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Doubt and Deception: Public Opinion of the Warren Report


Will Fox


The gunning down of America’s youthful president in 1963 was one of the most traumatic events in American history and it was amplified by the fact that Americans experienced it through endless television coverage.[1] Feelings of fear and uncertainty among the American public were only strengthened when this coverage of the assassination culminated in John F. Kennedy’s alleged killer being murdered himself. The Warren Commission, created by the newly inaugurated President Lyndon Johnson, was designed to alleviate many of these fears as well as provide the public with answers as to how and why the assassination occurred.[2] The conclusions of this commission, which were presented in the Warren Report, were met with a variety of reactions and have continued to be heavily scrutinized over time.[3] From events such as Jim Garrison’s investigation of the assassination in the late sixties to the release of the movie JFK in 1991, public opinion of the Warren Report changed due to the emergence of new evidence. Public perception of the Warren Report changed over time due to the emergence of evidence that showed the Warren Commission’s processes in its investigation were not entirely thorough and because new narratives emerged regarding the assassination, which created doubt among many Americans.

In the months ensuing the assassination a lawyer, a district attorney, and an investigative journalist were inspired to find out what happened that day in Dallas. Mark Lane, Jim Garrison, and Jay Epstein each conducted their own in-depth investigation into the event. These inquiries raised their own set of compelling questions and shaped the discourse on this topic for years to come. These men highlighted the necessity of independent research into the event. They chose to explore the facts of the assassination themselves and developed their own opinions, rather than accepting what others claimed as fact. Their independent research contributed to new information and drastically altered how many people felt about the assassination and, more specifically, the credibility of Warren Report. They challenged what had been accepted at the time and influenced public opinion of the assassination.

Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, President Johnson faced the difficult task of leading the country through an uncertain time. Furthermore, given that the assassination took place in his home state of Texas, Johnson undoubtedly felt the pressure from much of the American public to produce a swift and effective response in his first test as President of the United States. Despite pleas from various media outlets, Johnson initially elected not to create a special presidential commission to investigate the assassination.[4] Johnson was confident that the FBI would be able to successfully conduct its own inquiry into the killing and did not think that a special commission was necessary. The new president eventually changed his mind largely to prevent separate investigations by Congress and the Texas Court of Inquiry.[5]                           

On November 29, 1963, President Johnson issued Executive Order 11130 which created a commission to report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The stated purposes of the Commission was to examine the evidence collected by the FBI, conduct its own independent investigation into all circumstances surrounding the investigation, including the death of the alleged assassin, and to report its findings to the President.[6] The Commission had no budgetary restrictions and answered to no United States government institution save for the President. This commission and its conclusions played a vital role in the initial formation of public opinion of the assassination.

President Johnson knew that he must appoint well respected men of high integrity to his commission, in order to insure its credibility in the eyes of the public. He chose Chief Justice Earl Warren as the head of the commission, which is why it would later be simply called the Warren Commission, and selected six other high profile public figures to serve on the panel with him. The other six men who rounded out this bipartisan panel were former CIA director Allen Dulles, former High Commissioner to Germany John McCloy, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, Senator John Cooper of Kentucky, Congressman Hale Boggs of Louisiana, and Congressman Gerald Ford of Michigan. It is notable that five of the seven members of the Commission were Republicans and that the two men who were Democrats opposed their fellow party member Kennedy on much of his domestic legislation.[7]

Johnson saw the creation of the Warren Commission as a public relations triumph. However, persuading some of the men to serve proved to be a tough task in some instances. Multiple members of the commission were initially hesitant to join, most notably Earl Warren and Richard Russell. Warren initially declined to participate and believed he should focus on his duties as chief justice. Warren did not accept until President Johnson told Warren, who was a veteran of World War I, that serving on the commission would be more important than anything he ever did while serving in the military.[8] Senator Russell proved to be even more difficult to persuade. Johnson essentially threatened and forced Russell to serve on the commission despite his repeated protests “I can’t arrest you and I’m not going to put the FBI on you but you’re god-dammed going to serve, I’ll tell you that.”[9] These men knew that they had the unenviable task of trying to give the American public a sense of closure and relief following the assassination of their president. Investigating a complex case with the eyes of the nation bearing down upon them was not a particularly attractive prospect. Not only would the members of the commission have considerable time taken away from their current duties but they would also open themselves up to severe scrutiny from the rest of the country. If they were to fail in the eyes of the public, their reputations and, in some cases, chances for reelection could have been seriously tarnished.

