DEATH OF JFK / Initial Response
[Editor's Note: Ian Griggs, Editor of THE DEALEY PLAZA
ECHO, the journal of the British Research Group devoted
to the study of the death of JFK, provides an overview of
world opinion on the events of 22nd/24th November 1963,
based upon government documents released in 1994/95.]
In the United Kingdom, the Public Record Office (PRO) is the equivalent of the United States National Archives. It is the national repository for all UK governmental and other official records which are to be permanently preserved. Such documents are available for public examination at the PRO and range from the Domesday Book (1086) to the Magna Carta (1215), the will of William Shakespeare (1616) and even the Deed Poll document legalizing a certain musicianís official change of name from Reginald Kenneth Dwight to Elton Hercules John (1970).
The PRO was established by Act of Parliament in 1838 and its records currently occupy four different locations in London. Its main building, and by far the largest, is situated at Kew, on the western outskirts of London. It is here that the British Foreign Office records, which include the Kennedy-related files referred to herein, are stored. Records held are normally available for study by members of the public after 30 years.
This paper describes the eight Kennedy Assassination-related files which I located and examined at the PRO in the course of my visits on 12th September 1995 and on 30th November 2001. As far as I am aware, there are no further British Government files on the subject, either open or closed. As noted later, however, a section of one of these files does, for some undisclosed reason, remain closed to public scrutiny.
The Kennedy Assassination Files
On my first visit to the PRO (September 1995), I studied seven files. All had been closed and sealed until 1st January 1994 under the general 30-years rule. Another remained closed for an extended period and was to be the subject of my second visit in November 2001. Prior to my visit, I contacted the PRO by telephone and was very fortunate to make contact with of Ms. Abi Husainy of the PRO Reader Services Department. This lady was not only very helpful in advising me the location of the relevant files but she also takes an interest in the Assassination and has more than passing knowledge of its significance and complexities.
File: FO 371/168406-8
The main file I studied (numbered above) consists of three smaller related files linked together under the common title International reaction to the death of President Kennedy, 1963. Within each of them there are individual files dealing with reaction in specific countries. Much of the material within consists of communications and reports sent to Her Majestyís Foreign Office in London from British Embassies and Consulates around the world. Most of these had been sent within a week of the assassination - some within just two or three days. Presumably the Foreign Office had requested this information urgently following the assassination of President Kennedy and the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald.
When you study documents like these in some depth, you inevitably get an overall feeling about the situation. As is to be expected, the main feeling is one of shock. Whether you are reading about the reaction of the public in Russia, the Government in France, or British ex-patriots in Australia, that feeling is the same. These papers do not only deal with those countries, however. Also included - and given equal prominence - are countries from the emerging third world in Africa, Asia and South America.
Every individual country was obviously concerned about its own future and situation following Kennedyís death and the unexpected emergence of Lyndon Johnson as President. Some countries feared a sudden change in American policy towards them. Would existing trade agreements continue as before? Would US aid be cut off? Would there be a change in attitude towards the Eastern Bloc? What would happen in Vietnam?
I learnt that only two countries in the entire world did not treat Kennedyís death with the reverence and respect it deserved. One was Red China and the other, somewhat surprisingly to me, was Portugal. In Communist China, there was nothing in the way of a public tribute and one major newspaper carried a front-page cartoon showing JFK face down in a pool of blood with the caption Kennedy bites the dust. I subsequently learnt that Portugalís cold attitude was due to something of a breakdown in relations with the US as the result of serious ongoing trade disputes.
Some direct quotes
Allow me to quote directly from some of these files. I think you will, like me, find several of these remarks somewhat prophetic.
1. This is from a file dealing with reactions to the assassination in Czechoslovakia. President Antonin Novotny sent a message of sympathy to the new President in which he said that Kennedy was the victim of a criminal plot. This comment was made as early as 23rd November.
2. Still in Czechoslovakia, the newspaper Rude Provo (24th November), quoting the Czech Press Agency in the United States, refers to contradictory rumours as to the forces behind the assassination. Some rumours indicated that the FBI and the CIA are in back of it.
3. Going forward to 25th November, this is from the British Embassy in Peking (now Beijing), China to the Foreign Office in London. It is an unattributed direct quote from the Chinese press: The obvious, in fact the only line to take, I should think, is that the United States ruling classes (reactionary, imperialist, etc.), decided that Kennedy was betraying their interests in some way and had to be liquidated.
4. Here is the first of two very positive statements concerning the death of Lee Harvey Oswald. It comes from the Yugoslav newspaper Borba of 25th November: Oswaldís murder took place with police connivance. Well, I personally think that the word ëconnivanceí is a little strong at so early a stage - although subsequent research does suggest that there could be some truth in it.
