Joan Mellen is a professor of English and creative writing at Temple University, who has produced very little having to do with literature. Instead, she has focused her energies on exposing CIA criminality, specifically regarding the John F. Kennedy Assassination. As evidenced in three books — A Farewell To Justice: Jim Garrison; Our Man in Haiti, and The Great Game in Cuba — she reveals that she has never the left the mindset of the late 1960s, when the New Left regarded the CIA as a draconian secret government with its tentacles into every avenue of American life.
How is one to explain this sudden shift from penning award-winning biographies of writers, the best of which is her expose of the real relationship between Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, to the conspiracy school of history? Mellen’s desperation may spring from how the post 9/11 populace has largely shed its view of the CIA as a sinister organization and instead has wanted its “dark techniques” unleashed on terrorism (polls show support for waterboarding and for the government allowing the agency to take its gloves off in the War on Terror).
Hence she has become a publish mill on the evils of the CIA, the purpose of which is to provide a history lesson for those unaware of the CIA’s activities in the early 1960s, when it was partnering up with the mob to kill Fidel Castro. In one book she focuses on the supposed “best friend” of Lee Harvey Oswald, the decidedly odd George De Morenschedt. Morrenschendt had ties to a variety of intelligence agencies (even perhaps Nazi intelligence) and even Norman Mailer, who concluded that Oswald acted alone, regarded him as tied to the CIA. There is certainly strong evidence that De Morenschendt was working for some agency as he was often expelled from other countries for sketching military installations. By his own admission, he was asked by a CIA agent named J. Walton Moore to meet Lee Harvey Oswald for a friendly debriefing.
But if De Morenschendt was indeed, in Mellen’s words, a highly placed CIA agent, then he is not a good advertisement for the quality of its spies. Because of his loud support for the Nazis one minute and the Soviets the next, the CIA would complain that his work for them was “an open secret in Dallas.” That this was not some sort of cover was evidenced by De Morenschendt praising communism to a fellow agent. The agent concluded that he was “dangerous” and “unstable” but they also, according to Mellen, kept him on the payroll.
In the second “expose” of the CIA, The Great Game In Cuba, the agency is an infallible force. Like Oliver Stone, she highlights the partnership between Texas oilmen and the CIA, but with a twist. A Texas oilman named Robert J. Kleberg, owner of the King Ranch — the largest in the world — badgers the CIA to oust Castro when the Cuban dictator appropriates his Cuban satellite ranch. But the agency is such a control freak that it will not oust Castro if it means having a new government it cannot dominate. Thus, it tells Kleberg one thing (it wants Castro out), while doing another (it intentionally sabotages any operations to topple him).
But her proof that the CIA deliberately sabotaged Operation Mongoose is scant at best. She bases her entire argument on counterinsurgency expert Colonel Edward Lansdale warning the CIA that the Bay of Pigs is going to fail, and CIA head Allen Dulles hushing him up. Thus, according to Mellen, the agency knows beforehand that the anti-Castro Cubans are heading into a meat grinder, but green lights the invasion in the hopes it will embarrass their opponent JFK.
Mellon cannot entertain the possibility that the CIA’s plots to kill Castro (exploding cigars, toxic scuba suits, beard-destroying drugs) were the last word in musical comedy. Her CIA who kills presidents and most importantly defies big business cannot must not be capable of prat falls.
To her credit, Mellon doesn’t portray JFK as a dove, nor Castro a democratic ruler. Unlike Stone, she asserts that the Kennedy brothers were trying to kill Castro, and that Castro was a tyrant who suspended habeas corpus as early as 1959. But these portrayals only bolster her thesis. JFK is murdered not for being a dove on Cuba, but because he was trying to kill Castro independently of the agency. Castro is allowed to stay in power because a revolution based on popular support might be hard for the agency to control.
But Mellon will not compromise on her thesis. In reality, the CIA may have gone ahead with the doomed invasion in the hopes that Kennedy would authorize a full scale one backed by obvious US involvement. And their failures to kill Castro might have been because they were inept. Nothing since has revealed them to be the hyper-capable super villains of Mellen’s conception. They were not able to stop the 9/11 attacks (provided that they weren’t, in Mellen’s world, deliberately failing for some motivation involving control, or the lack thereof of George W. Bush) or locate Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
By granting their failures as deliberate, and their prowess superhuman, Mellen is the best publicist for the agency. Her books are an exercise in the fallacy of believing that “history is made at night” and that those who make it never make mistakes.