The Warren Commission Report: 40 Years Later It Still Stands Up

Historians/History




Mr. Ayton is the author of The JFK Assassination: Dispelling The Myths (2002) and Questions of Controversy: The Kennedy Brothers (2001)

Forty years ago this month President Lyndon B. Johnson’s commission to investigate his predecessor’s assassination published the results of its ten-month inquiry. The Warren Commission, named after its chairman ,Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, concluded that President Kennedy had been killed by a lone assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald and there was no evidence of conspiracy. The findings were accepted by a majority of the American public. However, a significant minority greeted the findings with instant skepticism. A public opinion poll immediately afterwards revealed that only a slight majority, 56 percent, accepted the Commission's conclusions. And, within a year of the report’s release two American best-sellers, Mark Lane’s Rush To Judgement and Edward J Epstein’s Inquest, created enough doubt about the Warren Commission’s conclusions to persuade a majority of Americans that the president’s panel had gotten it wrong.

By the beginning of the new century skepticism had turned to incredulity. Opinion polls now showed that around 90 percent of Americans believed that Lee Harvey Oswald was innocent or, at most, he merely assisted in a conspiracy to kill the president.

As the decades progressed the purported plots became labyrinthine in their complexity. The Mafia, the CIA, the military-industrial complex, Texas oilmen, pro-Castro Cubans, anti-Castro Cubans, the KGB, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, Lyndon Johnson, southern racists and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all came under suspicion.

So how did we arrive at this position?

The assassination of JFK had a profound effect on the American public. Before November 22, 1963, Americans held the view that the optimism that JFK engendered would take the United States into a brighter future. After that time many began to question the direction the country was taking and their fears would shortly be realized as the political turmoil of the 60s set in. Even today the effects of the assassination are still imbedded in the national consciousness. More than forty years on many historians acknowledge the assassination was the beginning of the end of American innocence. Furthermore, as the idea of conspiracy grew, the American people began to distrust what their leaders were telling them. A new cynicism took root in the American psyche.

From the start, the fact that a crazed psychotic could have changed the world in a single moment staggered belief. The American public simply could not believe that such a monumental crime could be committed by such a pathetic individual. The probable cause -- Oswald was a self-appointed champion of Castro, as the Warren Commission discovered -- seemed so disproportionate to the consequences.

Another answer lies in how the investigation of Kennedy’s murder was handled by the American government. In the hours following the assassination America’s leaders feared that a public hysteria would demand revenge for the death of the president. At the very least their hopes for détente with the Soviet Union would be dashed. Some believed a world war would be imminent if evidence had been found that the Soviets or Cubans were behind the murder. Although intelligence agencies, using sophisticated methods, confirmed that Kruschev and Castro were not involved, President Johnson was fearful suspicions alone could lead to conflict. The government therefore decided they must convince the public that the president’s death was the work of a lone madman, not of some vast communist conspiracy. In the context of the time this strategy was well intentioned but many leads were ignored or swept under the carpet.

The actions of succeeding American administrations can also explain why the American public became open to persuasion by conspiracy advocates. The American people faced a litany of lies, distortions and half-truths by government agencies during the administrations of Johnson (Vietnam war), Nixon (Watergate) and Reagan (Iran-contra), therefore allegations of a cover-up did not appear unusual or outrageous.

The start of the assassination myths, however, began with the release of the Warren Commission’s 888 page summary report. Although the investigation was large in scope, too many areas of concern were not properly dealt with. Had the Commission carried out a more thorough investigation and demanded complete cooperation from the FBI and CIA, questions about Oswald and his nefarious activities in the weeks leading up to the assassination may have been immediately answered. An opportunity arose to address these charges when Congress re-investigated the assassination in the mid-1970s. If the FBI and CIA had been more forthcoming with the House Select Committee on Assassinations some of the mysteries about Oswald’s connections to government agencies would have been cleared up. Had a full accounting of the information the CIA and Army Intelligence held on Oswald been released to investigatory bodies there would have been little room left for the conspiracy theorists to manouvre.