The first meeting of the Warren Commission occurred on December 5, 1963 just over two weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy. President Johnson and members of the commission initially anticipated that the investigation would only last a couple of months, but it ended up lasting for ten months in total. Ever mindful of public perceptions, the Warren Commission elected to hold closed hearings rather than public hearings because they feared public hearings could lead to testimony being taken out of context and to misleading conclusions.[10] They also talked about the need to dispel false rumors that were spreading amongst the public.[11] It is also worth noting that the commission initially planned not to publish its findings for the public to view because they thought it would be “too expensive.”[12] After months of investigation and hearing testimony of over five hundred witnesses, the Warren Commission submitted its report to the President on September 24, 1964. The Warren Commission released the report to the public four days later and it totaled nearly nine hundred pages divided into twenty-six volumes. Among the most significant conclusions of the Warren Commission were: that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman, there were three shots fired at the President, the shots came from behind the President from the Texas School Depository, the same bullet hit President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally. The report also concluded that Oswald was not involved in a conspiracy.[13]

The Warren Report drew rave reviews upon its initial release, particularly from members of the media and the government. Life Magazine called the Report the “most conscientious documentation of facts” ever assembled.[14] The New York Times echoed a similar sentiment calling the report “comprehensive and compelling” and declaring that it “should destroy the basis for conspiracy theories that have grown weed like in this country.”[15] President Johnson also publicly praised the Warren Report and stated that the members of the commission earned a great deal of gratitude from their fellow Americans.[16] The praise in the media was essentially universal and dissenters were rare. The consensus regarding the Warren Report was that it was exhaustive, eloquent, and persuasive.

Prior to its release, there was a general expectation and hope that the Warren Report would erase all doubts regarding the assassination. For months, speculation and suspicion swirled around the assassination. Seeing their president murdered traumatized the public and many were fearful about what that meant for the future of the country. The release of the Warren Report was met with a collective sigh of relief as it seemed to dispel various rumors and conspiracy theories. For many, the report gave a sense of closure. The Warren Report assured Americans that their president was killed by a single deranged lunatic and not targeted by a foreign government or organization. It also reassured many that their own government was able to conduct a thorough investigation and provide them with the answers that they were looking for. In a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, Lawrence Roush of North Carolina summed up the necessity of the Warren Commission’s investigation accurately “The Nation’s conscience could not have rested until this debt was paid.”[17]

Despite the apparent readiness of many Americans to accept the conclusions of the Warren Report, some still remained skeptical. A nation-wide Harris Survey conducted the month after the release of the report revealed as much. Although eighty-seven percent of Americans surveyed were convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald was the killer, thirty-one percent believed that he had accomplices.[18] In that same poll, forty-five percent of people thought that the Warren Commission left various questions unanswered. While the Warren Report was able to temporarily persuade a majority of the public, doubt still remained.

A few years following release of the release of the Warren Report, public opinion began to shift even more regarding its conclusions. New evidence emerged which showed that the Warren Commission was not as thorough as previously thought, casting doubt over its conclusions. This evidence came to light in best selling books like Inquest and Rush to Judgment, as well as various media outlets critical of the Warren Report. The belief that the Warren Report was exhaustive came under severe scrutiny. It was actually limited in terms of its manpower, time, and investigating of evidence. It also came to light that the commission neglected witnesses, failed to follow up on leads, and didn’t investigate relevant aspects of the assassination. The commission, held in such high regard just a few years prior, was now having its methods questioned due to this new information.

Mark Lane’s book Rush to Judgment was one of the earliest and most effective critiques of the Warren Commission. Lane, a lawyer from New York, previously campaigned to represent Oswald before the commission.[19] He was a staunch opponent of the Warren Report and announced months after its release that he would write his own book that would expose it.[20] After two and a half years of his own investigation into the assassination, Lane released his book in 1966. Rush to Judgment soared in popularity following its release and it occupied the top spot of the nonfiction bestseller list for a number of weeks.[21] The main argument of Rush to Judgment centered around the perceived improbability of Oswald acting alone. Throughout his book, Lane points out instances where the Warren Commission ignored testimonies and failed to fully investigate certain aspects of the assassination. Many in the media found Lane’s book thought provoking and persuasive, including the New York Times “If we are to believe Lane, the evidence against Oswald is flimsier, the task of who fired the deadly shots more bewildering.”[22] Critics of the book saw it as wildly speculative, biased, and indiscriminate. While its subject matter was disputed, Rush to Judgment was successful in starting a dialogue about the assassination and presenting new possible narratives to the American public.

