Diane talks with Annie Lowrey, staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers economic policy.
The events of November 22, 1963, changed America. An eyewitness account of what happened in Dallas after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, what we know about the investigation and why it continues to stir debate today.
- Hugh Aynesworth Former reporter, Dallas Morning News. He's the author of "November 22, 1963: Witness to History," about his coverage of the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath.
- Bill Minutaglio Professor of journalism at the University of Texas, Austin, co-author with Steven L. Davis of, "Dallas 1963" (October 2013)
- Priscilla Johnson McMillan Former journalist and author of "Marina and Lee: The Tormented Love and Fatal Obsession Behind Lee Harvey Oswald's Assassination of John F. Kennedy."
- Philip Shenon Former journalist with "the New York Times and author of "A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of The Kennedy Assassination."
Condolence Letters To Jackie Kennedy
More than 1.5 million condolence letters and telegrams from around the world poured in to the White House after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Kennedy administration assistants separated certain “VIP” messages addressed to his widow from individuals such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Duke Ellington and Nikita Khruschchev. View a selection of the sympathy messages, including the reply card first lady Jacqueline Kennedy sent to each condolence letter she received. Click “full screen” to view the letters in detail.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. A new Gallup poll finds a majority of Americans still believe President John F. Kennedy's death was part of a conspiracy. In this hour, we talk about what happened in Dallas after JFK's assassination half a century ago, what we know now about the investigation into his death, and why America is still dealing with the aftermath of that day.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me here in the studio, Warren Commission staff member Howard Willens. He's author of the book titled "History Will Prove Us Right: Inside the Warren Commission Report on the Assassination of John F. Kennedy." Also here in the studio, former New York Times journalist Philip Shenon. He's the author of "A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination."
MS. DIANE REHMAnd joining us from a studio in Dallas, Texas, former Dallas Morning News reporter Hugh Aynesworth. He's the author of a new book about his coverage of the Kennedy assassination, titled "November 22, 1963: Witness to History." I know many of you have your own questions. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Welcome, gentlemen. Thank you for joining us.
MR. HOWARD WILLENSHello, Diane. Good morning.
MR. PHILIP SHENONGood morning.
MR. HUGH AYNESWORTHNice to be here.
REHMAnd Bill Minutaglio, author of "Dallas 1963," he's with the University of Texas at Austin -- is also with me here in the studio. And, Hugh Aynesworth, I gather you were one of the few reporters who covered the assassination who's still around. You were in Dealey Plaza as the president's motorcade passed that day. Tell us what you saw and heard.
AYNESWORTHWell, the -- Dallas had a bunch of people that were sort of mean far right extremists, and we worried somewhat about how president would be accepted. And that day all the haters stayed away because the crowd was just wild with glee -- and I was amazed -- eight or 10 deep. And I walked over from my office at the Dallas Morning News.
AYNESWORTHAnd I finally settled our visit with a couple people on the way and finally settled right beneath the Texas Schoolbook Depository. Had I looked up at one o'clock, I could have seen in the window. I didn't, however, but it was just so wild. Everyone was just ecstatic. And it was a beautiful -- little warmer than usual November day.
AYNESWORTHI remember the Kennedy car going by, and Jackie was so pretty. And she was so excited. And a few seconds later, I heard what I thought was a motorcycle backfire. Only it wasn't. That was the first shot and then a few seconds later a second and then a third. And, frankly, I didn't know what to do because chaos -- pandemonium was immediate.
AYNESWORTHPeople were running into each other. People were screaming. They were crying, throwing their children down and covering them. And, frankly, I didn't know what to do for a few seconds. But then I realized I had to start interviewing people, of course.
REHMAnd then came this announcement from Walter Cronkite.
MR. WALTER CRONKITEFrom Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1:00 p.m., Central Standard Time, two o'clock, Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.
REHMAnd, Philip Shenon, you as a former journalist with the New York Times, you begin your book "Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination" -- you begin that book with the suicide of Charles William Thomas. Who was he? What information did he have about Lee Harvey Oswald?
SHENONWell, Charles Thomas was a diplomat stationed in Mexico City in 1965. And he hears from a reliable source that apparently Oswald had been in Mexico City in the about seven weeks before the assassination, had been in the company of a young Mexican woman who worked in the Cuban consulate in Mexico City, and apparently they may have had an affair.
