In June 1964, Bobby Kennedy was grieving, guilt ridden and getting ready to leave his job as attorney general when he received a faintly ominous memo from the CIA. Written by Deputy Director Richard Helms, a man he did not trust, the four-page missive concerned a subject he did not care to think about: assassination.
Seven months before, the 39-year-old RFK had lost his brother and his political power in a burst of gunfire in Dallas. Under President Lyndon Johnson, Helms, a canny 51-year-old spymaster, had kept his job despite the fact that the CIA had been following accused assassin Lee Oswald for four years.
Helms’s memo, entitled “Plans of Cuban Exiles to Assassinate Selected Cuban Government Leaders,” reminded RFK that he had dabbled in the killing business before his brother’s murder and could not escape it even as he prepared to leave the government.
The Helms memo, first posted on the JFK Library website, sheds light on an enduring question of the Kennedy presidency: What did JFK and RFK know about the CIA’s plans to assassinate Fidel Castro in 1963?
There is no single piece of paper that proves they did. RFK biographer David Talbot and some Kennedy admirers contend the CIA was acting on its own and out of control. Defenders of the agency, as well as RFK critic Joan Mellen, say that the Kennedys’ outspoken desire to get rid of Castro was a clear signal that any means would be acceptable, including assassination. According to a 1974 memo, first made public in 1998, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Vice President Gerald Ford that Helms had told him that “Robert Kennedy personally managed the operation on the assassination of Castro.”
The June 10 memo doesn’t resolve the question about what RFK knew before November 22, 1963, but it shows that the CIA did keep RFK apprised of one not very promising plan to kill Castro after JFK was dead.
The memo illuminates the tragic dilemma that RFK faced after his brother’s murder. As a hardliner on Cuba, Bobby Kennedy had conscripted Helms and the CIA in his behind-the-scene efforts to overthrow Castro. But when his brother was murdered, allegedly by a Castro supporter, Bobby suspected a right-wing double cross, and never gave any credence to the “Castro Did It” theory.
As RFK’s son, Robert Kennedy Jr., stated publicly in Dallas earlier this year, his father never believed the official story of a lone gunman. In his 2008 bestseller “Brothers,” David Talbot documented how Bobby told his closest confidantes that he suspected that anti-Castro exiles and organized crime figures, possibly in league with rogue CIA officers, were responsible for his JFK’s death.
Yet what could he do? RFK underlined key passages of the June 10, 1964, memo with a blue pen, each of which underscored his powerlessness.
RFK noted Helms’s observation that the would-be assassins in contact with the CIA “were motivated in part by the belief that by disclosing the information they would obtain immunity against legal action” and that “the Mafia was involved.”
Helms’s bureaucratically correct message, ostensibly warning RFK about a potential problem, also signaled that the CIA was no longer under his sway. Two years before, in May 1962, an angry RFK had ordered the agency to stop using Mafia figures in its efforts to kill Castro. Now Helms was letting him know that the CIA no longer felt obliged to comply with his wishes, while reminding him that, as attorney general, he might be vulnerable to blackmail by the CIA’s gangster allies .
“They have offered to assassinate Castro for $150,000,” Bobby noted in the memo. That was the exact price tag for the CIA-Mafia assassination plot that had angered Bobby in May 1962.
RFK also underscored a passage reporting “an unidentified group which would be willing to assassinate selected Cuban officials for cash.” That was an idea that he and his brother had entertained and rejected. The CIA was still pursuing it.
RFK did not bother to underline Helms’s unctuous and unconvincing claim that “Agency officers made clear… that the United States government would not, under any circumstances, condone the planned actions.”
RFK knew better than anyone that Helms had condoned multiple assassination plots by organized crime figures and others against Castro. In the words of his biographer Thomas Powers, Helms was “the gentlemanly planner of assassinations.”
It is no coincidence that RFK was reading classical scholar Edith Hamilton’s translation of the Greek tragedy Agamemnon, written by Aeschylus, around the time he received this memo. He memorized one line that captured the punishing truth he had to live with each day about his brother’s death. It was a line he would recite on April 4, 1968, when commenting on the assassination of Martin Luther King.
“In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God,”
On November 22, 1963, RFK learned that dabbling in political assassination was a dangerous business for amateurs. On June 10, 1964, a professional reminded him of this hard truth.
Here’s the rest of the memo: