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Inquest: The Warren Commission and the establishment of Truth Mass Market Paperback – February 1, 1969
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
Read the absorbing new psychological suspense thriller from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Marisha Pessl. Learn more
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The eminence of its members and the authoritative appearance of its Report caused nearly universal acceptance of the conclusions of the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, commonly known as the Warren Commission. On the other hand, among the minority who refuse to believe that the case is closed, many adhere to the view that the Commission, acting consciously, conspired to stifle the truth. This disturbing book espouses neither of these positions. Mr. Epstein, a young scholar at the time of publication, began this book with the intention of writing a case study of the nature and activity of an extraordinary government commission. He accomplished this task brilliantly. But in the course of interviewing nearly all members of the Commission, and many members of its staff, he discovered that the official version of the Kennedy assassination failed to contend with serious contradictions presented by the evidence. Inquest clearly traces the process by which this official story came into being; it does not indulge in theoretical speculation about a deliberate suppression of crucial evidence. Mr. Epstein instead proposes an explanation based on the concept of "political truth": the Commission, sincerely convinced that the national interest would best be served by the termination of rumors, and predisposed by its make-up and by the pressure of time not to search more deeply, failed to answer some of the essential questions about the tragedy. Inquest includes previously unpublished government documents and illustrations. Although the author's revelations are startling, he nowhere makes unsupported claims; his style is cool and objective. A sober, new view of the way the Commission dealt with one of the central events of our recent history, this book was destined to induce widespread discussion and debate.
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The best news is that on Amazon, it's quite cheap in used condition - I think I paid a couple of bucks for the book, with the shipping to Australia being the most costly thing (but still very reasonable).
I really enjoyed this book, I wouldn't call it overtly conspiratorial as many of the books & TV programs I have seen around are, but I also take issue with the flaws in these too, whereas I found that Epstein is refreshing, as he strips back all the years of conjecture, and basically asks if the WC presented an honest case against Lee Harvey Oswald.
This is quite a short book - 201 pages from the intro to the end of Appendix B - but I can see why it was a successful publication at the time, and I would consider it required reading for anyone looking for a more balanced view of the WC findings. The last 50 pages are really the FBI preliminary report from December 1963, and the FBI supplementary report of January 1964. Some of the most interesting information you will find in this book:
- The WC's virtual panic of the allegation that LHO was an FBI informant, and almost incredulously, allowing Hoover of all people to check out this "ugly rumor". I'm sure that to everyone's total shock, Hoover found no evidence at all to support the allegation (it strikes me as being comparable to Hitler theoritically asking Himmler to publicly investigate if the Nazis were running extermination camps or not).
- How WC lawyer Ball had severe doubts about the testimoney of "star witness" Howard Brennan (pg 135-136), citing his difficulty in identifying a figure in the 6th floor window from his identical position on the fateful day, that he saw the assassin standing (when all evidence against LHO has him kneeling/sitting), and that Brennan advised the FBI he couldn't identify LHO even in January 1964 (months after LHO was underground and the case of him being a lone assassin seemed to be "air-tight"), yet in March 1964 as a witness, he felt as though he could identify LHO. However, fellow WC lawyer Redlich didn't have such qualms, and gave Brennan's dubious testimony "probative value".
- The almost stock-standard attack on Helen Markham's testimony (Tippit shooting witness), even pointing out that Ball dismissed her as unreliable. Although it doesn't appear in the book, Ball went so far as to refer to her as "an utter screwball".
- The consistent attack on Marina Oswald's testimony, which even Redlich had serious questions about, yet saw fit to rely on her testimony in the final Report.
- The FBI rifle tests, where none of the marksmen (who were a cut above LHO - NRA "master" class) could replicate LHO alleged performance in the time frame specified by the Zapruder film (although admittedly, contemporary sole assassin theorists tend to drag the maximum time frame back from z207 to z160 these days, allowing significantly more time). Reference is made to the oak tree blocking the shot before z207, an oldie in the world of conspiracy theory. Oddly, there was no breakdown from Epstein over the condition of Mannlicher Carcano C2766 (Oswald's alleged weapon), unlike in Sylvia Meagher's "Accessories After The Fact", where she gives a virtual damage report on it's condition.
