November 22, 1963
by Medford Evans
AMERICAN OPINION, September 1967, pp. 73–100
This article is taken from the introductory chapter to Dr. Evans’ forthcoming book on the Johnson administration. [The Usurpers, Western Islands Press, Boston, 1968, 249 pp.—KAR]
Medford, Evans, a former college professor and once Administrative officer on the U.S. atomic energy project (1944–1952), holds his Doctoral degree from Yale University. Dr. Evans’ work has appeared in Harper’s, Sewanee Review, Human Events, National Review, and elsewhere. He has long been an American Opinion Contributing Editor and regular correspondent.
• Shriver…realized that
Asia, Africa, and South America would assume that “whoever had killed
President Kennedy would now be President.”
—William Manchester, The Death of a President.
The Johnson Administration began, of course, with the assassination of
President Kennedy. There was no other way in which the former Vice President
could have come to power. Had John Kennedy lived, not only would he have been
automatically renominated in 1964, but Lyndon Johnson might well have been, as
the inelegant political term has it, “dumped” for a running mate more
personable, by Kennedy standards. At noon, November 22, 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson
was a politician apparently on the way down and out. Three hours later he had
been sworn in as President of the United States. The decision he had made in Los
Angeles in 1960 to relinquish Majority Leadership of the Senate for the
comparative obscurity of the Vice Presidency had at last, fatefully, paid off.
Not only was Johnson now established in the highest office in the land, he was virtually certain of election in 1964 to a first four-year term. One year was just what he needed to reach a peak of popularity. No credible opposition could crystallize in that “honeymoon” period. He was heir to the Kennedy power, and death had cleared the legacy of political liabilities. Even disgruntled “right-wingers” would go with Lyndon in 1964—to prove (to themselves?) that they had not wanted Kennedy killed. Fate in the autumn of 1963, in the fall by rifle fire of a young President, had—again—given Lyndon Johnson victory from the jaws of defeat. The other time had been in 1948, when Abe Fortas and Hugo Black teamed to put Johnson, despite the legal record, into the Senate.
Who put him into the White House in 1963 is not known. The Warren Commission says it was Lee Harvey Oswald. A variety of persons, from New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison to Left-leaning lawyer and author Mark Lane, have disagreed. Whoever it was—whoever killed John F. Kennedy—evidently wanted Lyndon Johnson to become President. Perhaps it was one of those whom William Manchester calls “knee-jerk absolutists” of the American tradition, one who wanted a cowhand type in the White House. Perhaps it was, as some “Liberals” would like to imply, an oilman who felt that the depletion allowance would be safer under Lyndon. Perhaps, even, it was Lee Harvey Oswald. In that case, a Communist made Lyndon Johnson President.
This is not a controversial book. It deals simply with well established matters of fact and with certain rather obvious conjectures. Natural speculation is presented, but presented as speculation, not conclusion. Every man is responsible for his own conclusions. It is a matter of fact that L.B.J. failed of the nomination for President in 1960. It is a matter of reasonable conjecture that he afterward stood little chance of ever being nominated unless he were the incumbent, and the only way to achieve incumbency was through being Vice President when an elected President died in office. It is a matter of fact that in November 1963 he had been Vice President for what Rowland Evans and Robert Novak call “three trying years.” Evans and Novak quote an anonymous “White House official” who said of Lyndon: “The greatest tribute to him is that he had the self-discipline and patience to accept political impotency and stay out of trouble.” As it turned out, he could afford to be patient. One imagines, however, the strain. Since the President in whose shadow he served was nine years younger than he, the odds were great that he would never become President unless Kennedy were killed. Indeed, as we observed above, there was some prospect in November 1963—it was talked of—that Lyndon might not even continue to be Vice President, might exchange the relative obscurity of that office for the utter oblivion of being an ex-Vice President. William Manchester refers to “persistent reports” that Johnson “might be dumped from the ticket next year”; Arthur Schlesinger Jr., writing of Kennedy’s “first strategy meeting for 1964,” held November 12, 1963, says, “Johnson’s absence stimulated a curious story that the Kennedys intended, in the political idiom, to dump him…as Roosevelt had dumped John Nance Garner.” Schlesinger says the story was “wholly fanciful,” but recognizes the “psychological cost” to Johnson, and quotes Theodore White: “Chafing in inaction when his nature yearned to act, conscious of indignities real and imagined, Johnson went through three years of slow burn.” As of November 22, 1963, it is reasonable to conjecture, nothing could have brightened the outlook for Lyndon Johnson’s political career—except what actually happened.
In reviewing facts and commonplace conjectures, I take it that additional speculation may be free, provided it is identified as speculation. For example, no one having the slightest acquaintance with the history of the Praetorian Guard in the latter days of the Roman Empire could fail to speculate inwardly on the possibility that the agency most directly responsible for the safety of the first man should be itself the one to do him in. Looking at contemporary history, students at Yale not too many years ago heard a professor intimate in a classroom lecture—possibly for mental stimulation—that the late Huey P. Long was not only gunned down September 8, 1935 by his own bodyguard (which also killed the ostensible assassin and fall guy, Dr. Carl Weiss) but the gunmen were suborned to the act because the Louisiana Kingfish had become the one and only possible rival of Franklin D. Roosevelt in demagogic appeal. So long as we make clear their conjectural character, such speculations would seem to be of the essence of academic freedom. Besides, they may serve for psychological catharsis. Since so many people can hardly avoid vagrant thoughts in this area, is it not better for all concerned to come right out with them and reveal the absurdity of anything, like, say, charging the murder of the President to the Secret Service itself? By the worst possible interpretation, Kennedy’s bodyguard, unlike Huey Long’s, could not have accounted for most of the gunfire. Even a coup de grâce shot in the back of the head—à la Darkness at Noon—could hardly have come from the immediate entourage of the young prince. Really.
The Secret Service has not, of course, escaped criticism. Manchester writes: “President Johnson pinned the Treasury’s highest award on Rufe Youngblood [the agent who protected the Vice President, as Johnson was in the Dallas motorcade]…At Mrs. Kennedy’s insistence Secretary Dillon also decorated Clint Hill [assigned as Jackie’s bodyguard]…the ceremonies left an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in much of official Washington. The central fact was that the Secret Service had failed…” (pp. 630–631.) But that is all in the point of view, isn’t it?
Manchester tells that nine Secret Service men were “out on the town” the night before the assassination, including “four agents who were to ride in the President’s follow-up car in Dallas, and whose alertness was vital to his safety.” He says further that when the shooting started, “the White House detail was confused and their “behavior” was “unresponsive.” Yet he reports that they were very prompt and efficient in rallying to protect the new President, that one of them at least “made a tough but necessary switch in allegiance while Kennedy’s heart was still beating.” Lyndon Johnson was to be criticized for allegedly moving too fast to get himself physically installed in the White House and the Kennedy survivors out; yet one Secret Service agent was so zealous for the new man that, according to Manchester, he urged Johnson to spend the very first night, November twenty-second, in the White House. This even Johnson would not do.
Yet Manchester does not contend of course that the Secret Service executed the coup of November 22, 1963. After all, the analogy of the Praetorian Guard of ancient Rome is misleading to an extent. The Praetorians were something more than a small bodyguard. Comprising ten cohorts under a Prefect, they were more nearly analogous to our Pentagon.
An example of even wilder speculation than the foregoing comes irrepressibly to mind as we read in The Death of a President how as Air Force One was approaching Washington (“very, very sick,” said Secret Service agent Clint Hill, “with a great deal of tension between the Kennedy people and the Johnson people”) a great and all but universal sense of urgency developed that Jacqueline Kennedy must now at last change her blood-stained dress, or if she would not—and she would not—then she ought when the plane landed to disembark in some way so that she would not be photographed and televised in her macabre disarray. But there was no such reserve in the widow. “We’ll go out the regular way,” she said. “I want them to see what they have done.”
Them? They? Who were they? They were the great men of Washington. Secretary of Defense McNamara, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Senator Hubert Humphrey—everybody who was anybody, and who was not already part of the Presidential party, or was not in that other plane winging back from the Pacific with Secretary of State Rusk and other cabinet members—the power elite of America were waiting at Andrews Air Force Base that November night. Were these the men upon whose consciousness Jacqueline Kennedy wanted to impress the horror of what they had done? Jackie did not mean this. But what she said provokes such speculation.