One of the most important failures of the Warren Commission was in not investigating the possible links between the CIA’s plots to kill Castro and the assassination of the president. Former CIA Director Allen Dulles, a Warren Commission member, failed to tell his colleagues on the Commission or staff investigators about the Castro plots. This knowledge could have given investigators an important lead on Oswald's time in Mexico City in the short period before the assassination. Commission members Richard Russell and Gerald Ford also knew about the CIA’s attempts to kill the Cuban leader. However, if no link existed between Oswald and the Soviet or Cuban governments, they reasoned, there was no reason to inform the staff investigators who wrote the Commission’s report.

The CIA had its reasons for withholding files from the Warren Commission and the House Assassinations Committee. During the Cold War information concerning the electronic bugging and surveillance of the Russian and Cuban embassies in Mexico City was deemed sensitive (as it is to this day). The National Security Agency's capabilities and the methodology of its electronic intercepts are the most highly guarded of secrets. Information gleaned from bugging is protected on the grounds that it may inevitably lead to the discovery of intelligence-gathering methodology or the placement of undercover agents. Even though the CIA files were (and are) central to proving that Oswald was not the agent of a foreign power (or an agent of the CIA, for that matter) they remained partially classified for these reasons.

Blame for the way suspicions were engendered can be shared. The Dallas Police was careless with Oswald; its carelessness led to the assassin’s murder by Jack Ruby. But the police were not conspiratorially involved. The FBI failed in its duty to protect the president and failed to keep Oswald under observation during the presidential visit. They had a file on Oswald which traced his movements back to his time in the Soviet Union. Two weeks before the assassination Oswald marched into the local FBI office in Dallas and created a scene, complaining about the harassment his wife was receiving from its agents who were trying to keep track of the ex-Marine Russian defector.

In this sense the "cover-up" is an historical truth.

The American media can also bear some responsibility for fanning the flames of conspiracy thinking. Following the assassination, every witness, no matter how remote from first-hand knowledge became a 'news-maker'. Being in the national spotlight confused many of them -- seldom did any respond with a 'don't know' answer to media questions. The result was a flood of distortion and misinformation. As Patricia Lambert wrote,"[In 1966 Life magazine]... may have played a greater role in turning the majority of Americans away from the conclusions of the Warren Report than any book written. In those days most of the country still relied heavily on the print media for it's news. LIFE was… an honoured part of the American scene. For an institution as conservative and important to endorse such an idea seemed, in itself, to validate the notion of conspiracy."

Thousands of new documents, released following the enactment of the JFK Records Act in 1992, also show how the Kennedys may have inadvertantly fed the conspiracy machine. Jacqueline Kennedy and the president's brother, Robert Kennedy, asked many of those present at the autopsy to promise not to talk about the procedure for twenty-five years. They feared JFK’s health problems, which he lied about to get elected, may have been revealed. Conspiracy theorists pointed to this wall of silence as "proof" of a continuing cover-up, when in fact the doctors and staff were merely adhering to the wishes of the family. Beyond the autopsy, Robert Kennedy may have worried that the Warren Commission might stumble onto the government's plots to kill Castro. He did not want the Warren Commission investigating Cuba even though the plots had nothing to do with the assassination.

Conspiracies, imagined or otherwise, have endured in part because they are part of the culture of American society. Far reaching and complex conspiracy themes have been the staple diet of Hollywood with movies like The Manchurian Candidate, Conspiracy Theory, The Parallax View, Total Recall and JFK. Even television and the Internet have joined forces to promote sinister and anti-libertarian motives of the United States government. And the enduring popularity of conspiracies makes them a highly lucrative enterprise and vested interests keep the myths alive. Six million visitors a year visit the JFK assassination site where "researchers" peddle books, autopsy pictures and signed "grassy knoll witness" photos. The visitor can experience a virtual Disneyland of assassination themes from limousine rides which trace JFK’s route from Love Field to Dealey Plaza to bus trips which follow Oswald’s escape route. It is a multi-million dollar industry promoting books, videos, CD Roms, t-shirts and even board games. Conspiracy theories have brought the assassination into the world of entertainment.

