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Walkthrough: Formation of the Warren Commission

President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas at 12:30PM local time on November 22, 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested around 2PM, and quickly became the only suspect in the case. Plans for a Texas trial ended in the early afternoon of November 24, when Oswald died of a gunshot wound inflicted by Jack Ruby.

Within a couple of hours, proposals for a Presidential Commission of esteemed individuals were being floated. President Johnson at first resisted the idea, but eventually relented. LBJ created the Commission with Executive Order 11130 on November 29, and named seven members with Supreme Court Chief Justice as its head.

Much of what is now known of the Warren Commission's creation comes from taped phone calls of President Johnson, declassified in the 1990s. Also in the 1990s more evidence emerged regarding secret information tying Oswald, or an Oswald impersonator, to Castro and to a Soviet assassination expert based in Mexico City. President Johnson used the fear of "40 million Americans" dying in a nuclear exchange to force a reluctant Senator Russell onto the Commission, and made Earl Warren finally say yes when told about "a little incident in Mexico City."

Nov 24, 4:00PM - Account of phone call between FBI Director Hoover and White House Aide Walter Jenkins
Hoover began by reporting that "There is nothing further on the Oswald case excerpt that he is dead." At the end of the call, Hoover noted the need to have "something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin," and that (Assistant Attorney General) "Katzenbach thinks that the President might appoint a Presidential Commission of three outstanding citizens to make a determination."


Nov 24, time unknown - Phone call between Eugene Rostow and Bill Moyers
Within hours of Oswald's murder, Yale Law School Dean Eugene Rostow suggests a President Commission to Bill Moyers of the White House. Rostow tells Moyers he has talked to Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach three times that day, and suggests "a commission of seven or nine people, maybe Nixon."
Play audio


Nov 25, 10:30AM - Phone call between President Johnson and FBI Director Hoover
On Monday morning, the day of the Kennedy funeral, Johnson tells Hoover that "apparently some lawyer in Justice is lobbying the [Washington] Post because that's where the suggestion came for this Presidential Commission which would be very bad and put it right in the White House." When asked to intervene with the Post, Hoover says "I don't have much influence with the Post because I frankly don't read it. I view it like the Daily Worker."
Play audio


Nov 25, 10:40AM - Phone call between President Johnson and Joseph Alsop
Influential Washington Post columnist Joe Also strongly advises LBJ to accept the idea of a Presidential Commission. When Johnson persists in wanting local authorities and the FBI to handle what he calls a "local killing," Alsop snaps that "well, in this case it does happen to be the killing of the President." Alsop warns Johnson to "get ahead of" the Post and repeatedly invokes the name of Cold War icon Dean Acheson as one of the people behind the Commission idea. Johnson says he will call Acheson, though no such call is in the available recordings.
Play audio


Nov 25, time unknown - Katzenbach Memo
Titled "Memorandum for Mr. Moyers," Katzenbach lays out the need for a public statement on the assassination. Katzenbach states that "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." By Katzenbach's own later admission, he could not know these things to be true; many observers see this document as reflecting policy rather than fact, and in effect announcing a cover-up. Katzenbach himself notes in the memo that "Unfortunately the facts on Oswald seem about too pat--too obvious (Marxist, Cuba, Russian wife, etc.).


Nov 26,27 - There is something of a gap in materials relevant to the decision-making regarding the Presidential Commission. On November 25, President Johnson is against the idea, but by the 28th he is lobbying support for it. Johnson's change of mind occurred sometime in this intervening period. A Washington Post editorial highlighting the need for a national solution to the crisis did appear on the 26th. The following day, LBJ addressed a joint session of Congress, urging the nation to "let us continue" the work begun during the Kennedy presidency. That afternoon, LBJ had a short meeting with Robert Kennedy. But exactly how and when he swung in favor of the Commission idea is not known.


