The Warren Commission and the Dons: an Anglo-American microhistory

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Distortion in intellectual history is not a direct function of distance from the present. The recent past can create its own problems of perspective. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is a case in point. Is the controversy surrounding the assassination a worthy subject for an intellectual historian? After all, there is now little serious debate as to what happened in Dallas on 22 November 1963. Mainstream historians regard the case as closed, an issue settled by the exhaustive and fair-minded deliberations of the Warren Commission, whose report, issued in the autumn of 1964, concluded that a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, a sad and unsettled individual from a dysfunctional background, had killed the president. However, as we know, the topic remains, almost half a century later, a matter of huge fascination, but only outside the gates of the academy. The study of Kennedy's assassination is now best known to academics as a counterculture, which grossly caricatures the best practices of the academy and where extravagant theories tend to trump sound scholarship, plausibility and common sense. Indeed, this disjunction between the obsessions of amateur historians, known as buffs, and the reluctance of academic historians to lose caste by exploring subjects such as the Kennedy assassination which the wider public—but only the wider public—seems to find worthy of further research and explanation is, as Professor W. D. Rubinstein notes, an interesting sociological and historiographical phenomenon in its own right. Writing in 1994, Max Holland, the journalist and intelligence historian, noted that the history of the Kennedy era was “bifurcated”. For academic historian writing on the Kennedy presidency the assassination is “treated as a footnote or afterthought if it is addressed at all”, while “very few of the more than 450 books and tens of thousands of articles that compose the vast assassination literature published since 1964 have been written by historians.”
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)411-434
Number of pages24
JournalModern Intellectual History
Issue number2
Early online date28 Jul 2011
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2011


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