The Triumph of Caliban
By Karl E. Meyer
The New Leader, 12 October 1964, pages 4–6
(Cover of The New Leader for 12 October 1964)
No doubt the central conclusion of the long-awaited Warren
Commission Report—that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed President
Kennedy—will continue to be challenged. But the Commission’s Report is so
solidly wrought, so overwhelmingly backed by fact, so persuasive in its parts
and so coherent as a whole, that it will be vastly more difficult to confute
than earlier, garbled accounts of the Dallas infamy. In my view, the Report’s
services are three: (1) It meets head-on various conspiracy theories; (2) it
offers a critique of police, national and local; (3) it provides a troubling
moral commentary for a country still struggling to come to terms with what
happened last November 22.
When President Kennedy died, efforts were quickly made to pin the blame on conspiracies of the extreme Right or Left. In the circumstances, considering Oswald’s Marxist views and record as a defector in the Soviet Union, it was perhaps surprising—and surely encouraging—that there was no orgy of McCarthyism. Most Americans saw that neither Moscow nor Havana had anything to gain from Kennedy’s death and were prepared to believe that Oswald had no foreign encouragement. But the extreme Right spread reports that Oswald had secretly visited Cuba, that he had been recruited into Soviet espionage, and that Castro, in a drunken moment, had referred in a speech to a clandestine trip of Oswald to Havana.
The Warren Commission, whose members include such impeccable conservatives as Senator Russell of Georgia, has now definitively set to rest all such lurid rumors. Every charge is answered in painstaking detail; every aspect of Oswald’s stay in the Soviet Union and of his trip to Mexico City shortly before the assassination is explored. Nothing has come to light to support charges of a Leftist plot, though the Report makes quite clear that in his own muddled way Oswald was a Leftist.
Similarly, the Commission has examined charges that the extreme Right in Dallas either framed or used Oswald. The most celebrated exponent of this view is Thomas G. Buchanan, author of Who Killed Kennedy? (analyzed by Leo Sauvage in The New Leader, September 28). The Commission Report reduces the Buchanan thesis to rubble, and (without mentioning Buchanan by name) demonstrates that the whole edifice of his logic rests on incorrect news reports and in some instances downright ignorance.
Essential to the Buchanan thesis is the belief that the Dallas police were deeply implicated in the conspiracy. Indeed, the city police do not come out well in the Warren Report, but the force’s sometimes strange behavior is ascribed to a desire to please the press rather than to conceal the true culprit. Reporters with a ravenous appetite for news swarmed through headquarters, and police officials gave out news that proved to be false (such as identifying the murder weapon as a Mauser) or expressed opinions that would have prejudiced Oswald’s right to a fair trial had he lived.
But he did not live, and the Commission’s treatment of Jack Ruby is a masterpiece of detective work and sociology. The Report demonstrates at least to my satisfaction that the erratic Ruby got his opportunity to kill Oswald through the unforgivable carelessness of the Dallas police, who again subordinated the interests of justice to the convenience of the tv cameramen.
Police in general come out badly in the Warren Report, though criticism is gently phrased. It is astonishing to learn that the Dallas police (who had complete jurisdiction because killing a President is not—mirabile dictu—a Federal crime) failed even to take stenographic notes of the initial interrogation of Oswald. The Secret Service, whose job it is to protect the President, failed to check the buildings along the motorcade route for possible snipers, because this was not part of established routine. No extraordinary precautions were taken during the Dallas trip, even though Adlai Stevenson had been assaulted by pickets only a few weeks before. The fbi, a corps of supermen in popular myth, are shown to be no less fallible. Although fbi agents were aware of Oswald’s presence in Dallas, his name was not forwarded to the Secret Service. This seems like familiar bureaucratic jealousy of rival agencies, though the Commission ascribes the fbi behavior to an “unduly restrictive view of its role.”
