The Warren Commission. For many, the term is synonymous with government cover-up. How did it get that reputation? And is it deserved?
And while a majority of Americans have long disbelieved the Warren Report, the Commission's support in some quarters remains high. When the 9/11 Commission was created, many commentators compared it with the Warren Commission without a hint of irony. And Vincent Bugliosi's 1600-page Reclaiming History is the latest effort to prove that the Warren Commission solved the JFK assassination correctly after all.
Why, more than four decades later, is there no resolution to the assassination and the work of the Commission?
One reason is that there is precious little middle ground. The Kennedy assassination, and the Warren Commission solution to that crime, remains contentious in great measure because the Warren Commission's seemingly implausible conclusions were the result of an investigation which at least appeared to be detailed and thorough. While there were time pressures to complete the investigation before the 1964 elections, the Commission's work hardly merits the term "sloppy." Either it got the story right, or the context in which the Commission worked prevented it from finding the truth, or the work of these seven men of "unimpeachable reputation" was less than honest. Which is it?
The Context of the Warren Commission
What was the purpose of the Commission? Executive Order 11130, by which President Johnson created the Commission one week after JFK's murder, charged the Commission to "evaluate all the facts and circumstances surrounding the assassination and the subsequent killing of the alleged assassin and to report its conclusions and findings..."
The need for the Warren Commission was created by Jack Ruby's murder of alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on 24 Nov 1963, in the basement of the Dallas police station and carried live on national television. With Oswald dead, there would be no trial to determine Oswald's guilt or innocence. But with the obviously suspicious murder of Oswald while in policy custody, the nation was reeling and looking for answers. The creation of the Commission arose partly out of the need to calm the nation.
The now-declassified internal record of deliberation reveals little concern for the truth about the assassination, and more about political concerns. John McCloy stated in the Commission's first meeting that its purpose was "to lay the dust, dust not only in the United States but all over the world." And the Commission's first real test of its zest for truth-seeking came when Texas officials brought to it the allegation that Lee Harvey Oswald had been a paid informant for the FBI. The fear of legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is palpable in the transcript of the Commission's January 22 1964 meeting; Hale Boggs stated that the "implications of this are fantastic." After much discussion, in the end the Commission did no more than take pro forma declarations from the FBI that Oswald was not one of theirs. See This Dirty Rumor, by George Michael Evica.
The need to calm the nation was real, especially given speculation of foreign involvement in the assassination due to Oswald's prior defection to the Soviet Union. The Kennedy assassination occurred only a decade after fears of the "Communist menace" were carried to extremes by Joe McCarthy and others. The Commission resisted pressure to have it quickly affirm the FBI's report naming Oswald as the sole assassin. But it remains unrefuted that the Commission never really considered any other alternative.
The Commission operated at a time when trust in government was far higher than it is today, and when citizens knew far less about their government's adventures at home and abroad. Ongoing plots to kill Fidel Castro, for instance, were not divulged until 1975. The beginning of the present loss in faith in government can be traced to the time period of the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War which followed.
For more on the Warren Commission's secret deliberations, see this Walkthrough - Warren Commission Executive Sessions.
Findings of the Warren Commission
Delivered to President Johnson on September 24, 1964, the Warren Report concluded that Oswald had been the assassin of Kennedy. Since Jack Ruby had murdered Oswald on national television, Ruby's guilt in that killing was not in doubt, but the Report stated further that the "Commission has found no evidence that either Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby were part of any conspiracy, domestic or foreign..."
The Commission made other recommendations relating to the protection of the President, and urged Congress to adopt legislation that would make the murder of the President or Vice-President a federal crime, which is was not in 1963.
The issuance of the Warren Report was followed about two months later by 26 volumes of hearings and exhibits, the "supporting evidence" on which the Report was purportedly based. The untold stories, discrepancies in the evidence, and other problems that were found by readers of those volumes began the process by which the Warren Commission's work would come to be judged harshly by many.
Formation of the Warren Commission
Shrouded in some mystery over the years, the story of how the Warren Commission came to be became much more clear with the release of the Lyndon Johnson Presidential phone calls for the days following the assassination.
The long-told story that Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and Justice Department lawyers were pushing for the "blue ribbon commission" is now shown to be only part of the truth. The Johnson phone calls reveal that some powerful men outside the government played an important role in the push for a Presidential commission.
Kennedy was killed on Friday, 22 Nov 1963. Ruby shot Oswald on the Sunday the 24th. Within a few hours, Eugene Rostow, Dean of the Yale Law School, called the White House (listen) and recommended a President's Commission. Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach that afternoon also began penning a memo which included a call for the same thing; the now-famous "Katzenbach Memo" was delivered to Bill Moyers of the Johnson White House on the 25th, the day of the Kennedy state funeral.
