On the Monday following the tragic and astonishing events in Dallas, President Kennedy’s body was laid to rest in Arlington cemetery. A host of foreign dignitaries took part, including British Prime Minister Home, French President Charles de Gaulle, and many others.
Meanwhile the federal government’s response to the assassination was taking shape.
Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach sent the White House a memo proposing a course of action. He went right to the point in its second paragraph:
“The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial.”
Many have interpreted this as a clear call to cover-up — that the federal government was already committed to what the Warren Commission would later conclude — that Oswald was the sole assassin, not part of any larger conspiracy.
To be fair, the memo opens with: “It is important that all the facts surrounding President Kennedy’s assassination be made public in a way which will satisfy people in the United States and abroad that all the facts have been told…”
The problem is that, regardless of whether you believe the Warren Commission later solved the case, it is not possible that on November 25 the government already knew there was no conspiracy. The rifle found in the Book Depository had been traced to Oswald, yes. But it had no fingerprints on it, and the “magic bullet” tied to the gun had been found mysteriously on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital. Oswald had just been murdered in police custody, and the government was awash in allegations surrounding his visit to Communist embassies in Mexico City just six weeks earlier.
This last point was much on Katzenbach’s mind:
“Speculation about Oswald’s motivation ought to be cut off, and we should have some basis for rebutting thought that this was a Communist conspiracy or (as the Iron Curtain press is saying) a right-wing conspiracy to blame it on the Communists.”
And he was well aware that the simple story of a lone assassin had problems:
“Unfortunately the facts on Oswald seem about too pat–too obvious (Marxist, Cuba, Russian wife, etc.)”
Given the heightened state of tensions that existed in the world in 1963, it is not surprising that the federal government would be acutely concerned about whether blame for JFK’s murder would be placed on the Cubans or Soviets, which would have put immense pressure on President Johnson to respond forcefully. The world had been at the brink of all-out nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis only a year earlier.
In 2012, what is important is the truth of the matter. It seems clear that Katzenbach’s memo is a statement of policy going forward, not a summary of currently-known facts.