A Critique of The Warren Report
(Film critic of Esquire Magazine)
Esquire, March 1965, pp. 60 ff.
No heroes and no style, but the American anti-Iliad has epic scope (912 pages) and more facts than you, or the authors, could digest: consider now what they add up to—about Oswald, about law, abut truth, about America
Report Of The President’s Commission On The Assassination Of President John F. Kennedy, United States Government Printing Office, 912 pages, $3.25, cloth.
This big handsome volume, with the Presidential Great Seal
stamped in gold on its dark-blue cover, is in many ways the best book value in
years. The sturdy, well-sewn binding and tough paper stand up to hard use, such
as in writing this review, like English leather goods. The typeface, used in all
G.P.O. publications, is clear and workmanlike, as legible as it is homely. The
G.P.O. has never aspired to beauty, unless good materials and utility be
considered so, but it still maintains the old standards of book manufacturing
that have been abandoned by our commercial publishers. Their books look sleazy
and flashy alongside this product of old-fashioned craftsmanship in its
Quakerishly sober garb—it doesn’t even have a dust jacket and its
typographical layout, if it can be said to have any, must have been established
once for all by some long-forgotten Government Printer in a frock coat and wing
collar. James Agee once told me that he had tried, vainly, to persuade the
publisher of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to print and bind it in the
G.P.O. standard style, like a report on soil erosion. I scoffed then about
inverse preciosity, but now, after weeks of close contact with this admirable
product of the G.P.O., I think Agee had a point.
And inside those austere covers what riches, heaped up with the disorderly profusion of treasures in a bandit’s cave, or the layout of The New York Times! It takes a bit of sorting, but the raw materials are here for the best detective story since The Sign of Four; all that patient sleuthing (Oswald’s day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour movements at critical periods are reconstructed), all those clues and false leads, and—a gold mine of savvy for future detective-story writers—all that precise information on such interesting topics as paraffin tests (not reliable), polygraphic “lie-detector” tests (ditto), the telltale microscopic structure of a hair, a bit of paper, a few strands of cloth fiber, and, most fascinating of all, the techniques of identifying bullets, cartridges, palm prints (Agatha Christie never told me they were as revealing as fingerprints), handwriting and photographs (which, I was also surprised to learn, can be traced to the camera that took them as definitely as bullets can be related to a gun). What happens when a test bullet is fired into a skull (filled with gelatin in lieu of brains) is also described, perhaps a little too graphically. There is enough data on the lives of those two strange, depressing and very American personages, Jack Ruby (27 pages) and Lee Harvey Oswald (201 pages), for a novel and no doubt some main-chance fictioneer is now writing it. But these densely factual pages are of most interest to the student of American society. They tell him a great deal, perhaps more than he wants to know.
The Warren Report is an American-style Iliad, i.e., an anti-Iliad that retells great and terrible events in limping prose instead of winged poetry. And what prose! The lawyer’s drone, the clotted chunks of expert testimony, the turgidities of officialese, the bureaucrat’s smooth-worn evasions. For the Homeric simile, Research; for the epic surge and thunder, the crepitating clutter of Fact.
But Achilles, gathering the fury upon him, sprang on the Trojans / with a ghastly cry, and the first of them he killed was Iphiton…. / Great Achilleus struck him with the spear as he came in fury / in the middle of the head, and all the head broke into two pieces. / He fell, thunderously.
At 12:30 p.m., Central Standard Time, as the President’s open limousine proceeded at approximately eleven miles per hour along Elm Street toward the Triple Underpass, shots fired from a rifle mortally wounded President Kennedy and seriously injured Governor Connally. One bullet passed through the President’s neck; a subsequent bullet, which was lethal, shattered the right side of his skull. Governor Connally sustained bullet wounds in his back, the right side of his chest, right wrist, and left thigh.
The heroes of our anti-epic are not Hector and Lysander
“and such great names as these,” not Diomedes, Agamemnon, Sarpedon, Menelaus,
not even Patroclus. They are that quintessence of the anti-hero, Lee Harvey
Oswald, resentful underdog trying to give meaning to his failed life by elbowing
his way into History; Jack Ruby, hero-worshiper of cops and Presidents, who
killed Oswald to avenge Jackie and the kids; Judge Joe Brown who presided over
Ruby’s trial chewing tobacco and occasionally leafing through magazines on the
bench; Police Chief Curry who led the fatal motorcade and whose appetite for
publicity made his headquarters a televised chaos which Ruby easily penetrated
in his mission of vengeance; District Attorney Wade who tried and convicted
“the suspect” on TV during Oswald’s miraculous survival for almost two
days in the custody of the Dallas cops; J. Edgar Hoover, whose G-men had
efficiently kept Oswald “under surveillance” as a defector to the U.S.S.R.
and a pro-Castro agitator, but who neglected to tell the Secret Service about
it, and whose response to a reproof in the Report was “Monday-morning
quarterbacking,” accurate but somehow inadequate. Not that there weren’t
epic parallels, of a sort. Chief Curry, or D.A. Wade, will do as Ajax,
Shakespeare’s Ajax. Nor is the Commission’s Chairman, Chief Justice Warren,
badly cast as Nestor: honorable, respected, but a little slow, perhaps more the
Polonius type. Pretty as she is, Marina Oswald isn’t quite up to Helen;
Cressida maybe. The one hero who is definitely missing, among the authors of the
Report, alas, as well as among the unheroes they celebrate, is that man of many
counsels, the clever Odysseus.
But the greatest hero of all, oddly, is here. The late President Kennedy will more than do for Achilles, strong and handsome and all-conquering (except for the House Rules Committee), a prince among men. But his Myrmidons, the scores of Secret Service agents whose job it was to protect him, were in the American style: “Under established procedure, [they] had instructions to watch the route for signs of trouble, scanning not only the crowds but the roofs and windows of buildings”—except, it seems, the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Somehow, the established procedure didn’t quite work out and the President got killed. Achilles’ Myrmidons did better, but then they were Greeks.
However, the Warren Commission did not undertake its enormous labors in order to write an Iliad or to provide material for novelists or detective-story addicts or students of American society. “The President directed the Commission to evaluate all the facts and circumstances surrounding the assassination and the subsequent killing of the alleged assassin,” states the Foreword, which later comes to the real point: “Because of the numerous rumors and theories, the Commission concluded that the public interest…could not be met by merely accepting the reports of the analyses…[of the F.B.I., the Secret Service and the Dallas Police, etc.]. Not only were the premises and conclusions of those reports critically reassessed, but all assertions or rumors relating to a possible conspiracy…which have come to the attention of the Commission, were investigated.”
The Commission’s task was one of exorcism, to lay at rest once for all those “numerous rumors and theories” that flitted and chattered in the twilight of those two strange days in Dallas, a twilight rendered even murkier by the incompetence of the local authorities. As is well known, and not surprising, Europeans generally assumed that Oswald and Ruby could not have achieved their murders all by themselves and for personal—and irrational—motives; nor could they believe that the confusion in the Dallas Police Headquarters and the many contradictory statements that issued from that Bedlam were evidence of bungling rather than of conspiracy. Their own police forces are more professional, more “sérieux,” as the French say. And their assassinations have typically been the work of conspiratorial groups, with clear political aims. But of the seven previous attempts on the lives of our Presidents, successful (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley) and unsuccessful (Jackson, the two Roosevelts, Truman), five have been the work of solitary cranks of dubious mental balance, one (Lincoln) of a political conspiracy, but limited to a half-dozen fanatics acting on their own; and only one (Truman) in the European style—it’s significant that the party behind it was Puerto Rican and not American.
It is surprising, however, and not so well known that the American public also seems to have had doubts as to Oswald’s being a lone killer. A Gallup poll shortly after the assassination found that only twenty-nine percent thought Oswald had acted alone, while fifty-two percent thought “some group or element” was also involved. What group precisely was rarely specified for then as now there was a complete blank on the most modest kind of evidence connecting the two killers to any accomplices. Still the fact was that a bare majority of Americans and a decisive majority of Europeans thought there was something fishy about the case and that the authorities (“they”) had either overlooked or were covering up some kind of political conspiracy. So on November 29, 1963, President Johnson appointed the Commission whose Report was issued ten months later.
Its most striking aspect is the quantitative. The 912 pages
are distilled from some 25,000 interviews and re-interviews by the F.B.I. which
were submitted to the Commission in 25,400 pages of reports plus 1,550
interviews by the Secret Service (4,600 pages) plus the testimony of 552
witnesses, 94 of whom appeared before the Commission while the rest were
questioned by the Commission’s legal staff or submitted sworn affidavits.
There were two unsworn statements, those of Mr. and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson,
Peking papers please copy. Eight weeks after the Report, the Commission
published the complete testimony of its 552 witnesses in 15 volumes plus 11
volumes containing photographs of 3,154 Exhibits ranging from President
Kennedy’s coat and shirt (the rips in the coat made by the frantic doctors and
the great patches of bloodstains that blot out the shirt’s jaunty stripes
were, for me, more moving and horrible than anything in the testimony, even
Jackie’s narrative) to the Complete Works of Lee Harvey Oswald (every scrap of
paper covered with his wretched handwriting and even worse spelling seems to be
preserved here for history) and snapshots from his family album (“Me and
Marina with Uncle Vasily and Aunt Lobova,” also known as Exhibit 2623) and
Jack Ruby’s (Exhibit 5300-A: “Me and Two of the Girls in front of My
The efficiency with which the data were distributed was also impressive. The purchaser of The New York Times on September 28th, the day after the Report was released, got for his ten cents the normal paper plus a 48-page section which printed the full text of the Report and generous selections (13 pages) from the Appendices. Those with a dollar to spend could shortly buy a Bantam paperback of the Report plus all the Appendices. “The first printing for 700,000 copies of the 800-page edition…has been made available just eighty hours after President Lyndon B. Johnson released it,” Bantam crows. “This establishes a new milestone in book publishing. A force of over 150 skilled men and women…accomplished this gigantic task by working in eight-hour shifts around the clock.”
It’s all very American: the collection of data on the scale of an industrial operation followed at once by their democratic dissemination—a price range from the Times’ ten cents to the $76 the G.P.O. charges for its 26 volumes of complete testimony and exhibits. Nothing up our sleeves, you see, the Establishment tells the Unestablished, we just want you to have All The Facts so that you can make up your minds intelligently. There is some cant in this line but also some political health. “It’s fantastic, really absurd to publish the complete record of such a delicate operation,” a French journalist said to me recently. “Can you imagine it happening in Russia?” I couldn’t (nor in France, but what makes this somewhat grudging tribute notable is that it came from a writer who has made an intensive study of the Dallas mysteries and who doesn’t think the Warren Report clears them up. “My politics are simple,” he added. “I don’t like to be considered an idiot. So I’m against the Report because Mr. Earl Warren must consider me an idiot.” His contempt for the Report is almost as great as his contempt for some of its critics, notably such mongers of conspiracy theories as Joachim Joesten (Oswald: Assassin or Fall Guy?, Marzani & Munsell, $3.95) and Thomas G. Buchanan (Who Killed Kennedy?, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, $4.95).
