Warren Commission

views updated Jun 11 2018


The assassination of President john f. kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, was a shocking event that immediately raised questions about the circumstances surrounding the death of the president. Those questions increased when the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was murdered while in the custody of Dallas police on November 25 by jack ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner.

President lyndon b. johnson moved quickly to reassure the nation that a thorough inquiry would take place by creating a commission of distinguished public servants to investigate the evidence. On November 29, 1963,

Johnson appointed earl warren, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, to head the commission, which became known as the Warren Commission. Its 1964 report, which sought to put to rest many issues, proved controversial, provoking charges of a whitewash. The facts surrounding the Kennedy assassination remain the subject of debate.

Chief Justice Warren, fearing that his service disrupted the traditional separation of powers, reluctantly agreed to serve as director of the commission. The other members of the commission were Senators Richard B. Russell of Georgia and john sherman Cooper of Kentucky; two members of the House of Representatives, Hale Boggs of Louisiana and gerald r. ford of Michigan; Allen W. Dulles, former head of the central intelligence agency; John J. McCloy, former head of the world bank; and James Lee Rankin, former U.S. solicitor general, who was appointed general counsel for the commission.

The Warren Commission began its investigations on December 3, 1963. The commission used accounts and statements provided by the Dallas police force, the secret service, the federal bureau of investigation, the military, and government and congressional commissions. Over the course of ten months, the commission took testimony from 552 witnesses.

The commission published its conclusions, popularly known as the Warren Report, in September 1964. According to the commission, Oswald acted alone in the assassination. The commission characterized Oswald as a resentful, belligerent man who hated authority. The commission endorsed the "single bullet theory," which concluded that only one bullet, rather than two, struck President Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally, who was sitting directly in front of the president in the open convertible. This was important because it appeared unlikely that Oswald could have fired his rifle twice in succession quickly enough to strike the two men. It found no connection between Oswald's Communist affiliation, his time living in the Soviet Union, and the murder, nor between Oswald and his murderer, Jack Ruby. The commission also found no evidence that Ruby was part of a conspiracy. It criticized the security measures taken to protect Kennedy and recommended that more effective measures be taken in the future.

Although the conclusions of the commission were well received at first, public skepticism soon grew about the findings. In 1966 two influential books were published that challenged the methods and conclusions of the commission. Both Inquest by Edward Jay Epstein and Rush to Judgment by Mark Lane declared that the commission had not investigated deeply enough to produce conclusive results. In that same year, Jim Garrison, a New Orleans district attorney, stunned the public with his revelations of a conspiracy and his accusations against prominent businessman Clay Shaw. Shaw was tried on conspiracy charges but was acquitted in 1969.

Since the release of the Warren Commission report, thousands of articles and books have been published promoting various theories surrounding the assassination. A 1979 special committee of the House of Representatives reexamined the evidence and concluded that Kennedy "was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy."

Allegations that federal agencies withheld assassination evidence led Congress to enact the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 (44 U.S.C.A. § 2107). The act created the Assassination Records Review Board, an independent federal agency that oversees the identification and release of records related to the assassination of President Kennedy. The act granted the review board the mandate and the authority to identify, secure, and make available, through the National Archives and Records Administration, records related to Kennedy's assassination. Creation of the review board has allowed the release of thousands of previously secret government documents and files.

further readings

Galanor, Stewart. 1998. Cover-Up. New York: Kestrel Books.

O'Neill, William L. 1971. Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s. New York: Quadrangle Books.

Simon, Jonathan. 1998. "Ghosts of the Disciplinary Machine: Lee Harvey Oswald, Life-History, and the Truth of Crime." Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 10 (winter).

Warren Commission

views updated May 29 2018

Warren Commission

President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) was assassinated on November 22, 1963. He was in Dallas, Texas, riding in a limousine with his wife Jacqueline Kennedy, Texas governor John Connally, and Connally's wife Nellie. Kennedy was struck by at least two bullets, the first going through his throat and the second entering his brain. John Connally was injured in the shooting.

A week later President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69), who had been Kennedy's vice president and who took over as president after Kennedy's death, appointed a commission to investigate the assassination. Its official name was “The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy.” The head of the commission was Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren (1891–1974), so it became known as the Warren Commission. The commission had six other members, including future president Gerald Ford (1913–2006; served 1974–77) and former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Allen Dulles, who had been pressured to resign from that position while serving under President Kennedy in September 1961.

The commission began to meet in February 1964. It collected evidence from over five hundred witnesses and over three thousand documents. Then it issued a report in September 1964 that is known as the Warren Report.

The Warren Report made many conclusions about the Kennedy assassination. It said the shots that killed Kennedy and wounded Connally were fired by one person from a sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository. The report found persuasive evidence that the bullet that went through Kennedy's throat was the same one that injured Connally.

