The President’s Commission: Investigating the Kennedy
Chapter XI of The Memoirs of Earl Warren
By Chief Justice Earl Warren
Company, Inc., 1977
Garden City, New York
On Friday, November
22, 1963, the Supreme Court was
having its regular conference. We had just returned from luncheon on the floor
above, when, a little after 1:30 p.m., I received a typewritten note from my
secretary, Mrs. McHugh, saying, “The President was shot while riding in a
motorcade in Dallas. It is not known how badly he is injured.”
The Court, shocked beyond words, immediately adjourned. There was little said, but I believe each of us, stunned by the news, repaired to a place where he could receive radio reports of the tragedy. I know that is what I did. In perhaps a half or three quarters of an hour the news came that the President was dead. It was almost unbelievable, and was particularly poignant to us because we had all seen John F. Kennedy in the White House in his youthful vigor about thirty-six hours before, when he had held a reception for the Supreme Court. On that occasion, the members and their wives were invited to join the President and Mrs. Kennedy in their private living quarters on the second floor for refreshments while the other guests were gathering below. We could not forget how friendly and happy the occasion was, and how he was scheduled to leave for Dallas the next morning. We jokingly admonished him to be careful “down there with those wild Texans.” Of course, the thought of a real disturbance of any kind was far from our minds. It was a delightful affair for us, one that would have been stamped permanently on our memories even had there been nothing tragic to follow.
Later, on that Friday afternoon, we were informed that Vice-President Johnson, while in Texas, had taken the oath as the thirty-sixth President of the United States, and that he and Mrs. Johnson were returning to Washington on the presidential plane with Mrs. Kennedy and the body of her husband. The plane arrived at Andrews Air Force Base about six o’clock. The public was not to be admitted to the base, but we were among those who were asked to be present. With heavy hearts, Nina and I attended.
It was a heart-rending sight to see a saddened new President and the fallen President’s widow, still in the bloodstained clothes she wore after her mortally wounded husband had slumped in her lap, descend from the giant Air Force plane. We watched as the body was lowered into a waiting ambulance. President Johnson addressed a few words concerning the great tragedy that had beclouded our country. There was no other ceremony. Nina and I paid our respects to him and returned dejectedly to our home.
The next few days are not clear in my memory. I made no notes at the time, but as nearly as I can recall I spent much of that night and Saturday glued to the television screen listening to the wild stories and rumors which permeated the air. I watched and heard the same things repeated time after time. It was sickening, but there didn’t seem to be anything else to do.
The only thing that broke the gruesome television reports during the day was a visit Nina and I made, by invitation, to the White House Saturday morning with the other Justices and their wives to view the casket in the East Room. I then returned to the Court, and spent most of the day waiting for some information about what was to happen in the next few days. The entire governmental plant was closed. It was as though the world had stopped moving.
About nine o’clock Saturday evening I was startled from my numbness by a call from the White House. It was Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy, asking if I would make a short talk in the rotunda of the Capitol the following day at the ceremony for her husband as he lay in state there. I was almost speechless to hear her voice personally asking me to speak at the ceremony. I, of course, told her that I would do so. After our brief conversation, I undertook to compose something, but it was simply impossible for me to put thoughts on paper. Accordingly, I went to bed around midnight, postponing until morning the writing of the statement I must have for the ceremony at one o’clock the next afternoon.
It was again difficult to write in the morning, but there could be no further delay. I was still struggling with the words at 11:20 a.m. when my daughter Dorothy came running into my study and said, “Daddy, they just killed Oswald.” A little annoyed, I said, “Oh, Dorothy, don’t pay any attention to all those wild rumors or they will drive you to distraction.” She replied, “But, Daddy, I saw them do it.” I rushed into her room in time to see a replay of Jack Ruby shooting President Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, on her television set.
This confounded my writing effort even more, but I had only a little more to do, and managed to complete the statement shortly thereafter. I then enlisted the services of Nina to type it for me. She was ready to leave for the ceremony, but quickly typed it, after which we hurriedly departed. From midtown to the Capitol, traffic was restricted because of the vast crowds already assembling to view the casket in the Capitol Rotunda where it was to lie in state until the funeral service the following morning. Through the helpful assistance of a number of policemen along the way, we were able to arrive at the Capitol on time. It was a simple and highly emotional ceremony. The three speakers were the veteran John W. McCormack, speaker of the House of Representatives; Senator Mike Mansfield, majority leader of the Senate, and myself. The talks were all short. This is what I had ground out so laboriously:
There are few events in our national life that so unite Americans and so touch the hearts of all of us as the passing of a President of the United States.
There is nothing that adds shock to our sadness more than the assassination of our leader, chosen as he is to embody the ideals of our people, the faith we have in our institutions, and our belief in the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Such misfortunes have befallen the Nation on other occasions, but never more shockingly than two days ago. We are saddened; we are stunned; we are perplexed.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy—a great and good President, the friend of all people of good will; a believer in the dignity and equality of all human beings; a fighter for justice; an apostle of peace—has been snatched from our midst by the bullet of an assassin.
What moved some misguided wretch to do this horrible deed may never be known to us, but we do know that such acts are commonly stimulated by forces of hatred and malevolence such as today are eating their way into the blood stream of American life. What a price we pay for this fanaticism!
It has been said that the only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn. But surely we can learn if we have the will to do so. Surely there is a lesson to be learned from this tragic event.
If we really love this country; if we truly love justice and mercy; if we fervently want to make this Nation better for those who are to follow us, we can at least abjure the hatred that consumes people, the false accusations that divide us and the bitterness that begets violence. Is it too much to hope that the martyrdom of our beloved President might even soften the hearts of those who would themselves recoil from assassination, but who do not shrink from spreading the venom which kindles thoughts of it in others?