And in some sense perhaps she did mean it. Chief Justice Warren had issued a statement that afternoon that “a great and good President [had] suffered martyrdom as a result of the hatred and bitterness that [had] been injected into the life of our nation by bigots,” and of course no one had provoked the bigots quite so violently as Earl Warren. The Chief Justice reacted very rapidly that day, according to Manchester’s account (and this is from a portion of his book not, so far as I know, in dispute); he had not only judged at once that the blame fell upon (right-wing) “bigots” (he had hardly announced his judgement before left-winger Oswald was arrested), but Warren had also shown himself almost prescient in interpretation of the first news report from Dallas. Manchester writes:
Mrs. Earl Warren…seen the [television] bulletin, on the Warrens’ set at the Sheraton-Park. She…phoned the office of her husband, whose secretary, Mrs. Dorothy McHugh, rapidly typed on a blank slip of paper: “There is a report that the President and Governor Connally have been shot in Dallas and taken to the hospital.” She gave the slip to a page, he rapped on the conference room door and handed it to Arthur Goldberg, and Goldberg gave the message to the Chief Justice, who rose, his eyes bright with tears, and read it aloud. (Page 205. Italics added.)
Others who could not understand so shocking a message, or did not believe
it when they first heard it, or believed the wound might not be fatal—waited
to hear further if it were indeed serious. But such was the sensitivity of the
Chief Justice that his prophetic soul furnished his eyes instant tears. Defense
Secretary McNamara had more self-control. “Despite his deep feeling for the
President—the emotional side of his personality had been overlooked by the
press, but it was very much there—he kept his head,” reports Manchester,
“and made all the right moves.” (Page 192.)
These were the men waiting for Air Force One as it brought to the nation’s capital from Texas the body of the slain President, attended by his blood-stained widow, determined to keep the stains upon her that “they” might see what “they” had done. Jacqueline Kennedy did not know that Earl Warren and Robert McNamara would be there at Andrews Air Force Base to see the bloody defiance of her dress—but she knew that no one from Texas would be there. “They” who would see what “they” had done would be actors in the Washington scene. And they saw the dress, all right. Manchester writes: “Earl Warren saw ‘that brave girl, with her husband’s blood on her, and there was nothing I could do, nothing, nothing.’” (Page 388.) According to Jackie, he and all the rest who greeted her had already done it.
These are wild speculations. Yet in the context of the Kennedy assassination what can seem wild? The best documented events in the drama are the most incredible—for example the televised shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby. Just as incredible, psychologically, was Jackie’s insistence on wearing…it hardly bears explicit statement, and we have already stated it. How infinite and various are the permutations and combinations of the elements of human nature! Only one parallel occurs to the display of blood with which Mrs. John F. Kennedy shocked all who saw her at Andrew Air Force Base; all who saw her at Bethesda Naval Hospital, where, as Manchester describes it, a ghastly wake was held throughout the night, with Jackie talking compulsively to all who would listen (and no one could do otherwise), notably to McNamara (“She was in that suit with the bloody skirt and blood all over hr stockings, and it was fantastic, but she just wanted someone to talk to…It went on for hours…” The Death of a President, Page 417); all who saw her at the White House, where in the broad daylight of Saturday morning “Mrs. Kennedy…finally shed her stained clothing…the maid was overcome by the extent of the blood. Nothing she had seen or heard on the television reports had prepared her for this…”
How opposite were the emotions of the traumatized widow and the political activists who, two thousand years before, furnished the only parallel for such an exhibition of blood! Brutus said:
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry “Peace, freedom and liberty!”
And Cassius added,
and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
Acted over, indeed. But with what a
There will be further speculative passages in this book—some, like the foregoing, in rather a stream-of-consciousness form, others more in the form of rational hypotheses. But all will be identified as speculations, not palmed off as facts or inescapable conclusions. Another guiding principle of this work will be to avoid judging the motives of individuals. At the same time there will be no pretense that certain actions do not normally imply certain intentions. Once we know that the Report of the Warren Commission is inherently incredible, we can hardly suppress speculation that someone on the Commission intended a deception. This, however, remains speculative, and possibly not susceptible of final resolution. Most people would settle for not punishing the Warren Commission—and not believing it.
I am particularly anxious to avoid the argumentum ad hominem. I have spent too many years of my life respecting such men as Senator Richard Russell and F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover to find any pleasure in siding against them with the likes of Mark Lane and other overt Leftists. God help me, I hate to agree with (for example) Richard Rovere about anything—considering his detestable treatment of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy; but I do agree with much of Rovere’s Introduction to Edward Jay Epstein’s Inquest, with such apercus as: “…the Commission’s client was Lyndon B. Johnson…The day the Warren Report was issued, the American press should have begun to do what Mr. Epstein has done; it should have cast a very cool eye on the Report…” I do not, in a partisan sense, “side with” Leftists in overall interpretation of the assassination of President Kennedy. On the contrary—as I imagine will be abundantly evident from some of my more settled speculations hereinafter. I have, however, come to substantially the same conclusion as that of the Far Left concerning the credibility of the Near Left as represented by the Warren Commission. My conclusion is that anyone who will believe that Lee Harvey Oswald and he alone killed Jack Kennedy will believe anything.
What is not controversial is that the death of John F. Kennedy effected a transfer of power. Every assassination of a chief of state is in effect a coup d’état. A coup d’état is not a revolution; it involves no change in ideology, it involves no change in the bureaucracy or professional police, except at the highest level. A coup d’état is normally accomplished by someone already near the highest level. If an assassin is too far beneath his victim in the established power structure, he cannot himself reap the fruit of his deed. The fruit will, however, be gathered. An assassin may not intend to seize power for himself; the power, nevertheless, will be seized. The assassin may not be thinking in terms of power at all; someone, however, will be thinking in such terms.
Various intentions are possible in an act of assassination. Let us catalogue them, including first one of zero value:
(1) The murder of a chief of state may be a piece of mindless violence,
without any rational intention at all.
(2) In close relation to such a random human explosion, there may be a hedonistic nihilism—a perverse pleasure in destruction for its own sake, an intense pleasure, presumably, in bringing down so prized and high an image as a “President.” This kind of delight in wickedness is part and parcel of those urges usually these days called sadomasochistic, and treated as sexual in nature, though as Professor Revilo Oliver has shrewdly observed it may be doubted whether they are in fact sexual in origin at all. The sadist rationalizes his cruelty by pretending it is sexual in nature, when in truth he is simply a mean s— of a b—, and ought to be killed himself. Whatever the precise character of this dark element in human nature, it is very obviously present in the murder of Jack Kennedy.
(3) The killer might be motivated by personal hatred of the victim, growing out of some relationship in their private lives. Though this would not be political in origin, it would still have profound political effect.
(4) The motive might be the personal ambition of the assassin, or of someone behind the assassin.
(5) There may be an organizational reason for eliminating the chosen victim, such as:
(a) Not being a member of the organization, he is to be replaced by someone who is.
(b) A member, he may have failed, or deviated, or somehow incurred liability to punishment from the organization.
(c) Though in good standing, he may still be considered expendable if it is thought that by liquidating him the organization will be strengthened.
There can, of course, be various combinations of the foregoing. In every
case except the first, some advantage, material or psychological, accrues to the
individual or group responsible for the killing. In every case without
exception, advantage accrues to those who inherit the power, who may or may not
be the same as the killers. Unlike a revolution, a coup d’état does
not involve a large number of people; indeed, its success depends on the
majority’s continuing to operate pretty much in their accustomed fashion. The
pilot must be replaced with a little disturbance as possible to the passengers.
The transfer of power form Kennedy to Johnson was in effect that of a coup d’état. If no one planned the murder of Kennedy, the effect of a coup was still there. If the murder was planned for personal—not political—reasons, the effect was still there. On reflection, most people will believe that such a murder—so difficult to execute, so dangerous to the murderer—must have been planned, and since the victim was President of the United States few will doubt that the planners were politically motivated. Americans in general, however, would not believe—as Sargent Shriver said the people of Asia, Africa, and Latin America would believe—that the political motivation was anything so logical as a bid for supreme power by the next in line. In the United States only weirdos like the author of MacBird and the editor of the Midlothian Mirror have suggested that the Vice President was trying to “catch the nearest way” to the White House. Most Americans would no more suspect Lyndon Johnson of complicity in the assassination of John Kennedy than they would suspect Andrew Johnson of complicity in the murder of Lincoln, or Theodore Roosevelt of complicity in the killing of William McKinley. It is an American tradition that Presidents are assassinated by wild eccentrics, not by members of a Praetorian Guard aiming at the imperial throne.