Military-Industrial Complex Conspiracy

One of the conspiracy theories of the Kennedy assassination blames the nation's military-industrial complex (a partnership between the nation's military, its defense industry, and the government) for the murder. President Kennedy had a history of tense relations with the powers in those realms of government and business.

For example after the CIA's failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, President Kennedy pressured many in the CIA to resign. When the military wanted to attack Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet Union in 1962, Kennedy instead negotiated a solution that avoided military action. In August 1963 the United States signed a limited nuclear test ban treaty with Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Just weeks before he was killed, Kennedy signed an executive order to begin withdrawing the United States from the Vietnam War (1954–75).

Some argue that in this environment, the businesspeople who profited from federal government spending by the military had a strong motive to assassinate Kennedy. They claim that the Warren Report was a poor investigation designed to hide evidence of a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. Opponents of such conspiracy theories say that the forensic and eyewitness evidence supports the Warren Commission's report that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

According to the report the person who fired the shots was drifter Lee Harvey Oswald (1939–1963). Oswald was arrested the day of the assassination and then killed two days later by a bartender named Jack Ruby (1911–1967). The Warren Report found no connection between Oswald and Ruby and no evidence that the Kennedy assassination was part of any conspiracy beyond Oswald's lone actions. This and other conclusions are disputed by many conspiracy theorists who attribute the Kennedy assassination to various kinds of domestic and foreign plots.

Warren Commission

views updated May 23 2018


WARREN COMMISSION. On 29 November 1963, one week after the murder of John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson signed Executive Order No. 11130, creating the President's Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The executive order instructed the seven-man panel to "evaluate all the facts and circumstances surrounding [the] assassination, including the subsequent violent death of the man charged with the assassination," Lee Harvey Oswald. Johnson directed all federal agencies to cooperate with the special panel, which soon became known as the Warren Commission, after its chairman, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.

The panel represented a careful political balancing act by Johnson. Warren was a towering figure among liberals because of the Supreme Court decisions reached under his stewardship. To offset him, Johnson picked Georgia Democratic senator Richard B. Russell, whose reputation (among conservatives) was the equal of Warren's. Other members from Congress were Senator John Sherman Cooper, a Kentucky Republican; Representative Hale Boggs, a Democrat from Louisiana; and then-Representative Gerald R. Ford, a Michigan Republican. Because of the international repercussions and intelligence issues involved, Johnson also appointed two lawyers with broad government experience: Allen W. Dulles, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and John J. McCloy, a former assistant secretary in the War Department.

Over the next ten months, the commission reviewed and expanded upon FBI, Secret Service, and CIA investigations; weighed the testimony of 552 witnesses; visited the site of the assassination; and oversaw the writing of the 888-page final report, which was presented to President Johnson on 24 September 1964 and made public three days later. Subsequently, twenty-six additional volumes of testimony and exhibits were printed, making the full Warren Report one of the most voluminous documents about a single episode ever published by the U.S. government.

The commission unanimously concluded that Oswald, acting alone, assassinated President Kennedy, and that Jack Ruby was a self-appointed vigilante when he killed Oswald two days later. Contrary to popular belief, the commission did not conclude definitively that there was no conspiracy. Rather, the panel stated that despite its best efforts, it had been unable to find any evidence of a conspiracy. This finding reflected the commission's recognition that pertinent records in communist bloc countries were beyond its reach.

President Johnson formed the commission to provide a forum for fact-finding (in the absence of a purgative trial) and to prevent competing, televised investigations in Congress. Initially, these goals were achieved. Congress declined to investigate, and upon publication, the Warren Report persuaded most Americans that the truth was known, insofar as it was knowable. Over time, confidence in the commission's probity and the report's validity eroded. The commission, operating as it did in the midst of the Cold War, had to keep some facts secret, and some information was kept from it. None of the revelations that trickled out in the years following the assassination, however, altered the accuracy of the commission's findings. But critics, only some of whom were well-meaning, repeatedly exploited the contradiction between the need for answers and the need for secrecy to suggest that the commission was either incompetent or intentionally avoided the truth. The Warren Commission's reputation also suffered collaterally from later cynicism engendered by the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal.


Holland, Max. "After Thirty Years: Making Sense of the Assassination." Reviews in American History 22, no. 2 (June 1994): 191–209.

Manchester, William. The Death of a President: November 20–November 25 1963. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Report of the President's Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1964.


See alsoAssassinations, Presidential .

Warren Commission

views updated May 29 2018

Warren Commission (1963–64) US presidential commission that investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was headed by Earl Warren. After taking evidence from 552 witnesses, it concluded that the act had been committed by Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone. Its denial of a conspiracy was not universally accepted.