JFK and His Assassin(s):  Book Review of The Tears of Autumn

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2022/03/10/jfk-and-his-assassins-book-review-of-the-tears-of-autumn/

The Tears of Autumn
by Charles McCarry


Everyone has a theory about the assassination of Jack Kennedy. Who planned it? Who was behind it?  Castro and his thugs in Cuba?  The mafia?  The CIA? The Soviet Union? A mentally unstable America-hater?

The Tears of Autumn is a brilliant spy story that offers a believable theory that the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963 was planned and executed by the family of  South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.

The book is one of the great spy thrillers of all time. It was written by Charles McCarry (1930-2019), a native of western Massachusetts who spent more than a decade as a deep cover U.S. Central Intelligence Agency operative in Europe, Africa, and Asia. His knowledge and description of spy tradecraft – how intelligence agencies actually conduct their business – is riveting.

The reader quickly realizes that McCarry is describing how the intelligence agencies actually operate. For example, who knew that CIA operatives – the lowliest and most senior alike – were given polygraph tests annually, called in the vernacular “fluttering”? (The idea is to make sure that their loyalty is still to America and they have not been seduced by the opposition or been compromised by their personal demons.) McCarry also shows us how codes are transmitted, and how money is transferred.

McCarry’s seven spy stories featuring the fictional character Paul Christopher are at least equal to Alan Furst’s superb novels set in Europe between 1933 and 1945 and Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series set in the 1970s and later. McCarry’s stories mainly take place from 1960 to 1980 during the Cold War, but also delve back into the days of Germany during the Third Reich, as Christopher’s mother was German and abducted by the Nazis.

Like so many of the CIA operatives of the early Cold War period, Paul Christopher is a World War II veteran and a graduate of Harvard. He is descended on his father’s side from Yankee colonial stock. He is one of the best and brightest recruited into the CIA to help America counter Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 threat to “bury” the West.

Christopher is a CIA singleton – an agent who operates alone and goes where he is needed to solve high-level problems. The Tears of Autumn begins in October 1963. Christopher is working in South Vietnam and Thailand; the war is going badly for the South Vietnamese. And the talk on the street is that President Diem and his powerful and ruthless brother Nhu are fed up with the U.S. presence and are thinking of reaching out to Ho Chi Minh and the other Communist leaders in North Vietnam.

Christopher has an apartment in Rome and is living with a beautiful Australian girl, Molly, following his divorce from his lovely wife, Cathy, who can’t stand his long absences on CIA business around the world. Christopher is disgusted by America’s complicity in the coup that ousted President Diem and his brother Nhu.

(Real-life facts:  President Kennedy and his team of the “best and brightest” knew about the plans to bring President Diem down and tacitly supported the plot, although they were not aware of and did not sanction the assassination of Diem and Nhu that followed.)

Twenty-two days after the brothers are killed, President Kennedy is assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. Christopher through his many South Vietnamese contacts gets an inkling that Diem’s and Nhu’s family might have set into motion the plan to take revenge on the American president.

In a critical meeting in Rome with one of the Diem/Nhu families cousins, Christopher is told the key to the narrative [in French]:  “Ils cracheront de leur tombes.” Translation:  “They would spit out of their graves.” In other words, the Diem family will take their revenge from their graves.

When Christopher relates his theory and suspicions to his CIA superiors who report it to the Johnson White House, he is pilloried. No one wants to pursue this story line. In fact, Christopher is forced to resign to seek the truth and is hounded by his own government while doing so.

Christopher is largely on his own, though he gets some help along the way from CIA colleagues who treasure him as a loyal and outstanding agent. His journey takes him from Paris and Rome to Washington, then Saigon, then Geneva, and finally to Leopoldville in the Congo. The story brings to life not just spycraft but also local culture. One of the great delights of The Tears of Autumn is that in each place the main character goes the author knows the great restaurants, hotels, and cultural landmarks so well that he almost puts the reader there.

The author also knows Vietnamese culture and society. Among Vietnamese, family is vital. Powerful families have a Truong toc – a senior member of the family whose responsibility is to maintain the strength, blood, and longevity of the family. Christopher learns about the importance of the Truong toc and visits the Diem/Nhu family Truong toc in Saigon. Surviving several attempts on his life by Truong toc agents, he begins to understand how the Diem/Nhu family could have planned and brought about the Kennedy assassination.

In the novel, one of Castro’s key agents was apparently trained in spycraft and guerilla warfare in North Vietnam in 1963, working through intermediaries. He was then sent to the Congo, where Cuban soldiers and intelligence agents were working to advance the Communist cause. In some fascinating chapters about intelligence work in the Congo in the early 1960s, Christopher learns how Lee Harvey Oswald was recruited in Mexico City in September and October 1963 by Communist agents who were sent by the Vietnamese Truong toc. The rest is history.

Whether this scenario is true or not, nobody knows. But the book is a superbly written spy thriller.

There are six other Paul Christopher spy novels; after reading The Tears of Autumn, I read them all. What a joy.

Do yourself a favor and sit down with a glass of single malt scotch or a good glass of wine and take up The Tears of Autumn or another of Paul McCarry’s great novels. You will enjoy every moment.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $6 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.


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