The book Inquest, (1966) by investigative journalist Jay Epstein also highlighted some of the weaknesses of the Warren Commission. Epstein showed that the commissioners set unnecessary deadlines for themselves and seemingly rushed through their investigation. They believed that it was absolutely necessary to release the Warren Report well before the upcoming presidential election in November and they set a June deadline.[23] This deadline was pushed back multiple times as the investigation was nowhere near completion. There were various instances where time restrictions prevented the commission from effectively investigating issues. For example: the lawyer tasked with determining how Jack Ruby entered the basement of the Dallas city jail was eventually ordered to speculate in the report after not being able to come to a definitive conclusion before the deadline.[24] Another telling incident occurred in August when everyone around the commission was being advised to wrap up their investigations. A lawyer working for the commission had a witness whose testimony contradicted previous conclusions of the panel. When he applied to have the testimony heard by the commission, General Counsel of the commission J. Lee Rankin told him “At this stage, we are supposed to be closing doors, not opening them” and the issue was dropped.[25] By setting deadlines, the commission hindered its investigation and prevented all relevant information from being adequately examined. Information of this nature only made public perceptions of the commission more doubtful and inquisitive. Epstein’s book was very popular and even received praise from former Kennedy advisor Dick Goodwin. In a Washington Post article, Goodwin praised Epstien for presenting his case “with a logic and subdued tone which have already disturbed the convictions of many men” and also hinted that he believed a new panel would be created to investigate the assassination.[26]

Critics of the Warren Commission also condemned its structure. At the outset of the investigation, the Commission developed six areas of inquiry where they would focus their attention. These were: Lee Harvey Oswald’s activities on November 22, Oswald’s background, Oswald’s career in the Marine Corps and time in the Soviet Union, Oswald’s murder, Jack Ruby’s background, and the procedures employed to protect the President.[27] Critics argued that this framework suggested that the commission went into the investigation already convinced that Oswald was the lone killer and simply tried to link him to the murder, rather than discover the identity of the assassin by investigating all pertinent aspects of the crime. Another notable fact is that the majority of the Warren Report focused on Oswald’s background and that only eleven percent of the report dealt with the alleged facts of the assassination.[28] Again, the literature of the time presenting these types of discoveries helped shift perceptions of the assassination and made people more open to the possibility of a conspiracy.

The commission also had to deal with the issue of manpower. Every man appointed to the commission occupied a high-ranking government job and thus a plethora of other demanding duties to perform. The commission members, along with the group of lawyers tasked with investigating the assassination, were all essentially part time workers. Earl Warren took the role on the condition that it would not interfere with his duties as Chief Justice; therefore, it was virtually a secondary concern for him. Others on the commission faced a similar dilemma and it manifested itself with many of the members being absent from hearings. Rush to Judgment pointed out that four hundred and fifty-eight of the commission’s five hundred and fifty-two testimonies had no commission member present.[29] This created a division between the commission members and its lawyers. According to Epstein one of the investigating lawyers claimed that the commission members “had no idea what was happening” and another was quoted saying that they did “nothing.”[30] Although these revelations certainly did not disprove the Warren Commission, they chipped away at its public image.

Lane and Epstein also questioned Oswald’s marksmanship and the single shooter hypothesis. The gun that Oswald used in the killing was described as inaccurate, unreliable, and poorly designed.[31] This coupled with fact that Oswald classified as “a poor shot” in his last testing in the Marine Corps raised some eyebrows. The Warren Commission’s initial attempts to recreate the shots failed. The commission had six shooters, who all classified as experts, attempt to re-enact Oswald’s shot in the established timeframe but not one of them were able to do so and they were firing at stationary targets.[32] Another point of contention that critics pointed to was where the shots came from. Of the ninety witnesses who were asked by the commission where the shots came from, fifty-eight said they thought the shots came from the grassy knoll and not the Texas School Depository, like the commission determined.[33] This suggested the possibility of a second shooter and therefore a conspiracy.[34] Mark Lane argued that this evidence meant that Oswald could not have acted alone. Most Americans did not read the lengthy Warren Report following its release and were examining its faults for the first time. While some dismissed these as coincidences and fodder for conspiracy theories, others believed they had validity.

These new revelations regarding the assassination caused public opinion to shift on the conclusions of the Warren Report, specifically the conclusion that Oswald acted alone. A Harris Survey taken in September of 1966, two years after the release of the Warren Report, showed that forty-six percent of Americans believed that Oswald was involved in a broader plot and a further twenty percent were not sure.[35] The majority of Americans now seemed to believe that there was a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy. Another poll conducted months later revealed that forty-two percent of those surveyed wanted the Warren Commission to reopen its investigation.[36] The public criticism of the Warren Report were so strong that President Johnson felt that he needed to defend the document “I know of no evidence that would in any way cause any reasonable person to have doubt.”[37] A good example of this shift in thought can be seen with the case of Life Magazine writer Loudon Wainwright. Wainwright, the writer who previously called the Warren Report “most conscientious documentation of facts” ever assembled, now stated that new evidence had “shaken badly my own comfortable feeling that the Warren Report had disposed of this sad matter.”[38] While many conspiracy theories emerged and became popular, there was still no definitive evidence to disprove what the Warren Commission concluded. Despite nearly three years passing since the assassination, numerous questions remained and people were hungry for answers.