Another theory has been advanced concerning the fbi’s behavior, namely, that Oswald himself had become an informant for U.S. intelligence agencies and hence was not regarded as a likely assassin. Oswald’s mother has spoken ambiguously about his working for U.S. intelligence but she has not supported her contention with a scrap of evidence. The Commission flatly denies that Oswald was in any way an informer for the fbi or cia; the detailed records of Oswald’s finances printed in the Report’s appendix do not disclose any abnormal source of funds. Still, doubts will persist. One price America is paying for maintaining a vast espionage and intelligence network is lack of credence in any official denials concerning activities of the cia or fbi.
The detailed criticisms of the Federal police made in the Report can and no doubt will be corrected in the future. Far more difficult to remedy is the essential moral problem presented by Oswald’s presumed motive for slaying President Kennedy. Nothing is more absorbing in the Commission document than the life history of Lee Harvey Oswald; it would be difficult to contrive a figure more totally unlike John F. Kennedy than this pathetic creature whose name will be forever linked with the President. Yet both were products of a society which is often sick and compulsive in its pursuit, at all costs, of celebrity, wealth and power.
Oswald was born in 1939 in New Orleans. His father, an
insurance premium collector, had died two months before, and Oswald was raised
by a mother whose virtues did not include an excessive sense of parental
responsibility. Oswald’s early life involved moves to Forth Worth, Texas, and
New York City; although he was not stupid, he did poorly at school, was a
chronic truant, and is remembered as a moody and withdrawn child from a highly
If there is a consistent pattern in Oswald’s life, it is his repeated attempt to identify himself with power and thereby validate his own sense of importance. On his 17th birthday, he joined the Marines, the he-man’s branch of the U.S. services. But he was an odd Marine, known for his Russophilia; when he played chess, according to one friend, he chose the red pieces, expressing a preference for the “Red Army.” In 1959, he was discharged from the Marines and the next year wound up in the Soviet Union as a defector.
That Oswald saw his gesture in grandiose terms is suggested by the title he gave his diary, “Historic Diary.” Kerry Thornley, a Marine associate, gave the Commission this interpretation of Oswald’s Marxist beliefs:
“He looked upon the eyes of future people as some kind of tribunal, and he wanted to be on the winning side so that 10,000 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 and I do think that is why he chose the particular method [of defecting] he chose and did it in the way he did. It got him in the newspapers.”
But it got him no happiness. The rest of the story is now broadly familiar: the marriage to Marina, the humiliating decision to return to the U.S., his troubles in job-hunting, his increasing difficulties with Marina, his purchase (under an assumed name) of an Italian rifle for $19.95. The Commission Report gives the details of the last strained weeks in Dallas. The weekend before November 22 he did not visit Marina, who was living in the suburb of Irving while Oswald lived in a downtown rooming house. On Thursday, November 21, he did go to Irving. He asked Marina to rejoin him; she refused. The next morning he left his wedding ring and $170 in the Irving residence, and he took with him a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle that he had hidden in the garage. The Warren Report asserts:
“The Commission does not believe that the relations between Oswald and his wife caused him to assassinate the President. It is unlikely that the motivation was that simple. The feelings of hostility and aggression which seemed to have played such an important part in Oswald’s life were part of his character long before he met his wife and such a favorable opportunity to strike at a figure as great as the President would probably never have come to him again.”
So Oswald, who had failed at everything, carried to the
warehouse the great equalizer between nobodies and somebodies—a lethal rifle,
equipped with a sniper’s scope. Caliban was able to strike at a man who was so
like a god. American society had given Oswald no legitimate way of satisfying
his thirst for distinction; history was his last chance for a reprieve.
I find this terrifyingly plausible, and far more chilling than any hyperrational thesis about a plot, which, if it is to be believed, must now include as an accessory the Chief Justice of the United States. Oswald, the true 20th-century man, shot his way into history. America’s tragedy became Oswald’s bitter triumph, for the world is now compelled to acknowledge his existence. God save us from an Oswald with access to that nuclear trigger.
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