The cruel circus of American politics has a way of exposing a candidate’s inner self, particularly the hurly-burly of congressional campaigns, where the battle is fought up close and on one’s home turf. Allen Dulles briefly threw himself into the political arena in August 1938, when he declared himself a candidate in the Republican primary for the Sixteenth Congressional District, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he and Clover maintained a town house. Like Foster, who later ran a similarly ill-fated campaign for the U.S. Senate, Allen had a nuanced feel for power but not for politics. The brothers were imbued with a sense of public service, but in their minds, democracy was something to be saved from the demos. “Democracy works only if the so-called intelligent people make it work,” Allen told the press on the eve of his campaign. “You can’t sit back and let democracy run itself.”
Dulles’s patrician sensibility did not play well in the campaign, even with the posh Republican voters on the Upper East Side. During the race, he put together all of the right elements, like a corporate lawyer meticulously building his case. He lined up the support of prestigious Republicans, such as Elihu Root Jr., the son of Teddy Roosevelt’s secretary of state, who served as his honorary campaign chairman. He secured the endorsements of the leading New York newspapers, including the Times and the Herald Tribune. And he opened up a campaign office at the Belmont Plaza Hotel, where Clover dutifully wrote several hundred letters soliciting support from women voters in the district, like a Junior League doyenne volunteering for a favorite charity. But there was no passion in the Dulles campaign. His speeches were stilted and his debate performance was lawyerly and bloodless.
The monthlong primary campaign pitted Dulles against the incumbent, a conservative Democratic congressman named John J. O’Connor, who had cross-filed in the Republican primary after President Roosevelt announced his intention to purge O’Connor as a traitor to the New Deal. During the brief race, Dulles tried to carefully parse his attacks on the popular president, expressing sympathy with FDR’s “broad social aims” while denouncing his “dictatorial attitude.” But O’Connor—who had established himself as one of the more effective opponents of the New Deal in Congress—came across as a more muscular enemy of Roosevelt. And when the battle-scarred political warhorse turned his invective on Dulles, accusing him of “selling out” his country to “international interests” and Wall Street titans like J. Pierpont Morgan, Dulles could only muster a rational-sounding, but feeble, reply.
On Election Day, September 21, Dulles went down to a thumping defeat, losing the Republican nomination by a three-to-two margin to a man who did not even belong to the party. Dulles promptly returned to the world of discreet power that he knew best, never again subjecting himself to the slings and arrows of electoral combat.
On the surface, John F. Kennedy seemed similarly unsuited for the rough-and-tumble of democracy. Privileged, reserved, and physically frail, young Jack Kennedy was a far cry from his glad-handing political forebears, such as his maternal grandfather, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, the perennial Boston politician who wooed voters with his gift for song and blarney. Late into his career, JFK continued to worry that he was too introverted for politics. In January 1960, three days after declaring his presidential candidacy, Kennedy confided to friends over dinner, “I’m not a political type.” In contrast to his grandfather, who “wanted to talk to everybody,” added Kennedy, “I’d rather read a book on a plane than talk to the fellow next to me.”
When he made his political debut in 1946, running for Congress from the Boston-Cambridge Eleventh District, the twenty-eight-year-old Kennedy was far from a shoo-in, despite his father’s wealth and connections. The sprawling district encompassed a slew of tough Irish and Italian working-class neighborhoods and slums, and the Choate- and Harvard-educated candidate seemed too aloof a character to outrun the crowded pack of experienced political pros that he faced in the Democratic primary. Joe Kennedy tried to outfit his son with the best campaign brain trust that money could buy, but JFK preferred to work with young war veterans like himself. Jack Kennedy sought out Dave Powers, an Air Force veteran who had grown up in scruffy, Irish-Catholic Charlestown and was a local political wise guy. The son of a dockworker who had died when Powers was two, leaving his widow with eight children to raise, the political operator knew the dreams and heartaches of the families crowded into the neighborhood’s “three-decker” tenements. Powers ushered five masses every Sunday at St. Catherine’s Church and played second base on the parish baseball team. “I knew just about everybody in Charlestown.”
When Kennedy first approached him in a Charlestown tavern to ask him to join his campaign, Powers turned him down flat. A millionaire’s son running for Congress in a shot-and-beer district? He didn’t stand a chance. Kennedy didn’t seem cut out for Boston’s brawling politics. In fact, the young man—who would soon be diagnosed with Addison’s disease and told that he would not live past forty-five—did not seem long for this world. As the 1946 campaign got under way, Kennedy was plagued by severe back and abdominal distress that he had suffered ever since he was a teenager and had been aggravated during his war service in the South Pacific, where he had also picked up a case of malaria. He was painfully thin and his skin had an unhealthy, yellow tinge—whether from the atabrine he took for his malaria or from his Addison’s, it was unclear.
Kennedy’s shy manner and boyish good looks made him seem more a poet than a politician to Powers, but he soon discovered that JFK was “aggressively shy.” Even after Powers turned him down over drinks at the bar, Kennedy kept dogging him, showing up a few nights later at his family’s three-decker flat and peppering him with questions. Well, if YOU were running in the district, what would YOU do? “He was very inquisitive. He could pick your mind.”
A few days later, when Kennedy invited him to come to his first campaign appearance, Dave Powers gave in to his political destiny. JFK was addressing a group of Gold Star mothers—women who had lost sons during the war—at the Charlestown American Legion Hall. As Kennedy began to speak, a polite hush fell over the crowd. Powers stood listening in the back of the room, and at first the political operator—who was used to the stem-winding oratory of Boston legends like James Michael Curley—cringed at what he was hearing. The young candidate was painfully nervous, stuttering and visibly struggling for a way to connect with his audience. And then, it happened. Kennedy—whose own family had lost its firstborn son, Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., in the final days of the war—found his voice. “I was getting sort of nervous,” recalled Powers years later, “and then [Jack] looked out at all these wonderful ladies and said, ‘I think I know how you feel, because my mother is a Gold Star mother too.’ And all the years I’ve been in politics, smoke-filled rooms and from Maine to Anchorage, Alaska, this reaction was unbelievable. He immediately was surrounded by all these Charlestown mothers and in the background I can hear them saying he reminds me of my own John or Joe or Pat, a loved one they had lost. Even I was overwhelmed.”
After the event, as they walked back to Kennedy’s hotel suite, in an old political hangout on Beacon Street, the young candidate asked Powers how he had done. “It was great,” said Powers.
“And then he reached out his hand and said, ‘Then will you be with me?’ And I shook his hand and I was with him from that day to Dallas.’”
Kennedy went on to win the Democratic primary and the general election by landslides. He spent the rest of his life in politics, a profession he regarded as honorable and at which he displayed a unique talent, even if he never felt entirely comfortable with its showmanship. As he prepared to run for president, he expressed hope that the country was ready for a new style of politics. Perhaps you didn’t have to be a backslapping “happy warrior” like Hubert Humphrey, a leading rival for the 1960 Democratic nomination. “I just don’t think you have to have that type of personality to be successful today in politics,” JFK told friends, a bit wishfully, early in his campaign. “I think you have to be able to communicate a sense of conviction and intelligence and rather, some integrity. . . . Those three qualities are really it.”
Every great life in politics has a theme: with John Kennedy, it was his horror of war and the endless suffering it brings. He felt it in a way that most politicians, blithely untouched by the savagery and idiocy of war, never feel it. “All war is stupid,” Kennedy had written home as a naval lieutenant in the South Pacific, where he had nearly lost his own life when his PT boat was carved in two by a Japanese destroyer. The death of his older brother only confirmed his deep disgust with war. “He was very close to my brother Joe, and it was a devastating loss to him personally,” recalled Senator Edward M. Kennedy, JFK’s youngest brother, near the end of his life. “He was a very different person when he came back from the war. I think this burned inside of him.”
Allen Dulles had also felt the personal impact of war, when his son and namesake returned from Korea irreparably damaged. But his own family tragedy provoked no deep agonizing within Dulles about war or his central role in Washington’s machinery of violence. The spymaster liked to talk, in a way that sounded almost boastful, about his ability to dispatch men—including his own loyal agents—to their deaths. In contrast, during his years in the White House, Kennedy continually wrestled with ways to avoid bloodshed, again and again deflecting belligerent counsel from his national security advisers. Dulles came to see this as weakness, while Kennedy would conclude that his CIA director was a man of the past, recklessly provoking Cold War confrontations when the world was crying out for a new vision. Though it was largely hidden from the public, the duel between Kennedy and Dulles would define Washington’s “deep politics” in the early 1960s.
