Thanks to Wikileaks, you may have seen a quote from President Kennedy recently about his desire to “splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds”. Wikileaks used the quote as the password to decrypt its latest release about CIA spy tools. And the quote can be found in news stories around the world, including in some from The Intercept. The only problem? The origin of the quote is a bit dubious.
John F. Kennedy campaigning in Indiana on October 5, 1960 (Photo by Sven Walnum)
Famous quotes can be a funny thing in the 20th and 21st centuries. Sometimes we have a solid, first-hand account of something written down in a speech or recorded on film. Other times we rely on journalists and authors to accurately quote someone in a newspaper or a book. And still other times, we have to rely on those same journalists to relay what someone said from a third party. In the case of the JFK quote, it’s that last one.
The phrase “splinter into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds” actually dates back to at least the early 19th century and has decidedly religious origins. You can find versions of the phrase in Methodist sermons from 1819, in letters from clergy of the 1840s, and in fiction of the early 20th century.
In fact, British author John Buchan uses the phrase in his 1916 book Greenmantle, set during the First World War:
Make no mistake, Madam; that folly is over. I will tear this sacred garment into a thousand pieces and scatter them on the wind. The people wait today for the revelation, but none will come. You may kill us if you can, but we have at least crushed a lie and done service to our country.’
So how did we start to attribute this phrase to JFK and his attitudes toward the CIA? The first attribution of this quote to President Kennedy comes from a story in the April 25, 1966 edition of the New York Times. Notably, this was almost three years after Kennedy’s death:
Former President Truman, whose Administration established the CIA in 1947, said in 1963 that by then he saw “something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic positions, and I feel that we need to correct it.”
And President Kennedy, as the enormity of the Bay of Pigs disaster came home to him, said to one of the highest officials of his Administration that he “wanted to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.”
So did Kennedy say it? Possibly. The only attribution we have is an anonymous source from the Kennedy administration by a New York Times reporter three years after Kennedy was assassinated. I’ve found no record that pre-dates 1966. It’s not exactly like he said it in a public speech or even to a reporter directly.
The Truman quote comes from a December 22, 1963 article by former president Harry Truman himself in the Washington Post, published just a month after JFK’s assassination and has been used as fodder for conspiracy theorists who think that the CIA killed Kennedy.
Kennedy was clearly frustrated with the CIA after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. But as far as verifying a quote is concerned, this one from JFK isn’t rock solid. For all we know, this anonymous official was using his own words (leaning on a common phrase, of course) to relay the emotion that Kennedy was trying to convey at the time.
But we don’t know for sure. All we do know is that this could be another game of Telephone, not unlike the way we see quotes morph on the internet today. And as Abraham Lincoln once told his secretary Fakesy Kennedy, quotes from a third party after you’re dead aren’t the most reliable sources.