Cedar Rapids Mayor Robert M. L. Johnson Freed Warren Commission Records
Robert M. L. Johnson was the mayor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa from 1962-1969.
After he retired Mayor Robert Johnson wrote letters to the Editor in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, “taking on whatever that excuse for a city council is now,” but it was while mayor that he wrote the letter that had more influence than any other, one to President Johnson asking for him to release the Warren Commission records that were going to be sealed for 75 years.
Apparently Mayor Johnson’s letter to the President single handedly led to the public release of many of the Warren Commission records that were printed by the government in addition to the 26 encyclopedia sized volumes of Warren Report supporting documents and testimony.
Although I have been reading about the assassination of President Kennedy since 1969 and have read through the 26 volumes when I was in college, the story of Cedar Rapids Mayor Johnson and his role in freeing the remaining Warren Commission records was new to me.
I first heard about when Jim Lesar was a guest on Len Osanic’s Black Op Radio Show (#565) on February 9, 2012, and Lesar touched on a number of topics, including the letter he wrote to the US Archivist, the 50,000 pages of CIA assassination documents still withheld under the JFK Act and the status of his Morley vs. CIA FOIA suit regarding the George Joannides records.
Lesar is director of the Assassination Archives and Research Center (AARC), a successor to the Committee to Investigate Assassinations, which was founded in the late 1960s by attorney Bernard Fensterwald, and played a major role in the passage of the JFK Act of 1992. According to that law, all government records related to the assassination must be made public by 2017 unless the President approves their withholding.
The ARRC works closely with the Mary Ferrell Archives, a non-profit org that has scanned and posted over 700,000 pages of assassination documents that have thus far been released.
But there are many more records that have not been released and according to Lesar there has been no review of the CIA records labeled “NBR” or Not Believed Relevant, which include the Joannides records that clearly should have been labeled relevant to the assassination.
George Joannides was the CIA officer who ovesaw the anti-Castro Cuban group known as the DRE – the Student Revolutionary Directorate, who interacted with the accused assassin of President Kennedy in New Orleans in the summer before the assassination.
Following a suit in 2003, the Court of Appeals in 2007 ordered the CIA to search for relevant records, while the CIA acknowledged that George Joannides was called out of retirement to work with the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) in a covert capacity. The CIA refuses to release the records even though they are nearly fifty years old and Joannides has since passed away.
Lesar is currently working on a response to the CIA’s most recent brief in the case that has been dragging on now for nearly a decade.
President Obama’s first action as President was to proclaim a policy of openness. "Knowledge of our history is an essential feature of democratic accountability,” and establish the National Declassification Center (NDC), assigned to declassify 400,000,000 pages of secret documents by 2013. The 50,000 pages of CIA records and other JFK assassination records are being intentionally excluded from this declassification process despite the immense public interest as well as the approaching 50th anniversary of the assassination.
Lesar argues that these records should be available to part of the public debate that will be generated by the anniversary.
While on the Black Op Radio show Lesar asked listeners to help put the pressure on the government to release the files by writing their representative in Congress
According to Lesar, one person can make a difference, and he cited one citizen, Mayor R. M. Johnson of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who personally got many of the Warren Commission records released by writing a single, but convincing letter to President Johnson.
Jim Lesar has a lot of good things going, especially Morley vs. CIA suit, and a D.C. conference planned for the 20th anniversary of the JFK Act in October, but I was particularly interested in the statement he made that “one citizen, Mayor R. M. Johnson of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, got most of the Warren Commission records released.”
After decades of study and research, and as one of the leaders of the free the JFK Files movement since the 1980s, I was a bit startled that the Cedar Rapids Mayor had something to do with the Warren Commission records, and wondered if Mayor Johnson had any association with Art Collins, Collins Radio Company and the “Liberty” radio relay station, which was located in Cedar Rapids.
As the military defense contractor responsible for the radio communications aboard Air Force One, some suspect that the existing taped records of radio communications were recorded there – and the still missing, unedited tapes may be located there somewhere among the old Collins Radio record archives.
So I found it quite ironic that the original AF1 tapes - the single most significant still withheld government record in the assassination of President Kennedy, may be located somewhere in the hometown of Mayor Johnson, the one single person who did the most to get the most significant assassination records released.
After learning this I called Jim Lesar on the phone and he said he too had the same thought. We were wondering if there was a connection between the Cedar Rapids Mayor Johnson and local industrialist Art Collins, whose Collins Radio is suspected by some as being the military defense contractor who had possession of the single most significant piece of evidence in the case – the now missing Air Force One radio transmission tapes.
Lesar said he didn’t know the answer, but he did send off a letter to Collins Radio – now Collins Rockwell and asked them if they still had a copy of the Air Force One radio transmission tapes. No harm in asking.