SHENONAnd Thomas thinks this is something that absolutely needs to be investigated. What was Oswald doing in the company of this woman? Why is he at parties in Mexico City? And he tries to report this up the line at the United States embassy in Mexico City to the CIA station chief in particular. And he hits a brick wall. Nobody wants to investigate. Nobody wants to go back at this.
SHENONAnd very quickly thereafter he finds his career derailed for what would later be blamed on a clerical error, but it appears that, you know, perhaps there may have been some connection between him trying to blow the whistle in Mexico City and his departure from the State Department. And two years after that, he commits suicide.
SHENONAnd it was a story I knew nothing about going into this book, but it does appear there is this whole missing chapter to the story of the Kennedy Assassination involving Lee Harvey Oswald's very mysterious visit there seven weeks before the assassination.
REHMAnd, Bill Minutaglio, in your book "Dallas 1963," do you see the connection between Lee Harvey Oswald and his visit to Mexico?
MR. BILL MINUTAGLIOI think it's part of a cloth. A lot of folks who have analyzed Oswald said he wanted to leave a footprint in history, and he was horribly disappointed when he had defected as a Marine marksman to the Soviet Union. And the world didn't come to a halt, that, you know, people didn't revolve around this episode.
MR. BILL MINUTAGLIOAnd he kind of slunk back to Texas and resumed his life and then was thrust into this hot house, this environment of swirling hysteria that really a fanatical extreme -- a handful of people would seize the microphone. People lived above the cloud line in espousing Kennedy hatred.
MR. BILL MINUTAGLIOAnd I think a malleable, impressionable guy like Oswald, who's prone to violence, is brutalizing his wife, and had previously tried to assassinate someone -- Gen. Walker in Dallas -- that you thrust him into this circumstance, and he presumed that he could play on the national and international stage and really almost rewrite history.
REHMAnd, Hugh Aynesworth, describe for us the hunt for Oswald that began immediately after the assassination. You saw some of that.
AYNESWORTHWell, the -- immediately, I saw a man pointing up to that window, and he was -- he said, he's up there, he's up there. And I ran to him, and this was the only eyewitness. And he gave a perfect description, and that probably -- when it did go out as an all-points bulletin, and that probably was the reason that the Officer Tippit had stopped Oswald, oh, a few minutes later over in Oak Cliff.
AYNESWORTHAnd I remember thinking, if someone shoots at the motorcade here, and three or four miles away, somebody shoots a cop, probably there's a good chance could be connected. But we hadn't connected it that fast. Then there was a chase for Oswald in Oak Cliff. There were people that saw him shoot the officer, saw him run from the scene. A couple of them even tried to follow him.
AYNESWORTHAnd we went a couple places where they thought he might be, and he wasn't. And then I heard on a police radio, there's a suspect in the Texas Theater. So I ran the seven or eight blocks to there, got in the theater just a few minutes before the police captured. As I opened the door, I saw four or five officers coming toward me up the two aisles. Couple of them were uniformed. The others weren't.
AYNESWORTHAnd they jumped on Oswald. Oswald was about 15 feet from me in the third row from the back. And they said he said, well, it's all over now. But, of course, it wasn't all over now because he pulled a pistol out of his belt and tried to kill Officer Nick McDonald. But it was a wild thing. It was a flurry. They jumped on him, four or five people.
AYNESWORTHI only heard him say one thing. He said, I protest this police brutality. And they got him out of there real fast. And somehow I guess the radio had covered it real well that they were searching in there because there were there or 400 people out there chiming, let us have him.
REHMIndeed. And in fact Oswald came out saying, I didn't shoot anybody. I didn't do anything. Phil, now, what happens is that Oswald is taken into custody. There is an incredible event that occurs, and we hear in fact the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1There is the person.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2There is Lee Oswald. He's been shot. He's been shot. Lee Oswald has been shot. There's a man with a gun. It's absolute panic, absolute panic. We are in the base of the Dallas Police Headquarters. Detectives have their guns drawn. Oswald has been shot. There is no question about it. Oswald has been shot.