Our Nation is bereaved. The whole world is poorer because of his loss. But we can all be better Americans because John Fitzgerald Kennedy has passed our way; because he has been our chosen leader at a time in history when his character, his vision and. his quiet courage have enabled him to chart for us a safe course through the shoals of treacherous seas that encompass the world.
And now that he is relieved of the almost superhuman burdens we imposed on him, may he rest in peace.
After the brief ceremony, the multitude in the Capitol and the thousands
who continued to line the streets for the remainder of the day and night
eventually passed through the Rotunda to pay their final respects to the fallen
thirty-fifth President of the United States The press reported that the line
extended for forty blocks.
The following morning, members of the Court assembled at the White House. We joined the heads of state, Prime Ministers, other distinguished representatives of more than a hundred members of the Cabinet and of our Congress, and the Kennedy family for the solemn funeral trek to St. Matthew’s Cathedral.
Behind the casket was a saddled but riderless horse with a sheathed sword across the saddle and boots reversed in the stirrups, representing, according to custom, the loss of a leader. Heading the six-block march to the Cathedral was Mrs. Kennedy between the two brothers of her husband, Robert and Edward. Following them were President and Mrs. Johnson; then the rest of the dignitaries who had gathered for this mournful occasion from all over the world.
The walk seemed longer because of the slow, muffled rolling of the drums: My thoughts were largely of the stricken Mrs. Kennedy and the fortitude she was showing in her grief. I could not understand how she stood it.
At the Cathedral, Richard Cardinal Cushing, who had married the President and Mrs. Kennedy and had baptized their children, met the procession and ushered the casket into the church.
After the ceremony, which lasted about an hour, the caravan formed again; this time in cars for the long trip across the Potomac River to the last resting place of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Arlington Cemetery. Hundreds of thousands of grief-stricken citizens silently stood along the route and watched. There, after a brief committal service conducted by Cardinal Cushing, Mrs. Kennedy lighted the Eternal Flame at the head of the grave, and the throng, still stunned by sadness, dispersed and went silently to their homes.
Government must go on no matter what impediments confront it, so everyone
was at his or her station on Tuesday morning. That is not to say that government
was normal. It was not. The thinking of most Americans was chaotic. The killing
of Oswald by Jack Ruby while he was in the custody of the police at their
headquarters in Dallas simply compounded the confusion. It gave rise to the
wildest kind of rumors and speculations. Amazing stories by supposed witnesses
were published along with theories predicated on them, and most of the theories
had to do with imagined conspiracies of various kinds. Many agencies announced
the probability of holding public investigations independent of the others. The
Dallas authorities fed everything, good or bad, to the news media. The attorney
general of Texas proposed having an open hearing before a justice of the peace,
which meant television, radio, and newspaper coverage, regardless of how
disjointed or circus-like this atmosphere for a trial might be. Several
committees of the Congress were flirting with public hearings that would proceed
in similar manner. The result would have been chaos. The world was ready to
believe almost anything, and indeed it did.
The federal government, with the FBI, the Secret Service, the CIA, and other agencies, had no clear jurisdiction of the subject. They were in the investigation merely by sufferance of the local and state authorities of Texas, because at that time it was not a federal crime to assassinate a President, or to murder the assassin as Ruby had done. Either was a state crime, as were other cases of murder.
The public was becoming restive because the alleged assassin was dead, and the killing of him had been witnessed by more than a hundred million people over television. Things were moving to a crescendo when on Friday, November 29, there was a request to my office for a conference as soon as possible with the Deputy Attorney Genera1, Nicholas Katzenbach, and Solicitor General Archibald Cox. I agreed to see them immediately, and they arrived in my office very shortly thereafter.
They informed me that President Johnson, in an effort to bring order out of confusion, had determined to establish a bipartisan commission of outstanding people to investigate the entire affair and report the true facts regardless of consequences. They said that because in this country we do not have posthumous trials, there was no way to determine with accuracy what had happened, other than by a fact-finding commission. The President, they said, wanted to know if I would serve as chairman of such a commission. I told them I thought the President was wise in having such a commission, but that I was not available for service on it. Because of past experiences of that kind in the history of the Court, we had discussed the propriety of taking on extrajudicial appointments and, although we had never voted on it, I was sure that every member of the Court was of the opinion that such appointments were not in its best interests. I told Katzenbach and Cox that I had more than once expressed myself to that effect for several reasons. First, it is not in the spirit of constitutional separation of powers to have a member of the Supreme Court serve on a presidential commission; second, it would distract a Justice from the work of the Court, which had a heavy docket; and, third, it was impossible to foresee what litigation such a commission might spawn, with resulting disqualification of the Justice from sitting in such cases. I then told them that, historically, the acceptance of diplomatic posts by Chief Justices Jay and Ellsworth had not contributed to the welfare of the Court, that the service of five Justices on the Hayes-Tilden Commission had demeaned it, that the appointment of Justice Roberts as chairman to investigate the Pearl Harbor disaster had served no good purpose, and that the action of Justice Robert Jackson in leaving Court for a year to become chief prosecutor at Nürnberg after World War II had resulted in divisiveness and internal bitterness on the Court. I asked the Deputy Attorney General and Solicitor General to convey my respects to the President, but to tell him that, consistent with my own beliefs and of those of the other members of the Court as I understood them, I must respectfully decline the honor. I then suggested a few names of persons whom I thought might serve well the purpose of the President. The conference ended on that note.