Nevertheless, the possibility of political motivation cannot be dismissed, and those who accomplished the deed may well have intended the consequences. Many an American has thought this—but hardly dared to dwell upon the thought, much less speak out. The thought is repellent because people fear it leads to the conclusion suggested by William Manchester with his quotation from Sargent Shriver—that the new President must have had a hand in eliminating the old one, since he (the new one) appears to have been the chief beneficiary.
Yet it is not necessarily true that Lyndon is the chief beneficiary of Lyndon’s being in the White House. Ambitious as we may suppose Lyndon to be, he is not necessarily his own man, not even if he sincerely believes that he is. He could somehow be more useful to others than to himself. He could be useful even to some who revile him. Applying the principle of cui bono? (Who gets something out of it?), we can see quickly that about the last group in the country to have had a reason for assassinating President Kennedy was the Conservative Right—not primarily because they were sure to be blamed by the Hysterical Left for the murder, but because Kennedy’s death resolved too many dilemmas then faced by the regime in power. To be sure, Johnson’s conduct in office would almost certainly generate new ones, but not in time to affect, say, the 1964 election. Politically, the man hurt the worst by the shooting in Dallas was Barry Goldwater.
Bobby Kennedy was hurt too No question about that.
Who was helped the most? Lyndon was helped the most obviously, but not necessarily the most substantially. No, the sure gainers were the men of the center—or what passes for the center—men to the right of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., to the left of Thomas Dodd (in all cases here I refer to surface position); men to the right of Ted Sorenson, to the left of Tom Clark. Typical Texans were not gainers. Indeed, Texas was dealt a crushing blow. The neurotically unfair attack on Dallas by the very types who would neurotically defend Walter Jenkins left the nation not too sure what a typical Texan was anyhow, but ready in any case to accept someone else instead. Lyndon’s own deportment has often seemed enough to neutralize the Alamo in history’s ledger account of Texas.
The men who gained were Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, Walt Whitman Rostow—and Abe Fortas. The list is not exhaustive, not in any special order, but it illustrates. The Establishment gained—for Lyndon, not being identified with it, could not bring embarrassment upon it, while at the same time he could still be led to do what was expected. This is not to suggest that the Establishment contrived the assassination—though, to be sure, its principal representatives in government did have the best of scheduled alibis, being in the air winging west over the Pacific at the time of the shots in Dealey Plaza. I have so little confidence in my own ability to solve the murder of President Kennedy that I have no intention of suggesting who may have done it. But, historically, we can accept the fact that the coup of November 22, 1963 strengthened the hand of the Establishment, which was able—whoever did the murder—to turn it to advantage.
It was—or could be considered—the Establishment’s second involvement in a murder case in the same month. On November first, exactly three weeks before the spectacular assassination in Dallas, President Diem of South Vietnam was killed in another coup d’état. That some degree of responsibility attaches to the U.S. Establishment for the murder of Diem is much more widely recognized than in the case of Kennedy. I know that the late Marguerite Higgins of the late New York Herald Tribune is (was) a controversial writer, but really there is little disagreement as to the essential accuracy of the following from her book Our Vietnam Nightmare (perhaps I should write her late book, it may be a non-book by now, but I have a copy):
“In the post-coup era…at the Department of State the Diem-must-go group was heady with a sense of accomplishment. Their ebullience spilled out at various background briefings I attended. Mainly there seemed to be satisfaction that the deed was finally done, even though not quite as cleanly as everybody had hoped.
“My first personal involvement in the repercussions of the Diem overthrow came late Saturday night, November 2…when Madame Nhu came on the line, she spoke first of her husband and brother-in-law.
“ ‘Do you really believe they are dead?’ she asked.
“ ‘I’m afraid so,’ I answered unhappily.
“ ‘I could spit upon the world,’ Madame Nhu said bitterly.
“Silence. What was there to say?
“ ‘Are they going to kill my children too’ she asked.
“ ‘It’s the last thing President Kennedy would want,’ I said in some agitation…
“ ‘Then why doesn’t the United States government do something to help me get them out?’ said Madame Nhu.…
“ ‘I’ll put the question to the State Department officer in charge of Vietnam,’ I promised.…
“It was two A.M. I roused Assistant Secretary Hilsman out of a sound sleep.
“ ‘Congratulations, Roger,’ I said. ‘How does it feel to have blood on your hands?’
“ ‘Oh, come on now, Maggie,’ said Roger. ‘Revolutions are rough. People get hurt.’
“ ‘What about Madame Nhu’s children?’ I asked. ‘Are they going to get hurt?’
“ ‘If you will find out from Madame Nhu where her children are,’ said Hilsman, ‘we will have General Harkins send his personal plane to get them.…The President [Kennedy] is deeply shocked over the death of Diem and Nhu. He will do anything he can to safeguard Madame Nhu’s children.’…
“In the case of the children,” continues Miss Higgins, “the United States kept the promise made by Hilsman to the letter. Within days, Madame Nhu’s three children were duly deposited in Rome.” (pp. 224–225.)
The United States can do in these affairs what it really wants to do. That is the meaning of power. American power in Vietnam, despite apparent fiascos, is not unappreciated by the indigenous population. The coup d’état in which Diem was killed was, according to Miss Higgins, “universally assumed by the washed and unwashed of Saigon to have been plotted in Washington.” (Page 221.) Elsewhere she writes: “The superstition-minded even found an eerie echo on the American side. President Kennedy’s death before the month was out was wholly unrelated, of course, to Diem’s downfall. [Of course!] But the distraught Madame Nhu, in bitterness and wrath, was moved shockingly to liken her feelings to those of the slain President’s family.” (Page 220.)
Isn’t it shocking that the Asian woman should compare her own feelings to those…I’m too shocked to finish the sentence!
And yet—there were similarities. Coincidence (1): They were both—Diem and Kennedy—Catholics in countries not wholly Catholic. Coincidence (2): Both had initially enjoyed the support of the U.S. Establishment. Coincidence (3): Both were shot in the back of the head—a standard Communist procedure of execution. We do not know who killed Diem; we have been assured that Kennedy was indeed killed by a Communist. Mrs. Kennedy, heartbroken, told her mother: “He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights…It’s—it had to be some silly Communist.” (Manchester, Page 407.) Madame Nhu employs a different rhetoric, but in her own Oriental way we may be sure that she too was distressed by the killing of her husband and her brother-in-law. I think she ought to be forgiven for presuming to compare herself with one of us great Americans.
There is another coincidence about the Kennedy and Diem affairs. That is that in the aftermath of each the U.S. Establishment labored to dissociate itself from the event. In the case of Diem the disavowal of any connection could be open, for there had been so much of rumor emanating from Saigon to the effect that Americans were responsible for Diem’s overthrow and murder that a specific protestation of innocence was in order. “It is important to state clearly,” writes Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “that the coup of November 1, 1963, was entirely planned and carried out by the Vietnamese. Neither the American Embassy nor the CIA were involved in instigation or execution.” (A Thousand Days, Page 829.)
The coup of November 22, 1963 could not be dealt with quite so clearly, for it was impossible to admit that anyone had even suggested that the U.S. Establishment was on that day conducting a purge at the summit. Nevertheless, what could not be admitted to have been said still had to be denied—and denied with whatever emphasis was necessary. That is why the Warren Commission was established.
“In his earliest hours as President,” write Evans and Novak, “Johnson, assisted by Abe Fortas and other counselors, conceived his plan for a blue-ribbon commission composed of the nation’s most prominent citizens to make a painstaking investigation of the tragic events of November 22 and exorcise the demons of conspiracy.” William Manchester’s account is a bit different, but not seriously contradictory. He involves Fortas in the decision, though somewhat ambiguously, but he gives the role of chief promoter to Nicholas deB. Katzenbach. Oddly enough, neither Manchester nor Evans and Novak mention the fact that the Midweek Edition of the Communist Worker, dated November twenty-sixth, said in a front-page editorial: “We believe that President Johnson on the one hand and Congress on the other should act at once to appoint respective Extraordinary Investigation Commissions with full powers to conduct a searching inquiry into all the circumstances around the assassination of the President and the murder of the suspect [Oswald].…Such an investigating committee, headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, should be composed of citizens and experts who enjoy the confidence of the nation.”