REHMAnd, Phil Shenon, what did you make of that?
SHENONWell, that is the birth of a million conspiracy theories. And the shooter was a local strip club owner by the name of Jack Ruby. And Ruby would claim that he killed Oswald because he wanted to avenge a man he loved, President Kennedy and the Kennedy family. And he wanted to prevent Mrs. Kennedy from having to return to Dallas for a trial.
SHENONBut, of course, the fact that the president's assassin was himself assassinated, I say, just is what gives birth to a million conspiracy theories that something was being hidden, something was being silenced, that Ruby had been dispatched to make sure Oswald never divulged the conspiracy.
MINUTAGLIOYou know what was extraordinary right after the assassination? Phones began ringing at the Dallas Morning News. And housewives in Dallas were calling up and saying, I'm afraid that my husband might have been the assassin. Confusion obviously reigned.
REHMBill Minutaglio, his new book is titled "Dallas 1963." Short break. When we come back, more of our conversation, your calls. Stay with us.
REHMAnd joining me here in the studio for our two-hour special on the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Philip Shenon. He's a former journalist with The New York Times and author of "A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination." Also Bill Minutaglio, his book is titled "Dallas 1963." On the line with us is Hugh Aynesworth, former reporter with the Dallas Morning News, author of a new book about his coverage of the Kennedy assassination. It's titled "November 22, 1963: Witness to History."
REHMI, too, was a witness to history. At the time, my husband was the first general counsel of the U.S. Trade Representative that happened to be Gov. Christian Herter. And on the night of the assassination, we got a telephone call inviting us to come to the East Room of the White House to pay tribute to the president before the casket was moved to the Capitol Rotunda.
REHMI shall never forget that evening as long as I live. And turning to you now, Phil Shenon, you call the Warren Commission's investigation into JFK's assassination the most important and most misunderstood homicide investigation of the 20th century. How much truth has been told? And how much do we still not now?
SHENONWell, it's remarkable to realize that the Warren Commission is formed seven days after the assassination, and it finishes its work nine months later with many, many questions unanswered. And we pay the price for that today because there were so many gaps in the Warren Commission investigation that people have filled in those gaps with their conspiracy theories.
SHENONAnd I do draw a distinction between the seven members of the Warren Commission led by Chief Justice Warren. I think it has to be argued that they did not do a good job. They did not ask many questions that should have been asked, and they didn't get the answers they needed.
SHENONWell, what happened in Mexico City? We now know from the documentary record that Oswald was under surveillance by the CIA in Mexico City. He's meeting with Cuban spies and Russian spies and Mexicans who are very sympathetic to Castro. And we know, too, that the CIA and the FBI chose not to investigate what happened down there because it might well expose how much they had really known about Oswald before the assassination.
REHMAnd to you, Bill Minutaglio, what do you think are the questions that should have been asked that were not asked?
MINUTAGLIOWell, I think Dallas just -- because it's where the death had occurred -- spawned a lot of, you know, unexplored avenues. Dallas had been the bastion of the anti-Kennedy resistance. And I think initially there was this knee-jerk sense that surely right wing extremists had been involved. And there was some aggressive investigation, I think, at least on the ground there, perhaps even by citizens.
MINUTAGLIOYou know, H.L. Hunt, who had been funding the anti-Kennedy resistance, was ordered by the FBI to leave town because they told him, people are going to assassinate you. They think you are behind it. And to it, some folks, right in the wake of the assassination, went to his house and began firing guns at it. Gen. Walker, who had also been leading the anti-Kennedy resistance from his headquarters in Dallas, happened to have gotten the news out while traveling America on an airplane.
MINUTAGLIOHe stood up and walked up and down the aisles and said -- after the pilot had announced that the president had died in Dallas -- I need the contact information for everybody on the plane to prove that I wasn't involved, that I was, you know, flying around the nation. So there were a lot of things at play. And even, you know, organized crime, the fact that Bobby Kennedy had been very aggressive in looking at organized crime in Dallas. So the investigation began moving in a lot of different directions.
REHMPhil, you say that much of the truth about the assassination has yet to be told, that much of the evidence was either covered up or destroyed, shredded, incinerated or erased by the CIA, the FBI, and others in power in Washington. What's your proof of this?
