Having lived through the assassination of President John F. Kennedy half a century ago — a defining moment for America, especially so for those few of us remaining survivors who were part of his administration — its meaning remains a fixation about which honest commentators and historians differ. The recent 50th anniversary of that awful event generated endless books and media remembrances, along with speculations by historians and pundits. I’ve read much of the literature, contributed my own musings, and certainly understand that the time may never come when a unanimous verdict is reached about who killed our president, and why.
But sometimes fiction gets closer to truth than do “facts,” whatever THEY are. I’ve returned to Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn, a 1974 novel reissued in 2005 as a classic, by a former CIA agent, then editor, now novelist, and, in my judgment, if not the best, one of Washington’s best authors. I read this book on the subject of the assassination years ago and was blown away by the rich literary quality of McCarry’s writing and intrigued by the persuasiveness of his unique speculation.
McCarry’s thesis in The Tears of Autumn is that the U.S. government, brokered by the White House, oversaw the coup of Ngo Dinh Diem that resulted in his death and generated the retaliatory assassination of John F. Kennedy. They used go-betweens with Cuba and the mafia to recruit Oswald and Ruby. While I don’t agree with his thesis, it is so well presented, and employs so many facts that ARE true, that readers might conclude McCarry had it right. Depending, as one ex-president might have said, on how you define “right.”
There is little evidence, only fascinating literature by McCarry, that the Vietnamese ordered John F. Kennedy killed in revenge for his administration’s killing of Diem and his brother Nhu. But there is evidence that the U.S. government’s mischief in Vietnam, particularly regarding its role in the killing of its then president, led to the precedent of assassination.
McCarry’s main point about our government intruding in Vietnam’s is endorsed by the Pentagon Papersstudy’s conclusion that President Kennedy “knew and approved of plans for the military coup d’état that overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.”
McCarry spins his theory through the adventures of his hero, Paul Christopher, a CIA veteran in many of his books, with special skills and style, all present in The Tears of Autumn. Christopher’s revelation about Kennedy’s murder comes early in the book, in a passage that reveals McCarry’s literary style and Christopher’s unique gift of logic.
“His senses remembered everything, he forgot nothing. Experience and information joined in the brain to provide explanations. It was like writing the first draft of a poem: words formed on the page without passing through the conscious mind…He saw the messages being passed, saw the looks in the eyes of the conspirators…felt their sense of triumph like an electrical charge between them. He himself had been a part of such scenes…He wondered why it had taken him so long to realize the truth.
“Christopher had seen many men die for politics, and he knew that politics was merely the excuse their murderers used. Men killed not for an idea but because they could not live with a personal injury. Now he made the simple connection between the injury and the President’s violent death. He understood the motive perfectly…they had received an insult.”
Patrick Anderson, the Washington, DC-based novelist and nonfiction author who reviews crime novels for the Washington Post, suggested that The Tears of Autumn “is one of the great spy novels,” filled with “insights into the world of spies and assassinations” and done with “silken prose” and graceful writing. Anderson’s book The Triumph of the Thriller makes the case that, in recent years, the best thrillers have been elevated from genre fiction to great literature. I agree, and The Tears of Autumn is the best example of this.
I think that while McCarry had the JFK assassination story wrong, his book nonetheless demonstrates the power of great literature. Truth may be stranger than fiction, as the saying goes, but in The Tears of Autumn, Charles McCarry demonstrates that fine fiction may get closer to a deep — if not factual — truth.
Rereading books is something I rarely do, but with this book, at this time, one can’t experience a better read. Nor should readers ignore the lesson of The Tears of Autumn: that America should not be participating in or engendering assassinations of foreign presidents, if not for moral reasons, then for self-defensive ones, as history has proven.
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Washington, DC, was once strictly a government town, so it’s no surprise that its hundreds of monuments are of politicians and generals. But it is more than that kind of city now, and one wishes there might be some monument honoring a different breed of emblematic hero; artists and literary stars, for example. While Washington is very much a writer’s city, its monuments to literary stars are few and inadequate. Longfellow and Kahlil Gibran have been memorialized, and I can think of others from another age, like Walt Whitman. Perhaps in the future, this honor will belong to some authors at work today. I can think of one.
Ronald Goldfarb’s column, CapitaLetters, appears regularly in the Washington
Independent Review of Books.