John Kelin says that he is not very political, that he is first and foremost a writer. It is in that capacity that he tells the extraordinary story of a small, determined group of private citizens who independently investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and demonstrated the flaws in the official verdict.
The title of his book is Praise from a Future Generation (Wings Press, 2007), but Kelin says the book is not really a tribute but an untold story from recent American history. The book’s subjects have had an enormous impact on public opinion over the years, but they are largely unknown today. With the 44th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination upon us, Kelin hopes to change that.
The book’s title was adapted from a laudatory editorial about these earliest skeptics that appeared in 1966 in the journal “The Minority of One”:
“To them belongs the praise of future generations. One day there may even prevail an appreciation that, had the nation shared the moral fiber of these few individuals, catastrophic developments to ourselves and other nations would have been averted.”
John Kelin was seven years old on the day of John F. Kennedy’s death. He resides in Colorado with his wife and two children.
How did you become interested in the Kennedy assassination case?
My interest goes back to about 1976, when I attended a lecture by Mark Lane. Before that I hadn’t given the assassination that much thought. Lane was a criminal defense attorney who had been asked by Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother to represent her deceased son before the Warren Commission. Lane eventually authored Rush To Judgment, published in 1966. He turned me around completely. He showed the Zapruder film that night. It was so obvious that the president was hit from the right front. The Warren Report, of course, says that Oswald was firing from behind.
By the mid-1990s I was going to some of the conferences that are held in Dallas each year. There were then, and are now, two conferences held in Dallas every fall concerning the assassination. In 1998 I met Vincent Salandria at one of them. Vince is an attorney from Philadelphia and one of the earliest critics of the Warren Report. A year or so later he asked me if I would be interested in having all of his correspondence related to the assassination. He said his wife would just burn it all after he was dead, and he was only half joking. Of course, I said yes. This raw material got me interested in researching these early critics; I could see the broad outlines of a story that needed telling.
Salandria’s voluminous correspondence provides a foundation for your book. What was it like to look through all of that material?
Salandria had been in touch with just about all of the early critics. In reading their correspondence, these individuals, who before that had only been names to me, became real people. It was fascinating to see the evolution of their thinking, their initial suspicions, and their growing certainties about what had happened in Dallas. I should perhaps add that the book is not just a collection of letters.
Salandria looms large in this group. Surely Sylvia Meagher is another outstanding individual. On her own, she put together the index for the Warren Report’s 26 volumes of evidence.
Meagher does stand out as a person of remarkable intelligence and integrity.
The Warren Commission’s official published evidence was very poorly organized. The Commission published a single volume report in September 1964, and two months later a twenty-six-volume set of Hearings and Exhibits. Meagher said that without a subject index, searching through this material was a classic needle-in-a-haystack situation. She wrote, “It would be tantamount to a search for information in the Encyclopedia Britannica if the contents were untitled, unalphabetized, and in random sequence.”
So Meagher created a subject index for the entire set of books. She did it on her own, in her spare time — she was then working full time at the World Health Organization. This, of course, was an era before the personal computer, and it took her about a year. She did it without a publishing contract or any certainty it would be used by anyone other than herself.
Meagher’s subject index is literally just that: an index, with no real commentary. For anyone researching this data, which at this late date would be mostly historians, it’s indispensable.
Meagher’s other great work is a book called Accessories After the Fact. For the purpose of demonstrating the Warren Report’s errors, it is the best book on the case. I use the word “errors” advisedly, since we can only speculate on the motives of the Warren Commission and the staff members who wrote the report. I hope people who read my book get curious about the work of the early critics and track down copies of books like Accessories.
Are these individuals heroic, or simply citizens who took their citizenship seriously?
I think most of them would cringe at the suggestion that they were heroes. I think they were doing what they felt they had to do. They took their citizenship seriously.
Ray Marcus, another early critic mentioned in the book, has said it was simply common sense that led him to understand that something was wrong with the lone-nut story. On the very day of the assassination, authorities were already saying that they had the assassin, and that he had acted alone. Ray said that at that early juncture, they couldn’t possibly know they had their man. What homicide investigator would say that a homicide case was closed in less than 24 hours? Common sense told Marcus something was wrong, that something monstrous and evil was happening. He couldn’t sit on the sidelines and watch for answers that might not come.
Harold Weisberg, who is also a first-generation critic, often said that JFK’s death was never given a proper murder investigation.
Yes, Weisberg pointed to a document written by Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach two days after the assassination. This document, which was a memo to LBJ aide Bill Moyers, says something like, “The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin.” Not “We have to find out every detail of what happened,” but that they have to convince the public that Oswald was the guy. Weisberg said that’s evidence that the government never really intended to honestly investigate the crime.
Some of these folks were subjected to public ridicule and humiliation. How did they handle that?
Of course there was some anger and resentment. In 1966 there were these two writers who said they were doing an objective study of the critics versus the official story. Instead, they produced a mean-spirited hatchet job. Most of the critics felt they had been duped. Some chose to ignore it, some talked about suing, some wrote angry letters.
This sort of ridicule continues even now. Recently a book reviewer in The New York Times stated Warren Commission critics should be marginalized.
That was in a review of Vincent Bugliosi’s new book, essentially a defense of the Warren Report. This begs the question: Why does the Warren Report still need backup? Bugliosi, in his introduction, says that most books about JFK’s death focus on the conspiracy, so he says that books arguing against conspiracy are needed to balance the debate.
I don’t think that there should be a “debate” on this question, not at this late date. It serves no constructive purpose and reduces a vital issue to a parlor game. Which is not to suggest that I think that there is any chance of solving the case in the usual sense. But I think it is solved, in a sense. Some of these early critics did enough work to show us what really happened.
Is there a specific element of integrity or determination that sustained the early critics?
I think integrity and determination were things they all had in common. As time went by, what held their little group together was their common objective: to get the case re-opened. My book is not hagiography. These critics weren’t saints. There were plenty of disagreements and infighting.
In summation, why is this subject still important?
A lot of people today do not consider the assassination relevant. But I think it is, and for several reasons. There is the matter of historical truth, and the truth is that the Warren Report is a false document. I think that’s easy to demonstrate. But that raises other questions, such as: Was the report deliberately false? And if so, why?
If it’s false, then there was a conspiracy to assassinate a duly elected chief executive. So what does that mean about the state of our democracy?
Consider our history from the time of Kennedy’s assassination up to today. A chief executive was publicly executed in broad daylight on the streets of a major American city. One of his successors, Richard Nixon, was removed from office in disgrace in 1974. Nixon’s replacement, Gerald Ford, was our first unelected president; he happened to have been a member of the Warren Commission. More recently we’ve witnessed two hotly disputed presidential elections. Another election is on the horizon. Our democracy is in jeopardy. This is not a finished story.