The Warren Commission

This week (Nov. 29) in 1963, one week after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, appointed a commission to investigate his death, with a focus on whether or not the assassination resulted from a domestic or international conspiracy.  That question arose because Oswald himself was murdered by a Dallas nightclub owner, Jack Ruby, two days after Kennedy’s assassination, meaning Oswald would never go to trial nor be questioned thoroughly by federal investigators.   The fact that Oswald, an unemployed drifter, had spent time in the Soviet Union also buttressed the conspiracy theory.

The Warren Commission, named after its leader, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, subsequently spent 10 months poring over reports supplied by the FBI, the CIA, the State Department and the Secret Service.  Commission members also interviewed or reviewed testimony by 552 witnesses and meticulously reviewed evidence gathered at the scene.  The end result was a 300,000-word commission report that said: No conspiracy, no connection between Oswald and Ruby, Oswald acted alone.

To say the least, there were dissenters, in part because many self-proclaimed witnesses said they had seen, or heard, a second gunman, and because the Warren Commission’s eventual conclusion that only Oswald fired the bullets that hit Kennedy’s limousine that day was questioned even by some members of the commission.  Add the fact that no one on the commission, save Warren himself, was allowed to review Kennedy’s autopsy photos, and the fact that the chief autopsy surgeon, Dr. James Humes, burned his autopsy notes, and one can see why the Mafia, the Cubans, the KGB and even the CIA were fingered as possible conspiracy suspects.  Indeed, in 1978 a House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that Kennedy’s death probably resulted from a conspiracy.

On balance, however, no one has conclusively proved a conspiracy of any kind, and several other investigations have essentially agreed with the Warren Commission. As to Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union, the KGB thought he was crazy and wanted him deported, and little known even today is how cooperative the Soviets were in assisting the commission’s investigation.  Warren’s reason for denying access to Kennedy’s autopsy photos is now attributed to his worry they would be leaked to the press, and Humes says he burned his notes because they were bloody; today he admits it was a mistake.

But perhaps Vincent Bugliosi, a legal expert and author, put it best when he noted that: 1. No professional conspirator — certainly not the Cubans, the Mafia, the KGB or CIA — would ever recruit an assassin as unstable and unpredictable as Oswald; and 2:  If they did, they would have had him killed immediately after the crime.