Nov. 25 1963: After the funeral, Washington’s response firms up

LBJ on the phone

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.

Read the Katzenbach memo in full here


  1. Lanny K says:

    And it invariably follows that if the government could not know the existence of a conspiracy barely three days following the assassination, then it surely exceeds all characterizations of credibility to believe that any such conspiracy could have been known and the government’s response have been initiated in the hours immediately following the assassination on the afternoon of Friday the 22nd.

    It is that single fact that torpedoes any and all theories of body alteration occurring prior to the start of the Bethesda autopsy. The premise of an empty casket being off-loaded from Air Force One at 6:05 p.m. EST before a live, national television audience has been the linchpin of the published speculations of David Lifton and Douglas Horne for many years.

    Both authors’ hypothesis of the theft of the President’s corpse concurrent in real time with the arrest and bare beginnings of Oswald’s first interrogation, imply a decision to commit that theft even earlier still — a theft apparently devoid of strategy or timing.

    It is a story that should have ground to a halt and been mercifully discarded before the drafting of the table of contents.

    • Bill Pierce says:

      Lanny K:
      The Katzenbach memo shut down the hunt for conspirators less than 72 hours after the assassination . . . well before an honest, thorough investigation could have ruled out conspiracy. This preemptive strategy suggests that the government DID suspect a conspiracy, one that had to be hidden from the public.

      I believe an examination – a brief pre-autopsy (not necessarily sinister) – occurred at Bethesda. At least one bullet was recovered, the tracheotomy wound was probed, and JFK’s torn scalp and fractured skull were incised to gain access to the brain. Finding: multiple shooters using different ammo including a frangible bullet. The cover-up began immediately thereafter and was committed to record (Katzenbach’s memo) following Oswald’s murder.

      • Lanny K says:

        Did you read nothing of what Rex Bradford wrote in the above article? Moreover, have you ever read ANY of Katzenbach’s sworn testimony before the HSCA?

        Here is the relevant portion dealing with his motivation for the 11/25/63 memo:

        Mr. DODD: As I recall, over the past 15 years, on any number of occasions I have either read or heard people refer to that first paragraph in that memorandum, three points, and I will quote it for you, then-I don’t know if you have a copy or not, I will see that you get one in front of you. I am quoting here: 1. The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial. This was November 25, 1963, 3 days after the assassination. Now, unfortunately they don’t always quote the other paragraphs in that memorandum, which I think to an extent mellow that single paragraph, but still that paragraph has been quoted extensively as an indication that the Warren Commission was really a self-fulfilling prophecy, that it was not designed to investigate the assassination of the President from a de novo position, but rather to confirm what the FBI had already concluded, what the Dallas police had concluded, and that, therefore, the Warren Commission didn’t really fulfill its obligation, the obligation that Chief Justice Warren outlined when he said our responsibility is to get at the truth. I am creating that scenario for you because that is how I think it has been portrayed over the years. I have listened today to you talk about the various motivations, and it is hard, one can only sympathize, not empathize, with your position in those days, what it must have been like to be in the position you were in and have the responsibilities you had. Can you tell this committee, or help us try and straighten out what your motivation was at that moment that you wrote those words–and this is 3 days after the assassination–“the public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin.” Why was it so important that the public be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin?

        Mr. KATZENBACH – Because, very simply, if that was the conclusion that the FBI was going to come to, then the public had to be satisfied that that was the correct conclusion. My whole attitude in that memorandum, and I think it is contained or reflected in other paragraphs that you mentioned, I think it was reflected in other conversations, other memorandums that you have, one overwhelming feeling that I had, and that was in the assassination of the President of the United States, all of the facts, all of the evidence, everything that was relevant to that had to be made public.

        Mr. DODD – You say then, I should quote–in fact, Mr. Chairman, I would ask unanimous consent that this memorandum, if it is not already admitted into evidence, be admitted now.

        Chairman STOKES – I believe it is already in part of the evidence.

        Mr. DODD. I think all of it should be there. You say in the first paragraph: It is important that all of the facts surrounding President Kennedy’s Assassination be made public in a way which will satisfy people in the United States and abroad all that the facts have been told and a statement to this effect be made now. I think that is fine, but still I am perplexed, absolutely perplexed, on why it was in the public interest to prove that Oswald was the one, and that as reflected in the next sentence, did not have confederates who were still at large. Why was it so important to prove that 3 days after the assassination?

        Mr. KATZENBACH – Because for the very simple reason, if that was not a fact, and all the facts were not on the table, then it seemed to me that nobody was going to be satisfied, and I thought that the public was entitled–if there was a conspiracy, then we ought to say there was a conspiracy. If there were confederates at large, it ought to be said there were confederates at large. I knew then already that Oswald had been in Russia, Oswald had been in Mexico. Now, if you are going to conclude, as the Bureau was concluding that this was not part of a conspiracy, that there were no confederates, then you had to make that case, with all of the facts, absolutely persuasive. If you didn’t reveal these facts, somebody else was going to reveal them. Now, if there was a conspiracy, there was a conspiracy, and you put those facts out. But if you were persuaded Oswald was a lone killer, you had better put all of the facts out and you better not cover up anything, and you better say now all of the facts are going to be made public. That was the advice I was giving Moyers and that was the advice I was giving the President and that was the motivation for the Warren Commission. I don’t think this is artistically phrased. Perhaps you have never written anything that you would like to write better afterwards, Congressman, but I have.