Johnson initially resisted calls for investigations beyond the planned report of the FBI, which was being written that first week. Influential Washington Post columnist Joe Alsop called Johnson (listen) the morning of the 25th and strongly urged that a President's Commission be created, and repeatedly invoked the name of Cold War icon Dean Acheson as being in favor of the idea. By the 28th, LBJ's early opposition had disappeared and he quickly started to put together the Commission, in part to head off planned investigations in the Congress.
J. Edgar Hoover
In some of the phone calls that week, LBJ alluded to the possibility of 40 million Americans dying in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. This fear was apparently related to the issue of Oswald’s visit to Mexico City and the allegations of Communist conspiracy emanating from that city. A phone call with Senator Russell on November 29 (listen), whom Johnson picked as one of the Commissioners, shows how LBJ used this fear to convince Chief Justice Earl Warren to serve despite Warren’s great reluctance. Another phone call, in which Hoover told Johnson about an Oswald imposter in Mexico City, has been erased - see The Fourteen Minute Gap.
See Formation of the Warren Commission for more information.
How the Warren Commission Operated
The members of the Warren Commission were:
- Chief Justice Earl Warren
- Senator Richard Russell (D-Ga)
- Senator John Sherman Cooper (R-Ky)
- Representative Gerald Ford (R-Mi)
- Representative Hale Boggs (D-La)
- Allen Dulles, former CIA Director
- John McCloy, former High Commissioner of Germany
The Commission chose former Solicitor General J. Lee Rankin as its chief counsel, and a staff of lawyers was soon hired to work under him.
The Commissioners took the testimony of about 100 witnesses, starting with Lee Oswald's wife Marina on 3 Feb 1964. The staff lawyers interviewed hundreds more, in Washington and in other cities include Dallas and New Orleans. The FBI conducted thousands of interviews on behalf of the Commission.
There are many stories in those interviews which the Commission omitted or brushed aside in its report, something discovered by the "early critics" who read the Commission's 26 volumes of published evidence and compared it with the Report. Policeman Joe Marshall Smith described encountering a Secret Service agent on the "grassy knoll" where many witnesses heard gunfire emanating from, but no real agents were present there. Arnold Rowland saw an "elderly Negro" with a rifle in the window of the same floor from which Oswald allegedly fired. Nancy Perrin Rich told of a meeting where Jack Ruby appeared as a bagman for anti-Castro gunrunning. Others, including car salesman Albert Bogard, had interactions with people who appeared to be Oswald impersonators. And on and on.
the "magic bullet"
Some of these discrepancies are perhaps to be expected in such a large investigation with so many untrained witnesses. But the Commission had an even greater "problem" with trained witnesses. Doctors from Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy and Connally had been rushed, described the President's wounds as coming from the front, at variance with the report of the military autopsy. The "single bullet theory" the Commission invented to explain all the wounds gained few adherents among the Commission's experts, and most stated flatly that the pristine "magic bullet" would not have emerged so unscathed. The FBI never wavered from its alternative "three shots, three hits" scenario, but its version did not even acknowledge Kennedy's throat wound, and the Commission apparently found the FBI report so embarrassing that it did not even print it in the 26 volumes of hearings and exhibits.
See Medical Evidence for much more on the JFK medical evidence.
Defenders of the Commission point to the huge body of evidence amassed and interviews conducted as proof of its thoroughness. Critics point out that page count is not the proper metric, and note that the Report and accompanying volumes are filled with background information and other trivia which is irrelevant if Oswald was not the assassin.
In the final session of the Commission on September 18, Senator Richard Russell led a group of three members who disputed the single bullet theory and wanted to write a separate dissent. In the end, they accepted minor wording changes and agreed to Warren's insistence that the Report be unanimous. But Russell was shocked to find later that the session had not been transcribed. Instead, the extant record of the meeting is a brief set of minutes which omits entirely any mention of the disagreement.
With the delivery of the Report a week later, the Commission dissolved, leaving no government body to answer the many questions that would soon be asked.
Records of the Commission
The primary records of the Commission include the following:
- Warren Report.
- 26 volumes of Hearings and Exhibits. The first 15 volumes are interview transcripts; the remaining 11 are exhibits.
- Warren Commission Documents. The exhibits printed in the 26 volumes are culled from this larger set, some of which were not declassified until the 1990s, and a few of which are withheld for privacy reasons to this day.
- Executive Sessions. These provide a fascinating glimpse into the inner deliberations of the Commissioners, and legal battles were fought to declassify them.
Many other Commission records exist - see the National Archive's online Inventory of the Records of the Warren Commission.
At the conclusion of a 1976 investigation into how the Commission was served by the FBI and CIA, Senator Richard Schweiker stated on national television that "the John F. Kennedy assassination investigation was snuffed out before it even began," and that "the fatal mistake the Warren Commission made was to not use its own investigators, but instead to rely on the CIA and FBI personnel, which played directly into the hands of senior intelligence officials who directed the cover-up."
