Heckuva job brownie, November 1963
In what would now be called a ‘heckuva job, Brownie’ moment, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is on record as scattering praise and commendations freely in the days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Ironically, given the course of events and the unavailability of key personnel when they were most needed, Hoover was moved on Dec. 4, 1963, to issue grateful thanks to all FBI people involved in responding to the assassination. In a memorandum for top personnel headed “RE: COMMENDATION, NOVEMBER 25, 1963,” Hoover wrote,
“I want you to convey my sincere appreciation to the personnel in your division who so graciously volunteered to work on November 25, 1963, in connection with the emergency occasioned by the assassination of the President.
Their devotion to duty and obvious desire to be of assistance and to protect the best interests of the Bureau during this trying time were of the highest caliber and a credit to them. Please extend to all my sincere and heartfelt thanks.
Very truly yours,
John Edgar Hoover
It was Hoover’s wont to express praise and blame at frequent intervals, and even highly praised and promoted officers like Courtney Evans received their share of censure as well as praise. By the same token, Bureau divisions and members sometimes got a pat on the back from Hoover at junctures when they might be seen as less than successful, as in the memo quoted here.
There are oddities in the memo aside from characterizing the assassination of a president as “this trying time.” Nov. 25, 1963, was a Monday, and it is puzzling that FBI personnel are being thanked for showing up for work as they would have had to do on any other weekday. Presumably the underlying reference is that President Kennedy was being laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery that day, with full military honors, and the funeral ceremonies were accompanied by a holiday for government workers. Still, the memo jibes oddly with the events; most Americans would have assumed–taken for granted–that FBI investigators and staff were working around the clock on the assassination. The general public would probably have assumed also that the Bureau was working to protect more than its own “best interests.”
In this latter assumption, the public looks to have been mistaken.
The Dec. 4 memo was no impulse; the Director followed it up with another on Dec. 9, 1963, headed “COMMENDATION, NOVEMBER 25, 1963.” This one was directed specifically to the Special Investigative Division handling the investigation of the assassination:
“By memorandum dated December 4, 1963, the Director requested that his sincere appreciation be conveyed to the personnel who so graciously volunteered to work on November 25, 1963, in connection with the emergency occasioned by the assassination of the President. He stated their devotion to duty and obvious desire to be of assistance and to protect the best interests of the Bureau during this trying time were of the highest caliber and a credit to them.
The following employees voluntarily reported for duty in the Special Investigative Division on November 25, 1963, and it is recommended that a copy of this memorandum be placed in the personnel file of each of these individuals.”
A list of about 35 names, some redacted in the Evans file, follows.
Reading this memo is chilling, especially for anyone alive at the time of JFK’s funeral. The sound of that somber drum and the sight of the riderless horse tend to stick in the memory.
That J. Edgar Hoover could delicately convey surprise that personnel in the Special Investigative Division did not seize the opportunity to take the day off suggests that, even now, historians still have not come to grips with the actual character of the FBI under Hoover.*
To be continued
*There is a faint analogy here, and maybe more than faint, with current revelations from wikileaks. Some news reports on the wikileaks material suggest surprise that diplomats spy on each other, as the hostage-taking at the U.S. embassy in Iran in the 1970s surprised any member of the general public who assumed that diplomats engage solely in diplomacy. However, the infiltration of pure and disinterested diplomacy by intelligence agencies, mainly CIA, while not exonerating the kidnappers, was known especially in the Washington, D.C., region.
Material on how much spying among nations is protected by diplomatic immunity is available, although some of it is in books where the pertinent information has to be linked up by painstaking re-organizing.
For the moment, it looks as though the chief impact of the wikileaks material has been on people who were saying one thing in public and another in private. This is obviously a penchant not to be over-indulged; equally obviously, all fallible human beings can slip into it. But a big problem is immature personalities in responsible positions, who get a sense of power—whoa!—from deliberately being as two-faced as they can get away with.