One of the most vocal and influential critics of the Report was New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. Garrison became intrigued with the assassination after discovering that Oswald had spent the summer of 1963 in New Orleans. Garrison did a little investigating into Oswald in 1963 but it wasn’t until he read the Warren Report in 1966 that he became engrossed in the assassination. He called it a “fairy tale” on national television and immediately began his own independent investigation.[39] With provocative statements like this, Garrison’s investigation became headline news. A Harris poll taken in 1967 revealed that forty five percent of people believed Garrison’s investigation would shed new light on the assassination and that two out of three people were following it.[40]

The media covered the investigation in great detail and almost all of it was aimed at discrediting Garrison. Garrison, a World War II veteran, had also been a member of the National Guard for eighteen years, and a special agent for the FBI.[41] He also received notoriety for winning elective office without formal party support and for not losing a homicide case in his first eight years in office.[42] Yet the media commonly portrayed him as a “ruthless politician driven by swollen ambition” and the investigation was labeled “disturbing”, among other things.[43] The media also criticized Garrison for his methods of questioning witnesses and for how he conducted his investigation in general. Garrison also claimed that he received death threats and that his home phone was bugged during the investigation.[44]

Ultimately Garrison arrested New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw, who Garrison believed to have engaged in a conspiracy with Oswald to kill the President. Shaw went on trial in 1969 but was acquitted by the jury after less than an hour of deliberation. Critics of the investigation saw this as a vindication of the Warren Report and some, like The Washington Post, believed it to be “more persuasive than ever.”[45] Although some believed Garrison’s failure meant exoneration for the Warren Report, it still did not answer questions left by the Warren Commission. Garrison claims that every juror interviewed by the author and assassination aficionado Mark Lane stated that they believed Garrison established that Kennedy was killed as a result of a conspiracy, but there was no credible evidence linking Clay Shaw to the assassination.[46] Although his narrative was rejected, the coverage around Garrison’s investigation got people thinking and asking questions about the possibility of a conspiracy. Having a publicly elected official openly condemn the government and what it was telling the people was unprecedented in terms of the assassination. Prior to Garrison, government rhetoric on the assassination was uniform.  

Another result of the investigation was the release of the most pristine video of the president’s assassination to the public. People were able to eventually “witness” the event themselves through the release of a film, taken by bystander Abraham Zapruder. “The Zapruder Film,” as it was called established a timeframe that called into question the timing of the assassination. Prior to the trial, the Zapruder film was locked away in a Time-Life Building vault but Garrison was able to subpoena the film and make it available to the public.[47] The Warren Commission examined this film in great detail and used it to help determine its conclusions during its investigation; however, the film was not released to the public until 1969. The film made it clear that either President Kennedy and Governor Connally were both hit by Oswald’s second shot or Connally was hit by a different bullet, which would indicate a second shooter. The commission ultimately determined that a bullet passed through the neck of President Kennedy and then wounded Connally’s chest, wrist, and thigh. Much of the literature of the time claimed that this was one of the commission’s biggest errors. The commission initially believed that two separate shots hit the men until the Zapruder film established that Oswald could not have fired fast enough to wound both men separately.[48] The release of the Zapruder film to the public gave the population a better understanding of the event as they were able to experience it visually. Some viewers felt that the film pointed to a possible conspiracy based on Kennedy’s head movement backwards on the final shot, possibly indicating that the shot came from the front, but this was speculation.

In the cover story of Life Magazine published two years after the assassination, Governor Connally claimed he was certain the single bullet theory was false. “There is my absolute knowledge that one bullet caused the President’s first wound and that an entirely separate shot struck me,” Connally recalled.[49] Also, not one of the over one hundred eye witnesses to the investigation testified that they thought the same bullet struck both men.[50] Three of the seven commission members also expressed strong doubts over the single bullet theory and Richard Russell went as far as saying that he would not sign the Warren Report if it condoned the theory.[51] Russell did eventually sign the report after some of the wording in it was altered.

Other national events contributed to creating a more jaded public in the years following the assassination. Skepticism about Lyndon Johnson’s claims about the Vietnam War followed by the Watergate scandal in 1974 undermined Americans’ trust in their government. During the late 1960s many Americans came to believe that the government, as well as the media, were lying to them about the Vietnam War. Increasingly, large portions of the population opposed the Vietnam War and felt that the government was making a mistake with its policies toward that country.[52] There was also growing sentiment that the whole truth of the war was not being disclosed, the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 later verified this. If the government could distort facts about thousands of Americans dying in Vietnam, then people might reason, officials could also do so about one man dying in Dallas.

Watergate eroded trust in the U.S government. Richard Nixon easily won re-election for his second term as president and seemingly had the admiration of the majority of the American people. Nixon’s approval ratings soared as high as 68% in 1973 but just over a year later they had plummeted to 25% due to the Watergate scandal.[53] The president previously held in a high regard was now viewed as someone who deceived and betrayed the very people he was supposed to serve. Watergate further shook the confidence of many Americans that the government could be unequivocally trusted. If the President of the United States could be guilty of crimes and attempt to cover it up, couldn’t the Warren Commission have done the same with the assassination?

Disillusionment with Johnson’s credibility on Vietnam followed by the Watergate scandal could only heighten the skepticism around the government’s official report on the Kennedy assassination. At the conclusion of the 1970s, an average of public opinion polls showed that only 20% of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing, which was down from 77% in 1964, the year the Warren Report was released.[54] During the 1970s, the belief of Kennedy being assassinated as a result of a conspiracy reached some of its highest points of all time among the public, and it is likely that this occurring in a decade defined by questioning the government is no coincidence. Despite this apparent change in attitude toward the government, many still trusted the Warren Report as much as ever. In a letter to the New York Times, commission member John McCloy stated his perplexity regarding the questioning of the report “I never cease to be amazed at the willingness of so much of the public to accept the statements of the charlatans and the sensationalists rather than the facts and record.”[55]

In 1976, the House Select Committee on Assassinations contributed to the growing skepticism about the circumstances surrounding the Kennedy Assassination. This committee, comprised of members from the House of Representatives, was created to conduct a complete investigation into the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The committee acknowledged the uncertainty still surrounding the assassination and committee chairman Thomas M. Downing hoped their investigation would be a definitive one “We’re going down every street until we get a blind alley. Congress mandated us to do a thorough job.”[56] A Gallup poll taken just months after the committee was created revealed that a staggering eighty one percent of people surveyed now believed that the murder of Kennedy was a result of a conspiracy.[57] After over two years of investigation and $5.4 million spent, the committee determined that Kennedy was “probably” murdered as a result of a conspiracy.[58] The committee was also immensely critical of the Warren Commission, who it said did not adequately explore possible conspiracies, and suggested that the Department of Justice look further into the assassination. An important factor in the committee reaching its conclusion was the expert testimony of acoustic experts who concluded based on the acoustics obtained from a tape of the assassination, they were ninety five percent certain that shots were fired from the grassy knoll.[59] It is also important to note that three of the committee’s twelve members disagreed with the conclusion that there was a conspiracy and the committee had a host of opponents who were critical of their investigation. This event, along with various others of the decade that enhanced distrust of the government, continued to impact public opinion of the assassination.

The release of the movie JFK in the early 1990s reignited public interest in the assassination and brought the issue back into the limelight. A couple of years prior to the movie a CBS news poll showed that the country appeared to be split on whether the truth would ever be fully known or if it should even be continued to be investigated. This poll revealed fifty nine percent of Americans opposed further investigations and forty six percent of people believed that it would now be impossible to establish the full truth of the assassination.[60] This new movie was based largely on Jim Garrison’s investigation and starred Kevin Costner as Garrison. Prior to its release in December of 1991, the film was subjected to a great deal of criticism and controversy. Many people in the media criticized its director, Oliver Stone, for pushing the narrative in the film that Kennedy was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. The Washington Post was one of the film’s most vocal critics saying that “Stone mixes fact and fiction at dizzying speed, stomping on presumptions of innocence, cooking up fake assumptions, ignoring contrary evidence.”[61] The President of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti, took the criticism to another level when he called the film “pure fiction that rivaled the Nazi propaganda films of Leni Reifenstahl.”[62] Oliver Stone defended his film by claiming that his goal was not to make people accept his conclusion but rather to get people to examine the issue.[63]

