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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
In time the Warren Commission will be seen for what it truly was. It was not a fiendish cover-up, nor was it designed to anesthetize the country by delivering a political truth at odds with the facts. It was a monumental criminal investigation carried to its utmost limits and designed to burn away a fog of speculation. It did not achieve perfection, and in the rush to print (there was no rush to judgment) the language on pivotal issues, such as the single bullet, was poorly crafted. In retrospect, forensic and scientific experts should have been put on the lawyer-dominated panel. But the commission indisputably achieved its main goal: to determine what happened in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963. That was the one thing that needed to and could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. And the accuracy of the report’s essential finding, holding up after three decades, is testimony to the commission’s basic integrity. Indeed, as a British reviewer once put it, the best tribute to the solidity of the report is the deviousness of its critics.
The commission did not conduct its work in a political vacuum, nor could it. In fact the Warren Commission reflects a view common during the Cold War, one Gerald Ford explained in general terms during his vice-presidential confirmation hearings in 1973, that government officials have the right, if not the duty, to tell the truth but not necessarily the whole truth when an issue involves national-security matters. Some Americans erroneously believe that secrets per se contradict official verdicts; just as often, if not more often, they buttress conclusions, as the case here shows.
Was parceling out truths an outrageous act or a necessary one during the forty-five years of the Cold War? It depends on one’s perspective. There is no doubt it was done here. Secrets considered inessential to the inquiry were kept secret even from the commission. Those considered essential were shared with the commission but not the public. No doubt referring to the communications intercepts, Earl Warren told the press shortly after the report’s publication that there were “things that will not be revealed in our lifetime.” Or as former President Ford now acknowledges, “Judgments were made back then that seemed rational and reasonable. Today with the totally different atmosphere those judgments might seem improper.” The Warren Commission’s investigation cut across the entire national-security apparatus during the height of the Cold War, when even a national trauma could not be allowed to disturb the inner workings and unalterable logic of that struggle.
Was this instance of holding back some of the truth one of the great misjudgments in American history? Enduring, perhaps ineradicable controversy over the assassination has helped helped foster deep alienation and cynicism and a loss of respect among the American people for their government and the citizens who serve in it. That is perhaps the most lasting and grievous wound inflicted by Lee Harvey Oswald.