Howard P. Willens,
History will Prove Us Right:
Inside the Warren Commission Report
on the Assassination of John F. Kennedy

(Overlook Press, 2013)

The 50th anniversary of Nov. 22, 1963, is just past, so now is a perfect time to revisit the formal investigation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The Johnson-approved Warren Commission was made up of eight members: Earl Warren, Hale Boggs, John Sherman Cooper, Allen W. Dulles, Gerald Ford, John J. McCloy, J. Lee Rankin and Richard Russell. It had a legal staff of 23 men, and drew upon the assistance of many more secretaries and support personnel. Over the past 50 years, all of the Commissioners have passed on (with Gerald Ford being the last to leave, in 2006). About half of the staffers are still with us. Howard P. Willens is the sole surviving member of the overall supervisory staff, so it makes sense that he should be the one to confirm these details.

At the time of his 1963-64 assignment, Willens was a lawyer with the Department of Justice, working under Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He kept a journal throughout the time of the commission's work. His daily entries, various historical documents, subsequently-compiled reports and considerations of possible new developments form the basis of this new narrative.

As soon as those gun shots were fired at the presidential motorcade, the facts of the tragedy became tainted with rumors and speculations. The Warren Commission's mission was to puzzle out the truth amidst all of the inconsistencies that were being fed to it at every turn: from the hospitals, the CIA, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and from the Secret Service and its Treasury Department overseers. It had to work with and maintain good relationships with each one of those entities, as well as with security and political authorities in the city of Dallas, the state of Texas, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Justice Department, Immigration and Naturalization Service, the IRS, and even some contacts in Mexico, Cuba and the Soviet Union and their embassies. It had to research the lives of both Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. It gathered testimonies from 552 individuals. It dealt with the ever-present media and a confused and worried American public. And all of the commissioners and lawyers assisting them had to work closely together, get along and agree on their findings. The task became the largest criminal investigation ever conducted in the United States, and one of the most politically sensitive. And it took place in a pre-computer and pre-Internet world, when surveillance cameras were not mounted upon every city lamp post, and as Cold-War anxieties simmered at the surface.

"I did not know that what sounded like a short temporary assignment would evolve into a nine-month marathon investigation and supervision of the preparation of a 469-page report with 410 pages of appendices, supported by twenty-six volumes of exhibits and other materials. I also had no way of knowing that this report and its authors would become the object of challenge, hostility, suspicion, ridicule, and scorn, or that seemingly endless conspiracy theories would dominate the debate about President Kennedy's assassination for decades to come." (intro, p. 11)

Willens' re-telling of the procedure at times reads like a detective novel. In this, it also reminds me of Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men, back in the day. Both are full of many details, names, dates and who-knew-what-whens. (You may want to create your own list of the major players in the game, in order to keep them straight. I did.) This book follows all of the threads of the commission's daunting investigation. Obviously the emphasis is on the work of the staff members, who were the real worker bees for the project. It's fascinating to watch them tunnel their way to real results. It's amazing, too, that all of the participants were aware of the longevity of their words and decisions, and of the lasting reputation that their final report would have. They constantly took meticulous measures to ensure that their actions and interpretations would be as thorough as possible and would not be open for any questioning under future scrutiny. That they did not fully succeed in this lingering realm was no fault of their own. I understand now that the Warren Commission did the best job it could, within some limitations and certainly under pressure-cooker conditions.

I turned 6 years old on the day the President was killed in Dallas. I remember watching the funeral procession on TV. I was too young to pay immediate attention to the assassination's ramifications, or to what happened afterward. But since then, I have always felt a connection to the tragedy, even as I tried to distance myself from it, especially on the anniversary day each year. I rarely read anything about the assassination or the myriad theories surrounding it. I never saw Oliver Stone's JFK. (In this, Willens would applaud me. After reading his remarks, I guess I'll never watch the movie.) I came fresh to the story here. For more than a week, I've been taken back to the early 1960s, to the time when all of these men had short hair and wore skinny black ties, and the Beatles had just hit The Ed Sullivan Show. Now I've been blown away. I'm very glad that I read this book. I'm satisfied with the answers it has given me.

My one small complaint is that a final postscript section brings only the Commission's staff members up to date. It doesn't cover the lives of the eight commissioners themselves. I had to do my own research to learn what paths those men took, after their assignment was finished. Perhaps this is Willens' last chance to emphasize whose shoulders the majority of the work really fell to: the legal staff.

The JFK assassination will always be debated. It will always be controversial. It will always serve as a case study for political science students to consider the interactions of crime, authority, procedure and law. Willens may hope that this is the final word on the subject, but it cannot be. The Warren Commission report served as just a beginning point for discussion. While tons of other JFK-related books and media continue to surface -- especially in this anniversary year -- this book is among the most important one. Read it: for background information, if for nothing else. Read others, if you wish. And then read Stephen King's 11/22/63 to see how one fictional character tried his best to stop the whole ordeal from happening.

book review by
Corinne H. Smith

21 December 2013

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