Once President Johnson decided to back the idea of a Presidential Commission, he moved swiftly. By Friday, November 29, his selections had solidified, reluctant participants arm-wrestled into service, and the Commission was announced. It was to be headed by the most reluctant participant of all, Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, and the story of how Johnson got him on board is revealing.
First, the names had to be run by the all-powerful FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Johnson was coy, asking if Hoover was “familiar with this proposed group they’re trying to put together?”
Hoover said no, but he had heard of looming Congressional investigations and hated the idea, predicting it would be a “three ring circus.” Johnson replied “Well, the only way we can stop them probably is to appoint a high-level one to evaluate your report.” Johnson then ran down most of the names, omitting Warren, whom Hoover detested for his liberal views.
Even more revealing was the call Johnson made that evening to Georgia Senator Richard Russell, who had been Johnson’s original mentor in Congress, helping LBJ in his climb to be Majority Leader. Earlier in the day, Russell had declined to serve, telling Johnson “get somebody else….I haven’t got time…”
By evening, though, Johnson simply informed Russell that he was a member by reading the already-released announcement, which included Russell’s name as well as Warren. When Russell protested and complained about Warren; Johnson told him “Dick, it has already been announced, and you can serve with anybody [referring to Warren] for the good of America.”
The “good of America” wasn’t just a throwaway phrase. Johnson continued:
“This is a question that has a good many more ramifications than on the surface, and we’ve got to take this out of the arena where they’re testifying that Khrushchev and Castro did this and did that and kick us into a war that can kill 40 million Americans in an hour.”
Forty million Americans? Johnson obtained this estimate earlier in the week of how many Americans would die in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. So how exactly did Johnson persuade Earl Warren to head the Commission?
Johnson told Russell what had happened:
“Bobby and them went up to see him today and he turned them down cold and said NO. Two hours later I called him and ordered him down here and he didn’t want to come. I insisted he come – came down here and told me no twice, and I just pulled out what Hoover told me about a little incident in Mexico City, and I said now, I don’t want Mr. Khrushchev to be told tomorrow and be testifying before a camera that he killed this fellow, and that Castro killed him, and all I want you to do is look at the facts and bring in any other facts you want in here and determine who killed the President. And I think you can put on your uniform of World War I – fat as you are – and do anything you could to save one American life. And I’m surprised that you, the Chief Justice of the United States, would turn me down. And he started crying, and said, well I won’t turn you down. I’ll just do whatever you say.”
The “little incident in Mexico City” could have been the Alvarado story of Oswald taking $6500 in the Cuban Consulate to kill Kennedy, or possibly the alleged meeting with Soviet assassinations department member Kostikov. What matters is that Warren was told in no uncertain terms that the good of the country rested on his shoulders, and that the wrong answer to the question of the Kennedy assassination might cost 40 million American lives. The inquiry into JFK’s death was born with the imperative of establishing Oswald’s sole guilt.
Play the Johnson-Russell call: