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Food for Thought

The Warrant Report

Tim Madigan on the philosophers who investigated the Kennedy assassination.

“I shouted out,
Who killed the Kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me
(who who, who who)”
Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil

It has now been almost 45 years since John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. In September 1964, the Report of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy was issued by the United States Government. It is generally known as the Warren Report after Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who chaired the Commission. Constituting 26 volumes of testimony and evidence, the Warren Report concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman who caused JFK’s death.

From the start, questions were asked about the validity of the report. While initially a majority of people agreed with the Commission’s findings, today well over two-thirds of all Americans do not accept that Oswald acted alone, while a significant number doubt that he was involved at all. How is it that in a relatively short amount of time, a report issued by such seemingly impeccable sources has come to be so widely disparaged? One major cause was the skeptical critique brought upon it by philosophers.

It is a remarkable fact that three of the earliest and most influential critics of the Warren Report were professional philosophers – Bertrand Russell, Richard Popkin and Josiah Thompson. Russell, who was 91 years old at the time of the shooting, was one of the first prominent individuals to raise serious questions about the report, even before it was completed. In early 1964 he helped organize the ‘Who Killed Kennedy Committee’, and befriended attorney Mark Lane, author of the first major critique of the Warren Report, Rush to Judgment. Writing from his home in Wales and guided by Lane’s investigations, Russell issued his ‘Sixteen Questions on the Assassination’ a few weeks before the Report came out. Raising doubts about the impartiality, credibility and competency of the Commission, he pointed out that all of its members – who were appointed directly by President Lyndon Johnson – were deeply connected with the Washington establishment, especially its secretive investigative agencies, the CIA and the FBI. Some of the Commission could be suspected of having a vested interest in covering up uncomfortable facts about their own strained relations with the late president. For instance, Commission member Allen Dulles, former head of the CIA, had been fired by Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. Not a single Commissioner, Russell asserted, would have been accepted as an impartial member of a jury if Oswald had been tried (a moot point after Oswald’s own murder by Jack Ruby a few days after the JFK shooting). Russell also raised questions about the fact that several people in Dealey Plaza at the time of the assassination had claimed to hear bullets being fired from in front of the President. Such claims were dismissed by the Commissioners, who seemed dedicated to proving that all bullets had been fired solely by Oswald, from behind the presidential motorcade. While accepting the well-known point that witness testimony is often unreliable, Russell nonetheless expressed his worries that the Commissioners were so eager to prove Oswald was the lone gunman that they ignored evidence contradicting this. Most of all, Russell asked why the Report’s conclusion was known well before the investigation was completed. This seemed to go against all the proper methods of truth-gathering and rules of logic, and looked more like an attempt to make the premises fit the conclusion rather than having the conclusion follow from the premises.

Shortly after the Warren Report was issued, Richard Popkin, then a Professor of Philosophy at the University of California at San Diego, wrote a highly influential article for the New York Review of Books entitled ‘The Second Oswald: The Case for a Conspiracy Theory’ (later expanded into a book). Popkin argued that if one used just the Warren Report as evidence, then one must necessarily conclude that there had to have been at least two Lee Harvey Oswalds for all the various details of the Report to make sense. The government’s own case for a lone gunman contradicted itself.

Popkin admitted that reading all 26 volumes of the report was a daunting task – especially as at the time there was no index for the work – but it was a labour he was up to. Popkin was noted for his encyclopedic memory, his ability to put together disparate facts (as witnessed by his investigative work in the history of ideas, which detailed previously unknown connections between various Sixteenth Century theologians and philosophers) and his dogged pursuit of problems. Popkin, a student of Skepticism, basically cast a skeptical eye on the purported solid evidence offered by the Warren Commission to prove that there was no conspiracy. If there was more than one ‘Lee Harvey Oswald’ who was at more than one place simultaneously, or more than one person purporting to be Oswald, then there had to be a conspiracy. Thus, the Warren Report proved the very opposite of its own conclusion.

Josiah Thompson, an Assistant Professor at Haverford College at the time he began investigating the assassination, was the third philosopher to find the Warren Report wanting. He actually went to Dallas to check out the crime scene, and decided that the only way to square all the witness reports and evidence was to postulate the existence of a second and perhaps a third gunman in Dealey Plaza at the time of the assassination. In 1967 Thomson published Six Seconds in Dallas: A Micro-Study of the Kennedy Assassination to detail his findings. Its title came from the time element between the first and last shots purported to have been fired by Oswald. By closely examining the physical evidence and comparing it with the eyewitness stories and other documents found in the Warren Report, Thompson concluded that it was impossible for Oswald to have had time to fire off the three shots which killed President Kennedy and wounded Texas Governor John Connally. But again, the existence of at least one other gunman would disprove the Report’s claim that Oswald acted alone…

What is the significance of the fact that three professional philosophers were among the earliest critics of the Warren Report? On the face of it, not much. The three men were not acquainted, and were from very different philosophical traditions. Russell was the granddaddy of analytic philosophy, although by the 1960s he was devoting most of his time to peace activism and political causes. Popkin was the foremost expert on the history of Skepticism in the Western World, as well as on the interaction between Jewish and Christian philosophy in the early Renaissance. Thompson had written a well-regarded book on Danish proto-existentialist Søren Kierkegaard. Furthermore, none of them claimed that their work on the Kennedy assassination was directly connected with their professional philosophical pursuits.

