Hoover, JFK, and the day the FBI stopped writing to the Tammens

Over these next several posts, we’ll be continuing to focus our attention on what’s in the documents that were sent to me by the FBI as a result of my 2010 FOIA request, and what, if anything, they might add to the story.

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JFK funeral
Jacqueline, Caroline, and John Kennedy, Jr., among other family members, on the day of Kennedy’s funeral. Photo credit: National Archives; Photographer: Abbie Rowe, National Park Service

On the morning of Tuesday, May 2, 1972, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover didn’t wake up. His body was discovered at around 8:30 a.m. by his maid, who had arrived at his home to make his breakfast. He’d worked all day at the office the day before, had dinner with his long-time companion and deputy director, Clyde Tolson, and then died of a heart attack sometime during the night or early morning.

Immediately upon Hoover’s death, and at his instruction, his secretary, Helen Gandy, went into high gear destroying what she later claimed to a House subcommittee to be “letters to and from friends, personal friends, a lot of letters.”

Yes. How very thoughtful of this man who’d made an art form of gathering the goods on the powerful, famous, and nonconforming to preserve the trust of those he held most dear by having his secretary tear up, and then send away for further shredding, all of those friendly, personal letters.

Hoover’s death also seemed to bring an end to a different kind of letter—something more relevant to those of us who are concerned with what happened to Ronald Tammen: the form letters. You may recall that the FBI would send a form letter to the Tammens every two or three years, usually in the autumn, to ask if they should continue looking for Tammen. Mr. or Mrs. Tammen would check the box marked “Is still missing,” sign the bottom, and mail the letter back to the FBI. After Hoover died, however, the letters came to a halt, even though, in the final letter, the “Is still missing” box was checked by Ron’s father.

While Hoover was still alive, the FBI had been fairly consistent about sticking to the schedule—jarringly so in 1963. That letter was dated November 29, just seven days after President Kennedy had been assassinated, and the last day of a grueling week in which the country had bid their tearful goodbyes to him. On a day when the nation was still mired in the shock and grief of having seen their young, energetic leader being carried around in a flag-draped casket, someone in Hoover’s employ had the clarity of mind to glance at the calendar and say to him or herself, “Time to send the Tammen family another form letter.”

To put the above action into context, let’s take a quick look at the timeline of that unspeakably sad week, juxtaposed with a few of the more tangible ways in which J. Edgar Hoover had busied himself.

Friday, Nov. 22, 1963

President John F. Kennedy is murdered in Dallas; President Johnson is sworn in. Hoover speaks with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and later sends a memo to his executive staff summarizing his conversation: that the person whom he believed shot and killed the president was in custody at Dallas Police headquarters, and the name of the shooter was Lee Harvey Oswald, who was “working in the building from which the shots were fired.” He concluded, “I told the Attorney General that, since the Secret Service is tied up, I thought we should move into the case.”

Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963

President Kennedy’s casket is on display in the East Room of the White House. President Johnson declares Monday, Nov. 25, 1963, a National Day of Mourning. J. Edgar Hoover briefs LBJ about the FBI’s investigation (transcript — 3 pages), telling him, among other things: they had charged “this man in Dallas” with the president’s murder; they had the rifle that killed the president, the bullet, and the gun that killed the policeman; and “one angle that’s confusing”: a person who showed up at the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City in September 1963 using Oswald’s name was not Oswald.

Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963

JFK’s casket lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda for 21 hours. Roughly 250,000 mourners wait in long lines to pay their respects. At Dallas Police headquarters, as he is being transferred to the county jail, Lee Harvey Oswald is shot on live television by nightclub owner Jack Ruby, and he later dies. At 4:00 p.m. ET, J. Edgar Hoover dictates a summary of the investigation, saying that Oswald is dead, and that he was shot in the stomach by Jack Ruby. “The thing that I am concerned about, and so is [deputy attorney general] Mr. Katzenbach, is having something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin,” he said.

Monday, Nov. 25, 1963 – National Day of Mourning

Beginning at roughly 11 a.m., there is a procession and funeral for John F. Kennedy, after which he is buried at Arlington Cemetery at roughly 3:30 p.m. (View Associated Press footage.) President Johnson calls J. Edgar Hoover at 10:30 a.m., to speak about his concern that people are calling for a presidential commission to look into the assassination. “Some lawyer in Justice is lobbying with the [Washington] Post because that’s where the suggestion came from for this presidential commission, which we think would be very bad,” (Hoover: “I do too,”)…“and put it right in the White House. We can’t be checking up on every uh, every uh, shooting scrape in the country…” Johnson then said that they planned to do two things: 1) Hoover would give a full report to the attorney general, which would be made available to the public, and 2) the attorney general of Texas would “run a court of inquiry.” Listen to the conversation (20:23) or read the transcript.

Wednesday, Nov. 27, 1963

President Johnson gives his “Let Us Continue” speech before Congress.

Thursday, Nov. 28, 1963Thanksgiving

(Unbelievably, Americans that year had to celebrate Thanksgiving three days after watching the funeral of their president.)

That evening, President Johnson delivers a televised speech to the nation asking Americans for their help, strength, and prayers, “that God may guard this Republic and guide my every labor.” (See transcript.)

Friday, Nov. 29, 1963

On Friday evening, President Johnson names the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy.

 

Earlier that day, at 1:49 p.m., President Johnson and Hoover discuss possible members of the presidential commission. When they move on to the FBI investigation, Hoover says “We hope to have this thing wrapped up today, but could be we probably won’t get it before the first of the week.”  Listen to Part 1 (10:06) and Part 2 (10:24) of the taped conversation or read the transcript.

Oh, and one more thing: a form letter signed by Hoover is mailed to the Tammen family.

I don’t know about you, but I find it extraordinary that the FBI was even thinking about Ronald Tammen during that momentous week in our nation’s history.

Of course, Hoover may not have been aware that a letter with his name and signature was mailed to the Tammens on November 29, 1963. It could be that a low-level civil servant had readied the memo and had it signed with an autopen while Hoover was on the phone with the president telling him about Oswald’s ties to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee or the ACLU. Regardless, what this says to me is that in a week when the FBI should have been firing on every cylinder in an effort to determine who killed our president and why, someone within the organization had a more menial task on his or her plate. Even if that person’s job had nothing to do with helping with the Kennedy assassination investigation, even if his or her only job was sending out missing person memos, in my view, it was rather unseemly to be going off-topic so soon. For the rest of the country, the week was rife with cancellations, postponements, and closings in somber reflection of the upheaval we’d experienced. Why couldn’t the FBI—the nation’s top law enforcement agency—have held off on some of its other public duties until, say, after the weekend? Apparently, the bureau had moved on, and they didn’t seem to care if anyone outside its walls knew it.

One last point about the 1963 memo: it wasn’t as if there was a firm date when the memos were mailed out. Nope, the dates were all over the map, as can be seen here:

August 25, 1955

October 1, 1957

November 16, 1959

October 30, 1961

November 29, 1963

January 19, 1967

October 1, 1970

I’m sure the Tammens wouldn’t have minded if the FBI had waited another week or two before sending the letter.

Here’s the other thing that I want to point out about those dates. Based on the above pattern (other than the blip in January 1967), it would be logical to conclude that Mr. Tammen was due to receive another letter in 1972 or 1973, probably in October or November. But then Hoover died in May 1972 and the letter was never mailed. In fact, if these documents are telling us what I think they are, the FBI never wrote the Tammens again. Either Tammen’s case had fallen by the wayside or someone had made the decision that it was time to put a stop to the form letters.

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In my next post, I’ll discuss the two documents from May 1973.