SHENONWell, there is so much proof of this. The evidence begins disappearing within hours of the president's death.
SHENONThe night after his death, the Navy pathologist who conducted the president's autopsy is at his home in Bethesda, Md. apparently destroying the draft autopsy report and all of his notes from the autopsy room. He says he does this because they are stained with the president's blood, and he doesn't want them appearing in some, you know, ghoulish museum someday.
SHENONBut when the Warren Commission investigators learn of that, they think, even if that is indeed the explanation and an innocent one, it will give birth to a million conspiracy theories.
REHMWhat about the FBI, the CIA, and the Secret Service? Was there lying that went on?
SHENONOh, a tremendous amount of lying. And, again, a tremendous amount of evidence destruction. I mean, that same weekend -- President Kennedy dies on a Friday -- that Sunday in Dallas, FBI agents are shredding a handwritten note that Oswald had left for them three weeks earlier. Oswald had been in the Dallas office of the FBI leaving behind this note. On that Sunday, it is shredded and flushed down a toilet, so we'll never know exactly what was in it and what it was that Oswald was trying to communicate to the FBI.
SHENONAnd, again, that is just the start. I mean, the evidence destruction goes on and on and on, and much of it in Mexico City as well where there may have well been photographs of Oswald taken by the CIA. There appear to have been -- there were tape recordings of Oswald's telephone conversations. And all of that evidence would also disappear.
REHMDo you reach a conclusion that there was a conspiracy at least of silence?
SHENONWell, there was certainly an effort to hide the truth about what the CIA and the FBI had really known about Lee Harvey Oswald. I really come out of this very convinced that President Kennedy's death was preventable and might have been easily prevented if somebody had just connected the dots -- the old expression from 9/11.
SHENONThe information was sitting in the FBI files and the CIA files, showing that Oswald was a threat and that he might be a threat in particular to the president of the United States. If anybody had went and gone -- if anybody had gone and questioned Oswald the night before, the world would be a different place today.
REHMHugh Aynesworth, how do you weigh in on that?
AYNESWORTHWell, I think it certainly could have been preventable. The FBI knew of his complete background and his defection to Russia. They didn't tell the Dallas police. They didn't tell the Secret Service. And there he was in an open window on the motorcade. So and that certainly could have been prevented. And the cover-up later just became massive, as Phil said.
AYNESWORTHThe -- so many records are gone, and for what reason, you know? They must have known that everybody would scrutinize this because the conspiracy theories had already begun. And they began that first day or two. I saw it moving that way. When they brought he rifle out, said it's a Mannlicher-Carcano. No doubt about that.
AYNESWORTHA deputy constable said, oh, that looks like a Mauser. Well, 20, 30 reporters reported that. AP, UPI put it out all over the world. And then people said, yeah, they're lying to us. See, they're lying about what rifle it is. And the sheriff was asked, well, how did he get to Oak Cliff? And sheriff said, well, he took a taxicab.
AYNESWORTHWell, you know, the question right immediately was, who's the cab driver? We want to interview him. And he said, he was Darryl Click. We found out there had never been in the history of Texas -- not just Dallas -- any cab driver named close to Darryl Click. And even J. Edgar Hoover was completely off on his facts when he was dealing with LBJ in the day and two days afterward. He told him many things that were wrong. He should have known better.
MINUTAGLIOI couldn't agree more with my colleagues. It could have been prevented and, you know, to it, April of 1963, Oswald had tried to assassinate someone else. He tried to kill Gen. Walker and came within a whisker of doing so. He crept into an alleyway with his rifle, and the bullet grazed Walker's head. Walker called it an assassination attempt.
MINUTAGLIOIt was in a very affluent part of town. It was carefully mapped out. There was, you know, detailed evidence showing that Oswald had this plan. Yet the investigation never really went forward, and that raises even more questions. Was it just a lax law enforcement community? Or perhaps something else -- the people were predisposed, even constitutionally, to not pursue Oswald or other assassins in that city?
REHMAnd that must be, as you put it, Phil, it must be the start and continuation of the conspiracy theories. If, in fact, it was preventable, why was it not prevented?
