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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
This mostly domestic problem appeared manageable. But then Jack Ruby, prey to rash impulses and a murderous temper, decided to exact proper revenge. Oswald’s death abruptly renewed the note of mystery and suspicion: Had he been killed to suppress something? Top officials considered, but eventually discarded, the notion of an elaborate conspiracy involving Ruby; if there had been one, why was Oswald allowed to live for forty-eight hours, let alone be captured? Meanwhile the need to assuage public anxiety only intensified. Johnson considered releasing detailed results from the FBI investigation ordered the night of November 22, but then dismissed the idea as insufficient. The FBI investigation itself had to be validated, though J. Edgar Hoover fumed at the suggestion. Instead an idea advocated by Nicholas Katzenbach, the deputy Attorney General, gathered support within and without the administration.
Katzenbach, deeply concerned over the appearance of a relationship between the Soviets and Oswald, wanted LBJ to impanel a group of prestigious citizens to investigate the assassination, to develop and control information with possible international repercussions, and ultimately to choke off all talk about a Communist conspiracy. Johnson, keenly aware of the South’s sensitivity over states’ rights, at first wanted an all-Texas investigation. But long-time Washington hands and friends, including the columnist Joseph Alsop, persuaded him that a state inquiry would be considered tantamount to a whitewash. This argument struck a chord in Johnson; Texas was his home state, and the Soviet-bloc press was charging that a leftist was being made a scapegoat for what was actually a right-wing Texas conspiracy in a decadent, violent country.
The motivation for the formation of the Warren Commission, on November 29, is made clear in transcripts of 275 recently declassified presidential telephone conversations from late 1963. They show that Johnson recruited the members of the panel by repeatedly invoking the need to cut off “explosive” and “dangerous” speculation about a Communist plot. Preventing World War III might have been typical Johnson hyperbole, but the concern was real, and there were still contradictory allegations that needed to be checked out, especially Oswald’s mysterious September trip to Mexico City, where he had met a KGB agent doubling as a Soviet consular officer. As Johnson told Chief Justice Warren and Senator Russell—both were reluctant to serve—“This is a question that has a good many more ramifications than on the surface, and we’ve got to take this out of the arena where they’re testifying that Khrushchev and Castro did this and did that and check us into a war that can kill 40 million Americans in an hour.”
Even the commission’s enlistment of such respected anti-Communists as Russell and Rep. Gerald Ford did not immediately stanch the mischief and pressure Johnson feared from the right. On December 6 the House Republican Policy Committee issued a statement decrying liberals’ claims that “hate was the assassin that struck down the President,” saying the true criminal was the “teachings of communism.” Republican senator Milward Simpson of Wyoming took the floor that same day to attack those who were seeking “political advantage from warping the uncontestable truth.” The senator added that the murderer “was a single kill-crazy communist.”
When Earl Warren welcomed the assembled commission staff on January 20, he admonished them, “Truth is our only client here,” and that phrase became the commission’s unofficial motto. Ultimately, the group’s massive undertaking yielded two essential conclusions: that Oswald fired all the shots that killed JFK and wounded John Connally and that there was no evidence of a conspiracy. Reaching these simple findings required a prodigious effort by many dedicated people, and it is no small accomplishment that after more than thirty years the first conclusion remains proven beyond a reasonable doubt and the second has never been challenged by any hard, credible evidence.
The only other politically sensitive question facing the commission was that of Oswald’s motive and how it might be connected to his Communist beliefs and activities. How did the commission treat Oswald’s politics? It’s hard to re-create an earlier time and problem, but it is extraordinarily revealing to do so.
The main difficulty in divining Oswald’s motive was of course the fact that Jack Ruby had murdered him before he could confess and explain. During twelve hours of questioning Oswald had fallen silent or lied, with that arrogance and air of fantasy peculiar to sociopaths, whenever confronted with hard evidence tying him to the assassination. No, he wasn’t the man holding a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle in that picture; someone had altered the photograph to superimpose his face on another body. No, he had never been in Mexico City. No, he was in the lunchroom when Kennedy was shot. Often Oswald appeared to be baiting his interrogators and “was so smug in the way he dealt with the questions,” the Dallas assistant district attorney later recalled, that “at times I had to walk out of the room, because in another few minutes I was going to beat the shit out of him myself.” One of Oswald’s few requests was that he be represented by John J. Abt, a New York lawyer known for his defense of leading Communist-party figures since 1949.