- Reference to the 26-page memorandum of WC lawyer Wesley Liebeler from September, where he attacked several of the dubious "findings" of the WC, one of which I find most interesting is mentioning the very dubious "matching" of the blanket fibers (or "fibres" as we say in Oz) to the paper bag the rifle was allegedly carried in, and the noticeable lack of identical fibers on the rifle. Liebeler also pointed out the dubious downgrading of the sole assassin's shot being extremely difficult to "an easy shot", by cherry-picking the expert testimony.
- The standard attack on the positioning of the back wound, but interesting, the fact that the FBI preliminary report had the back wound bullet lodging after striking President Kennedy at a 45-60 downward angle, and no correction to this finding in the FBI supplementary report. The original pre-Specter theory was that the lodged bullet worked it's way out at Parkland Hospital, something that I have always felt seemed quite logical, as the supporting evidence (President's coat & jacket, 2x FBI reports, autopsy photo, death certificate and autopsy cover sheet, conclusions at Bethesda that the wound had an ending, and Willis photo showing no jacket bunch-up right around the time of this shot) seem to confirm to me where and how this bullet struck.
It should clearly be pointed out that this is a critique of the Warren Commission, it's limits, and it's selective conclusions, rather than providing a array of alternate theories about who might have done it if not LHO acting alone. You will find no mention of Cuban exiles, no mention of CIA ultras, and no mention of the mob, in regards to providing alternates. Epstein doesn't go out of his way to criticize or defend the FBI or even the Dallas Police, unlike a plethora of authors since (the most recent in my mind being Vincent Bugliosi, who stoically defends both organizations to the hilt in "Reclaiming History"). I think that Epstein had the formula correct - attack the WC conclusion first, before offering up alternative theories.
As Edward Jay Epstein notes in his preface, most defenders and critics of the Warren Commission start with a common premise: the U.S. govt. could easily and infallibly find the truth about the JFK assassination if it wanted to. The defenders then go on to say its inconceivable that the Commission would lie, so the report must be true. The critics say the report ignores many important questions, so the Commission must have deliberately concealed the truth.
But Epstein rejects the basic assumption that the U.S. govt. is infallible when it wants to be. Instead, he asks 'What was the Commission trying to do, what resources did it have to do the job it chose, who did the work, how was the work done, and how well was it done?'
His answers are enlightening and disturbing. The Commission, he says, wanted to dispel rumors and restore trust in the govt. and its institutions, and it also wished to find out the truth about the murder of the President. But what if these two goals conflicted? Epstein argues that the Commission did find conflicts in the goals, and almost invariably chose to reassure, rather than dig for the truth. In particular, the Commission came up against substantial evidence that Oswald could not have inflicted all the wounds of Pres. Kennedy and Gov. Connally, but rejected that evidence in favor of a pre-determined conclusion that Oswald committed the assassination, and that he acted alone.
When it comes to resources, Epstein argues that the Commission didn't have what it needed to do the job. Five govt. officials and two ex-govt. officials, all lawyers, made up the Warren Commission. They had much to do in the other roles in life, and didn't have time, he says, to dig into the assassination. Instead, they hired a staff of very distinguished lawyers who were almost all also too busy to do much work on the inquiry, and some relatively young and unknown lawyers to work full time. These "junior lawyers" did almost all the real work (the term "junior lawyers" was that of the Commission's counsel, J. Lee Rankin). Further, the lawyers were divided into six teams, only two of which were concerned with the actual murder. Arlen Spector, who later became a PA Senator, had essentially sole responsibility for determining the source of the shots, and two other lawyers worked to link Oswald to the shooting. For the most part, the Commission's lawyers read the reports prepared by the FBI, and then chose witnesses to present the preferred story to the Commission.
While Epstein doesn't doubt Oswald's involvement in the assassination, he shows that the Commission's case was full of holes, and that there were many unanswered questions about Lee Harvey Oswald that might have helped determine what he did on Nov. 22nd, 1963, and why he did them. But the pressure the Commission was under to get the job done quickly, and find that Oswald did it, acting alone, prevented them from pursuing these leads.
The Commission's conclusion, that Lee Harvey Oswald killed John Fitzgerald Kennedy and wounded John Connally, that he also killed J. D. Tippit, and that he acted alone in doing so, may be the truth (though personally, I find it very hard to believe). But Epstein's examination of how the Commission worked shows that while there is every reason to believe in the sincerity of the Commissioners and staff, there is no reason for confidence in the Commission's conclusions, that they had essentially no chance of finding out anything new, that almost all the evidence produced came from the FBI, and that the Commision's report is a political document designed to tell a reassuring story.
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