From the November-December 1999 issue (Vol. 7 No. 1)

Edward Epstein: Warren Commission Critic?
 

By Jim DiEugenio

Edward Epstein was an early critic of the Warren Commission who has written three books on the Kennedy assassination and several articles on the same subject. Epstein went to Cornell where he majored in political science and was planning on becoming a teacher. But for his master’s thesis he hit upon the idea of writing about the internal problems of the Warren Commission on its way to their problematic conclusions about the Kennedy case. The book proposal was submitted to a publisher and six months later, in early 1966, it hit the bookstores and became a best-seller. Epstein then went on to Harvard and got his Ph. D. He taught for a short time at MIT and then later at UCLA before becoming a full-time writer. Since then he has served as a contributing editor to The New Yorker and written several books, most of them related to various aspects of intelligence work.

In the mid-sixties, while working on Inquest, Epstein got acquainted with the fledgling research community on the Kennedy case. At that time, it was quite small, consisting of perhaps 20-25 serious people who formed an internal network of meetings, phone calls, and correspondence. One of the prominent members of this network was Sylvia Meagher who lived in New York. Another was Vince Salandria who lived in Philadelphia. Epstein came into contact with both, especially Meagher. In fact, the late great critic actually helped index Inquest.

But it didn’t take long for both critics and the community itself, to become disenchanted with Epstein. It happened shortly after the publication of Inquest. For that project, Epstein had somehow obtained access to some important people involved with the Commission. As he described it in a radio interview with Larry King (2/28/79):

So I started by writing letters to the different people on the Warren Commission which included Gerald Ford…Allen Dulles, the former director of the CIA; Chief Justice Warren; senators, congressmen—and everyone, to my amazement, agreed to see me.

This is curious in itself. But on that same show Epstein expressed his intent in writing the book:

My book Inquest was really on a single problem—that the Warren Commission failed to find the truth, and there were two main reasons for that. One: they were acting under pressure…. And secondly, they had to rely on other agencies….And these agencies had themselves things to hide. So it was not a question of the Warren Commission being dishonest: it was a question that the way the investigation was organized, it would have been impossible for it to find an exhaustive truth.

Later, Epstein was asked by King:

King: First, should we have appointed a commission like the Warren Commission?

Epstein: Well,—yes—I believe that the men who served on the Warren Commission served in good faith.

Epstein has been consistent with this attitude ever since. That the Warren Commission did an unsatisfactory job, not because of any wrongdoing of its own, but because of the time constraints placed on them and because of secrets about Oswald that were hidden from them. Yet, Epstein insists they did get it right:

King: Did Oswald kill John Kennedy

Epstein: Yes, I believe he did.

King: Acting alone…in Dealey Plaza that day?

Epstein: I think he was the only rifleman….

What Epstein is saying is that although the Warren Commission was not an in-depth, exhaustive investigation, its ultimate conclusion—that Oswald shot JFK—was on the money. Secondly, as he stated on the King program, if there was a cover-up, it was a benign one. That is, the FBI and CIA should have known Oswald was a dangerous character from his recent activities. In reality, Epstein in Inquest was the first advocate of the thesis that the "errors" of the Warren Commission were done to cover up mistakes by the intelligence agencies in their surveillance of the dangerous Marxist Lee Oswald. This was the track taken decades later on the thirtieth anniversary of Kennedy’s death by journals like Newsweek and CIA related writers like Walter Pincus. This was done just before the Assassination Records and Review Board was about to disclose millions of pages of new documents that completely undermine this whole concept.

Best-Seller vs. Best Book

It is interesting to compare Epstein’s book with Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment. Lane’s book came out two months after Epstein’s. Although Epstein’s book sold well, Lane’s quickly and greatly surpassed it on the charts. As Epstein told King:

Well, my book, I was actually published…in April and Lane’s book was published in June, and Lane’s book became a sort of number one best-seller and Lane was on TV—and my book was a best-seller too, but it sort of faded away, and Lane’s book is remembered by everyone.

There is a likely reason for this. Lane’s book showed that the Commission could not have been working in good faith. He did this in two related ways. First, he brought into the gravest doubt every major conclusion of the Commission. Second, he showed that the Commission had in its hands evidence that contradicted their conclusions. (Sylvia Meagher did the same in her wonderful Accessories After the Fact, published in 1967.) And Meagher was quite disappointed in Epstein’s performance when it came to debating the opposition. In a letter she circulated in 1966, Meagher expressed her chagrin over a debate televised in New York between Epstein and Commission counsel Wesley Liebeler. She wrote privately that "Epstein was absolutely disastrous. I really let him have it the next morning and haven’t heard from him since. I learned later that at least three other people afterwards gave him a tongue-lashing for his extremely weak position, his capitulating and almost apologizing to Liebeler. (Letter of 8/30/66) On the other hand, when Lane debated Liebeler at UCLA on January 25, 1967, by most accounts he obliterated him.

The questions about Epstein deepened around the time of the Garrison investigation. First, Epstein’s voice appeared on a record album that accompanied the book The Scavengers and Critics of the Warren Report. This should not be passed over lightly, for this 1967 book was the first one to go after the critics on a personal and demeaning level, making them out to be a bunch of kooks and eccentrics who did what they did out of some psychological or other weirdness. Schiller was later exposed by declassified documents as being a chronic FBI informant on the Kennedy case. On the album, entitled The Controversy, Epstein joins in the ridicule of the critics. Around this same time period, Epstein appeared in a debate with Salandria, arguing the case against Oswald. Salandria was so outraged that after the debate, he asked if Epstein had gone over to the other side.

...

The rest of this article can be found in The Assassinations, edited by Jim DiEugenio and Lisa Pease.


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