SHENONWell, you know, shades of 9/11 that the information is sitting in government files, but because of, you know, very basic level incompetence or laziness. Somebody didn't bother to read the records. You know, there is this incredible document that I found in my research, and it's, I think, easily the most jaw-dropping government document I've ever seen.
SHENONAnd it's a letter from J. Edgar Hoover to the Warren Commission in June 1964, right in the middle of the Warren Commission investigation, in which Hoover reveals that the FBI has learned reliably that while Oswald is in Mexico, he goes into a Cuban embassy -- excuse me, he goes to the Communist embassy and almost certainly the Cuban embassy and makes the statement, I'm going to kill President Kennedy.
SHENONNow if the Warren Commission had known about this document, you would think they would have many, many questions about who in Mexico City heard that and did anybody in Mexico City encourage Oswald to act on that when he went back to Dallas? And it appears that document disappears. It never reaches the investigators on the Warren Commission who should have seen it because I have shown it to them, and they're convinced they never saw it at the time. Why would a document like that disappear?
REHMHow do you answer that question?
SHENONI don't know. Though I do think there was a real effort to hide what happened in Mexico City because, again, I think the CIA and the FBI knew much more about Oswald and the threat that he posed before the assassination than they ever wanted to admit because, of course, they would be blamed that they had the evidence. They might have saved the president, and they didn't act on it.
REHMSo you're not in any way accusing the FBI, the CIA of somehow being complicit in the assassination. You are accusing them of not having done their jobs.
SHENONAbsolutely. Incompetence at the most basic level. But, again, it is remarkable to discover that actually the similarities between 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination are pretty great, that the government had the evidence that might have prevented the tragedy.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And now joining us by phone is Priscilla Johnson McMillan. She's a former journalist, author of "Marina and Lee: The Tormented Love and Fatal Obsession behind Lee Harvey Oswald's Assassination of John F. Kennedy." Priscilla, you are one of the few people who met both President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Tell us how.
MS. PRISCILLA JOHNSON MCMILLANWell, I thank you for having me, Diane.
MCMILLANI worked for President Kennedy in 1953 very briefly as his researcher on Indo-China. He was interested in whether the United States should use its appropriations to the French under the Marshall Plan to get them to leave Indo-China. And I worked for him in May -- April and May of 1953, and...
REHMI see. Yeah. Later, I gather, working in Moscow as a journalist, you actually interviewed Oswald during his attempt to defect to the Soviet Union. Is that correct?
MCMILLANRight. He wanted Soviet citizenship, and I interviewed him for about four hours in November 1959.
REHMAnd how did he behave during that interview?
MCMILLANHe was very subdued and quiet, and, every now and then, a little bit of anger came through.
REHMAnd what was your reaction when you heard his name associated with the assassination?
MCMILLANWhen I heard his name associated, I could hardly believe it because he'd been so quiet when I met him and because I never thought he would have been able to travel back from the Soviet Union to the United States.
REHMThat's a very interesting point. You also got to know his wife Marina. And I wonder whether you believe she had any idea that he was planning to assassinate the president.
MCMILLANMarina Oswald had no idea that he was part of his plans. But the night before the assassination, what would be exactly 50 years ago tonight, he asked her to move into Dallas with him. And he said he would find an apartment for them to live in the next day.
REHMWhat was her reaction when she learned that the president had been killed, and the shots came from the building where Lee Harvey Oswald had worked?
MCMILLANShe immediately feared that it was her husband, and she went into the garage of the people she was staying with to look at where the rifle was kept. And the rifle looked -- it looked as though the rifle was there wrapped in a blanket. But no sooner had she looked at it then the lawn of the people's house was filled up with Secret Service men.
MCMILLANThey went to the blanket, and it hung loosely. She knew the rifle wasn't there, and she knew the rest.
REHMDo you believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone?
MCMILLANI believe he acted alone and that he was incapable of doing anything with anybody.
REHMPriscilla Johnson McMillan, and I thank you for joining us today. Short break. And when we come back, your calls, your questions. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back on this fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. We have been bringing you a special two-hour program. Here in the studio, Philip Shenon. He's former journalist with The New York Times, author of "A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination."