Our heroes, and our villains, have often used this factual, pragmatic approach, so congenial to the national temperament: the early muckrackers like Lincoln Steffens (The Shame of the Cities) and Ida Tarbell (The History of the Standard Oil Company); Brandeis’ invention of the “sociological brief” with which in 1908 he successfully defended before the Supreme Court the Oregon ten-hour law, substituting socioeconomic data for legal reasoning on the grounds that “There is no logic that is properly applicable to these laws except the logic of facts,” a proposition dubious philosophically, since facts have no logic, but effective practically—Constitutional law was never the same again; Al Smith’s rasping battle cry when he was the reform governor of New York, “Let’s look at the record!”; the late Senator McCarthy’s exploitation of Facts (“I hold in my hand a letter dated…”) which later proved to be non-Facts—the letter sometimes was a blank sheet of paper—or even anti-Facts, or lies; the mountains of Facts, something surpassing even the Warren Commission’s hoard, accumulated by the great Congressional investigations from the Pujo Committee’s hearings on the “Money Trust” in 1913 down to the late Senator Kefauver’s patient, masterly investigation of monopolistic business practices. Vice-President Nixon summed up the American attitude when he cried out, incredulously, to a mob of Peruvian students who were stoning him: “But don’t you want to hear facts?” The rocks continued to fly.
So now we have the Warren Commissioners, neither heroes nor
villains, putting their trust in a saturation barrage of factual ammunition.
Now Facts are all very well but they have their little weaknesses. Americans
often assume that Facts are solid, concrete (and discrete) objects like marbles,
but they are very much not. Rather are they subtle essences, full of mystery and
metaphysics, that change their color and shape, their meaning, according to the
context in which they are presented. They must always be treated with
skepticism, and the standard of judgment should be not how many Facts one can
mobilize in support of a position but how skillfully one discriminates between
them, how objectively one uses them to arrive at Truth, which is something
different from, though not unrelated to, the Facts.
Another aspect of Facts is that there can be too many of them. This the Warren Commissioners don’t seem to understand, perhaps because they are representative Americans. A great defect of their Report, whether it be considered as literature or as argumentation, is an undiscriminating and omnivorous inclusiveness. The kitchen stove is omitted, but not the Facts, recorded on page 670 at the taxpayers’ expense, that the New Orleans house Mother Oswald bought in 1941 (a) cost $1,300, (b) was located at 1010 Bartholomew Street and not at 1011 or 1099, (c) had a backyard, and (d) was in a neighborhood that, “according to John’s recollection…was not as pleasant as Alvar Street.” It is also recorded that in this period “the family kept a dog named ‘Sunshine.’”
In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Purloined Letter, a blackmailer steals a letter and hides it in his house; the Paris police spend weeks systematically going over every room and its contents with probes, microscopes, etc., but fail to find it; Poe’s Dupin, first and greatest of fictional detectives, reasons that the blackmailer, a clever man, would have anticipated such a search and would have decided the best way to hide the letter was not to; Dupin finds it in plain sight, thrust with ostentatious carelessness into a cheap card rack “dangling by a dirty blue ribbon” from the study mantelpiece. Americans have a similar technique for concealing by revealing: we publish so much accurate information that only the most acute and diligent reader can find the needle of Truth in the haystack of Facts. The plethora of unedited Facts in the news columns of The New York Times are an example. Or our sociological studies, impenetrably thick with tables, case histories and masses of dispensable data. Or the Warren Report. I don’t for a moment imply that these respectable editors, scholars and Commissioners intend to conceal anything. Merely that this is the effect of their labors.
For instance, the Report has twelve pages on Oswald’s trip to Mexico two months before the assassination and his unsuccessful efforts to get travel visas at the Cuban and Soviet embassies: a crucial point, and the Commission’s patient sleuthing establishes to my satisfaction that while Oswald was full of conspiratorial zeal, he failed to infect the Cuban and Russian embassies with is so signally that neither gave him a visa, while the Cubans threw him out. But it could have been done in half the space had they left out the kind of research trivia—Minifacts—one finds on page 305, as: “A hotel guest stated that on one occasion he sat down at a table with Oswald at the restaurant because no empty tables were available [they explain everything] but that neither spoke to the other because of the language barrier.” The Commission has gone Sherlock Holmes’ dog-that-didn’t-bark-in-the-night one better, or worse: their dog not only didn’t bark but also had no significance. Or: “Investigation of the hotel at which Oswald stayed has failed to uncover any evidence that the hotel is unusual in any way that could relate to Oswald’s visit.” Their hotel didn’t bark either. Or: “Oswald’s notebook which he carried with him to Mexico City contained the telephone number of the Cuban Airlines Office in Mexico City.” Aha! But then not aha: “however…a confidential check of the Cuban Airlines Office uncovered no evidence that Oswald visited their offices while in the city.” There is also quite a lot on one Albert Osborne, “an elderly itinerant preacher,” whom, “two Australian girls” said, Oswald had sat next to on the bus to Mexico City but who denied it; however, “Osborne’s responses to Federal investigators on matters unrelated to Oswald have proved inconsistent and unreliable,” so “the Commission has attached no credence to his denial”; however-however, or however squared, “to the other passengers on the bus it appeared that Osborne and Oswald had not previously met,” and “extensive investigation” revealed no more Oswald-Osborne meetings, and so, after “investigation of his [Osborne’s] background and activities,” the Commission found “no basis for suspecting him of any involvement in the assassination.” So much, and too much, for the Reverend Osborne. On turning the page, groggily, one is confronted with a full-page map of “Lee Harvey Oswald’s Movements in Mexico City” (where nothing happened), with eight Points of Interest labeled, beginning with: “Bus terminal of Flecha Roja bus line, Calle Heroes Ferrocarrileros No. 45.” Just what one wanted to know.
The Commissioners seem to have a thing about buses. Although I realize that in selecting Exhibits it is better to err on the inclusive side since what may seem trivial may turn out to be important—since Facts take on meaning only from the context, and the right context may not have occurred to anybody at the time the Exhibits, or Facts, were chosen—still, leafing through these eleven volumes left me with the feeling that no remotely conceivable context could give significance to many of the Exhibits. Nos. 372 through 380, for example, are devoted to a Dreiserian brooding on the intimate details of the bus that Oswald took after the assassination. In No. 373 we get “Diagram of Cecil McWatters’ bus,” in 375 “Photograph of a side view of Cecil McWatters’ bus,” in 379 “Photograph of the interior of Cecil McWatters’ bus, taken from the rear,” which is logically enough followed by 380 (“Photograph of the interior of Cecil McWatters’ bus taken from the front”). We are also able to decide for ourselves—nothing up the sleeves, you see—by inspection of No. 372 (“Sample of punchmarks made by Cecil McWatters’ punch) whether Cecil McWatters, practically a family friend by now, did or did not punch the transfer that the Dallas police found in Oswald’s pocket. Personally, I’m convinced he did.
The structure of the Report may be described cinematically.
The first chapter is an “establishing” long shot which summarizes the events
and the conclusions that Commission has drawn from them: that Oswald all by
himself killed President Kennedy and Officer Tippit, that Ruby all by himself
killed Oswald, and that there was no conspiracy. In the seven remaining chapters
the camera moves in closer, to middle-distance shots, at first narrative (II:
The Assassination; III: The Shots From the Texas School Book Depository; IV: The
Assassin; V: Detention and Death of Oswald) and then expository (VI:
Investigation of Possible Conspiracy; VII: Lee Harvey Oswald: Background and
Possible Motives; VIII: The Protection of the President). The latter half of the
volume consists of eighteen Appendices which are mostly close-ups of areas we
have already seen at a distance: medical reports; identification of guns,
bullets, cartridges, handwriting, etc.; a Brief History of Presidential
Protection, etc. The most interesting of these close-ups are Appendices XI, XIV,
XIV (“Analysis of Lee Harvey Oswald’s Finances from June 13, 1962, through November 22, 1963”) gives monthly tables of Oswald’s income and expenditures. Assuming it’s on the level—faking would have been almost as difficult as digging out the real figures, I should think, and also quite dangerous—Appendix XIV disposes of at least one of the “rumors and theories”: that Oswald was maintained by subsidies from the Cubans, the Russians, the Chinese, the F.B.I., or the C.I.A. The tables show that Oswald didn’t earn much, but that he spent even less.
Appendix XV, on “transactions” between Oswald and the Department of State and the Immigration authorities, explains why the Kremlin let Marina out (under Stalin, Russian wives of foreigners were almost never permitted to emigrate, but the policy was liberalized under Khrushchev) and why the State Department gave Oswald a new passport and a travel loan of $435.71, even though when he had defected he had tried to renounce his American citizenship and become a Soviet citizen. He failed in both attempts: in the former because, characteristically, he messed up the complicated procedure—it’s not as easy as one might think to resign from the U.S.A.; in the latter because the Russian authorities were understandably leery of him. After thinking it over for half a year, the State Department decided that, since he had failed to denationalize himself, he was still a citizen and his passport must be renewed. The travel loan was routine; almost any American stranded abroad without funds can get one, it seems. Oswald paid it back—in conscientious installments of $9.71 up—before he shot the President.
Appendix XI is 38 pages of Photostats of reports by Captain Fritz of the Dallas police, F.B.I. agents Hosty, Bookhout and Clements, Inspector Kelly of the Secret Service, and Postal Inspector Holmes on the interrogations of Oswald. Why Inspector Holmes was included is not explained—that Oswald rented post-office boxes under a false name seems the only connection—but it was fortunate because his account is the most intelligent, with Inspector Kelly second, Captain Fritz third and the F.B.I. agents in the awkward squad. Captain Fritz’s opacity is more personal than official and so his report gives us a few glimpses of reality. But Messrs. Hosty and Bookhout are professionally stupid: their thinking has become so bureaucratized that it excludes unofficial reality, i.e., real reality. In their report Oswald doesn’t say, he admits. When “he admitted…to having received an award for marksmanship while a member of the U.S. Marine Corps,” one begins to wonder about this “Marine Corps” and its so-called marksmanship awards.” Maybe some kind of cover?
