Topic: Assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
Interview Date: October 19, 2003.
WILLIAM O. BAKER: Clark Clifford and I had gone into the White House mess … [which is] in the White House itself, in the West wing. Its the place where the President's immediate aides and heads regularly have lunch or regularly gather.
There was practically nobody there. … Clifford and I came into lunch. And we said hello to the Secret Service fellow who's in charge. He was a nice young chap. And we just passed the time there. And in about five minutes or less, he came back looking as though he had seen the most ferocious ghost. He said: “The President's been shot. The President's been shot.”
And so then we were left, at that point, with the responsibility of being sure that the command and control system was alerted, which had been agreed upon, of course, some time before. But … Bundy, who normally would have taken care of that, wasn't there. And there wasn't anybody there who could do it. So we said we got to be sure the Joint Chiefs know about this, and at the same time we don't preempt any other decisions which are underway which are important.
So, at that point, they did (they being the Secret Service people) who were there and the ones we had often worked with in the White house, did, and the Joint Chiefs, of course, had their top people in the State Department space or agency. Anyway, but the ones they went were the ones who were still over in the Pentagon. And the Pentagon people had their fingers on the trigger, of course. And so they wanted to get to them very fast. And they did; they finally got there.
We were also close to it. And so intimately arranged, that for goodness sakes, there wasn't any bureaucratic question of whether so or so had been checked with or so or so had checked it all, or anything like that. It just went the way it had to go.
Well, of course, it was absolute disaster reaction. They, various phases. Now, of course, the one we took some action on was specifically the medical emergency phases because it wasn't immediately clear that his brains were blown out actually. As far as we were concerned, rapid check whether there was any medical possibility, or what medical actions had been taken or could be taken. It developed pretty fast that there was no hope.
There were only a few people at the White House, as I have said. There was really no hope. We got around, Clifford and I and the Secret Service people, to the… In that case, the Secretary of State wasn't there, but he was nearby. And, of course, the Vice President was involved in that location, and there wasn't anything we could do about that. And, of course, the Joint Chiefs were informed. Then the international and national mobilization was put into effect, because the question was raised, and I guess Clifford and I emphasized this rather strongly: well this may be some kind of a broader plot, it may be some kind of a broader attack, and the Soviets may actually be launching an offensive.
And so, at that point, the Joint Chiefs’ mobilization went further, and they were prepared the best they could with the chaotic situation. They did pretty well at it.
They took over the Situation Room. And we had already equipped the Situation Room for some such thing. Now we had no idea, of course, it was going to happen or not. The Situation Room was right next to, right adjacent to lunch room. Anyway, except the Situation Room was secure, and very, very sensitive, and very well guarded. So we simply confirmed and made sure that there was a consistent story. At that point, their machinery took over, the Situation Room’s machinery. It was a very good exercise on that.
How did I feel? Oh, gosh. A great sense of tragedy. A great deal of concern, of course, for Mrs. Kennedy, who was terribly involved and terribly bloodied and so on.
And assuring that the Vice President was being guarded and supported, because obviously all our emergency planning had to go forward then and it did. It did go forward pretty well. The Vice President's security surroundings were minimal. Nobody ever thought of protecting the Vice President, and they did not have much machinery.
But we were aware of those factors, and, of course, terribly shocked and saddened. Arrangements were immediately made for the aircraft so that Mrs. Kennedy could get back to Washington, and the Vice President and Mrs. Johnson could get there. We had a part in that because there wasn't any real central authority. So we simply did that.
[Vice President Johnson] went back to Washington and then Mrs. Kennedy. I guess I first saw him in Washington, right after the event you are talking about. He got back there pretty fast. And, of course, by that time it was clear that the whole administration of the country had to shift. And as I remember it, the Vice President and the Vice President's machinery by then had gone into action. I saw him rather briefly. There were questions about services, funeral, and so on that came up, mechanical things.