Richard Russell and the Warren Report
Questioning the Single–Bullet Theory
The Warren Commission’s verdict about President Kennedy’s assassination was far from unanimous. Three of the Commission’s seven members expressed doubts about the Warren Report’s lone–assassin theory. All three were career politicians who represented southern states:
- Senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky;
- Congressman Hale Boggs of Louisiana;
- and Senator Richard Russell of Georgia.
Russell’s dissent was the most vocal, and is captured in a phone conversation with President Johnson late on 18 September 1964, a few hours after the Commission’s final executive session. A transcript of the relevant part of the conversation is reproduced below, along with the official minutes of the 18 September meeting.
The episode illustrates several interesting aspects of the workings of the Commission and the creation of the Warren Report.
The Warren Commissioners and the Warren Report
Contrary to received belief, the Commissioners had only a small role in the production of the Warren Report. Over the ten months of the Commission’s existence, they held only 13 meetings, not all of which were fully attended. The day–to–day administration was under the control of the former Solicitor General, J. Lee Rankin. The Commission had a staff of around 30 attorneys, who:
- made almost every decision about which witnesses to interview, and which questions to ask;
- performed most of the interviews: of the 552 witnesses who submitted evidence to the Warren Commission, only 94 testified in person with one or more Commissioners present;
- and wrote the final report.
Richard Russell himself attended fewer hearings than any other Commissioner. As a dedicated white supremacist, he preferred to spend his time in opposing the Kennedy administration’s civil rights legislation, which was slowly making its way through the Senate in 1964.
Russell’s Objections to the Single–Bullet Theory
One witness whose testimony Russell did hear in person was that of Governor John Connally. Russell was impressed by Connally’s insistence that he and President Kennedy had not been hit by the same bullet (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.4, pp.135f).
The Warren Report was ready to be sent to the printers when Russell demanded a special meeting of the Commissioners, during which he set out his objections to the central element of the case against Oswald, the single–bullet theory.
As he explained to Johnson, “They were trying to prove that the same bullet that hit Kennedy first was the one that hit Connally, went through him and through his hand, his bone, into his leg and everything else. … The commission believes that the same bullet that hit Kennedy hit Connally. Well, I don’t believe it.” Johnson, presumably out of politeness, replied, “I don’t either.” Russell’s fellow dissenter at the 18 September meeting, Senator John Cooper, wrote that “it seems to me that Governor Connally’s statement negates such a conclusion.”
The Shot that Wounded James Tague
Russell also pointed out the implausibility of the notion that a gunman could be skillful enough to hit Kennedy twice, yet so incompetent that he missed completely with the shot that wounded James Tague, who was standing almost 100 yards from the president’s car: “Well, a man that’s a good enough shot to put two bullets right into Kennedy, he didn’t miss that whole automobile.”
Tague’s deposition (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.7, pp.552–57) had been taken by one of the staff attorneys, Wesley Liebeler, with no Commissioners present. It is conceivable that Russell was unaware that the missed shot was an undisputed fact rather than merely a suggestion put forward by the attorneys who had dreamt up the single–bullet theory. In Russell’s words: “according to their theory, he not only missed the whole automobile, but he missed the street!”
Defusing Richard Russell’s Dissent
The purpose of the Warren Report, as outlined in Nicholas Katzenbach’s memo, was to help the news media to convince the public “that Oswald was the assassin [and] that he did not have confederates who are still at large.” It was clearly felt that for the report’s conclusions to be convincing, the Commissioners needed to be seen to be unanimous.
The Warren Commission’s General Counsel, Lee Rankin, managed to defuse the senators’ criticism while preserving the illusion of unanimity. The final Report acknowledged that “the possibility of others being involved with either Oswald or Ruby cannot be rejected categorically” (Warren Report, p.22), but had only this to say about Russell’s and Cooper’s objections:
Although it is not necessary to any essential findings of the Commission to determine just which shot hit Governor Connally, there is very persuasive evidence from the experts to indicate that the same bullet which pierced the President’s throat also caused Governor Connally’s wounds. However, Governor Connally’s testimony and certain other factors have given rise to some difference of opinion as to this probability but there is no question in the mind of any member of the Commission that all the shots which caused the President’s and Governor Connally’s wounds were fired from the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository.
J. Lee Rankin and the Warren Commission’s Records
More sinister was Rankin’s treatment of the record of the 18 September meeting. Although a stenographer appeared to be present, the official written record of the meeting did not take the form of a verbatim transcript, as was the case with the other sessions, but was merely a list of trivial procedural items. The document is reproduced below.
No hint was given of Russell’s and Cooper’s arguments with Rankin and Earl Warren, or of the discussions that, according to Russell’s conversation with Johnson, took place about the wording of the Report’s conclusions. Russell had prepared two written statements, neither of which found their way into the record.
This was not the only example of manipulation of the records of the Warren Commission. After the 22 January 1964 meeting that dealt with the rumours that Oswald was associated with the FBI or the CIA, the stenographer’s notes were destroyed. It is possible that the stenographer at the 18 September meeting was not even genuine; Ward and Paul, the firm that had supplied stenographers for all the Warren Commission’s witness hearings and executive sessions, did not submit an invoice for the final session.