Congress was laggard, but President Johnson moved promptly to do exactly what the Communist Worker had suggested. On November twenty-ninth he appointed just such a commission, “headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.” Of course I do not mean that he did it because the Worker recommended it. It must have been just another coincidence. On the surface, the Warren Commission Report was to backfire in the Worker’s face, for it was to pin the guilt on Lee Harvey Oswald, that “silly little Communist.” Still, that was better from many points of view than pinning it on a serious big Communist. Lyndon sort of put it that way to Earl Warren, after the Chief Justice had turned down the first request, which was put to him by Nick Katzenbach, to head the Commission. Lyndon Johnson called Earl Warren over to the White House. Manchester says these are Warren’s words about the visit:
I saw McGeorge Bundy first. He took me in, and the President told me how serious the situation was. He said there had been wild rumors, and that there was the international situation to think of. He said he had just talked to Dean Rusk, who was concerned, and he also mentioned the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, who had told him how many millions of people would be killed in an atomic war…He said that if the public became aroused against Castro and Khrushchev there might be war. (Page 630.)
So the Warren Commission’s
first and overriding objective was to clear Castro and Khrushchev: If it
could clear Lyndon into the bargain, that would be nice, too. As Evans and Novak
have said, “Inevitably, irresponsible demagogues of the left and right spread
the notion that not one assassin but a conspiracy had killed John Kennedy. That
it occurred in Johnson’s own state on a political mission urgently requested
and promoted by Johnson only embellished rancid conspiratorial theories. If he
were to gain the confidence of the people, the ghost of Dallas must be shrugged
off.” (Page 337.)
It was damned embarrassing that Oswald had a Communist record. Maybe he wasn’t really a Communist at all. Bobby Kennedy told Jackie Friday night at Bethesda, “They think they’ve found the man who did it. He says he’s a Communist.” Now in those circumstances would a Communist say he was a Communist? Reminds you of the puzzle about the free men and the slaves. Maybe Oswald was a Rightist trying to make the Party look bad. Maybe he really worked for the F.B.I. or the C.I.A., and had flipped. (Of course he was not carrying out instructions!) Actually, it didn’t much matter what he was, provided that he could be isolated. Communist, anti-Communist (married to Marina?), Left, Right—all that really counted was to count no further than ONE. He did it by himself!
That damned Jack Ruby coming in there was another embarrassment, of course. And yet if Ruby had not done what he did, the case would have come to trial. In Texas! With a jury! God knows what would have happened then—what with all those rednecks and Birchers. If it had come to trial, Oswald’s being thought to be a Communist would have helped. A Dallas County jury would have convicted him. Otherwise it might have returned a verdict of justifiable homicide. (Oh, come on, even an Easterner wouldn’t think that!) As for Ruby, he was a loner too—not socially; he was gregarious as the very devil. But psychologically. He was nuts. And oh so sentimental! Oswald was a dour psycho, Ruby a warm, Kennedy-loving psycho. Two men, each utterly alone with his thoughts, and no connection whatever with each other—it was just one of those things. You will every now and then lose a President like that, and there is just nothing you can do about it, except jump hard on anybody like Mark Lane or Jim Garrison who tries to reopen the case by suggesting that maybe it did, from somebody’s point of view, make sense. Maybe there was a purpose in killing John F. Kennedy. Maybe he was killed because somebody would get something out of it. That’s the kind of irresponsible talk and speculation we just can’t afford to have going on around here.
Well, it goes on anyhow. In the public mind Castro is not cleared, Khrushchev is not cleared, Lyndon is not cleared. The case is wide open, and none of the networks, including the Communist network, can close it. The Warren Commission needed to make an airtight case. The failure of the Commission can be measured by the millions of dollars that N.B.C. and C.B.S. have had to invest in trying to backstop the Commission’s Report. And they, too, of course, have failed. N.B.C. seemed to think that an adequate smear of Garrison might do the job. C.B.S. banked on overpowering its viewers and listeners with an inexhaustible, exhausting plethora of tedious minutiae, trusting that the subject hypnotized before the screen would end by mumbling, O.K., Mr. Cronkite, have it your way! The Warren Commission was right. Everybody who disagrees is wrong. Lee Harvey Oswald did it by himself. I will not argue with you any more. How can I? I haven’t understood a word you’ve said for the past thirty minutes. You have bored me into submission.
One senses, rightly or wrongly, that the necessity of clearing Castro, and certainly of clearing Khrushchev (who’s that?) has diminished since November 1963. On the other hand, the need (somebody’s need) to clear Lyndon is greater than ever. The damnable part is that where he needs acquittal is in the court of public opinion, where the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court somehow doesn’t preside. That is why the networks, and the Associated Press, had to enter their amici curiae briefs in the case. The judgment here is inevitably political. It may once have been thought that Lyndon got his acquittal in 1964, but now it is plain that that was just a postponement. The case is now on the docket for 1968. Trouble is, there are so many other counts to the indictment that the verdict on this one may never be wholly clarified.
Since MacBird—the offbeat, off-Broadway parody of Macbeth which implies that Johnson killed Kennedy as Macbeth killed Duncan—it has become commonplace to admit openly that Lyndon is suspect. The scandalous success of this scurrilous play, which certainly could never have been produced at all had it been written by anyone but a Leftist (in the corrupted intellectual currents of out time it is not what is said but who says it that counts)—the success of MacBird, far more than the cogency of the attacks on the Warren Commission’s Report (and they are cogent) demanded that the Warren Commission Report be defended to the death. Its defense has already involved a number of deaths.
The reason why the issue is so serious is that there is a widespread tendency to assume that either Oswald did it, alone, as the Warren Commission insists—or else that Lyndon was involved in it, had it done if you like, since he appeared to be the chief beneficiary. We might reflect that, a priori, MacBird is fully as suspect as the Report of the Warren Commission. New Left or Old Left, what is there to choose? Neither is trustworthy. And of course the alternatives are not exhaustive. The dilemma is false. Actually, like the victim in a traditional mystery story, John F. Kennedy was a logical target for many persons, for many reasons.
Yet the public, as it continues stubbornly to suspect the Warren Commission of inaccuracy and especially of incompleteness, by implication increasingly suspects Lyndon of something worse.
Why do they doubt the Warren Commission? First, of course, on a priori grounds. Warren’s reputation is not good. Not good to start with, and the endorsement of the Worker didn’t’ help it any. There were men on the Commission with better reputations, but the public was not particularly conscious of them. And, tragically, in the credibility market “Warren” is a discount brand. Also a priori, it seems inherently improbable that so great an enterprise as killing a President would be undertaken by the average man alone. If nevertheless it were so undertaken, the case would be more unusual than a conspiracy to assassinate, and would require more explanation—more explanation than the Warren Commission has given, or than has been given in its behalf. The third a priori ground for skepticism is that the Commission had one well advertised political motive for fudging in favor of the lone-killer theory—i.e., the motive of maintaining good diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union—and, of course, that other political motive, not advertised but widely suspected to be even more compelling.
All these reasons for suspicion might have been canceled had the Commission’s Report been unexceptionably valid. That it was not was abundantly demonstrated by the wealth of dissenting documents that did not even wait publication of the Report (did not have to, since conclusions of the Commission were rather steadily leaked, and, of course, were predetermined anyhow) to start pouring from the presses of Europe and America. Most of the dissent was from the Left—in spite of the fact that the Commission was itself obviously sympathetic to the Left and had as its first objective to pacify the Left as represented by the Soviet Union and Cuba. There is, however, never any satisfying the Left, which enjoyed the advantage of firing at a nominally American target which it could be sure would not vigorously strike back, and probably the further advantage of knowing that there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy.
The Leftwing critics of the Commission, although totally ineffective in their insinuations as to who did conspire to murder Kennedy, were naturally highly successful in impairing the credibility of a Commission which was handicapped by its own political commitment. This is not the place to settle the detailed arguments on which millions of words have already been expended—nor is it necessary to settle all those arguments in order to be sure that the Warren Commission Report is unreliable. I would, however, like to mention one or two items of detail, more or less at random, which illustrate the kind of thing that destroys confidence in the Commission. I have not tried to become an expert in what has become a special field of study, and these items strike me because they happen to relate to part of my own life, or more or less accidentally came under my observation. Of course, if you find a couple of errors in a column of figures—if you find one—you don’t have to prove that you have found all the errors which may be there in order to reject the given sum total.