Dulles first met Kennedy in winter 1954, while JFK was at his family’s Palm Beach mansion recovering from another agonizing round of back surgery. The freshman senator from Massachusetts, who had not yet made much of a political mark, did not strike the graying Washington power fixture as the sort of man with whom he would one day cross swords. Kennedy was so enfeebled from his latest surgical ordeal—which had put him in a coma, prompting a priest to administer the last rites—that he could barely hobble a few steps. He lay in bed most days, with nurses helping to turn him, reading, and taking notes for an article that would grow into his bestselling book, Profiles in Courage.
From an early age, Kennedy’s afflictions had given him an acute sense of his fragile mortality. “At least one half of the days that he spent on this earth,” his brother Robert later observed, “were days of intense physical pain.” As president, JFK came to represent the very picture of youthful vigor and political revitalization. But in private, particularly during periods of extreme physical distress, Kennedy seemed to belong as much to the afterlife as to the living. In October 1953, while relaxing on Cape Cod after their wedding, Kennedy recited his favorite poem to his new wife, Jacqueline, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.” Written by a young American poet named Alan Seeger—the uncle of folk singer Pete Seeger—before he died in battle in World War I, the poem spoke to the shadows in Kennedy’s soul, even in the bloom of marriage to a beautiful and vivacious young woman:
God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear . . .
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
Dulles was a frequent houseguest of the Kennedys’ Palm Beach neighbors, Charles and Jayne Wrightsman. Charlie Wrightsman was a globe-trotting oil millionaire who had met his much younger wife when he was pushing fifty and she was a twenty-four-year-old department store swimsuit model. Under his bullying tutelage, Jayne Wrightsman grew into a world-renowned art collector and high society hostess who would mentor Jacqueline Kennedy during the First Lady’s elaborate restoration of the White House.
Charlie Wrightsman was a blunt-spoken former oil wildcatter whose ruggedly Republican values were right out of the pages of Ayn Rand. Wrightsman and Dulles, who served as the oilman’s attorney when he worked at Sullivan and Cromwell, forged a tight, mutually beneficial friendship. Wrightsman generously shared his lavish lifestyle with the less affluent Dulles, inviting the intelligence chief for frequent winter retreats at his Spanish-style estate in Palm Beach, with its Renoirs and Vermeers and its parquet floors acquired from the Palais Royal in Paris. The oil baron also sometimes enticed Dulles to join his wife and him on their yachting expeditions in the Mediterranean as well as their aviation adventures in their Learstar jet. “Jayne and I are leaving Paris on Thursday August 20 for Stavanger, Norway and points North,” Wrightsman wrote Dulles in July 1953 from the Hotel du Cap d’Antibes. “If you will join us, I will promise not to mention during our entire cruise that Senator McCarthy might be the next President of the United States.”
Dulles, in turn, opened doors for Wrightsman in far-flung oil capitals like Baghdad and Tripoli, providing him with introductions to ambassadors, government ministers, and sheikhs. The oilman made sure to keep the spy chief in the loop, reporting back to him on the political intrigues in Europe and the Middle East.
Clover resented the way that her husband slid so easily into the lap of luxury provided by millionaires like Wrightsman. Spending time in this gilded atmosphere brought out all of Clover’s mixed feelings about the world of privilege, a world where Allen served but did not fully belong.
“The mere mention of the Wrightsmans,” recalled Mary Bancroft near the end of her life, “was apt to set off one of those fights [between Dulles and his wife] when they went at each other like a pair of fighting eagles—with Clover always being defeated by Allen’s stronger claws, until she retreated from the fray with feathers awry and deep wounds from those claws. It was terrible to witness how they fought.”
Clover blamed the Wrightsmans for bringing out her husband’s “more reprehensible characteristics,” Bancroft observed, “namely . . . that he liked good food, good wine, and the chance to swim in a heated pool and afterwards to dry himself with a large, soft, expensive towel that had been warmed ahead of time ‘so you won’t get a shock.’ Clover liked luxury herself, but she certainly fought this ‘weakness’ tooth and nail and was always forcing herself to do uncomfortable and unpleasant things that she thought ‘good for the soul,’ like the most rigid of the Puritan fathers.”
It was the Wrightsmans who introduced the Dulleses to young Jack Kennedy. Charlie Wrightsman was no fan of the New Dealer Joe Kennedy, but he and his wife found themselves charmed by Jack and Jackie, who seemed to have the air of American royalty. Years later, after JFK was dead, Dulles recalled the day in early 1954 that he met the young senator. Invited by Joe Kennedy to drop by the family’s Palm Beach home while he was staying with the Wrightsmans, Dulles first came upon JFK as he was flat on his back. “He was suffering a good deal of pain, and he was lying on the sofa there in the study in Joe Kennedy’s house,” Dulles remembered, “and that was the first time that I saw him.” As the two men discussed various international hot spots, JFK would get up from time to time, wincing with pain, and gingerly walk a few paces before returning to the sofa. “He obviously wanted to learn,” said Dulles.
On another occasion, JFK was invited to dinner at the Wrightsmans’ when both Dulles brothers were in attendance. “Jack Kennedy was quite a modest man in those days,” recalled the CIA chief. “I remember my brother was there [and] I don’t say [Kennedy] was overawed, but he was very respectful.”
Thus began a relationship that Dulles regarded as tutorial—the education of a promising young man who had the proper regard for his elders. “He was always trying to get information—I don’t mean secrets or things of that kind, particularly, but to get himself informed. He wanted to get my views, and when my brother was there, his views on what we thought about things, and we had many, many talks together.” This, in Dulles’s mind, was the proper order of things—Kennedy as prince and acolyte and the Dulles brothers as court regents.
If Dulles’s attitude toward young Kennedy was condescending, his wife was awed. Clover’s first real opportunity to become acquainted with JFK came in August 1955, when she and Allen were vacationing with the Wrightsmans on the beaches of southern France. “At Antibes, we did the usual thing,” Clover wrote to Allen Jr., “sitting in the cabana, swimming, eating good meals at good restaurants.” But the most memorable occasion, she wrote, took place when they dined with the Kennedy clan, who were also on holiday in France. “Joe Kennedy’s son, the Senator, was there. He is 36 [actually he was 38], but looks no older than a college boy, is nice looking and so straight forward, sincere, intelligent and attractive and likeable that I haven’t been so enthusiastic about anybody for ages.” The aging Dulles, who still regarded himself as something of a ladies’ man, must have found his wife’s schoolgirl crush on the young senator somewhat unnerving. But JFK also brought out tender, motherly feelings in Clover, calling to mind her own disabled son. “We talked of you,” Clover wrote Allen Jr., “for he too was wounded and only last winter had some operation on his back so that he was on crutches.” Talking with the bright, boyishly handsome, and attentive senator must have reminded Clover of what could have been if her own son had not been so badly hurt in Korea.
The Dulles brothers were slow to realize that if young Senator Kennedy was their pupil, he was an increasingly rebellious one. Kennedy began questioning the rigid Cold War paradigm that dominated Washington policy-making as early as 1951, when he undertook a fact-finding mission to Asia while still a congressman. His stopover in Vietnam, where the French colonial regime was struggling to put down a growing national rebellion led by Ho Chi Minh, made a particularly deep impression on Kennedy. When he landed in Saigon, the U.S. congressman with the prominent family name was immediately swarmed by French officials, but he slipped away and met with independent-thinking diplomats and journalists. Saigon was a city on the edge when JFK arrived in October 1951, with explosions rumbling in the distance, French agents whisking suspects off the streets at night, and headless bodies found floating in the Saigon River by morning. At the rooftop restaurant of the Hotel Majestic, overlooking the gaslit, Parisian-tinged streets below, Kennedy met with an astute American embassy officer named Edmund Gullion. The diplomat told the inquisitive congressman that the French would never win. He said that Ho Chi Minh—who had once worked as a baker at JFK’s favorite Boston hotel, the Parker House, and who was inspired by the blazing ideals of the American Revolution—was seen as a national hero. Ho had awakened thousands of his fellow Vietnamese, who would rather die than continue to live under their French colonial masters.
By April 1954, when Kennedy stood up on the Senate floor to challenge the Eisenhower administration’s support for the doomed French war in Vietnam, he had become an informed critic of Western imperialism. Even as France headed toward its Waterloo at Dien Bien Phu that spring, the Eisenhower administration insisted that massive U.S. military aid and firepower could help turn the tide for the embattled French forces. But, as Kennedy told the U.S. Senate, “to pour money, materiel and men into the jungle of Indochina . . . would be dangerously futile and self-destructive.” The young senator had a much firmer grasp of the realities of national insurgencies than Eisenhower and his aging secretary of state. “I am frankly of the belief that no amount of American military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, ‘an enemy of the people’ which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.” History would soon prove him right.
