Margaret O'Connor

Margaret O'Connor

Margaret O’Connor is a semi-professional musician who performs regularly around Canberra. She’s fascinated by history and archaeology, and loves growing her own food and implementing sustainable living practices.
Margaret O'Connor
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IT IS NOVEMBER 1963 and we are back on familiar and well-worn territory with the infamous political trip to Dallas, Texas – which had been won by the Democrats in 1960 by a very slim margin. Whilst there were political advantages in visiting Dallas – and business ones, too – the city was perceived as being right wing and hostile.

Full-page Dallas Morning News ad and the ‘Wanted for Treason’ flyer that both appeared in downtown Dallas before the President’s arrival. Credit: Bill Winfrey Collection, The Dallas Morning News/The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

What is not universally known is that 34 threats to JFK’s life had been received by the Secret Service from 1961 to 1962, including one in Chicago, Illinois and one in Tampa, Florida shortly before the planned trip to Dallas. JFK had been scheduled to visit Chicago on 2 November 1963 a few weeks before his assassination but the trip was cancelled. Many years later the newly established House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) was unable to specifically determine why this was the case but listed a threat received on 30 October as being one possible reason.

Plans for JFK’s Texas visit went ahead however, and his itinerary was announced by Governor Connally on 1 November 1963. The final motorcade route through Dealey Plaza was selected on 15 November and appeared in Dallas newspapers on 18 and 19 November. JFK and Jackie flew to Texas on 21 November and visited San Antonio and Houston, flying to Fort Worth later that evening. Early in the morning of 22 November, JFK addressed the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. The President left for Dallas at approximately 11.20am.

President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy arrive at Love Field, Dallas, November 22, 1963. Credit: Cecil W. Stoughton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There is a surprising amount of visual material available in the form of film footage and still photographs taken around or at the time of JFK’s assassination (Vincent Bugliosi listed at least 32 in his book Reclaiming History: the assassination of President John F Kennedy). But the scenes of JFK and his entourage approached Dealey Plaza, including the scores of enthusiastic onlookers, are best known from the film footage named after a local clothing manufacturer, Abraham Zapruder, who shot a home movie of the Presidential motorcade progressing through Dealey Plaza on his 8mm Bell and Howell home movie camera. As recorded in Lady Bird Johnson’s later account to the Warren Commission, after the sky had cleared during the late morning, it was a stunningly beautiful day.

We can shortly expect a massive global sixtieth anniversary deluge of commentary on the events which took place on November 22, 1963, after the motorcade turned left onto Elm Street from Houston Street and JFK was killed. Governor Connally, sitting in front of JFK in the presidential limousine, was seriously wounded. James Tague, a bystander, received minor injuries as a result of debris from a bullet which hit the curb. And as for the number of shots which were fired – I’m not even going to go there.

Presidential motorcade on Elm Street
Credit: Robert Croft, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The chickens have come home to roost’ said Malcolm X unsympathetically, when he heard. A few blocks away, Mary Ferrell, a local Dallas legal secretary, absorbed the first news reports and thought something didn’t ring true. Prompted initially by those early feelings of unease, she would develop a compelling interest in the primary evidence relating to the case. The Mary Ferrell Foundation is now a massive, digitised repository of information which according to its website contains ‘nearly two million pages of documents, government reports, books, essays, hours of multimedia, and innovative research tools’. Its ‘wide topic base’ includes ‘the assassinations of the 1960s, the Watergate scandal and post-Watergate intelligence abuse investigations.’

It’s evident that despite the terrible tragedy which had just occurred, many bureaucrats remained remarkably clear headed and quick off the mark. Very early, around the same time as Malcolm X’s cynical and Mary Ferrell’s contrasting but equally incredulous reactions to early assassination reports, FBI Special Agent Robert Frazier, a lead ballistics and firearms examiner, was contacted and asked to start collecting evidence to support the very first inquiry into the circumstances of the assassination – an investigation by his agency.

President Kennedy and his motorcade moments after fatal shots were fired. Badge Man is in the distance, circled in red.
Credit: Mary Ann Moorman,’s original polaroid, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A mere three days later on Monday 25 November, Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach was even able to set out a clear strategy for the official response to the assassination in an official memo about the FBI’s investigation to Bill Moyers, an assistant to President Johnson, which was released by the National Archives in 1994. Katsenbach advised:

‘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.’