5. Still with the press, there is a wonderful headline in the German newspaper Neues Deutschland, again on 25th November. It appears above one of those infamous photographs of Jack Ruby shooting Oswald and says simply (in German of course): Dead men tell no tales. Those five short words are as true today as they were when they were penned by an anonymous German headline writer.
6. Remaining with the Oswald murder, here are the comments of an official at the British Embassy in Tokyo, Japan in a report to the Foreign Office on 26th November: The shooting of Oswald, the alleged assassin, aroused unfavourable comment in the Japanese press. The impression has been given in some headlines that the United States is a country where lynch law prevails and the whole episode has, in the opinion of the Japanese press, tarnished the American image abroad.
7. The British Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, sent a lengthy communique to the Foreign Office on 29th November. It included the following rather odd statement: The quantity of material published, broadcast and televised was staggering; the American Embassy must be far better equipped with obituary material than we are.
8. Now for a brief visit to Africa. This is from an official communication sent from the British Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan to the Foreign Office. It is dated 6th December - obviously well after the event and at a time when it was possible to judge the situation more objectively. I find this statement strangely prophetic in view of subsequent views and opinions. Later speculation on the assassinís motives has laid stress on the influence of Zionism and the extreme right in the United States. Well, I donít know about the Zionist angle but as far as the right wing goes .....
9. The final extract I quote here comes from an internal British Government document prepared by the Foreign Office itself on 23rd December - a month and a day after the assassination. It is unclear whether this was intended to be presented to the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, or whoever. It is taken from a lengthy report in which the world is divided into convenient geographical and political boxes for individual comment. Under the heading Eastern Europe, we read the following: Most eastern bloc countries stuck to the story that President Kennedy had been killed by a right wing racist and denounced the killing of Oswald by Ruby as a fascist plot to cover up the truth.
What does it all mean?
The above represents just a small cross-section of the material contained in this file. I have obviously been somewhat selective in my quotes but it seems that many of the initial opinions have changed very little over the years. I am intrigued by the regularity with which words like racist and fascist are used to describe the plot.
Not surprisingly, two particular countries were anxious to allay any suspicions that they had been connected with the assassination in any way. Both the Soviet Union and Cuba strongly denied any involvement. Cuba especially seemed gripped with fear that the blame would be laid at its door. Russia was not quite as paranoid but nevertheless stressed from an early date that it was innocent.
I find it interesting - and perhaps significant - that very few countries seemed to accept that the assassination was the act of one deranged lone-nut. That feeling was strengthened when the same deranged lone-nut was dispatched quickly and efficiently by a second deranged lone-nut called Jack Ruby.
The other files
Amongst other assassination-related files I examined during that first PRO visit were some dealing with attendance at the late Presidentís funeral.
Much diplomacy was exercised regarding who would attend the funeral. One of the problems was the lack of time available to plan exactly who would represent each country. In the UK, it was decided almost at once that Prince Philip would represent The Queen. Prime Minister Douglas-Hume and Opposition Leader Harold Wilson were obvious attendees but the name of Liberal Party leader Jo Grimond was only added to the official party as an afterthought. He perhaps took this as something of a snub and travelled to Washington alone, and on a normal commercial flight.
There was some concern when the official list of those in the British party included three young ladies who were not named. It later transpired, however, that they were members of the Prime Ministerís staff.
Several countries appeared confused as to whether they should send their head of state, their prime minister, their ambassador or whoever. In most cases, they contacted the US State Department for guidance.
A Policy File - FO 953/2109
A Policy File, usually referred to as a P-File, is one prepared by or dealing with the British Governmentís Information Policy Department. In view of its subject matter, this one carries the Foreign Office prefix FO.
This file was released in 1994 - or rather, most of it was. There is a notice inside the file cover advising that certain parts of it remain closed. No reason is given. It appears that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was in unofficial contact with the Foreign Office around 27th November. The BBC was finding it difficult to deal with certain Russian propaganda concerning the assassination. The story had been circulated by the Soviets that the assassination had a right-wing origin and that the murder of Oswald was part of a cover-up, also by the right-wing. The BBC requested that if the Foreign Office gained any information disproving such allegations, or even something to suggest that there could be some truth in some in them, they hoped that they (the BBC) would be given the earliest possible guidance.
It remains to be seen what is contained in the closed section of this file. Normally the reason a file (or part of a file) remains closed after the usual 30 years period is because it is deemed to contain material sensitive to the security of the nation. Did the BBC perhaps know something about the assassination which the Government was anxious to cover up?