Kennedy had an instinctive sympathy for the downtrodden subjects of imperial powers, one that was rooted in his Irish heritage. His political rhetoric often reverberated with extra passion when he addressed the subject of popular uprisings against imperial rule.
In July 1957, Kennedy once more took a strong stand against French colonialism, this time France’s bloody war against Algeria’s independence movement, which again found the Eisenhower administration on the wrong side of history. Rising on the Senate floor, two days before America’s Independence Day, Kennedy declared,
The most powerful single force in the world today is neither communism nor capitalism, neither the H-bomb nor the guided missile—it is man’s eternal desire to be free and independent. The great enemy of that tremendous force of freedom is called, for want of a more precise term, imperialism—and today that means Soviet imperialism and, whether we like it or not, and though they are not to be equated, Western imperialism. Thus, the single most important test of American foreign policy today is how we meet the challenge of imperialism, what we do to further man’s desire to be free. On this test more than any other, this nation shall be critically judged by the uncommitted millions in Asia and Africa, and anxiously watched by the still hopeful lovers of freedom behind the Iron Curtain. If we fail to meet the challenge of either Soviet or Western imperialism, then no amount of foreign aid, no aggrandizement of armaments, no new pacts or doctrines or high-level conferences can prevent further setbacks to our course and to our security.
Kennedy’s speech was a bold challenge to the Eisenhower-Dulles worldview, which interpreted all international events through the prism of the Cold War, and allowed no space for developing nations to pursue their own path to progress. Breaking from the Cold War orthodoxy that prevailed in the Democratic as well as Republican parties, JFK suggested that Soviet expansionism was not the only enemy of world freedom; so, too, were the forces of Western imperialism that crushed the legitimate aspirations of people throughout the Third World.
Kennedy’s thinking about the historical imperative of Third World liberation was remarkably advanced. Even today, no nationally prominent leader in the United States would dare question the imperialistic policies that have led our country into one military nightmare after another. Kennedy understood that Washington’s militant opposition to the world’s revolutionary forces would only reap “a bitter harvest.” If the United States stifled these legitimate forces of national self-determination, he said, then rising generations around the globe would be left with a grim choice “between radicalism and feudalism.”
Kennedy’s Algeria speech was a political bombshell. Ike sounded off about JFK’s speech at a cabinet meeting, sourly commenting, “That’s fine—everybody likes independence. We can all make brilliant speeches. But these things are rather difficult problems, and maybe somebody ought to make a speech to remind the senator that they’re not so easy.” Eisenhower began referring to Kennedy as “that little bastard.” Meanwhile, Secretary Dulles icily told the press that if the senator from Massachusetts wanted to crusade against imperialism, maybe he should target the Soviet variety.
JFK brushed aside the Eisenhower and Dulles criticisms as predictable croaks from Washington’s ancien régime. Kennedy had little respect for Eisenhower, seeing him as a disengaged leader who would rather play golf with his millionaire cronies than confront the world’s emerging new realities. “I could understand if he played golf all the time with old Army friends,” Kennedy once told Arthur Schlesinger, “but no man is less loyal to his old friends than Eisenhower. He is a terribly cold man. All his golfing pals are rich men he has met since 1945.” As for Foster, Kennedy dismissed him as an aging pontificator who saw the world through slogans—simplistic axioms like “godless Communism” and “Soviet master plan” that seemed increasingly “false . . . or irrelevant to the new phase of competitive coexistence in which we live.”
While Kennedy’s denunciation of French colonialism in Algeria brought sharp rebukes at home—even from Democratic standard-bearers like Adlai Stevenson, who called it “terrible,” and The New York Times, which found the speech insufficiently “delicate”—it stirred hopes overseas, particularly in Africa, a continent swept by the anticolonial tempest. Dignitaries from African countries began calling regularly on Kennedy at his Capitol Hill offices, praising him for his “courageous position” on Algeria (in the words of an Angolan revolutionary). One of the senator’s aides had to spend much of her time trying to find housing in segregated Washington for the steady stream of African visitors.
If Room 362 of the Senate Office Building was becoming a center of African aspiration, the Eisenhower administration remained a reactionary bastion. The president and his top advisers were convinced that the African people were not ready to take responsibility for their own affairs, and that any revolutionary mischief on the continent would only play into Communist hands. At one National Security Council meeting, Vice President Nixon observed, “Some of the peoples of Africa have been out of trees for only about 50 years,” to which Budget Director Maurice Stans (who would later serve as President Nixon’s commerce secretary) replied that he “had the impression that many Africans still belonged in trees.” The president did nothing to elevate the discussion, remarking with assurance that in Africa “man’s emotions still have control over his intelligence.” On other occasions, Eisenhower expressed resentment when he had to invite “those niggers”—by which he meant African dignitaries—to diplomatic receptions.
But by spring 1959, the Eisenhower-Dulles regime was coming to an end. Foster was rapidly declining, as the colon cancer he had been fighting since 1956 spread throughout his body. On April 11, Allen, who was vacationing at the Wrightsmans’ in Palm Beach at the time, was summoned by his brother to the nearby Hobe Sound estate of State Department undersecretary C. Douglas Dillon, where Foster was resting between hospital visits. Allen found a gaunt-looking Foster in bed, writing a letter of resignation on one of the yellow legal pads that he always kept close at hand. “I could see that my brother was in great pain,” Allen later remembered. “He told me that he felt the time had come for him to resign, and he wanted me to go to see the president and persuade the president to accept his resignation.”
Allen chartered a plane and flew to Augusta, Georgia, where Eisenhower was staying in his “little White House” on the carpeted greenery of the famed golf course. At first, the president refused to accept Foster’s resignation—a gesture of respect for the secretary of state’s centrality in the administration that Allen would always appreciate. But Foster, whose resignation was effective April 22, was soon forced to return to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, where he died just after dawn on May 24, 1959, at age seventy-one.
Foster’s implacable Cold War philosophy remained stiffly intact to the very end, as he brushed aside narcotic painkillers and went stoically to his death. The one burst of passion in his businesslike resignation letter came when he reminded Eisenhower of their long struggle against the “formidable and ruthless challenge from international Communism,” an evil force that had made it “manifestly difficult” for their administration to “avoid the awful catastrophe of war.” In his deathbed conversations with his brother and other close administration officials, Foster urged them to continue steering a vigilant course, warning them not to be bewitched by the enemy’s siren songs of peace. Nixon dutifully took notes while listening to his mentor’s parting words of wisdom. So did Foster’s younger brother.
“Foster had only days, maybe hours, to live, and he knew it,” Allen wrote. “Speech came hard as the cancer gripped him. I saw there was something very special he wished to tell me. Every word of what he said was a struggle and cost pain. This was his last legacy to me.”
Foster’s final testament, as recorded by Allen, was a remarkable war cry, undimmed by pain or the creeping fog of death—it was a gift of forged steel from a dying knight to his loyal brother-in-arms. Remember, Foster told his younger brother, America was facing “no ordinary antagonist. . . . The Soviets sought not a place in the sun, but the sun itself. Their objective was the world.” Somehow, the American people must “be brought to understand the issues, their responsibilities and the need for American leadership anywhere, maybe even everywhere, in the world. This is what my brother said to me on that May day. This was his last message to me.”
To defeat relentless Communism and to project U.S. power “everywhere in the world”—Allen Dulles was determined to continue pursuing his brother’s holy war. But with Foster buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the younger Dulles had lost his principal Washington ally. Allen had never been as close to Eisenhower as Foster. The president had given his CIA director a long leash, but he never felt fully confident in his judgment. The relationship between the two men would sharply fracture in May 1960 when a high-flying U-2 spy plane operated by the CIA was shot down over the Soviet Union—sabotaging an upcoming summit meeting with Khrushchev and ruining Eisenhower’s final chance for a Cold War breakthrough. Eisenhower was agonizingly aware of the political risks he was taking by authorizing the U-2 spy missions over Soviet territory, calling his on-again, off-again approval for the surveillance flights one of the most “soul-searching questions to come before a president.” But Dulles had repeatedly assured Eisenhower that the high-altitude spy planes were safe from Russian antiaircraft missiles.
On May 1, the president found out his CIA director’s assurances were hollow, when a Soviet missile slammed into a U-2 plane flying over Russia’s Ural Mountains, resulting in the downing of the aircraft and the capture of CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers. The flight on the eve of the Paris Summit seemed so badly timed and planned that at least one close observer, Air Force colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, suspected that the CIA had intentionally provoked the incident in order to ruin the peace conference and ensure the continued reign of Dulles dogmatism. Prouty, a liaison officer between the Pentagon and the CIA who was summoned by Dulles whenever CIA spy flights ran into trouble, later wrote that the U-2 shootdown was “a most unusual event” that grew out of a “tremendous underground struggle [between] the peacemakers led by President Eisenhower” and the Dulles “inner elite.”