REHMHugh Aynesworth is on the line with us. He's a former reporter with the Dallas Morning News. He's author of a new book. It's titled "November 22, 1963: Witness to History." Bill Minutaglio's new book is titled "Dallas 1963." And joining us now is Howard Willens. He's the only living member of the three-person supervisory staff at the Warren Commission.
REHMHe's author of the book titled "History Will Prove Us Right: Inside the Warren Commission Report on the Assassination of John F. Kennedy." Howard Willens, welcome to you. You believe that the Warren Commission's report was complete and accurate and will continue to be held as the accurate report?
WILLENSWell, thank you very much for having me on the show.
WILLENSI appreciate the opportunity to talk about my book because the most important issue is one raised by your question. And that is I do describe the work of the Warren Commission. I admit some mistakes were made, but I represent that the findings of the Warren Commission have withstood the test of time because, unaddressed by many other authors, there is an extensive history to the Warren Commission report and its findings.
WILLENSSome of the most critical findings were re-examined in 1968, in 1975, in 1978, for example, with respect to the autopsy materials and the course of the two bullets that hit the men in the car. So there was a mistake made by the Warren Commission in not making those documents available to the witnesses who testified before us in 1964. It was not an unreasonable decision at the time, which I could go into in more detail.
REHMTell me why those documents and that testimony was not considered.
WILLENSYes. I will gladly do so. It all results from a mistake that the chief justice made inadvertently when he responded to inquiries from probing reporters when he began to approach the Warren Commission building to take the testimony of our first witness, the wife of Lee Harvey Oswald. The reporters who were waiting for the chief justice to walk over from his court asked him, when and will we be able to see her testimony?
WILLENSAnd he said, yes, but maybe not in your lifetime, and went on to describe the fact that some materials might have to be withheld for national security reasons. Well, his comment about not in your lifetime was quickly seized by everyone as evidencing a disinclination to make public all of our work. So what he concluded from that experience -- and we put out a short press release as a result of that comment.
WILLENSHe concluded that whatever was shown to a witness had to be made part of the public record. Now we on the staff, in retrospect, disagree with that because we think materials could have been shown to a witness but not necessarily be made part of the public record if some of the photos were too offensive and for that reason might be withheld. So that was his rationale. And when I talked about this with the attorney general, he agreed that the materials could be made available to the chief justice.
REHMPhilip Shenon, do you want to talk about that?
SHENONWell, you know, actually, Howard's getting at an interesting point and an important one, which is that the real detective work of the Warren Commission is done by these mostly very young lawyers who are real hotshots like Howard, who are recruited from around the country to come to Washington to get to the bottom of the assassination.
SHENONAnd many of them come to Washington believing there was a conspiracy and are eager to find it, if it existed. And they find themselves up against these bureaucracies like the CIA and the FBI that are determined to hide evidence from them. And also, we have a series of, I think, pretty disastrous mistakes made by the chief justice in managing the investigation, including this decision not to allow the staff to see the president's autopsy photos.
SHENONThe staff fights for those autopsy photos. They say they are the essential medical evidence needed by the staff to do its job. But the chief justice refuses. You know, he's...
SHENONThe chief justice, you know, he loved President Kennedy. He adored the Kennedy family. He makes a series of decisions that seem to be designed to protect the privacy of the Kennedy family, to certainly preserve the legacy of President Kennedy, even if that means not all the facts are gathered.
REHMAnd does that in and of itself contribute to the idea...
SHENONWell, it contributes to the idea that something's missing here. And the staff is not allowed to see the autopsy photos because the chief justice takes one look at them and sees how awful they are and says that nobody will see them, none of the staff, none of the other commissioners. And mistakes were made in the autopsy room that night. And because the photos were denied to the staff, a lot of these mistakes couldn't be detected at the time. And we now live with many, many conspiracy theories about the condition of the president's body in the autopsy.
WILLENSI disagree with that very strongly. I think blaming the chief justice for mistakes made in the investigation is wholly wrong and misjudges the man and the total commitment he made to ascertain the facts. As I just said, the decision of the attorney general, on behalf of the family, was to let the chief justice see the documents.