But the quality of these reports isn’t the point. The best of them add little to what we already knew, but Oswald was an uncooperative witness, either clamming up or recklessly lying whenever the questions brought up hard evidence tying him to the assassination, and perhaps here we have all the meat there was in the approximately twelve hours of interrogations. What is appalling, unbelievable, is that these reports, written later in part from memory, in some cases days later, are all we shall ever know. There was no stenographer or tape recorder. The Dallas police are capable of anything, but I cannot explain why the F.B.I. and Secret Service agents present didn’t think of making a record. Were they as inefficient as the cops? Did they, too, fail to recognize this was a fairly important murder case, and that a transcript of those nearly twelve hours of questioning might be worth some trouble and expense? The Report offers no explanation or criticism, seems unaware of any problem. In my much too cursory looking through the complete testimony, which was not published until I was in the final stages of this article, I ran across the following:
Mr. Ball: Did you have any tape recorder?
Captain Fritz: No, sir.…We need one. If we had one at this time we could have handled these conversations far better.
Mr. Ball: The Dallas Police Department doesn’t have one?
Captain Fritz: No, sir. I have requested one several times but so far they haven’t gotten me one.
Mr. Ball didn’t ask the obvious next question, “Why didn’t you or somebody else think of renting or borrowing one?” The subject was simply dropped. I conclude that the Commission drew back from a line of inquiry that would have discredited the Dallas cops and, more important, the F.B.I. and the Secret Service. And I’m sorry to say this is not the only time such a conclusion may be drawn from the Warren Report.
Judging the Report as a literary work, I find the style and
the form are not well calculated to produce the desired effect on the reader,
i.e., that he is getting at last the definitive account, complete and objective,
of what happened in Dallas. What was wanted was a tightly organized presentation
of the “hard” evidence (ballistic and other identification tests, dates and
places and documents) plus a tough-minded evaluation of the “soft” evidence,
mostly eyewitness testimony, which would not try to conceal or explain away
places where it contradicted any general theory the Commission had formed. (It
was proper, indeed necessary, that it should have such a theory since it
couldn’t have made sense out of the facts without some hypothesis providing a
provisional context to which they could be related; but when a fact collides
with a theory, it is the latter that should be altered.) Something like the
early Sherlock Holmes. Or that laconic, understated, and deadly clear work two
young English booksellers, John Carter and Graham Pollard, published in 1934
under its demurely drab title, An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain
Nineteenth Century Pamphlets, a cargo of high-explosive research that blew
up the reputation of Thomas J. Wise, the highly respected “dean of English
bibliographers,” exposing him as the fabricator and marketer, in his youth, of
some fifty bogus first editions.
No, this is not what the Warren Report gives us. Its prose is at best workmanlike but too often turgidly legalistic or pompously official. It obscures the strong points of its case, and many are very strong, under a midden-heap of inessential Facts of which I’ve given samples above. Its tone is that of the advocate, smoothing away or sidestepping objections to his “case,” rather than the impartial judge or the researcher welcoming all data with detached curiosity. Its structure is clumsy, confused and repetitious. Oswald’s biography, for example, is scattered in three places.
Chapter VI (“Investigation of Possible Conspiracy”) has 79 pages of it under the subheading “Background of Lee Harvey Oswald,” which is at once followed by the 50 pages of Chapter VII bearing an almost identical title, “Lee Harvey Oswald: Background and Possible Motives,” and finally the 72 pages of Appendix XIII: “Biography of Lee Harvey Oswald.” Why this obsessive returning to Oswald, why the disproportionate space devoted to him—almost a fourth of the Report? The Commissioners build in a Romanesque style that seems needlessly massive, but their Oswald buttress is so thick as to suggest to the cynical that the builders may have felt their fabric was weakest at that point.
These defects don’t necessarily invalidate the Report’s conclusions: a sound theory may be poorly presented, a prejudiced judge may arrive at a correct decision. The publicists who have insisted that Oswald was framed or was part of a conspiracy naturally give sinister explanations of the Report’s one-sidedness. The most informed and rational of them is Leo Sauvage, the American correspondent of the Paris daily, Le Figaro, whose book on the assassination Les Editions de Minuit is about to publish. He is the only one I know of who doesn’t have a large, left-handed political ax to grind. On a very different level are the books of Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Joesten, or the articles and speeches of the New York lawyer and politician, Mark Lane, who, like them, expounds the conspiracy thesis far less reasonably and far more tendentiously than the Warren Report argues the opposite case. Or Bertrand Russell, who, according to I. F. Stone, calls it the American Dreyfus case, with Lane cast as Zola, and has smeared the Warren Commissioners with such charges as that Congressman Ford of Michigan was “a leader of his local Goldwater movement” when in fact Mr. Ford nominated Romney at the Republican Convention in the hope of stopping Goldwater. “Demonology,” Mr. Stone, hardly a supporter of The Establishment, calls it in the October 5 issue of his newsletter. These diehards wouldn’t have been convinced by the Warren Report if Jehovah had descended in Person and had the Recording Angel engrave it on tablets of stone before their eyes. They often refer to Murray Kempton’s article in the October 10th New Republic, which is indeed much the best evaluation I’ve seen, and especially to his conclusion, with which I agree, that it is essentially a brief for the prosecution. But they seldom quote the full sentence: “In sum, he [Earl Warren] has given us an immense and almost indisputable statement for the prosecution.” (“Almost indisputable” seems to me just right.) Nor do they say much about an earlier sentence: “It is hard to believe [after reading the Report] that Oswald did not kill John F. Kennedy, and that he did not act alone.”
Partisanship does infect the Report, however, and it
won’t do to pretend otherwise. In two ways. The Prosecutor’s Brief:
accepting or rejecting testimony according to how it fits into what the
Commissioners want to prove. And The Establishment Syndrome: the
reflexive instinct of people in office to trust other officials more than
outsiders, and to gloss over their mistakes.
Mr. Kempton has noted the Report’s tendency to “tidy up its case with evidence that is not evidence…to convince the unpersuaded by the desperate sort of carpentry which trims every piece to make it neat, even though the whole is untidy.” He gives two examples: the escalation of Howard Brennan’s distant glimpse of a man firing a rifle from a sixth-floor window of the School Book Depository into a “positive identification” of Oswald, although all he could tell the police at the time was that the man was white, slim, and in his early thirties, and although when he first saw Oswald in the police lineup, Brennan would only say he might be the man. Later he became positive, explaining that on that wild first day he had feared it was a Communist conspiracy whose agents might kill him and his family if he had identified Oswald. Could be, but there’s no could-be about the fact that, as Kempton observes, “The case against Oswald badly needs an unimpeachable eyewitness.” His other instance is the Report’s claim that Oswald’s firing three accurate rounds in under eight seconds was not fantastic luck but quite expectable, although his marksmanship record in the Marines was mediocre. and although three crack shots, firing at a moving target at the same angle and distance, didn’t do much better, and sometimes worse, than Oswald did.
There are other examples of The Prosecutor’s Brief and/or The Establishment Syndrome. To cite a few:
The murder of Officer Tippit is usually considered the weakest link in the chain of evidence against Oswald. The testimony is even more confused and contradictory than in the assassination of the President although (or perhaps because) there were more eyewitnesses, three to the murder itself and seven to the flight of the killer. The Report claims that nine of them “positively identified” Oswald, an exaggeration since some did so after seeing him on TV and others weeks later from photographs. And there were those extraordinary lineups staged by the Dallas police. A taxi driver, William Whaley, for example, made a “positive identification” of Oswald as having taken his cab right after the assassination. “You could have picked him out without identifying him,” he told the Commission, “by just listening to him, because he was bawling out the policeman, telling him it wasn’t right to put him in line with those teen-agers [Oswald was twenty-four] and all of that….” The Commission’s comments are: (1) Whaley was mistaken about the lineup: he said there were five teen-agers plus Oswald in it but in fact there were only three (which the unofficial mind might think made it all the worse); (2) “Whaley believes that Oswald’s conduct did not aid him in his identification ‘because I knew he was the right one as soon as I saw him’”; (3) “The Commission is satisfied that the lineups were conducted fairly.”
The Dallas police are let off easy all through the Report—officials of a feather stick together—as its passing over their failure to make a record of Oswald’s interrogation; its blandness about their letting their prisoner get killed right in headquarters (“The Abortive Transfer” is the wonderful title it gives that episode); its blaming the press and TV almost as much as Chief Curry for the bedlam in the corridors, which Captain Fritz testified had upset Oswald and made it harder to interrogate him, and which was responsible for enabling Jack Ruby simply to stroll in and shoot Oswald. It’s not that the reporters didn’t behave badly but that the Report pictures Chief Curry as helpless under their pressure. But of course he could have cleared them out any time he liked. Only he didn’t like. As he told the Commission: “I didn’t order them out of the building, which if I had to do over again I would. In the past, like I say, we had always maintained very good relations with our press, and they had always respected us.” His men also cherished “good relations with our press,” i.e., publicity, especially on television. Watching the screen those two days I came to expect anybody in uniform, from patrolman to chief, to begin to talk the minute a camera was pointed his way, nor was I surprised to notice the at the moment Ruby darted out with his gun, the tall, ten-gallon-hatted deputy whose wrist was chained to Oswald’s, the better to guard him, was looking with a bemused smile in the other direction, where the cameras were.
The three eyewitnesses to the Tippit murder who testified
before the Commission were Domingo Benavides, a truck driver, William Scoggins,
a taxi driver, and Mrs. Helen Markham, a waitress. They must have been
disappointing, though the Report maintains its usual composure. Benavides
said he couldn’t make a positive identification; Scoggins did pick Oswald out
of “a lineup of four persons,” which sounds like the teen-ager farce Whaley
had described; also, the lineup was a day later and Scoggins “thought” he
had by then seen a picture of Oswald in the newspaper. That left Mrs. Markham,
and the Report makes the most of her. Mrs.
