Steven M. Gillon: A New Wrinkle in the JFK Assassination Story





[Steven M. Gillon is resident historian of the History Channel]

This month will mark the 46th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A recently declassified oral history by Brigadier General Godfrey McHugh, President Kennedy's military aide on the Dallas trip, sheds new light on the critical hours after the shooting. McHugh makes startling claims about Lyndon Johnson's behavior in the wake of the assassination.

The interview with McHugh, originally conducted for the John F. Kennedy Library in 1978, remained closed for 31 years. It was finally declassified in the spring of 2009. I just happened to be working at the Kennedy Library on the day the interview was opened to the public and have used it for the first time in my new book, The Kennedy Assassination -- 24 Hours After.

After being informed at Parkland Hospital that Kennedy was dead, Johnson raced back to Air Force One, where he waited for Mrs. Kennedy and the body of the slain president, and made preparations to take the Oath of Office. Back at the hospital, the Kennedy group loaded the body into a coffin, forced their way past a local justice of the peace, and hurried back to Love Field for the long ride back to Washington.

It was standard practice for the plane to take off as soon as the commander-in-chief was onboard. Even after McHugh had ordered the pilot to take off, however, "nothing happened." According to the newly declassified transcript, Mrs. Kennedy was becoming desperate to leave. "Mrs. Kennedy was getting very warm, she had blood all over her hat, her coat...his brains were sticking on her hat. It was dreadful," McHugh said. She pleaded with him to get the plane off the ground. "Please, let's leave," she said. McHugh jumped up and used the phone near the rear compartment to call Captain James Swindal. "Let's leave," he said. Swindal responded: "I can't do it. I have orders to wait." Not wanting to make a scene in front of Mrs. Kennedy, McHugh rushed to the front of the plane. "Swindal, what on earth is going on?" The pilot told him that "the President wants to remain in this area."

McHugh, like most members of the Kennedy entourage, did not know that Johnson was onboard. They believed that the new president was on his own plane flying back to Washington. If LBJ was on the plane, McHugh wanted to see for himself. Since he had not seen Johnson in the aisle -- and at 6'4" Johnson would be tough to miss -- McHugh assumed that he must then be in the bedroom. When he checked there Johnson was nowhere to be seen. The only place on the plane he had not inspected was the bathroom in the presidential bedroom.

What McHugh claimed to have witnessed next was shocking. "I walked in the toilet, in the powder room, and there he was hiding, with the curtain closed," McHugh recalled. He claimed that LBJ was crying, "They're going to get us all. It's a plot. It's a plot. It's going to get us all.'" According to the General, Johnson "was hysterical, sitting down on the john there alone in this thing."

I soon discovered that McHugh had told a similar story when he spoke by phone with Mark Flanagan, an investigator with the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA). Ironically, McHugh gave the interview to the HSCA a week before he sat down with the Kennedy Library in May 1978. "McHugh had encountered difficulty in locating Johnson but finally discovered him alone," Flanagan wrote in his summary to the Committee. Quoting McHugh, the investigator noted that the General found Johnson "hiding in the toilet in the bedroom compartment and muttering, 'Conspiracy, conspiracy, they're after all of us.'"

Author Christopher Anderson claimed that McHugh shared a similar, although slightly more dramatic, version of this story when he interviewed the General for his book Jackie after Jack, published in 1998.

If true, the story is explosive and reveals a completely different side of Johnson than the collected, calm presence he otherwise managed to convey throughout the hours and days following Kennedy's death.

But how credible is McHugh's account?

It is, of course, impossible to confirm or deny whether a private encounter took place between the two men, both of whom are now dead. There are a number of reasons to doubt McHugh's claim. The General intensely disliked Johnson and was fiercely loyal to JFK, and therefore had some reason to invent such a story. Most glaring, McHugh made no mention of what was surely a very memorable encounter in his long interview with William Manchester in 1964. It also stands to reason that if McHugh had witnessed Johnson in a state of utter breakdown, he would have told the story to others within the Kennedy camp. Surely, given how potentially damaging the story would be to LBJ, Kennedy partisans would have leaked it to the media at some point.

Although it is impossible to prove, my gut reaction is that McHugh is telling the truth. We know that Johnson was a man capable of dramatic mood swings, and occasional fits of hysteria were not unusual. McHugh's account of LBJ's behavior is similar to RFK's description of a trembling and tearful Johnson at the 1960 Democratic Convention when it appeared that JFK might renege on his promise to include him on the ticket. It was not surprising behavior to those who knew him best.

We also know from some eyewitnesses that LBJ's secret service agent, Rufus Youngblood, stood outside the door to the bedroom and controlled the traffic into the room. Aides went in and out, but it is possible that McHugh could have found LBJ alone in the bedroom suite.

If true, though, why did McHugh wait until 1978 to tell this story? When Manchester interviewed him in May 1964, McHugh was still in the military, although only a few months away from retirement. Is it possible that he worried the story would be too damaging to his commander-in-chief?

We will never know for sure, but McHugh's account is sure to add to the controversy surrounding that tragic November day in Dallas.

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Pamela Harms - 10/31/2009

For those interested in this subject, I recommend James Douglass' book JFK and the Unspeakable. Having read this book, I find McHugh's account to be thoroughly credible and have no problem believing that these facts did not come out until 1978.

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