WILLENSThe critical question is not whether the members of the staff saw the documents. The critical question is whether the autopsy doctors themselves, while testifying, could give fair and complete testimony without having those materials in front of them. And one of the doctors said, in response to a question from the chief justice, yes, I can give complete and truthful testimony without having those reports available.
REHMHoward, before you arrived, both Phil Shenon and Bill Minutaglio were talking about Oswald's visit to Mexico and the fact that the CIA knew, the FBI knew, and that the extent of his visit to perhaps a communist Cuban embassy there in Mexico was not fully reported to the Warren Commission, that that information was withheld from the FBI -- by the FBI and the CIA. To what extent do you believe the Warren Commission got the full picture about Lee Harvey Oswald?
WILLENSI don't think anyone will ever have the full picture of how Lee Harvey Oswald spent every hour of each of the four-plus days he was in Mexico City. But there has not been one fact that has come to light with respect to his stay in Mexico City that gives any credibility to conspiracy theories, such as those conjured up in recent books about the CIA, the Cuban intelligence mechanism.
WILLENSAnd I think the suggestion about Oswald's dalliance with the glamorous Mexican clerk is simply a fantasy. And that matter was subsequently investigated at length by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978. It was investigated further by Vincent Bugliosi in his book. And the consensus was that the witnesses were not telling the truth. And when given the opportunity, Miss Garrow and her daughter were provided with paid-for tickets to come testify before the House Select Committee, and they declined to come.
SHENONLet me offer a fact. The CIA station chief in Mexico City, a guy by the name of Winston Scott, tells the Warren Commission he sees no evidence of the conspiracy in Mexico City. He sees, you know, that there's nothing all that -- there's not that much more to be investigated in Mexico City involving Oswald
SHENONAnd it turns out that the same man -- Winston Scott writes his memoirs. And in his memoirs, many years later, declassified many years later, he says exactly the opposite, that he thought there might well have been a conspiracy and that Oswald might have been somebody's agent and that that might be related to the assassination.
MINUTAGLIOYou know, I think you have to look at things contextually. People in the wake of the assassination brought a lot of their political feelings, just their feelings for the president to bare. And I think it shapes the entire dialogue. African Americans in Dallas, I can talk about particularly, suspected that there was some conspiracy to squelch the Civil Rights movement. And so people began approaching it from different perspectives. And I think, you know, really extreme and intense conspiracy theories did evolve.
REHMAll right. I'm going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850, first to Lorraine in Tampa, Fla. You're on the air.
LORRAINEHi. Hi, Diane. I love your show.
LORRAINEI just wanted to say that President Kennedy was here in Tampa four days before he was assassinated -- and from what I've read in the paper -- in an effort to win the south. And he had a wonderful day here. We've just celebrated the 50th anniversary of his visit here on Nov. 18. Somebody local did a documentary, interviewed people who were in law enforcement, officials who were still around who...
REHMAll right. OK.
LORRAINE...protected him, met him, and it was a wonderful euphoric day.
LORRAINETampa loved him, and we felt that he loved us back. And they want to -- and we had hoped -- people in retrospect are saying that they hoped that what happened here would have happened in Dallas. I wasn't able to go see him. I had planned to 'cause he was my hero. And I was madly in love with him.
REHMAll right. Did you have a question, Lorraine?
REHMYes. I just finished reading an article in the paper about a man who was one of Ted Kennedy's best friends, and he has written a couple of books about the Kennedys. And he says that he thinks that it was the mafia who was responsible for President Kennedy's death because of Bobby Kennedy's efforts to go after the mafia (unintelligible) thought.
REHMAll right. Phil Shenon, do you agree?
SHENONWell, I mean, the mafia conspiracy theories have been out there almost from the start because the Kennedy Administration had been the first to really take aim at the American crime families. And Robert Kennedy Jr., the attorney general's, the former senator's son said earlier this year that his father disagreed with the Warren Commission and that he thought President Kennedy had been killed either by Castro or by the mafia or by some rogue element of the CIA.
WILLENSI think that people just spilling out rumors about discontent with the report or feeling that the mafia did it all conveniently ignore the fact that all of these potential conspiracies were explored in depth by the House Select Committee in 1978. They had…
REHMBut didn't they come to something of a different conclusion about the assassination?
