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  • Writer's pictureFred Litwin

"JFK: Destiny Betrayed" Misleads on the Katzenbach Memorandum

Oliver Stone's so-called documentary series, JFK: Destiny Betrayed, misleads viewers on a memo written by Nicholas Katzenbach about investigating JFK's assassination. Here is an excerpt from JFK: Destiny Betrayed: (53:30 in episode 2)


Whoopi Goldberg: J. Edgar Hoover wrote a memo to the newly sworn-in President Johnson that evening, saying "The thing I am concerned about is having something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin." The day before, he had told Johnson that the case, "as it stands now, isn't strong enough to be able to get a conviction." The next day, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach wrote a memo to the White House saying, "The public must be satisfied that Oswald did not have confederates who are still at large, and that evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial. We need something to head off public speculation or Congressional hearings of the wrong sort." With those two memos, the FBI became the main investigatory arm in the JFK case. There was never any serious discussion that independent investigators were needed. The idea in Washington now became to contain the crime to Oswald, therefore, cutting off any connections to a wider Russia-Cuba communist conspiracy, which could provoke the threat of atomic war.


Here is the transcript of the phone call between J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Johnson about the state of the evidence. This phone call took place at 10:00 AM on November 23rd which was very early in the investigative process. Hoover notes that the "evidence that they have at the present time is not very strong." But importantly, there is a new development:


The FBI had just tracked down the purchase and shipment of Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano rifle -- and Hoover realized that that was important. I doubt James DiEugenio would have been impressed had Hoover said that the evidence was strong enough for a conviction.


Note that the memo also contains some incorrect information. On page 3, Hoover notes "I think that the bullets were fired from the fifth floor and the three shells were found on the fifth floor. But he apparently went upstairs to the sixth floor to have fired the gun and throw the gun away and then went out." As Howard Willens noted in his book History Will Prove Us Right, "As I would later learn, Hoover's version of facts and reports of conversations were often unreliable." (page 18)




By this time, Hoover had a fuller appreciation of the case against Oswald. Vincent Bugliosi notes: (page 321 of Reclaiming History)

Conspiracy theorists have maintained for years that this statement by Hoover ["The thing I am concerned about is having something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin."] means Hoover was trying to set Oswald up. It wouldn't enter their minds that another interpretation of these words was that Hoover (like virtually everyone else in law enforcement at the time) was convinced that Oswald was guilty and Hoover wanted to help make sure a vulnerable and severely traumatized American public, susceptible to rumors and speculation, also became convinced of this reality.

Of course, JFK: Destiny Betrayed does not mention this part of the memo:

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 that all the facts have been told and a statement to this effect be made now.

Katzenbach wants to ensure that in the future "all the facts have been told."


He also says:

I think, however, that a statement that all the facts will be made public property in an orderly and responsible way should be made now.

It is true that Katzenbach worried about Congressional hearings, but that reflects a feeling that undue partisanship could be counterproductive. He does add:

The only other step would be the appointment of a Presidential Commission of unimpeachable personnel to review and examine the evidence and announce its conclusions.


The memo noted:

It is Katzenbach's feeling that this matter can best be handled by making public the results of the FBI's investigation. He thought time was of the essence, but that the report, of course, had to be accurate."

John McAdams comments on whether the Katzenbach memo is nefarious: (page 81 of JFK Assassination Logic)

So just how is the Katzenbach memo sinister? If one begins with the assumption that there was a conspiracy, that the evidence of conspiracy was obvious on the Monday after the Friday assassination, and that Katzenbach knew (or somehow suspected) a conspiracy was afoot, then the memo is certainly nefarious. But you have to begin with that assumption. If Katzenbach believed that Oswald was the lone assassin -- as the Dallas Police Department said and as the FBI believed and told Katzenbach as of November 24 -- it's entirely different. And if you believe that rumors and speculation can be harmful -- for example, they could fan a war with Russia by implying Communist involvement or hurt the international reputation of the United States if right-wingers could pull off the murder of a president -- then a public-spirited person would advocate doing exactly what Katzenbach did. Today such action is called transparency.

Katzenbach's intention was to ensure that the Warren Commission had the ability to properly evaluate the material it received from the various agencies:


It didn't take Lyndon Johnson long to realize that he had to head off a Texas State inquiry and a Congressional inquiry, and by Executive Order 1130 created a Presidential Commission:

Howard Willens noted that "The executive order empowered the commission to prescribe its own procedures and employ such personnel as it deemed necessary." (page 25 in History Will Prove Us Right)


JFK: Destiny Betrayed leaves out many important points. The objective of Nicholas Katzenbach wasn't to "contain the crime to Oswald," but to contain undue rumors and speculation. He worked for Robert Kennedy, and he wanted the truth to come out.



Previous Relevant Blog Posts on JFK: Destiny Betrayed


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