In a piece for the Daily Beast, How the KGB Duped Oliver Stone, Max Holland argues that an article published in an Italian newspaper in 1967 was a KGB disinformation operation that convinced the American people and Oliver Stone that JFK was killed by a CIA conspiracy.
There are many problems with this claim. I’ll just mention four.
First, there is no evidence that the article in question exercised any influence on public opinion about conspiracy.
The article, published in Rome daily, Paese Sera, in March 1967 alleged, that New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw had been involved in “pseudo-commercial” activities in Italy while serving on the board of the defunct organization called Centro Mondiale Commerciale. Ostensibly devoted to making Rome a commerce hub, the article said the CMC had actually been “a creature of the CIA… set up as a cover for the transfer to Italy of CIA-FBI funds [sic] for illegal political-espionage activities.”
Holland says this is KGB disinformation. Not quite. The CIA was indeed deeply involved in Italian business and politics in the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to the enduring influence of CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton who had grown up in fascist Italy in the 1930s and headed the U.S. intelligence office there from 1945-1947. The role of the CIA in the CMC is too obscure to rehearse here but it is more problematic than Holland suggests.
The more important point is that American suspicions of conspiracy were pervasive long before March 1967.
The first polls on the question of who killed Kennedy were taken the week after JFK was killed. At a time when the White House, the FBI, and the Dallas Police Department all insisted that accused assassin Lee Oswald had acted alone, 62 percent of respondents said they believed that more than one person was involved. Only 24 percent thought Oswald had acted alone. Another poll taken in Dallas during the same week found 66 percent of respondents believing that there had been a plot.
So a solid majority of Americans believed there was a JFK conspiracy in 1963. It is, shall we say, unlikely that American thinking was shaped by article that appeared in Italian three and a half years in the future.
Second, Holland’s claim that Garrison’s charges of CIA plot drove public opinion is not factually supported. The 1975 revelation that the CIA had been involved in multiple assassination conspiracies of foreign leaders was far more influential than Garrison’s scattershot prosecution, which ended in Shaw’s swift acquittal in 1969. Garrison’s failed case prompted no reaction from Washington, save media derision.
The revelation of CIA assassination plots six years later prompted a majority of Congress to authorize three different JFK investigations, all of which took a hard look at the CIA’s role in the events of 1963. Neither Garrison’s claims nor Clay Shaw’s possible CIA contacts was a factor in the Capitol Hill debate about whether to launch these investigations.
Third, Holland omits a key bit of evidence to make his argument more plausible. He asserts that the allegation that Shaw worked for the CIA is communist disinformation. Shaw, he says, merely “volunteered” information to the CIA, and “was never a covert operative.” The CIA’s own historian said otherwise.
In 1993 J. Kenneth McDonald, chief of the Agency’s History Staff, reviewed Shaw’s CIA file. He then wrote a memo for the record describing Shaw as “a highly-paid contract source” for the Agency for some period of time ending in 1956.
Holland knows about this memo because he tried–and failed–to discredit it in online discussions. He did not mention it in his piece for Daily Beast. Maybe he can explain why it wasn’t relevant. At a minimum, his claim that the “highly-paid” Shaw only “volunteered” information to the CIA is questionable.[Click here to read the complete McDonald memo. Look at page 3 for the exact quote.]
Fourth, Holland’s claim that the Paesa Sera article had a decisive influence on filmmaker Oliver Stone is ludicrous. In 1967 Stone was a conservative young man radicalized by combat experience in Vietnam who became a Hollywood moralist deeply read in history and philosophy. Twenty five years later, Stone made his all-too-believable epic “JFK, ” based in part on Garrison’s book but also on other works including Jim Marr’s Crossfire and John Newman’s JFK and Vietnam.
Stone may have romanticized Garrison in his film but the idea that Garrison’s citation of one article in a foreign newspaper convinced him of the CIA’s role in the events of 1963 and shaped his cinematic vision is not simplistic. It is just silly.
The editors of the Daily Beast got played.