“Within hours of the return of the president’s body to Washington, evidence about the assassination began to disappear from the government’s files.” Thus begins a thorough, fascinating and highly readable record of the details of the murder of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Philip Shenon, an investigative reporter who also wrote THE COMMISSION: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, has researched this book since 2008, making it one of the more impressive offerings in the 50th-year anniversary of that watershed event.
Shenon worked for the New York Times in 1963, a Washington correspondent who covered the White House. He has spared no effort to make this account both personal and fact-laden. In the first chapter, we learn that there were a multitude of important possible clues to the mystery of JFK’s murder that went sometimes literally down the tubes within hours. Marina Oswald and her mother-in-law burned family photos. Bloody sheets that covered the head of the victim were burned. And no one knows what happened to the president’s brain. Gory as the details sound, anyone who watches forensic dramas on cable TV knows that vital evidence was being destroyed.
"...a thorough, fascinating and highly readable record of the details of the murder of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.... one of the more impressive offerings in the 50th-year anniversary of that watershed event."
But just as significant were the reactions of the people around Kennedy, such as J. Edgar Hoover and Jack’s brother, Bobby, who had their own reasons for preventing disclosure. To Bobby, it seemed that delving too deeply would only keep Americans from moving forward on important initiatives like civil rights; for Hoover, it was obviously a question of covering up some bad work. How could the FBI have let an international operative slip through their net, a man known to have met with Cuban and Russian consular staff in Mexico, a man they had under surveillance, who was known to live in Dallas? It would be so much easier on the FBI and CIA to portray Oswald as “a lone wolf.” But over the years, the questions have festered, and grave doubt shrouds the accepted “truth” of the Warren Commission’s version of events.
Shenon bases some of his account on evidence offered by an impressive State Department employee, Charles William Thomas, who revealed his own investigation into Oswald’s backstory shortly after the assassination. The tale he told, of Oswald’s connection with Cubans in Mexico, could, Thomas believed, discredit the Warren Commission version. Later, Thomas, who had been “selected out” (state-department-ese for getting the boot), shot himself. Tracing the threads of Thomas’s explorations, to the point of going to Mexico himself, became Shenon’s quest. But this is not one person’s angry rant, far from it. The author keeps the murder mystery moving with hard facts, leaving the reader convinced that there was something rotten about the Commission’s report and flawed about Warren himself, who “has to be faulted for denying key evidence,” including the autopsy photos.
A CRUEL AND SHOCKING ACT will revive old theories and open some old wounds. As those directly connected with the events of November 1963 pass away, the real story may yet be pieced together. Shenon’s work has doubtless made a major and credible contribution to that process: honest, factual and far-reaching.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on November 8, 2013