WILLENSWell, yes, in one respect they did. But on the point raised by the questioner, with respect to the mafia or Cuba or the Soviet Union or the CIA or the FBI, the Select Committee did a much more extensive investigation than we were able to do for many reasons. They had technology available that we did not. And they concluded that there was no evidence of a conspiracy involving any of those institutions or organizations.
SHENONI think that's right. I think that's right. And they -- you know, in fact, the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the 1970s, until the 11th hour, was largely going to support the findings of the Warren Commission. And it's only because of some faulty acoustical evidence that comes forward at the 11th hour that they make the determination that there was a conspiracy. I think, unfortunately, other scientists who have reviewed the evidence believe that that acoustical evidence was just wrong.
REHMExplain that acoustical evidence.
SHENONWell, it seemed to suggest there had to be a second shooter in Dealey Plaza. As I say, that acoustical evidence, when it was reviewed by many other scientists, was largely discredited.
REHMHugh Aynesworth, do you want to speak about that?
AYNESWORTHWell, I'd like to. You know, that was on the basis of a police recording. And there was supposed to have been an open mic in Dealey Plaza. I guarantee you that you can't hear any shots on that tape. And I guarantee you if anyone in Dealey Plaza or close could have heard the shots that day. There's no way. We found out later that the motorcycle with the open mic was really at the Trade Mart, not Dealey Plaza.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Phil, are there documents that remain regarding the Kennedy assassination that are still classified that would help us better understand exactly what happened that day?
SHENONRemarkably, there are still apparently 1,100 documents that are classified to this day that somehow relate to the Kennedy assassination. And I can't, for the life of me, see why anything about this should continue to be classified at this point. And a local, very fine journalist by the name of Jefferson Morley is now fighting to get these documents released.
REHMDo you have any idea what could be in those documents?
SHENONWell, they involve individuals who worked for the CIA in the early 1960s and who were involved with anti-Castro exile groups, the personal papers of some of the CIA employees in Mexico City. I had always assumed that somehow these would involve people who might still be alive, who might have been affiliated with the CIA years ago and whose safety might be at risk if they were identified. But I don't think that's a good argument at this point. It just feeds to the conspiracy theories.
REHMWhat about that?
WILLENSI tend to agree with Mr. Shenon on that point. I think what's likely to be withheld most would be identification of sources or relatives of sources whose reputations, if not lives, might be threatened. But I agree that all the documents should be available. But I think it's important to note that there are four to 5 million pages of documents available with respect to the assassination.
WILLENSAnd after 49 years, I think it is most unlikely that there was any kind of a conspiracy involving either Oswald or Ruby that has remained hidden. And even if all the documents were disclosed, the conspiracy theorists would still say, what remains to be revealed and what has been destroyed, that would have opened up our eyes to the real truth.
REHMAnd, of course, the killing of Oswald by Jack Ruby is something that people still look at and think, he silenced him forever.
SHENONAbsolutely. And you have to believe that if Jack Ruby had not killed Oswald, we would not be living with all these conspiracy theories 'cause there would have been a trial of Oswald. The case would have been reviewed in great detail. Oswald would have had the chance to make his own defense to offer evidence that might point away from him. I'd say it's really Jack Ruby who's deprived us of the catharsis we would have had from a trial.
REHMDo you believe that?
WILLENSI basically agree with that. If there had been a trial, we would have learned more about Oswald's activities and also his motives. And the lack of a clear fixed motive for Oswald's action, I think that it is the trigger to so many conspiracy theories. People are looking for a reason that they can understand.
WILLENSAnd if there were conspiracy of the FBI, CIA, or whomever, then it would be clearer of what the program was and what the object was in killing the president. Lacking that motive -- and no one's been able to fix on it with any certainty -- I think we have the conspiracy theories are flourishing.
AYNESWORTHYes. And we -- it's hard for us to accept and realize that two nobodies could change the course of history. But they did.
REHMHugh Aynesworth, former reporter for the Dallas Morning News. His book is titled "November 22, 1963: Witness to History." Philip Shenon, his book is titled "A Cruel and Shocking Act," Bill Minutaglio, his "Dallas 1963," and Howard Willens, "History Will Prove Us Right," thank you all. And thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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