I considered the matter closed. However, about three-thirty that same afternoon I received a call from the White House asking if I could come to see the President and saying that it was quite urgent. I, of course, said I would do so, and very soon thereafter I went to his office. I was ushered in and, with only the two of us in the room, he told me of his proposal. He said he was concerned about the wild stories and rumors that were arousing not only our own people but people in other parts of the world. He said that because Oswald had been murdered, there could be no trial emanating from the assassination of President Kennedy, and that unless the facts were explored objectively and conclusions reached that would be respected by the public, it would always remain an open wound with ominous potential. He added that several congressional committees and Texas local and state authorities were contemplating public investigations with television coverage which would compete with each other for public attention, and in the end leave the people more bewildered and emotional than at present. He said he was satisfied that if he appointed a bipartisan Presidential Commission to investigate the facts impartially and report them to a troubled nation that the people would accept its findings. He told me that he had made up his mind as to the other members, that he had communicated with them, and that they would serve if I would accept the chairmanship. He then named them for me. They were:
Richard B. Russell, Democratic senator from Georgia since 1933 and former governor of that state; chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee;
John Sherman Cooper, veteran Republican senator from Kentucky, a former judge of that state, and United States Ambassador to India;
Hale Boggs, Democratic assistant majority leader of the House of Representatives. A member of the House from Louisiana since 1946;
Gerald R. Ford, member of the House of Representatives since 1948 from Michigan. Chairman of the Republican Conference Committee.*
Allen W. Dulles, former foreign service officer, and director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Eisenhower from 1953 to 1961.
John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War from 1941 to 1945; president of the World Bank from 1947 to 1949; U. S. Military Governor and High Commissioner for Germany from 1949 to 1952. Coordinator of U.S. disarmament activities since 1961.
*Ed. note: Warren died before Ford became President.
I knew all of these men to be distinguished and honorable men; I believed
they would be accepted as an able and conscientious commission.
I then told the President my reasons for not being available for the chairmanship. He replied, “You were a soldier in World War I, but there was nothing you could do in that uniform comparable to what you can do for your country in this hour of trouble.” He then told me how serious were the rumors floating around the world. The gravity of the situation was such that it might lead us into war, he said, and, if so, it might be a nuclear war. He went on to tell me that he had just talked to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who had advised him that the first nuclear strike against us might cause the loss of forty million people.
[Ed. note: A Gallup poll at this time indicated that more than half the American people believed that more than one person was involved in the assassination. The percentage overseas was undoubtedly much higher.]
I then said, “Mr. President, if the situation is that serious, my
personal views do not count. I will do it.” He thanked me, and I left the
I am sure he felt the importance of the assignment in those extravagant terms to the day he died, because when Nina and I were having dinner with him and Mrs. Johnson on December 12, 1972, at the time of the opening of his civil rights papers, he said, “Chief, of all the things you have done for your country, the most important was your work with the Commission on the assassination of President Kennedy.”
That he felt a great urgency at the time is further indicated by the fact that he immediately made the appointments by Executive Order , No. 11130 as of that date, and the press release announcing it was heard over the radio by Mrs. McHugh shortly after she arrived home from the office. Nina heard it before I arrived home for dinner. This was the announcement:
Immediate Release November 29, 1963
Office of the White House Press Secretary
THE WHITE HOUSE
The President today announced
that he is appointing a Special Commission to study and report upon all facts
and circumstances relating to the assassination of the late President, John F.
Kennedy, and the subsequent violent death of the man charged with the
The President stated that the Majority and Minority Leadership of the Senate and the House of Representatives have been consulted with respect to the proposed Special Commission.
[The names of members of the Special Commission followed.]
The President stated that the Special Commission is to be instructed to evaluate all available information concerning the subject of the inquiry. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, pursuant to an earlier directive of the President, is making complete investigation of the facts. An inquiry is also scheduled by a Texas Court of Inquiry convened by the Attorney General of Texas under Texas law.
The Special Commission will have before it all evidence uncovered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and all information available to any agency of the Federal Government. The Attorney General of Texas has also offered his cooperation. All Federal agencies and offices are being directed to furnish services and cooperation to the Special Commission. The Commission will also be empowered to conduct any further investigation that it deems desirable.
The President is instructing the Special Commission to satisfy itself that the truth is known as far as it can be discovered, and to report its findings and conclusions to him, to the American people, and to the world.
Congress immediately undertook to implement the Order, and passed a resolution by December 10, which became Public Law 88-202 when signed by the President on December 13, 1963. It accorded the broadest powers to the Commission for obtaining testimony. The President directed every agency of the government to withhold nothing requested by the Commission or anything else that would be of assistance. We were all of the opinion that this direction was scrupulously followed by all the agencies. I doubt if any Commission could ever have better cooperation than ours received from the federal government, from the state and local agencies of Texas, and from law enforcement agencies in other parts of the country whenever we sought it. Not a single barrier was raised against us. The interested congressional committees and the Texas authorities all refrained from having any conflicting public investigations, so we proceeded with very little discord.
[Ed. note: Some official discord came later, however. When the Commission’s report eventually was published, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover charged that it was unfair in its criticism of his agency for not acting on knowledge the FBI had obtained that Oswald was in the area and dangerous. Warren had insisted that the condemnation be included in the final report, over Congressman Ford’s objections. Hoover later supported the report in general.]
