David Kaiser

David Kaiser

David Kaiser, the son of a diplomat, was born on 7th June, 1947. He attended Harvard University and graduated with a B.A. in history in 1969. He obtained a PhD in history in 1976.

Kaiser, who has taught at Carnegie Mellon University, Williams College, and Harvard University, is currently Professor in the Strategy and Policy Department of the Naval War College.

He is the author of Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler (1990), and American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (2000).

In 2008 Kaiser published The Road to Dallas. In the book Kaiser argues that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. However, he claims that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was organized by Santo Trafficante, John Roselli, and Sam Giancana as revenge for the attempts made by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to persecute Mafia leaders.

Primary Sources

(1) Gideon Rose, New York Times Book Review (2000)

Kaiser has worked his way through the archives and emerged with an impressive account of what he terms 'the greatest policy miscalculation in the history of American foreign relations.' The book is a detailed narrative of the war-related decisions of the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations, tracing American involvement from the late 1950's to the dispatch of ground troops in 1965. All the familiar elements of the story are here - the early crisis in Laos , the hapless military advisory mission, the choices of 1964-65 that Americanized the war - along with some new tidbits as well, like a transcript of John F. Kennedy's private post-mortem on the 1963 coup against the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem.

(2) Kai Bird, Washington Post Book World (2000)

His historiographical argument is sure to antagonize the military establishment, the CIA, surviving key policymakers like William Bundy and McNamara, anti-war critics on the left, defenders of the American commitment to fight Asian communism--and even some of his fellow historians... Kaiser is spectacularly persuasive in placing nuclear weapons at the pregnant center of the Joint Chiefs' assumptions in Vietnam. There were indeed 'wild men waiting in the wings,' as McGeorge Bundy later put it, ready to invade North Vietnam with tactical nuclear weapons. And that would have even been an even greater disaster than what happened. It is in this light that Kaiser's book is an invaluable contribution to the on-going task of peeling back further layers of the history.

(3) Jonathan Mirsky, New York Review of Books (2000)

What Professor Kaiser exposes fully is the early American preparation for nuclear war in Southeast Asia and, if necessary, with China. Skeptics may dismiss this as mere contingency planning, but the Joint Chiefs went beyond preparing for a contingency to advocacy; and Kaiser shows how superiors were willing to go along with them... Kaiser's theme throughout his fascinating but depressing study is that the main actors, defying expert knowledge, could not see that their project was doomed and never defined their ultimate objectives apart from keeping Hanoi from winning.

(4) Paul Rosenberg, Denver Post (2000)

As revisionists continue their hallucinatory attempts to re-write Vietnam as another WWII - if only we had had the will to win - careful scholarship is deepening our understanding of very different, painful story, from which wisdom to shape a better future still might come, giving belated meaning and significance to the lives of those who died there for other men's folly. American Tragedy is a landmark of such scholarship, and of the struggle to redeem something of value from the most wantonly destructive episode of our history in the past 50 years.

(5) Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Education (19th March, 2008)

Harvard University Press has just issued a book promulgating a JFK assassination conspiracy theory.

Let’s put that sentence on the chalkboard and underscore the anthropologically interesting aspects of the situation, shall we? Harvard University Press has just issued a book promulgating a JFK assassination conspiracy theory.

Within the continuum of any given culture, there is what the structuralists used to call the combinatoire – the underlying grid of distinctions and exclusions, an implicit directory of what goes with what (and, just as important, what doesn’t). So the appearance of The Road to Dallas: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by David Kaiser counts, arguably, as something more than a piece of publishing news. That, too. But we may be talking here about something like a mutation in the cultural genome.

That said, the book’s argument does not exactly qualify as a paradigm shift. Kaiser, who is a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College and the author of two earlier books published by Harvard, argues that Lee Harvey Oswald pulled the trigger as a result of machinations within “a complex network of relationships among mobsters, hit men, intelligence agents, Cuban exiles, and America’s Cold War foreign policy.” To make this case, Kaiser examines an enormous mass of documents that have been declassified since 1992. “Hundreds of books on the Kennedy assassination have appeared,” he writes, “but this is the first one written by a professional historian who has researched the available archives.” Perhaps, but it is also a variation on certain familiar themes.

