We’ll never know, we’ll never know, we’ll never know. That’s the mocking-bird media refrain this season as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of America’s greatest mystery – the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson hijacked a large chunk of her paper’s Sunday Book Review to ponder the Kennedy mystery. And after deliberating for page after page on the subject, she could only conclude that there was some “kind of void” at the center of the Kennedy story. Adam Gopnik was even more vaporous in the Nov. 4 issue of the New Yorker, turning the JFK milestone into an occasion for a windy cogitation on regicide as cultural phenomenon. Of course, constantly proclaiming “we’ll never know” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the American press. It lets the watchdogs off the hook, and excuses their unforgivable failure to actually, you know, investigate the epic crime. When it comes to this deeply troubling American trauma, the highly refined writers of the New Yorker and the elite press would rather muse about the meta-issues than get at the meat.
All this artful dodging about the murder of President Kennedy began, of course, nearly 50 years ago with the Warren Commission, the blue-ribbon panel that was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson -- not to get at the truth, but to “lay the dust” (in the words of one commissioner) on all the disturbing rumors that were swirling around the bloody events in Dallas. Two new books take us inside the Warren Commission sausage factory, and show in often shocking detail how the august panel got it so terribly wrong. Soon after the Warren Report was released in September 1964, polls began showing that the American people rejected its conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin of the president – and nearly a half century later, the report remains a notorious symbol of official coverup. [This does not prevent Abramson from blithely declaring that “the historical consensus seems to have settled on” the lone gunman theory – there is no such consensus, only a deeply fractious ongoing debate.]
"A Cruel and Shocking Act” by former New York Times investigative reporter Philip Shenon has been soaking up most of the media spotlight in recent days. The book proclaims itself to be a “secret history of the Kennedy assassination.” Based largely on interviews with Warren Commission staff lawyers, the book reveals how the investigation was immediately taken over by the very government agencies -- the CIA, FBI and Secret Service -- that had the most to hide when it came to the assassination. The other new book, “History Will Prove Us Right,” was written by Howard Willens, a Warren Commission lawyer who refused to speak with Shenon. As suggested by the title -- which is taken from a defiant statement by the commission chairman, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren – Willens’ book is a stubborn defense of the report that he helped produce. But ironically, after grinding one’s way through Willens’ serviceably written but highly revealing story, a reader can only come to the same conclusion that Shenon’s sexier expose’ demands – namely, that the Warren Report was the result of massive political cunning and investigative fraud.
Both books contain juicy and informative details that shed new light on the JFK investigation. (Shenon’s book also contains a few breathlessly advertised “scoops” that turn out to be rehashed stories or false leads.) But the two books also suffer from a strange cognitive dissonance. After elaborating on the many ways that the Warren Commission’s work was sabotaged by President Johnson, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (who immediately took charge of the investigation), former CIA director Allen Dulles (who conveniently got himself appointed to the commission), Treasury chief C. Douglas Dillon (who oversaw the Secret Service) and other Washington power players, the books seem to arrive at the same baffling conclusion as the deeply compromised Warren Report – i.e., that Oswald did it.
When it comes to the million-dollar question, Shenon is much more equivocal than Willens. He seems to think that Oswald might have had accomplices – but Oswald nonetheless remains at the center of Shenon’s story, rather than the intelligence officials, for instance, whom Sen. Richard Schweiker once remarked had their “fingerprints” all over the young alleged assassin. In following the conspiracy trail, Shenon quickly takes a wrong turn down the “Castro-as-mastermind” path. Perhaps because as a writer he found this story of deep espionage more intriguing than the Warren Commission’s twisted bureaucratic tale, the author lights off for Mexico City, where Oswald apparently visited (or was impersonated visiting) the Soviet and Cuban embassies in the days before Dallas. Shenon has Oswald dallying with a sexy clerk in the Cuban embassy, and perhaps getting entangled in a sinister Fidelista plot against JFK.
The problem with this tantalizing tale of Cuban intrigue is that it’s completely bogus and has been consistently debunked over the years – despite the best efforts of former CIA spooks like Brian Latell (“Castro’s Secrets”), whom Shenon credits as an inspiration, to revive it. One of the better jobs at deconstructing the Castro theory was done by Gerald McKnight, a professor emeritus of history at Maryland’s Hood College. In “Breach of Trust” – his 2005 exploration of the Warren Commission’s failure, which remains the best book on the topic – McKnight illuminates how immediately after the gunfire in Dealey Plaza, the CIA began an aggressive disinformation campaign to link Oswald with Castro. As McKnight documents, President Johnson was so alarmed that this propaganda offensive would lead to war with Cuba (and perhaps a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union) that he prevailed on his friend J. Edgar Hoover to help him shut down the CIA’s explosive rumor-mongering. Fifty years later, Shenon has fallen into the same spook trap on Cuba.