        It was clearly Nicholas Katzenbach’s vision and motivation for recommending a Presidential Commission that total transparency and a full accounting of the truth wherever it lead INCLUDING the possibility of a conspiracy, was the only way to prevent the very irresponsible speculation that has characterized the conspiracy theorist community for the past 50 years.

        Whatever investigative failures the Warren Commission and/or the FBI made were not Katzenbach’s responsibility.

        I’m sure that the irony would not be lost on him to know that the meaning and motivations in his infamous memo would still be debated 50 years later. Nor would he have likely imagined that his testimony to the HSCA clarifying his intents and purposes would be groundlessly dismissed by those emotionally invested in a different scenario as a pack of lies by merely another governmental co-conspirator.

        • Bill Pierce says:

          Lanny K:
          Thanks for posting Katzenbach’s embarrassing mumbo-jumbo answer to the HSCA. It was a very weak attempt to paint a smiley face on a piece of dog poop. Dodd fully understood the clear intent of Katzenbach’s memo . . . just as any objective person would understand it. As you know, Hoover has been cited as the source of a similar cover-up memo issued only hours after Oswald was murdered by gun-running, mob-connected, FBI-informant Jack Ruby.

          Here’s Hoover on the 24th: “The thing I am most concerned about, and so is Mr. Katzenbach, is having something issued so that we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin.” Too bad Hoover died before he, like Katzenbach, could apologize for his “artistic phrasing”.

          Less than 72 hours after the assassination of the President of the United States, why were Hoover and Katzenbach so desperate to pin the blame solely on Oswald? Both Hoover and Katzenbach had extensive knowledge of complicated criminal conspiracies that sometimes took years to solve. And the main piece of evidence, the Z-film, appeared to show gunfire from the front. Parkland doctors also claimed shots from the front.

          What did the government know that had to be suppressed? [Citing Anthony Summers: “Eight months after Dallas, J. Edgar Hoover was asked privately whether Oswald had really been the assassin. “If I told you what I really know,” he replied, “it would be very dangerous to this country. Our whole political system could be disrupted.””]

          • Lanny K says:

            Allow me to put some words in your mouth, because whether you realize it or not, this is what you and so many others believe.

            You believe that a guy who spent 10 years teaching law at Rutgers, Yale and the University of Chicago eventually came to Washington and served ably and loyally for three years as an Assistant and Deputy Attorney General in the Justice Department of the Kennedy administration and then, three days after the assassination suddenly and inexplicably advocated a blatantly illegal obstruction of justice in the most heinous crime ever committed in modern American history.

            According to you and yours, he was literally the architect of the second most heinous crime in modern American history.

            And who was the most trusted co-conspirator he turned to first in launching this TOP SECRET campaign of evidence tampering, subornation of perjury and the outright deception of the entire American populace?

            Bill Moyers. Bill “freaking” Moyers, an ordained Baptist minister whose highest position in the Kennedy administration up until that point had been his one year as Deputy Director of the Peace Corps.

            Now, I ask you, what is there about that scenario that makes the first damn bit of sense whatsoever?

            Please give me the first rational thread of motivation for Nicholas Katzenbach DIVERTING any possibility of the administration of justice against the TRUE MURDERS of President Kennedy.

            In light of your own statement that Hoover and Katzenbach had “extensive knowledge of complicated criminal conspiracies that sometimes took years to solve” what would possess you to believe for one second that men of such knowledge could think it possible to construct a wholly fictitious account of the assassination that would stand up against any and all evidence of the REAL conspiracy that they had no way of knowing might be forthcoming at any moment and with no way of denying?

            If they were as smart as you say, how did they become so abjectly stupid in a blinding instant?

            But that’s what you apparently believe.

        • Jim Corwin says:

          I’m sorry, but the dialog you just quoted (and which I did not previously know) doesn’t convince me that Katzenbach was telling the commission the truth. Maybe he was, but the answer he gave sounds like someone wanting to get them to leave the subject alone, not someone wanting to be truthful. His original words still seem awfully clear, what got accepted as truth had to be controlled, no doubts should be allowed to be stirred among the American people. Nothing in what he originally said suggests any concern for seeking out the truth.

    • Michael Wahl says:

      To the contrary, I don’t think anyone can defend the position that JFK’s body was in the casket we saw taken from Air Force One. It has been well established that the ceremonial casket was empty and JFK’s body was already in Bethesda. You can debate if it was for sinister reasons.

      • Lanny K says:

        Gee, what a coincidence. I don’t think you or anyone else can defend the position that the body was ever taken out of the casket between Parkland Hospital and Bethesda.

        As someone making the accusation of theft or body tampering, the burden falls upon the accuser to prove precisely when, how and by whom such an illegal act was committed.