The Commission first met on December 15 and decided that our staff would
be independent of the several government agencies involved, and that while we
would carefully review their reports and investigative records with selected
lawyers, we would not duplicate the investigative process itself unless it
should become necessary to do so to ascertain the truth. We assessed our task
and agreed that we were not a prosecuting agency, that we were not to conduct an
adversary proceeding of any kind, but on the contrary were merely a fact-finding
body. We were conscious of the fact that Jack Ruby would be tried by Texas
authorities for the murder of Oswald, and that we should not create an
atmosphere which would make it impossible for him to have a fair trial. Because
of that and because the nature of our investigation was such that we could not
develop the evidence in the orderly way it is presented at a trial, we decided
to hold our hearings in private, executive session. Each witness could have his
counsel present with the right to object to questions or to engage in the
questioning of the witness. We also agreed that if any witness asked to be
examined in public he must be accorded that right. (There was but one who made
the request, Mark Lane, and he testified at an open hearing.) It was agreed that
no witness should be under any restraint in discussing publicly what transpired
at the taking of his testimony. Consequently, a number of the witnesses did have
press and television interviews after their appearances before the commission.
We invited the president of the American Bar Association, Mr. Walter E. Craig, to take part in the hearings and to advise us if in his opinion, the procedure conformed to the basic principles of American justice. He did participate, either attending personally or sending a representative, and he offered helpful advice. We made the same offer to the president of the American Civil Liberties Union. Although that organization did not actively participate, we did counsel with their people from time to time.
According to minutes of early staff meetings, presided over by Warren, the Chief
Justice was scrupulous in seeing that witnesses’ constitutional rights were
protected. This, of course, was to be expected from one who, as a Supreme Court
Justice, had been a frequent defender of individual rights against bullying
investigative agencies. Since the Commission was out to dissolve unfounded
rumors, not encourage them, he cautioned staff members against asking witnesses
questions that were not susceptible of proof and would lead to mere speculation
on the witnesses’ part. It was Warren who headed off suggestions that
witnesses be restrained from talking to the press. He especially warned against
leaks from ‘the Commission itself which might feed the already raging fires of
One such leak had to do with Robert Oswald’s testimony before the Commission to the effect that his brother Lee may have been a Russian secret agent. This somehow had reached an alert New York Times reporter. Another seepage, originating with the same fraternal source, had it that Lee Oswald had contemplated an attempt on the life of Richard Nixon when the Vice President visited Dallas in April of 1963. He had also threatened to kill Eisenhower. Commission members were doubtful about Robert Oswald’s credibility and were reminded that he had a stake in any income that might accrue from magazine, newspaper, or other offers for such sensationalistic disclosures.
Still another early problem of the Commission was the report that when Lee Oswald was arrested, he had with him an address book containing the name, telephone number, and license number of an FBI agent. The FBI had omitted to mention this in one of its subsequent reports. Speculation arose among Commission staffers as to whether Oswald might have had some FBI connection, and there was some nervousness expressed in a meeting about asking J. Edgar Hoover, the Bureau’s formidable chieftain, if one so violent and bumbling and, in the words of one staffer, “not too bright,” could be on the payroll. No such connection between Oswald and the FBI was ever shown to exist.]
Because neither the members of Congress nor I intended to relinquish our
regular jobs during the lifetime of the Commission, it was decided to look for
quarters in the Capitol Hill area. Our first meetings were held in the Archives
Building, but there was not room there for our entire work force.
We decided to ask Mr. J. Lee Rankin, former Solicitor General of the United States under President Eisenhower, to become chief counsel for the Commission. He was a lawyer of rich experience, impeccable character, and with an understanding of human relations that fitted him superbly for the job. As would be expected of one who has such qualifications, he accepted the responsibility and was sworn in on December 16, 1963. We were then in business. Within a very short time, he had recruited a staff of fourteen lawyers from all parts of the nation, half of whom were men of outstanding ability and accomplishment in the private practice of the law, and the other seven younger men of more limited experience but well trained, highly intelligent, and with adequate legal experience to guarantee superior workmanship in the field for which they were recruited. He also arranged for liaison representatives from the Departments of Justice, Treasury, Defense, State, Internal Revenue Service, General Services Administration, and other agencies.
Fortunately for us, General Services Administration located adequate space—two floors—for us in the new building of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which is diagonally across the street from the Supreme Court Building and only a short distance from the Capitol. It afforded us ample room to preserve our working papers and records, which we had decided to place in the National Archives on completion of our work. This was later done.
During our entire ten-month term of service, reports from the various investigative departments flowed in to us. As evidence of the number and size of those documents, the FBI through the months submitted to us 2,300 reports totaling approximately 25,400 pages and the Secret Service 800 reports totaling 4,600 pages.
[Ed. note: Warren asked the FBI not to release its voluminous report until the Commission had time to review all the facts in the case and evaluate them. Before the Commission’s report was finished, some 552 witnesses had been heard or their statements read. Total cost of the Commission, for the statistically minded, was some $1,200,000, with about one fourth going for salaries. Its concerns were multitudinous and sometimes spun off from the investigation itself. Records of its meetings in the National Archives reveal that the members, though firmly guided by the Chief Justice, were not always in harmony. For example, some thought Marina Oswald, in her testimony, was less than honest with the Commission, but Warren blocked further questioning of her because he felt it would do no good. The members also worried about a book she was writing, about the trustworthiness of various attorneys and agents, about repercussions resulting from various news breaks, about unanimous agreement among the commissioners with all of the body’s findings (Senator Russell in particular being more suspicious than the others of Oswald’s possible conscription as a Soviet agent during his stay in Russia). One member, Representative (later President) Gerald Ford, later wrote a book about his impressions of the investigation, which went somewhat against the grain of Warren’s feeling that the Report should stand for all of them without individual elaboration.]
The Commission started taking testimony on February 3, 1964. We arranged
to have the hearings so far as possible when the Supreme Court was not sitting,
and I was able to attend the taking of testimony from practically all the
important witnesses. The Commission, as a body, heard 94 witnesses; 395 were
questioned in depositions by our legal staff; 61 supplied sworn affidavits; and
2 gave statements. Everyone who claimed to have any significant knowledge of the
assassination or was thought to have such information was examined.
