FOR a country so proud of its political sophistication, it seems extraordinary that the American people could be so critical of the handling of the investigation of what they generally consider the crime of the last century: The assassination of President John F Kennedy.
Last Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Warren Commission report, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the president.
At the time, I was at university near Dallas, and it seemed that very few people there had any confidence in the report of the high-powered commission, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren of the US Supreme Court.
Few believed Oswald acted alone. At least 20 of the eyewitnesses to the shooting said the fatal shot came from the infamous grassy knoll to the president’s right, not from the School Book Depository behind him.
After the publication of the report, the attorney Mark Lane interviewed witnesses ignored by the Warren Commission. He wrote Rush to Judgment, a scathing account of the commission’s deliberations. Some 16 different publishers had rejected his 1966 book, but it promptly became a number one bestseller in the US.
Lane questioned the conclusion that Oswald had fired all of the shots — the first one missed and its ricochet nicked a bystander in the face. The second — the so-called “magic bullet” — struck President Kennedy in the back about five inches below the collar, exited from his lower neck and then struck Governor John Connally in the arm pit and continued into his right wrist. The third and fatal shot hit Kennedy in the head.
Some medical testimony suggested the wound in Kennedy’s throat was an entry wound that was afterwards altered to look like an exit wound. The Warren Commission never interviewed Dr Charles A Crenshaw, or some of the other members of the surgical team that worked on the dying president at Parkland Hospital. Dr Crenshaw later stated categorically that the neck wound that he saw was an entry wound. If this was so, that bullet could not possibly have hit Governor Connally.
Over a dozen medical experts felt that autopsy and X-ray photographs suggested the shots came from a direction other than the School Book Depository. Some 20 doctors, nurses and medical technicians at Parkland Hospital reported seeing a gaping exit wound at the rear of the president’s skull on the right side.
Witnesses had seen Oswald and Jack Ruby — the man who later killed him — together in the fortnight before the assassination, but the Warren Commission never questioned those people. It seemed uninterested in any testimony suggesting a possible conspiracy.
In 1969, Jim Garrison, the District Attorney in New Orleans, charged businessman Clay Shaw with conspiracy to kill the president. The jury acquitted Shaw, but the information gathered by Garrison later inspired Oliver Stone’s 1992 film, JFK.
The House Select Committee on Assassinations, set up by the US House of Representatives, concluded in 1979 that Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. While this report supported the theory that Oswald fired the fatal shot, it was highly critical of deficiencies in the Warren Commission’s investigation, especially the suppression of evidence.
The 8mm film of the assassination taken by Abraham Zapruder, which ran for 26.6 seconds, was not released to the public until the 1970s. Its depiction of the moment the bullet struck the president’s head caused a sensation. The film consisted of 486 frames, but Zapruder was so shocked by frame 313, depicting the moment of impact, that he asked that it be excluded.
There has never been any official explanation of what happened to the simultaneous film taken from the other side of the road by Beverly Oliver. This would have had the grassy knoll in the background. The film was seized by the FBI, and has never been seen publicly. What could possibly be “the national interest” in withholding that footage?
As a result of Oliver Stone’s film, JFK, the Assassination Records Review Board was established. It concluded the 30 years of secrecy surrounding the assassination “led the American public to believe that the Government had something to hide”.
“The Federal Government needlessly and wastefully classified and then withheld from public access countless important records that did not require such treatment,” according to the board. There were too many leads that were not explained, much less investigated, whether they related to Oswald and his associates in New Orleans, or Mexico City, in the months prior to the assassination.
There have been suspicions that these activities were designed to blame the assassination on Cuban communists, or even the Soviet Union. This could have led to a nuclear war, but the US authorities merely exploited that threat to ignore those matters.
Other questions also went unasked. Why did the Warren Commission ignore the party at the Dallas home of oil magnate Clint Murcheson on the eve of the assassination? The attendance there included Lyndon Johnson, J Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, Jack Ruby and Carlos Marcello. Surely questions should have been asked about why all were there. Was somebody surrounding himself with those people as a means of protection? If so, why?
In 2007, Vincent Bugliosi — the prosecutor who wrote Helter Skelter, the highly-acclaimed study of the Manson murders of 1969 — published a 1,612-page book on the Kennedy killing in which he essentially endorsed the conclusions of the Warren Commission. He convincingly demolished many of the conspiracy theories.
The Warren Commission may well have been right in its main conclusions, but its failure to examine all of the pertinent evidence exposed gaping deficiencies in its investigation and undermined the credibility of its conclusions. For a country that has prided itself in its democracy and sense of justice, the commission’s report was a travesty that seriously undermined public confidence.
In a series of public opinion surveys conducted over the past 50 years, a majority of Americans say they never believed Oswald acted alone. Last year, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination, a national poll found that only 30% of the American people agreed, while 61% believed that there was a conspiracy involving others.
Separated by 15 years, the two official government investigations into the assassination of President John F Kennedy reached divergent conclusions.
While they added significantly to the body of knowledge about the major players, each seemed to raise new questions for every one answered. Here are briefsummaries:
Formed soon after the assassination and chaired by US Chief Justice Earl Warren, the commission published its report the following autumn and stated in no uncertain terms that it was Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, who fired three shots from the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas on Nov 22, 1963. He also shot and killed Dallas police officer JD Tippit about 45 minutes later while attempting to flee, the commission concluded.
The commission hedged on the so-called “Magic Bullet” theory that asserted one bullet passed through the president’s throat and then struck Texas Gov John Connally’s chest and wrist before lodging in his thigh. While there was a “difference of opinion” on the matter, the report concluded, there was no doubt among commission members that the three shots came from the depository.
Concerning Oswald’s murder at the hands of Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby two days later, the commission concluded the two men had never met and that it had found “no evidence that either Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby was part of any conspiracy, domestic or foreign, to assassinate President Kennedy”.
The commission faulted the Secret Service for not checking the motorcade route adequately for possible sniper’s nests and the FBI for not sharing what it knew about Oswald with the Secret Service before the assassination.
The committee was formed in the mid-1970s in the wake of the Watergate scandal and subsequent revelations about CIA activities, including information about the agency’s anti-Castro efforts not divulged to the Warren Commission.
Its conclusion was stunning, though tempered by its choice of language: Kennedy “was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy”, but investigators were unable to identify a second gunman or the extent of the conspiracy. The committee ruled out the Cuban and Soviet governments, as well as the Secret Service, FBI and CIA; it didn’t rule out the possible involvement of individual members of organised crime or anti-Castro Cuban groups.
The finding was based on sound impulses from a motorcycle cop’s stuck microphone in Dallas’s Dealey Plaza that acoustics experts said recorded four shots, including one from the infamous “grassy knoll” that missed. The acoustics evidence has since been challenged, and the question is considered unresolved.
Given the benefit of hindsight, the committee criticised the Warren Commission for failing to adequately investigate the possibility of a conspiracy, though it conceded this was partly due to “the failure of the commission to receive all the relevant information that was in the possession of other agencies and departments of the government.”