The Warren Commission accepted as facts the conclusions of the autopsy performed at Bethesda Naval Hospital. In so doing the Commission, as Edward Epstein has pointed out in Inquest, rejected reports of the F.B.I. which in certain respects directly contradicted the autopsy as published by the Commission. (Epstein seems to impugn not the physicians who conducted the autopsy but the Commission’s reading and possible revision of the autopsy. Of course, a Rightwinger’s knowledge of contemporary history—of the deaths of Forrestal, Taft, McCarthy—breeds no more confidence in Bethesda than in Earl Warren.) The F.B.I.-Warren Commission contradiction which Epstein discusses concerns the first bullet to hit President Kennedy, and this bullet—“Commission Exhibit 399”—is also the crux of the controversy with other critics of the Commission, such as Mark Lane. The point at issue is whether “bullet 399” did or did not penetrate both Kennedy’s neck and, continuing, Governor Connally’s chest and wrist, to lodge in Connally’s thigh, whence eventually it fell out into a stretcher, from which it was ultimately recovered. That this did occur is what is called the “single bullet theory,” and incredible quantities of ink and video tape have been used in the dialogue over it. The importance of the discussion centers on a belief expressed by Epstein: “Either both men were hit by the same bullet, or there were two assassins.” A couple of A.P. newsfeature writers on the other side of the arguments virtually agree on the significance of the point: “If Lane, Epstein or [Harold] Weisberg can demonstrate that this report is at fault…out goes the theory—and along with it the case against Oswald as the lone assassin.” (Italics added.) It is tempting to get into this discussion of what Lane sarcastically calls “the magic bullet,” but if I have anything to contribute to this general kind of analysis, it is a question about the second bullet to strike the President—the lethal bullet which entered the lower right side of the back of his head and blew out the upper right side of his skull. Nobody survives a wound like that. Where did the bullet come from that did it? Oddly enough, in view of the ocean of words spilled over the first bullet, there has been almost no discussion of this second bullet. It is, however, highly discussible.
Let’s begin with an undisputed fact: The bullet that killed President Kennedy entered the back of his head near the base of his skull and somewhat to the right of center. (“Laterally to the right and slightly above the external occipital protuberance,” is the language of the autopsy report.) The bullet traveled, relative to the axes of the skull, forward, up, and to the right. The wound of entrance was clean-cut, but the tremendous energy of the high velocity bullet created an exit wound that left a hole some five inches in diameter. (Autopsy language: “a large irregular defect of the scalp and skull on the right involving chiefly the parietal bone but extending somewhat into the temporal and occipital regions.”) Just where within this crater the bullet emerged cannot be definitely known, but any point chosen would still result in a trajectory that would be—repeat: relative to the axes of the skull, forward, up, and to the right.
Why, then, did Lt. Col. Pierre A. Finck, Chief of the Wound Ballistics Pathology Branch of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, who participated in the autopsy at Bethesda, testify: “President Kennedy was, in my opinion, shot from the rear. The bullet entered in the back of the head and went out the right side of his skull * * * he was shot from above and behind.”? Colonel Finck does not say so, but in context it seems plain that he means from above and behind and from the right, where Oswald was allegedly stationed in the Texas School Book Depository.
There can be no question that the bullet came “from behind,” as Colonel Finck says, and traveled “forward,” as I say above. But how [to] explain the conflict between my “up and to the right” and his “from above” (equals down) and (by implication) from the right (equals to the left)? The answer is, of course, that if President Kennedy had been leaning far enough forward and to the left, then a line of flight which was up and to the right relative to his skull would have been down and to the left relative to the car in which he was riding. Whether Oswald, or anyone stationed where he is said to have been, could have shot Kennedy through the upper right side of his head, as he was shot, depends on the bodily position of the President at the time the shot was fired. This fact was emphasized by Commander James J. Humes, senior pathologist at the Naval Medical Center, in charge of the Kennedy autopsy at Bethesda November 22–23, 1963. Doctor Humes testified before the Warren Commission:
“There are many variables under these circumstances. The most—the crucial point, I believe, to be the relative position of the President’s head in relation to the flight of the missile. Now this would be influenced by how far his head was bent, by the situation with regard to the level of the seat in the vehicle, off of the horizontal, and so forth.” (Warren Commission Hearings, Vol. II, Page 358.)
Commission member Allen Dulles asked, “Is the posture of the head of that figure there [indicating a drawing] roughly the inclination that you think the President’s head had at the time from the other photographs?”
Commander Doctor Humes replied: “Yes, sir. From the photographs and based on the physical examination of this wound, yes, sir.” (Vol. II, Page 359. Italics added.)
Notice the circular reasoning, the begging of the question of the origin of the bullet. Knowing, within limits, the trajectory of the bullet within the skull, you can determine the position of the skull when the bullet struck, if you know the origin of the shot; or you can determine the direction from which the bullet came, if you know the position of the skull. But you cannot determine both the line of flight of the bullet and the position of the skull simply from the path of the bullet through the skull.
It seems evident that the autopsy physicians—Commander Humes, Commander J. Thornton Boswell, and Colonel Finck—were in effect given the window of the Book Depository building as the point of origin of the bullet and, of course, were given the approximate position of the Presidential automobile as the terminus, and, with these data and the wounds, they constructed the position of the skull at the moment of impact. It does not appear that they had independent knowledge of the position of the skull. Suppose there were positive knowledge that the President was not leaning far enough forward and to the left when he was hit by this bullet, for the shot to have come from the Book Depository window? We should then have to seek another point of origin of the shot. And the single-assassin theory would be invalidated.
I do not claim to have such positive knowledge. But I think the question may be fairly asked: Was not the President actually in a more nearly upright position than Commander Humes and Colonel Finck supposed, and if so did not the second bullet—the lethal bullet—necessarily come “from behind,” yes, but not “from above” and not from the right, but from below and from the left?
It is a serious matter to ask such a question, and I ask it not as a matter of fanciful speculation, but seriously. Evidence exists—not conclusive evidence such as would justify a positive statement: The position of the President’s body, together with the wounds in his skull, means that the trajectory of the lethal bullet was nearly horizontal—but probative evidence, demanding that one inquire further into this startling possibility. The possibility is indeed startling, for if Kennedy was shot from behind, but not from above, and not from the right but somewhat from his left, then the list of suspects, broadened indeed from the loner Oswald, yet remains shockingly narrow. Eliminating at once the widow, who was victimized almost as much as her husband and escaped just by inches being killed herself, there remain three groups of possible suspects—persons physically in position to have fired such a shot. These were: (1) spectators on the south side of Elm street near the point of assassination, (2) members of the Dallas police force, (3) members of the Secret Service. There were at this point so few spectators that none of them could possibly have shot the President with a rifle or even with a pistol without the virtual certainty of being seen. If a spectator did it, he had some sort of James Bond weapon; he could only have been a very advanced agent of the C.I.A. or of some corresponding foreign bureau. This possibility is almost negligible. The possibility that Kennedy was not killed with a rifle is by no means negligible, however, as we shall see in a moment.
What evidence is there that the President was in a more nearly upright bodily position than the Oswald theory requires? I will mention four items: (1) the Moorman photograph in the Dallas Times Herald of Sunday November 24, 1963: (2) the Zapruder film photographs in Life magazine of November 29, 1963, together with an editorial comment by Life; (3) testimony of Secret Service agent Clinton J. Hill before the Warren Commission; (4) a passage from The Death of a President by William Manchester.
On Page A-3 of the Dallas Times Herald of November 24, 1963 there is a picture four-columns wide by six-inches deep with the following cutline: “DYING PRESIDENT. This graphic photograph was taken by Mrs. Mary Moorman, of 2832 Ripplewood, who was standing on Elm street and snapped this Polaroid picture immediately after President John Kennedy was hit by an assassin’s bullet. Mrs. Kennedy is leaning over to catch her husband’s body as he falls, fatally wounded.” We now know or believe that the President was not yet fatally wounded, that this photograph was made after the first hit, from which he might well have recovered, and immediately before the second, which took off the top of his head. The interval for Mrs. Moorman to take the Polaroid picture and the interval for the executioner to take the second shot were about the same. This photograph is about as close as we shall come to seeing Jack Kennedy’s position when the lethal bullet hit him in the back of the head. Oddly enough, this picture seems not to have been used by the Warren Commission. What is the President’s bodily position? He is inclining forward and to the left—but by no means far enough for a bullet from the Book Depository sixth-floor to come out the top right side of his skull. It would, if this was the position when it hit, have come out his face. (There is abundant evidence that his face was not shattered.)