JFK ended up being a considerable critical success with eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture as well as Best Director. Due to its critical acclaim and all star cast, many people saw the movie and made it a box office success. This film was important for public opinion as it presented the idea of a conspiracy to a younger generation and to people not previously interested in the assassination. The medium through which Stone’s argument is presented is also noteworthy. A Hollywood film where information is presented visually offered a unique impact on Americans in contrast to simply reading about it. A CBS poll taken a month after the film came out revealed that thirty-six percent of people who saw the movie said that it changed their views on the assassination.[64] A Gallup poll taken shortly around this time also indicated that just ten percent of people surveyed believed that one man was responsible for the assassination.[65]

In 2013, interest in the Kennedy assassination spiked with the 50th anniversary. Numerous books were published and various media outlets provided extensive coverage, capitalizing on public interest. The television and movie industries also tried to take advantage of the anniversary. The movie Parkland, which covered the aftermath of the assassination, was released shortly before the 50th anniversary. National Geographic’s special “Killing Kennedy” drew the largest viewership in the history of the channel and many other news networks followed suit with their own specials on the assassination.[66] This anniversary made it clear that this event is still heavily debated and of great interest to the public. Witnesses to the horrific act still felt its impact even after so much time had elapsed. Pierce Allman, a news manager at a Dallas radio station at the time of the assassination, relayed to the LA Times the lasting sensation of having experienced the event fifty years earlier “It's timeless; there's no concept of 50 years. It's as if it was yesterday or a few days ago.”[67] The experience of New York Times writer Dan Barry is a good example of how people were still so passionate and serious about the issue. Barry simply stated in his article around the anniversary that Oswald was the president’s killer and he was met with significant backlash from some of his readers “I wrote that Oswald killed Kennedy, and readers called me a patsy and thought-free tool.”[68]

Examining how the public viewed the possibility of a conspiracy fifty years removed from the assassination is an interesting task. A CBS poll done in 2013 indicated that sixty-one percent of people believed that Oswald did not act alone, with a further twenty percent saying they didn’t know.[69] Another poll taken showed that sixty two percent of people thought that there was an official cover-up to keep the public from knowing the full truth.[70] This decline in the belief of a conspiracy from the peak of 81% in 1976 is a notable development considering that there has been no definitive evidence in the subsequent decades that would vindicate the Warren Report or seriously condemn it. The rise of the internet and the increasing popularity of conspiracy theories would point to an expected increase in these numbers rather than a decline. This decline could simply be due to a generational gap with younger generations not knowing much about the event. And, in the end, a clear majority of majority Americans refused to accept the major conclusion of the Warren Report regarding Oswald.

The events that ensued after the assassination were often intertwined and revealed a lot about the country during this period. The work of Mark Lane and Jay Epstein laid the groundwork for the the House Committee’s investigation into the assassination. Jim Garrison’s investigation was also critical in impacting public opinion and provided the foundation for the movie JFK. Similar developments regarding Watergate and the Vietnam War led to the emergence of a credibility gap between the government and its citizens. This dramatic decline in trust in the government was a turning point in terms of public opinion and made people more susceptible to conspiracy theories.

Ultimately public debate over this issue continues due to the unanswered questions left by the Warren Report. The Warren Commission, rushed when put together and limited by deadlines, opened various aspects of the assassination up to speculation. These unanswered questions along with a decline in trust of government led to a significant amount of doubt regarding Kennedy’s killer. In the decades following the assassination, a new climate emerged, fueled by literature and new information, that made Americans more inclined to entertain the idea of a conspiracy. During this period, citizens began to question the government more than ever before and wondered if what they were being told was true. While conspiracy theories abound, none have been proven. For those interested in the assassination, they will find that questions remain and uncertainty persists. These questions will continue to engage successive generations drawn to one of the most pivotal events in twentieth century American history.

The Warren Report’s place in history seems destined to be a contested one. Some argue that time and analysis have discredited the report, while others still believe that it served its purpose. Public opinion of the report has changed over time due to various revelations that emerged over the years about the Warren Commission and the facts of the assassination. The conclusions that the Warren Commission reached may have very well been the correct ones but the way it reached those conclusions and the way it conducted the investigation did not inspire confidence. Other events like the investigations of Jim Garrison and the House Select Committee have caused Americans to the question government. Ultimately, the debate over the Warren Report’s most important conclusion that Oswald acted alone will continue to rage on and the public may never know the truth about what happened that day in Dallas.