Markham’s testimony is vivid: “He fell to the ground and his cap went a
little way out on the street.” She is also definite; the trouble is she is
differently definite at different times. She first told reporters the killer was
short and stocky, with bushy hair; next made a “positive identification” of
Oswald, who was slender and thin-haired, at one of those lineups; then was
called from New York by Mark Lane who momentarily elicited her agreement that
the killer was “slightly heavy” (but “not too heavy”) and that his hair
was “uh, yeh, uh, just a little bit bushy, uh-huh”; then testified before
the Commission that the man was the slim, non-bushy-haired Oswald and denied she
had ever spoken to, or heard of, Mark Lane; then later, when a Commission lawyer
played for her a tape recording of the phone call that Mr. Lane, a New York
rather than a Dallas type, had presciently made, admitted it was her voice and
explained she had though she was talking to a local cop and so had been confused
when she was asked about a call from a New York lawyer. Not the most solid of
witnesses, even in the discreet prose of the Report, and much less so in her
unexpurgated testimony. At the opening of one session, she is evidently so
agitated that Mr. Ball, the Commission’s lawyer, tries to soother her: “Take
it easy, this is just—“ Mrs. M.: “I am very shook up.” Mr. B.: “This
is a very little informal conference here.” She pulls herself together. “I
had came, I come one block. I had come one block from my home,” she begins,
pinning grammar to the mat on the third fall. But a few more questions reduce
her to chaos: “Now you have got me all mixed up on my streets.” She is also
frightened: “And I was scared, which I was scared of everybody…. I don’t
want to do something wrong.” She clings to her identification of Oswald as a
lifeline that will save her from everybody except Mr. Lane, who isn’t a
policeman, let alone a Supreme Court justice. Mr. Lane couldn’t budge her on
that even when she thought he was a cop. Apropos of her picking Oswald out of
the lineup, “I took my time,” she tells him proudly, adding, “Of course, I
was passing out all the time.” A rich character for a novelist, one would
think, but an alarming witness. Not at all. She saw what she was supposed to
see, and the Report makes a stately bow of appreciation: “Addressing itself
solely to the probative value of Mrs. Markham’s contemporaneous description of
the gunman and her positive identification of Oswald at a police lineup, the
Commission considers her testimony reliable.” “Probative” is one of its
most useful euphemisms: it means the testimony doesn’t stand up by itself but
with all that other testimony in the same direction, it’ll do. Sometimes two
or three “probative” cripples seem to be holding each other up—in a
probative, or Pickwickian, sense, of course. The Witnesses, the Bantam
paperback edited by the New York Times, prints extracts from the testimony of 77
witnesses. But nothing from Mrs. Markham. Journalists are sometimes smarter than
Toward those whose testimony doesn’t fit, the Commission is less gallant. In his introduction to The Witnesses, Anthony Lewis describes Chairman Warren as “a friendly, grandfatherly figure to…Marina, but a relentless questioner of other witnesses.” Exactly. They can’t get enough of Marina’s testimony and treat her with a respect—“a brave little woman,” their Chairman has described her—that seems to me excessive. She is a far better witness than Oswald’s mother, not a high standard, but the Commission’s softness toward the wife and hardness toward the mother seem also due to the fact that the former thinks Oswald guilty while the latter doesn’t. Marina seems a little too eager to please, as when she told a story of Oswald’s planning an attack on Nixon which the Report shows couldn’t be true because Nixon wasn’t in Texas anywhere near that time. Vice-President Johnson was, however, and when asked whether it might have been he, Marina replied, à la Markham: “Yes, no. I am getting a little confused with so many questions. I was absolutely convinced it was Nixon and now after all these questions I wonder if I am right in my mind.” The Commission decided her evidence was “of no probative value.”
George and Patricia Nash, of Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research, spent some time in Dallas primarily looking into the Tippit murder and published the results in the October 12, 1964, New Leader. They found two eyewitnesses who had not been questioned by the Commission: Acquilla Clemmons, who saw two men near Tippit’s car just before the shooting; and Frank Wright, who ran out of his house at the shots—his wife put in the first phone call to the police—and saw a man looking down at Tippit “a while” and then running over to “a grey, little old coupe” and driving off in it. The Nashes, who admire the Report, admit that Miss Clemmons’ story was “vague” (as Mrs. Markham’s, I wonder?) and that Mr. Wright’s man may have been just a passerby (Wright saw no gun) who didn’t want to get involved. But Wright’s story, which is coherent and detailed and which he is positive about (“I saw that man drive off in a grey coupe just as clear as I was born”), was as worth hearing as the ones the Commission did hear on the Tippit murder. But of course it didn’t fit: Oswald couldn’t drive a car, and the witnesses who did fit, and were heard, all testified the killer ran away on foot.
The Report states that the man who on the night of April 10, 1963, took a potshot at the ultra-right General Walker in his Dallas home was Oswald. Apart from Marina’s story, there is one solid bit of evidence: a note she said Oswald left her before setting out that night giving her instructions about rent, money, disposal of his personal belongings, etc., and ending: “11. If I am alive and taken prisoner, the city jail is located at….” The handwriting was identified as his and , from internal evidence, the date of the note was placed around the time of the attack on Walker. She also gave them photographs of Walker’s house that were identified as taken by Oswald’s camera. With so much evidence, it is curious the Commission doesn’t go very much into the circumstances of the attack, and especially curious it couldn’t find room among its 552 witnesses for Kirk Newman, a fourteen-year-old boy who told reporters he had seen “several men jump into an automobile after the shooting and speed away.” He may have been mistaken, or perhaps there was an innocent explanation (services were in progress in a church next door), but all we know is that his testimony didn’t fit.
Such are some of the defects of the Warren Report. They can
be explained as indications either of a deliberate attempt by the Commission to
cover up, for raisons d’état, a broader conspiracy; or of a
professional deformation of intelligence. I believe the first explanation
extremely unlikely, for reasons to be considered later, and the second extremely
The trouble with the Warren Report is that is was written by lawyers. All seven of the Commissioners graduated from law school and made their early careers as lawyers. It could hardly have been otherwise: the vast majority of our political and governmental Establishment were trained as lawyers; from the early years of the Republic, much over half our Senators and Congressmen have been lawyers; this is a legal-minded country, at least on its top levels, and while one or two non-lawyers might have been wedged into the Commission had anybody thought about it—and nobody did because legal training is thought of as the normal preparation for public life—a distinguished and representative group of Americans like the Warren Commission was bound to be overweighted with lawyers simply because of their numerical preponderance in our Establishment. Very well. The General Counsel, J. Lee Rankin, was naturally a lawyer, likewise his fourteen Assistant Counsel. But to a non-lawyer it seems disproportionate that it should have needed no less than fifteen of these Counsel—it’s plural, like fish, or sheep—to advise the Commission, all lawyers themselves, on legal points (was that the main question?) while it required only twelve Staff Members to conduct the nonlegal aspects of the Commission’s work. However, as the Foreword explains, those fifteen Counsel didn’t just advise about libel and torts and the Constitutional aspects of shooting the President and the rights of a dead defendant, if any. They “undertook the work of the Commission with a wealth of legal and investigative experience and a total dedication to the determination of the truth.” They did the job, in short. “The Commission has been assisted by highly qualified personnel from several Federal agencies,” namely the Staff, who are thus relegated to the “also-assisted” level. Not that it would have made much difference had the Staff been on top, since seven of the twelve were also lawyers. And of these seven, three were to become law clerks to Justice Warren, Judge Medina, and Justice Matthew Tobriner and the year before one had been Justice Harlan’s law clerk—that is, ambitious young chaps who were not going to step out of the lines drawn by their chiefs. So of the thirty-four persons—Commissioners, Counsel and Staff—who were important enough to get their names in the Report, just five were not lawyers, three being from the Internal Revenue Service and two being “Air Force historians.”
A layman might think those four law clerks could have been replaced by, say, a psychiatrist (plenty of lay analysis practiced in the Report’s over 200 pages on Oswald’s twisted life, including a suggestion Marina’s rejection of him as a husband the night before the assassination might have been an immediate motive, as it might—but an expert opinion would have been interesting), a detective or two, maybe a political journalist (Lippmann? Reston? Kempton? Rovere?) or a real historian, not from the Air Force, who knew something about extremist politics (Richard Hofstadter? C. Vann Woodward? Daniel Bell?). Or Erle Stanley Gardner, less for his detective stories than for his work in The Court of Last Resort, just the kind of resourceful defender of the legal underdog that the dead Oswald needed.
The lawyers were in charge, however, twenty-nine to five, and they messed it up. Wits in the capital call Earl Warren “the Washington of the Supreme Court” and certainly his rectitude was as important to the Commission as Washington’s was to the infant republic. But, like Washington, his character is as solid as his intellect is not, and the Commission could have done with a Disraeli or a Metternich to supplement Mr. Warren’s unimpeachable honesty with peachable cleverness. They might have, in that case, handled better the awkward business of the chief, indeed the only, suspect’s being dead. “The Commission has functioned,” states the Foreword, “neither as a court presiding over an adversary proceeding nor as a prosecutor determined to prove a case, but as a fact-finding agency committed to the ascertainment of truth.” But American lawyers are trained in “adversary proceedings” and ex-lawyers who have become judges or politicians or bankers or even the head of the C.I.A. show this professional deformation. Our “adversary” system works well enough in trials, where a rough balance of truth can be arrived at by the dialectic clash of prosecution and defense, but the Commission faced the unprecedented problem of a defendant who couldn’t defend himself, making the “adversary” dialectic impossible. They took the fact-finding-agency-committed-to-truth line, but they seem to have doubted, as well they might, their ability to cleave to it and so, three months after they began their labors, they gave in to outside objections and “in fairness to the alleged assassin and his family…requested Walter E. Craig, President of the American Bar Association, to participate in the investigation and to advise the Commission whether in his opinion the proceedings conformed to the basic principles of American justice.” He accepted this vague mandate and carried it out even more vaguely. Although he and his “associates” (names not given) were made free of all data in the Commission’s files, plus “opportunity to cross-examine witnesses, to recall any witnesses prior to his appointment” and to suggest new witnesses, they seem to have exercised these privileges sparingly, if at all. There may be traces of Mr. Craig’s activity in the complete testimony, though I found none in the interrogations of Mr. Brennan or Mrs. Markham, witnesses one would expect to be a cross-examiner’s delight. Nor has he left any impress on the Report, whose index doesn’t list him. So I suspect this is a lawyer’s idea of “making the record” and that, after appointing the fantasmal Craig to watch over Oswald’s interests, the Commission felt free, morally and in a public-relations sense, to go to town for the prosecution. The suspicion hardened when I read, “This procedure was agreeable to counsel for Oswald’s widow,” and remembered that Oswald’s widow was a leading witness for the prosecution. Oswald’s mother, who insisted he was framed, was the one the procedure should have been “agreeable to.” But her lawyer, Mark Lane, had asked to be recognized as defense attorney long before Mr. Craig was drafted, and had been decisively snubbed by Earl Warren. I sympathize with the Chairman: if Mr. Craig was King Log, Mr. Lane would have been King Stork. He strikes me less as a truth seeker than as a tireless and somewhat demagogic advocate, and I can imagine that publicity circus, the confusion, the waste of time had he been given status before the Commission as a lawyer for a client that only an embattled partisan would have wanted to represent: Mother Oswald, whose mental processes are even more “shook up” than Mrs. Markham’s. Cf. pages 336–340 of The Witnesses, in which she accuses, out of a clear sky, Marina, Mrs. Paine and two Secret Service agents of conspiring to assassinate President Kennedy and to frame her son for it. The sky remains clear after Counsel Rankin’s agitated questioning—he’s pretty shook up, too—except for such supporting evidence as that Marina hit baby June with a comb, that one of the agents was impudent to her (Marguerite) when she protested, that Mrs. Paine, and Marina, had “turned against” her, and so…. She was unable to produce any evidence against the second Secret Service agent beyond his association with the first, but she did implicate “another high official” whose name Mr. Rankin was unable to elicit. Any serious investigating body might well draw back from such a counsel representing such a client. But I think a less lawyer-like Commission could have hit on something between the extremes of Mr. Craig and Mr. Lane: an energetic but responsible Devil’s Advocate who would have asked the important questions that were not asked. Erle Stanley Gardner would at least have been an improvement on President Craig of the American Bar Association.