The Kennedy files held at the Public Record Office
The seven files I consulted during my first visit to the PRO were as follows:
FO 371/168406-8 - International reaction to the death of President
A second visit to the PRO
On 30th November 2001, knowing that the eighth and final Kennedy Assassination file had been opened and released for public scrutiny, I returned to the Public Record Office. In the five years since my previous visit, the PRO had undergone an immense modernization programme. Although the records and information are still physically contained in cardboard boxes and file covers, the methods of search and retrieval now demand considerable computer knowledge and there is now a virtually compulsory half-hour computer induction course for first-time visitors.
File: FO 371/171941
I found that this Foreign Office file which had still been closed on my previous visit was now open in its entirety. No reason was available to explain why, like its fellow Kennedy files, it had not been opened and available for public scrutiny as usual after 30 years. I noted that parts of it had been marked CONFIDENTIAL but that is a very low security classification and would surely not have been the cause of it remaining closed for a year longer than normal. (Endnote 1)
This file was by far the largest of any I studied. It consisted of three separate sub-files, each individually numbered and titled. I will deal with each of them in turn here.
Sub-file: NS 103145/29
Marked CONFIDENTIAL, there are two separate parts to this file. The first bears the title Soviet Foreign Policy in the light of President Kennedyís Death and is a lengthy internal Foreign Office Report dated 27th November 1963. It is a very general and non-committal overview which comes to the conclusion that President Johnsonís assumption of office does not suggest that any sudden change in Soviet policy is planned and that the Soviet leaders will probably adopt a wait-and-see policy. It was stressed that the Soviets remained embarrassed at Oswaldís alleged Communist and Cuban connections and that they continued to deny that he was ever a member of the American Communist Party or was connected with any pro-Cuban movement.
Of historical as well as political interest, it is mentioned that Soviet television made use of Telstar (the worldís first low-altitude active communications satellite) to transmit pictures directly from Washington. (I am tempted to ask if the shooting of Oswald was also shown live in Moscow, and if so, what reaction it caused.)
The second part of this sub-file is a report prepared by the Foreign Office Research Department. It is entitled Likely Effects of President Kennedyís Assassination on Soviet Foreign Policy and as it pre-dates the previous document by one day and deals with virtually the same matters, it appears to be the basis upon which the main report is based.
It does contain more comment on the Sovietsí embarrassment at
Oswaldís alleged links:
Sub-file: NS 103145/30
Under the general title Soviet Coverage of the Assassination of President Kennedy, this lengthy file comprises five sections. The first four cover specific dates (22nd-24th, 25th, 26th and 27th-28th) whilst the fifth is an overall report specifically entitled Soviet Treatment of the Assassination of President Kennedy. This report is undated but as it is based upon the four dated files, it was probably compiled on 29th November 1963.
The file is concerned with daily media coverage of the assassination in the Soviet Union. It explains that the first news of an attempt on Kennedyís life was given in the Moscow Home Service (radio) at 19.28 GMT (1.28pm CST) (Endnote 2) It then quotes the principal Soviet newspapers. Pravda stressed that Kennedy had insisted that Congress should ratify the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty despite sharp attacks from the American ëwild mení. On Sunday 24th November, Nedelya, the Izvestiya weekly supplement, published a large photograph of President Kennedy on its front page under the headline Tragic News from Texas: Villainous Assassination of President John Kennedy. (Endnote 3)
Moscow Radio continued major coverage of the assassination as the news came in and a Tass dispatch from Washington blamed the Birchites and the Ku Klux Klan.
It appears that during the period between the 22nd and the 24th, the Soviet media was at great pains to indicate that the assassination was a carefully planned political plan and that the police authorities .. were striving to implicate the ëleft-wing forcesí apparently in an effort to channel the anger and indignation of the American people away from the real culprits.
The daily report of Soviet media coverage on 25th November opens in sensational style. I feel compelled to quote the first sentence of the opening paragraph verbatim:
The Soviet coverage of events related to the assassination of President Kennedy came to a climax on November 25 when television viewers saw a thirty-minute direct transmission from Washington on the funeral, a documentary film on the events leading up to the Presidentís death, including the speech he made at Houston, and then the actual shooting, and also a film of the shooting of the suspect Oswald.
When I initially read this, I was both baffled and excited by the words the actual shooting. Since the shooting of Oswald was mentioned separately, this was obviously a reference to the assassination itself. I circulated a plea for more information via two internet forums and was delighted when Sixth Floor Museum Curator Gary Mack promptly responded with the news that the Muchmore Film had been shown on a New York TV station, and probably others, on the 25th. He added that since the film was owned by UPI, it was likely to have been distributed to other news outlets and so it was quite possible that the film shown on Soviet TV was Marie Muchmoreís footage. (Endnote 4)
Not surprisingly, the Soviet media, particularly the press, used Jack Rubyís successful attack upon Oswald to further distance their country from the assassination. A direct connection between the two men was mentioned on the 25th and it was claimed that they had been seen together at Rubyís club the day before the assassination. Once again, there were strenuous denials that Oswald had ever been a member of the Communist Party.
