There is no better example of Americans’ chronic suspicion of their government than the fate of the Warren Commission Report, released 45 years ago this week.
President Johnson requested a President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy within weeks of the shooting. Months later, the Commission presented its report which confirmed the official version offered by the Justice Department: A lone, crazed gunman, acting alone, killed the president.
America wasn’t buying it. Even before the Commission met for the first time, the majority of Americans no longer believed a lone shooter was responsible. A 1963 poll showed 52 percent of Americans believed a conspiracy was behind the assassination. Over the years, America’s faith in the Commission’s findings has fallen so low that a 1998 survey showed 90 percent of Americans believed a conspiracy was involved.
How wrong could the Commission be to earn such disregard? Was it incompetent, corrupt, or both?
In the Post article “The Kennedy Assassination” published in 1967, Richard J. Whalen addressed some of the reasons why the Report was so widely discounted.
First were the commissioners themselves: stolid, deliberate people—three senators, a congressman (Gerald Ford), a former head of the CIA, a former head of the World Bank, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. It was a group unlikely to favor fantastic premises, or indulge their imaginations. According to Whalen, “The Chief Justice was understandably reluctant to assume the task forced on him by the President, for he was miscast. In a unique situation, demanding a supple and pragmatic, yet unswerving, truthseeker, he was a figure of granitic rectitude and decorum.”
Next was the questionable evidence. Medical records from the hospital disappeared, reappeared, then disappeared again. Some witnesses were ignored, others questioned at great length. Witnesses contradicted each other, and appeared inconsistent with what could be seen in the Zapruder film.
Then the Commission began to divide over the “single-bullet” theory, which asserted that a single bullet caused multiple wounds to Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally.
“The arguing within the commission over the single-bullet theory continued until the Report was in its final drafts. Sen. Russell, Sen. John Sherman Cooper and Congressman Hale Boggs remained unpersuaded, and were at most willing to call the evidence ‘credible.’ Dulles, John J. McCloy, and Congressman Gerald R. Ford believed the theory offered the most reasonable explanation: Ford, for one, wanted to describe the evidence as ‘compelling.’ The views of the Chief Justice are unknown. [Pennsylvania Senator Arlen] Specter, Norman Redlich and other members of the commission staff unsuccessfully opposed the attempt to straddle this crucial question. They realized only too well, being closer to the evidence and the dilemma it posed, that it was indeed essential for the commission to find that a single bullet had struck both victims if the single assassin conclusion was to be convincing. Finally McCloy suggested a compromise [in wording]—“very persuasive —and this fundamental difference of opinion was fuzzed up in the final language of the Report… The shaky evidence beneath the commission’s findings goes deeper than the hedged and flatly contradictory expert testimony on the single-bullet theory. The very foundation of the commission’s account is built on disputed ground, the autopsy performed on the President, the actual number and location of his wounds.”
Whalen’s conclusion echoes the frustration many Americans felt with the report.
“The mysteries left unresolved in the Warren Report are chiefly the result of the failure to ask obvious questions during the investigation. The single-bullet theory was left in limbo, never completely accepted or rejected, because the commission declined to confront the disturbing possibility that the strong case against Oswald might not be the only explanation. “The critics who allege a cover-up of the ‘true facts’ by the Warren Commission can as easily argue their case on the basis of the appearance of concealment as they can on the ground of actual conspiracy. The commission, all too often, permitted such an appearance to exist unnecessarily. “The autopsy documentation—or the lack of it—can be used to raise suspicions of a gigantic cover-up.
“The evidence against Oswald remains as ‘hard’ as it was when Ruby’s bullet killed him. Every piece of ‘soft’ evidence … tends to support the possibility of a second assassin. Why not, then, face in that direction and weigh every shred of evidence, old or new? The appropriate forum for such an airing of dissenting views might be a special joint committee of Congress, or perhaps a ‘citizens’ panel’ of independent investigators, with unlimited access to official records, to be appointed by the President without concern over how long it sat and when it issued a Report. The alternative is to remain imprisoned by the Warren Report, which was an interim account intended to meet an immediate need.”
It seems a modest, reasonable request. America only wants the truth. Give us the facts. But the facts in this case never seem to come together. Instead of yielding answers, questions only produced more questions. The cliché “Time will tell” doesn’t seem to work in this case. Time isn’t telling. In fact, time is saying less and trying to retract some of its earlier statements.
In 1979 the United House Select Committee on Assassinations conducted a new investigation of Kennedy’s death. It concluded a conspiracy might have existed, but said no more on the matter. Congress began releasing this Committee’s internal files to the public in 1992. Yet no revelations have appeared. We have uncovered new possibilities, but no further certainties.
The explanation the Warren Commission offered is fantastic: A lone gunmen seizes an opportunity to shoot the president, and succeeds, is arrested, but is killed by another lone gunman while in police custody. It hardly inspires faith. Yet the alternative explanations are even more fantastic.
Given the country’s emotional state at the time, the Warren Commission probably could not have succeeded. It was trying to answer the question “Who shot the president?” when the country wanted to know “How could this happen?”
The stubborn denial of the report and the endless spinning of new theories can be attributed to a nagging doubt: How could a government that was incapable of protecting its chief executive from murder at the hands of a solitary maniac ever hope to gather all the important evidence of his death into an explanation the country would believe?