For an academic to take a deep interest in JFK conspiracy theories is unusual but hardly unprecedented. One of the very first books in the genre was Six Seconds in Dallas: A Micro-Study of the Kennedy Assassination (1967), the work of a philosopher named Josiah Thompson, who later achieved tenure at Haverford College on the basis of his scholarly work concerning Soren Kierkegaard’s existentialist writings. In the mid-1970s, Thompson turned his back on academic life and became a private detective. As career changes go, it seems the stuff of daydreams.

Over the decade following Thompson’s pioneering “micro-study,” research into JFK conspiratology turned into an almost professionalized field of inquiry – even if those pursuing it tended to be amateurs, not to say hobbyists. By the late 1970s, eager new conspiracy theorists were warned by their elders not to try to master the entire discipline. Instead, they should choose some overlooked corner of the assassination (“who was Oswald’s landlady really?” perhaps) and become the recognized expert on it. Sound familiar?

“Publish or perish” seems to have kicked in as well. So I discovered in 1991 while working as an archival technician at the Library of Congress. The extent of the LC’s holdings can be overwhelming to confront – more than 500 miles of shelves, with books overflowing them and accumulating in the aisles. The stacks can induce an experience that feels rather like what Kant called “the mathematical sublime.” This is the feeling of being shaken by the sheer magnitude of a natural phenomenon that is far more enormous than anything you can quite wrap your mind around. Trying to imagine just how vast a galaxy must be, given that we fill just one small part of a single solar system, for example, gives a taste of the mathematical sublime.

By that standard, perhaps, the library stacks are not quite cosmically mindblowing. Still, it’s probably for the best that they are off limits to the public, which might otherwise wander them in a total daze.

After a while, you learn out the bookish sublime. But I blundered right into another version of it one day, thanks to an aisle located on one floor loaded with U.S. history titles. One end of the aisle was dominated by the original edition of the complete Warren Commission Report. This was for many years the mother lode of all debate and conjecture on the Kennedy assassination. It runs to 26 volumes, and there were two full sets. The spines told of heavy use.

They were an impressive sight. But more overwhelming was the next row of books – and the row after that, then the row after that. Volume after volume (running to the hundreds) lingered over the events of that day in November 1963, analyzing every aspect of the event you could imagine, and some you probably couldn’t. Overlooked suspects were named. Their means, motives, and opportunities were documented at length. The official account was refuted, again and again; and the theorists debunked one another, as well.

It was hard to take in, not just how prolific the conspiracy people were, but how thoroughly their attention had absorbed every possible detail from the record – extracting meanings from it, but diverse and contradictory meanings. Each fact fed several interpretations. Every interpretation generated suspicion. Which meant, in turn, more research and theorizing – more facts, and more analysis, and more suspicion. The question of who killed JFK, and why, was clearly inexhaustible. Or at least the passion for reopening the question was. It seemed bottomless, like an abyss.

This was scholarship, of a kind. But it tended not be cumulative. No synthesis could ever reconcile all of the arguments, or even most of them. (Only the intrepid reporters at The Onion have ever come close.) The conspiracy researchers formed a community, yet their theories were monads.

Later, I found out that Josiah Thompson had published a book about Soren Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous writings on faith and solitude at the very same time his Six Seconds in Dallas appeared. The title of his monograph was The Lonely Labyrinth – a really perfect description, too, of the world within those hundreds of JFK volumes.

How is it that the latest gallery within the labyrinth is a book published by Harvard University Press? Why did one of the country’s most distinguished scholarly publishers decide to contribute to a genre that has flourished mainly on the cultural margins for almost five decades?

This line of inquiry interested me a lot more than the one pursued by David Kaiser in The Road to Dallas. I mean no disrespect to the author. His previous works of scholarship – a macrohistorical account of European warfare and a study of American policy during the Vietnam conflict – have been well received by his colleagues. And The Road to Dallas is a sober book, with none of the fervid whirligigs of logic found in some other titles in the field, even by academics.