The newspapers Pravda and Izvestiya each likened the assassination of President Kennedy to the Reichstag fire. On the 26th, Izvestiya spoke of dark deeds in Dallas and emphasised the suspicious behaviour of the Dallas police particularly in regard to Oswaldís transfer.
On 27th and 28th November, Soviet communications media were devoting more space to the suspicious circumstances of Oswaldís death than to the assassination itself. At the same time, however, President Johnson was being given a generally favourable press.
Pravda (28th) carried several reports from foreign sources to support claims that right-wing extremists were responsible for the murders of both Kennedy and Oswald. These included pieces under headlines such as Who armed the Murderer? (Rio de Janeiro, Revealing details (Rome), Too many missing pieces (Paris) and Were there too many snipers? (Vienna). There was also a report from Paris that one of Rubyís former dancers had stated that he had been hired to kill Oswald and had been paid for it. I would be intrigued to ascertain just which dancer that was alleged to be!
As mentioned above, the fifth section of this file is in the form of a report in which the foregoing daily notes and extracts are briefly outlined and evaluated. Again it was stated that the Soviet media had continued to stress the Soviet Unionís total innocence throughout this period. Pravda had printed the CPUSA statement that Oswald was completely unknown to them and went on to mention that Trotskyist literature had been found in his room.
Sub-file: NS 103145/32
This sub-file contains just one document, this being the CONFIDENTIAL report sent direct to the British Foreign Office by the British Ambassador in Moscow. It is dated 6th December 1963. The title of the report is Soviet Reactions to the Assassination of President Kennedy and it opens with the following Summary:
The news of President Kennedyís assassination provoked
immediate expressions of genuine regret and sympathy on the part of
the Soviet authorities and the Soviet people (paragraphs 1-3).
This official report, carefully prepared two weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy, is couched in straightforward, non-sensational terms. As can be seen from the Summary, it indicates that the Soviet media in general had continued to maintain that the assassination was the work of right wing extremists. Whether this was a genuinely held view or just intended to deflect possible blame from the Soviet Union is unclear. It was also repeated that Soviet policy was unlikely to change following President Kennedyís disappearance from the scene. (What a classic euphemism those four words present!).
Once again, it was pointed out that the Soviet press had continued to intimate that the Dallas Police of whom they had nothing good to say .. were not merely inefficient but were implicated either in the assassination itself or in attempts to hush it up.
The overall impression I gained from my two visits to the PRO, particularly my first, was that in the days and weeks following the assassination, the world was in complete confusion. I can recall my own thoughts at the time. It quickly became a period of intense insecurity, uncertainty and fear. Looking back on it now, I personally feel that we could well have been closer to nuclear war in the two or three weeks after 22nd November 1963 that we had been even at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis the year before.
Fortunately, the Soviet Union felt it more important to sit back and concentrate on vociferously maintaining its own innocence than to take any more positive action. One can only speculate on the outcome had the Soviets decided that this time of confusion could provide the opportunity to launch a successful physical attack upon the United States and her allies. From the files quoted above, it seems they were far too busy implicating the Dallas Police Department in the Kennedy and Oswald murders than in pressing the red nuclear button.
Endnote 1: The five basic document security levels in use at this time were TOP SECRET, SECRET, CONFIDENTIAL, RESTRICTED and OPEN. Even something as unexciting as a Government Department internal telephone directory was allocated a CONFIDENTIAL caveat.
Endnote 2: A BBC Monitoring Service newsflash (copy in authorís possession), timed at 1938 GMT (1.38pm CST), stated: MOSCOW RADIO, HOME SERVICE, BROADCAST THE FOLLOWING, BREAKING INTO ITS NEWS BULLETIN AT 19.28 GMT: +IT HAS JUST BEEN REPORTED FROM NEW YORK: ACCORDING TO AMERICAN PRESS AGENCIES. DURING THE STAY OF U.S. PRESIDENT IN DALLAS, AN ATTEMPT WAS MADE ON HIS LIFE. KENNEDY HAS BEEN SEVERLY WOUNDED BY A FIREARM.+ (See Griggs, Ian (1994), KENNEDY ASSASSINATED! OSWALD MURDERED! (Dallas, TX: JFK Resource Group, 1997), p. 31
Endnote 3: The Photographic Record: No. 5 - The Soviet Press, THE DEALEY PLAZA ECHO, Vol. 3, No. 2 (July 1999), p. 35.
Endnote 4: In addition to Gary Mack, others who responded to my plea for assistance here included researchers Bill Cheslock, Allan Eaglesham and Cameron Koo, to each of whom I also express my gratitude.