In later years, Rankin himself seems to have entertained the possibility that the assassination was the result of a conspiracy. He became critical of the FBI when he learned about the bureau’s destruction of Oswald’s note threatening to blow up the FBI office in Dallas, and of the CIA when its alliance with mobsters became public knowledge. See Jim DiEugenio, ‘J. Lee Rankin, Conspiracist?,’ Probe, vol.4 no.4 (May–June 1997).
Physical copies of many presidential phone calls are available from the National Archives. Unofficial digital copies of this call can be found online.
A high–quality digital recording and transcript of this phone call will no doubt be issued in due course by the University of Virginia’s Presidential Recordings Program.
Russell’s unpublished personal papers can be found in the Richard B. Russell Memorial Library at the University of Georgia, Athens. John Cooper’s dissent is contained in his own unpublished papers, which can be found at the University of Kentucky, Lexington.
For more about Richard Russell’s criticism of the Warren Commission, see:
- Gerald D. McKnight, Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why, University Press of Kansas, 2005, pp.282–97.
- Donald E. Wilkes, ‘Russell Disagreed with JFK Death Report,’ The Athens Observer, 9 November 1989, p.1.
For the running of the Commission and the attendance of its members, see Edward Epstein, Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth, Viking Press, 1966, and McKnight, op.cit..
A scan of the minutes of the 18 September executive session can be found at http://www.maryferrell.org/mffweb/archive/viewer/showDoc.do?docId=1335. The Mary Ferrell Foundation website contains scans of all the executive session transcripts.
Johnson to Russell Phone Call Transcript
18 September, 1964
- Russell :
- That danged Warren Commission business, it whupped me down so. We got through today. You know what I did? I … got on the plane and came home. I didn’t even have a toothbrush. I didn’t bring a shirt. … Didn’t even have my pills, antihistamine pills to take care of my emphysema.
- Johnson :
- Why did you get in such a rush?
- Russell :
- Well, I was just worn out, fighting over that damned report.
- Johnson :
- Well, you ought to have taken another hour and gone to get your clothes.
- Russell :
- No, no. They were trying to prove that the same bullet that hit Kennedy first was the one that hit Connally, went through him and through his hand, his bone, into his leg and everything else. Just a lot of stuff there. I hadn’t, couldn’t, didn’t hear all the evidence and cross–examine all of them. But I did read the record … I was the only fellow there that … suggested any change whatever in what the staff got up. This staff business always scares me. I like to put my own views down. But we got you a pretty good report.
- Johnson :
- Well, what difference does it make which bullet got Connally?
- Russell :
- Well, it don’t make much difference. But they said that … the commission believes that the same bullet that hit Kennedy hit Connally. Well, I don’t believe it.
- Johnson :
- I don’t either.
- Russell :
- And so I couldn’t sign it. And I said that Governor Connally testified directly to the contrary, and I’m not going to approve of that. So I finally made them say there was a difference in the commission, in that part of them believed that that wasn’t so. And of course if a fellow was accurate enough to hit Kennedy right in the neck on one shot and knock his head off in the next one … and he’s leaning up against his wife’s head … and not even wound her … why, he didn’t miss completely with that third shot. But according to their theory, he not only missed the whole automobile, but he missed the street! Well, a man that’s a good enough shot to put two bullets right into Kennedy, he didn’t miss that whole automobile. … But anyhow, that’s just a little thing, but we …
- Johnson :
- What’s the net of the whole thing? What’s it say? That Oswald did it, and he did it for any reason?
- Russell :
- Well, just that he was a general misanthropic fellow, that he had never been satisfied anywhere he was on earth … in Russia or here. And that he had a desire to get his name in history and all. I don’t think you’ll be displeased with the report. It’s too long, but it’s a … whole volume.
- Johnson :
- Russell :
- Yes, sir. I tried my best to get in a dissent, but they’d come round and trade me out of it by giving me a little old thread of it.
Warren Commission Executive Session
Friday, September 18, 1964
The President’s Commission met pursuant to call at 10:00 a.m. in the Hearing Room, Fourth Floor, 200 Maryland Avenue, Northeast, Washington, D.C., Chief Justice Earl Warren, presiding.
- Chief Justice Earl Warren, Chairman
- Senator Richard B. Russell, Member
- Senator John Sherman Cooper, Member
- Representative Gerald R. Ford, Member
- Representative Hale Boggs, Member
- Allen W. Dulles, Member
- John J. McCloy, Member
- J. Lee Rankin, General Counsel
The Chairman: The Commission will be in order.
The Commission has a number of matters to consider and decide in preparation for the completion of its final report and the closing of its affairs.
It was suggested by one of the Commissioners that it would be helpful to Members of the Commission if they each had a page proof of Chapter I of the proposed Report as soon as it is obtained from the Public Printer for their examination. The General Counsel was thereupon instructed to make arrangements for delivery of such page proof to each of the Commissioners promptly upon receipt of the same from the Public Printer.