The 888-page Report of the Commission was filed on September 21, 1964, ten months after the assassination. Accompanying it were twenty-six volumes containing all the testimony resulting from the investigation. The Report and its supporting evidence are to be found in public libraries throughout the nation and in capital cities of the world.
The facts of the assassination itself are simple, so simple that many people believe it must be more complicated and conspiratorial to be true. If the sole responsibility of the Commission had been to determine who shot and killed President Kennedy, it would have taken very little work; the time-consuming and painstaking job was running down the wild rumors.
Both during and after the lifetime of the Commission, some people were making money by writing or lecturing on their notions of who had killed Kennedy and why, not only around our own country, but throughout Europe as well. These speculative lectures, interviews, and writings fell on fertile soil in many places, particularly abroad, where assassinations so often were brought about by intrigues of the “palace guard” to effect a change of ruling power. In my summer travels around the world, I found a conspiratory theory to prevail almost everywhere I went. One of the lecturers and writers, who claimed to have knowledge of a conspiracy between Oswald, Ruby, the slain officer J. D. Tippitt, and others, and said he could produce the names of people who could prove it, was twice called before the Commission and questioned about the matter, but refused to give us any information. The last time, in order to make certain that we had all the facts, we brought him back from Europe to testify, but again to no avail. Yet he continued to write and lecture on the subject to his financial benefit.
[Ed. note: While the Chief Justice tried to remain outwardly aloof from comment on the smorgasbord of conjecture that was spread before the public, he sometimes expressed his ire in private. New York attorney Norman Redlich, an assistant counsel for the Commission, wrote Warren to advise him that he, Redlich, had provided some information which had been grossly falsified by author Edward Epstein in a book called Inquest. Inaccuracies and distortions were claimed, and Redlich then proceeded, point by point, to refute key parts of Epstein’s book. He got back from the Chief Justice a letter of sympathy. It included a line that became almost a Warren theme song as the Oswald theoreticians proliferated: “We can expect much writing of this kind from charlatans and lazy writers who will not take the time to analyze all the papers to determine what the facts actually are.”
Many people in this country believe in the conspiracy theory because they
are of the opinion that a crime of this magnitude could not be committed by one
disoriented man. They look for an Alfred Hitchcock or Perry Mason mystery in
every crime. But they overlook the history of American presidential
assassinations. Outside of the Lincoln assassination, which was a
conspiracy—the outgrowth of bitterness resulting from the Civil War—none of
the others was ever proven to be more than the act of the individuals who fired
The report of the Commission concerning the various assassinations reads as follows:
In the 100 years since 1865 four Presidents of the United States have been assassinated—Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield,’ William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. During this same period there were three other attacks on the life of a President, a President-elect, and a candidate for the Presidency, which narrowly failed; on Theodore Roosevelt while campaigning in October of 1912; on President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when visiting Miami on February 15, 1933, and on President Harry S. Truman on November 1, 1950, when his temporary residence, Blair House, was attacked by Puerto Rican Nationalists. One out of every five Presidents since 1865 has been assassinated; there have been attempts on the lives of one out of every three.
In all but one of those instances, the assassin was the sole perpetrator.
In each of them, the killer was tried and found to be either guilty or insane.
They were all misfits in society. In the assassination of President Kennedy, the
situation was the same.
Lee Harvey Oswald had been a misfit all his life. His father died two months before Lee was born on October 18, 1939. The boy never lived in a stable home, and at the age of three he was sent to an orphanage where his older brother and half brother had preceded him. A year or so later his mother was married for the third time, in 1945. That marriage was also short-lived; it ended in divorce, after several separations and reunions, in 1948. In 1952 he and his mother went to New York, where they lived with his half brother’s family until they were asked to leave after Lee pulled a pocket knife and threatened his sister-in-law. He then became a constant truant from school, and was charged with being “beyond the control of his mother insofar as school attendance is concerned.” He was remanded to Youth House for three weeks for psychiatric observation, where he was diagnosed as having “personality pattern disturbance and schizoid features and passive-aggressive tendencies.” He was then placed on probation and referred to a child guidance clinic. He was described as “a seriously detached, withdrawn youngster—detached from the world because no one in it had ever met any of his needs for love.” He admitted to fantasies about being powerful and sometimes hurting and killing people, but refused to elaborate on them.
On his return to school, he became a disciplinary problem, and his mother took him to New Orleans, where he finished the ninth grade and then dropped out to work for a year, after which he joined the Marine Corps in October 1956. He was a “loner” in the Corps, had two disciplinary proceedings on minor matters, but was discharged under honorable conditions, at his own request, a few months before his regularly scheduled separation date, ostensibly to care for his mother, who had been injured in an accident.
However, almost immediately after his discharge, he went to Russia and tried to renounce his citizenship. When the Russians would not accept him, he reportedly attempted to commit suicide on October 21, 1959, by slashing his wrist. His act was discovered, and he was hospitalized. He was never admitted to Russian citizenship but was permitted to remain in the country, and was sent to Minsk as a factory worker. Less than eighteen months after his defection, he opened negotiations with the United States Embassy in Moscow looking toward his return to the United States.
He was nineteen when he went to Russia with such bravado and twenty-two when he returned, thoroughly disillusioned by his experience, but still not enamored of the United States, although he struggled desperately for credentials enabling him to return.
While in Russia, on April 30, 1959, he married a nineteen-year-old Russian girl with a seventh-grade school education and union apprentice training which qualified her as a pharmacist. She worked in a pharmaceutical warehouse preparing and packing orders. On February 15, 1960, a baby girl was born to them, and after months of effort he finally obtained the necessary papers from both the Russian and United States governments. The couple, with their newborn baby, left the U.S.S.R. by ship, arrived at Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 13, 1960, and almost immediately went from there to New Orleans.
