Thomas: We'll never know for sure what happened to President Kennedy because it's in the nature of these things that you can't prove every negative and you can't run down every little fact. It's made more complicated by the fact that there was a cover-up. That they covered up all sorts of things. Not to cover up a plot to kill Kennedy, but for their own internal bureaucratic reasons, because Hoover wanted to keep his job, and because Bobby Kennedy didn't want to be embarrassed, or the CIA didn't want to have the public know they were trying to kill somebody.
For a lot of reasons there were all these little cover-ups that add up to a fairly big cover-up that means that we're never gonna know for sure everything that, that might have happened. That's not to say that something did happen, it's just to say that we can't be sure.
Evan Thomas has been the assistant managing editor of Newsweek since 1991. He is the magazine's lead writer on major news stories and the author of many longer features. For 10 years, from 1986 to 1996, Thomas was Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is the author of Robert Kennedy: His Life (2000) and The Very Best Men: The Early Years of the CIA (1995).