About the Author

Will FoxWill Fox

My name is Will Fox and I graduated from the University of South Carolina in May of 2017. I majored in History and also minored in Business Administration. I am currently working in my hometown of Savannah, Georgia. During my time at the university, I was a recipient of the Sims Scholars Award for all four of my years and I am also a member of the Golden Key International Honor Society. I wrote this paper for my HIST 498 class which covered America in the 1960s. I chose to write my paper on public opinion of the Kennedy assassination because I feel like this was one of the most interesting events in American history and I wanted to see how people’s views on it have changed over time. I believe that working on this paper has made me a better writer and researcher. A paper of this length requires a lot of preparation and time management. It has also taught me the importance of asking questions and doing your own research. Lastly, I would like to give a special thank you to Dr. Patricia Sullivan. Dr. Sullivan aided me throughout the entire process of this paper. From helping me narrow down my topic to reading excerpts that I wrote along the way, she was always there to help.



[1] For a narrative of the timeline of the assassination and a synopsis of how the American public experienced it through the media see Huffaker, Robert, Bill Mercer, George Phenix, and Wes Wise. When the News Went Live: Dallas 1963. Lanham: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2013.

[2] There are many pieces of literature that cover the Warren Commission and its intended purposes. The books McKnight, Gerald. Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why. Lawrence, KS: U Press of Kansas, 2013, 32. and Jay Epstein, Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of the Truth. New York: Viking Press, 1966, 15. do an excellent job of covering the commission’s history and practices in great detail while also critiquing its findings.

[3] The conclusions of the Warren Report have received a great deal of criticism from various sources. Two of the earliest and most effective critiques are the investigative books: Jay Epstein, Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of the Truth. New York: Viking Press, 1966 and Lane, Mark. Rush to Judgement, 1966. These works created doubts surrounding the conclusions of the report and laid the groundwork for subsequent criticisms. Another noteworthy critiques include: Jim Garrison, On the Trail of the Assassins: My Investigation and Prosecution of the Murder of President Kennedy. New York: Sheridan Square Press, 1988. Garrison’s book focused on his own investigation and how it contradicted the Warren Report. Other literature like McKnight, Gerald. Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why. Lawrence, KS: U Press of Kansas, 2013 and Douglass, James W. JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014 have continued to come out as more time has passed. Each concerned with their own doubts and narratives as to what happened.

[4] “Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover on 25 November 1963,”, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition. The Kennedy Assassination and the Transfer of Power, vol. 1, ed. Max Holland. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014.

[5] McKnight, Gerald. Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why. Lawrence, KS: U Press of Kansas, 2013, 32.

[6] Exec. Order No. 11130, 3 C.F.R. 1 (1963).

[7] McKnight, Breach of Trust, 34.

[8] "Oral History Transcript Earl Warren." Interview by Joe B. Frantz. September 21, 1971. Accessed March 7, 2017.

[9] “Lyndon Johnson and Richard Russell on 29 November 1963,”, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition. The Kennedy Assassination and the Transfer of Power, vol. 1, ed. Max Holland. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014.

[10] Jay Epstein, Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of the Truth. New York: Viking Press, 1966, 15.

[11] Douglass, James W. JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014, 308.

[12]Ibid, 24.

[13] "Warren Commission Report." National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed March 12, 2017.

[14] Wainwrght, Loudon. "The Book for All to Read." Life Magazine, October 16, 1964, 35. Accessed March 13, 2017. EBSCOhost.

[15] "The Warren Commission Report." New York Times, September 28, 1964. Accessed March 12, 2017. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[16] "Lyndon B. Johnson: Letter to the Chief Justice Upon Receipt of the Warren Commission Report. September 24, 1964." The American Presidency Project. Accessed November 19, 2017.

[17] Roush, Lawrence. "Letters to the Editor." The Washington Post, October 3, 1964. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[18] Harris, Louis. "31% of Public Still Feels Oswald Had Some Help." The Washington Post, October 19, 1964. Accessed March 10, 2017. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

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[21] Hunt, George P. "A Matter of Reasonable Doubt." Life Magazine, November 25, 1966, 38-53. Accessed March 8, 2017. EBSCOhost.

[22] L, Christopher. "Books of the Times." New York Times, August 16, 1966. Accessed March 16, 2017. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[23] Epstein, Inquest, 26.

[24] Ibid, 101.

[25]Ibid, 103.

[26] Talbot, David. Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years. London: Simon & Schuster, 2007, 304.

[27] Lane, Rush to Judgement, 1966.

[28] McKnight, Breach of Trust, 2.

[29] Lane, Rush to Judgement, 387.

[30] Epstein, Inquest, 22.

[31] Lane, Rush to Judgement, 123.

[32] Epstein, Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of the Truth, 143.

[33] Lane, Rush to Judgement, 37.

[34] Ibid, 123.

[35] Louis Harris & Associates. Harris Survey, Sep, 1966. USHARRIS. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY: Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, iPOLL, accessed Apr-1-2017.

