Was ever a book so disbelieved from the moment of its release as the set of documents known as the Warren Commission Report? Perhaps O.J. Simpson’s If I Did It, to be sure, but in the annals of official explanation, nothing has become so completely a byword for the semantic domain labeled, “Yeah, right, uh-huh.”
It did not help that the Commission was rushed from the beginning. John F. Kennedy, whom the report lauds as “a young and vigorous leader whose years of public and private life stretched before him,” was killed on Nov. 22, 1963, in downtown Dallas, Texas. Just 10 months later, the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren—whence the Warren Commission—released an 889-page summation of its findings, which was but prelude to the release, in November 1964, of an additional 27 volumes of supporting material.
So many documents in so short a time led contemporary critics to wonder if we weren’t being deliberately overwhelmed by data. It did not help, either, that key bits of evidence in that mountain had gone missing, evidence that has exercised conspiracy theorists ever since. (Just whisper “Parkland,” if you want to get a rise out of them.) And it did not help at all that the Commission’s report was so insistent that Lee Harvey Oswald, against all probability, was the lone shooter that day in Dallas—and was then conveniently gunned down a couple of days later, so that, as the commissioners grayly remarked, “it [is] no longer possible to arrive at the complete story of the assassination through normal judicial procedures during the trial of the alleged assassin.”
Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother and the sitting attorney general at the time of the assassination, is said to have called the Warren Report, all 27 volumes of it, “shoddy.” Certainly Americans have thought so for half a century. Even today, books appear that attack its findings. Philip Shenon’s A Cruel and Shocking Act, which appeared last year, was perhaps the most comprehensive of the recent crop, linking the assassination closely to the Kennedy administration’s war, overt and covert, on Fidel Castro. The Cuban connection is but one of several threads that conspiracy theorists have followed over the years, most of which made their way into Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK, which passes for history among all too many people who weren’t alive to remember Nov. 22.
Occasionally, though, a book comes along that supports the Warren Report. (The report, incidentally, is available here.) Foremost among these is Commission member Howard P. Willens’ History Will Prove Us Right, which concludes, “We share the sense of implausibility that someone like Oswald could have assassinated our president acting alone.” Yet act alone Oswald did, Willens maintains, riding a perfect storm of coincidences.
We can be confident of only one conclusion: Namely, that we’ll be arguing about who killed him for as long as anyone remembers John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his sad end.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.