From that time until the assassination, he lived a nondescript life, either quitting various jobs or being discharged for inefficiency or incompatibility. He lived largely on unemployment compensation, and often left his wife and child to the charity of friends. She bore a second baby girl one month before the assassination. He was without friends or associates, an absolute “loner” wherever he worked. He attempted to assassinate Major General Edwin A. Walker by shooting at him in the dark from an alleyway in the rear of the general’s home. The shot barely missed the general’s head. This further strained his marital relations when he confessed the attack to his wife.
Not only did he leave his wife destitute, but he had no money himself. Friends helped her, but aside from trying to keep him in jobs they had no sympathy for him. He tried once more to go to Russia through Cuba, but neither the Russians nor the Cubans would have anything to do with him. This angered him greatly. His wife, Marina, was of the opinion that he never intended to go back to Russia, that he ostensibly wanted to make the trip via Cuba but actually intended to remain there and leave her and the little girls in this country. He was a complete malcontent, best described by his wife after the assassination, when she said in her broken English: “When Lee in the United States, he no like the United States; when he in Russia he no like Russia; when he come back to United States he no like United States; he like Cuba; when Cuba no take him, he no like Cuba. I guess he only like on the moon.”
I have written this much about Oswald’s background simply to show that he was a total failure in everything he undertook; that he was incapable of working or living satisfactorily with anyone. Although of reasonable intelligence, he had no skills, and had a disposition and orientation that would not enable him to plan, counsel with or take orders from anyone. This bears directly on his capability as the alleged focal point of a conspiracy of the magnitude dreamed up by some people. The foregoing is only a shorthand statement concerning Oswald; the whole story is related in the Commission Report and in the volumes of testimony supporting it.
The news media and many other people for years have importuned me to discuss publicly the subject matter of the Report, but I have always declined to do so for two main reasons. First, because the Report and the evidence are both available either in the libraries or through millions of published copies to anyone who desires to inquire into the facts. They tell the story much better than I could possibly do it in any short space or public discussion. Second, because I believed the Report at the time it was made and nothing has transpired to change that belief. In this respect, I wish to say that not one single witness, one document, or one artifact has been produced to provably discredit it. To our best knowledge, the facts remain precisely as reported, and, that being true, the conclusion must remain the same. Of course, fiction writers and readers can conjure up hypothetical questions as to all human acts, but in order for the answer to be of any value, the facts upon which the question is based must actually exist and not be chimerical.
[Ed. note: Throughout the inquiry,
the Commission in general and Warren in particular were bombarded with mail.
Much of it was denunciatory. People could not seem to believe that the
Commission—although it had Warren, Dulles, former Solicitor General Rankin,
and other experienced people serving it who knew a covert operation when they
saw one—would be able or willing to get to the bottom of deep wells of
intrigue they imagined to be operating in this case. Critical letters came from
everywhere, even from private citizens in Russia. Marguerite Oswald wrote to
demand that her late son be designated “alleged” or “accused” whenever
he was referred to by the Commission. Not all were unfavorable, though. Jack
Ruby’s lawyer and doctor sent letters thanking the Chief Justice for his
humaneness. Doctor Emanuel Tanay, calling Ruby “a psychotic person,” said,
“On the one hand you showed him the respect and acceptance he so desperately
is striving for, and the other you held [up] the mirror of reality to him.”
Many of the letters, books, and articles attacking the Commission challenged the “single bullet theory,” which had it that the bullet which wounded Governor Connally had first hit President Kennedy. Independent tests by the FBI, by CBS News, and by Dr. John Lattimer, as well as the autopsy, Kennedy’s clothing, and other evidence, strongly supported this explanation and negated the “multiple assassin” theories which argued that bullets also came from in front or from the side of the death car in an incredibly synchronous fusillade. Anyone objectively examining the evidence reviewed by the Commission must conclude, as Warren did, that the single-bullet theory is more convincing by far than any other description of events that day in Dealey Plaza.]
In the assassination of President Kennedy, there are no facts upon which
to hypothesize a conspiracy. They simply do not exist in any of the
investigations made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service,
the Central Intelligence Agency, or the Departments of State, Defense, and
Justice. The last was headed by the late Robert F. Kennedy, brother of our
assassinated President, who certainly wanted nothing short of the truth. In
addition, the authorities of the state of Texas, of the city of Dallas, and law
enforcement agencies of other cities throughout the country were anxious to be
helpful in every possible way. All of this was supplemented by nine months of
arduous work by our own staff of outstanding lawyers independent of all of these
official agencies. And none of us could find any evidence of conspiracy. Every
witness who could be found was examined, and it is revealing to note at this
late date—nine years after the Commission Report was filed—that not a single
contrary witness has been produced with convincing evidence. Practically all the
Cabinet members of President Kennedy’s administration, along with Director J.
Edgar Hoover of the FBI and Chief James Rowley of the Secret Service, whose duty
it was to protect the life of the President, testified that to their knowledge
there was no sign of any conspiracy. To say now that these people, as well as
the Commission, suppressed, neglected to unearth, or overlooked evidence of a
conspiracy would be an indictment of the entire government of the United States.
It would mean the whole structure was absolutely corrupt from top to bottom,
with not one person of high or low rank willing to come forward to expose the
villainy, in spite of the fact that the entire country bitterly mourned the
death of its young President and such a praiseworthy deed could make one a
I believe it is fair to say that all doubters, except those who wrote or lectured for money while deliberately using false hypotheses, were led to believe that the various rumors and distortions occurred because there was no judicial trial of the assassin. I can understand this because in the other presidential slayings there was a trial, a conviction, and, with the exception of the Lincoln assassination, the matter was laid to rest. Here there could be no trial because Oswald was dead; hence the Commission.