[36] Opinion Research Corporation. ORC Public Opinion Index, Dec, 1966. USORC. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY: Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, iPOLL, accessed Apr-1-2017.

[37] "Johnson Backs Warren Report as Thorough and Reasonable." New York Times, November 5, 1966. Accessed March 7, 2017. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[38] Wainwright, Loudon. "The Warren Report is Not Enough." Life Magazine, October 7, 1966, 38. Accessed March 18, 2017.

[39] Gordon, Dave. "Garrison Calls Warren Report 'Fairy Tale' in TV Appearance." New York Times, July 16, 1967. Accessed March 11, 2017. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[40] H, Louis. "Warren Report Conclusions Get Growing Public Support." The Washington Post, September 21, 1967. Accessed March 11, 2017. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[41] Jim Garrison, On the Trail of the Assassins: My Investigation and Prosecution of the Murder of President Kennedy. New York: Sheridan Square Press, 1988, 9.

[42] Ibid, 12.

[43] Ibid, 150.

[44] Ibid, 220.

[45] "Jury's Rejection of Garrison's Theory Adds Weight to the Warren Report." The Washington Post, March 8, 1969. Accessed March 19, 2017. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[46] Garrison, On the Trail of the Assassins: My Investigation and Prosecution of the Murder of President Kennedy, 251.

[47] Garrison, On the Trail of the Assassins, 239.

[48] Epstein, Inquest, 148.

[49] Hunt, George P. "A Matter of Reasonable Doubt." Life Magazine, November 25, 1966, 38-53. Accessed March 8, 2017. EBSCOhost.

[50] Lane, Rush to Judgement, 118.

[51] McKnight, Breach of Trust, 283.

[52] CBS News. “CBS News Poll: U.S. Involvement in Vietnam.” CBS News. January 28, 2018. Accessed January 21, 2019.

[53] Kohut, Andrew. "How the Watergate Crisis Eroded Public Support for Richard Nixon." Pew Research Center. August 8, 2014. Accessed November 12, 2017.

[54] "Public Trust in Government: 1958-2017." Pew Research Center. May 3, 2017. Accessed November 12, 2017.

[55] Belin, David W. “The Warren Commission: Why We Still Don’t Believe It.” New York Times, November 20, 1988. Accessed January 21, 2019. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[56] "House Panel Picks 170 to Investigate Kennedy and King Slayings." New York Times, November 16, 1976. Accessed March 14, 2017. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[57] Gallup Organization. Gallup Poll, Dec, 1976. USGALLUP. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY: Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, iPOLL, accessed Apr-3-2017.

[58] Wendell, R., Jr. "House Unit Believes Kennedy and King Were Plot Victims." New York Times, July 17, 1979. Accessed March 10, 2017. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[59] Wendell, R., Jr. "House Unit Believes Kennedy and King Were Plot Victims." New York Times, July 17, 1979. Accessed March 10, 2017. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[60] Shenon, Philip. “Who Killed John Kennedy? After 25 Years More Theories Than Certainty” New York Times, November 18, 1988. Accessed January 21, 2019. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[61] Lardner, George, Jr. "The Way It Wasn't." New York Times, December 20, 1991. Accessed March 16, 2017. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[62] Weinraub, Bernard. "Valenti Calls 'J.F.K.' 'Hoax' and 'Smear'." New York Times, April 2, 1992. Accessed March 12, 2017. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[63] Weinraub, Bernard. "Substance and Style Criticized in 'J.F.K'." New York Times, November 7, 1991. Accessed March 13, 2017. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[64] CBS News/New York Times. CBS News/New York Times Poll, Jan, 1992. USCBS. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY: Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, iPOLL, accessed Apr-3-2017.

[65] Gallup, Inc. “Majority in U.S Still Believe JFK Killed in a Conspiracy.” November 15, 2013. Accessed February 2, 2019.

[66] Elliot, Stuart. "Ahead of Anniversary, Promoting All Things Kennedy." New York Times, November 20, 2013. Accessed April 3, 2017. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[67] Hennessey-Fiske, Molly. "Witnesses to Tragedy: Three Dallas Stories." Los Angeles Times, November 17, 2013. Accessed November 28, 2017.

[68] Barry, Dan. "No Stranger to Conspiracy." New York Times, August 18, 2013. Accessed April 3, 2017. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[69] CBS News. CBS News Poll, Oct, 2013. USCBS. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY: Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, iPOLL, accessed Apr-3-2017.

[70] Craighill, Peyton M. “Poll: 62 percent believe broader plot killed Kennedy” Washington Post, November 21, 2013. Accessed January 21, 2019. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

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