Forty-four years ago today the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, popularly known as the Warren Commission, was established by newly sworn-in President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Within the last year, Kennedy historians and assassination historians alike have been introduced to more material related to the death of this nation's thirty-fifth president. In May, Vincent Bugliosi's tome, Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy was published. The work is a superb collection of research and resources valuable to both those who support the findings of the Warren Commission and those conspiracy theorists who still believe that the possibility of one lone nut with a twelve dollar rifle killed the leader of the free world is outrageous. At the close of 2006, the last living member of the Warren Commission, President Gerald R. Ford died. Color footage of the assassination released to the public in February 2007 revealed President Kennedy's bunched collar--something that has fueled new conspiracy theories regarding the first shot. That color footage taken by George Jefferies is now available at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. In the last year the infamous dictabelt resurfaced as scientists have been working on a way to revive these defunct reels. Also this year, Executive Action, a film starring Burt Lancaster depicting an alternative to the Warren Commission's finding originally created by Mark Lane in his book Rush to Judgement, was re-released on DVD.
It is hard to imagine any other forty-four year old event surfacing so frequently in literary and scholarly work.
In 1964, the Warren Commission released its report, similar to the way in which the Iraq Study Group Report and the 9/11 Commission Report were released to the public in inexpensive paperback copies. The report in its entirety is 888 pages (nearly half of what Bugliosi's Reclaiming History reaches at 1632 pages). The entire 26 volumes of supporting documents, exhibits, and testimony is also available.
A few weeks ago I was reading Bugliosi's The Betrayal of America (about the 2000 election) and he mentioned that he was once giving a talk at a conference and asked the audience to raise their hands if they felt the Warren Commission Report was a lie to the American people. A majority of the audience raised their hands. Then Bugliosi asked if they had read something or seen something about a specific conspiracy theory too which they responded by raising their hands. Then Bugliosi asked if they had read the Warren Commission Report and few audience members raised their hands. He corrected his question by stating the condensed report (888 pages). None of the members of the audience changed their answer. I thought that was very interesting. Few have actually read the Warren Commission Report, but many refuse to believe its findings.
I have read the Warren Commission Report on numerous occasions and have dabbled in the 26 volumes of findings, testimony, and exhibits. I have a very beat up mass market paperback edition from 1964 when the report was released. Despite me having any sort of opinion on what did in fact occur as an alternative to the commission's finding that Lee Harvey Oswald had in fact acted alone in killing both President Kennedy and Officer J.D. Tippit, I have my reservations as to the commission's findings. Some pieces don't quite add up. Some pieces are missing. The Warren Commission Report remains for me like a jigsaw puzzle that someone has taken the scissors to.
One of the few living participants of the Warren Commission is Pennsylvania senior Senator Arlen Specter. I wouldn't mind having the opportunity to sit down with Specter to ask about his role as assistant counsel for the Commission. After all, it was Specter who authored the "single bullet theory" that has left most assassination researchers and historians baffled.
Since the Warren Commission was first released in 1964, some controversy has surrounded the public accessibility to the materials used by the Commission. When the records were first released, all of which were sent to the National Archives, a records policy placed a restriction on the materials for a period of 75 years (75 years was then the policy of restriction for all materials used in the investigation of the Executive Branch). The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 trumped the National Archives policy and was followed by the 1992 JFK Records Act that established the Assassination Records Review Board in 1998. In 1998, all materials of the Warren Commission investigation were opened to the public excluding only a few materials (tax related). It is said that these materials are available to the public by request with only a few redactions. Assassination scholars dispute this claim quite frequently and are often met with the red tape of FOIA requests.
Despite the 1992 JFK Records Act, some materials remain restricted and will not see the light of day until 2017. My prediction is until 2017 (fifty-four years after the actual assassination) rumors will continue to circulate and each year, much like this one, all sorts of assassination related work will surface.
The Abzug, Church, Edwards, Pike and Rockefeller Committees, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, the Freedom of Information Act, and the JFK Records Act, have not accomplished what their purpose was--the convince the American people that their trust should lie with the findings of the Warren Commission.
Following the release of the Warren Commission Report, Chief Justice Earl Warren felt perhaps some of the material should not be made available due to the nature of the pictures and autopsy reports. This argument lacks strength due to the American publics' exposure to the morbidity of the event via the Zapruder film. Most Americans were already aware of the gruesome details of Kennedy's death. However, what is most frustrating about Warren's opinion is that it was not only a protection of the American public, but a protection of the members of the commission--some photographs from the autopsy were not even viewed by the members.
Unfortunately, forty-four years later it is evident that the federal government has spent more money and time in effort to support the findings of the Warren Commission than was actually spent from late 1963 to late 1964 when the report was released. That fact alone often makes me wonder how many people within the federal government actually believe the report Americans were asked to swallow.
Like I previously stated, I don't personally have a specific alternative to the findings of the Warren Commission. This is what separates me from conspiracy theorists. As I once read and unfortunately cannot cite my source directly, the difference between a skeptic and a conspiracy threorist is conspiracy theorists believe whole-heartedly in their alternative version of reality.
Regardless of what you believe about what did or did not happen that November day in Dallas, you have to admit that it is amazing how revered, refuted, and infamous the Warren Commission Report is.