Friday, April 2, 2010

Our Man in Mexico

Morley, Jefferson. Our man in Mexico : Winston Scott and the hidden history of the CIA. Foreword by Michael Scott. Lawrence : University Press of Kansas, 2008.

The Mexico connection 
In the 1940s and 1950s a different kind of noir engulfed the U.S. and the entire Western world -- the specter of the Cold War, with all its attendant Red Scare paranoia and uncertainty. Because of its strategic pole position in the Cold War sweepstakes, Mexico came in for special attention from both sides. This was due mostly to Mexico’s status as gateway to Latin America as well as its proximity to Cuba. With the U.S. government’s near-pathological concern over Leftist uprisings in the Americas, it’s not difficult to see why Mexico City achieved such prominence.

The hero of our story is Winston Scott, CIA career officer, eventual Mexico City station chief, and a man of surprising shadings and complexities [1]. A strict taskmeister on the job but a coddling father at home, Scott had a picaresque temperament which metamorphosed into a certain suave, business-like exterior which served him well in his diplomatic cover. The downside was a predilection for inconvenient romantic entanglements which seemed to inspire the dreamy poetry he wrote during off-hours. A good soldier and true believer who was entrusted with the most sensitive assignment in the Western hemisphere, he nonetheless was left out of the loop by his Washington masters on matters relating to JFK's assassination, and he eventually came to have considerable doubts about the agency [2]. Tellingly, his memoirs, unpublished at the time of his death, were considered so potentially explosive that legendary spymaster James Angleton rushed to Mexico City only a few days after Scott’s death to whisk away the originals plus any copies, taking them back to Washington for safe keeping. Even today, four decades later, they’ve not seen the light of day [3].

Not quite conspiracist

Thus, on one level the book is a straightforward narrative of Scott’s life and colorful career, with especially good coverage of his years in Britain in WWII and his acquaintance with one Kim Philby. It also gives us a good flavor of social and political life in Mexico City the 50s and 60s (“Casablanca of the Cold War”). But the centerpiece of the story is of course Lee Harvey Oswald’s visit to Mexico City in late September and early October of 1963 [4]. The two oustanding issues raised by the book seem to be the CIA's advance, pre-assassination knowledge of Oswald generally, and in particular the degree to which the Mexico office was or was not involved in monitoring his activities there. There’s lots of facts to ponder and dots to connect, but the evidence – as ever, maddeningly incomplete and fragmentary – suggests more than it delivers. Lots of good stuff, but no smoking guns [5]. But even with these imperfections, Our Man in Mexico makes a substantial contribution to JFK assassination studies and will give historians and general readers plenty to chew over.

[1] Not so surprisingly, considering his line of work, Scott ultimately remains a mystery and enigma.
[2] Scott’s misgivings about the agency were primarily regarding its organization and management style, not necessarily its philosophy or mission. In this respect he was a true believer to the end.
[3] To be sure, about one half of Scott’s memoirs have been released publically. The only complete copies of the original manuscript, however, remain at CIA headquarters. 

[4] An alternate, conspiracist version of the events - not necessarily endorsed by Morley - posits that the man who visited Mexico City was an Oswald double or impersonator. 
[5] In a recent article on the subject, author Morely seems to lean toward a conspiracist interpretation.

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