Gerald D. McKnight: Interview About the Warren Commission

Roundup: Talking About History

Mr. McKnight is professor emeritus of history at Hood College in Frederick, MD and the author of the new book, Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why (University Press of Kansas)

How did you first get involved in researching the Kennedy assassination and the Warren Commission?

Harold Weisberg, who was a friend and neighbor of mine, wrested from the government under FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] almost 300,000 pages of documents and records pertaining to the JFK assassination. I had complete access to his archive, and today the Weisberg Archive is housed at my teaching institution, Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. I am a co-director of the archive—the largest private and accessible collection of government documents on the Kennedy assassination in the world.

Do you see connections between the Warren Commission investigation and other recent controversial government investigations, namely the 9/11 Report?

There are parallels between the WC [Warren Commission] and the 9/11 Commission. In both cases the government insisted that these commissions of honorable citizens would undertake a good faith, thorough, and impartial investigation into these history-altering events. In both cases the record demonstrates that both commissions were structured and staffed to provide politically motivated outcomes.

Would you say that the Warren Commission created a blueprint of sorts for how the government can fix the outcome of a heated, controversial investigation? If so, in what ways?

The key to government commissions is not the names of prominent members who appear on the marquee for public consumption, but in the chief counsels and executive directors—these are the entities that run the investigation. In the case of the WC it was the Hoover-picked J. Lee Rankin, the director's friend. Rankin was not the choice of [former Chief Justice and Commission Chair] Earl Warren. He was forced on Warren by Hoover, [then Assistant Attorney General Nicholas] Katzenbach, and a like-minded majority of the commissioners. This clique was determined to submit a report that found Oswald the sole assassin, no conspiracy. In short, to underwrite the “official truth” of the assassination, which was settled upon over the weekend after the assassination by Hoover, LBJ, and Katzenbach.

As for the 9/11 Commission, the executive director was Philip D. Zelikow, a Republican with very close official ties to the Bush administration, and a close friend of [former National Security Advisor and current Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice.

Both Rankin and Zelikow, as a result of their positions, ran their respective investigations. They picked the areas of investigation, the topics of the hearings, what witnesses to call forth and what lines of questioning to engage, etc.

Unlike the majority of literature on the JFK assassination, your book steers clear of speculation and conspiracy theories, yet you provide concrete evidence of deception and ineptitude. Was there any single incident that stands out to you as the most shocking cover-up or oversight?

I think there are several telltale evasions: 1) The WC's failure to launch a real investigation into Oswald's Mexico City trip. This, I believe, is a key to what forces or interests were behind the murder of JFK. 2) The destruction of JFK autopsy materials and the writing of a second autopsy protocol after it was learned that Oswald was murdered—in short, the fabrication of the JFK autopsy protocol. 3) Lastly, the fact that the FBI and the WC had the Atomic Energy Committee (AEC) run sophisticated Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA) on Oswald's paraffin casts and other forensic materials and then failed to include those results in the final Commission Report. The fact that some of the best evidence in the case was never disclosed in the Warren Report leads to one inexorable conclusion: that results exonerated Oswald.

Some people, especially those born after the assassination, seem to think this is “old news.” How do you explain to them that the unanswered questions surrounding that event are still incredibly relevant more than 40 years later?

A president is assassinated—there can be no more de-stabilizing crime in our system of government—and there is no good-faith effort to uncover the facts. What does this say about the legitimacy of our government? Moreover, once JFK was removed, there followed possibly history-altering changes in our foreign policy. Had Kennedy lived, would he have liquidated our involvement in Vietnam? Many credible historians speculate that he would have ended our involvement by the end of 1964. Kennedy's tentative steps toward a rapprochement with Castro's Cuba ended with Dallas. Once LBJ heated up our Vietnam involvement, the Soviet-American detente growing out of the peacefully resolved 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was terminated. This raises the foreboding question: Was JFK's assassination a coup d'etat?

Will we ever get to the bottom of this mystery—or did the Commission do a good job of making sure that will never happen ?

Since there was no intent by the government to solve the crime forty years ago, we will probably never know the "Who" and "Why" of Dallas. Moreover, we have to assume that official records—CIA, State, Naval Office of Inquiry (ONI), etc.—have been destroyed. There is, however, an obligation on the part of government to at least come forward and admit to the American people that the Warren Report is a fabrication of our history. A step in that direction would be to reopen the investigation by a commission of independent and nonpartisan investigators with no connection to government.

So, are you a fan of Oliver Stone’s film?

Actually Stone's film bored me. It was clear that Stone can make movies but he knew nothing about the assassination. But the film did rejuvenate public interest in the topic and this ultimately led to the passage of the JFK Records Act and the release of 4-5 million pages of documents relating to the JFK assassination, so on that level I have to say bravo to Oliver.      

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More Comments:

john a slover - 2/5/2008

Is it possible for the goverment to ojectively investigate any domestic event such as politcal assassinations or terrorist attacks.
Is the investgative outcome determined by national security concerns ?

Seana Rafferty-Hanson - 8/29/2006

Bravo Dr. McKnight. Kudos to one of my all-time favorite professors at Hood College. The book brings back many memories of: your course "The Politics of Assassination;" the session where Mr. Weisberg generously gave up an evening to speak with us after we had covered his "Whitewash" series about the Warren Commission (this was before the Weisberg Archive was available at the college); and the various theories held by scholars and the general public following the most influential of the 1960's assassinations.

I am so happy to see this work available for public consumption. I hope the book inspires them in the same way it inspired students who were fortunate enough to take your course. By "inspire" in this context, I mean that I hope it encourages people to delve below the surface of events. Your book offers up some answers, but it encourages the readers (just like your students) to dig deeper and ask questions.

Walter McElligott - 10/3/2005

Interesting info on the all too evident (to history) failures of the Warren Commission. IMHO, LBJ is still laughing at us, having gotten away w/ murdering a man from the family he despised from the beginning. Apparantly no one cares how lousy a pol but very good killer he was!

william e vanvugt - 10/3/2005

Three cheers for Gerald McKnight and the U.P of Kansas for publishing this work. I hope to see this book widely reviewed, though I doubt it because main journals seem to avoid books on the JFK assassination like the plague. Why, for example, was Jim Fetzer's excellent "Murder in Dealey Plaza" not touched by the journals--too controversial? (Fetzer, by the way, holds a chair at the University of Minnesota. I think it is time for professional historians to confront the Warren Commission--as McKnight has done--and get rid of the silly "lone-nut" theory that dominates college textbooks.)