The Department of State and the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy: Keeping the Field Informed

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

Even though American Foreign Service Officers overseas received the news about the tragic events in Dallas through public media, the Department of State had the responsibility to provide its posts with official updates.  Consequently, on November 22 and 23, the Department sent a number of circular telegrams relating to the assassination and follow-up issues to keep staff informed and to provide direction.  The Department also notified foreign diplomats in the U.S. and other American officials.  Even today, 54 years later, the telegrams make for poignant reading.  They are found below.

I. Circular Telegram 931. November 22, 1963 2:15 p.m.

Initially drafted to say that President Kennedy had been wounded, by the time it was sent the President had died, so the first draft was scrapped and replaced by notification of his death and the succession of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Department of State to All Diplomatic Missions and Consular Offices, Circular Telegram 931, November 22, 1963, file POL 15-1 US/Kennedy, 1963 Subject-Numeric File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  Original document now filed as part of the JFK Assassination Records Collection as document 1191000710126.

II. Circular Telegram 932. November 22, 1963 3:16 p.m.

Expecting a deluge of telegrams in the aftermath of the assassination, the Department instructed posts to institute procedures to drastically reduce the use of telegrams to avoid overloading its electrical communications facilities and capabilities.

CR 12.Cir Tel.932

Department of State to All Diplomatic Missions and Consular Offices, Circular Telegram 932, November 22, 1963, file CR 12, 1963 Subject-Numeric File (NAID 580618), RG 59

III. Circular Telegram 933, November 22, 1963 3:55 p.m.

The Department informed posts of the exact time of President Kennedy’s death and instructed posts to fly the U.S. flag at half staff for 30 days.

US POL 15-1 US[Kennedy.Cir Tel 933

Department of State to All Diplomatic Missions and Consular Offices, Circular Telegram 933, November 22, 1963, file POL 15-1 US/Kennedy, 1963 Subject-Numeric File (NAID 580618), RG 59.  Original document now filed as part of the JFK Assassination Records Collection as document 1191001610391

IV. Unnumbered Circular Telegram to Foreign Chiefs of Mission in Washington. November 22, 1963 3:58 p.m.

The Department formally notified the chief foreign representatives in Washington of President Kennedy’s death and asked that they inform their governments.

US POL 15-1 US[Kennedy.Cir Tel.Chiefs of Mission DC

Department of State to Chiefs of Missions in Washington, DC, Unnumbered Telegram, November 22, 1963, file POL 15-1 US/Kennedy, 1963 Subject-Numeric File (NAID 580618), RG 59. Original document now filed as part of the JFK Assassination Records Collection as document 1191000710211.

V. Unnumbered Telegram to Governors of all U.S. States and Territories. November 22, 1963 4:51 p.m.

The Department formally notified the governors of all U.S. states and territories of the President’s death and directed that the U.S. and state flags be flown at half staff for 30 days.

US POL 15-1 US[Kennedy.Cir Tel Governors

Department of State to Governors of All States and Territories, Unnumbered Telegram, November 22, 1963, file POL 15-1 US/Kennedy, 1963 Subject-Numeric File (NAID 580618), RG 59. Original document now filed as part of the JFK Assassination Records Collection as document 1191001610466.

VI. Circular Telegram 934. November 22, 1963 4:53 p.m.

Acting Secretary of State George W. Ball sent a personally-drafted telegram paying tribute to President Kennedy.

US POL 15-1 US[Kennedy.Cir Tel.934

Department of State to All Diplomatic Missions and Consular Offices, Circular Telegram 934, November 22, 1963, file POL 15-1 US/Kennedy, 1963 Subject-Numeric File (NAID 580618), RG 59 Original document now filed as part of the JFK Assassination Records Collection as document 1191000710210.


VII. Circular Telegram 935. November 22, 1963 5:23 p.m.

The Department informed posts of the time at which Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office as President.

US POL 15-1 US[JOHNSON.CirTel 935

Department of State to All Diplomatic Missions and Consular Offices, November 22, 1963, Circular Telegram 935, file POL 15-1 US/Johnson, 1963 Subject-Numeric File (NAID 580618), RG 59

VIII. Circular Telegram 937.  November 22, 1963 9:38 p.m.

The Department informed posts about the planned chronology of events leading to the President’s funeral on November 25.  Furthermore, it instructed posts regarding their entertainment activities and attendance at social functions during the period of official mourning and instructed diplomatic posts to discourage countries from sending special delegations to the funeral.

Department of State to All Diplomatic Missions and Consular Offices, Circular Telegram 937, November 22, 1963, file POL 15-1 US/Kennedy, 1963 Subject-Numeric File (NAID 580618), RG 59. Original document now filed as part of the JFK Assassination Records Collection as document 1191001610477.

IX. Circular Telegram 938 November 23, 1963 11:37 a.m.

The Department informed chiefs of mission (ambassadors and ministers) that they should not follow the custom of resigning upon a change in the Presidency.

US POL 17. CirTel 938

Department of State to All Chiefs of Mission, November 23, 1963, Circular Telegram 938, file POL 17 US, 1963 Subject-Numeric File (NAID 580618), RG 59

X. Circular Telegram 939. November 23, 1963 12:01 p.m.

The Department informed diplomatic missions of the special delegations that had announced their intent to attend the November 25 funeral and that posts should no longer seek to discourage attendance.  Furthermore, U.S. ambassadors were told they were expected to stay at their posts.

Department of State to All Diplomatic Missions, Circular Telegram 939, November 23, 1963, file POL 15-1 US/Kennedy, 1963 Subject-Numeric File (NAID 580618), RG 59. Original document now filed as part of the JFK Assassination Records Collection as document 1191001310181.

XI. Circular Telegram 940. November 23, 1963 1:02 p.m.

Secretary of State Dean Rusk sent a personally-drafted telegram that provided chiefs of mission with initial guidance on how to handle discussions of the change in leadership with regard to continuity of American foreign policy.

US POL 1. CirTel 940

Department of State to All Chiefs of Mission, November 23, 1963, Circular Telegram 940, file POL 1 US, 1963 Subject-Numeric File (NAID 580618), RG 59

XII. Intelligence Memorandum, “President Kennedy’s Death — Some Near Term Considerations,” November 22, 1963.

This report provided the Secretary of State with an initial analysis of the impact of the assassination on the international situation.

Director of Intelligence and Research Thomas Hughes to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Memorandum, “President Kennedy’s Death — Some Near Term Considerations,” November 22, 1963, file POL 15-1 US/Kennedy, 1963 Subject-Numeric File (NAID 580618), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  Original document now filed as part of the JFK Assassination Records Collection as document 1191001710032.

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