John Eisenhower, who was generally reluctant to give his father advice, was so disturbed by the deceitful way that Dulles handled the U-2 affair that he urged Ike to fire him. The president erupted at his son, “yelling at the top of his voice for me to drop dead.” But the younger Eisenhower sensed that his father’s rage came from the realization that he should have fired Dulles long before. The president told White House aides Andrew Goodpaster and Gordon Gray that he never wanted to set eyes on Dulles again.
In the final days of his presidency, Eisenhower was presented with yet another set of recommendations for getting Allen Dulles’s CIA under control, this time by the President’s Board of Consultants on Foreign Intelligence Activities, which urged the spy agency to de-emphasize the cloak-and-dagger adventures of which Dulles was so fond in favor of intelligence gathering and analysis. But it was far too late for Eisenhower to do anything about his spymaster and the parallel government that he seemed to run. “I’ve tried,” Ike told Gray. “I cannot change Allen Dulles.”
At a meeting of national security advisers convened in the White House to consider the panel’s reform proposals, Dulles brushed aside any suggestion that his management of the CIA was flawed. It would be folly for him to delegate any responsibility for running the agency, he insisted. Without his leadership, the country’s intelligence apparatus would be “a body floating in thin air.”
Dulles’s display of arrogance at last triggered an explosive reaction from Eisenhower. He had delegated far too much of his presidency to the Dulles brothers, and he suspected that history would not be kind to him. In a scolding tone, the president told Dulles that the CIA was badly organized and badly run—and as commander in chief, he had been utterly powerless to do anything about it, despite one blue-ribbon presidential task force after the next. He would leave the next president a “legacy of ashes,” Eisenhower bitterly remarked.
Dulles had little reason to take Eisenhower’s words to heart. He had already ensured his continued reign in the incoming Kennedy administration.
As the 1960 presidential election approached its climax, JFK’s criticisms of Eisenhower-Dulles foreign policy grew sharper, focusing on the Republican administration’s irresponsible record of nuclear brinksmanship as well as its disquieting ignorance of international affairs. (Foster, who had little interest in the world beyond the central poles of power, once mixed up Tunisia and Indonesia, and his State Department staff had a difficult time distinguishing between Niger and Nigeria.) But Allen Dulles did not let Kennedy’s often cutting campaign rhetoric disrupt their relationship. Dulles knew that the race between Kennedy and Nixon would be close. He was confident of his continued command of the CIA if the Republican candidate, a longtime disciple of the Dulles brothers, won the November election. But Dulles realized that if his job were to survive a Democratic presidential victory, Kennedy would require more charm and effort on his part.
During JFK’s run for the White House, Dulles received inside reports on the Kennedy camp from a number of mutual friends, including Charlie Wrightsman and Mary Bancroft. Wrightsman, whose Kennedy ties seemed to trump his Republican values, reported to Dulles on the growing confidence within the Kennedy family circle as the election neared. Meanwhile, Dulles’s former mistress, who met John and Robert Kennedy through her Democratic Party activism in New York City politics, became increasingly smitten with JFK. In July 1959, Bancroft wrote Kennedy a gushing letter after meeting him at a New York political gathering, vowing that she would support his ambitions “all of the way—and not just for ’60—but forever.”
Dulles and Kennedy engaged in a careful minuet during the 1960 campaign. Both men knew they belonged to different political worlds, but there was some social overlap between their circles, and neither man saw any reason to antagonize the other. Kennedy knew that Dulles ruled a powerful empire that could help or hurt his campaign, and he made an effort to stay in the spymaster’s good graces, going as far as to add his late brother’s name to the “honorable roster” of political heroes Kennedy wrote about in Profiles in Courage.
It was Jackie Kennedy who tipped off Dulles to the pleasures of James Bond, giving him a copy of From Russia with Love, which became one of his favorite spy novels. After he got hooked on Ian Fleming, the CIA director would send copies of new Bond novels to the senator and his wife as soon as he got his hands on them.
In typical fashion, Dulles played both sides of the 1960 presidential campaign, currying favor with Kennedy as well as Nixon. On July 23, the CIA director met with the Democratic candidate at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port to give him an intelligence briefing. After the election, Nixon charged that Dulles had given his opponent an unfair advantage at this meeting by briefing JFK about the CIA’s plans for a paramilitary invasion of Cuba. In his memoir, Six Crises, Nixon accused Kennedy of using this inside information to straitjacket him on the Cuba issue. When JFK demanded militant action on Cuba on the eve of the final presidential debate, Nixon—who could not reveal that the administration was indeed secretly planning such a course—was forced to take a cautionary posture, chiding Kennedy for his “dangerously irresponsible recommendations.”
Dulles later strongly denied Nixon’s accusation, insisting that he did not brief Kennedy about the Bay of Pigs operation until after the election. But his denial had a slippery feel to it. “Nixon indicated he thought he’d been double-crossed,” Dulles told former CIA colleague Tom Braden in 1964. “I said this is all a misunderstanding because as far as I know President Kennedy did not know about the training—from me anyway [italics added]. . . . He didn’t know anything about it from me, until after the election took place.” Dulles did not spell out whether any other CIA official might have tipped off Kennedy on the CIA chief’s authorization.
If Dulles used his Kennedy briefings to win points with the Democratic nominee, he also used these private sessions to gain inside information for the Nixon camp. On a Saturday evening in September 1960, Robert Kennedy—his brother’s notoriously aggressive campaign manager—phoned Dulles at home, interrupting a dinner he was hosting, to inform the CIA director that Jack wanted another intelligence briefing on Monday morning at his Georgetown home. It was the kind of brusque request that CIA officials would grow used to receiving from Bobby, who was not known for his patience or ingratiating manners when his brother’s pressing needs were at stake. Dulles was not used to being summoned in so peremptory a fashion, particularly by political operatives like Bobby Kennedy, who was more than three decades his junior. But, still eager to please the Kennedys, he showed up at JFK’s town house at the appointed hour.
When the presidential candidate, who was meeting with Senator Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee at the time, kept the CIA director waiting, Dulles did not complain—and he even graciously allowed another waiting guest, a minor Middle Eastern prince, to see Kennedy before him. But after Dulles’s half-hour meeting with the Democratic nominee, the spymaster promptly sent a memo about their conversation to Andy Goodpaster in the White House, knowing that Eisenhower’s staff would certainly relay it to the Nixon campaign.
The September 21 Dulles memo focused on the U-2 controversy, of which Kennedy had already made a campaign issue. The CIA director, who was acutely aware of his responsibility for the crisis and how it was being exploited by the Democrats, informed Goodpaster that JFK asked him for his reaction to Countdown for Decision, a new book by retired Army general J. B. Medaris that was sharply critical of the Eisenhower administration’s handling of the U-2 affair. “As I mentioned to you,” Dulles wrote the White House aide in a follow-up memo a few days later, “I have reason to believe that this book will be cited in the campaign in view of certain statements which were made to me by Senator Kennedy when I briefed him last Monday.”
Despite Dulles’s efforts to help the vice president by informing on the Kennedy campaign, Nixon continued to hold a grudge about the CIA chief’s duplicity. Until the end of his Washington career, Nixon would harbor suspicions about the CIA and its political treachery. Nixon, who had carried water for the Dulles brothers ever since the Alger Hiss affair, had expected the spymaster’s uncompromising support in his run for the White House. But Dulles was not concerned with personal or political loyalties. By playing both sides of the closely contested 1960 race, Dulles ensured that he would be the victor, no matter who won.
On Wednesday evening, November 9, the day after JFK’s breathtakingly close victory, the president-elect and several members of his inner circle sipped cocktails in the living room at Hyannis Port, recovering from their all-night ordeal and savoring the hard-won moment. At one point, the group of insiders began discussing what Kennedy should do first as president. The group was keenly aware of the historical turning point and of the unique opportunities open to JFK with his generational changing of the guard. The first thing he should do, suggested one insider, is fire J. Edgar Hoover. While he was at it, said another, Kennedy should get rid of Allen Dulles. Both men were symbols of a reactionary past—and there was something sinister about their interminable reigns. A relaxed Kennedy encouraged the free-flowing conversation, and the guests retired to their rooms at the compound that night under the impression that the new president was in step with their recommendations. But the next morning, they were unpleasantly surprised to read in the daily papers that Kennedy had already announced that he was retaining both Hoover and Dulles.