Katzenbach continued:

‘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’.

Sure enough, according to the FBI’s own website, some 25,000 interviews were conducted and thousands of leads investigated before the FBI concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

Lee Harvey Oswald arrest card 1963
Credit: Dallas Police; Warren Commission, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Katzenbach’s memo is regarded as the genesis of the ‘President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy’ known commonly by the name of its Chairman, Chief Justice Earl Warren, established by President Johnson through Executive Order 11130 a week after the event. Its seven member team was comprised of: Chief Justice Earl Warren (Chairman), Senator Richard Russell, Senator John Cooper, U.S. Representative Hale Boggs, U.S. Representative Gerald Ford, John McCloy, former President of the World Bank, and Allen Dulles, former Director of Central Intelligence and head of the Central Intelligence Agency. (Massive doubt to this day hangs over Dulles capacity for impartiality given his forced resignation as CIA Director and Head following the Bay of Pigs fiasco.)

Shortly after the Commission members knuckled down and got to work and with somewhat curious timing (exactly a month to the day after JFK’s assassination) former President Harry Truman ruffled feathers by authoring an explosive piece in the Washington Post on 22 December calling for the winding back of CIA operations, saying ‘I think it has become necessary to take another look at the purpose and operations of our Central Intelligence Agency…’

The elderly Truman, who had himself established the CIA in 1947, was startlingly blunt.

‘For some time, I have been disturbed by the way the CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and time policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas…. there is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel we need to correct it.’

President Harry Truman

Again, this remarkable incident and all its ramifications appears to have vanished into the ether.

President John F. Kennedy conferring with former President Harry S. Truman in the Oval Office
Credit: National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, critics of the Warren Commission were chafing at the bit. Unable to restrain himself even until the release of the Final Report of the Warren Commission on 27 September 1964, prominent philosopher Bertrand Russell outlined ‘16 Questions on the Assassination’ a few weeks beforehand. (Russell based his article on what he said were leaks to the press preceding the release of the report.) He criticised the unrepresentative nature of the Commission membership, and the fact that they were closely connected to the U.S. Government. He queried its secretive nature and why it had failed in the first instance to establish a panel to deal with the broad question of who had killed JFK instead of establishing several panels to examine Oswald’s activities on the day. Other questions posed by Russell touched on why JFK visited a city like Dallas known to be a security risk, why several potential assassins were monitored the day of the assassination whilst Oswald was overlooked, the route of the motorcade, the treatment of evidence, theories of the direction of the shots, the timing of the police broadcast and the treatment of witnesses.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, all things considered, the Warren Commission Final Report found that consistent with the earlier FBI Investigation, Oswald acted alone as the assassin. One of its more controversial findings was the single bullet theory, which posited that only three bullets were fired from the Texas School Book Depository and a single bullet passed through JFK’s neck before entering Governor Connally’s chest and right wrist, then his thigh.

I don’t know why the mainstream media has for decades portrayed this inquiry and its findings as neat, tidy affairs, with the Commission members united in polite, consensus agreement. At least three of them dissented with the findings, at least to some degree, sometimes vigorously. In a taped phone conversation with Johnson on 18 September 1964, Senator Richard Russell, for example, stated bluntly that he didn’t believe the theory that the same bullet that hit JFK hit Governor Connally, quoting Connally’s testimony to the contrary. (Johnson is heard on the tape agreeing with Russell.)

According to Gerald D McKnight, ‘Senator Cooper was in strong agreement with Russell, and Senator Hale Boggs, to a lesser extent, had his own serious reservations about the single-bullet explanation.’ Senator Boggs confided to one of his friends that he ‘felt very, very torn during his work (on the Commission) … he wished he had never been on it and wished he’d never signed it (the Warren Report).’

Another former aide argued: ‘Hale always returned to one thing: Hoover lied his eyes out to the Commission – on Oswald, on Ruby, on their friends, the bullets, the gun, you name it.’ Boggs would later attack the FBI and its Director J Edgar Hoover and their professional practices in a strongly worded speech in April 1971 as House Majority Leader.

So much for uniform, gentlemanly consensus.


President John F. Kennedy’s casket is transferred to Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas, Texas
Credit: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 3 here

Featured photo: President Kennedy and motorcade minutes before his assassination in Dallas in 1963: Credit: Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons