The first JFK files ignited conspiracy theories around the world in 1964

The Kennedys ride in Dallas, in the moments before the president was assassinated.
The Kennedys ride in Dallas, in the moments before the president was assassinated.
Image: AP Photo/Jim Altgens
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Donald Trump has bowed to the wishes of the FBI and the CIA by withholding some of the JFK assassination documents the US government was mandated to release yesterday. This has fired up the conspiracy theorists, who say the president is being manipulated in service of “deep state” forces out to undermine him.

That this US president would become ensnared in the nearly 54-year history of doubt surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy adds a new twist to the saga of suspicion regarding official conclusions about the events of Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas.

It is worth noting that no matter how firm a hold conspiracy theories have had on the imagination of a president and in a nation where most have long believed Kennedy was killed as part of a plot, the initial voices of journalistic skepticism about the first federal investigation were much more prominent abroad.

“The report’s findings on what happened in Dallas contained few surprises,” The New York Times reported (pdf) upon the Sept. 27, 1964 release of the Warren Report. “The essential points had leaked out one way or another during the ten months since President Johnson appointed the commission…The question now is whether the report will satisfy those, especially abroad, who have insisted that there must have been a conspiracy in the assassination.”

An early free ride for the Warren Commission in the US

Much of the earliest mainstream coverage and serious commentary in the US supported the findings of the Warren Commission, which was formed by Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson just a week after the murder. The panel said all of the available evidence showed that Lee Harvey Oswald—and the man who would kill the accused assassin on live TV while he was held by police, night club owner Jack Ruby—had acted alone (pdf).

In wrapping up a two-hour CBS News special on the report’s release, anchorman Walter Cronkite’s tone was more than respectful toward the commission, which was led by the US Supreme Court’s chief justice. Cronkite focused on whether the slain Oswald was given a fair shake, not on the official findings of no grand conspiracy:

No investigation could have been more painstaking than that carried out by this commission. Every resource of criminology was called into play—ballistics tests, analysis of the guns themselves, handwriting analysis, the blanket in which the gun was wrapped, the photographs linking Oswald to the crime. Earl Warren was not too dignified to race down the stairs at the depository building, matching his own time against Oswald’s. In the end, we find confronting each other the liar, the misfit, the defector on the one hand, and seven distinguished Americans on the other.

Cronkite did acknowledge that “the liar” Oswald never had the benefit of a trial: “We must depend upon our own judgments and look into our own consciences. The Warren Commission cannot do that for us. We are the jury all of us, in America, and throughout the world.”

A different story internationally

Outside the US, there were stronger initial expressions of uncertainty about the commission’s work. An Oct. 3, 1964 New York Times story headlined “Oswald Findings Doubted Abroad” (pdf) stated that, “The finding that one man, without conspiracy, assassinated President Kennedy has inspired widespread skepticism and outright disbelief in many newspapers around the world.” The Times then recounted a summary of foreign-press reactions gathered by the United States Information Agency, Washington’s official PR agent to the world. The agency offered its assessment by region, the Times said:

  • In western Europe, “In most countries, notably Britain, Germany and Scandinavia, most papers endorsed the Warren Commission findings. In France, and to a slightly lesser extent in Belgium and Austria, critical questioning or rejection was predominant… Supporters as well as critics of the report noted the difficulty that Europeans have in accepting the assassination as the work of one man.”
  • “Many Greek papers used question marks in their headlines to encourage doubt.”
  • In Latin America, “The most frequent theme is that many remain unconvinced and that history will have to provide the definitive account.”
  • “In the Near East and South Asia, only the Indian press largely accepted the finding that Oswald and Ruby acted alone. Arab and Pakistani papers still favored theories of conspiracy.”
  • Elsewhere in Asia, “There was skepticism in Japan, doubt about the commission’s argument in the Philippines and critical comment in one Cambodian paper.”
  • In Ghana, “the commission was accused of ‘shocking’ efforts to ‘suppress’ the facts.”
  • “In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the press gave wide publicity to the Warren Commission report but questioned its validity, suggesting it had failed to reveal the truth.”

It was a far cry from the Times’ own first-day coverage, which included this line in the main news story: “Few who loved John Kennedy, or this country, will be able to read it without emotion.”


he tide turns, a bit, on American TV

By 1966, only 36% of Americans said they had confidence in the commission’s conclusions. Books like Mark Lane’s bestselling Warren Commission critique Rush to Judgment had gained wide currency. By 1967, CBS News would spend four nights re-examining the panel’s conclusions, going so far as to re-create the motorcade’s fatal ride through Dealey Plaza. “Believing that rifle tests conducted by the Warren Commission were less than adequate, we conducted new tests, more closely simulating the conditions of the actual murder,” Cronkite intoned. Still, CBS concluded that the commission was right in seeing “no credible evidence” of a conspiracy.

The country eventually learned that its broadly held doubts about the Warren Report were shared by the man who ordered its creation.

Johnson, just months out of office in 1969, told Cronkite, “I can’t honestly say I have ever been completely relieved of the fact that there might have been international connections.” Saying he had not lost confidence in the members of the commission, Johnson added a caveat: “I don’t think they, or me, or anyone else, is always absolutely sure of everything that might have motivated Oswald or others that could have been involved.” (The commission never actually determined a motive for Oswald.)

It would be almost six years before Americans would hear their former president voice this skepticism. Johnson had asked that his comments on the assassination not be broadcast in 1969. When they did finally air in 1975—two years after LBJ’s death—Cronkite told viewers Johnson made his request “on the grounds, he said, of national security,” the same principle invoked by Trump in his memo describing what was not released last night.