By Max Holland
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the wounding of Texas Governor John Connally, in November 1963, have incited more debate and controversy than anyone could have imagined at the time. The notion of a conspiracy quickens the pulse, but there was none. All reliable evidence leads to the conclusion that there was one shooter acting alone.
Why then is the report of the Warren Commission – which was supposed to be the federal government’s “last word” on the assassination – so widely disbelieved, if not ridiculed? Part of the answer, to be sure, lies in what we do not know, and can never know, about Lee Harvey Oswald. He took some secrets to the grave. Yet it is also true, but not well understood, that part of the disbelief stems from the internal politics of the commission. One striking example of how politics affected, or perhaps infected, the work of the commission can be found in its description of the sequence of events in Dealey Plaza.
What Really Happened?
After the assassination, most of the spectators in Dealey Plaza – and there were upwards of four hundred people there – reported hearing three distinct shots. And initially, the FBI and Dallas police believed, based on witnesses’ testimony, that the first of the three shots wounded President Kennedy; the second wounded Governor Connally; and the third fatally hit the president in his head. But is that what happened? Could it have happened that way? For the definitive answer we must weigh the best evidence, namely, the medical/forensic reports about the wounds suffered by the two men.
The third shot, which penetrated President Kennedy’s rear skull, is the easiest to analyze. The direction of such a missile is determined by the “beveling effect” on its target. “Beveling” or “coning” always occurs on the target’s surface of exit. In this instance, when doctors at the Bethesda Naval Hospital conducted a postmortem on President Kennedy’s body, they found that the surface of exit was the interior surface of the president’s rear skull. In other words, the beveling proved that the third shot came from above and behind the president as he sat in the limousine.
The second shot is far more complicated. It is commonly known as the “magic bullet,” but there was nothing genuinely magical about it. The muzzle velocity of a bullet leaving Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle was about 2,100 feet per second. After piercing President Kennedy’s upper back it exited his throat right above the knot of his tie. At that point of exit it was traveling at 1700 feet per second. Governor Connally was sitting directly in front of the president, no more than thirty inches away. One must consider the question: If this missile did not hit Connally, where did it go? In point of fact it had to hit the Texas governor. Otherwise one is left trying to explain a high velocity bullet that disappeared altogether. Such a missile would truly have been a “magic bullet,” as opposed to one that wounded both men, which is precisely what military-style ammunition – the kind Oswald happened to use – is designed to do.
But what of the first shot, since the consensus was that three rifle retorts were heard in Dealey Plaza? The Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination showed a little girl in a red dress and white coat running alongside the motorcade while the president and Mrs. Kennedy drive by. Shortly before the president is obviously wounded, this little girl stops abruptly in her tracks. When later asked why, she said she stopped because she heard a loud noise. I believe, as many other students of the subject do, that this loud noise was in fact the first shot, and that it missed the occupants of the limousine entirely.
The Warren Panel’s Investigation
The Warren Commission was established exactly one week after the assassination, and deliberated ten months before publishing its report. The key to understanding the report, and its ambiguity about such critical sequences as the shots in Dealey Plaza, lies in the relationship between the chief justice after whom the commission was named, and the other senior member of the panel, Senator Richard B. Russell (D-Georgia).
By 1963, Russell was serving his fifth term. Staunchly conservative, and an exceptionally powerful and influential senator, Russell was a reluctant member of the commission. Although as interested as anyone in finding out who was responsible for the tragedy in Dallas, his problem was Earl Warren. He did not respect Warren and did not want to serve with him, even on such an important mission. Warren’s remarks immediately after the assassination typified why Russell so disliked Warren. About forty minutes after the news was broadcast, Warren held a press conference at the Supreme Court. The chief justice ascribed the murder to “hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of the nation by bigots.” At the time, “bigots” was often used as a code word for southerners. Then, to compound matters, Warren repeated his preferred formulations when he gave a eulogy for President Kennedy on November 24th. For Senator Russell, this “rush to judgment” was all too typical of Warren’s liberal jurisprudence and all the more grating because the alleged assassin was in fact a self-described “Marxist-Leninist” and not a “bigot” at all.
Why did President Lyndon Johnson want Richard Russell on the commission? Immediately after the president was killed, and especially after the vigilante slaying of the alleged assassin two days later, passions were running dangerously high in the country. There were two schools of thought. One held that because the assassination occurred in Dallas, a city known for its opposition to President Kennedy, extreme right-wingers simply had to be behind Lee Harvey Oswald. The ex-marine had been framed in order to allow the real killers to go free. In contrast, persons of a more conservative bent asserted that since Oswald was an avowed Marxist-Leninist with links to Cuba and the Soviet Union, a secret communist agency had to have been responsible.
In this situation, President Johnson believed that if he could get both Earl Warren and Richard Russell to serve jointly, ninety percent of responsible opinion in the United States would be satisfied with any conclusion that these two men endorsed. To their respective constituencies, Warren and Russell represented everything that was virtuous and respectable.