The American legal mind is often subtle and complex, but its “adversary” training pushes it toward an Either/Or solution which treats Facts not as ever-changing pointers toward an ever-changing hypothesis, but as uniformed troops to be strategically massed so as to overwhelm the enemy by sheer numbers. The irony is that a much shorter Report, concentrating on the “hard” evidence instead of relying on great accumulations of often dubious testimony, would have been more effective than the present one because it would have presented a shorter, and stronger, defensive front. But lawyers are always out for total victory—I attribute the Commission’s “adversary” bias against Oswald simply to the fact that the prima-facie case against him was so strong. But—another irony—it was just this insistence on total victory that caused the Report to defend every position when it would have been tactically shrewder to abandon the more vulnerable ones. Why not admit that Mrs. Markham was a poor witness, that the Dallas police lineups were absurd, that a record should have been made of the interrogations of Oswald, that Oswald got his 1963 passport through a slipup in the official machinery, etc.? No damage would have been done to the Commission’s basic case, the diehard skeptics would have had less ammunition, and those “rumors and speculations” the Report was intended to exorcise would have been more effectively deflated.
In a Lou Harris poll taken after the publication of the Report, eighty-seven percent of the respondents believed Oswald shot the President, but thirty-one percent still thought he had accomplices that have not yet been discovered. Thus, with a third of the American public—and undoubtedly a larger percentage of Europeans—the Warren Report has not succeeded in its chief object. The ghost of conspiracy still walks.
The ghost may never be laid, if only because so many people
accreted so much information about those two days in Dallas, and have developed
such elaborate systems of casuistry to explain them, that discussions tend to be
as inconclusive as those that used to grind on for hours about the symbolism in
But perhaps I can rescue the Warren Report from its authors. Its shortcomings are serious, sometimes inexcusable, but not fatal, because it proves its big point beyond a reasonable doubt—which, by the way, doesn’t mean all doubt—namely that Oswald killed the President and there were no accomplices. It achieves this partly because it has the virtue of its defect: the abundance of data I’ve objected to as confusing is sometimes, to the patient reader, illuminating. In criticizing the Report’s verbosity, one shouldn’t forget its many little triumphs in bringing to bear on specific points the Facts amassed in 30,000 pages of F.B.I. and Secret Service reports, a lot of man-hour sleuthing. For instance, pages 256–257 show that Oswald paid for his trip to the Soviet Union without help from either the C.I.A. or the Kremlin; page 274 convinces me that his membership in the Belorussian Society of Hunters and Fishermen was not a cover for secret training as a Soviet agent; pages 322–323 trace his movements on September 26–27, 1963, in such detail as to show he couldn’t have been in Dallas then and so couldn’t have been the man that Mrs. Odio, a Cuban exile, thought she had met as “Leon Oswald” under conspiratorial circumstances.
But the most convincing aspect of the Report is the “hard” evidence:
(1) On March 13, 1963, Klein’s Sporting Goods Company in Chicago received a purchase order, with a $21.45 postal check, for one Mannlicher-Carcano Italian military rifle, Model 91/38, equipped with a Japanese sighting scope. The order was from “A. Hidell,” P.O. Box 2915, Dallas, Texas, and the rifle was shipped to that address. (“Hidell” or “Hydell” was Oswald’s favorite alias, perhaps because, as Benjamin DeMott suggested in the December 26, 1963, New York Review of Books, “Within the soft blur of the name fantasy selves whirled like the blades of a fan: Hydell, Hidell; hide, hell, hideous, idle, idol, Fidel, Hyde, Jekyll.”) The application form for Dallas P.O. Box 2915 and the purchase order sent to Klein’s were both identified, by two “questioned document experts” from the F.B.I. and the Treasury Department, as in Oswald’s handwriting.
(2) A Mannlicher-Carcano Italian military rifle was found shortly after the shooting on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald worked and where fellow workers have placed him on the morning of the assassination. Its barrel was stamped with the serial number C2766, which was the number of the rifle sent to “A. Hidell,” Box 2915, Dallas, according to Klein’s records. The Italian armed-forced intelligence stated that “this particular rifle was the only rifle of its type bearing the number C2766.” On the underside of the barrel a palm print was found which was identified as Oswald’s by Sebastian Latona, of the “Latent Fingerprint” division of the F.B.I. No other prints were found on the rifle.
(3) One whole bullet and fragments of other bullets were recovered from the car in which the President was riding and the stretcher on which Governor Connally was carried into the Parkland Hospital. The spent cartridges were found on the sixth floor of the School Book Depository. Four ballistics experts, three from the F.B.I and one from the Illinois police, agreed that the bullet, the bullet fragments, and the cartridges had all been fired in the C2766 Mannlicher-Carcano rifle “to the exclusion of all other weapons.”
(4) When Oswald was arrested in the movie theatre a half hour after the Tippit shooting, the police took a revolver from him—they testified he tried to shoot Officer Macdonald with it, inconsistencies have been pointed out in their testimony, cops are not my favorite kind of witnesses, let it go, not essential. What cannot be disputed is that the gun was a .38 Smith & Wesson special two-inch Commando, serial number V510210. Nor is there any doubt that it was bought from Seaport Traders Incorporated, of Los Angeles, who shipped it on March 20, 1963, to A.J. Hidell, Post Office Box 2915, Dallas, or that the handwriting on the order coupon was Oswald’s. The four bullets recovered from Tippit’s body were consistent with this gun but could not be “positively” identified with it to the exclusion of all other guns of its type because they were a trifle too small for the barrel and so were mangled passing through it; technical stuff, see page 559. But three eyewitnesses had turned over to the police four spent cartridges: the truck driver, Benavides, who saw Tippit fall and later picked up two shells he had seen the killer eject from his revolver was he ran away; and two young women living in the neighborhood who heard the shots, ran to the door, saw a man running across their lawn emptying his gun, and later gave the police two shells they had found near their house. Two ballistics experts, Mr. Cunningham of the F.B.I. and Mr. Nicol of the Illinois police, positively identified these four cartridges as having been fired from the .38 Smith & Wesson Commando, serial V510210, that was found on Oswald when he was arrested.
If we accept the evidence summarized above, we must
conclude that Oswald almost certainly killed the President and that he certainly
killed Tippit. If we reject some or all of it as faked, then we must assume two
conspiracies, one for the assassination and a second to cover up the first by
There are four possibilities:
Oswald was innocent, just a case of mistaken identity.
He was innocent but was framed by the real criminals.
He was part of a conspiracy; he may or may not have done one or both killings; he may or may not have been betrayed by his confederates and made to appear the sole assassin of the President.
He did both killings alone; there were no accomplices and no conspiracy.
Whether one believes the “hard” evidence or not, (1) is
ruled out, since if one believes it is true [the hard evidence—KAR], he
was guilty, and if one believes it is doctored, the only possibilities are (2)
or (3). It seems almost impossible to believe (2) in the face of all the
evidence, hard or soft, that ties him to the incriminating guns and documents
and puts him at the scene of the assassination and has him running away and then
shooting down a cop who stops him on the street for questioning.
Parenthetically, I think it interesting that the direct, or eyewitness, testimony on the Tippit murder is the weakest against Oswald, while the “hard” evidence (ballistics, handwriting, etc.) is the strongest. I have never understood the popular prejudice against “just circumstantial evidence.” My impression is that more innocent defendants have been convicted by sincere, but mistaken, eyewitness testimony than by the other kind. “Sometimes circumstantial evidence is very strong,” Thoreau observed, “as when you find a trout in the milk.” An article in The American Bar Association Journal by a staff member of the Warren Commission, Miss Alfredda Scobey, is relevant. According to a report in the January 11th New York Times that comes to hand the morning this goes to press, Miss Scobey analyzes the Report in terms of Texas legal practice and concludes that, while it gives “the whole picture,” which is true, it is also “crammed with facts that would not be admissible in the trial of a criminal case,” which is also true. She notes the flimsiness of the Brennan “positive identification” of Oswald as the man firing from the sixth-story window of the Depository, but dwells mostly on the admission of Marina Oswald’s testimony—a wife cannot testify against her husband, even in Texas. The die-hard skeptics—I am a die-easy skeptic, I give in to evidence—will make much of Miss Scobey’s article, but they will ignore her assumption that it was not a criminal trail, since the defendant was dead. That the evidence against Oswald should have been examined more skeptically is a failure in fact-finding, not in civil liberties, and the Commission would have committed still another error had it limited itself by the “adversary-proceeding” rules of evidence which would have merely made it harder to discover the truth without benefitting the defendant who was, as noted above, dead. Nor will it impress them that a Commission staff member was able to publish in a reputable, even stuffy, law journal such an objective analysis and one that indicates a certain well-founded doubt about the Commission’s procedure even as a fact-finding body. (I would take this as indicating that the Report’s defects were due to bungling—which is open to public discussion—rather than to a conspiracy to suppress the truth, which, by definition, is not. At least not by insiders like Miss Scobey.) Her modest conclusion will also be ignored by the die-hards: that the circumstantial evidence against Oswald “is either more cogent or less subject to attack than the direct evidence.” A whole school of trout are swimming around in all that milk.