I have related above the reasons why I have not carried on any discussions about the Report of the Commissions, and I do not propose to do so now because the Report itself gives all the data in better form and, of course, more fully than I could possibly relate it here. On the other hand, I will give my own appraisal of what kind of murder trial it would have been.
As district attorney of a large metropolitan county for years, I personally prosecuted many murder cases and guided through my office scores of others. With that background of experience, I have no hesitation in saying that had it not been for the prominence of the victim, the case against Oswald could have been tried in two or three days with little likelihood of any but one result. To substantiate that statement, I will quickly review what we would have been able to prove in a murder case.
Lee Oswald, a disoriented, willful and violence-prone young man of barely twenty-four years, a failure in everything he undertook, alienated from the rest of the world wherever he might be, with almost no friends or funds, insisted that he would have a place in history and bragged that “in twenty years he would be Prime Minister.” On March 13, 1963, he purchased the assassination weapon, an Italian Army rifle with a telescopic sight, for $21.45 from a mail order house in Chicago under the name of A. Hidell. He had it sent to a post office box in Dallas, Texas, which he had rented under that same fictitious name. In another transaction, Oswald had earlier bought from a Los Angeles mail order house the .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver with which he murdered Officer J. D. Tippitt [sic] shortly after the assassination of the President, and which had been delivered to the same post office box in the name of Hidell.
On April 10, 1963, after leaving an incriminating note for his wife on his dresser in the event he should be arrested, he had attempted to kill Major General Edwin A. Walker, shooting the rifle from an alleyway in the darkness and barely missing the general’s head. He later revealed the attempt to his wife.
Oswald obtained a job at the Texas School Book Depository warehouse on October 16, 1963, through the intercession of friends of his wife with whom he had left her and the babies destitute. At that time, although it was known that President Kennedy intended to visit Dallas, it was not known what the program for him would be or even if there would be a motorcade. The route which the motorcade would travel was announced only shortly before the event itself.
On November 21, Oswald unexpectedly went from Dallas to Irving, where his wife, Marina, was staying and remained there overnight. In the morning, without the knowledge of others in the house, he packaged his rifle, which was stored there, and went to work in the car of a neighbor, telling him there were curtain rods in the package. He told the same story to others at the warehouse, where he worked during the morning trucking cartons of books around the sixth floor of the Depository.
At noontime everyone but Oswald left the floor for lunch, and at twelve-thirty when the presidential car passed by the Depository, there was nobody on the sixth floor but him. He had moved some of the book cartons both to shield him from view and to give him a place on which to rest his rifle while shooting. As the President’s car, occupied by John F. Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy in the back seat and Texas Governor John Connally and Mrs. Connally on the jump seats, rolled on by, Oswald fired three shots. Two of them struck the President, one of them fatally wounding him, and one of the three also wounded the governor. People on the street in front of the building saw the rifle protruding from the building and a man shooting.
The motorcade was passing at the rate of eleven miles per hour, and during the period between the shots the President’s car was from 175 to 260 feet from the assassin, making him an easy target for any person trained with a rifle. Oswald had qualified as a marksman in the Marine Corps, and he was known to have practiced with this rifle with live ammunition and on “dry runs.” The four-powered telescope on the rifle contributed greatly to its accuracy, particularly against a moving target. Professional witnesses testified that it was an easy shot.
As police surged into the building, they encountered Oswald on a lower floor, but were told by a foreman that he worked there; hence he was not hindered. He immediately fled from the building, the only one of the work force to leave. He hurried to board a bus some distance from the Depository, but when its progress was retarded by the traffic, he suddenly left it and hired a taxi to drive him to a corner within a few blocks of his rooming house, from which he walked home. He was there only a short time, during which he changed clothes and picked up his .38 Smith & Wesson revolver and the belt and holster for it. He then struck out on foot across town until he was stopped by Officer Tippitt [sic], who was patrolling the streets in response to a radio message about the assassination. This was about 1:15 p.m. As the officer stepped out of his car and moved to talk to him, Oswald drew his revolver and shot Tippitt four times, killing him instantly. Many witnesses saw and identified Oswald as he fled from the scene.
Going through a parking lot, he threw his jacket under one of the cars. It was identified later by his wife and by others who saw him wearing it at the time of the shooting. He fled about eight blocks from the scene and ducked into a moving picture house without purchasing a ticket. The attendant called the police, who arrived shortly and proceeded to question the six or seven people inside. When they approached Oswald, he said, “Well, it’s all over now,” and immediately struck an officer between the eyes with his fist, drawing his revolver at the same time. They struggled until three other officers subdued Oswald, disarmed him, and took him to the police station.
Now to return to the sixth floor of the Depository where the original shooting had occurred. Three empty cartridges were found on the floor near the window from which witnesses said the shots came. On the same floor behind some book cartons was the rifle from which they had been ejected. It was the rifle which Oswald had purchased under the name of A. Hidell. The paper in which it had been packaged as curtain rods was also found there. Two witnesses who were on the fifth floor immediately below the window had heard the cartridges hit the floor as they were ejected from the rifle at the time of the shooting.
The above details concerning Oswald and his part in the assassination were established as fact during exhaustive hearings in which many hundreds of reports and statements were studied and appraised. The evidence developed and the complete lack of conflicting proof to support any other alternatives led the Commission to conclude that Oswald murdered both President Kennedy and Officer Tippitt, and attempted to do the same to Officer M. N. McDonald, who undertook to arrest him in the theater. We could find no evidence to show that anyone else took part in the killings in any way, and so determined that Oswald was the sole perpetrator.