Among the most extraordinary pictures of all time are the eight-millimeter color movies that one Abraham Zapruder, a dress manufacturer recently moved from New York to Dallas, took of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Life magazine gave him $25,000 for the film; he gave the money to charity. Mr. Zapruder happened to be positioned on the north side of Elm Street, west of the Book Depository, on an elevated abutment which gave him good command of the scene. His enjoyment of the motorcade was turned to agony when the gunfire began, but he kept on operating his camera. (All that keeps Mr. Zapruder’s feat from being historically unique is the fact that two days later the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby would be not only still-photographed but nationally televised.) The most remarkable scene in the Zapruder film is the one where Mrs. Kennedy, immediately after the second, lethal shot has struck her husband, climbs out on the trunk of the car toward the rear bumper just as Secret Service agent Clint Hill is jumping aboard the suddenly accelerating automobile by means of step and handrail there for such a purpose. Mrs. Kennedy, according to William Manchester and her own testimony before the Warren Commission, has no recollection of thus climbing out of the back seat where her husband had just been shot, and those who saw it might well not trust their own recollection if Zapruder had not taken the movie and Life had not published scenes fro it showing Jackie in a perilous position on her hands and knees, facing the rear of the car, atop the back seat and the lid of the trunk. Life notes in the text accompanying the photographs that in this position the slain man’s head was against the calf of the woman’s left leg, thus explaining the extraordinary amount of blood on her stocking.
Now here is the point of all that: For a bullet from Oswald’s perch to have cut the path indicated through the President’s skull, he would have to have been already pitched so far forward and to the left into his wife’s lap that when she arose in shocked panic to climb out of the rear seat onto the trunk he would have fallen further forward to the floor of the car or against the jump seats in front of him. Evidently he was still far enough back so that his body rested on the back of the seat until Mrs. Kennedy was herself pushed back into the automobile by Clint Hill. Mr. Hill told the Warren Commission: “I simply just pushed and she moved—somewhat voluntarily—right back into the same seat she was in. The President—when she had attempted to get out onto the trunk of the car, his body apparently did not move too much, because when she got back into the car he was at that time, when I got on top of the car, face up in her lap.” (Vol. II, Page 140.)
Clinton J. Hill was the Secret Service man specifically responsible for the safety of Mrs. Kennedy. He and Rufus W. Youngblood, who was in charge of the detail responsible for the then Vice President, were the only two Secret Service agents to emerge from the assassination weekend with any credit. Both were given medals, and Youngblood is now in charge of the White House detail. Hill’s testimony before the Warren Commission is of extraordinary interest: first, because of the passage quoted above, which implies that the President was not leaning extremely far forward or to the left before being hit in the head; second, because his description of just how much forward and leftward inclination there was coincides very well with what the Moorman photograph in the Times Herald shows, as will be seen in the quotation below; third, because Hill, who was nearer to the President than anyone else not actually in the same car, gives a unique account of the sound of the fatal shot. Here is Hill’s account of all the shooting. He was standing on the left running board of the Secret Service “followup” car just a few feet behind the Presidential open limousine.
…as we came out of the curve, and began to straighten up, I was
viewing the area which looked to be a park. There were people scattered
throughout the entire park. And I heard a noise from my right rear, which to me
seemed to be a firecracker. I immediately looked to my right, and, in so doing,
my eyes had to cross the Presidential limousine and I saw President Kennedy grab
at himself and lurch forward and to the left…I jumped from the car, realizing
that something was wrong, ran to the Presidential limousine. Just about as I
reached it, there was another sound, which was different than the first sound. I
think I described it in my statement as though someone was shooting a
revolver into a hard object—it seemed to have some kind of an echo. I put
my right foot, I believe it was, on the left rear step of the automobile, and I
had a hold of the handgrip with my hand, when the car lurched forward. I lost my
footing and I had to run about three or four more steps before I could get back
up in the car.
Between the time I originally grabbed the handhold and until I was up on the car, Mrs. Kennedy—the second noise that I heard had removed a portion of the President’s head, and he had slumped noticeably to his left. Mrs. Kennedy had jumped up from the seat and was, it appeared to me, reaching for something coming off the right bumper of the car, the right rear tail, when she noticed that I was trying to climb on the car. She turned toward me and I grabbed her and put her back in the back seat, crawled up on top of the back seat and lay there.
* * *
Mr. SPECTER [Warren Commission lawyer]. Was there any movement of the
President’s head or shoulders immediately after the first shot, that you
Mr. HILL. Yes, sir. Immediately when I saw him, he was like this, and going left and forward.
Mr. SPECTER. Indicating a little fall to the left front.
Mr. HILL. Yes, sir. (Vol. II, pp. 138–139. Roman added.)
Clint Hill’s testimony is entirely consistent, as can be seen, with the Moorman photograph—both indicate that the President was inclining forward and to the left, as would have been required for a bullet from the Book Depository to cut through his skull as was done, but not inclining anywhere near far enough to meet that requirement! It is also noteworthy that the acoustical peculiarity of the second shot as described by Hill does not accord too well with the theory that it came from rifle fire high in the rear. Clint Hill was regarded by Mrs. Kennedy, according to William Manchester, as “the brightest agent on the White House Detail.” (Page 350.) His conduct as reflected in the records of the tragic weekend supports the estimate. I would not dismiss his impression, which he repeated to the Commission.
Mr. SPECTER…what was your reaction as to where the first shot came
from, Mr. Hill?
Mr. HILL. Right rear.
Mr. SPECTER. And did you have a reaction or impression as to the source or point of origin of the second shot that you described?
Mr. HILL. It was right, but I cannot say for sure that it was rear, because when I mounted the car it was—it had a different sound, first of all, than the first sound that I heard. The second one had almost a double sound—as though you were standing against something metal and firing into in, and you hear both the sound of a gun going off and the sound of the cartridge hitting the metal place, which could have been caused probably by the hard surface of the head. But I am not sure that that is what caused it. (Vol. II, Page 144.)
It does not seem to me that the Warren Commission was sufficiently
interested in this bit of testimony. Except to ask whether any shots seemed to
originate from the front of the car (Hill said no) there were no further
questions of this expert witness who at the center of the action did not think
the shot that killed President Kennedy sounded as if it came from a rifle on the
sixth floor of the School Book Depository building.
Hill’s testimony suffered for lack of cross-examination, and he was not cross-examined because there was no real legal adversary of the Commission’s obvious preconception that Oswald alone was guilty of the assassination. Hill’s description of Kennedy’s posture at the instant the lethal bullet struck is, of course, no more conclusive than is the Moorman photograph; yet both comport with the view that a bullet which entered the base of the brain and came out the right side and top of the President’s head would have had to originate lower and further toward the left than Oswald’s alleged position. The position of the wounded head is the key to the problem. Hill said the sound was from the right, but not necessarily from the rear. Well, it had to be from the rear of Kennedy. The bullet went in the back of his head. If it was not from the rear of Hill, it must have been from between the two—from the tail of the Presidential limousine or the front of the follow-up car—perhaps some kind of James Bond device again. That is too fantastic. (It is?*) Hill must have been mistaken. He was not necessarily mistaken abut the sound coming from the right. Kennedy could more easily have been leaning far enough to the left than far enough forward. Or the sound could have actually originated on Hill’s left and been heard on his right. The famous “grassy knoll” was on his right, also structures that could have caused an echo. The special echo that Hill dwelt upon in his description, by the way, fits the admittedly very far-out thought that the shot came from one of the automobiles.
Let me suggest a very simple thing I did to clarify this problem in my own mind. I got from my wife a ball of knitting yarn and a knitting needle. Looking at a picture of Commission Exhibit 386, which shows the location of the wounds in the President’s skull, I put the needle through the ball of yarn to represent the approximate line of flight of the bullet. If you hold such a contrivance in front of you in what would be a face-forward, back-to-you, upright position of the simulated head, you will see that the needle slants down, perhaps forty-five degrees, and to your left, perhaps twenty degrees. You will now suppose that the window in the Texas School Book Depository is behind you, to your right, and six stories above you. In order to make the needle point that way you will have to rotate the ball of yarn quite far forward and to the left—so far that the area corresponding to a human face is now within thirty degrees of horizontal, looking down and somewhat to the left. It will cause you [to] wonder whether the President was actually leaning over that far when he was hit the second, and final, time.