But it is a work of conspiracy theory, all the same. It follows some of the familiar protocols of the genre. Kaiser examines documents that were released in the wake of Oliver Stone’s “JFK” – a film he calls irresponsible, but important for creating pressure on the government to declassify thousands of records. And there is the standard “Cui bono?” clincher. Who benefited? For Stone, it was LBJ and the military-industrial complex. For Kaiser, the answer is equally clear: “The killing of President Kennedy, followed by the resignation less than a year later of Robert Kennedy as attorney general, seriously curtailed the government’s effort to clean up organized crime – as it was intended to do.”

But the idea that some new mass of evidence will solve the mystery once and for all is what has kept the whole conspiratological process going all these years. Finality is not the name of this game. New charges of concealment will always double back upon any supposed revelation. “The Central Intelligence Agency has nothing to do with Kennedy’s assassination,” wrotes Kaiser, despite its extensive involvement with both organized crime and its attempts to kill Fidel Castro (or at very least deprive him of the power associated with his beard). You can imagine how other conspiracy theorists, academic or otherwise, will pick over that argument – especially given that the author is a professor at the Naval War College.

So, again, how did Harvard University Press end up giving its imprimatur to a work embedded in this particular (and rather off-beat) discursive formation? It was once the case that JFK conspiracy books tended to be self-published, or sold by presses specializing in exotica. Certainly the vast majority of those from the 1970s and ‘80s that I saw on the shelves at the Library of Congress were. Commercial publishers have issued a few, given the niche market.

(6) Roman Modrowski, Chicago Sun-Times ( (23rd March, 2008)

There have been so many analyses, fantasies and theories devoted to the assassination of John F. Kennedy that anything purporting itself as a fresh perspective runs the risk of suffocation. Anything less than a smoking gun -- or two -- will cause many casual readers to shrug with the frustration that they've heard it all before.

The Road to Dallas (Belknap Press, 536 pages, $35), written by David Kaiser, tries to preempt that shrug by billing itself as the first book written on the subject by a professional historian who has pored over the volumes of recently declassified information.

Kaiser, a history professor at the Naval War College, not only reports on what he has researched, but at times he takes an active role in contacting pertinent subjects in the declassified material.

The result is a thorough recounting of facts interspersed with interpretations and opinions that carry the weight of someone who knows how to analyze history. The Road to Dallas is laboriously comprehensive at times and shockingly illuminating at others. It may not prove the conspiracy it suggests -- that while Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman he wasn't alone in planning the assassination -- but it provides unusual substance to its argument because of the nature of the material and the background of the author.

Kaiser isn't the first to suggest JFK was assassinated by a conspiracy of anti-Castro Cubans upset at Kennedy's failure to eliminate Fidel Castro and a Mafia enraged by the obsession of JFK's attorney general, his brother Robert Kennedy, to attack organized crime. But Kaiser may be the first to reach the depth of reporting the facts that support this theory.

The book is full of anecdotes that will make many wonder why these facts weren't reported before, or at least reported on a more mainstream level. It opens with three men visiting a Cuban woman -- Silvia Odio -- in Dallas in early October 1963. Odio testified that one of the men was Oswald, while the other two were believed to be American anti-Castro mercenaries Loran Hall and Lawrence Howard. Hall had spent time in a Cuban prison with Florida mob boss Santo Trafficante Jr., who owned several Havana casinos before Castro's rise to power. During their time in prison, Trafficante was visited by Jack Ruby.

The intermingling of key players in Kaiser's conspiracy theory, including Jimmy Hoffa and his alliance with the mob, allows him to connect the dots to effectively argue that Oswald did not act alone.

It was amazing to learn about the vast number of assassination plots and attempts against Castro that were conceived, encouraged or at least winked at by the U.S. government. Some of them were comical, such as a plan to employ exploding seashells and a poisoned diving suit. The incompetence of the endeavors was nearly as acute as the audacity.

