“There might have been some justice” in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh said in a letter to a reader.
Hersh made the shocking suggestion in 1998 correspondence with Albert Alioto, a San Francisco bus driver who had written to the New Yorker journalist about his controversial book about the Kennedy clan, The Dark Side of Camelot.
“If your portraits of John and Robert Kennedy are essentially accurate, given the emphasis on assassination plotting,” Alioto asked, “do you see any moral difference between the Kennedys and Oswald and Sirhan?” Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan were, respectively, the killers of JFK and his younger brother Robert.
“The morality of JFK in comparison with Oswald and/or Sirhan,” are “obvious questions,” wrote Hersh — whose latest story for the New Yorker alleges that the United States is training members of an Iranian terrorist group in Nevada. The 35th president’s backing of assassination attempts against Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Hersh explained, meant that he was as immoral the men who took his and his brother’s lives.
“I just didn’t have the guts to put in writing what I came to believe, as you do, was an inevitable conclusion,” Hersh wrote of the death of a president, which he also called “terrible.”
Hersh appears to have taken Alioto’s letter to be an endorsement of Kennedy’s assassination as a form of payback for plotting against Castro, which Alioto said he didn’t intend.
“I was not trying to say that the assassinations of the Kennedys were a form of justice,” Alioto, 58, wrote in a letter this year. (He shared the 1998 document after seeing this reporter’s criticism of Hersh in the magazine Commentary.) “I didn’t regard his book as ‘essentially accurate.’” To stress his purely conjectural intentions, Alioto told Hersh that, on the subject of any moral equivalence between JFK, RFK and their assassins, “I ask the question purely out of curiosity.”
Hersh made his view clear: “You’re right in believing, if that’s what your letter suggested, that there might have been some justice — one reviewer wrote ‘rough justice’ — in John F. Kennedy’s terrible death by assassination, a means he had sought to end Fidel Castro’s life.”
The Dark Side of Camelot, published in 1997, was enormously controversial for its thinly-sourced claims, and Hersh suffered professional embarrassment when it was revealed that he had been fooled by a series of fake documents bearing the late president’s signature. Hersh was forced to remove mention of the papers from the book’s galleys at the last minute. Hersh was initially able to parlay the documents into a television deal with NBC, which later pulled out over “creative differences” with Hersh and suspicions that the documents were fake. (Some of the book’s then-scandalous claims about the slain president’s promiscuity gained credence this year in a memoir published this year by one of Kennedy’s former lovers, Mimi Alford.)
According to Hersh, it was this widespread negative reaction to the book, and not any factual or moral misgivings, which prevented him from making the comparison between “Oswald and/or Sirhan” and JFK explicit. “I had enough trouble getting through the reviews and press comments on my book, and its very unpopular conclusions about Kennedy’s presidency, without getting into the issue you raise,” Hersh wrote.
Asked about the letter, which appears to have been typed on a blank sheet of paper, Hersh did not deny authoring it but expressed surprise because he tends to write on New Yorker letterhead. He didn’t reply to an email inquiry through a colleague that included a scan of the letter.
James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor for The New Republic and World Affairs Journal.