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The Key To The Warren Report
Seen in its proper historical context—amid the height of the Cold War—the investigation into Kennedy’s assassination looks much more impressive and its shortcomings much more understandable
November 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 7
In September 1994, after doggedly repeating a white lie for forty-seven years, the Air Force finally admitted the truth about a mysterious 1947 crash in the New Mexico desert. The debris was not a weather balloon after all but wreckage from Project Mogul, a top-secret high-altitude balloon system for detecting the first Soviet nuclear blasts halfway across the globe.
During the half-century interim, flying-saucer buffs and conspiracy theorists had adorned the incident with mythic significance, weaving wisps of evidence and contradictions in the Air Force’s account into fantastic theories: Bodies of extra-terrestrial beings had been recovered by the Air Force; the government was hiding live aliens; death threats had been issued to keep knowledgeable people from talking. Such fictions had provided grist for scores of books, articles, and television shows.
In retrospect the Air Force had obviously thought the Cold War prevented it from revealing a project that remained sensitive long after the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. And such surreptitiousness was certainly not isolated. Might it provide a model even for understanding that greatest alleged government cover-up, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy? Indeed our understanding of the assassination and its aftermath may, like so much else, have been clouded by Cold War exigencies. It may be that the suppression of a few embarrassing but not central truths encouraged the spread of myriad farfetched theories.
Admittedly there are Americans who prefer to believe in conspiracies and cover-ups in any situation. H. L. Mencken noted the “virulence of the national appetite for bogus revelation” in 1917, and more than a century after the Lincoln assassination skeptics were still seeking to exhume John Wilkes Booth’s remains. The Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter definitively described this syndrome in his classic 1963 lecture “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” later published as an essay. “Heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” are almost as old as the Republic, Hofstadter observed, as evinced by the anti-Masonic movement of the 1820s, the anti-Catholicism of the 1850s, claims about an international banking cartel in the early 1900s, and Sen. Joe McCarthy’s “immense conspiracy” of the 1950s. But a recurring syndrome is not to be confused with a constant one, Hofstadter argued. Paranoia fluctuates according to the rate of change sweeping through society, and varies with affluence and education.
In the case of the Kennedy assassination, unprecedented belief in all kinds of nonsense, coupled with extraordinary disrespect for the Warren Commission, has waxed in good times and bad and flourishes among remarkable numbers of otherwise sober-minded people. Even the highest level of education is not a barrier, to judge from the disregard for the Warren Report that exists in the upper reaches of the academy. In April 1992 the professional historians’ most prestigious publication, the American Historical Review , published two articles (out of three) in praise of Oliver Stone’s movie JFK . The lead piece actually asserted that “on the complex question of the Kennedy assassination itself, the film holds its own against the Warren Report.” In a similar vein, in 1993, Deep Politics and the Death of JFK , by an English professor named Peter Dale Scott, a book conjuring up fantastic paranoid explanations, was published by no less respected an institution than the University of California Press.
The Warren Commission’s inquiry occurred at what we now know was the height of the Cold War, and it must be judged in that context. Perhaps with its history understood, the Warren Commission, instead of being an object of derision, can emerge in a different light, battered somewhat but with the essential integrity of its criminal investigation unscathed. The terrible events that began in Dallas are not an overwhelming, unfathomable crossroads; they are another chapter in the history of the Cold War.
In 1964 the commission’s becoming a national joke would have seemed impossible.
In September 1964, when seven lawyers filed into Lyndon Johnson’s White House to deliver their 888-page report on the most searing national event since the attack on Pearl Harbor, the transmogrification of the commission into a national joke would have seemed impossible. Collectively the commission represented one hundred and fifty years’ experience—at virtually every level of American government, from county judge to director of Central Intelligence. Chief Justice Earl Warren’s reputation was nearly impeccable after more than twenty-five years of public service, and the influence of Georgia’s senator Richard Russell in Washington, so the cliché went, was exceeded only by the President’s, given Russell’s power over intelligence matters, the armed forces, and the Senate itself. Two other panel members, Alien W. Dulles and John J. McCloy, were singularly well versed in the most sensitive national matters, Dulles having served as CIA director from 1953 to 1961 and McCloy as an Assistant Secretary of War from 1940 to 1945.