If I told you what I really know, it would be very dangerous to the country. Our whole political system could be disrupted. ~ J. Edgar Hoover, 1964
As you might guess, Hoover expressed his I’ve got a secret solicitude for our country’s safety in connection with the FBI’s investigation of John F. Kennedy’s murder. He made the remark over lunch, to Bill Byars, Jr., son of a Texas oilman. The Warren Report had not come out yet, but Hoover knew what would be in it. He knew the report would not disrupt the political system or be dangerous to the country. The purpose of the report, from the start, had been to reassure the country. Police had caught the assassin. Jack Ruby executed him two days later. Justice was done. The Warren Commission demonstrated the truth of this story, and put the prestige of the nation’s chief justice behind it.
Hoover knew the Commission’s conclusions in advance, because the Federal Bureau of Investigation was the primary – indeed the only – investigative resource available to the Warren Commission’s staff. The staff could interview people on their own, but otherwise they had to rely on the FBI. As Hoover and his people conducted the investigation, they knew what President Johnson wanted to see in the report.
Who besides a powerful person or a guilty person – with something to hide – thinks secrecy and dishonesty are less disruptive than the truth? Without a doubt, the truth disrupts. Dishonesty lets traitors and criminals cruise along undisruptively, as if their misdeeds had never occurred. The truth appears dangerous only to people who want to conceal their acts. Efforts to uncover criminal acts do not appear dangerous to the innocent, though the heavens may fall on the perpetrators.
When people began to reconsider Kennedy’s assassination – who did it, how they accomplished it, and why – implicit fear about the country’s safety lent an air of caution to the entire enterprise. “Don’t go there,” is the phrase we would use now. People apprehended the truth about Kennedy’s death might have unpredictable consequences for our republic. Yet dishonesty is never the best policy. We can see, fifty years later, that the consequences of dishonesty during that period were substantially worse than anything the truth might have brought. The government might sail along on the ocean of falsehood in the Warren Report, but the country did not.
People said our nation lost its innocence on November 22, but that had already occurred before the fateful Friday. Kennedy would not have been shot had the country been innocent. Most significantly, the country took a decisive turn away from democracy before and after Kennedy died. It did not recover. No matter how hard the truth about Dallas might have been, the consequences that flowed from the conspiracy to hide the truth proved much worse. With the truth, we had a chance to save our republic. Without it – well, we know what happened without it.
No great power has, through crime and corruption, thrown away its position of civilizational leadership with such eager folly and utter ignorance. In the aftermath of Kennedy’s murder, what would be “very dangerous to the country” justifies endless measures of self-protection that serve criminals in power, not citizens they are supposed to serve. We have seen the potential for falsehood to pollute the country’s ideals and destroy its democracy. We have witnessed a lie so consequential, so potent that its effects corrupt everything government undertakes. No matter how dangerous the truth appears, lies are more dangerous still.