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  • Writer's pictureFred Litwin

Jefferson Morley is wrong about "Who Shot John?"

Updated: Jun 4, 2023

Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges co-wrote the song "Who Struck John."

In October 1971, President Richard Nixon met with his domestic affairs advisor John Ehrlichman. They discussed the importance of procuring documents from CIA Director Richard Helms on the Bay of Pigs and the assassination of South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem. Nixon wanted to use the documents to target his political enemies. Helms then arrives and Nixon browbeats him to turn over documents, telling him that they were needed for negotiations with the Russians.

The relevant section is at 17:30:

President Nixon: The ‘Who shot John?’ angle. Is Eisenhower to blame? Is Kennedy to blame? Is Johnson to blame? Is Nixon to blame? Etc., etc. It may become, not by me, a very vigorous issue but if it does, I need to know what is necessary to protect frankly the intelligence gathering and the Dirty Tricks Department and I will protect it. I have done more than my share of lying to protect you, and I believe it’s totally right to do it.

Former Washington Post journalist Jefferson Morley believes that Nixon was referring to the JFK assassination. Here is an excerpt from his 2022 book, Scorpion’s Dance: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate:

The facts of the Bay of Pigs, however, were not in dispute. The CIA-trained invasion force lost, and senior officers like Hunt were forever embittered. Nixon had something else, something very sensitive in mind.

“What I want, what I want, Dick,” he rasped, “regarding any understanding, regarding any information, I do not want any information that comes in from you on these delicate and sensitive subjects to go to anybody outside …”

Nixon was finally ready to tip his hand.

“The ‘Who shot John?’ angle,” he said quietly, 17 minutes into the conversation. Nixon did not dwell on the phrase. He didn’t need to. In the context of his long-standing demand for the CIA’s records, the invocation of “the ‘Who shot John?’ angle” can only refer to one thing: Kennedy’s assassination. The ambush in Dallas was the first thing on Nixon’s mind as he pressed the director for the agency’s Bay of Pigs files. The president intuited a connection between the failed invasion in 1961 and JFK’s assassination two years later.

Nixon had no desire to expose what Helms called the agency’s “dirty linen.” Rather, he wanted to use the Bay of Pigs issue against presumed rival Ted Kennedy while defending the CIA from recent allegations that the CIA’s plots against Castro had led to JFK’s death. Nixon knew the Agency was vulnerable to JFK’s assassination, which he presumed gave him leverage over Helms.

Nixon assured Helms that his concern was not the agency’s actions related to Kennedy’s assassination but the criticism he faced as president.

“Is Eisenhower to blame? Is Johnson to blame? Is Kennedy to blame? Is Nixon to blame?” the president went on. “Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It may become — not by me — but it may become a very, very vigorous issue. If it does …”

Morley wonders what Nixon was talking about when he says, "Who shot John."

Nixon couldn’t have been referring to the Bay of Pigs or Cuba, which were both dead issues by then. The JFK assassination story, by contrast, had erupted vigorously earlier that year. In January 1971, a front-page New York Times story reported that Dallas police chief Jesse Curry published a book saying JFK had been killed by a conspiracy. The same day, Jack Anderson, the syndicated investigative reporter, wrote a startling column in The Washington Post that began, “Locked in the darkest recesses of the Central Intelligence Agency is the story of six assassination attempts against Cuba’s Fidel Castro.”

Morley is wrong about a front-page article in the New York Times. The actual article appeared on page 14 in the January 17, 1970, edition and uses much weaker language:

The Jack Anderson column appeared on January 18, 1971.

In the context of a negotiation over sensitive government records from the early 1960s, Nixon’s aside -- “Who shot John?” -- could only have been a reference to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. But if Nixon was implying that the CIA might have something to hide on the question of who ambushed the liberal president in Dealey Plaza, he was also assuring Helms he would keep the Agency's secrets.

Tucker Carlson discussed "Biden and the Deep State" and he mentioned the Nixon-Helms meeting:

On June 23, 1972, Nixon met with the then-CIA director, Richard Helms, at the White House. During the conversation -- which thankfully was tape recorded -- Nixon suggested he knew, quote, "who shot John," meaning President John F. Kennedy. Nixon further implied that the CIA was directly involved in Kennedy's assassination, which we now know it was. Helms' telling response? Total silence.

Morley noted that Carlson got the date wrong but then says:

Carlson says “Nixon suggested he knew, quote, ‘who shot John,’" which is debatable. Based on the context, I think it’s more likely that Nixon did not know who killed Kennedy, which is why he was pressing Helms for more information. But Carlson may be right. His claim is certainly not factually incorrect.
The same goes for Carlson’s assertion that “Nixon further implied that the CIA was directly involved.” Nixon’s vow to protect “the Dirty Tricks Department” is vague. But, along with his allusion to “delicate and sensitive subjects,” it is certainly open to the fair inference that Nixon was expressing a willingness to lie about “who shot John” if the CIA was involved. On this point, Carlson is right.

But Morley is wrong about his interpretation. Nixon was not referring to the JFK assassination; Max Holland notes that had Nixon referred to JFK, he would have said, "who shot Jack."

Nixon was just using an old but now obscure colloquial phrase to say he wanted all the details on who did what.

According to previously undisclosed Oval Office tapes, Nixon and top aide John Ehrlichman worked strenuously, and cynically, to persuade CIA Director Richard Helms to fork over secret documents so that they might muddy political enemies, notably the Kennedy family.
Conversations show Nixon and Ehrlichman rehearsing lines to use on Helms as they sought to procure CIA records on the 1963 assassination of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem, as well as of the botched 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
It is clear that Helms, a fabled CIA official, knew what they were up to and did his best to resist, but finally surrendered a fair number of documents.

Nixon also used the phrase during an interview with David Frost, and he was certainly not referring to the JFK assassination, but using it to mean 'attributing blame.'

John Mitchell is a smart man. He's too smart to ever get involved in a stupid jackass thing like Watergate. And, John Mitchell also knew, he was smart enough to know the dangers of cover‐ups and that sort of thing. On the other hand, John Mitchell could only think of that poor Martha and that lovely child, Marne, and so, that's the human side of this story, which I don't, I know that you and the press, you can't be interested in that. You can only he interested in “Who shot John?” Well, go ahead.

There is a long history to the phrase, "Who shot John?" or "Who struck John?"


Asked about alleged wrongdoing, Mr. Angleton said, "I've got problems." He explained his domestic activities this way:
"A mansion has many rooms, and there were many thing[s] going on during the period of the [antiwar] bombings. I'm not privy to who struck John."

Back then it was much more difficult to research something like the history of the phrase, 'who shot John?' The internet has made the job a lot easier.

William Safire wrote about the phrase in the December 21, 1986, issue of the New York Times, and he noted that Richard Nixon liked to use the phrase:

Here is an early usage of 'who struck John?':

Baton Rouge State-Times Advocate, October 25, 1958

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Los Angeles Times from October 19, 1962, about former President Eisenhower's criticism of President Kennedy's foreign policy:

Here is an example from a New York Times article from August 4, 1975:

In a March 1, 2003, Los Angeles Times article on the guard who foiled the Watergate break-in:

John Lehman [Commission member]: One, a whole series of questions. What were you told by this short transition from Mr. Berger and associates and the long transition leading up to 9/11 by those officials about these key, a number of key issues? And I'd like to ask them quickly in turn. And the other is I'm struck by the continuity of the policies rather than the differences. And both of these sets of questions are really directed towards what I think is the real purpose of this commission. While it's certainly a lot more fun to be doing the who struck John and pointing fingers of which policy was more urgent or more important, so forth, the real business of this commission is to learn the lessons and to find the ways to fix those dysfunctions.

The phrases 'who struck John?' or 'who shot John?' are generic and do not refer to the JFK assassination. Despite many comments on Morley's 2014 post on his own website about the origins and meanings of the phrase, he continues to write that Nixon was referring to the JFK assassination.

I have listened to this tape and the day’s previous discussion with Ehrlichman and have come to realize that most of us have misunderstood the context of the tapes. Nixon is looking for info that will tie Kennedy to the assassination of Diem, which he strangely calls “the Kennedy assassination…of Diem” Helms has refused to hand it over to Ehrlichman, and brings it to Nixon himself. Nixon, of course, wants more and subsequently orders Hunt, through Colson, to fake up some cables that will tie Kennedy to the killing.
When Nixon mentions “Who shot John?” He is mentioning it in the context of his old friend Lodge and others all pointing fingers in different directions as to who was to blame for Diem’s murder. Nixon and Ehrlichman know who they want to blame it on, however. In Ehrlichman’s book The Company he has the character based on Kennedy order the murder of a priest. This is a reference to Diem, an ardent catholic.

But not everything is about the JFK assassination. The departure of Tucker Carlson from Fox News has led many people to wonder exactly what happened. Of course, Jefferson Morley, on his substack, quoted David Talbot alleging that Carlson was forced out because of his segments on the CIA and the JFK assassination:

I suspect that Carlson was not jettisoned by the Murdochs because of a few offensive emails. What bigwig at Fox News is innocent of that charge? (Rupert and Lachlan would have to let go most of the company, starting with themselves.) I think the real reason that Carlson was fired was because he was evolving into a more independent voice on everything from the dominance of the war state -- which goes unchallenged by our media and political elites -- to the assassination of President Kennedy. Carlson believes that the CIA was involved in the assassination, the reason that the spy agency has repeatedly flouted the 1992 JFK Records Act and blocked the full release of Kennedy-related documents.

Morley also quotes Jacob Hornberger:

"Let me weigh in on another possibility (re Carlson's firing) — that the Pentagon and the CIA may have been the ones who put the quietus on Tucker and possibly signaled to Fox executives that he had to go...
"Last December, Carlson broadcast a program on the assassination of President Kennedy in which he accused the CIA of having participated in the assassination. In doing so, Carlson violated a taboo that has existed within the mainstream media since November 22, 1963, the day that Kennedy was assassinated ... ."

The Murdoch mansion has many rooms, and there have been many things going on; we are not now privy to who struck John.

He was let go more than four months later on April 24, 2023.

You'd think the CIA and the Pentagon would move a little quicker than that.

Hat tip: Paul Hoch assisted with the research and editing of this article.


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