"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
We appreciate the serious coverage of “Ultimate Sacrifice” in Salon.com, but there are several assertions and omissions in the review written by David Talbot that we’d like to address.
“Ultimate Sacrifice” presents evidence from thousands of pages of declassified documents that John and Robert Kennedy planned to stage a coup against Castro on Dec. 1, 1963, and that the plan was infiltrated by three Mafia bosses (from the mob families that controlled Chicago, Tampa and Dallas). The Mafia chiefs then used parts of the coup plan, including some U.S. intelligence assets, in their plot to kill JFK — first trying in Chicago, then Tampa, and finally Dallas — in a way that forced a coverup to protect national security, and the coup plan. The documentary evidence is backed up by accounts from almost two dozen Kennedy associates involved in aspects of those events, and their aftermath.
The most glaring omission in Talbot’s review was not addressing or even mentioning AMWORLD, the CIA’s code name for their supporting role in the Kennedy coup plan in 1963. AMWORLD is a major focus of the book. “Ultimate Sacrifice” not only reveals this recently declassified operation for the first time, but documents that it was withheld from the Warren Commission and later congressional investigating committees.
AMWORLD, which began on June 28, 1963, was an integral part of the Kennedys’ plan for a coup in Cuba and it’s impossible to consider one without the other. Coup planning began in January 1963 as a slow-moving, bureaucratic exercise, and the plan was only in its fourth draft by June 1963. But that month, planning began in earnest after the real opportunity for a high-level coup arose. After the CIA created AMWORLD, millions of dollars began to be devoted to the coup plan. From that point forward, coup planning proceeded rapidly, demonstrating that it had become a live operation. By September 1963 the “Plan for a Coup in Cuba” was in its 13th draft, and the rapid pace accelerated further, continuing through November of 1963. (After JFK’s death, the CIA kept the AMWORLD code name, but without the involvement of Robert Kennedy and other key figures, the plan changed radically.)
The most important of our five sources who actively worked on the coup plan was the Kennedys’ top Cuban exile aide, Enrique “Harry” Ruiz-Williams (who asked us to always call him “Harry”). Talbot acknowledged in his review that Harry was close to RFK, but says that Harry’s “belief that a Kennedy-backed assault on the Castro regime was imminent might be a case of wishful thinking.” That’s not what the evidence demonstrates. Harry’s account — and that of the others — is backed up by many declassified coup plan and AMWORLD documents that talk about them and the operation. High-level AMWORLD documents from November 1963 say that “all US plans (were) being coordinated through” Harry and he had been “so named by Robert Kennedy.”
By Nov. 22, 1963, millions of dollars had been spent on the coup plan, hundreds of Cuban-American troops had been trained, U.S. assets were going into Cuba, and everything was ready. As noted in the book, a long-overlooked Washington Post article confirms that Harry’s work “had reached an important point” by November 22, when Harry “participated in the most crucial of a series of secret meetings with top-level CIA and government people about Cuba.” Harry and other Kennedy associates told us he was going into Cuba the following day, to await the Dec. 1, 1963, coup — a date consistent with what we were told by others who worked with RFK on the coup plan and which is contained in an AMWORLD memo from JFK’s CIA director.
Talbot seems skeptical of the coup plan because JFK’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told him he didn’t know about a “major Cuban intervention” in late 1963. Talbot also questions the credibility of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who first told us about the coup plan in 1990. However, Talbot didn’t mention that Rusk gave an on-the-record confirmation of the coup plan to Anthony Summers for Vanity Fair in 1994, three years before the first “Plan for a Coup in Cuba” documents were declassified. Rusk even explained to Summers why the Kennedys pursued the coup plan and secret peace negotiations with Castro at the same time, saying, “It was just an either/or situation. That went on frequently,” though Rusk told Summers that in doing so, “the Kennedys ‘were playing with fire.’”