The advantage of (3) is that it explains so many puzzling details: Oswald’s lucky shooting (a more expert marksman used his rifle), how the police got a description of him so quickly (they had already framed him—though then why did Officer Baker let him leave the Depository?), the killing of Tippit (Oswald realized his fellow conspirators were framing him when Tippit stopped him—though  also explains it), the cops letting Ruby in to kill Oswald. Indeed (3) explains practically anything that needs explaining. For instance: Mrs. Odio thought she met Oswald when she couldn’t have, a gunsmith found a work tag marked “Oswald” for installing a sighting scope (Oswald’s rifle already had a scope when he bought it), a sportsman at a local target range identified Oswald as a man he saw practicing there, getting into a noisy row, and driving off in a car (Oswald couldn’t drive), etc. Oswald was not unusual looking and a double might have been busy planting incriminating clues. A double really makes detective work child’s play: maybe Oswald didn’t even kill Tippit, maybe that double stole his gun, shot Tippit with it, rushed to the cops who planted it on Oswald a half hour later after he had obligingly called attention to himself by hurrying down the street, ducking into the movie lobby when he heard police sirens, and running into the theatre without buying a ticket (which led the woman in the box office to call the police). Well, no, I guess even a double doesn’t explain all that. But now suppose there were two doubles…and if all three got mixed up somehow…and Ruby killed an Oswald facsimile…and Oswald is living right now in the Argentine next door to a German with a small moustache….
The drawback of (3) or any other conspiracy theory is that it soon faces a dilemma. Either: (A) Some or all of the many investigators knew about a conspiracy in advance, perhaps were part of it, or discovered it later and then covered it right up again. Or: (B) They knew of no conspiracy, were part of none, and although one existed, their best efforts were unable to find any trace.
To believe (A), it is not enough to pin it on the Dallas police or “certain elements” in the F.B.I. or the C.I.A. or whatnot. We must go all the way to the top, to President Johnson, to J. Edgar Hoover, to Chief Justice Warren, because if the conspiracy did not reach that high, then some investigator who worked for a boss who was not in the conspiracy and was of a higher rank than any of the officials who were would have run across something fishy, some loose end, have tugged at it with innocent zeal and pulled up another odd fish, would have innocently told his innocent boss, and that would be it. The Dallas cops couldn’t possibly have covered up a conspiracy from the F.B.I., nor the F.B.I. from the Warren Commission. Nor can I conceive of any raison d’état that would make a man of Earl Warren’s character falsify his Report on the assassination of his President, or one that would have caused the then Attorney-General of the United States, an able, energetic and aggressive man with great resources at his command for criminal investigation including the F.B.I., agreeing to let the murderers of a beloved brother go unpunished
Alternative (B), that an honest investigation of the scope of this one would not turn up one accomplice of Oswald or Ruby, thus seems possible in formal logic but not in real life. I can’t believe that among the many hundreds of detectives, F.B.I. and Secret Service agents, and workers for the Warren Commission, assuming, as (B) does, they were really trying to find what there was to be found, not one would be bright, or lucky, enough to discover, or stumble across, some clue if there were any there. Nor that any conspiracy could be so perfectly managed as to defy such a massive investigation, and not to yield one stray bean to be spilled by one imperfect human instrument, and if I were planning to murder a President, Jack Ruby and Lee Oswald would be far down on my list of reliable instruments.
But no beans have been spilled. Those who believe the Warren Report is deliberately hiding some explosive truth can cite chapter and verse, as I have, on its obfuscations, but when they try to describe the precise nature of this political land mine and to relate it to specific evidence in the Report, they abandon chapter and verse for the hymnal. M. Sauvage sings very low: his Gallic logic tells him the Report couldn’t be that bad unless it is hiding something, but he prudently refuses to speculate on what.
The most eminent of those who imply the Report is rigged, but cautiously refrain from specifying why or by whom or for what end exactly, is Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, who published a sweeping attack in The (London) Sunday Times for December 13th: “Kennedy Murder Inquiry Suspect” runs the headline, while the subhead informs us that the Regius Professor, “who cables this astonishing report from America, finds that suppressed police and medical evidence eluded the Warren Commission.” Some of Mr. Trevor-Roper’s criticisms were sound but not original, and some were original but not sound. Notable in the second category are his two main charges: that since American police “automatically” make a transcript of all interrogations of suspects “even in the most trivial cases,” one must have been made in Oswald’s case and therefore it must have been “destroyed by the F.B.I. or the police”; and that “the chief pathologist, Dr. Humes, signed an affidavit that he had burned all his original notes and had kept no copy,” so that “Only the official autopsy, compiled [as is clearly stated] with the aid of police evidence, survives.” Three days later “informed persons” on the Commission’s staff showed that both charges were, putting it politely, insubstantial. It seems the normal practice of our police is not to “automatically” make a record of interrogations until the suspect begins to make incriminating admissions (as Oswald didn’t), at which point a stenographer is called in. That a record should have been made is obvious, as noted extensively above, but it is quite another thing to assume that one was made and later destroyed, and that the interrogators lied when they stated none was made. "This, I do not hesitate to say, cannot possibly be true,” writes the Regius Professor of History. But he should have hesitated because it can possibly be, and most probably is, true. I say “probably” because, of course, Mr. Trevor-Roper may be right—all kinds of things may have happened, if there was a conspiracy—but he really knows no more about it than I or any other reader of the Report.
His treatment of the medical evidence is even more extraordinary. By blurring the distinction—or perhaps he is honestly unaware of it—between the surgeons at Parkland Hospital in Dallas—one of whom did think the bullets might have entered from the front (and so couldn’t have come from the Depository), because he was trying to save the President’s life and so didn’t turn him over—and the pathologists, headed by Dr. Humes, who later did the autopsy at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland and discovered that all the wounds were made from the back, and by touches like—“the Commission [could not] reexamine the medical evidence undistorted by police theories [because] only the official autopsy, compiled…with the aid of police evidence, survives,” Mr. Trevor-Roper implies the destruction of some “original” information that was purely medical and undefiled by the cops. What Dr. Humes and the Bethesda autopsists destroyed were, according to the Commission’s spokesmen, “some brief, fragmentary pencil notes that they threw away when they prepared their typewritten report.” But it is hard to see what comfort these notes might have given Mr. Trevor-Roper’s suspicions, since they were not made by the “front-wound” surgeon in Dallas but by the “back-wound” autopsists in Maryland. The only hypothesis that would work is that the Maryland autopsists, headed by Dr. Humes, in their now destroyed, rough notes had agreed with the Dallas surgeon that the wounds came from the front but that before they could type up their “official” report—how dirty he makes that word sound, almost as bad as “police”—the F.B.I. or the C.I.A. or somebody nipped in and pressured or persuaded the pathologists, hitherto respected and distinguished in their profession, to reverse their findings and falsify their report so that Lee Oswald could be framed. But if Mr. Trevor-Roper can believe all that, then why bother with the burned notes, or any other concrete evidence, since it would be as reasonable, and much easier, to assume the Maryland autopsists cooked up their notes as well as their report. “Not only have I [unlike “most newsmen”] read the 726-page Report,” Mr. Trevor-Roper states—he read the one-dollar paperback, which lacks most of the illustrated exhibits—“but I have also pursued each crucial point all the way through the 26 volumes of testimony.” But his pursuit of the nineteen doctors from the Parkland Hospital in Dallas who appeared before the Commission was not very hot. The only one he refers to is “the doctor who examined the President” (actually many doctors examined the President) who “on medical evidence alone…concluded that he [Kennedy] had been shot from the front” and later was “persuaded to adjust his medical report to this external police evidence.” Though he doesn’t mention his name, this appears to be Dr. Malcolm O. Perry, who did indeed at first speak of a front wound and then retracted. But Dr. Perry’s actual testimony gives a rather different impression: that at a confused press conference—“bedlam” he calls it—he had said it was “possible” one of the bullets had entered from the front, but hadn’t been able to make a thorough enough examination to be sure (the Report prints a November 23, 1963, New York Herald Tribune story confirming this), and that he changed his opinion because of the autopsy and not to please the police, as Mr. Trevor-Roper charges.
For a third gaffe, which I had not noticed, I am indebted to the devastating critique of the Trevor-Roper article by his colleague and friend, John Sparrow, the Master of All Souls College, that appeared, at almost equal length, in the next issue of The London Sunday Times (December 20). Professor Trevor-Roper had accused the police of destroying the original paper bag which they (and the Commission) believed Oswald had made by hand—much evidence on this, with laborious analysis of the paper and tape—to carry his gun into the Depository on the morning of the assassination, and of replacing it with “a replica bag” (his insinuating quotes). “In other words,” he concludes, “the police destroyed the real evidence and substituted their own fabrication.” Mr. Sparrow points out that the original bag was not destroyed and is in fact reproduced as a photographic exhibit on page 132 of the Report and is referred to in the text. In his reply to Mr. Sparrow in the January 3 Sunday Times, Mr. Trevor-Roper stonewalls on the other points (against implying, for instance, that poor Dr. Perry finally concluded it was an exit wound from “outside [i.e., police] evidence,” rather than from the autopsy results) but gives in on the paper bag. “I must eat humble pie,” he airily concedes. “I neglected the cardinal rule, ‘Always check your references,’ and must pay the price.” It is hard to see what he means by “checking your references” since the picture and the text both are clear on the non-destruction of the original bag; maybe “Always read a report before you attack it,” which would be a lesson well learned by the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford. Another lesson might be: Always read the original text, not a paperback reprint, for, though the bag is reproduced in the reprint, the cut (which includes the rifle) is a small half page instead of a large whole page in the G.P.O. edition, which also has a caption, lacking in the reprint: “Paper bag found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository,” which might have caught Mr. Trevor-Roper’s eye and saved him some embarrassment. And—it is again a puzzle what Mr. Trevor-Roper thinks might have been gained for his case even if the police had destroyed the original bag, since their only reason for doing so would have been to fake a replica that was longer than the original, so as to confute the two eyewitnesses whose estimate of its length was too short for it to have contained Oswald’s rifle even in a dismantled state. (That estimating length by nonprofessional and casual observers is a tricky business—does a foot look the same length to everybody?—seems not to have occurred to Mr. Trevor-Roper, any more than that Oswald may have lied when he told the witnesses, and later the police, that he was carrying curtain rods in it—the Report in its dogged way produces testimony by his landlady that his room was equipped with both curtains and curtain rods.) But Mr. Trevor-Roper doesn’t challenge the dimensions of the replica, going no farther than to insinuate: “The replica may have been a true replica, but we have to rely on a mere assertion by the police.” In short, he knows no more about it than any of us non-Regius observers do, beyond his instinctual rejection of any evidence produced by the police, the F.B.I., the Secret Service, the Warren Commission or any of those who investigated the assassination, with the exception of Mr. Mark Lane.
It is indeed an “astonishing” performance by a trained historian, but the most courteous explanation is that Mr. Trevor-Roper wrote his article less as an historian than as a loyal member of Bertrand Russell’s Who Killed Kennedy? Committee—it should really be the Who Didn’t Kill Kennedy? Committee. Yet even so he is as discreet as M. Sauvage in refusing to be precise about the nature of the conspiracy which his constant insinuations of hanky-panky and bad faith (“suppressed police and medical evidence,” etc.) logically point to, and indeed require if they are to be credible themselves.
Mr. Joesten and Mr. Buchanan supply the valor of which the Sauvage-Trevor-Roper discretion is the better part. “The conspiracy involved, I believe, some officials of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. as well as some Army figures such as General Walker, and reactionary oil millionaires such as H. L. Hunt,” Mr. Joesten states in Oswald: Assassin or Fall Guy? (page 146). Mr. Buchanan is rash as well as bold. In Who Killed Kennedy? (pages 177–190), he clears it all up, revealing that “the Dallas oligarchy” was behind the assassination, using Oswald (whom he—and Mother Oswald—thinks was working for the C.I. A. or maybe the F.B.I.) and other as yet undiscovered agents for the job, because (1) they thought Kennedy less sympathetic than Johnson to the twenty-seven-and-a-half percent oil-depletion allowance; (2) “They propose to win control of the United States from Wall Street” (his italics); and (3) they had defense contracts which were imperiled by the Kennedy-Khrushchev rapprochement—or in the author’s neo-Marxist prose: “I believe the murder of the President was provoked, primarily, by fear of the domestic and international consequences of the Moscow pact: the danger of disarmament which would disrupt the industries on which the plotters depended and of an international détente which would, in their view, have threatened the eventual nationalization of their oil investments overseas.”
It is true that the “Dallas oligarchy” had reason to dislike Kennedy’s policies, as did General Walker, H. L. Hunt, the Birchites, the Klan, Governor Wallace of Alabama, et al. And as also did Castro, the Kremlin (the détente wasn’t all that détented), and Red China, although none of the conspiracy mongers ever mention them for reasons that, as Hercule Poirot would say, leap to the eye. (I can’t quite see, even in Joestenland, how the F.B.I. or C.I.A. come in, motivewise.) But if motives were conspiracies, then journalistic beggars might ride. And speaking of motives, it seems not to have occurred to the conspiratorialists that the Kennedy-Johnson government, which was and is in control of the agencies that are alleged to have covered up the damning truth, would not at all object to discovering the assassination was the work of Mr. Hunt and other Dallas millionaires, or General Walker, or any of the right-wing persons and groups they are supposed to be masochistically protecting. But it’s not worth arguing when political passions reach this point. A Mr. Ousman Ba, who is Foreign Minister of Mali, arose in the United Nations Security Council on December 10th and “charged…that President Kennedy’s assassination, the murder of Patrice Lumumba and Dag Hammerskjöld’s death were all the work of forces that were behind the recent U.S.-Belgian rescue mission in the Congo. [Mr. Ba] did not elaborate beyond denouncing what he called ‘imperialistic forces of reaction, obscurantism and racism.’” The most elaborate nonelaboration of the year.
“Depend on it, my dear Watson, once you have eliminated
all the other possibilities, the remaining one, however improbable, is the
correct solution,” Sherlock Holmes once observed (or words to that effect). So
we are left, or stuck, with (4), that Oswald and Ruby did it all by themselves,
and, since Holmes was always right, we must accept that even though the Warren
Report says it’s true. But is it really so hard to accept? At the time that
Ruby killed Oswald (I assume Mr. Buchanan or even Foreign Minister Ba would
agree he did, though there are inconsistencies in eyewitness testimony which if
it were the Tippit murder, which was not televised, would cause the same doubts)
the conspiratorialists hailed it as the capstone of their case, and it seemed a
little queer even to me. (Still does: the Report shows that had Ruby arrived two
or three minutes earlier he would have been stopped or have missed Oswald.
Hmmm.) But now they say little about Ruby, though his killing Oswald fits into
their case better than any other of the events; instead they concentrate on the
eyewitness testimony, which is, as is normal, often confused. I think this is
because what we have learned about Ruby since then makes it impossible to
believe he could have been part of any serious conspiracy; also, of course, no
evidence has been found to connect him with one—the Report tracks down and
demolishes all the rumors—though that doesn’t usually bother them. Anyway, I
think it fair to say Ruby is no longer a difficulty. “He probably knows more
than he is telling,” is as far as even Mr. Joesten now will go.
The arguments most commonly advanced against Oswald’s being the assassin (aside from matters of evidence, with which I’ve already dealt) are: (1) As a leftist, who may well have taken that shot at General Walker, he had no political motive to shoot Kennedy. (2) Why did he insist he was innocent, if he had done it, since political murderers usually proclaim their deed proudly. (3) He couldn’t have done it alone: too much skill and planning needed.
The Report shows in detail that underdog resentment and envy together with a desperate ambition to make his mark on History (when he lacked the talents even to hold down a job, or get himself taken seriously by that beleaguered little pro-Castro community) were his chief motives. He may have had also a secondary political motive—his pathetic struggles to distinguish himself from the common herd often took a “Marxist” form—but, from my Trotskyist days, I can testify that for a real ultra-left sectarian (who would despise us Trotskyists as bourgeois compromisers) a Kennedy would seem a more dangerous enemy of World Revolution than a Walker precisely because Kennedy pretended to be on the side of the people while Walker was an open reactionary. In Oswald’s case there was also Kennedy’s hostility to Castro and his rapprochement with Khrushchev, which Oswald would have seen as a conspiracy to “sell out the revolution”—he left Russia partly because it was “too bourgeois.”
But why didn’t he proclaim his act, as one would expect if it was either a political gesture or an attempt to get into the history books (the awful thing is he has)? I think the clue is the cocky smirk one noticed whenever he appeared on TV those two days, as if to say, I know something but these dumb cops aren’t going to get it out of me. He was split between two gratifications that couldn’t be combined: that of being one up on everybody, putting it over on them—“Don’t you wish you knew?”; and that of impressing the world as the nobody who had become somebody by his extraordinary, and successful, deed. He was similarly split between making good his escape after he had shot the President, in which case he wouldn’t have been famous, and letting himself be caught, in which case he might be executed. It was possible to do both here, and so he ran away (but if he’d really wanted to escape he would have headed out of town, not back to his room), but also acted so as to insure his getting caught (taking only $13.87 getaway money that morning and leaving Marina $170, or killing Tippit, or his unusual behavior on the streets afterward). Similarly, I think he would have confessed—or rather boasted about—his assassination after he had exhausted the pleasures of frustrating the police and the press.
(After I’d worked out all this, I was reassured to see that a Dr. William Offenkrantz, of the University of Chicago, had arrived at the same line: “Criminals who unconsciously arrange for their own capture are not rare. A more bizarre possibility is that by refusing to talk, he was not just waiting for a lawyer, but perhaps enjoying the sadistic pleasure of rendering the police impotent and helpless.”)
On the impossibility of Oswald’s having done it all by himself: Garfield and McKinley were killed by lone crackpots of the Oswald type, and both Roosevelts came near it. And there is, for our European friends, Fritz Tobias’ The Reichstag Fire (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962; introduction by A. J. P. Taylor), which demonstrates to my, and Professor Taylor’s, satisfaction that van der Lubbe did it all by himself, and that it was not, as everybody at the time assumed was obvious (including me, but excepting the Berlin detectives who worked on the case), the work of either the Nazis (my view, remember The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror, one of the more inspired fabrications of Stalin’s Göebbels, Willi Münzenberg—complete with a map of the “secret tunnel” from Göring’s residence to the Reichstag which the painstaking Mr. Tobias shows was a phony?) or, as the Nazis tried to prove in court unsuccessfully, the Communists. Both sides made great play with political motivations and it was obvious to everybody that no single arsonist could have set so many fires in such a short time, just as Oswald couldn’t have made three hits in under eight seconds. Yet alas for what Must Have Been: it appears that what Was was that one fanatic, inspired by anarchistic ideas as vague as Oswald’s “Marxism” (van der Lubbe actually believed that he was helping the workers’ cause against the Nazis), did it all by himself.
As epilogists for the American anti-Iliad, or The Strange
Case of the Lawyers Who Wrote a Bad Report That Proved Their Case, let me call
on Warden Sparrow of All Souls College, the late Sir Lewis Namier, and Mr.
Robert Frazier of the F.B.I.:
Mr. Sparrow writes, apropos of the critique of the Warren Report by his colleague, Mr. Trevor-Roper: “Nothing is easier to create than an atmosphere of suspicion, nothing—so long as the crackpots and the credulous continue to abound—more difficult to dispel.”
Sir Lewis begins his essay on Open Diplomacy: “There would be little to say on this subject were it not for the nonsense which has been talked about it.”
Mr. Frazier, a firearms-identification expert, after explaining to the Warren Commission the techniques of his trade and how he had used them to identify a cartridge found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository as fired by Lee Oswald’s “fateful rifle” and no other rifle in the world, concluded his testimony:
“Dissimilarities may or may not be present, depending on whether there have been changes to the firing pin through use or wear, whether the metal flows are the same, and whether the pressures are the same or not.
“So I don’t think we can say that it is an absence of dissimilarities, but rather the presence of similarities.”
This about sums up my view of the Warren Report’s basic case. It is not an absence of dissimilarities that is convincing, but rather the presence of similarities too chronic and consistent to be explained by any hypothesis except: (4) Oswald alone killed the President; there were no accomplices and there was no conspiracy.
It is our Iliad, and Homer’s plot line has
suffered a most democratic, and American, wrench. The great Achilles is killed
by the base Thersites, “who knew within his head many words, but
disorderly;/vain, and without decency, to quarrel with the princes…./This was
the ugliest man who came beneath Ilion.”* Lee Oswald wasn’t physically ugly
but Homer’s emphasis on Thersites’ deformed body (“bandy-legged…lame of
one foot…shoulders stooped,” etc.) I take as a metaphor, in an
ante-psychiatric age when personality was assumed to express itself in physical
appearance, for a moral ugliness one senses in Oswald. After reading the
Report’s documentation on Oswald’s life and character, I understood the
heroes’ revulsion from Thersites (“Beyond all others, Achilles hated him,
and Odysseus”), although I don’t share their contempt for his speech
“abusing Agamemnon,” which seems to the modern reader sensible and justified
social criticism—the only passage of its kind in the whole poem, in fact. But
three thousand years ago even the intellectual Odysseus had never heard of
social justice. After a demagogic rebuttal, not up to his usual standard,
Odysseus beats Thersites with his scepter “and a bloody welt stood up between
his shoulders under/the golden sceptre’s stroke, and he sat down again,
frightened,/in pain, and looking helplessly about wiped off the tear-drops.”
