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Johnson's Arm-Twisting in Kennedy Slaying Probe Told : Archives: Phone records reveal worries over rumors of Soviet or Cuban involvement in assassination, fear of an all-out nuclear war.

September 23, 1993|ROBERT L. JACKSON and RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — President Lyndon B. Johnson used the fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union to persuade key national leaders to participate in the Warren Commission investigation into the slaying of John F. Kennedy, newly released White House telephone transcripts showed Wednesday.

Records opened by the National Archives reveal that Johnson expressed his worries to Sen. Richard B. Russell of Georgia, once a leader of Southern Democrats, and then Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was to head the commission, that unverified rumors about the involvement of Soviet or Cuban officials in the Kennedy assassination might push the United States into a war that could "kill 40 million Americans in an hour."

Transcripts of hundreds of tape-recorded phone calls by Johnson reveal the newly installed President in late 1963 doing what many believe he did best--wheedling, cajoling and arm-twisting, this time so he could guarantee a shaken nation that Kennedy's death would be thoroughly investigated.

"I can't arrest you and I'm not going to put the FBI on you but you're goddamned sure going to serve," Johnson told Russell, who was reluctant to participate in the commission because of his dislike of Warren. The chief justice had authored a unanimous 1954 Supreme Court decision declaring public school segregation unconstitutional.

The records also contain Johnson's claim that Warren himself "started crying" when Johnson refused to let him off the hook in a face-to-face meeting in the Oval Office. Russell later served on the historic commission with Warren. It found in 1964 that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone.

The transcripts of Johnson's phone conversations in the weeks immediately after the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination were made public to comply with legislation approved by Congress last year ordering virtually all official records on the slaying opened to the public. Aides said that Johnson, in succeeding Kennedy, made a practice of secretly recording most of his key telephone calls.

Some of the recordings, along with transcripts, were opened Wednesday at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Tex.

Johnson never installed a voice-activated recording system in the White House like that of Richard M. Nixon.

The recordings showed that in late November and early December, 1963, Johnson was consumed with steadying an apprehensive nation awash with rumors that Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev might have ordered the assassination in retaliation for the Cuban missile crisis a year earlier or that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro had struck back for the CIA-supported Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and CIA-backed attempts on his life.

Johnson told many political figures whom he called that he wanted a high-level panel, with help from the FBI, to comb through all the evidence and head off congressional hearings or a Texas state inquiry that might produce sensational testimony on television.

He told Russell, his political mentor, that he wanted Warren to direct the inquiry "because we've got to have the highest judicial people we can have." But Warren, like Russell, initially demurred, believing that a chief justice should not take such an active role in a murder case that might come before the courts.

In his first conversation with Russell shortly after the assassination, Johnson urged him to serve because of his Senate leadership on CIA and military matters and in foreign affairs, the transcripts showed. Johnson ended their talk when Russell said that he was too busy with other matters.

But on Nov. 29, 1963, according to the records, Johnson called Russell to tell him he was announcing that Russell had accepted membership on the commission.

"But I just can't serve," Russell protested. "I don't like that man (Warren). I don't have any confidence in him at all."

"Dick, it has already been announced and you can serve with anybody for the good of America," Johnson replied.

A week later Johnson dismissed further protests by Russell, telling him "we got to save the country" and praising his patriotism.

Further demonstrating his famous stroking power, Johnson persuaded his longtime Southern friend to "just come and sit in the warm water" of the White House swimming pool and have "a little sherry and a good hamburger." Johnson said that a car would pick him up in 20 minutes.

In contrast to the view of Johnson as often brutally persuasive, the transcripts also showed that he sometimes was warm, sensitive and even insecure during his first weeks as President.

In a call to then-Texas Gov. John B. Connally, who was wounded as he rode with Kennedy in the Dallas motorcade, Johnson told Connally's wife Nellie: "We are praying with you, darling, and I know that everything is going to be all right, isn't it?"

On the same day, Johnson confessed in a phone call to Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, a longtime friend, that he felt "totally inadequate" to be President.

Calling Lawrence F. O'Brien on Nov. 25, 1963, a Kennedy confidant who was director of White House liaison with Congress, Johnson said: "I don't expect you to love me as much as you did him. But I expect you will after we've been around awhile."

"Right, Mr. President," O'Brien replied.

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