Shenon does have a remarkable story to tell about Castro – and it completely undermines his dark conjecture about the Cuban leader. In the summer of 1964, Castro passed word to Washington that he wanted to tell his story to the Warren Commission. William Coleman – the commission’s only African-American lawyer – had met Castro back in the early 1950s, when they were both young men enjoying Harlem’s nightlife. As the obvious staff member to undertake the mission, Coleman set off for the Caribbean, where he met with his old acquaintance on a yacht anchored off Cuba. For three hours, Coleman fired questions at Castro about a possible Cuban plot against JFK, with Fidel steadfastly insisting that he admired JFK and had nothing to do with his murder. In fact, it would later be revealed that in the months before his death, Kennedy had begun to soften the hostile U.S. stance against Havana and had opened back channels to Castro. After returning from his secret mission, Coleman reported back to Warren that he found no proof Castro was involved in JFK’s murder. The Coleman story is not the hot scoop advertised by Shenon – it was first reported years ago by Irish journalist Anthony Summers, one of the more dogged diggers in the Kennedy field. But it certainly bears repeating.
To give Shenon and Willens their due, both books contain a number of startling facts, some of which are new, at least to me. For example, Shenon spotlights these intriguing bits of information:
- After returning home from his grim duties, Dr. James Humes, the Navy pathologist in charge of the Kennedy autopsy at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, burned his original autopsy report in the fireplace in his family room. Humes’ superior officer was so concerned that the pathologist himself might be eliminated by the plotters who killed JFK that he ordered Humes to be escorted home that night.
- Arlen Specter, the Warren Commission lawyer (and future U.S. senator), first presented his soon-to-be infamous single bullet theory to Chief Justice Warren while the two men were standing at the sixth-floor window of the Texas Book Depository where the mediocre marksman Oswald allegedly committed his historic crime. After listening silently to Specter explain the magical trajectory of Oswald’s bullet, Warren simply turned on his heel and walked away without saying a word. Warren – a distinguished chief justice with a monumental record on civil rights – had resisted serving on the presidential commission. He knew that his duty was not to find the truth, but to suppress dangerous evidence that – as LBJ had warned him – might lead to World War III. Still, it must have dismayed the 73-year-old jurist to see how his historic report (and his reputation) would be tied to a patently absurd ballistics theory.
- In the years following the Warren Report’s release, several of the commissioners and staff members distanced themselves from their own report and publicly criticized the manifold deceptions of the agencies on which they had relied, namely the FBI and CIA. Among those who suffered grave doubts was lawyer David Slawson, the man who had been the Warren Commission’s lead investigator into whether JFK was the victim of a conspiracy. In 1975 Slawson aired his criticisms to the New York Times, attacking the CIA for withholding vital information from the commission and calling for a new JFK investigation. Within days of the story breaking in the Times, Slawson received a strange and threatening phone call from James Angleton, the spectral CIA counterintelligence chief. Angleton – who had not only closely monitored Oswald for several years before Dallas, but later took charge of the agency’s investigation into the alleged assassin – adopted a decidedly sinister tone during his call with Slawson, making it clear to the lawyer that he would be wise to remain “a friend of the CIA.” Slawson and his wife were deeply unnerved by the call. He thought the message was clear: “Keep your mouth shut.”
For his part, Willens, who had been loaned out to the Warren Commission by Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department, reveals new information about the attorney general and his troubled relationship with the official investigation into his brother’s death. RFK resolutely kept his distance from the proceedings of the Warren Commission -- which was stacked with RFK’s political enemies and reported to a new president with whom he had a poisonous relationship. But, as Willens reveals, Kennedy did briefly insert a lawyer on the Warren Commission staff – in addition to Willens himself. This Kennedy mole used his position on the commission to dig into possible connections between the JFK assassination and the Mafia-connected Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, another mortal enemy of RFK.
As soon as he had heard the devastating news from Dallas on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy immediately suspected that his brother had been the victim of a plot. RFK believed that the shadowy assassination operation against Fidel Castro – a dark alliance between the CIA and the Mafia – had somehow been turned against President Kennedy. When Dallas nightclub operator Jack Ruby stunned the nation by shooting Oswald on national TV while he was being escorted through the basement of the Dallas Police Department, Bobby and his Justice Department investigators quickly turned their attention to Ruby. Within hours, RFK’s men found that Ruby had numerous connections to organized crime.
According to Shenon, the Warren Commission lawyers who were assigned to investigate Ruby – Burt Griffin and Leon Hubert -- came to the same disturbing conclusion. Equally unnerving, the commission lawyers also suspected that the Dallas police sergeant who was in charge of Oswald’s security had allowed Ruby to slip into police headquarters and gun down the alleged assassin. But Griffin and Hubert were shut down before they could complete their Ruby investigation. And Griffin was reprimanded for daring to confront the Dallas police sergeant with his suspicions. Warren even publicly apologized to the cop when he was called to testify before the commission in Washington.
The post-assassination Washington revealed in these two books brings to mind ancient Rome. The capital’s chambers and private clubs were filled with dark whispers. The most powerful elements of government maneuvered to make sure their deepest secrets would not be revealed. Royal blood had been spilled and the new regime was determined that the public must never know why.
In the end, Shenon and Willens do little to further enlighten the public about the who, what or why of the Kennedy assassination. A growing historical consensus now sees JFK as presiding over a bitterly divided government, with Kennedy and his peace-minded inner circle on one side and a war-hungry Cold War establishment on the other. Even humdrum Kennedy historian Robert Dallek has now signed on to this view, with a new book that argues JFK’s biggest enemies were not Communist leaders but his own generals and espionage chiefs. This is a sobering conclusion, of course, because it provides a possible explanation for the bloody regime change in Dallas.
These dark waters are simply too ominous for authors like Shenon and Willens to explore. Despite his willingness to expose the Warren Commission’s tortured process, Shenon cannot bring himself to condemn its conclusions. At the end of the day, he remains a product of the New York Times – a newspaper that rushed to embrace the Warren Report months before it was even completed and, as Abramson’s wordy screed attests, is still more interested in ridiculing and marginalizing even the most credible conspiracy researchers than in getting at the truth. Mainstream journalists know that – even 50 years (!) later -- they don’t dare go beyond the safe confines of “we’ll never know,” or they won’t be appearing on “Meet the Press” any time soon.
Shenon writes that he worked for five years on his Warren Commission book – and yet the sum of these efforts is to bring him back to the beginning, where the commission left the investigation. In the end, he doesn’t know quite what to make of JFK’s murder. His confusion becomes clear in his acknowledgments where he lists the books that he believes are “the essential library” on the Kennedy case – the books that “will still be read generations from now.” Shenon’s list is a contradictory hodgepodge, lumping together books from the conspiracy camp (like my own “Brothers,” Jefferson Morley’s “Our Man in Mexico” and Gaeton Fonzi’s “The Last Investigation”) with hardcore lone gunman titles (like Gerald Posner’s “Case Closed” and Vincent Bugliosi’s “Reclaiming History”). This weirdly polarized reading list underlines Shenon’s failure to resolve his own thinking on the case.
[See the author's list of essential JFK sources below the article.]
In contrast to the vacillating Shenon, Willens at least has the courage of his convictions. He’s a Warren Commission apologist, pure and simple. And yet in a recent conversation, he sounded somewhat less certain, as we discussed new revelations that his own political patron, Robert Kennedy, never believed the Warren Report and was determined to find the truth on his own.
Fifty years later, Willens still can’t offer a credible motive for why Oswald supposedly killed Kennedy. In his book, he reveals that the commission assigned staff lawyer Wesley Liebeler to write a memo on Oswald’s “Possible Personal Motive” – but the panel found Liebler’s effort so unconvincing that it was rejected. In the end, the Warren Commission decided against offering a definitive motive for the murder, leaving the country forever puzzled by the young man who insisted he was a “patsy.”
After painstakingly documenting how the country’s security agencies played the Warren Commission, Shenon and Willens both explain away this monumental deception by claiming that the country’s intelligence apparatus was simply trying to hide its embarrassing failure to protect the president. But there’s another, more disturbing conclusion that is left hanging in the air. If the CIA was just trying to hide embarrassing mistakes back in the 1960s – security lapses that have long since been exposed -- what is the agency still trying to conceal?
At the half-century mark, it’s clearly high time for the nation to go beyond all the self-serving apologias – and beyond all the equivocation and speculation. We need the facts – as Jefferson Morley, one of the few journalists to devote serious effort to the Kennedy case, has demonstrated. Morley has been pursuing a lengthy Freedom of Information battle with the CIA to pry loose more than 1,500 documents that the agency is still concealing in defiance of the 1992 JFK Records Act. At long last, we need the government to come clean and provide the American people with what is legally theirs – every piece of classified information relating to the Kennedy assassination. Failing that, if the CIA continues to defy the law, the nation needs another Edward Snowden.
The assassination of President Kennedy and its subsequent coverup was a triumph for the rapidly growing U.S. national security state. Fifty years later, that surveillance colossus increasingly treats the American people as if we’re enemies of the state. We can begin to take control of our future by finally demanding ownership of our past.
There is a wealth of useful information about the Kennedy assassination available online. But before a beginner wades into these thickets, it’s best to start with some of the best books on the subject.
1. “JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters,” by James W. Douglass. Written by a deeply thoughtful Catholic peace activist, this book portrays Kennedy as a Cold War martyr – a leader who sacrificed his life to save the world from the nuclear holocaust that was being threatened by his national security team. Douglass draws together much of the best research about the Kennedy administration, and the tensions that finally tore it apart.
2. “The Last Investigation: What Insiders Know About the Assassination of JFK,” by Gaeton Fonzi. An aggressive Philadelphia investigative journalist, Fonzi was recruited by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1976 to be one of its lead investigators. (The HSCA’s final report in 1979 overturned the Warren Report, concluding that JFK had been killed as the result of a conspiracy, but failed to name the plotters.) Fonzi’s inside account of the committee, which came tantalizingly close to cracking the case before it was sabotaged by CIA obstructionism and congressional cowardice, makes for a gripping and eye-opening tale.
3. “Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why,” by Gerald McKnight. Written by a professor emeritus of history at Hood College, this is one of the few invaluable books on the Kennedy case produced by American academia – which has been as timid as the press when it comes to exploring this taboo topic. McKnight documents how U.S. security agencies immediately hijacked the Warren investigation -- and makes a compelling case for their own involvement in JFK’s death.
4. “Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA,” by Jefferson Morley. By focusing on Scott, chief of the CIA station in Mexico City at the time of the JFK assassination, Morley sheds a revealing light on a fascinating sideshow in the Oswald story. Morley demonstrates how Oswald was the object of an intensive CIA shadow play, which can be traced back to the agency’s wizard of deception, James Jesus Angleton.
5. “Oswald and the CIA,” by John Newman. A former military intelligence officer, Newman brought his unique expertise to deciphering the flood of JFK documents that were declassified in 1992 as a result of the public outcry following Oliver Stone’s film “JFK.” Newman shows that – despite CIA denials – the agency had a strong operational interest in Oswald that dated back years before Dallas.
6. “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years,” by David Talbot. Yes, I plead guilty to shameless self-promotion. But in my defense, my book broke new ground by documenting how Robert Kennedy himself was one of the first JFK conspiracy theorists. Based on over 150 interviews with Kennedy relatives and administration insiders, the book traces Bobby’s secret search for the truth about his brother’s murder.
7. “Deep Politics and the Death of JFK,” by Peter Dale Scott. A retired University of California, Berkeley, literature scholar, former Canadian diplomat and distinguished poet, Scott is the Wise Man of the Kennedy research movement. Though not trained as a historian or investigative journalist, Scott took up the challenge of the JFK mystery in his spare time over four decades ago, delving assiduously where few reporters or academics dared go. “Deep Politics” is his Kennedy masterpiece, a meticulously detailed examination of the deep network of power that underlies the events in Dallas. The book is filled with provocative insights about how the upper circles of U.S. power actually operate (often in concert with the criminal underworld). I list “Deep Politics” last, only because it’s not for beginners – readers should approach this dense and challenging book after getting a basic grounding in the Kennedy case.
Presided over by Jeff Morley, American journalism’s point man on the Kennedy case, this blog treats the JFK assassination as an ongoing news story, with frequent updates and revelations. Must reading for hardcore JFK enthusiasts, as well as the idly curious.
Named after one of the early JFK citizen investigators, this deep archive of Kennedy documents is an invaluable research treasure. Run by a savvy techie named Rex Bradford, the site features hundreds of thousands of government documents as well as digitized books, video and audio recordings, and a photo library.
This JFK site grew out of the deep work produced by James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease, two of the more brilliant independent researchers in the Kennedy field. CTKA features work that pushes the envelope and makes intriguing connections before anyone else.
4. JFK Lancer
A history company that has succeeded at turning JFK research into a going concern, JFK Lancer operates a well-stocked website, produces publications and hosts conferences.