There is one more witness to call—William Manchester. No question he is an expert. I quote from the jacket of his book: “At the invitation of the Chief Justice, Mr. Manchester was a privileged observer of the Warren Commission inquiry. Meanwhile, however, he had developed his own sources of information. Operating out of headquarters in the National Archives, for two years he worked twelve to fifteen hours a day, conducting a major historical investigation throughout Texas and elsewhere, accumulating forty-five volumes and portfolios of transcribed tapes, shorthand, documents, and exhibits, all of which will be deposited in the Kennedy library.” It may be added that Mr. Manchester is a devout believer in the theory of Oswald’s unique guilt. He writes:
Lee Oswald has been repeatedly identified here as the President’s slayer. He is never “alleged” or “suspected” or “supposed” or “surmised”; he is the culprit. Some, intimidated by the fiction that only judges may don the black cap and condemn, may disapprove. The managing editor of the New York Times apologized to his readers for a headline describing Oswald as the murderer, and four months after the appearance of the Warren Report the Washington Post continued to refer to him as “the presumed assassin.” But enough is enough. The evidence pointing to his guilt is far more incriminating that that against Booth, let alone Judas Iscariot. [You should have let that alone, Mr. Manchester.] He is the right man; there is nothing provisional about it. The mark of Cain was upon him. (Page 278.)
Mr. Manchester is a literary artist who chose to cast his magnum opus into the form of a novel, and therefore he writes in the style of omniscience. And indeed his knowledge of the events of November 20–November 25, 1963 is tremendous. Nevertheless, he is not omniscient. If he were, it would be possible to refute completely his atypical paragraph above with one of his more typical narrative passages—with, indeed, the apogee of his narrative orbit:
The First Lady, in her last act as First Lady, leaned solicitously toward the President. His face was quizzical. She had seen that expression so often when he was puzzling over a difficult press conference question. Now, in a gesture of infinite grace, he raised his right hand, as though to brush back his tousled chestnut hair. But the motion faltered. The hand fell back limply. He had been reaching for the top of his head. But it wasn’t there any more. (Page 158.)
The actions of the President and his Lady which William Manchester here
describes cannot be reconciled with the bodily position of a man tumbled so far
forward into his wife’s lap that a bullet path thirty-five degrees upward
relative to his skull will be fifteen degrees downward relative to the vehicle
in which they are riding. Mrs. Kennedy could not have been looking into her
husband’s face, the President could not have been lifting his hand “in a
gesture of infinite grace” to brush back his tousled hair. Those motions of
these actors in the tragedy imply at least a semi-upright attitude. The verdict
of the Warren Commission precludes such a possibility. I am no partisan of Mr.
Manchester. I find his book frequently distasteful and sometimes demonstrably
inaccurate. Yet I believe he was far more conscientious historically and
literarily than Chief Justice Earl Warren, I am willing to believe that he was
better informed as to the kind of detail with which we are here concerned than
was any member of the Warren Commission, and I suspect that his literary tour
de force describes more accurately, after all, than the pedantry of the
Warren Report the valedictory posture of the doomed President. As William
Manchester has described it, Jack Kennedy had the top of his head blown off by
somebody other than Lee Harvey Oswald.
I have gone into this matter with great reluctance; for the thrust of my reasoning is to put the killer physically very close to the victim. Not that all the shots had such an origin. Shots could have come from the School Book Depository, as the Warren Commission insists, shots could have come from the “grassy knoll,” as Lane and other Commission critics protest. But the shot which Clint Hill heard as the second one was different—had a different sound, the sound of a pistol echoing on metal—and it came, I contend, from a different direction, from a direction in which where was no one to fire a shot except police, the Secret Service men, and a handful of spectators, any one of whom would have been instantaneously observed.
Or so one supposes. Who saw Oswald? Howard Brennan, a pipefitter, saw him. Bob Jackson of the Dallas Morning News saw a rifle protruding from the window. Amos Lee Euins, a teenager, saw the second shot, as did Brennan. Oswald was captured on the basis of Brennan’s description. Others saw or heard what the Warren Commission accepted as Oswald’s deadly sharpshooting from the sixth-floor window. But no policeman or Secret Service agent saw anything. They are trained for their jobs, and their instructions were to watch carefully all tall buildings. A number of them looked toward the roof of the Book Depository, for on it was a Hertz advertising sign which included a clock. Secret Service agent Rufus Youngblood, in charge of Lyndon’s protection (he did a good job, got a medal and a promotion for it) looked at the sign at 12:30. The shooting began at 12:30. Youngblood, unlike all other agents except Emory Roberts, recognized the first shot as a shot. He promptly took action to push Lyndon down in the car and protect him with his own body. Except Clint Hill, he was the only agent to act immediately. Yet this superior individual among an elite group, looking just as the shooting began at the precise section of the building where the rifleman stood at the window, saw nothing. If anyone at all in authority knew or seriously thought the shots came from the Book Depository, why was not the building sealed off at once? If Oswald did what the Warren Commission concluded he did, then he was on the sixth floor, and the elevators were not working. He allegedly stopped on the second floor on the way downstairs and bought a Coke. A policeman saw him, and the building superintendent just said, Oh, he works here, or words to that effect. Oswald continued on his not unleisurely way out the building. And, of course, the F.B.I. knew that Oswald was working in this building, knew he had lived in Russia, had recently been to the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City, knew—God knows what they knew.
There is general agreement that those charged with protection of the President in Dallas that day were on the borderline of criminal negligence. The only question is, on which side of the border? Someone has asked, Why didn’t the Dallas police or the Secret Service see that rifle out of the window at 12:30 P.M., November 22, 1963? And someone has answered, They did. But we don’t know that, most of us don’t even suspect it. What I do suspect is that it wasn’t that rifle that did the job anyhow.
Whatever the malfeasance or nonmalfeasance of the Dallas police, the Secret Service, the F.B.I., they were all under orders from higher up. To be sure, the man supposedly highest up in their chain of command was the one that got killed. The crucially bad link was presumably somewhere between him and the working level. Or an outside force might break the chain, intrude into the chain, at any point. What is not credible is that anyone who could have done it could have had a personal motive to kill Kennedy. The motive of the man who fired the shot was undoubtedly obedience. The motive of the man who originated the order was to effect a coup d’état.
Before proceeding to speculate as to who that may have been—for the thing is by no means so self-evident as MacBird buffs may suppose—let me make one further note about the credibility of the Warren Report, and of various government agencies if they are correctly represented by the Warren Report. In examining the question as to why the F.B.I. did not warn the Secret Service of Oswald’s possible presence along the motorcade route, the Report quotes J. Edgar Hoover to the effect that the Bureau, although it knew a good deal about Oswald, had no reason before the assassination to consider him dangerous, because the only thing in his record to show that he was dangerous was his attempt to kill General Edwin A. Walker the night of April 10, 1963, and the F.B.I. did not know anything about that until after the assassination. The Report says further, “Prior to November 22, 1963, no law enforcement agency had any information to connect Oswald with the attempted shooting of General Walker.” (Warren Report, New York Times edition, Page 419, italics added.) Elsewhere the Report says, “Until December 3, 1963, the Walker shooting remained unsolved.” (Ibid., Page 170.) It was on December second that Mrs. Ruth Paine, in whose home the Oswalds had lived, turned over to the police materials in which was found a note in Oswald’s handwriting which is construed as a virtual confession of planning to kill Walker. Marina Oswald said her husband had indicated to her that he was the one who shot at General Walker. The news was headlined in American papers of December 6, 1963.
Yet on November 29, 1963 the Deutsche National Zeitung of Munich reportedly ran a story translated as follows: “THE STRANGE CASE OF OSWALD. The murderer of Kennedy made an attempt on U.S. General Walker’s life early in the summer when General Walker was sitting in his study. The bullet missed Walker’s head only by inches. Oswald was seized, but the following investigation—as it was reported to us—was stopped by U.S. General Attorney [sic], Robert Kennedy.”
I cannot vouch for the authenticity of that gruesome suggestion that Bobby for some reason unwittingly proved the wisdom of the policy, “bear like the Turk no brother near the throne.”
I do know this: that General Walker told me personally by long-distance telephone in June of 1967 that evidence is available to establish that Oswald was picked up between 9:00 P.M. and midnight, April 10, 1963 (the shooting occurred that night at 9:00) and was released. I have known General Walker six years. I worked for the Federal Government six years. I have never known General Walker to lie. I cannot say the same for the Government. I have to agree with the English Leftist Hugh Trevor-Roper, to whose side in general I am not at all inclined, that “the crux of the matter” is “a question of confidence,” and like him I must “admit that [I] lack confidence in the evidence submitted to the [Warren] Commission and the Commission’s handling of it.”
