Kennedy Assassination Context Warren Commission -- coverup?
Warren Commission Presentation to LBJ

Recipe for a Coverup?

Conspiracy theorists often point to a memorandum written by Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach three days after the assassination as a call for a top-level government coverup of a conspiracy. One passage from the memo reads:
The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial.
Katzenbach explained the memo, and the general thinking among top administration officials in his testimony before the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Rather than calling for a coverup, the memo called for a full disclosure of the facts of the case. This is made clear in a passage the conspiracy books seldom quote:
It is important that all of the facts surrounding President Kennedy's Assassination be made public in a way which will satisfy people in the United States and abroad all that the facts have been told and a statement to this effect be made now.
. . . and further:
I think this objective may be satisfied by making public as soon as possible a complete and thorough FBI report on Oswald and the assassination.
. . . and finally:
I think, however, that a statement that all the facts will be made public property in an orderly and responsible way should be made now.
If one assumes, as conspiracists do, that there was clear evidence of a conspiracy, and that Katzenbach knew there was such evidence, then the memo is the recipe for a coverup. The reality, however, is that Katzenbach like most of official Washington was convinced that Oswald had done it alone, but also convinced that theorizing about a conspiracy (especially a Communist conspiracy) harmed the national interest.

Did Gerald Ford Move the Wound in Kennedy's Back?

Conspiracists have insisted that the wound in Kennedy's back was too low to be consistent with the Single Bullet Theory. Thus, the fact that Warren Commission member Gerald Ford changed the description of the wound in a draft of the Warren Commission Report from "back" to "neck" seems sinister to them. But was it really sinister, or was Ford acting in good faith?

Was the Appointment of Allen Dulles to the Commission Part of a Cover-Up?

To conspiracy theorists it seems very sinister that former CIA chief Allen Dulles, who was fired by Kennedy in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, was appointed by Lyndon Johnson to the Warren Commission. Worse, conspiracists often think the CIA killed Kennedy, so why appoint a top CIA official to investigate the crime? But in reality, John Kennedy's brother Robert urged LBJ to appoint Dulles, and LBJ complied.

Hear History Happen

In conspiracy books, the founding of the Warren Commission was a straightforward "coverup" exercise. What did the process look like if actually examined in detail? The History Out Loud website allows you to hear White House audio recordings of various conversations between President Johnson or his staffers and noted political figures discussing the assassination and what Johnson's response should be. Another collection of audio conversations on the same subject matter is available on the Miller Center website.

Listen and decide: is this conspiracy, or the workings of a pluralist democracy?

Making Sense of the Assassination

Oliver Stone stresses the Cold War context of the assassination, and so does writer Max Holland. But Holland's article "Making Sense of the Assassination" presents a more sophisticated and nuanced account of how the atmosphere of the Cold War and the interests of the CIA affected the work of the Warren Commission. The failure of the CIA to tell the Warren Commission about plots on the life of Castro didn't affect the Commission's conclusion that Oswald acted alone, but prevented the Commission from giving a coherent account of Oswald's motives:
Absent a confession, and denied CIA information that shed light on Oswald's motives, the Commission staff decided that it could not ascribe to Oswald "any one motive or group of motives." The Report gave ample details about Oswald's political activities but in a detached, clinical manner. In the end, he was left to become Manchester's wretched waif, a callow non-entity trying to elbow his way into history by striking out at a President who had it all: looks, youth, and power. Not untrue perhaps, but it was a hollow explanation given Oswald's extreme politicization. As staff member (now Ohio state judge) Burt Griffin later remarked, "The fact that we could not come up with a motive for Oswald was a great weakness in the report."

Origins of the Single Bullet Theory

For conspiracists, the Warren Commission's endorsement of the Single Bullet Theory is close to treasonous. Yet, as the Commission's internal documents on the shooting sequence in Dealey Plaza show, the Commission was honestly attempting to sort out a nettlesome issue by looking closely at the Zapruder film, and asking for input from the autopsy doctors, wound ballistics experts, and John and Nellie Connally.

An Insider View of the Commission

Warren Commission counsels and staffers have been increasingly assertive in recent years, challenging those who accuse them of a cover-up, or merely even of poor work. A defense of the Commission's work can be found in this essay by Assistant Counsel Howard Willens and staffer Richard M. Mosk in The American Scholar. If you are a conspiracist, you will dismiss this essay as self-serving. But if you know how bogus most conspiracy theories are, you will sympathize with men who have been dogged with controversy for over half a century.

Executive Session Transcripts

Long classified as "Secret," the transcripts of the Warren Commission's private deliberations provide valuable insight into just how the Commission worked. Read them, and decide whether they show a "coverup" or an honest inquiry. The transcripts are online courtesy of Rex Bradford's "History Matters" website.

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