Katzenbach: Memo to Moyers

The assassination of President Kennedy not only removed the head of state but also incapacitated the head of the Justice Department, Robert Kennedy. Nicholas Katzenbach, the Deputy Attorney General, was to play an important role in the early development of official responses to the assassination.

Katzenbach wrote this memo by hand on the evening of Sunday 24 November, a few hours after Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot dead by Jack Ruby. A typed version was prepared the following morning and sent to Bill Moyers, an assistant to President Johnson.

The Road to the Warren Commission

Katzenbach set down ideas that had been discussed within the White House over the previous two and a half days. He pointed out that:

  • Conspiracy theories about the assassination had already started to circulate.
  • Some sort of official report should be issued to counteract these theories.

JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theories

Some of Oswald’s activities in Mexico City a few weeks before the assassination had generated two opposing conspiracy theories:

  • either the Soviet or Cuban regimes were behind the assassination,
  • or elements within the US had manipulated events to blame those regimes.

There were suspicions that Oswald had been working for one side or the other. Many aspects of Oswald’s career were to remain hidden for years, but enough information had already come to light to cast doubt on the sincerity of his pro–communist public persona.

The Need for the Lone–Nut Theory

Although Oswald had been proclaimed the lone assassin, there was substantial disbelief among both domestic and foreign observers. This disbelief was quickly recognised to be harmful to established US political institutions.

Whatever the real story behind the assassination, the only acceptable political solution was that Oswald had acted alone and with no political or ideological motive. The question of Oswald’s guilt or innocence was not a consideration.

Official Promotion of the Lone–Nut Theory

Katzenbach hoped that a report by the FBI into the assassination would be sufficient to contain public scepticism. Even before the entirely inadequate FBI report (Warren Commission Document 1) was complete, the news media felt that it needed a stronger, more objective source of information if it was to perform its task of convincing the public that Oswald had acted alone (see e.g. Alsop to Johnson, White House Telephone Transcripts, 25 November 1963, 10:40am, LBJ Library, Austin, Texas). A few days after this memo was written, Katzenbach’s suggestion was adopted, and the Warren Commission was established.

More Information

The memo is located in the FBI HQ JFK Assassination File, 62–109060–18. A scan of the typed version in PNG format can be found at http://www.maryferrell.org/mffweb/archive/viewer/showDoc.do?absPageId=756877.

For more about the political context and implications of Katzenbach’s memo, see the sources mentioned in the Further Reading section.

Memorandum for Mr Moyers

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 that a statement to this effect be made now.

  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.
  2. 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. Unfortunately the facts on Oswald seem about too pat — too obvious (Marxist, Cuba, Russian wife, etc.). The Dallas police have put out statements on the Communist conspiracy theory, and it was they who were in charge when he was shot and thus silenced.
  3. The matter has been handled thus far with neither dignity nor conviction. Facts have been mixed with rumour and speculation. We can scarcely let the world see us totally in the image of the Dallas police when our President is murdered.

I think this objective may be satisfied by making public as soon as possible a complete and thorough FBI report on Oswald and the assassination. This may run into the difficulty of pointing to inconsistencies between this report and statements by Dallas police officials. But the reputation of the Bureau is such that it may do the whole job.

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. This has both advantages and disadvantages. It [sic] think it can await publication of the FBI report and public reaction to it here and abroad.

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. We need something to head off public speculation or Congressional hearings of the wrong sort.

Nicholas deB. Katzenbach
Deputy Attorney General