I must also admit, however, that I have no confidence in any positive construction of my own as to details of the crime and individuals personally involved. I consider the theory of Oswald as a lone-wolf assassin to be inherently incredible, circumstantially improbable, and politically useful to the real authors of the coup d’état. Thus I reject the Warren Report’s conclusion Number Eleven: “On the basis of the evidence before the Commission it concludes that Oswald acted alone.” I agree rather with the opinion attributed by Ramparts magazine to New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison that the assassination was the work of a “powerful domestic force.” I do not, let me say, agree with Garrison that John F. Kennedy was “one of the finest Presidents we ever had,” and I doubt whether Garrison has the conspiracy which effected the coup d’état completely and accurately figured out. It is unlikely that even a brave and gifted local prosecutor is going to penetrate the veil behind which that “powerful domestic force” operates. He is not going to get far enough behind the veil to explicate the plot in detail. And, of course, neither am I.
What we can do is catch glimpses and discern broad outlines. We cannot identify the killer—meaning either the person who pulled the trigger or the person who instigated the operation—but we can determine the milieu in which the killer achieved his dreadful capability. Simply for illustration, and without waiving any of our foregoing arguments, suppose that on the literal level Oswald were the solitary killer—no accomplices in the deed itself. There remains the matter of motivation. What drove him to it? Something environmental. Oswald was young, sensitive, nervous—and conscious of being alone—which, naturally, he resented, which eventually he found unendurable, a torment.
And from that
torment I will free myself,
Or hew my way out with a bloody axe,
said Richard III. Blast out with
a rifle, adaptation of Oswald, whom also “love forswore.” (“Mrs.
Oswald told [a] friend…that Oswald ‘was not a man.’”—Warren Report, New
York Times edition, Page 394.) Society made Oswald what he was—not society
in general, some particular segment of society. Who can gauge the effect on this
sensitive youth of association in Dallas with witty, sophisticated, cosmopolitan
George de Mohrenschildt, an old friend of Jacqueline Kennedy’s mother? What
maddening contrasts may not have presented themselves to the fevered imagination
of the alienated, frustrated boy in his longings for love, for learning, for
power! We live in an age, as John Kenneth Galbraith has pointed out, of
collective responsibility. I adopt (for the time being) the philosophy of Earl
Warren, who on first hearing of the assassination instantly blamed
“bigots”—not a particular bigot, but bigots in general. And I adopt the
“Liberal” creed which blames—DALLAS. Dallas killed Kennedy. No doubt about
Let me tell you a little bit about Dallas. I’ve lived there twice, been in and out of it a hundred times—over a period of fifty years. I’ve lived in Fort Worth, too, and Waco, and Abilene. and Lufkin, and Kingsville. I’ve been around Texas a good deal, born there, relatives all around. I like Dallas. A lot of people don’t, but I do. Here is the thing about Dallas—it is in Texas and has lots of Texans in it—but it is not Texas. It is not Texas any more than New York is America. In fact, Dallas is New York.
It is a metastatic phenomenon. Dallas is New York fifteen hundred miles away from Manhattan. It is more New York than Brooklyn is. Dallas is a money town, a skyscraper town, a clothes town, a promoter town, a culture-snob town, a get-up-and-go place. It is, to be sure, full of hicks and rednecks, but they are there mostly because they want to quit being that. And they do not run the town. The town is run from New York. You’re always hearing about H.L. Hunt. Mr. Hunt is a real loner. And he puts on his own kind of show. He is a subject of diverting conversation. He is incredibly rich. So is the Sheik of Kuwait. Mr. Hunt produces oil. He’s got to sell it. He sells lots of it to Jersey Standard. Mr. Hunt is a remarkable man, but he is not Dallas, and he is not influential in Dallas, compared to, say, Fred Florence of the Republic National Bank. The Republic National and the First National of Dallas are the only two banks in the South with deposits over a billion dollars (as of June 30, 1965). Dallas is a Federal Reserve town. The Wall Street Journal is published in Dallas. Dallas is the only original fashion center between New York and California. As for culture: I haven’t kept up, but till his death a few years ago E. De Golyer of Dallas owned the Saturday Review outright. (In Dallas and New York I suppose, they consider that culture.) Of course, a big part of the city floats on oil, and oil means Rockefeller. Modern Dallas is sort of a project of the Rockefellers’ Chase Manhattan Bank.
When you say Dallas killed Kennedy, you are saying New York did it.
Not all of New York, of course. Just the people who run it. They are the same people that run Dallas. They are the people that just abut run the country. This country. Of course they run several other countries much more completely. Venezuela, for example. Arab States.
John F. Kennedy was not in the New York Establishment, and certainly not of it, but as President he was closely associated with it—too close for comfort. To the Establishment the President of the United States is either an invaluable servant or an intolerable nuisance. John F. Kennedy appeared in first one light and then the other.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has told of the initial rapprochement between Kennedy and the Establishment, “the New York financial and legal community” of which the “household deities were Henry L. Stimson and Elihu Root; its present leaders, Robert A. Lovett and John J. McCloy; its front organizations, the Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie foundations and the Council on Foreign Relations; its organs the New York Times and Foreign Affairs.” With the formidable entity Kennedy “was little acquainted,” says Schlesinger, and it in turn had looked on him “with some suspicion…mostly because of his father, whom it had long since blackballed as a maverick in finance and an isolationist in foreign policy.” But politics, as everyone knows, produces unexpected patterns of cohabitation. “Now that he was President…they were prepared to rally round; and, now that he was President, he was prepared to receive them…The chief agent in the negotiation was Lovett, a man of great subtlety, experience, and charm.” (A Thousand Days, Houghton, 1965, pp. 106–107.)
It was Lovett who furnished for Kennedy’s Cabinet both Robert S. McNamara and Dean Rusk, both of whom have under Lyndon Johnson strengthened their own positions and refined the Establishment’s control of national policy. Lovett himself had first brought young Bob McNamara to the Pentagon during World War II and considered him, among a group of “management specialists” from Harvard Business School, “the prize of the lot.” Kennedy, unfortunately, was “impressed by Lovett’s recommendation.” The toughest problem of Cabinet formation, says Schlesinger, was deciding on a Secretary of State, the top-ranking officer. Adlai Stevenson, Chester Bowles, J. William Fulbright, David Bruce, and others were considered, but at a crucial point in the deliberations Lovett “began to argue vigorously for Dean Rusk.” And Mr. Rusk, alas, got the job.
In the course of time the relationship between the President and these key Cabinet members began to be abrasive. There was talk that Rusk would have to go, Kennedy was so dissatisfied with his—Schlesinger calls it “inscrutability.” With McNamara the situation was otherwise; Kennedy was as impressed by the man as he had been by Lovett’s recommendation of him. It was McNamara, however, who got them all into a jam through his bullheaded and irrational insistence on giving the TFX airplane contract to Convair instead of Boeing, when the latter was low bidder and had the support of all the technical experts. The scandal latent in this affair could have ruined the whole Kennedy administration, which might have saved itself by jettisoning McNamara and Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who was widely though to have applied illegitimate pressure in favor of Forth Worth-based Convair as against Seattle-and-Wichita-based Boeing. It was at a press conference on October 31, 1963, three weeks and a day before his death, that Kennedy was put on the spot about the TFX contract. He defended it, but one may suppose that he did not relish having to do so. Still less could he have relished the prospect of campaigning within the year in the lurid reflection of scandals created by Lyndon’s other friends, Billie Sol Estes and Bobby Baker.
As of November 1963, Kennedy was disenchanted with Secretary of State Rusk, he was critically embarrassed by Secretary of Defense McNamara, he was without doubt deeply disgusted with Vice President Lyndon Johnson. It would hardly have occurred to him that the simplest solution of this whole snarl of problems would be his own death.
But the relationship between the Establishment and Kennedy was not going well at all. This President really thought, it seems, that business men were “sons-of-bitches.” They in turn lacked confidence in him. He was not dependable like their man Rusk, their man McNamara, not even like Lyndon Johnson, who could hardly be called their man, but was approachable by men like, say Robert Anderson, who were theirs.
Perhaps no Irishman can belong to the Establishment. Not really. It isn’t that the establishment won’t have them, but simply that they won’t stay put. The Establishment will support people of charm and reckless valor, but it will not integrate with them. Kennedy said he wanted “power all the way.” And it had begun to look as though he meant it. Certainly he was taking his office too seriously. He was going out of control—on his own.
* “Austin L. Miller, employed by the Texas-Louisiana Freight Bureau, heard three shots and thought that they came from the area of the Presidential limousine itself.” (Warren Report, New York Times edition, Page 82.)
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