I related to Lesar how I too had established telephone and email contact with Collins Radio and Rockwell International library and archivists who were always friendly at first and indicated that what I asked for was something that they just might have a copy of, only to have them get back to me cold and apparently scolded. They’d “clam up” as Lesar put it.
But I wanted to know what did the Mayor of Cedar Rapids have to do with the release of the Warren Commission records?
Lesar explained that when Mayor Johnson learned that the Warren Commission was going to seal most of its records for 75 years, he wrote a very persuasive letter to President Johnson, telling him what a mistake it would be to keep those records from the public. Lesar has a copy of the letter but it is stored away and inaccessible at the moment, but I quickly found a reference to it on line.
David Wise wrote about it and quoted portions of the letter in a 1968 Saturday Evening Post article “Secret Evidence on the Kennedy Assassination.”
David Wise is the co-author (with Thomas Ross) of The Invisible Government, one of the most significant and influential books ever written about the CIA and US intelligence agencies, and he also exposed the billions of dollars that the National Recon Office had “lost” in an article published in one of the last issues of John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s George Magazine.
In his 1968 Saturday Evening Post “Secret Evidence in the Kennedy Assassination” article Wise dated Mayor Johnson’s letter as January 4, 1965, and quotes him:
“As one who read and believed the Warren Report on the assassination of President Kennedy, I am disturbed and chagrined that...you would permit a 75 year cloak of secrecy to fall over the facts. May I suggest that if there is true justification for withholding from the public the facts of one of the most tragic events of our time, it is also incumbent upon our national leadership to make it clear why…”
David Wise reported that, “The mayor’s letter hit the White House like a bombshell. McGeorge Bundy, then the President’s national security advisor, immediately ordered the Justice Department to find a way around the 75-year rule. On January 26, 1965, Attorney General Nicholas de B. Katzenbach drafted a letter to the Archives and eight agencies that had made investigatory reports to the Warren Commission.”
“Although Katzenbach said it was ‘undoubtedly necessary to withhold certain of the commission’s papers from the public at this time,’ he told the CIA, the FBI, the Secret Service and the other agencies concerned that earlier disclosure should be considered in light of ‘the very special nature of the Warren Commission’s investigation and the desirability of the fullest possible disclosure of all the findings.’”
“In April, Katzenbach submitted a memorandum to Bundy proposing a set of guidelines to govern the release of the commission files, and the White House approved. Government departments were ordered to begin reviewing the documents. The guidelines provide that the Warren files may remain closed: when existing laws require it; when national security is involved; when disclosure might be ‘detrimental’ to law enforcement; when the identity of confidential sources might be revealed; and when disclosure might ‘be a source of embarrassment to innocent persons.’”
“On April 20, (1965) Bundy wrote back to the mayor of Cedar Rapids, predicting that ‘the vast bulk of the material’ in the Archives would be ‘made available’ as soon as the agencies and the Archives staff had finished sifting through the files.”
FULL LETTER and LBJ Response (Thanks to Rex Bradford and Mary Ferrell Archives)
Jan 6, 1964
As one who read and believed the Warren Report on the assassination of President Kennedy I am disturbed and chagrined that you would permit a government agency to dictate to you what will be done with testimony and exhibits for the next 75 years.
Knowing that you believe in the public’s right to know – a statement you have often made – it intrigues me that you would permit a 75 year cloak of secrecy to fall over the facts involved in the Kennedy assassination.
The decision of the National Archives Bureau to withhold from the public “off the record testimony and exhibits of the Warren Commission for 75 years” is inexplicable and inexcusable and gives cause to doubt the veracity of the published Warren Commission report.
I believe in national security but I fail to see the relationship between the facts of the Kennedy assassination and the security of the nation at this time.
May I suggest that if there is true justification for withholding from the public the facts of one of the most tragic events of our time, it is also incumbent upon our national leadership to make it clear why.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Secrecy creates fear.
Robert H. L. Johnson
The White House
Washington 15, D.C.
Copies sent to:
Hubert Humphrey, the Vice President elect
Earl Warren, Chief Justice
B/B/ Hickenlooper, U.S. Senator
Jack Miller, U.S. Senator
John C. Culver, U.S. Congressman
American Society of News Editors
Associted Press Manging Editors Association
National Association of Broadcasters
Director of National Archives
Harry Boyd, Editor, Cedar Rapids Gazzette
Kenneth McDonald, Edito, Des Moins Register
Wm. B. Quarton, GM WHT Stations
Redd Gardner, GM KCRG Stations
US News & World Report
Honorable Robert M. L. Johnson
Mayor of Cedar Rapids
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Dear Mayor Johnson,
Thank you for writing me concerning the records of the Presidents Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy which have now been deposited with the National Archives of the United States.
