October 12, 2015

The John F. Kennedy Assassination

I just finished reading a most insightful book called A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination. What made this book stand out from so many other books about the John F. Kennedy assassination is the degree to which the author, Philip Shenon, focused on the human factor in the process by which the Warren Commission reached its conclusions about the assassination.

For those not as steeped in this historic event, the Warren Commission, chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, reached the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald, shot to death on national TV on November 24, 1963 by a Dallas strip club owner Jack Ruby, acted alone in assassinating President John F. Kennedy two days earlier. Shenon does not challenge the conclusion, but he does a masterful job explaining two things:

  • Why a significant majority of Americans do not accept this conclusion; and
  • Why decisions made during the course of the investigation led to the long term public skepticism about the Warren Commission’s conclusions.

I was able to understand, through a thoroughly researched case study, why a country that clearly needed to determine with certainty who killed President Kennedy and why it could not execute on a process to answer those questions. What got in the way of figuring what happened and why?

  • There was a very human and emotional desire to accommodate the wishes of Jacqueline Kennedy, the tragically widowed First Lady by giving her control of the autopsy pictures and the personal items worn by the President. Similarly, Governor Connolly’s wife, Nellie Connolly, took custody of his clothes. The absence of these items made it far more difficult to determine whether a single bullet fired by Lee Harvey Oswald from the 6th floor of the Texas Book Depository Building had killed the President and wounded Governor Connolly.

The doubt surrounding this determination led many to speculate that there was a second gunman, who shot at the President from a grassy knoll in front of the motorcade. While improved forensic science techniques developed decades later essentially supported the “single bullet” theory and made a more plausible case for Oswald as the sole gunman, the predominant view at the time, one that last until the 1990’s among many experts, was that it was improbable that Oswald could have been the lone gunman.

  • Oswald had significant contacts with the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City, which raised the question of whether the Cuban government hired, directed, supported, or encouraged him to kill President Kennedy. The FBI, the CIA, the Justice Department, the State Department, Chief Justice Warren, and members of Congress all knew about Oswald’s potentially significant visit to Mexico City. However, much of the potentially valuable information was never made available to the staff members at the Warren Commission. Why?

Each stakeholder, for different reasons, made an independent decision not to allow all the facts about Oswald in Mexico City to be disclosed or investigated, and it is this combination of independent decisions which, to me, is the most interesting part of this story:

  • Chief Justice Warren believed all along that Oswald had been the assassin and had acted alone. In theory, he should not have been afraid to pursue what a deeper investigation of Oswald’s Mexico City activities would have yielded. However, less than two years removed from the life-threatening Cuban Missile Crisis, Warren did not want to take the risk that the public and its elected officials would believe that Fidel Castro had ordered the assassination of President Kennedy. In Warren’s opinion, such a belief would have pulled our country back to the brink of nuclear war.

To understand why Warren felt this way, it is critical to understand that Warren did not want to chair the Commission, but President Johnson frightened him into doing so by telling him that uncontrolled conspiracy thinking could provoke another nuclear crisis, and that only he could prevent that by carefully managing the assassination investigation. Warren’s context for constraining the Mexican investigation was clearly shaped by the way in which he was persuaded to lead the assassination investigation effort.

  • Different parts of the CIA had strong reasons to withhold as much information as possible about Oswald’s activities in Mexico. Some CIA leaders in Washington, such as Deputy Director Richard Helms, did not want independent investigators to discover and disclose the elaborate espionage capabilities the U.S. had deployed in Mexico City to gather data on the Cubans and the Soviet Union. Maintaining the integrity and strength of the intelligence apparatus was more important than discovering whether Oswald was part of a broader conspiracy to kill the President.
  • Other CIA leaders had the more mundane concern, as did their counterparts at the FBI: an in-depth investigation might show that they did not do as careful a job in singling out Oswald as a potential threat as they should have.
  • Attorney General Robert Kennedy did not want the world to know that the Kennedy Administration had discussing potential plots to kill Fidel Castro with organized crime figures, a fact that might have emerged from a more in-depth investigation of Oswald’s Mexico City contacts with the Cubans. Kennedy was planning to run for the U.S. Senate seat in New York, and, eventually, to run for President. This kind of disclosure could have fatally damaged his political career.
  • Other stakeholders wanted to believe that racists, right-wing fanatics, or even President Johnson wanted President Kennedy dead. None of them would have been served by a more in-depth investigation that led to a conspiracy between Oswald and Cuban Communists.

