Mailer and MacDonald: Rescuing The Warren Commission


For 50 years, critics of the Warren Commission have usually been associated with the Left. From Khrushchev to Oliver Stone (hardly a leap) have obviously sought a more politically satisfying sniper than the grubby deadbeat Oswald. With regard to the Warren Commission, it is merely a cover job designed to misdirect attention from the true conspirators onto Oswald.

But not all leftists attacked the conclusions of the Warren Commission. Two writers, a former Trotskyite, the other a former Communist supporter, came (sometimes reluctantly) to the conclusion that Oswald indeed acted alone.

Dwight MacDonald was once called the “Tommy Manville” (a 30s-era playboy famed for his many marriages) of the Left, but he was always unpredictable, and never more so than in a review of the Warren Commission. Because of his lonely stance against World War II, and his recoil from being called patriotic, one could not confidently expect the former Trotskyite to defend the Establishment.

Not that MacDonald is not critical of the Commission. He finds them clumsy and anal-retentive on superfluous matters (a study of Oswald’s pubic hair, for example). On their inability to nail down Oswald’s ideology, he laments that the group was packed to the eaves with lawyers who worshiped facts. What was needed, he argues, was historians who studied extremist movements (i.e Richard Hofstadter).

He also faults the Dallas Police, stating that given their preening before the cameras (the officer cuffed to Oswald before Ruby fired the fatal shot was smiling at a photographer) it was a miracle Oswald survived as long as he did.

He is at his best not when he documents the pratfalls of the Commission and Texas law enforcement, but when he takes on the conspiracy crowd and their attempts to come up with a more politically satisfying sniper than a hillbilly Castro lover. By portraying Kennedy as a liberal dove, they assert that the “leftist Oswald” would have no reason to murder him (Richard Nixon, they argue, would have been a better target). Having “dispensed” with any left-wing motivation, they argue that (a) Oswald was right-wing and/or (b) that he was part of a CIA/Hunt Oil/Birch Society group with a much better motive to kill such a Cold War dove.

With relentless logic, MacDonald detonates this theory; he argues that the liberal LBJ (much more liberal than Kennedy – he once stated that JFK was “much too conservative” for his taste) would have been delighted to air any assassination participation by his opponents on the Right–witness his unnecessary burying of their representative Barry Goldwater during the 1964 election.

MacDonald is equally effective on accepting that Oswald was a leftist and Kennedy was liberal and that still the former had a motive for killing the latter. MacDonald cites his own experiences in Trotskyite sects in which they were much more threatened by a liberal who was actually trying to humanize capitalism than a conservative willing to let the blemishes of the system continued. And Kennedy was hardly a Cold War dove; MacDonald pithily states that the President’s “detente was hardly detented”.

His friend and comrade on the barricades, Norman Mailer, hoped to find a conspiracy, but following the evidence, could not. In the underrated Oswald’s Tale, Mailer went in areas MacDonald did not. Mailer based his conclusion on Oswald’s reading list, particularly the politically incongruent Mein Kampf among the leftist literature. To Mailer, Oswald found inspiration in the rise of Hitler from seedy outcast to a world leader leaving his imprint on History.

Oswald imbibed from this work the belief that fate provided opportunities to be a great man. Hitler saw this in Germany’s dire straits–Oswald with Kennedy riding by his place of employment.

From there, Mailer attempted to fill the holes poked out of the Commission by the conspiracy camp. On the controversy surrounding Oswald’s perplexing marksmanship (he was generally rated a poor shot in the Marines, but was, on the day for classification, able to qualify in the Marksman category), Mailer accepts that Lee fired all three shots. A former infantry rifleman himself, Mailer argues that snipers have good days and bad days, and on Nov.22, Oswald had the former.

Addressing the damning issue of why the Dallas Police didn’t record Oswald’s interrogation–a standard procedure for law enforcement–Mailer argues that the interrogators didn’t want a record of any abuses that could exploited by the ACLU.

In the 50 years’ worth of assassination historiography, MacDonald and Mailer are rarely mentioned. The reason is twofold: (1) it fails to satisfy the political narrative of leftists and (2) it is unsettling to consider that a Marxist hillbilly could, in eight seconds, alter history.

Both MacDonald and Mailer were grown up enough to accept the latter.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.


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