Kennedy later explained to Arthur Schlesinger that, considering his slim margin of victory, he didn’t feel that he had sufficient political capital to uproot two Washington pillars like Hoover and Dulles. Jettisoning these “national icons,” as Schlesinger described them, would have provoked a sharp backlash from the influential network of allies that they had accumulated in the Washington bureaucracy and among the Georgetown and Manhattan chattering classes.
Schlesinger, ever eager to put Kennedy’s actions in the best possible light, later called JFK’s decision to include prominent Republicans in his administration—such as Dulles and C. Douglas Dillon, who was appointed Treasury chief—part of the youthful president-elect’s “strategy of reassurance.” The Harvard historian played a unique role in Kennedy’s life: special assistant to the president, political adviser, court chronicler, and liaison to the liberal and intellectual circles with which JFK had a complicated and often prickly relationship. “Here’s Arthur,” JFK wryly remarked one evening, as his adviser joined a casual staff gathering in the Oval Office. “He used to be a liberal. Maybe he can explain why they do these crazy things.” The bow-tied, bespectacled scholar seemed an unlikely member of the New Frontier inner circle, where handsome men of action—the kind who could throw a long, tight spiral and skipper a sailboat—dominated. But Kennedy had a respectful if sometimes teasing relationship with Schlesinger, often using him as a sounding board for new ideas and appointments that he was considering, as well as a voice of conscience.
When Schlesinger communicated to Kennedy liberals’ growing concerns about his political appointments, the president told him he understood, “but they shouldn’t worry. What matters is the program.” JFK assured his adviser that his policies would be solidly liberal, no matter who held positions in his administration. Besides, said Kennedy, he had given men like Dulles only a temporary reprieve—they would be gone soon enough. “We’ll have to go with this for a year or so. Then I would like to bring in some new people.” But Kennedy was not naïve about the workings of Washington power. After a thoughtful pause, he added, “I suppose it may be hard to get rid of these people once they are in.”
Kennedy already knew the man he wanted to replace Dulles—tall, brainy Richard M. Bissell Jr., the Groton- and Yale-educated chief of clandestine operations for the CIA. Bissell, a popular member of the Georgetown set, had managed to survive the political fallout from the U-2 disaster, even though he was in charge of the spy-in-the-sky program. With his impressive academic credentials, which included a degree from the London School of Economics, and his grasp of the latest surveillance technology, Bissell struck JFK as a man of the future.
In February, soon after Kennedy’s inauguration, Dulles organized a well-lubricated mixer for his top CIA men and Kennedy’s White House team at the Alibi Club, his favorite Washington watering hole. The venerable gentlemen’s club—located in an old brick town house that had changed little since the days of its founding, in the muttonchop era of President Chester A. Arthur—catered to an exclusive membership list, including Supreme Court justices, Joint Chiefs chairmen, and former presidents. After breaking the ice with “a pleasant three-cocktail dinner,” as one guest described it, the CIA men got up, one at a time, to explain their mysterious roles to the White House aides. Dulles himself was used to dominating these occasions. But on this evening, it was Bissell who took the spotlight. Dulles’s deputy introduced himself by saying, “I’m your basic man-eating shark,” an opening “with just the right mix of bravado and self-mockery to charm the New Frontiersmen,” as historian Evan Thomas observed.
The president made no secret of his plan to shake up the CIA and to replace Dulles with his number two man. Kennedy’s father had served on the foreign intelligence advisory board that had urged Eisenhower to overhaul the management of the spy agency. Joseph P. Kennedy had made his son fully aware of Dulles’s dangerously unsupervised management style. After the November election, a member of Kennedy’s transition team, aware of his low opinion of the CIA’s leadership, asked him, “There must be someone you really trust within the intelligence community. Who is that?” Kennedy could think of only one man. “Richard Bissell,” he answered.
But Allen Dulles had no intention of relinquishing power anytime soon, not even to one of his right-hand men like Bissell. To Dulles, the Kennedy transition was just one more seasonal Washington cycle that had to be finessed. In the days leading up to Kennedy’s inauguration, the press was filled with stories about all the fresh new faces in Washington. But many of the Kennedy appointments had closer ties to the Dulles old guard than they did to the new president.
Among them was McGeorge Bundy, the owlish Harvard dean whom Kennedy appointed national security adviser. The long ties between Dulles and the Boston Brahmin Bundy family had been fortified when the CIA director rescued Mac Bundy’s brother, CIA officer Bill Bundy, from Joe McCarthy’s pyre. Mac Bundy regarded Dulles as a benevolent uncle, maintaining a warm correspondence with him that lasted until the end of the elder man’s life. When Bundy became dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1953—at age thirty-four, the youngest in the school’s history—he used his post to identify future prospects for the CIA among the student body’s best and brightest. Dulles could be assured that with Mac Bundy in the White House—and with his brother Bill moving to Kennedy’s Defense Department, where the press dubbed him “the Pentagon’s secretary of state”—the CIA director had eyes and ears in two of the most important command posts in the Kennedy administration.
Kennedy’s New Frontier was laced throughout with other Dulles loyalists, especially in the foreign service and national security agencies. General Lyman Lemnitzer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff whom Kennedy inherited from Eisenhower, had a long partnership with Dulles, going back to their wartime intrigues in Operation Sunrise. Kennedy’s choice for secretary of state, Dean Rusk, was well known to the Dulles brothers from their membership in the Council on Foreign Relations and the Rockefeller Foundation, where Rusk served as president and Foster as a trustee. Rusk’s State Department continued to be filled with Dulles men and women, including Eleanor Dulles herself, who remained at the German affairs desk. Even Jackie Kennedy’s social secretary, Letitia Baldrige, had worked for the CIA in the early 1950s, specializing in psychological warfare. The “doyenne of decorum” had also served as an assistant to Dulles’s close ally, Ambassador Clare Booth Luce, in the U.S. embassy in Rome.
Dulles was confident enough that the Dulles era would continue under JFK that he made boasts to that effect on the Washington dinner party circuit, within full earshot of Kennedy loyalists. Shortly after Kennedy took office, the painter William Walton, a close friend of JFK and Jackie, found himself at a gathering at Walter Lippmann’s house where Dulles was a fellow guest. “After dinner, the men sat around awhile in an old-fashioned way, and [Dulles] started boasting that he was still carrying out his brother Foster’s foreign policy. He said, you know, that’s a much better policy. I’ve chosen to follow that one.” Walton, who loathed the CIA boss, couldn’t believe Dulles’s audacity. The spymaster knew that Walton was one of Kennedy’s inner circle, but he felt no need to hold his tongue. Dulles was clearly sending the new president a message—and Kennedy’s close friend duly delivered it. Early the next morning, Walton phoned JFK at the White House and reported what Dulles had told Lippmann and his guests. “God damn it!” swore Kennedy. “Did he really say that?”
“The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” Kennedy declared in his inaugural address. But, in fact, the Dulles old guard was deeply reluctant to give up power to the New Frontier team. In fact, the power struggle between the new president and his CIA director started before Kennedy was even sworn in, when Dulles took advantage of the transition period to carry out a brazen act of insubordination.
Patrice Lumumba was fleeing for his life. Sworn in less than six months earlier as the Congo’s first democratically elected leader, following the end of Belgium’s brutal colonial rule, Lumumba was now on the run from the CIA-backed Congolese military forces that had deposed him. Lumumba had broken free from house arrest in the capital, Leopoldville, on the evening of November 27, 1960. He was now making his way through a tropical downpour across the countryside to Stanleyville, a bastion of loyal nationalism some 750 miles to the east, where he hoped to raise an army and reclaim his office. Lumumba was driven in a new blue Peugeot, with his wife, Pauline Opango, and their two-year-old son, Roland, part of a three-car convoy that included other high officials from his toppled government.
The election of Lumumba in June 1960 had electrified the Congo, a nation that had been enslaved and plundered by its Belgian rulers for over three-quarters of a century. In the late nineteenth century, King Leopold II had carved an empire out of this benighted African territory through a system of forced labor so vicious that Joseph Conrad modeled the colonial nightmare in his novel Heart of Darkness on it, calling Leopold’s rape of the Congo “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.” The hands chopped from the arms of Congolese men who refused to work under their colonial masters’ yoke became a world symbol of Belgium’s vile rule. After Leopold, the looting of Congo continued, with rubber and ivory being replaced by gold, diamonds, copper, and tin as the objects of Western desire. Global mining companies turned the mineral-rich African nation into their private jewelry box, with huge fortunes amassed in Brussels, London, and New York.