Lyndon Johnson, as well as others, assumed Castro played a role in JFK's assassination.

The U.S. government's willingness to employ mob help to get rid of Castro while at the same time Robert Kennedy was trying to crack down on organized crime reflected the firewalls that existed between government agencies before 9/11.

Kaiser uncovered several quotes by people such as Hoffa calling for John Kennedy to be assassinated. Hoffa's mob associates relied on the money stolen from Hoffa's Teamsters Union, so many powerful and dangerous people suffered by RFK's personal quest to bring down Hoffa. The Kennedy administration was an enemy to many.

It would be hard to imagine anyone but Kennedy assassination scholars and historians not learning something new in Kaiser's book. For fans of Oliver Stone's movie "JFK" (1991) and JFK assassination junkies, the book is the latest -- and perhaps best -- view of the historic event.

(7) Karl Helicher, Library Journal (March 2008)

A scrupulously researched account, which may be one of the best books yet on the assassination... Kaiser posits that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman although he did not act alone: the murder plot was hatched by Mafia bosses Santo Trafficante, John Roselli, and Sam Giancana as revenge for Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's relentless pursuit of the mob and for the vast sums of money they lost when Castro closed Cuba's mobcontrolled casinos.

(8) David Kaiser, The Road to Dallas (2008)

The murder of John F Kennedy emerged from two overlapping zones of illegality: American organized crime, which was defending itself against Robert Kennedy's relentless attack, and the U.S government-sponsored or tolerated anti-Castro movement. Illegality and secrecy go together, but enough information emerged both before and after the assassination to trace the essence of the organized crime conspiracy.

The most direct evidence points to Santo Trafficante, because of his connections to John Martino, who had advance knowledge of the plot, and to Loran Hall, who was evidently with Oswald at Silvia Odio's house and who spoke of protecting Trafficante in 1976-77. Trafficante's own lawyer, Frank Ragano, confirmed his boss's involvement and described giving encouragement from Jimmy Hoffa to both Trafficante and Carlos Marcello in the spring of 1963. Marcello bragged about his role at least twice. He was even more threatened by the government than Trafficante was, with deportation hanging over his head. Oswald and his family had lifelong connections with Marcello's mob, including David Ferrie, Oswald's Uncle Dutz Murret, and Guy Banister, who was working for Marcello by the summer of 1963.

Sam Giancana had also been fighting tremendous pressure from the government for three years and had spoken frequently about it. Jack Ruby's calls to Chicago mob figures such as Barney Baker and Irwin Weiner in the months before the assassination suggest that Giancana might have been involved in the conspiracy as well, as do the disinformation activities of his well-connected henchman, Richard Cain. Ruby had connections to all three of the most likely mob conspirators. He had visited Trafficante in jail in Cuba in 1959 and was still in touch with Trafficante's old friend Lewis McWillie. He had grown up with Giancana's Chicago mob and still kept up with some of its members. And he now operated strip clubs in Dallas, which appears to have been a subsidiary branch of Marcello's New Orleans empire. All three of these hoodlums knew that Jimmy Hoffa's endorsement of their enterprise could prove useful. And John Roselli, although he cannot be linked directly to the assassination itself, worked closely with Giancana and Trafficante in the anti-Castro plots, and he indicated many times to Edward Morgan and Jack Anderson that there was more to the assassination of President Kennedy than Lee Harvey Oswald. He evidently was murdered in 1976 because he knew too much.

Where did these men find the audacity to kill a president of the United States? G. Robert Blakey and Richard Billings speculated convincingly in the 1970s that John Kennedy, because he accepted women as favors through Frank Sinatra (and perhaps in other contexts as well), had lost the immunity from retaliation that truly incorruptible public officials generally enjoyed. By enlisting these very mob leaders to assassinate Fidel Castro in 1960, the CIA had inevitably "weakened any inhibition about killing a head of government In addition, Robert Kennedy's campaign against the mob-fought with every available weapon, and without many of the legal tools that later became available fell outside traditional rules as well. The attorney general indicted suspected mobsters for any offense, no matter how trivial. When he discovered in 1962 that he could not indict Giancana because of his CIA connection, he pushed the FBI surveillance of him even harder. All these men knew that Hoffa's comment about the attorney general - that Robert Kennedy would not rest until Hoffa was behind bars was true for them as well. These were desperate times that called for desperate measures.