Nov 28, 3:21PM - Phone call between President Johnson and Senator James Eastland
Johnson feels out Judiciary Committee head Eastland on the planned Congressional hearings and then discusses the idea of a Commission including members of Congress. Eastland agrees to cut short his Committee's investigation, saying "we can work it out," to which LBJ responds: "You can handle your Committee. O.K. Much obliged."
Play audio


Nov 29, 11:30AM - Phone call between President Johnson and Congressman Hale Boggs
LBJ discusses the Presidential Commission idea with Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs. See also this later call at 1:11PM.
Play audio of first call     Play audio of second call


Nov 29, 1:15PM - Phone call between President Johnson and Abe Fortas
LBJ and advisor Fortas bandy about several names as possible Commissioners. After mentioning some possibilities include General Norstadt and James Eastland, at the end of the call LBJ selects the seven Commissioners named later that day to serve on the President's Commission.
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Nov 29, 1:40PM - Phone call between President Johnson and FBI Director Hoover
Almost immediately, LBJ calls Hoover to run by him the seven names of "this proposed group that they're trying to put together on this study of your report." Hoover gives a "good man" to most names, though he is "not as enthusiastic about McCloy." LBJ does not even mention Warren, the head of the Commission.
Play audio


Nov 29, afternoon - Phone calls between President Johnson and Commission appointees
Having decided on the final set of names, Johnson had these phone calls with those being appointed to the Commission:
Richard Russell, 4:05PM   Play audio
Allen Dulles, 5:43PM   Play audio
John Sherman Cooper, 5:45PM   Play audio
Gerald Ford, 6:52PM   Play audio


Nov 29, time unknown - Phone call between President Johnson and Abe Fortas
LBJ and Fortas work out the wording of the an announcement of the President's Commission.
Play audio


Nov 29, time unknown - FBI Memo from Belmont to Evans
This internal FBI memo about the forthcoming Commission was written before Earl Warren had agreed to serve, and contains some other interesting background material.


Nov 29, 8:55PM - Phone call between President Johnson and Richard Russell
In this fascinating call, the last of the day, Johnson tells Russell that he has named him to the Commission over Russell's objections, because "you've got to lend your name to this thing" and because "we've got to take this out of the arena where they're testifying that Khrushchev and Castro did this and did that and kicking us into a war that can kill 40 million Americans in an hour..." LBJ also tells Russell the story of how Warren turned him down repeatedly, until Johnson "pulled out what Hoover told me about a little incident in Mexico City."
Play audio


Nov 30 - Exective Order 11130
Announced on the 29th but executed on November 30, Executive Order 11130 appointed the Commission, named its members, and described its purpose and powers.


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    See Also

    Video:

    Gerald McKnight, author of Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why, describes the formation of the Warren Commission and the political context in which it occurred (click image to play)


    Audio:

    Lyndon Johnson Presidential Phone Calls. All recorded calls from November 22 through November 30 are available in audio form, and transcripts exist for most.


    Starting Points:

    Formation of the Warren Commission

    Warren Commission

    Katzenbach Memo

    The Fourteen Minute Gap


    Documents and Document Collections:

    FBI 62-109060 File. The FBI's main JFK assassination file contains many interesting documents from the week after the assassination.

    FBI 62-109090 File. The Warren Commission liaison file begins with a copy of the Presidential statement announcing the Commission.

    Warren Commission Executive Session Transcripts. These provide a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the Commission and its constraints.

    HSCA Testimony of Nicholas Katzenbach. Volume III of the HSCA appendices includes public testimony of former Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.

    HSCA Volume XI. Most of this HSCA volume is taken up with testimony of former Warren Commissioners and staffers.


    Books:

        Breach of Trust
    Gerald D. McKnight
    University Press of Kansas, 2005
     
        Inquest
    Edward Jay Epstein
    Viking Press, 1966
     
        The Kennedy Assassination Cover-Up
    Donald Gibson
    Nova Science Publishers, 2000
     
        The Kennedy Assassination Tapes
    Max Holland
    Alfred A. Knopf, 2004
     
        The Vantage Point
    Lyndon Baines Johnson
    Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971
     
        The Memoirs of Earl Warren
    Earl Warren
    Doubleday & Co., 1977


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