A Motion was made, seconded and carried that there be provided 100 copies of the Report and Hearings bound in buckram for the Commissioners to distribute as they may determine and that in addition 500 copies of just the Report be provided for such distribution.
A Motion was made, seconded and carried that leather bound copies of the Report and Hearings with the names of the proposed recipients stamped on them in gold be provided for the President and such persons as he might select, for members of the Kennedy family in accordance with the direction from the White House, and for the Commissioners.
A Motion was made, seconded and carried that one set of the Report and Hearings with the proposed recipient’s name stamped in gold be furnished each of the staff members who have been with the Commission a substantial period of time in the work of the investigation and preparation of the Report.
The General Counsel was asked to furnish each of the Commissioners a list of the employees of the Commission with their addresses and that this be supplied to each Commissioner as soon as it can be furnished after the Report has been published.
Discussion was had regarding Chapters III and IV of the proposed Report. The General Counsel was instructed to use care that the proposed conclusions concerning such chapters, as they were set forth in Chapter I, not contain any conflict.
A Motion was made, seconded and carried that the General Counsel proceed to make arrangements to provide for the return of President Kennedy’s clothes which are referred to in the Report to Mrs. Kennedy. It is also directed that this be done as soon as it can be accomplished after the Report is published and still adequately protect the determinations of the Commission as set forth in the Report. Furthermore, that the return of such apparel be subject to an arrangement whereby such clothing will be available if and when necessary to support the work the Commission has done, presumably upon mutual agreement of the Chairman and the widow or members of the Kennedy family.
A Motion was made, seconded and carried that the Chairman hereby be appointed to act with full and complete authority so as to promptly proceed with whatever steps are necessary and proper to liquidate and close up the affairs of the Commission and that during such period of liquidation and final determination of the Commission’s activities, the Chairman shall have full power and authority to call the Commission into session at any time that he may see fit, and shall do so upon the request of any Commissioner.
A Motion was made, seconded and carried that the General Counsel be authorized to proceed to make arrangements, subject to the approval of the Chairman, to return to interested parties who have furnished documentary and other evidence to the Commission all of such materials when their retention is no longer necessary to adequately protect the Report of the Commission or when duplicate or other conformed copies will be fully adequate. That in taking such action the General Counsel consult with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other interested persons and agencies whenever necessary and proper.
A Motion was made, seconded and carried that as soon as all of the exhibits and other records of the Commission which are to be published have been printed and made available to the public, all of the remaining materials and records of the Commission shall be delivered to the National Archives to be held in perpetuity for the use and benefit of the people of the United States in accordance with federal laws and regulations.
A Motion was made by Representative Ford that a letter dated September 10, 1964, of Representative Pillion of Buffalo, New York, directed to the Commission, together with a copy of the interview of the Federal Bureau of Investigation with said Representative, be published in the Hearings of the Commission. After some discussion, the Chairman declared the Motion lost for lack of a second.
A Motion was made, seconded and carried that pictures of the Commission be procured and that a total of 100 copies be made available for the Commissioner’s [sic] use and that one copy of such Commission picture be provided for each staff member.
The General Counsel stated that in excess of 2100 exhibits had been made out of Commission documents that had been called to the attention of the Commissioners in the preparation of the Commission’s Report. He further reported that these had been used as citations in support of various statements in the Report and that it was desirable and proper for these Commission documents at this time to be denominated exhibits and thereby be made a part of the proceedings of the Commission.
The General Counsel further stated that all of such exhibits were listed on a document which had been marked Exhibit 3154, whereon the exhibit number, the date, in many cases, and the description of the exhibit was set forth. Thereupon the General Counsel offered in evidence such described exhibits running from 1054 through 3154, both inclusive, and asked that as listed on said Exhibit 3154 and as those exhibits each respectively appeared in the records of the Commission, but as limited by the documents so marked, be made regular exhibits of the Commission’s proceedings with the same force and effect as any and all other exhibits which had heretofore been offered and received in evidence. The Chairman declared that the exhibits as offered be received in evidence and become a part of the Commission’s exhibits.
The General Counsel reported various items of the expenses and budget of the Commission during its months of operation and after discussion a motion was made, seconded and carried that the budget and expenses of the Commission as reported by Mr. Rankin be approved, subject to his furnishing a general financial statement for the period from November 29, 1963, to an estimated date of October 31, 1964. Such statement shall describe the salaries, travel, equipment rent and similar general categories, with the total obligations and total estimated cost, this approval to be subject to such financial statement being furnished to each of the Commissioners and their having an opportunity to direct such inquiries as they may care to to [sic] the General Counsel about specific items.
The Chairman then announced that an appointment had been made for the Commission to deliver its Report Volume to the President on September 24, 1964, at 11:00 a.m., at the White House. The Hearings Volumes will be delivered to the White House as soon as they are all published. All Commissioners stated that they would plan to attend that proceeding.
There being nothing further to come before the Commission, the meeting was adjourned.