 

 

8 thoughts on “Hoover, JFK, and the day the FBI stopped writing to the Tammens

  1. So interesting!!!! On Sat, Feb 3, 2018 at 8:46 AM A Good Man Is Hard to Find — My Search for Ronald H. Tammen, Jr. wrote:

    > jwenger posted: “Over these next several posts, we’ll be continuing to > focus our attention on what’s in the documents that were sent to me by the > FBI as a result of my 2010 FOIA request, and what, if anything, they might > add to the story. ________________________________ ” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yep, the cessation of letters really grabbed my attention. I sort of like you giving the next chapter in the email updates, so I didn’t jump too far into that point. You’re really going to have to convince me, though, that it was Hoover’s death that caused them to stop, although the time frame is in fact perfect.

    You might get back to this, but for now, I think the most striking part of the letters to the Tammens was this: SOMEONE was keeping track of the case in a very direct way. Even if just form letters, even if they didn’t spend more than 5 minutes total on it, SOMEONE had an assignment to watch that case. The implications of that are……something. I don’t know what. But they are by far the most significant thing I’ve learned from your site, and in almost 30 years of following the Tammen case. And almost as surely, I’ll give it 90% confidence level, SOMEONE made a command decision to stop sending the letters. That is huge, that is a quantam leap in the case…….I think.

    I think it’s a bit of a stretch on your part, though, to think the FBI would stop operating in its daily/mundane tasks the week of JFK’s assassination. The show must go on, even for the FBI. And again, the FBI isn’t a monolith wrapped up in one person. They had their people who were assigned to the things that needed to be investigated. They kept doing what they were doing, and the other people kept doing what they were doing. A person in Washington whose primary job was to continue sending correspondence in missing persons cases could hardly help the FBI investigate whether Cuba or Russia or a domestic group of conspirators was involved. That person would just keep doing their job.

    Per the above, we might disagree on what I say next, but the only point in doubt in the few days after Oswald’s arrest was if he was in league with foreign or domestic plotters.

    Thanks for what you’re doing. I try to talk your site up with my fellow Miami grads. I sure I hope I get a little bit of traffic directed your way.

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  3. “I think it’s a bit of a stretch on your part, though, to think the FBI would stop operating in its daily/mundane tasks the week of JFK’s assassination. The show must go on, even for the FBI. And again, the FBI isn’t a monolith wrapped up in one person. They had their people who were assigned to the things that needed to be investigated. They kept doing what they were doing,”

    I thought so too until I saw the dates on which the form letters were sent were all over the place, with no one particular time of the year. That they would choose Nov. 29, during that week, and a day after Thanksgiving (like who is even working that day; even in 1963 people often took off), makes it very–interesting.

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment. Regarding Hoover, from what I’ve read and from one recent discussion I’ve had with someone who worked at FBI Headquarters while he was director, he was considered a micromanager to the nth degree, who controlled everything, regardless of a staff member’s position or pay grade. It’s my understanding that he truly was the embodiment of the FBI back then. Still, I understand that he couldn’t be everywhere at once, but I would think that, at the very least, he would have paid close attention to anything leaving the Bureau with his signature on it, whether it was by hand or by autopen. Very interesting indeed!

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      1. Thanks for acknowledging my comment — you are really on this case and I think you will solve it. It was an odd synchronicity that you mentioned the JFK assassination in connection (possibly) to the form letter being sent out. I just passed last weekend attending jfkconferencedc. I, too, have an affinity for crime cases that are not solved. Sometime last summer I asked if you had considered MK Ultra or some sort of government deep-secret project abscoding with Ron, since he was seen by a staff member of Miami in restaurant with a group of men, in several months after he disappeared. I was glad when you said you didn’t totally dismiss that possibility, but I don’t know if you’ve found more convincing evidence in another direction. I still haven’t read everything on this site. Thanks so much for pursuing this because for some reason it sort of haunts me. Charlotte

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  4. To clarify…….you think it was Hoover insisting the form letters be sent? Whereupon his death and they wouldn’t be any longer because Hoover wasn’t around to make them do it? And possibly the rationale for that was destroyed along with other documents? You could almost convince me of this. His reputation for aggressive micromanagement was pretty consistently reported.

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  5. Oh my. Right after I sent that, I thought of your requesting documents for other people……it hit me why. I sort of follow this. I think.

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