Historians have argued that an event should be studied fifty years after the fact. Only then can it be looked at objectively, as all the evidence should have come in, and those with an axe to grind have died off. At fifty-two years, the Warren Commission looms less large today than it did in 1964. Much of this has to do with Sept. 11th supplanting the Kennedy assassination as the event that provokes among the populace the question “where were you when.”
Those who have attacked the Warren Commission back when it was noticed have split into two camps. Both agree it was a snow job but the motives they assign to it differ. For the Oliver Stone crowd, it was the propaganda arm of the military-industrial complex that murdered the “‘dovish” Kennedy. For the more reasonable of this school of thought, they argue that the Commission only pursued that Oswald did it alone to steer the citizenry away from believing it was a communist plot, and thus thwart their desires for revenge against a nuclear-armed Russia.
What is amazing though is how much of the Commission holds up. True, it showers the readers with overkill in the data department. We are given the name of Jack Ruby’s grandmother and a photograph of Oswald’s pubic hair. And there are questions not posed about Oswald’s murky associations with rabid anticommunist David Ferrie (Oswald was in Ferrie’s Civil Air Patrol Unit in 1955–a photo shows them together, albeit far apart at a Unit picnic). Nor about him sharing the same building where he cranked out “Fair Play For Cuba” pamphlets with such the far-rightist and supplier of weapons to anti-Castro groups, Guy Bannister. These associations certainly warranted further follow-ups. Examined by the light of Oswald’s patterns, this could have been just one more instance of him trying to infiltrate an anti-Castro organization as he did with another in New Orleans (members of this unit saw him distributing “Fair Play For Cuba” pamphlets two days after trying to join). On this, the Commission never even entertained such a possibility, which is criminal since this didn’t necessarily negate Oswald acting alone.
But overall their conclusions have held up. A recent test shot by an apolitical sniper revealed that for a shot to have come from the Grassy Knoll it would have exited Kennedy and tore Jackie’s face off. Moreover for someone to have made it exiting the President’s brain they would have had to stand on a 12-foot ladder–a sight witnesses would have undoubtedly noticed. This same apolitical sniper examining the bullet trajectories concluded that the head shot came from the Sixth Floor Schoolbook Depository, and he was able to duplicate it.
For those who argued that Oswald could not have made the shots, there is the not inconsiderable matter of Oswald being enough of a rifleman to qualify as a Marine “Marksman”–a high grade in a branch of the armed forces known for their combat skills. The ballistics held up even when re-examined by a skeptical Congressional Committee in the late seventies. Mere days before they were about to validate the conclusions of the Warren Commission, a dicta-belt recording from a policeman’s motorcycle seemingly showed the sound of a fourth shot; this information swayed their conclusions toward a conspiracy. Today, though computer and acoustics experts have located this sound as being well before the other shots and have classified it as a backfire from said cop’s motorcycle.
Still, some desperately cling to their conspiracy theories. They counter this evidence with the question of motive: why would the Marxist Oswald murder a liberal President? Radical journalist Dwight MacDonald, who defended the Commission in 1964, brilliantly argued that a liberal made an ideal target for a Marxist; since they were trying to improve society within the capitalist system rather than seeking to overthrow it. And it is questionable that Kennedy was a liberal. As a recent book by Ira Stoll has shown, Kennedy was more conservative than liberal; his hatred of communism was such that he attempted to murder Castro and upped the number of advisers in Vietnam. Much has been made of Kennedy’s supposed back-channel attempts to normalize relations with Castro. But that same month, September of 1963, the President had green-lit a sabotage operation against Cuba. He also had in the planning stages a Cuban invasion–with the pretext being that despite his promises during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kruschev had not removed offensive nuclear weapons from the island–set for December 1963. Many, usually with a stake in the Camelot myth of a dying king trying to transcend the Cold War, ponder what might have been. They answer this with the confident assertion that Kennedy would have ended the Cold War, of which a normalization of relations with Cuba was key. But what might have been was that Cuba would have been invaded or at the very least, Castro murdered. This ended on Nov. 22, 1963, when the new President Lyndon Baines Johnson turned off these plots (he told an aide that the “Kennedy brothers were operating a “Goddamn Murder Incorporated in the Carribean”).
Kennedy was the most public face of anti-Castroism, and this could have signed his death warrant with the fervently pro-Castro Oswald. Oswald’s intention had always been to seek asylum in Cuba. Marina Oswald, his wife, recalled him wanting to hijack a plane to Cuba. Mere weeks before the assassination he unsuccessfully tried to obtain a Cuban visa at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City; in his demented mind, he might have believed killing Castro’s number one foe would earn him this visa.
But this was a missed opportunity by the Commission. As historian James McPherson has noted, the Commission steered clear of Oswald’s communist beliefs and instead focused on his mental instability.
When I was a graduate student in one of the few colleges that still encouraged empirical thinking, I was advised to not only debate the message but to consider the biases of the messenger. Mere minutes after the assassination the Soviets peddled the theory eager lapped up by the Grassy Knoll group that Kennedy had been killed by rightist forces. The demented, attention-grabbing Margurette Oswald, the assassin’s mother, immediately argued that her son did not kill Kennedy, but was an intelligence agent patriotically serving his country.
The eagerness by which this theory was embraced by leftists was suspect. Here was a way for them to eschew the grown-up view of reality, in which irrationality plays a large part and as such makes it possible that a dead-beat Marxist could kill the most important figure on earth; instead they searched for meaning and a more politically satisfying assassin. Witnessing skepticism about their theories, this group has always asserted that the populace would not consider these theories because of the horrifying conclusion that evil forces are in charge of the government. But even more horrifying is that failures can still murder important figures, that chaos reigns, and history is messy.
Recent polls have not been encouraging for the aged conspiracy crowd. Belief that Oswald acted alone has jumped twenty points, 57 percent, in 2013 from 37 percent twenty years ago. And why not? In today’s world, disturbed individuals shoot up not only important politicians but whole schools.