But Patrice Lumumba’s election threatened this long reign of greed. Lumumba, a slender, graceful man with glasses and a trim mustache and goatee, looked more like the postal clerk he had once been (one of the few civil service jobs open to Africans under Belgian rule) than a fiery nationalist leader. But he spoke with a heartfelt eloquence that dazzled his followers and alarmed his enemies.
On June 30, the Congo’s independence was formally celebrated in the flag-draped National Palace in Leopoldville. King Baudouin of Belgium, a young monarch who never fully took to his role, and would become known as “the sad king,” delivered a fatuous speech, praising his royal predecessors for bestowing the “fabric of civilization” on the primitive nation. The handsome king, who wore a white colonial uniform and round spectacles that gave him the wide-eyed look of silent screen comedian Harold Lloyd, seemed oblivious to the country’s shameful past. It fell to Lumumba, who followed the king to the microphone, to set him straight. The Congo’s colonial history, said the new prime minister, was “much too painful to be forgotten.” Lumumba spoke passionately about his people’s struggle against “the humiliating bondage forced upon us”—years that were “filled with tears, fire and blood.” But he ended on a hopeful note, vowing, “We shall show the world what the black man can do when working in liberty, and we shall make the Congo the pride of Africa.”
Lumumba’s ardent remarks lifted up the Congolese people, who danced in the streets of the capital to celebrate their freedom. But King Baudouin and the other Western representatives who attended the independence ceremony were insulted by the prime minister’s frank remarks. Lumumba had “marred the ceremonies,” sniffed the New York Times correspondent.
After Lumumba’s Independence Day speech, national security officials in Washington and Brussels—who were already monitoring the rise of the charismatic Congolese leader—began regarding him as a serious threat to Western interests in the region. More than his defiant rhetoric, it was Lumumba’s refusal to be bought off by the multinational corporations controlling the Congo’s wealth that undoubtedly sealed his fate. In speeches to his followers, Lumumba opened a door on the corrupt backroom dealings that continued to dominate African capitals in the neocolonial era. The United States, he declared, was rubbing its hands over the Congo’s uranium deposits—the same deposits that supplied the uranium for the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Speaking to dinner guests at a political event in October 1960, Lumumba said that he could have made millions of dollars if he had been willing to “mortgage the national sovereignty.”
Dulles, Doug Dillon (then serving as a State Department undersecretary), and William Burden, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, led the charge within the Eisenhower administration to first demonize and then dispose of Lumumba. All three men had financial interests in the Congo. The Dillon family’s investment bank handled the Congo’s bond issues. Dulles’s old law firm represented the American Metal Company (later AMAX), a mining giant with holdings in the Congo, and Dulles was friendly with the company’s chairman, Harold Hochschild, and his brother and successor, Walter, who served in the OSS during the war. Ambassador Burden was a company director, and Frank Taylor Ostrander Jr., a former U.S. intelligence official, served the Hochschild brothers as a political adviser.
Corporate executives with major stakes in Africa were able to mingle and confer with U.S. national security officials at prestigious organizations like the Manhattan-based Africa-America Institute. The institute, which Harold Hochschild helped launch in 1953, sponsored the American education of future generations of African leaders, a goal the CIA found strategically valuable enough to help fund the group. Years later, after the Africa-America Institute was exposed as a CIA front, Hochschild appeared chagrinned when the subject came up with his son, Adam. The younger Hochschild cofounded Mother Jones magazine and later authored King Leopold’s Ghost, a powerful indictment of the Belgian reign of terror in the Congo. After the CIA ties to the institute were exposed, Hochschild fils later recalled, “[Father] seemed uncomfortable. He defended the link, saying that in its early years there was nowhere else the institute could have gotten enough money for its work. But he was clearly embarrassed that the whole thing had to be kept secret.”
The Eisenhower administration’s increasingly militant policy toward Lumumba took shape over cocktails in clublike environments such as the Africa-America Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations. The men driving the policy had little feel for the suffering or longing of the Congolese people. Ambassador Burden was a Vanderbilt heir—a big, paunchy, high-society boozer who was stuffed full of the imbecilities and prejudices of his caste; he was not fond of Jews, and he treated his legions of nameless servants as if they were indentured. Not particularly bright, he represented what his granddaughter, Wendy, would later call the “dead end gene pool.” Everything was “marvelous,” in Burden’s world. He said it “the way a character in a Fitzgerald novel would,” Wendy Burden recalled in a family memoir. “Mah-velous. He said it about a hundred times a day, as if it were the only adjective that could aptly describes the talents of a chef, or the plate of Belon oysters before him, or the Chateau Petrus he was drinking, or how he felt about the overthrow of the Libyan government.”
Burden, who had acquired his ambassadorship by contributing heavily to the 1956 Eisenhower campaign, spent his days in Brussels attending diplomatic receptions, where he soaked up the finest Champagnes along with the racial prejudices of Belgium’s shriveling empire. It was the ambassador who first raised alarms about the rising Patrice Lumumba, whom the Belgians only yesterday were calling “a dirty monkey” but now were labeling “Satan.” Burden began sending agitated cables to Dulles in Washington well before Lumumba’s election, suggesting that the growing aspirations of the Congolese people were Soviet-inspired and urging that strong measures be used to put down African unrest. “Dear Allan [sic],” Burden wrote in a November 1959 cable, misspelling his chum’s name, “Have your organization and [the Department of] Defense done much work recently in studying the type of rioting which is occurring and might occur in the various countries of Africa [and] the degree to which new weapons, such as some of the newer gases, might enable such difficulties to be controlled?” By the following summer, Burden was cabling Washington “to destroy Lumumba government” as a threat to “our vital interests in Congo.”
Dulles quickly embraced the idea that Lumumba was a diabolical agent of Communist subversion. In truth, Lumumba had less of a connection to Moscow than any other emerging African leader. He explicitly tried to keep his struggling nation out of the superpower vortex, vowing that the Congo would “never be a satellite of Russia or of the United States.”
“We want no part of the Cold War,” Lumumba declared. “We want Africa to remain African with a policy of neutralism.” But in the Dulles worldview, there was no such thing as neutrality. And anyone who professed such notions belonged to the enemy camp. At a July 22, 1960, National Security Council meeting in the Eisenhower White House—just three weeks after Lumumba’s independence day speech—Dulles denounced the Congolese leader as “a Castro or worse. . . . It is safe to go on the assumption that Lumumba has been bought by the Communists.”
Doug Dillon strongly backed Dulles’s distraught view of Lumumba as a Soviet accomplice. It was an alarmist view calculated to convince Eisenhower that the African leader had to be terminated. As it turned out, the president required little persuasion. By the summer of 1960, Ike was sick, tired, and cranky—and he had little patience or understanding for Third World freedom struggles. Conferring with the British foreign minister Lord Home, Eisenhower quipped that he hoped “Lumumba would fall into a river full of crocodiles.” At an NSC meeting in August 1960, Eisenhower gave Dulles direct approval to “eliminate” Lumumba. Robert Johnson, the minutes taker at the NSC meeting, later recalled the shock felt in the room: “There was a stunned silence for about 15 seconds and the meeting continued.” Johnson said there was nothing ambiguous about Eisenhower’s lethal order. “I was surprised that I would ever hear a president say anything like this in my presence or the presence of a group of people. I was startled.”
Over the next several months, the CIA, working with its allies in Belgian intelligence, engineered a military coup led by a cocky, ruthless, twenty-nine-year-old colonel named Joseph Mobutu that forced Lumumba out of office and placed him under house arrest. But that was not enough for the CIA. Lumumba “would remain a grave danger,” Dulles told an NSC meeting on September 21, 1960, “as long as he was not yet disposed of.” Three days later, Dulles made it clear that he wanted Lumumba permanently removed, cabling the CIA’s Leopoldville station, “We wish give [sic] every possible support in eliminating Lumumba from any possibility resuming governmental position.”
Washington ascribed a kind of witchcraft-like power to Lumumba. Dulles marveled at the man’s political survival skills, and Dillon was amazed at his powers of persuasion. “He had this tremendous ability to stir up a crowd or a group,” said Dillon. “And if he could have gotten out and started to talk to a battalion of the Congolese Army, he probably would have had them in the palm of his hand in five minutes.”