Conspiracy theories have also taken root because they are part of the American experience and they have been been promoted by idealogues left and right alike. During the 1950s and 1960s conspiracy theorists were generally right-wingers like Joseph McCarthy who saw an America subverted by communists. By the late 60’s to the present it has been the idealists of the left who tended to see America subverted by right-wing conspiracies.

JFK conspiracies have undergone a similar shift. Early targets were the Russians or the Cubans. By the late 1960’s it had become popular to suggest that the president’s death was the result of clandestine groups or agencies which had a natural right-wing bias like the CIA, the Pentagon or right-wing Texas oilmen. Whilst the Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba were busy subverting democracies in Latin America, conspiracy theorists in the United States began to look inward to the subversion of democratic institutions by faceless and powerful groups dedicated to the advancement of American corporations and the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower spoke of. These ideas, as intelligence expert Christopher Andrew and author Max Holland were to discover in the 1990s, were propagated by the Soviet Union’s KGB as part of a strategy to bring about disaffection in the West.

The methodology of the conspiracists has ensured the durability of their preposterous claims. When named individuals were discovered to have been innocent, conspiracy theorists have fallen back on the idea that the government was to blame. The suggested scenarios have been impossible to discredit – a very powerful group of individuals inside officialdom killed the president, a group powerful enough to engage vast legions of workers to cover up the conspiracy. These allegations led Professor Jacob Cohen to criticize “the platoons of conspiracists [who] concertedly scavenged the record, floating their appalling and thrilling ‘might-have-beens,’ unfazed by the contradictions and absurdities in their own wantonly selective accounts, often consciously, cunningly deceitful.”

Even though assassination conspiracy theories have been successfully challenged time after time, and found to be without merit, they have remained very appealing. Conspiracy theories are powerfully seductive, offering mystery and intrigue to the reader. Additionally, a conspiracy with a valid aim suggests control; the psychotic actions of a lone individual suggests chaos. And people are always looking for simple and straightforward answers. Furthermore, conspiracy theories are like the legendary Hydra – cut off one of its heads and a score of others will replace it.

Scientific research, which was not available to the Warren Commission, together with the release of government files, has now established the true circumstances surrounding the assassination, despite the protestations of the conspiracy-minded. All the major issues of the case, which center around the existence of single or multiple assassins, have been successfully addressed by America’s leading scientific and legal experts.

Even though conspiracy advocates continue to insist that a conspiracy killed JFK, the evidence does not support their arguments. No smoking gun from the JFK assassination files has been unearthed. Sophisticated re-enactments of the assassination using state of the art technology (computer models and laser-assisted weaponry) have shown that three shots were fired, all from the direction of the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository where eyewitness Howard Brennan placed Oswald at the time of the shooting. The rifle and the pistol were traced directly to Oswald. Spectographic analysis of photographs purporting to show gunmen on the grassy knoll reveal only light and shadows. Neutron-activation analyses of bullet fragments support the single-bullet theory which was central to the single assassin conclusion. A computer-enhanced version of the Zapruder film has confirmed that Oswald could have fired the shots in the time sequence required. Ballistics experts have testified that Oswald’s rifle was more than adequate for the job. Forensic pathologists and physicists have proven that the backward snap of Kennedy's head is consistent with a shot from the rear. Incontrovertible evidence links Oswald with the murder weapon. And credible eyewitness testimony and circumstantial evidence establishes that Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots which killed President Kennedy. His fleeing the scene of the crime established his "consciousness of guilt." Incontrovertible evidence proves that Lee Harvey Oswald murdered Police Officer Tippit within an hour of shooting President Kennedy..

Researcher Don Thomas’s acoustics research, published in 2001, alleging that more than three shots had been fired, has now been proven to be flawed. Reports of Oswald’s alleged contacts with anti-Castro Cubans, KGB agents, rogue elements of the CIA and Castro’s intelligence agents have been researched fully and found to be the product of guilt by association and gross speculation. The Jim Garrison investigation, made famous by Oliver Stone’s movie JFK, in which the New Orleans District Attorney claimed to uncover the conspiracy behind the assassination, was found to be politically inspired and bogus when his files were opened for scrutiny by the Assassination Records Review Board, which reported the results of its five year investigation of government files in 1998. Books by Gerald Posner and Patricia Lambert revealed how conspiracy advocates, fuelled by a public hooked on conspiracy theories, have continually abused the evidential record. The authors have shown how conspiracy theorists misrepresented the facts of the case through a selective use of witnesses, a presentation of crude scientific opinion about the physical evidence and a steady stream of accusations against government officials which are baseless. Furthermore, over a period of 40 years, documents connected to the case have been proven to be forged (including a fake document forged by the KGB), ‘conspiracy witnesses’ have provided no corroborative evidence and conspiracy authors have accused innocent individuals of involvement in the crime.