The Commission’s Report of its findings and conclusions and the 26 additional volumes containing the testimony, depositions, affidavits, copies of investigative reports and of the documentary and photographic exhibits on which the findings were based, contain the relevant facts concerning the assassination of President Kennedy. No pertinent facts have been withheld and none are now cloaked with secrecy. Since no transcript was made of “off the record” testimony, publication of this evidence is, of course, impossible.
The Commission records in the National Archives will be administered under the same laws, executive orders and regulations that apply to other Government archives. Restrictions on use of any unpublished records of the Commission are not necessarily imposed because of consideration of national security. As in the case of all such investigations, numerous innocent persons having no connection with the subject of the investigation are involved in the reports. It would be quite impossible to release information of this nature that would needlessly embarrass or damage innocent third parties. For this reason, as well as the fact that the techniques and sources of investigatory agencies must be protected, reports of investigation and similar materials are withheld from use, except with the permission of the originating agency, for a period of 75 years.
The application of this policy to the records of the Commission appears to me to be required by the public interest.
CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA MAYOR ROBERT M. L. JOHNSON RIP
Colorful former mayor, Robert M.L. Johnson, passes away at 88
In City Hall on April 13, 2009 at 6:27 pm
Former Mayor Robert M.L. Johnson died Monday. The funeral home’s death notice says he died of a sudden illness. He was 88.
Johnson held the mayor’s post from 1962 through 1967 at a time when the city turned its attention to urban renewal in the downtown and to building an Interstate through the city.
“He was the strongest mayor we ever had,” Don Salyer, who served as the city’s director of planning and redevelopment for 37 years until the mid 1990s, said Monday.
“He laid out policies and programs and followed through on them,” Salyer remembered. “He took charge. He was a man of action so to speak…There was nothing wishy-washy about him, let’s put it that way.”
Johnson was first elected to city office as public safety commissioner, but Jerry Elsea, a beat reporter for The Gazette at the time who went on to be the newspaper’s editorial page editor for some years, remembered that Johnson lost the backing of voters after he touted such ideas as one-way streets in the downtown. Johnson, though, reemerged quickly and was elected mayor.
Elsea remembered Johnson’s time in office as an era of strong leadership at City Hall. The city leaders at the time — they included two future mayors, Frank Bosh and Don Canney, in addition to Johnson — was sufficiently strong, Elsea said, that it allowed Cedar Rapids to put off the idea of changing its commission-style government with full-time mayor and commissioners for years. In 2006, the city did change to a part-time council and full-time city manager, a move, by the way, Johnson supported then and in 1996 when voters rejected the idea.
Elsea said Johnson was at the epicenter of this group of City Hall leaders back in the 1960s who he said made some “wise and far-seeing decisions,” decisions that featured the kind of contentious public hearings that come with matters like urban renewal.
“It was a pretty colorful time for a reporter, because Johnson was not shy about giving his opinions,” Elsea remembered. “He was a colorful character and it was a colorful era for the town.”
Johnson first came to public life in Cedar Rapids as a local radio and television newscaster.
While mayor, he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress in 1966 as a Republican against incumbent John Culver. Later, he served in the Iowa House of Representatives. In 1971 and 1972, he served as city manager of the city of Marion.
Johnson, who resided at Cottage Grove Place, 2115 First Ave. SE, was a tireless writer of letters to The Gazette’s editorial pages over the years and had frequent contact with reporters and others in his retirement.
Former Mayor Don Canney, who was the city’s public improvements commissioner during part of Johnson’s time as mayor and then became mayor in 1969, on Monday called Johnson “a good friend.”
“We disagreed on a lot of things, but as gentlemen,” Canney said. “I really admired him, and he did a darn good job as mayor.”
Canney said he and Johnson talked on the phone just a month ago. “We talked about how we both we’re getting along,” Canney said.
Two months ago, Johnson took time with a reporter, too, tickled, he said, to see that local artist Fred Easker was painting a landscape for the interior of the new federal courthouse now going up downtown.
Johnson wanted to point out that Easker was a Jefferson High School student back in the mid-1960s when Johnson was mayor and decided the city needed a city flag. Easker came up with the winning design.
Johnson said he was also proud that he initiated the charcoal portraits of the city’s mayors that now hang outside the council chambers in what is now the empty, flood-damaged City Hall. He also held a contest for a city song.
He said the city band always used to play the song at the end of their concerts, but then he said that gave way over the years.
Johnson said he asked the band why it stopped playing the song, and he said he was told, “The minute we start to play it people start to leave.”