To prevent that from happening, the CIA recruited two cutthroats from the European criminal underworld, whom they code-named QJ-WIN and WI-ROGUE. These Tweedledum and Tweedledee assassins were such loathsome mercenaries that even their CIA handlers found them “unsavory.” ROGUE was the kind of morally unhinged man “who would try anything once, at least,” said his agency supervisors, untroubled by the “pangs of conscience.” While ROGUE went about trying to organize an “execution squad” to kill Lumumba, WIN focused on penetrating the protective ring of UN troops that encircled the house where the Congolese leader was in custody. QJ-WIN had been supplied with a tube of poison toothpaste, which had been delivered to the CIA station in Leopoldville by Sidney Gottlieb, the agency’s wizard of toxins. Dr. Ewen Cameron, of the notorious Allan Institute, had analyzed Lumumba at the CIA’s request and determined that he must brush his teeth regularly, since they looked gleaming white in photos. Therefore, Ewen assured Dulles, chemically altered dental products were the key to getting rid of Lumumba.
In the end, the CIA did not go through with the toothpaste plot, apparently deciding that poisoning a popular leader while he was under UN protective custody in his own house would be too flagrant a deed—one that, if traced back to the agency, would lead to unpleasant international repercussions. It would be wiser, the agency decided, to deliver Lumumba to his murderous political rivals in the Congo and let them do the job. And so Lumumba fled house arrest—or was allowed to escape—miraculously slipping past not only the UN troops that were guarding him but Mobutu’s hostile forces, and making his dash for Stanleyville.
As Lumumba’s convoy made its way along muddy and bumpy roads, he was pursued by Congolese troops, led by Captain Gilbert Pongo, Mobutu’s notorious security chief. Pongo buzzed after Lumumba’s party in a helicopter that had been provided courtesy of Clare Timberlake, the dapper, mustachioed U.S. ambassador who worked closely with the CIA delegation in the Congo. Lumumba’s flight was slowed whenever his convoy drove through villages, where he was thronged by the local people and urged to deliver speeches. When he spoke, he gave voice to their dreams. “Our program is clear: complete independence, Congo for the Congolese,” he told a group huddled around a fire one night. “Fourteen million Congolese want work, a better future for their children. They want to be citizens with full political rights, they want a new life.”
When Lumumba’s military pursuers drew too near, villagers delayed their advance by putting up roadblocks and tearing down bridges. On the evening of December 1, Lumumba’s group reached the small village of Lodi, on the west bank of the Sankuru River. This wide, muddy stretch of the river was the last serious obstacle that lay between the group and sanctuary in Stanleyville. The other side of the river was a bastion of pro-Lumumba nationalism. There was only one canoe on the riverbank. Lumumba and a few of his top aides crossed first. As they disembarked from the dugout, they heard a commotion on the other side of the river. Mobutu’s soldiers had caught up with the group left behind, including Lumumba’s wife and toddler.
Lumumba’s compatriots begged him not to return across the river, telling him “the life of the whole nation is at stake.” But he could not stand to hear the cries of his wife. “When one struggles for one’s country,” he said as he got back into the canoe, “one has to expect a tragic end.” As Lumumba’s canoe glided back to the other side of the river, the soldiers waded into the water and grabbed him. Lumumba tried winning over Mobutu’s men. For a while, his words seemed to work their magic—the soldiers were ready to join the cause of freedom and march with him to Stanleyville. But then Captain Pongo intervened, reminding his soldiers of the dire consequences that would befall them and their families if they did not do their duty. They turned in an instant and began beating Lumumba and even his little son.
Lumumba was hustled onto Pongo’s helicopter and flown back to Leopoldville, where he emerged in the glare of TV news cameras, only to be subjected to another vicious round of beating by Mobutu’s thugs, while the cameras rolled. Throughout it all, Lumumba maintained the serene dignity of the martyr that he soon would become. “On Lumumba’s dazed face was the look of a man who did not yet believe that fate could be against justice for his people,” remarked Andrée Blouin, the beautiful “Black Pasionaria” of the Congolese independence struggle and chief of protocol in Lumumba’s government. “His white shirt was now spotted with blood, but his head was still erect. He personified the best of the race that would never again be slaves.”
Over the next several weeks, Lumumba’s fate became the focus of a tumultuous international drama, as the symbol of African freedom languished in a military prison south of Leopoldville. World leaders—including Khrushchev, Nasser, and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah—issued fervent pleas for his release, with the Soviet leader promising that the “colonialists will be thrown out of the Congo once and for all.” Lumumba’s followers prayed that he could survive until the inauguration of Kennedy, whose election the Congolese leader had praised.
But in Leopoldville, U.S. and Belgian agents were feverishly maneuvering to ensure that no such release took place. The man at the center of this intrigue was Lawrence R. Devlin, the CIA station chief in the Congo, a Harvard man who had been handpicked for the spy service by his dean, Mac Bundy. Larry Devlin’s aggressive campaign against Lumumba had won him the admiration of the agency’s top command, including Dulles himself. At the end of November, when Mobutu’s troops were in pursuit of Lumumba, Devlin had flown to Rome to meet with Dick Bissell, whom Dulles had put in charge of the Lumumba assassination. The CIA was still determined to carry out Eisenhower’s termination order. But Devlin and his CIA superiors knew that time was running short.
U.S. intelligence officials continued to fret about the Congo situation, even after Lumumba’s capture. With Mobutu’s rule still shaky and Congolese politics in chaos, Devlin realized that Lumumba’s imprisonment could not be ensured indefinitely. In fact, by the second week of January 1961, when Lumumba’s jailers briefly mutinied and threatened to free him, his captivity seemed less secure than ever.
Meanwhile, Dulles and his Congo team were acutely aware that the presidential transition under way in Washington also put their Lumumba operation in jeopardy. Kennedy, whose inauguration was scheduled for January 20, had already signaled that he would shift U.S. policy in favor of African nationalists like Lumumba. In late December, after returning from a five-week tour of the Congo and other African countries, a Democratic fact-finding delegation that included JFK’s brother Edward M. Kennedy predicted that the new administration would align itself with the continent’s “movement for freedom and self-determination” and expressed strong sympathy for Lumumba’s plight. Ted Kennedy later went further, calling for the release of Lumumba and suggesting his brother agreed with this position.
The raging battle over Lumumba’s future broke into the U.S. press, with the CIA’s media assets predicting drastic consequences if the Congolese leader returned to power. As the Congo crisis reached its climax, a new correspondent for The New York Timesshowed up in Leopoldville with a distinctly anti-Lumumba bias. Paul Hofmann was a diminutive, sophisticated Austrian with a colorful past. During the war, he served in Rome as a top aide to the notorious Nazi general Kurt Malzer, who was later convicted of the mass murder of Italian partisans. At some point, Hofmann became an informer for the Allies, and after the war he became closely associated with Jim Angleton. The Angleton family helped place Hofmann in the Rome bureau of The New York Times, where he continued to be of use to his friends in U.S. intelligence, translating reports from confidential sources inside the Vatican and passing them along to Angleton. Hofmann became one of the Times’s leading foreign correspondents, eventually taking over the newspaper’s Rome bureau and parachuting from time to time into international hot spots like the Congo.
The New York Times coverage of the Congo crisis had always been slanted against Lumumba, with columns and commentaries labeling him “inexperienced and irresponsible” and a “virtual dictator.” But Hofmann’s Congo coverage was so virulent in its bias that it seemed as if he were acting as a “psywar” conduit for U.S. intelligence. In article after article, during the critical Congo end game, Hofmann portrayed Lumumba as a dangerous bogeyman, a “wily” conspirator in some pieces and a mentally unbalanced buffoon in others (“the weirdest character in a sort of Alice in Tropical Wonderland,” as the Times man wrote). Even behind bars, Lumumba continued to work his dark mischief, Hofmann told his readers, plotting the murders of whites and bringing a flow of Soviet arms into the country, all while living the life of luxury in military prison “with three houseboys at his service.” The message behind Hofmann’s relentless barrage was clear: despite the “crocodile tears” cried by the Soviet Union over Lumumba’s plight, no man as treacherous as this deserved mercy.
In its explosive 1975 report on CIA assassination plots against foreign leaders, the Church Committee absolved the agency of responsibility for Lumumba’s murder. “It does not appear from the evidence that the United States was in any way involved in the killing,” concluded the Senate panel. This became a convenient myth, one that is still routinely repeated in the press. But the truth is far less comforting.
As a new wave of historical research has determined, the CIA ensured Lumumba’s violent end by making certain that he was delivered into the hands of his mortal enemies. Among his tormentors in the final hours of his life were CIA-funded goons. Devlin, the CIA’s man in the Congo, later tried to portray himself as a blissfully ignorant player in the Lumumba affair, and indeed as a man who found assassination morally repugnant. But as former congressional aide and scholar Stephen Weissman has observed, “The CIA was not the innocent bystander, and its Congo operatives not the paragons of morally sensitive professionalism they claimed to be. In particular, Devlin was a key participant in the Congo government’s decision to approve Lumumba’s fatal rendition.”
In fact, Devlin appears to have been more a driver of the action leading to Lumumba’s death than a participant. On January 17, 1961—three days before Kennedy’s inauguration—Lumumba was taken from his jail cell and hustled onto a Belgian chartered plane. Congolese authorities took this action under strong pressure from Devlin, who was the kingmaker behind the Mobutu regime. With Devlin’s full knowledge, Lumumba was then flown to Katanga, a mineral-rich province that had broken away from the Congo and was run by violent enemies of Lumumba. The CIA station chief later acknowledged that Lumumba’s transfer to Katanga amounted to a death sentence. “I think there was a general assumption, once we learned that he had been sent to Katanga, that his goose was cooked,” Devlin told the Church Committee years later.
Devlin knew of Lumumba’s imminent transfer by January 14, three days ahead of time. But he did nothing to inform Washington until January 17, when Lumumba was already well on the way to his doom. Devlin knew that cabling Washington risked tipping off Africa policy makers in the incoming Kennedy administration, who likely would have intervened to save Lumumba. By keeping quiet, Devlin sealed Lumumba’s fate.
Larry Devlin was no rogue agent—he was an up-and-coming intelligence officer whose Congo exploits had won glowing marks back at CIA headquarters. The Congo station chief’s decision to keep Lumumba’s fate quiet until it was too late to do anything about it was clearly made in consultation with his supervisors. Devlin suffered no agency reprimands for his actions in the Congo, and, in fact, his intelligence career continued to thrive after Lumumba’s demise. Before retiring from the CIA in 1974, to pursue a new career in the Congo’s lucrative diamond industry, Devlin rose to become chief of the CIA’s Africa Division.
Patrice Lumumba suffered a terrible martyrdom during his final hours on earth. He was beaten bloody during the flight to Katanga, and clumps of hair were torn from his head. When the plane landed, he was seized by armed guards sent by Moise Tshombe, Katanga’s ruler, and subjected to another round of abuse. As he suffered the rain of blows, Lumumba maintained a resigned silence. He was then dragged to a jeep and driven to a remote farmhouse, where a group of men connected to U.S. and Belgian intelligence beat him to death, an orgy of sadism that stretched over several hours. According to one account, even Tshombe and his ministers appeared at one point to contribute to Lumumba’s suffering, kicking and hitting what remained of his nearly lifeless body.
Despite the agency’s evasions, CIA officer John Stockwell, who was stationed in the Congo in the tumultuous aftermath of the Lumumba assassination, had no doubt who was responsible for the African leader’s death. “Eventually he was killed, not by our poisons, but beaten to death, apparently by men who had agency cryptonyms and received agency salaries,” Stockwell concluded. Years after Lumumba’s death, Stockwell fell into conversation with one of his more peculiar CIA colleagues, a “glisteningly bald” man whom Stockwell anointed “Goldfinger.” The man regaled Stockwell with a story of the evening when he had driven around the capital of Katanga, with Lumumba’s battered corpse in the trunk, “trying to decide what to do with it.”
After Kennedy’s inauguration, the CIA continued to keep Lumumba’s death under wraps. On January 26, Dulles briefed the new president on the Congo. The CIA director said nothing about Lumumba’s assassination, though his fate was well known by then within the agency. In early February, Devlin and Ambassador Timberlake were called back to Washington to participate in discussions about Congo policy with the new Kennedy team. The old Congo hands were alarmed by the administration’s new position paper, which envisioned disarming Mobutu and freeing Lumumba. Devlin considered JFK’s admiration for rising African nationalism naïve. Timberlake, meeting with Kennedy in the White House, argued that the Congolese people were too primitive for a functioning democracy. Neither Timberlake nor Devlin took the opportunity to inform Kennedy or his staff that any discussion about Lumumba’s future was a moot point.
The Kennedy White House remained in the dark about Lumumba for a full month after his murder. When JFK finally heard of the leader’s death, the news came not from Dulles but from UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson.
Jacques Lowe, the young photographer who had been unobtrusively documenting the Kennedy story from the earliest days of his presidential run, was in the Oval Office when JFK received the phone call from Stevenson. Lowe, a German Jew who had survived the war as a child by making himself unseen, deftly inserted himself into the ongoing Kennedy family drama, taking black-and-white pictures of John and Robert and their clan that would become iconic in their simple intimacy. After JFK’s victory, the president-elect asked Lowe to “stick around and record my administration. Don’t worry,” he added, “I’ll make it worth your while.”
Kennedy made good on his promise. The photos Lowe was allowed to take during the intense rush of JFK’s brief presidency were windows into its troubled soul. None was more powerful than the picture that the young photographer snapped at the moment when Kennedy was told of Lumumba’s fate. The photo is one of the most searing documents of the Kennedy presidency. In the close-up shot, JFK looks physically stricken as he absorbs the news on the phone, with his eyes squeezed shut and his hand clasped to his face. It was an image of such anguish that it seemed to come from some harrowing time deep in his presidency instead of in its earliest bloom. The picture contains all of the sorrows that were to come.
Lowe later recalled the moment: “I was alone with the president; his hand went to his head in utter despair. ‘Oh, no,’ I heard him groan . . . [Lumumba] was considered a trouble-maker and a leftist by many Americans. But Kennedy’s attitude toward black Africa was that many who were considered leftists were in fact nationalists and patriots. . . . He felt that Africa presented an opportunity for the West, and speaking as an American, unhindered by a colonial heritage, he had made friends in Africa. . . . The call therefore left him heartbroken, for he knew that the murder would be a prelude to chaos . . . it was a poignant moment.”
When the killing of Lumumba was finally announced, furious street protests swept the world, from New Delhi to Warsaw to Tokyo. Lumumba’s fellow leaders in the Third World—including Egypt’s Nasser and Nkrumah of Ghana, who had been a mentor—were particularly outraged by his murder, lashing out at the West and at the UN for failing to protect him. Brazilian delegates to the UN expressed “horror and repulsion” over Lumumba’s slaying. But, as much of the world mourned, the Western press continued its snide coverage of Lumumba, exhuming the martyred leader only to subject him to more abuse. Time magazine snickered at the traditional way his widow, Pauline, chose to mourn her husband, marching bare-breasted through the streets of Leopoldville in a funeral procession. Meanwhile, The New York Times continued to demean Lumumba, sometimes resorting to the most shopworn neocolonial stereotypes of the era. “Lumumba . . . combined the skills of the late Senator McCarthy with the brashness of a ward heeler and the magic touch of an African witch doctor,” wrote Henry Tanner in The New York Times Magazine. “Then there was [his] name—musical, easily pronounced in all languages and yet exotic, African-sounding like the drums in the jungle.”
After her husband’s funeral procession, Pauline Lumumba crumpled to the floor in the dark corner of a friend’s house, too spent to cry anymore. She raised her arms in the air and let them hang there, as if in surrender. Her husband’s murderers did not even have the decency to give her his body, Pauline’s brother told reporters. As little Roland Lumumba hovered anxiously over his mother, the room was filled with the wails of women: “Our strong leader is gone—our great father is no more.”
In his final letter to his wife, Patrice Lumumba vowed, “Neither brutality, nor cruelty nor torture will ever bring me to ask for mercy, for I prefer to die with my head unbowed.” It was an oath that Lumumba had kept throughout his ordeal. Lumumba also told his wife, “History will one day have its say, but it will not be the history that is taught in Brussels, Paris, Washington or in the United Nations. . . . Africa will write its own history, and to the north and south of the Sahara, it will be a glorious and dignified history.”
This promise did not come true for the Congo. The mourners at Lumumba’s wake knew how profound a loss it was, and what it meant for their nation. “There is nothing for us to do now,” muttered Lumumba’s brother-in-law. “He is gone. There is no one to take his place.”
With one of Africa’s brightest lights extinguished, the Congo slid into an endless nightmare of tyranny and corruption. Propped up by the United States, Mobutu began a thirty-two-year dictatorship that looted the country of its wealth and left the nation in ruins. In his rampant thievery, Mobutu modeled himself on King Leopold. So smug was the dictator in his ironfisted rule that he declared Lumumba a national hero, a sick joke that only he could afford to enjoy.
The CIA officials responsible for Lumumba’s murder also had a change of heart about the man who had once haunted their days. In 1962, shortly after Dulles’s departure from the CIA, he remarked, “I think we overrated the Soviet danger, let’s say, in the Congo.” And Devlin, for his part, insisted he had never thought Lumumba’s assassination was essential to U.S. security: “I didn’t regard Lumumba as the kind of person who was going to bring on World War III,” he later told the Church Committee. These expressions of remorse—if they can be called that—came far too late for the man who was the hope of the Congo.