A week after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, his successor, Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973), established a commission to investigate Kennedy’s death. After a nearly yearlong investigation, the commission, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren (1891-1974), concluded that alleged gunman Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963) had acted alone in assassinating America’s 35th president, and that there was no conspiracy, either domestic or international, involved.
Despite its seemingly firm conclusions, the report proved controversial and failed to silence conspiracy theories surrounding the event. Subsequent investigations have both supported and called into question the Warren Commission’s report.
Since Oswald was killed so soon after murdering Kennedy, his motive for the crime remained unknown. On November 29, 1963, Johnson established the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy in order to investigate his predecessor’s death. The commission was led by Chief Justice Warren, a former governor of California who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1953. The commission also included two U.S. senators, two U.S. representatives, a former CIA director and a former World Bank president.
During its almost yearlong investigation, the Warren Commission, as it was commonly known, reviewed reports by the FBI, Secret Service, Department of State and the attorney general of Texas, and also pored over Oswald's personal history, political affiliations and military record. The group listened to the testimony of hundreds of witnesses and traveled to Dallas several times to visit the site where Kennedy was shot.
In its 888-page report presented to Johnson on September 24, 1964 (and released to the public three days later), the commission concluded that the bullets that killed Kennedy and injured Connally were fired by Oswald in three shots from a rifle pointed out of a sixth-floor window in the Texas School Book Depository. Oswald's life, including a visit he made to the Soviet Union, was described in detail, but the report made no attempt to analyze his motives. Additionally, the commission found that the Secret Service had made poor preparations for Kennedy's visit to Dallas and had failed to sufficiently protect him, and concluded that Ruby had acted alone in killing Oswald.
Warren Commission Report proves controversial
The Warren Commission's conclusion that Oswald was a "lone gunman" failed to satisfy some who witnessed the attack and others whose research found conflicting details in the commission's report. A number of conspiracy theories arose, involving such disparate suspects as the Cuban and Soviet governments, organized crime, the FBI and CIA and even Johnson himself. Some critics of the Warren Commission's report believed that additional ballistics experts' conclusions and a home movie shot at the scene disputed the theory that three bullets fired from Oswald's gun could have caused Kennedy's fatal wounds as well as the injuries to the Texas governor.
In the late 1970s, the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) launched a new investigation into Kennedy’s death. In its final report, issued in 1979, the HSCA agreed with the Warren Commission’s findings that two bullets fired by Oswald had killed Kennedy and wounded Connally. However, the HSCA also concluded there was a high probability that a second gunman fired at Kennedy, and that the president was probably assassinated as a result of an unspecified conspiracy. The committee's findings, as with the those of the Warren Commission, continue to be debated.
The enormous volume of documentation from the Warren Commission was placed in the National Archives and much of it is now available to the public. However, access to Kennedy's autopsy records is highly restricted. To view them requires membership in a presidential or congressional commission or the permission of the Kennedy family.