About the Warren Commission

A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy AssassinationA Cruel and Shocking Act:  The Secret History Of the Kennedy Assassination, by Philip Shenon, is not per se a history of the assassination.  It is a history of the investigation and reporting of the Warren Commission.  The main points I took from the book are:

  •  The mendacity of the FBI and CIA who lied to the Commission and withheld evidence primarily to hide any mistakes they made before the assassination.
  • The Commission hired a staff of – with one exception – lawyers, many from Ivy League schools.  The exception was a historian brought on to help with the writing of the final report.  It was a surprise to me that no one with a background in criminal investigation was hired; for example an FBI investigator or a homicide detective from a big-city police department.
  • Some of the decisions made by Earl Warren were questionable.  He did not allow anyone on the Commission or its staff to see autopsy photos.  He considered them too gruesome  He would not allow the staff to interview Jackie Kennedy or Robert Kennedy because he was overly solicitous of the feelings of the family.  In no other homicide would a spouse of the victim not be interviewed.
  • There is no evidence of a conspiracy and there is no way to discount the existence of a conspiracy.
  • Ballistic, fingerprint, and other evidence show that Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin.
  • One of the objectives of the Commission was to forestall talk of conspiracies by producing a definitive account.  They failed.  Conspiracy theories continue to be discussed.
  • Gerald Ford, one of the Commissioners, was a FBI mole on the Commission.  He was not asked to be the FBI’s spy; he volunteered.  He also broke the rules of the Commission by sharing classified documents with a small group of friends and advisers.
  • Most of the Commissions work was done by the staff lawyers.  Some of the Commissioners were not very involved but still had a vote on whether or not to accept the final report.
  • Warren pressed for a unanimous vote to accept the final report but came close to not getting one.  Senator Richard Russell especially was critical of the report because it was too conclusive in ruling out a conspiracy.  To get his approval, language was changed to be less conclusive and to state that a conspiracy could not be ruled out.

This was an enjoyable, readable, and convincing book.  The author did his research thoroughly, and presented it well.  His objective was not to find answers about the assassination but to examine the work of the Commission.  In the Author’s Notes that end the book, Shenon writes

What is clear to me is that over the last fifty years – actually more than fifty years, since parts of this narrative are set well before November 22, 1963 – senior officials of the United States government, most especially at the CIA, have lied about the assassination and the events that led up to it.

He goes on to list “Several former officials [who] bear special responsibility for the conspiracy theories that are likely to plague us forever.”

  • Richard Helms of the CIA
  • James Angleton, also of the CIA, who controlled what information was turned over to the Commission.
  • J. Edgar Hoover
  • Chief Justice Earl Warren “for denying key evidence and witnesses to the commission’s staff.  Those monumental errors included his refusal to allow the commission to review the president’s autopsy photos and X-rays – a decision that all but guaranteed the medical evidence would remain hopelessly muddled today – and his even more baffling order that blocked the staff from interviewing Silvia Duran”, a Mexican who was thought to have important information about Oswald’s activities during his trip to Mexico City not long before the assassination.
  • Robert Kennedy who as long as he lived publicly supported the Warren Commission’s conclusion but privately told “family and friends that he was convinced that the commission had it wrong.”


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