Shenon and most others who have studied the assassination believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole gunman who killed the President. What is never going to be resolved is whether he was directed, hired, encouraged, or emotionally supported by a foreign power, because the investigation that would have supported the view that he truly acted alone, or would have refuted it and provided an alternative view, was never allowed to be undertaken. Fifty years after this “cruel and shocking act” we do not know what happened and will likely never know, since those who could have told us are either dead or getting to the point at which their memories will permanently fade.

Oddly enough, the strongest arguments against any conspiracy directed by a foreign power or by organized crime leaders stared investigators in the face, but were never well articulated in the final Warren Commission Report:

  • The most likely suspects for an assassination directed by a foreign power, the Soviet Union and the Cubans, would never have hired someone as incompetent, as mentally unstable, and as young and unpredictable as Lee Harvey Oswald to commit an act with as high a risk-reward equation as the assassination of the President of the United States. The Soviets have had a history of assassinating people by using exceptionally well-trained KGB professionals to kill someone and make the event appear like an accident or an acute medical condition, like a heart attack. Their “signature” assassination would be the use of a poison dart that would mimic cardiac arrest in its effects, not a shooting in a public place in broad daylight. Arguably, Fidel Castro would have operated the same way.
  • The Mafia relies on professional hit men, and, in an extreme case, they would kill the hit man before he could talk to the media or to the law enforcement authorities. In fact, it is fair to say that any of these potential entities that could have ordered the assassination would have had Oswald killed before he could talk to anyone, not two days later on national TV.

In essence, the more everyone learned about Lee Harvey Oswald, the less likely it was that anyone would have trusted him to perform this heinous crime. That leads inevitably to the conclusion that he probably acted alone.

That being said, the many ways in which the Warren Commission investigation was undermined, for what reasons, gave much greater believability to the many conspiracy theories that have broad followings to this day. Chief Justice Warren desperately wanted to achieve closure on this tragic event by the work his Commission did. Sadly, the well-intentioned decisions so many people made at the time have had exactly the opposite effect.

What lessons does this nearly 50-year-old investigation hold for us?

  • Leaders of any large organization or project have to remind themselves that the people working for them often having goals and fears that cause them to act, intentionally or unintentionally, to undermine the organization or the project’s goals. Many leaders naively believe that giving an order or setting a direction will inevitably get everyone moving in the same direction. This book contained numerous examples of people who were masterful at disguising their real intentions and actions from the Warren Commission.
  • Any politically significant investigation will have many conflicting agendas and tradeoffs, even within the government. Most people who work in government positions are thinking about the effect their decisions will have on their future, because government service is so much more about optics relative to performance than is the case in the private sector. The FBI, the CIA, the Dallas police, and the elected officials with accountabilities associated with the Kennedy assassination investigation had obvious agendas that needed to be understood and addressed.
  • Getting at the complete truth of anything that happened in the past is futile, and getting the public to believe that the complete truth has been uncovered is equally futile. However, making short-term compromises relative to the truth is not generally a good idea. The decisions to defer to Jacqueline Kennedy and the other tragic family victims of this event created the conditions that have made us doubt the Warren Commission report decades later.

Although the conspiracy theories around the assassination only affected it, the unresolved issues cast a shadow over so many other intervening events, such as whether the government truly got to the bottom of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s or Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Once the public believes that the government will cover up the truth for short-term benefit, the public trust affects everything the government attempts to do going forward.

President John F. Kennedy died on November 22, 1963. The public’s trust with the federal government started to die that day as well.