Homer had no higher opinion of Thersites than the Commissioners do of Oswald,
but he is more just; Thersites is a man, whatever else he is, and so Homer
assumes his humiliation is moving to other men, and renders it so. I found
nothing like that in the Warren Report, but of course Homer was a poet, while
the Commissioners were lawyers. Homer drops Thersites after his brief moment in
Book II. Thersites was then just an oddity, a man before his time, good for a
small scene of sixty or seventy lines.
By the sixteenth century Thersites has moved toward the center of the stage, under different names, as the malcontent, the cynical underdog who takes out his resentment against his “betters” in words, snarling and snapping at their heels but not daring the bite of action. He has a long part in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, though none of the principals, except the ox-stupid Ajax, take his raillery as anything more than amusing rodomontade. “Thou core of envy!” Achilles sums him up contemptuously. But they should have eavesdropped on his soliloquy in Act II, Scene 3: “How now, Thersites! what lost in the labyrinth of thy fury?…I’ll learn to conjure and raise devils, but I’ll see some issue of my spiteful execrations…. I have said my prayers; and devil envy say Amen.” In the later Homeric legends, Achilles kills Thersites, whom he instinctively hated “beyond all others.” But on that day in Dallas, Thersites, who must have hated Achilles with equal passion though nobody was interested, learned how to conjure up his devils of envy, found an issue from his spite and a way out of the labyrinth of his fury and at long last dared the bite of action and showed he was the equal of Achilles, indeed his superior, by killing him with a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, $21.45, postpaid, from Klein’s Sporting Goods Company, of Chicago.
The place of the gods as the movers and contrivers of the
tragic action in the Iliad is taken, in our American version, by the
modern sense of History.
The President was undone by three trivial decisions: to ride in a “motorcade” through Dallas; to leave off the plastic bubbletop; and to remove the two Secret Service men who usually stood on runningboards on each side of the back seat. All three decisions were made in order to give the President “maximum exposure” to the public, “his” public. The motorcade, which the Dallas Morning News announced “will move slowly so that crowds can ‘get a good view’ of President Kennedy and his wife,” was opposed by some of his aides precisely on that ground; they remembered that Adlai Stevenson had been roughed up a few weeks earlier in Dallas, and they thought the city’s reputation for violence and political extremism hadn’t changed much since the Twenties, when it was known as “the Southwest hate capital of Dixie.” (Since the assassination, curio collectors in the Dallas area have bought, by mail, some one hundred-fifty Mannlicher-Carcano rifles such as Oswald used.) The bubbletop was not bulletproof but it might have deflected a shot. The two Secret Service men shielded the President somewhat but this also meant they concealed him somewhat from “his” people.
An interesting study could be made of “Presidential Exposure.” That it is dangerous is clear, yet recent Presidents, and none more than Johnson who seems to have a manic compulsion to make physical contact with as many citizens as possible, have considered it a necessary part of their job. Perhaps it is, historically. A nation of almost two hundred million cannot be governed democratically; the decisions, and the power, must be concentrated in a few men at the top, with practically everybody else looking on as impotent spectators after the event; when President Kennedy lost the Bay of Pigs, or when he won the showdown on the Cuban missile bases, “the American people” could lament or applaud from the grandstands, and even that only ex post facto. “Presidential Exposure” is one way of symbolically bridging, or rather concealing, the chasm between the too-powerful insiders and the too-powerless outsiders: a ritual compensation for an imbalance that makes both sides uneasy, for the time of the kind of autocratic power exercised by Louis XIV is past, at least in the West. “L’état, c’est nous,” the American President says, and he needs reassurance from “his” people that he is their democratic equal as much as the need from him the reverse assurance. Hence the slow-moving motorcades. But of course they aren’t equals, no matter how many times our current President grabs three or four outstretched hands at once in a frantic effort to make contact. “My” public, “my” people can turn in a wink into Alexander Hamilton’s “Your people, sir, is nothing but a great beast!” The Presidential party landed in “bright sunshine” at the Dallas airport—it is called Love Field—and after cheering crowds all along the way, Mrs. Connally, who was riding in the Kennedys’ car with her husband, the Governor of Texas—the state motto is “Friendship”—turned to the President as the motorcade was (slowly) approaching the Texas School Book Depository—what a very American site for an assassination!—and said, possibly in some relief: “Mr. President, you can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you,” to which he replied, “That is very obvious.” A minute or two later, “shots from a rifle mortally wounded President Kennedy and seriously injured Governor Connally.” The President had said his last words, but the Governor was able to gasp, before he lost consciousness, “My God, they are going to kill us all!” We and My had suddenly become They.
“It is considered certain,” a Times correspondent wrote the same day, “…that the informality of office under recent Presidents, especially President Kennedy, will be sharply curtailed. President Johnson is expected to be less publicly accessible, less in the public view.” That was very obvious. Then.
“He looked upon the eyes of future people as some kind of
tribunal, and he wanted to be in on the winning side so that ten thousand years
from now people would look in the history books and say, ‘Well, this man was
ahead of his time.’ The eyes of the future became the eyes of God. He was
concerned with his image in history.” So Kerry Thornley remembered Oswald in
the Marines. For it wasn’t only the President who was conscious of an historic
role. Oswald seems to have had History on the brain. He grandly titled the
commonplace, semiilliterate notebook he kept in Russia “Historic Diary.”
Marxism for him was a skeleton key to History, theoretically—he doesn’t seem
to have read Marx. On October 3, 1956, he wrote the Socialist Party of America
asking if there was “a branch” in my area” he could join, adding: “I am
a Marxist, and have been studying Socialist principles for well over fifteen
months.” On October 18, he became seventeen and on October 24 he enlisted in
the Marines. A record of some kind, I imagine, three weeks from one kind of
powerhouse to a different kind.
The pathos of Oswald’s life was that he had unlimited aspirations and extremely limited talents. He failed in everything he tried, defecting to the Soviet Union, holding down a fifty-dollar-a-week job, making a go of it with Marina. And the more he failed, the grander became his aspirations. “I’ll be prime minister in twenty years!” he told Marina just before he took the bus to Mexico City to get his Russian and Cuban visas, which he didn’t get. Nothing seemed to go right, nobody took him seriously, not even the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, not even the Socialist Labor Party. The one real success in his whole life seems to have been the assassination of President Kennedy. But that was a relatively simple job. No people. And a footnote in History. Like Herostratus, who set fire to the great temple of Artemis in Ephesus, to immortalize himself. That same night in 356 B.C. a Macedonian prince named Alexander was born who was to get much more space in the history books than Herostratus, as President Kennedy will than Oswald. Still, they have succeeded in a way, a small way, but these are small men, and the reach of their ambition didn’t go beyond a footnote recognizing that, while others might create, they could destroy.
History-consciousness can also operate in reverse. Nine of the twenty-eight Secret Service operatives who guarded the President that day in Dallas had violated regulations by going to late parties. The Report, with its usual blandness about official blunders, concedes this was unfortunate, but concludes probably they couldn’t have reacted any quicker anyway (though Senator Yarborough of Texas, who was in the motorcade, testified differently). In any case their Chief, Mr. Rowley, did not fire or discipline them, on Historical grounds. “I do not think in the light of history,” he told the Commission, “that they should be stigmatized with something like that.” Americans have a right to avoid, as well as to make, historical footnotes.
“Don’t worry,” Lee Oswald told Marina when she
visited him in the Dallas jail. “Everything will be all right.” He was, for
once, right. Within a fortnight she had signed a contract with one James Martin,
who was to be her “personal manager,” empowered to “advise and counsel
with me in any and all matters pertaining to publicity, public relations, and
advertising…news releases…public appearances…for television…sale of any
movie rights, magazine rights, book rights…caricatures…contracts for my
services, talents, memoirs, history story….” Not bad for only two weeks
after what Marina calls “the fateful rifle of Lee Oswald” had done its work.
The contract (Exhibit 276 in Volume XVI of the Commission’s complete
testimony) gives the impression that Marina thinks she has suddenly become Doris
Day. She even has ghostwriters. Elizabeth Hardwick quotes a former one: “I
quit because Marina has come to believe she is as important as the President of
the United States” (The New York Review of Books, November 5). The
Americanization of Marina would make an interesting movie, though I’d hate
to have to dicker with her for the rights.
Lee Oswald’s fateful rifle hasn’t done badly by his mother, either. Like Marina, she automatically became News, that is a part of History, the moment her son was arrested. Being older, less pretty and considerably more scatterbrained than Marina, Marguerite Oswald hasn’t been so visible, though she appeared in a “studio photograph,” in, I’m afraid, this magazine, with a collection of her son’s very dull letters to her. But since everybody else seems to take her importance for granted, as of and after November 22, 1963, why shouldn’t she? I read somewhere, as others seem to have also, that Mother Oswald was indignant when she didn’t receive a note of condolence on the death of her son from Jackie Kennedy. “They can’t push us around anymore—we’re in the history books now!” she is said to have said angrily. And so they are, all three of them. The Greeks had only Herostratus to put up with, but we have Mrs. Herostratus and Mother Herostratus.
Even Jack Ruby seems to have had a sense of History. At the notorious midnight “press conference” in the jail when the reporters and cameramen swarmed all over Oswald and even Chief Curry was appalled, and cut it short, Jack Ruby, who was there along with anybody else in Dallas that wanted to come (“No identification was required,” the Warren Report notes), appointed himself as a kind of major domo for District Attorney Wade, since he knew him and also many of the reporters. “I was carried away by history,” he said later. His brush with History seems to have changed him. Up to then he had been crying and upset by the President’s murder. But a local announcer named Duncan was surprised to find that “Ruby did not appear to be grieving but, instead, seemed pleased about the personal contact he had had with the investigation earlier in the evening.” Perhaps that was when Jack Ruby discovered History and got the notion that he, too, could take the center of the stage, just like Oswald…and speaking of Oswald…why not? The President’s blood called out for vengeance, not to mention Jackie and those marvelous kids, and everybody would praise the man who killed the monster…Jack the Monster Killer. It may be that Ruby’s state of “fugue” at his trial was caused by his realization that everybody didn’t applaud his deed, quite the contrary, in fact.
* These (and earlier) lines are from Richard Lattimore’s superb translation of the Iliad.
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