    • lysias says:

      People who either knew or strongly suspected at the time of the assassination that a conspiracy was involved could have made the decision to switch the caskets and conduct a cover-up in other ways within minutes of the assassination. People who were part of the conspiracy would of course have known, but other explanations for knowledge or strong suspicion are possible.

  2. david t.krall says:

    from: david t. krall
    re: katzenbach memo
    amazing memo! kind of “let’s the cat out of the bag” !!!

    examine the opening words of the memo closely…it not about being fair.or unfair ..please use your “third eye” here (keeness, perceptive, etc.,)…”facts be made public IN SUCH A WAY WHICH WILL SATISFY people in the United States and abroad THAT ALL THE FACTS HAVE BEEN TOLD…

    The exclicit or “on the surface” intent of the opening satement
    is not inconsistent with the rest of the memo: “FACTS BE MADE PUBLIC” is up-ended and slyly conveyed and tied/tethered
    to and with “IN SUCH AS WAY”. This is not a random phrase within this memo, but a carefully worded inference or overriding necessity. This “in such a way” is adroit wording, or as Katezenback is actually “saying”: how the public could and should be told about the assassination. And what follows is the second or “other shoe dropping”, is the way the “how” (the “in such a way”) the assassination can & be explained in some acceptable manner to disable or minimize or mariginalize talk of conspiracy…I seriously doubt that Katzenbach was attempting to minimize fears regarding a communist plot, due to his position in gov, which an Asst Attorney General, no doubt, gave him insights, much inside information, as well as knowledge of & about and interaction with RFK, etc. This gave him an inside commonsense perspective that Castro, the USSR or other parties on the left didn’t kill JFK…I would be interested to know who (other Washington “insiders” outside the AG’s office?)or other AG personel may have contributed to this memo???

    “….the facts must be made public… such a way….that
    satisfies….” semantics that would make Orwell and Huxley proud…

    Somehow I find this cleaver use of semantics somwhat chilling
    regarding the death of a U.S. President…perhaps relating to the
    death of politician or military official within the Soviet/Stalin sphere (e.g. Sergi Kirov) or Nazi/Hitler sphere (e.g. General Rommell) coming from “Radio Moscow” or “Radio Berlin” but from a
    major law enforcement officer and investigator who is a top
    ranking memeber of the US Justice Dept in Washington, D.C.???
    On 11/25/63 no less… Was Katzenbach involved in any way
    with the very, very quick pronouncement (NOW HEAR THIS..NOW HEAR THIS…JFK IS DEAD…THE “PARTY LINE” IS THIS…) from
    the WH Friday afternoon as relayed to AF1 that there “was no
    conspiracy…” Just as importantly I would be interested in knowing, according to William Manchester, how a Navy Admiral
    informed Rusk, Saliger and others after they rerouted and landed in Hawaii, with the same “party-line”-no conspiracy pronouncement soon after the shooting???
    from: david t. krall

    • Clarence Carlson says:

      You are quite right. The memo doesn’t say “Lets leave no stone unturned” or “All of the facts must be made available to the public”. It speaks of how the information concerning the crime should be released i.e. in a very specific way. It’s Big Brother saying: the public must be told certain things, in a certain way, to make them come to our preordained conclusion. Today we call that a misinformation campaign.

  3. Fearfaxer says:

    One of the things about this anniversary is that the event marked by it wasn’t just one day. It was four, from Friday until today. Saturday was the only day of the four in which the country had a little time to come to terms with what happened. Friday, there was the assassination itself, then Sunday the murder of Oswald, and 50 years ago today the funeral and interment at Arlington Cemetery. So today, on this very sad anniversary, I find myself at work. In an office, in a building. Located at Pennsylvania Avenue and 13th Street, Northwest. Washington, DC. Yes, right where that sad funeral procession went by. I’ve been able to spot this building several times when viewing old news footage of the procession. Oddly enough, of all the times I’ve thought about this 50th anniversary as it approached, I only realized that I’d be spending most of the day on the site of the funeral procession about 10 days ago.

  4. Ronnie Wayne says:

    It s interesting to note that Hoover said virtually the same thing to Johnson the day before at4:00.

  5. George Simmons says:

    A phrase from the Nicholas Katzenbach memo made me think of the assassination related files that the CIA are still illegally withholding from public view:
    “I think, however, that a statement that all the facts will be made public property in an orderly and reasonable way should be made now.”

    Is a wait of 50+ years an “orderly and reasonable way?”

  6. kennedy63 says:

    Katzenback was a dupe and his parroting of what the Executive Branch needed to do was not something lost on Hoover or Johnson. Johnson relied on Hoover as to who to trust, or who was not to be trusted. Hoover and Johnson were neighbors and of the same moral and philosophical bent: corrupt. Hoover and Johnson, as well as Katzenbach, were power-grubbing egomaniacs who would step over their mothers for the highest ranks of power. JFK was dead – power is for the living to have and for dispensing it’s desired largess, namely promotions, contracts, position for life, and assured outcomes to political assassinations. Dead men tell no tales.

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