Many would scoff at the notion that an organization like the Warren Commission would or even could conduct a cover-up. Gerald Ford ridiculed the idea that he and Warren would conspire together, and several Commissioners and staff members denied any cover-up when questioned by the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
Perhaps the problem here is the word "cover-up" and the images it invokes of smoky backroom dealing. The record reveals a more complex history. It is well-documented that the CIA and FBI kept the Commission in the dark about important matters, including but not limited to CIA attempts to kill Fidel Castro. The Commission's own bias is revealed in the outline for investigation it produced in January, which already assumed Oswald's guilt. Beyond this, some of the Commissioners were rarely present for testimony and left the work of the Commission to Counsel J. Lee Rankin and his staff, ambitious lawyers who certainly knew the "right answer" their clients expected. These staff members were assigned to different areas and were not of one piece - the two men assigned to the Ruby angle, Burt Griffin and Leon Hubert, ran afoul of the Commission's no-conspiracy bent and were not brought on the trip to interview Ruby.
With the Commission's bias in favor of the lone gunman and its reliance on government agencies committed to that answer, the result surprised no one. The Final Report of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) faulted the Commission in several areas, including this on page 261: "...the Warren Commission was not, in some respects, an accurate presentation of all the evidence available to the Commission or a true reflection of the scope of the Commission's work, particularly on the issue of possible conspiracy in the assassination."
Did the Commissioners and their staff believe what they wrote? Commissioner Russell later denounced the Commission's no-conspiracy conclusion, saying "we have not been told the truth about Oswald." Hale Boggs complained that "Hoover lied his eyes out to the Commission" before his plane disappeared in Alaska. Pressed on evidence indicating conspiracy for which he had no good reply, Commission staffer Wesley Liebeler told researcher Ray Marcus that "sometimes we get caught up in things that are bigger than we are."
Sometimes what is not investigated can be even more revealing than what is. The Commission failed to interview Jack Ruby until June of 1964, when the Report was already being drafted. When Ruby begged to be taken to Washington to speak more freely, saying "Gentlemen, my life is in danger here," Earl Warren refused, saying "No; it could not be done. It could not be done. There are a good many things involved in that, Mr. Ruby." Another important witness, the President's personal physician Dr. George Burkley, was never interviewed by the Commission. Burkley played a prominent role in the medical aspects of the case, and later his lawyer wrote the HSCA saying Burkley had information that "others besides Oswald must have participated.
Revelations Since the Warren Commission
Following the Warren Commission there were additional government investigations into the JFK case, as well as revelations of various kinds. The second major federal investigation, the HSCA, determined that the assassination was "probably the result of a conspiracy," This was largely based on the acoustics evidence of a grassy knoll shot, but the Committee also devoted considerable attention to Jack Ruby, writing that Ruby's shooting of Oswald was "not a spontaneous act," and further that his entry into the police basement was probably accomplished with assistance.
New information on the Commission itself emerged over the years. For example, it was revealed that President Gerald Ford, while serving on the Commission, had informed on the Commission's activities to the FBI. As recently as 2007, Pulitzer Prize winner Patrick Sloyan, who was a UPI reporter in 1964, revealed that Ford had fed him inside Commission information. See Gerald Ford's Role in the JFK Assassination Cover-up, by Don Fulsom.
The furor over Oliver Stone's film JFK caused Congress to pass the JFK Records Act, resulting in a massive set of declassifications in the 1990s. These records provided a wealth of detail on already-known aspects of the case, and contained many suprising new stories as well. Among the prominent post-Commission events and revelations since the time of the Warren Commission:
- Investigations: Garrison Investigation, Rockefeller Commission, Church Committee, House Select Committee on Assassinations, Assassinations Record Review Board (ARRB).
- Foreign policy: the revelations of the plots to murder Fidel Castro and further revelations on Cuba policy (such as Operation Northwoods), Kennedy plans to withdraw from Vietnam, and much more.
- Oswald: Destruction of the Oswald note to the FBI, much more on the mysterious trip of Oswald or an impersonator to Mexico City, and more.
- Medical & Ballistics: The ongoing revelations on the JFK medical evidence defy summarization but contain stark indications of a medical coverup of a shot from the front. The ARRB's medical interviews in the 1990s are particularly noteworthy.
On the other hand, defenders of the Commission point out that despite all the theories, after all these years no one has provided proof of an alternative scenario for the assassination. Solid proof has never emerged that Oswald was an agent of US (or foreign) intelligence, nor is there solid evidence linking any other shooter to Dealey Plaza. Thus the Warren Commission's version of events remains an easy-to-understand story, as opposed to the alternative: an array of unanswered questions.
From left: John MCloy, J. Lee Rankin, Richard Russell, Gerald Ford, Earl Warren, Lyndon Johnson, Allen Dulles, John Sherman Cooper, Hale Boggs.