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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
Several accounts make it clear that Robert Kennedy’s immediate instinct after the assassination was to look for a Cuban connection to Oswald, among either pro-Castro elements or Bay of Pigs veterans repatriated from Havana in December 1962. He asked McCone if Agency-connected persons had killed JFK “in a way that [McCone] couldn’t lie to me, and [McCone replied] they hadn’t.” Through close associates, RFK also made other discreet inquires about perceived administration enemies right after the assassination: What was Jimmy Hoffa’s reaction? Were Chicago mobsters involved?
Small wonder that in the black months after the murder Robert Kennedy became absorbed by the work of the Greek tragedians. He apparently found solace in one passage from Aeschylus, for he underlined it: “All arrogance will reap a harvest rich in tears. God calls men to a heavy reckoning for overweening pride.” Belin also tells of a 1975 conversation he had with McCone after news of the proposed assassination plots finally surfaced along with the fact that Robert Kennedy had overseen those plans. As Belin describes it, “McCone replied that for the first time he could now understand the reactions of Kennedy right after the assassination when the two of them were alone. McCone said he felt there was something troubling Kennedy that he was not disclosing. … [It was McCone’s] personal belief that Robert Kennedy had personal feelings of guilt because he was directly or indirectly involved with the anti-Castro planning.”
In the case of RFK, of course, the national security that dictated silence was reinforced by a very personal imperative. As the reputation of the slain President soared, Robert Kennedy bore the burden of protecting that reputation and carrying its legacy. Already he had sought to insulate his brother from debacles (the Bay of Pigs) and turn near catastrophes into triumphs of calibrated, statesmanlike policy (the Cuban missile crisis). Full disclosure surely would have threatened the emerging Camelot view of the Kennedy Presidency and, it must be said, RFK’s fortunes as well. His own political stock was skyrocketing after the assassination.
On the first occasion when he spoke directly about Oswald, Kennedy said exactly what the Warren Commission would eventually report. He told a student questioner in Poland in June 1964, “I believe it was done by a man … who was a misfit in society. … [He] felt that the only way to take out his strong feelings against life and society was by killing the President of the United States. There is no question that he did it on his own and by himself. He was not a member of a right-wing organization. He was a confessed Communist, but even the Communists would not have anything to do with him.”
Even if other officials did not know as much as RFK or share his need to keep the Kennedy image burnished, their personal and institutional loyalties likewise determined the extent of their cooperation with the commission. Anyway, if, as the communications intercepts proved, there was no link between Oswald and the Soviet or Cuban government, then Warren had no need to know about past and ongoing covert operations directed against Cuba, regardless of how relevant they were to Oswald’s internal equation. Not a few officials and Cold War operatives had an interest in leaving the assassin a crazed loner, acting on some solitary impulse. To put it another way, officials in the know faced a genuine dilemma only if they had information pointing to someone other than Oswald. The Warren Commission could not deliver to the American people and the world a false conclusion—that might well affect the stability of the government or shake important institutions to their foundations—but there was every reason not to spill secrets that merely echoed the finding that Oswald acted alone. The commission, though denied important supporting information, would still publish the correct conclusion, and the U.S. government could keep its deepest secrets. It was a convenient act of denial and dismissal, but also one perceived as necessary in the midst of the Cold War. Complete candor would not have changed the report’s two essential conclusions at all—though it might have done a great deal to prevent its slide into disrepute later.
Full disclosure might have helped the commission explain the political element in Oswald’s motive by putting his pro-Castro activities in a new dimension, but the price was considered to be too high. The CIA, especially, had every reason to dread a no-holds-barred investigation into the events of November 22. An uncontrolled investigation would have had serious repercussions for ongoing covert operations. Beyond the inevitable exposure of Mongoose, possibly the largest covert operation that had ever been mounted, the revelations would have given the Communist bloc an undreamed-of propaganda windfall that would have lasted years. There would have followed strong condemnations by the international community and intense investigations of the CIA and administration officials who had directed anti-Castro efforts. Such investigations could conceivably have destroyed the CIA, and it was surely not LBJ’s intention to blunt his Cold War weapons when he announced the commission’s formation. Altogether, there simply was no contest between these risks and the potential damage that silence might inflict on the Warren Commission’s reputation should the withheld information ever leak out.