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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
For several months the commission appeared to have accomplished its mission of assuring the public that the truth was known about Kennedy’s death. The American people seemed to accept that JFK’s sole assassin was Lee Harvey Oswald, and the report won almost universal praise from the news media. Prior to its release, a Gallup poll found that only 29 percent of Americans thought Oswald had acted alone, afterward 87 percent believed so.
Long before the report came out, of course, nearly everyone had his or her own explanation for the events in Dallas. It was natural to try to invest the tragedy with meaning. And humans being what they are, individual biases determined people’s theories. Even as the President was being wheeled into Parkland Memorial Hospital, anguished aides insisted that unspecified right-wingers were responsible, since uppermost in their minds was the rough reception Adlai Stevenson had gotten in Dallas a few weeks earlier, when the U.N. ambassador was booed, jostled, and spat on by right-wing demonstrators. Dallas’s longtime reputation as the “Southwest hate capital of Dixie” only reinforced liberals’ inclination to blame “refined Nazis.” Even Chief Justice Earl Warren, before his appointment to the commission, could not resist issuing a “blunt indictment of the apostles of hate.”
But for officials whose instincts were honed by national-security considerations, the Soviet-American rivalry loomed over what had happened and dictated what immediately needed to be done. The overwhelming instant reaction among these officials was to suspect a grab for power, a foreign, Communist-directed conspiracy aimed at overthrowing the U.S. government.
The assassination might be the first in a concerted series of attacks on U.S. leaders or the prelude to an all-out attack. Newly installed intercontinental ballistic missiles were capable of reaching their targets in fifteen minutes; whose finger was on the nuclear button now that the President was dead? Both the President and Vice President had traveled to Dallas, and the fact that six senior cabinet members happened to be aboard an airplane headed for Japan suddenly acquired an awful significance. The Washington-area telephone system suffered a breakdown thirty minutes after the shots were fired, and sabotage was suspected. Attention fixed on the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba as the only governments that could possibly undertake and benefit from such a heinous plot.
When Maj. Gen. Chester Clifton, JFK’s military aide, arrived at Parkland Hospital, he immediately called the National Military Command Center and then switched to the White House Situation Room to find out if there was any intelligence about a plot to overthrow the government. The Defense Department subsequently issued a flash warning to every U.S. military base in the world and ordered additional strategic bombers into the air. Gen. Maxwell Taylor issued a special alert to all troops in the Washington area, while John McCone, director of Central Intelligence, asked the Watch Committee to convene immediately at the Pentagon. The committee, an interdepartmental group organized to prevent future Pearl Harbors, consisted of the government’s best experts on surprise military attacks.
Back in Dallas, Rufus Youngblood, head of Johnson’s Secret Service detail, told the President-to-be, “We don’t know what type of conspiracy this is, or who else is marked. The only place we can be sure you are safe is Washington.” A compliant LBJ slouched below the windows in an unmarked car on the way to Love Field, where Air Force One was waiting. Despite special security precautions, it seemed possible to those on the tarmac that the presidential jet could be raked by machine-gun fire at any moment. When the plane was finally airborne, it flew unusually high on a zigzag course back to Washington, with fighter pilots poised to intercept hostile aircraft. During the flight, Johnson kept in touch with the Situation Room, manned by the national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, for any sign that the Communist bloc might be exploiting the situation. Waiting for Johnson at Andrews Air Force Base was JFK’s national security team—or as much of it as could be assembled.
As minutes and then hours passed uneventfully and overburdened telephone exchanges began working again, fears about a surprise attack receded. Conspiracies like the one being imagined rely on surprise and speed for success, and nothing suspicious had occurred after the assassination. Very soon the thought of a master plot seemed irrational, as William Manchester records in The Death of a President : “Hindsight began early. Within the next three hours most of those who had considered the possibility began trying to forget it. They felt that they had been absurd.” Still, for hours the U.S. military stood poised to deliver an overwhelming counterstrike.
Within hours the Dallas police arrested a twenty-four-year-old Communist sympathizer named Lee Oswald, a bundle of possibilities and seeming contradictions. Now many liberals showed a reluctance to shift the blame from right-wingers to a self-styled Marxist; a liberal President being assassinated by a Marxist seemed to make no sense. Jacqueline Kennedy’s reaction upon being told of Oswald’s background was to feel sickened because she immediately sensed it robbed JFK’s death of a greater meaning. “He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights,” she said, according to Manchester. “It’s—it had to be some silly little communist.”