As the book explains, we have only identified a dozen people so far who were fully informed about the coup plan prior to JFK’s death, and McNamara wasn’t one of them. Evidence indicates the only military figures who were fully informed include Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Defense Intelligence Agency chief Gen. Joseph Carroll, and Secretary of the Army Cyrus Vance. Rusk told us he only learned about the coup plan after JFK’s death. Still, Rusk and his subordinates — and other officials — had helped to shape the coup plan while JFK was alive, having been told it was being developed in case the CIA found a powerful Cuban official willing to stage a coup against Castro. That’s why Talbot was in error when he wrote we must “have confused what were contingency plans for a coup in Cuba for the real deal.”
The coup plan was so serious that in the days and weeks before Dallas, Robert Kennedy had a secret committee making plans for dealing with the possible “assassination of American officials” if Castro found out and tried to retaliate. The same people working on those plans were also working on the coup plan and AMWORLD. While Talbot didn’t mention those plans in his review, we did include a Nov. 12, 1963, document from that committee in our excerpt, which Salon was kind enough to run.
Our book cites documents totaling thousands of pages from the National Archives, which we encourage people to view for themselves. A reader of Talbot’s review might get the impression that we pieced together our story of AMWORLD and the “Plan for a Coup in Cuba” from the documents released in the mid- to late 1990s, but that is not correct. Starting in 1990, we were told about the coup plan and the CIA by Dean Rusk and other Kennedy associates, long before any of the documents were released. We made public presentations about the coup plan and the CIA’s role in it beginning in 1993, at historical conferences, on the History Channel, and in Vanity Fair, to draw attention to the documents that remained unreleased. When the coup plan documents finally started being declassified in 1997, they included the same people and phrases (“Plan for a Coup in Cuba”) we’d been using for years.
Talbot says we “take pains to (repeatedly) exonerate the CIA in the killing of Kennedy,” but we present evidence against several CIA personnel that implicates them to some degree in JFK’s assassination. “Ultimate Sacrifice” details how AMWORLD was one way three Mafia bosses — Carlos Marcello of Louisiana (who controlled the rackets in Dallas), Tampa’s Santo Trafficante, and Johnny Rosselli of the Chicago mob — infiltrated the Kennedy coup plan. For example, we quote CIA documents showing that Rosselli’s mob paid $200,000 in August 1963 to one of the Cuban exile leaders for the coup plan and AMWORLD, Tony Varona.
Using the CIA’s own declassified documents, our book exposes Mafia-compromised CIA assets, extensive CIA intelligence failures, unauthorized operations, and the stonewalling of Robert Kennedy and government committees by certain CIA officials — all under the veil of secrecy covering AMWORLD.
The CIA personnel and CIA exile assets whom Talbot himself fingers at the end of his review — Morales, Phillips, Harvey, Varona, Artime — were all the subjects of incriminating new evidence presented in “Ultimate Sacrifice,” and most had major roles in AMWORLD in 1963. Though we also present exculpatory facts where they exist, we present serious evidence against people like David Morales — operations chief of Miami’s huge CIA station in 1963 and close to Rosselli — as well as exile leaders such as Varona and Manuel Artime.
Our focus on Marcello and his allies being behind JFK’s death didn’t originate with us — it came from Robert Kennedy and his associates. It’s well documented that after Robert F. Kennedy learned all he could from several private investigations, RFK told close associates such as Richard Goodwin and Hoffa prosecutor Walter Sheridan that New Orleans godfather Marcello was behind his brother’s death. In 1979, the House Select Committee on assassinations — whose director was a former Mafia prosecutor for RFK — concluded that both Marcello and Trafficante had the motive, means and opportunity to kill JFK. However, since so much was withheld from the committee (including AMWORLD, the “Plan for a Coup in Cuba,” the Tampa assassination attempt four days before Dallas, etc.), they weren’t able to find conclusive proof.