Conspiracy advocates have never been able to address many logical aspects of the crime which decisively argue against conspiracy. For example, how could a conspiracy, which would have to involve hundreds if not thousands of people, remain a secret in an age when whistleblowers have succeeded in revealing everything from corruption in government to initiating the impeachment of presidents.

Confusion about motive was at the heart of the Kennedy murder. The Warren Commission failed to decisively conclude that Oswald was anything but a deranged assassin, which left open many avenues for speculation. Yet there was definitely a political motive for Oswald’s actions. He had spent his adolescence and early manhood pursuing a communist dream and searching for some kind of involvement in revolutionary activities. Disillusioned with his time spent in the Soviet Union the young Oswald returned home searching for a new cause. He found it in his hero, Fidel Castro, and began planning a way to help the revolution. As his wife Marina said, “I only know that his basic desire was to get to Cuba by any means and all the rest of it was window dressing for that purpose. ” His friend Michael Paine said Oswald wanted to be an active guerrilla in the effort to bring about a new world order.

During the time he spent in New Orleans he set himself up as an agent provacatuer for the cause and imagined himself as a hero of the revolution. In New Orleans it was common knowledge that anti-Castro exiles had been planning another invasion of Cuba and had also been attempting to kill Castro with the assistance of the CIA. As an avid reader of political magazines and newspapers Oswald could not have failed to see a September 1963 New Orleans newspaper article in which Castro threatened retaliation for attempts on his life. It is plausible Oswald had been inspired by this article.

Oswald’s political ideals remained with him up to the moment of his death at the hands of a Dallas self-appointed vigilante, Jack Ruby. It was inevitable that someone as politically motivated as Oswald would wish to reveal his political sympathies to the world following his arrest for the murder of the president and a Dallas police officer. However, he did not accomplish this by confessing but instead paraded around the Dallas police department giving a clenched-fist salute. Most conspiracy advocates had assumed Oswald had been merely showing his manacled hands to reporters. But two photographs taken that tragic weekend show clearly Oswald’s left-wing salute. His actions were confirmed by Dallas police officer Billy Combest, who accompanied Oswald in the ambulance as he lay dying. According to Combest, Oswald “made a definite clenched-fist salute.”

However, conspiracy advocates continue to muddy the waters with the release of new books to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the assassination and the fortieth anniversary of the release of the Warren Commission’s Report. Engaging in indiscriminate presentations of "fact" and applying a fractured logic they continue to construct false theories. The end result is a narrative of half-truths and speculation "proving" President Johnson and a mixed bag of intelligence agents, military officers, gangsters and police officials conspired to eliminate a supposdly dangerous president. Even the most erudite reader would have to spend a considerable amount of time filtering the information they present, eventually becoming overwhelmed by the masses of esoteric and highly technical data, most of it the work of self-proclaimed experts, who have been ridiculed by the scientific community. Conspiracists are, however, at an advantage in that their use of facts and evidence, which purportedly support their theories, are not easily verifiable. On the other hand books which rightly reject the conspiracy solution to the Kennedy assassination have been relatively unsuccessful because there are no new and real dramatic discoveries.

The true facts cannot now be established with absolute precision. Too many false leads have been sown, too many witnesses have died and the volume of material pertaining to the case can be misinterpreted by anyone who wishes to construct a false story. And time has a way of eroding the truth. However, after forty years of speculation we can now say, for the purposes of historical accuracy, that the fundamental conclusions of the Warren Commission were essentially correct and no evidence has been forthcoming which could decisively point a conspiratorial finger. Nor has any evidence negated the Warren Commission’s argument in establishing Oswald’s guilt.



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