That many anti-Castro Cubans, including one that had contact with Oswald, had very strong negative feelings about President Kennedy is also clear, but only a few pieces of evidence implicate any of them in the assassination itself. The first is the Rose Cheramie story of the two men who drove her from Miami to Louisiana on their way to Dallas to take part in the assassination, but there is no proof that they Were Cuban. The second is Tony Cuesta's reported identification of Sandalio Herminio Diaz and Eladio del Valle as having been present in Dallas on November 22, but that cannot be confirmed. And the last is the tip the Dallas sheriff received after the assassination about meetings between Cubans and Oswald on Harlandale Avenue, a key lead that was never pursued.

Lee Harvey Oswald did kill President Kennedy all by himself. If someone fired a shot from the grassy knoll, he missed. The mob and the anti-Castro Cubans were part of a much broader nationwide network of right-wing activists, anti-Communists operating privately or within congressional committees, conservative businessmen like William Pawley and H. L. Hunt, and a few paramilitaries like the Minutemen. Many if not all of these men regarded the Kennedys as a mortal threat to America as they understood it. Pawley was close to John Martino, and Hunt reportedly subsidized Martino's book tour and was in touch with him through his security chief, former FBI agent Paul Rothermel. But the only evidence that suggests such elements were directly involved in the assassination is Loran Hall's unconfirmed story of being offered $100,000 to kill Kennedy in Dallas in the summer of 1963.

Nothing suggests that the CIA was involved in the assassination.

(9) William E. Kelly, The Road to Dallas (29th April, 2008)

The road to Dallas, like the road to 9/11, is full of pot holes, pitfalls, dead ends and misdirected sign posts, yet David Kaiser manages to steer a clear course towards his preconceived goal, that President Kennedy was the victim of rogue mobsters and a few Cubans with no direct ties to the CIA.

A well crafted, easy read, David Kaiser's The Road To Dallas - The Assassination of John F. Kennedy (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London, 2008) places the assassination in its proper context - within the Cuba, mob and CIA matrix.

Because Kaiser is an eminent historian, and Belknap/Harvard is a highly respected press, his conclusion that the President was killed by a conspiracy of mobsters and renegade Cubans (without any help from the CIA) is still a radical departure for both mainstream history and reputable publishers.

Although this is not the first book on the touchy subject of the JFK assassination by an historian (See: Michael Kurtz, Prof. McKnight), it is certainly more controversial (See McAdams, Holland "Road to Nowhere" at Washingtondecoded.com), and is an important addition to the library of JFK assassination literature.

Rather than disuade other academically inclined historians from venturing into the JFK assassination realm, I applaud David Kaiser for making Dealey Plaza an historical destination, though I think he issued his attributive judgement a bit prematurely.

One of the problems with addressing the JFK assassination as history is the fact that the murder of the President is not yet history, but still an unsolved homicide.

In even treating it as history before all the cards are on the table only hedges the bets as to how this thing will eventually play out.

At first, when I learned Kaiser was affiliated with the Naval War College and Harvard Press, I thought that he might have used his connections to get access to Lee Harvey Oswald's ONI records, or his Harvard ties to ferrett out the role of the Harvard Russian Research Institute in monitoring Oswald in Russia. But alas, neither issue is even delt with by Kaiser, who devotes all of a few paragraphs to Oswald's time behind the iron curtain, and focuses more on Kennedy and the mob and Oswald and the Cubans.

In stepping backwards to embrace organized crime as the culpret, Kaiser may be reaching too far, though he puts many of the key players on the game board and accurately designates their roles. The most important aspects of what he has to say however, are not his conclusions, which can be shown to be false, but the tidbits he provides and questions he raises that support the need to have a full national security review of what really happend in Dallas.