After spending several years reviewing all the theories about the assassination, we were pointed toward a conspiracy led by Marcello, Trafficante, and Rosselli by a knowledgeable Kennedy associate in 1992, and quickly found a huge amount of supporting evidence. In addition to all the documentary evidence, we talked with five attorneys who worked under RFK at the Justice Department, as well as Pierre Salinger, who worked for the Kennedys in the 1950s as a Senate Mafia investigator targeting Marcello. Typical is Ronald Goldfarb, who concluded in his own book about those years “the likelihood [was] that our organized crime program” caused “Marcello and Trafficante to plot an audacious assassination.”
Our book documents the godfathers’ infiltration of the coup plan, and how they linked it to JFK’s assassination in over a dozen ways, from the bullet found in Oswald’s rifle to exile leaders like Varona. Talbot says RFK could have simply explained “the national security concerns in the judge’s chambers” and proceeded with his prosecutions, but it would have been impossible to prosecute — or even extensively investigate — the godfathers’ role without completely exposing the coup and invasion plan. In those tense Cold War times, just a year after the nuclear standoff during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that could have triggered a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets.
RFK tried to prosecute Marcello for other offenses even after JFK’s death, to no avail. The attorney general kept the pressure on Jimmy Hoffa, a close ally of Marcello and Trafficante, and on Rosselli’s Chicago Mafia. But if it had been publicly reported that the attorney general of the United States even suspected the Mafia of his brother’s death, defense attorneys in those cases and many more would have had a field day. Talbot also failed to mention that Marcello, Trafficante and Rosselli all eventually confessed their involvement in JFK’s assassination to associates. Two men who worked with Trafficante and Rosselli — and who documents confirm knew about AMWORLD — also confessed to friends, later in life.
Talbot says we “assert that Bobby blamed only the Mafia (and New Orleans godfather Carlos Marcello in particular) for the death of his brother,” but we also detail RFK’s initial suspicions directed at the CIA. This includes not only RFK asking CIA director John McCone if the CIA killed his brother, but RFK’s statement to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Haynes Johnson that “one of your guys did it,” just hours after JFK’s murder. As the book explains, Johnson was working at the time on a book with Manuel Artime, and CIA files now show Artime was not only involved in AMWORLD but working on the CIA-Mafia plots against Castro (which involved Rosselli, Trafficante and Marcello) and that the CIA had considered using the Mafia as a cover to provide weapons to Artime as part of AMWORLD.
Talbot says he can’t understand “why in the world would organized crime bosses knock off Kennedy just days before he was about to knock off Castro?” As the book explains, the Kennedys tried to exclude the Mafia from any involvement in the coup plan, and any involvement in Cuba after the coup. As our sources told us and documents confirm, the Kennedys’ goal for Cuba was a democracy with “free elections.” Helping to ensure that would be the presence of U.S. troops, so even if the Kennedy coup plan were successful, it would do the Mafia no good.
The Mafia bosses had to kill JFK before the Dec. 1, 1963, coup, because only the top-secret coup plan/AMWORLD could provide the secrecy the Mafia needed to prevent a thorough, public investigation of JFK’s assassination. Plus, Marcello was already on trial by RFK’s men and Rosselli’s Chicago mafia was under attack from RFK and the attorney general had just announced a massive crackdown on Las Vegas, where Rosselli represented the Chicago mob. Rosselli and Marcello weren’t even U.S. citizens, and feared deportation even if they were only convicted of a relatively minor offense. Trafficante’s criminal empire, and his close ally Hoffa, were under constant assault by RFK, so eliminating JFK to end RFK’s war against them had to be the first order of business for the mob bosses. If the Mafia chiefs later wanted to eliminate Castro (which some experts feel Trafficante didn’t want to do), they always had the CIA-Mafia plots to use against Castro, plots they played a major role in, unlike the Kennedys’ coup plan.
By the end of Talbot’s review we don’t seem that far apart in our conclusions, of a conspiracy involving mob godfathers, some CIA personnel, and a few Cuban exiles. Our hope is that all authors, historians and researchers can work to get the remaining million-plus files that we talk about in our book released, and follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)