As to the various conspiracy theories advanced, they tended to fall into three categories. There were those who thought the assassination was plotted by Russia and/or Cuba as a part of the Cold War. There were those who held it was a conspiracy of rich Texas oilmen and other extreme right-wingers to effect a sort of coup d’état, getting into high places persons who were more favorable to their interests. And thirdly there were the general theorists who simply had a feeling that the crime was too terrible and of too great a magnitude to have been conceived and carried out by one lone individual.
The first two groups were diametrically opposed to each other, yet both joined in criticizing the Commission for not finding that there was a conspiracy. None of the critics could point to any evidence that they or the Commission possessed to establish a conspiracy or to identify who these other guilty parties might be. They relied on rumors and assumptions. The third group relied only on a morbid feeling of doubt. The reason that all of these theories coalesced in frustration was that there was nothing but conjecture to substantiate them.
I remember an occasion when I was in Lima, the capital of Peru. Our ambassador, J. Wesley Jones, asked me if I would have a press conference to discuss the Report of the Commission. I told him I did not have such conferences at home. However, at his urging and because of the doubts expressed there, I consented to do so. There must have been seventy-five persons who attended. I doubted that they were all newsmen, but I subjected myself to their questioning for about an hour, in the course of which all three types of conspiracy theories were raised. As far as I could determine, everybody there believed there must have been a conspiracy of some kind. I could understand that mentality because, traditionally, assassinations in the Latin American nations could effect a change in government. As the questioning slowed down, I finally said, “Now let me ask you a question. How many of you have read the Commission’s Report?” There was an awkward silence. Not one indicated that he had. I then said, “You could have read it had you desired to, because we sent copies to your libraries and to some government officials.” With that the questions ceased and we adjourned the conference. We parted with everyone friendly and smiling and temporarily subdued, but I had the feeling that I had not changed a single mind among them.
In the last few years, although conspiratorial theories have borne no fruit, an attack has been made on the fact that pictures of the badly mutilated head of the President taken for the doctors at the inquest do not appear in the records of the Commission now on file in the National Archives. It has been contended that the reason these pictures were not filed was because they would show that the shots which struck the President did not come from behind and above him.
While I have never before entered into that discussion, I feel that it is appropriate to do so here because I am solely responsible for the action taken, and still am certain it was the proper thing to do.
The President was hardly buried before people with ghoulish minds began putting together artifacts of the assassination for the purpose of establishing a museum on the subject. They offered as much as ten thousand dollars for the rifle alone. They also wanted to buy from the family the clothes of Oswald, his revolver with which Officer Tippitt was murdered, various things at the Depository, and they were even making inquiries about the availability of the clothes of President Kennedy. They also, of course, wanted the pictures of his head. I could see in my mind’s eye such a “museum,” preying on the morbid sentiments of people and perhaps planting seeds of assassination in the minds of some deranged persons who might see opportunity for personal notoriety or expression in assaulting yet another President. I saw the pictures when they came from Bethesda Naval Hospital, and they were so horrible that I could not sleep well for nights. Accordingly, in order to prevent them from getting into the hands of these sensationmongers, I suggested that they not be used by the Commission, but that we rule on the convincing testimony of the Naval doctors who performed the autopsy to establish the cause of death, entry, exit, and course of the bullets. I also suggested that, in order to avoid any charge of destroying evidence, we send the pictures to the Department of Justice with the suggestion that they be shown to nobody except with the consent of the Kennedy family. This was done, and they are preserved there for any useful purpose to which they might be put.
Sometime in the latter part of President Johnson’s administration, when the aforementioned charge was made, he set up a Board of outstanding pathologists from various parts of the country and submitted the pictures to them for comparison with the findings of the doctors at the National Naval Medical Center on which the Commission had relied. That Board confirmed the findings of the Commission.
While this has not entirely stilled talk of the possibility of other shots having caused the death of President Kennedy, it should be sufficient proof for any reasonable reviewer of the facts. It should be apparent to anyone that the Kennedy family would not want to withhold from public scrutiny anything that would tend to establish the truth about the assassination of their loved one.
I should also say that the procedure adopted by the Commission was the one commonly used in criminal court to establish cause of death. In such circumstances, the court would not permit the prosecution to exhibit such a revolting picture because of the prejudice it would instill in the minds of the jury.
In addition to my recommendation for the conditional impoundment of the pictures, I also recommended that the Justice Department exercise its powers of eminent domain under the Constitution for the purpose of taking for its use all the artifacts of the assassination—the weapons, clothes, exhibits, etc. This was done, the government paying to the rightful owners just compensation for them. In my opinion, it is better that there are not today sideshow barkers at circuses or local fairs throughout the country emotionalizing over such relics and inducing morbid thrill-seekers to relive the assassination of President Kennedy with the aid of pictures of his disintegrated head.
[Ed. note: During the ten
months in which the Warren Commission was meeting, the Chief Justice carried on
his Court duties as well. It was a burdensome time, and one of lingering
sadness, for Warren had much admired Kennedy and the spirit he brought to the
land. The Report’s critics were many and shrill, and they often forgot that
the Commission, at Senator Richard Russell’s insistence, did not say that
Oswald was the only assassin. What it did say was that “…the
Commission has found no evidence that either Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack
Ruby was involved with any person or group in a conspiracy, domestic or foreign,
to assassinate President Kennedy” (italics ours). That should have mitigated
the heat, but it didn’t, and Warren was exhausted by the time the fact-finding
While a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation in 1976 asserted that the FBI and CIA failed adequately to pursue certain leads in the case or to provide the Warren Commission with their fullest relevant information, the Committee also stressed that it “…has not uncovered any evidence sufficient to justify a conclusion that there was a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.”]
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