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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
The manner in which the report described Oswald’s preferred legal counsel is also revealing. That Oswald had wanted to retain John Abt, or a lawyer who “believes as I believe” and would “understand what this case is all about,” was a sure indication that Oswald had intended to exploit his upcoming trial as a megaphone for his peculiar brand of politics. But the report drew no meaning at all from Oswald’s clear preference. All three references to Abt simply describe him as a “New York attorney” (or lawyer), not mentioning his ties to Communist-party figures. The commission’s inclination to de-emphasize Oswald’s politics was mightily reinforced by another external Cold War imperative. As the staff, to its great chagrin, learned a decade later, the CIA limited its cooperation with the investigation according to its own internal rules. The agency had no intention of volunteering information about American subversion of Castro’s regime, including proposed assassination plots that stretched back to the Eisenhower administration, even though Oswald may have suspected the worst about U.S. policy and been motivated by its hostility. And there was no clue that the CIA was holding back, for it did readily share some highly classified secrets, like the communications intercepts. Suspicion of the FBI actually ran far higher, because of J. Edgar Hoover’s well-known predilection for holding himself above the law.
When the CIA’s omissions were finally revealed in the mid-1970s, the agency was roundly pilloried by Congress and in the news media. Nothing was more devastating to the Warren Commission’s reputation, nothing more “weakened the credibility of the Warren Report,” CBS’s anchorman Walter Cronkite observed. The commission’s staff had grown used to bogus “new” revelations by conspiracy buffs, but this genuinely distressed and even angered them. And most Americans, unschooled in the niceties of compartmented information and the need to know, found incomprehensible the notion that the CIA had dissembled in the midst of a national trauma. Could the CIA ever be counted on to tell the whole truth about the assassination? And if the government could so lie to itself—let alone to the public—what wasn’t possible?
This revelation made the Warren Commission into a national joke. For a few citizens, of course, the supposed inadequacy of the commission’s investigation had been manifest as early as 1966; others had gone through a more gradual disillusionment that reflected their declining faith in government after Vietnam and Watergate. But for most the investigation had never before come under such a cloud, except during a passing controversy over the President’s autopsy that had been fairly easily resolved. Now doubts were such that even Congress felt compelled to revisit the entire matter, after fourteen years of self-restraint unprecedented for that publicity-hungry body.
When the House Select Committee on Assassinations issued its final report, in 1979, it castigated the CIA for withholding information. Yet some members of the commission must have pretty well known the CIA wasn’t being entirely open. Alien Dulles had extensive knowledge about CIA workings and U.S. efforts to overthrow Castro since March 1960, including proposed assassination plots. John McCloy, chief negotiator during the Cuban missile crisis, was quite familiar with the governmentwide effort to subvert Castro’s regime. And two other commissioners, Richard Russell and Gerald Ford, sat in on closed-door, unminuted congressional hearings about CIA budgets, policies, and covert activities. Ford confirmed that in 1963–64 he was aware of agency efforts to subvert Castro, with the exception of proposed assassination plots. And Russell, who dominated congressional involvement in intelligence matters, was a stout believer in covert activities. Far from being an inquisitive, troublesome overseer, “Mr. Senate” acted as the CIA’s protector and advocate on Capitol Hill. There is no indication that he viewed his role on the commission any differently. Not one of these four—out of seven—commissioners shared whatever special insight he had with the staff, nor is that really surprising. These men were steeped in the Cold War and in what sometimes had to be done to wage it.
Consider, too, the actions of those officials outside the commission who had the standing and power to bring any relevant information to Warren’s attention had they chosen to do so. In particular, consider the role of Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He played a unique part: Not only was he the brother of the slain President, but he had virtually unrivaled knowledge about anti-Castro activities. Indeed, more than any other official, the thirty-eight-year-old Kennedy embodied the harsh political, institutional, and personal dilemmas that existed in the assassination’s wake. Any reconsideration of the Warren Commission must address RFK’s role directly. His response is a Rosetta stone.
The standard explanation for RFK’s seeming uninterest in the commission, as put forward in biographies and memoirs by friends, is that he simply found the subject too painful. Although kept fully apprised of the commission’s progress, he emotionally recused himself from the investigation. As RFK told close associates, Jack was dead and nothing he could do would bring him back. In The Death of a President William Manchester writes that many of the Kennedy clan who were crushed by the assassination managed to right themselves after the funeral—but not RFK. During the spring of 1964 a “brooding Celtic agony … darken[ed] Kennedy’s life.” He was nonfunctional for hours at a time and to those closest to him seemed almost in physical pain.