Yet there were significant connections. Like all philosophers, the three men shared a concern for good reasoning. Their differing criticisms of the Warren Report had some commonalities, including a concern for inconsistencies, a dislike for arguments where the conclusion was assumed, and a strong desire to discover the truth even if it should be painful or disconcerting. They stressed the logical fallacy of the Argument from Authority – the impeccable credentials of the Warren Commissioners did not guarantee their impartiality, effectiveness or credibility.

Thanks in part to these early critics, further research by individuals and governmental agencies has broadened our understanding of the events. We now know that there were cover-ups involved, including the disappearance of evidence connected with Kennedy’s autopsy and the destruction of evidence of FBI investigations of Oswald prior to the assassination. Whether these were merely attempts to hide uncomfortable information (eg medical problems of President Kennedy that had previously been denied, or the FBI’s embarrassment over not keeping a closer watch on Oswald’s movements) or had some more sinister connotations, it is no longer possible – if it ever was – to take the Warren Report at face value as a truth-seeking document.

Certainly there were good reasons why the Warren Report was rushed into print. President Johnson declared that he wanted to get the country moving again after the deep shock of experiencing the public murder of its Commander-In-Chief. Johnson also feared that speculations regarding Cuban or Soviet involvement in the murder would increase Cold War tensions and perhaps lead to World War III. Still, as recently released audiotapes from the time show, Johnson himself had suspicions that more people than Oswald were involved in the murder. And, while the Report may have served its initial purpose of immediately addressing the questions people had regarding the JFK murder, in the long run it helped to feed the growing cynicism of the general public, which has now come to doubt almost all claims issued by the powers-that-be.

But if the Warren Report is a faulty work, what are the implications? Must one necessarily accept that there was a conspiracy to kill the President? And if Kennedy’s murder was part of a conspiracy, who was involved? The list of plausible (and not so plausible) suspects is immense. It includes pro- and anti-Castro Cubans, the FBI, the CIA, the Mafia, Texas Oil Men, the Military-Industrial Complex, the Russians, Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, Richard Nixon, Aristotle Onassis, Freemasons, Time Travellers, Space Aliens and Pope Paul VI… About the only group not suspected are professional philosophers – just where was Russell on that fateful day? Perhaps one should take a Baudrillardesque view, and deny that the assassination ever happened at all.

But that doesn’t seem an acceptable option: the murder of John F. Kennedy was one of the most disturbing events of the Twentieth Century, and the desire to know who was responsible for it and why cannot just be shrugged away. The nagging desire to find the truth, whatever the consequences might be, is at the heart of philosophy. Because of their reputable standing, the philosophers Russell, Popkin and Thompson played a significant role in causing the American public to doubt the Warren Report. They were soon joined by a host of other critics, some of whom went much further in their denunciations of the report, postulating wilder and wilder theories. For a time Russell became intimately involved with the controversial Lane, whose accusations against the U.S. Government became shriller and stranger as the years went on. Thompson, for reasons partly connected with his Kennedy assassination work, eventually abandoned academic philosophy altogether and became a private detective, in 1988 writing the highly entertaining book Gumshoe: Reflections in a Private Eye about his experiences. Popkin, not content with merely pointing out flaws in the Warren Report, became obsessed with finding the real killers of JFK. His involvement in conspiracy theories eventually had an adverse affect upon his mental health before he finally returned to his primary focus, his highly acclaimed work on the history of Skepticism.

Here lies the continuing epistemological nightmare of the Kennedy shooting. Will we ever know what actually happened that day? There have recently been Warren Report defenders such as Gerald Posner (Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, 1994) and Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor of the Manson family, who just published Reclaiming History: the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (2007), a 1,632 page book in which Bugliosi painstakingly attempts to answer every criticism of the Report. But there remains something deeply unsatisfactory about the Report. Whether because of the shoddy nature of the Commission’s investigations, the uncertainties and contradictions of the eyewitness interviews, the ulterior motives of the Commissioners and their aides, or other more controversial reasons, the very public murder of President Kennedy continues to nag at our collective consciousness. The trail grows colder, but questions remain – questions initially raised by three devoted professional truth seekers.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2008

Tim Madigan was only a baby on November 22, 1963 and thus had no connection with the Kennedy Assassination. Or did he?

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