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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
Lacking a confession or hard evidence like a note, the commission ultimately decided not to ascribe to Oswald “any one motive or group of motives.” This nonconclusion was sound and sensible for several reasons. First, the commission viewed itself as akin to a judge at a criminal trial, with the job simply of determining Oswald’s culpability and the conspiracy issue; motive was less important. Second, the issue seemed a bottomless pit. In a moment of dark humor one staff member, Norman Redlich, wrote a spoof titled the “Washing Machine Theory of the Assassination,” describing how Marina Oswald’s rejection of her husband’s offer to buy her a washing machine had triggered Oswald’s sense of failure and his need to prove his mettle by assassinating a President. There was a serious purpose in Redlich’s spoof: He wanted to show that there was simply no way to pick one motive from all the possibilities. The chances of achieving unanimity among the commissioners were slim to nil, and anyway a consensus was bound to subject the report to valid, as opposed to irresponsible, criticism. Consequently the report listed a few possibilities and concluded that “others may study Lee Oswald’s life and arrive at their own conclusions as to his possible motives.”
However reasonable and sound this non-conclusion was, what is striking in retrospect is how a very plausible motive was buried. Ample details about Oswald’s extraordinary political activities were provided, but in a detached and clinical manner; the avalanche of facts tended to obscure a salient one. Whenever Oswald actually took violent action, whenever he set free his internal demons, it was on a political stage. This was true when he attempted suicide in 1959, after the Soviets initially refused his defection, and again in April 1963, when he stalked a right-wing retired general named Edwin A. Walker. Walker and Kennedy had one thing in common in Oswald’s eyes: their anti-Communism, especially their antipathy to the “purer” Cuban Revolution that had captured Oswald’s imagination. (Walker had called for “liquidating the scourge that has descended on Cuba.”) The November murder was first of all an act of opportunity by a bent personality, but Kennedy was not in all likelihood a random victim of Oswald.
How did this de-emphasis occur? The most important factor was the cautiousness described above. The commission’s task was not to promote speculation and theorizing, no matter how plausible. Another significant, if perhaps less conscious, element was the dominant role lawyers played on the commission and in writing the report. In the most trenchant criticism of the Warren Report ever to appear, a 1965 Esquire article, the critic Dwight Macdonald accepted the commission’s conclusions but called the report a prosecutor’s brief that failed to meet its overarching purpose, which was to produce an objective account of what happened in Dallas. Because the report was written by lawyers, Macdonald said it had a telling defect: “omnivorous inclusiveness. … [the] prose is at best workmanlike but too often turgidly legalistic or pompously official. It obscures the strong points of its case, and many are very strong, under a midden-heap of inessential facts. … Its tone is that of the advocate, smoothing away or sidestepping objections to his ‘case’ rather than the impartial judge or the researcher welcoming all data with detached curiosity.” Oswald’s seriousness about his politics was buried under a “midden-heap” of facts.
As MacDonald put it, the report was a prosecutor’s brief, not an objective account.
Yet there was also a political tinge to the depiction of Oswald. The same Cold War imperative that had led to the formation of the commission persisted as an undercurrent throughout the investigation, and it ultimately detached Oswald from the politics that had animated him. At the commission’s first executive session in December, former Director of Central Intelligence Alien Dulles, one of the members most sensitive to Cold War considerations, gave each of his colleagues a book on the history of presidential assassinations in America. Nearly every killer, would-be or successful, had been a lone psychopath. Dulles suggested to his colleagues that Oswald fitted the historical pattern; a disturbed nonentity, in other words, purchased a mail-order rifle and used it to murder the President of the United States. Later Dulles wrote what he hoped would be an appendix to the report on the topic of presidential assassins.