On Monday April 17, 1961, as over fourteen hundred CIA-trained anti-Castro exiles waded ashore at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs—an operation that would quickly become the biggest debacle of Allen Dulles’s career—the CIA director was sunning himself about a thousand miles away at a Puerto Rico resort. Dulles, who had flown down to San Juan that weekend, was the featured speaker at a Young Presidents’ Organization conference, a global network of chief executives under age forty that had CIA affiliations. The gathering was held at La Concha, a new oceanfront luxury hotel that epitomized the Caribbean cool of the tropical modernism movement. The hotel’s signature restaurant was shaped like a giant seashell, with wavy gaps to let in the sunshine and ocean breeze. Dulles spent the weekend swimming and playing golf with the young executives.
On Monday morning, when Dulles strode onstage to deliver his remarks, he looked like a man without a worry in the world. The CIA director’s speech—which followed a panel discussion featuring Margaret Mead and Dr. Benjamin Spock on the subject of “Are We Letting Our Children Down?”—was a plea for globe-trotting American businessmen, like those gathered in the conference hall, to join the clandestine war against Communism. Afterward, there was more time to relax by the pool. The spymaster had brought Clover with him on the trip, completing the carefree picture. They seemed to all the world to be just another well-to-do American couple enjoying a long weekend in the Caribbean sun. But by that evening, as Dulles and his wife flew home, the Bay of Pigs operation was on the verge of collapse, and with it, the spymaster’s long, storied career.
Dick Bissell, whom Dulles had put in charge of the invasion, sent one of the top men in the Cuba task force to pick him up at the airport, thinking that the CIA director would want to be briefed immediately on the growing calamity. Richard Drain, chief of operations for the Bay of Pigs expedition, rolled onto the runway at Baltimore’s Friendship Airport in his well-traveled, CIA-issued Chevrolet as Dulles’s small plane taxied to a stop. The CIA chief emerged from the plane with his wife and a young aide, wearing a dinner jacket and the relaxed smile of a man of leisure. Drain stepped forward and offered his hand.
“I’m Dick Drain. I was sent to brief you, sir.”
“Oh yes, Dick, how are you?”
Drain drew Dulles away from the others.
“Well, how is it going?” asked Dulles.
“Not very well, sir.”
“Oh, is that so?” Dulles wore an oddly bemused look, as if the unfolding tragedy was too remote to affect him.
Back at Quarters Eye, the CIA headquarters in downtown Washington, battle-hardened men were on the verge of hysteria. Bissell, who prided himself on his cool performance under pressure, seemed frozen. On the brink of failure, the Cuba operation lacked the kind of muscular leadership that could rescue the men pinned down by Castro’s forces. Drain was hoping that Dulles would save the day. But he found the Old Man’s unflappability disturbing.
Clover and the young aide were bundled into the Chevrolet, and Dulles and Drain drove back to Washington in the director’s Cadillac. “It’s a fast-breaking situation,” Drain told him. “We’re hanging on by our fingernails.”
Dulles puffed quietly on his pipe as his deputy steered the car onto the highway heading to the capital.
“Today’s air strike was killed,” Drain told him—a stunning piece of news, since Dulles knew that the operation was damned unless President Kennedy agreed to escalate the action and provide the embattled anti-Castro brigade with U.S. air cover.
“Why did they do that?” Dulles asked softly. There was no anger or outrage in his voice.
The emotion all belonged to Drain. “If you’re asking my guess, my guess is this thing is all going to hell.”
By the disastrous end of the operation, when Castro’s forces had killed more than a hundred of the invaders and taken the rest prisoner, Drain would be so wrung out that he vomited. Like the rest of the CIA planning team, Drain had worked closely with the exile leaders who were trapped on the desolate stretch of sand and shrubbery, and they took the men’s fate personally. But Dulles’s mind seemed elsewhere as he and Drain drove to the director’s Georgetown residence. They rode in silence for a long time, until Drain let out a final burst of emotion.
“If it isn’t presumptuous of me, sir, I wish your brother was still alive.” Drain had served as the CIA liaison to Foster in the final months of his life. If he thought that invoking the memory of Dulles’s late brother would light a fire under the spymaster, Drain was wrong. Dulles simply nodded and stared ahead at the road. By the time they reached the house on Q Street, Drain was deeply uncomfortable in his boss’s presence and eager to flee back to his CIA command post. But Dulles insisted that he come inside for a drink.
When the two men settled into armchairs in Dulles’s library with tumblers of Scotch in hand, Drain thought the chief would finally grill him on the details of the failing operation. Instead, the evening only became more surreal.
“Dick, you served in Greece, didn’t you?” Dulles inquired. “I have to go to the White House tomorrow to a reception for [Greek Prime Minister Constantine] Karamanlis. Can you refresh my memory about him?”
The stunned CIA officer strung together some kind of reply and made his exit shortly after.
For years after the Bay of Pigs, Washington insiders and scholars tried to unravel the mystery of Dulles’s AWOL behavior during the critical CIA operation. Some explained that his absence was part of his modus operandi—he was in the habit of leaving Washington on the eve of critical missions to make it seem as if nothing significant was about to occur. Dulles himself airily dismissed his strangely timed Puerto Rico trip. He had planned the Young Presidents speaking engagement months before, he explained, and if he had canceled at the last minute, it would have created suspicions. Besides, he added, “I knew I could get back with the speed of aircraft; it was only a question of six or eight hours.” But the CIA’s own official history of the Cuba fiasco, prepared in the late 1970s and early ’80s, concluded that Dulles’s absence was “inexcusable.” Dulles, the report added, “was the one man who might have persuaded the president to permit the D-Day [air] strike.”
Some of the sharpest criticisms of the Bay of Pigs operation, in fact, came from within the CIA itself. Dick Drain was among those who later aimed fire at Dulles, when he spoke with Jack Pfeiffer, the CIA historian who prepared the voluminous report on the Bay of Pigs. Drain was a gung ho officer who fit the agency profile, right down to membership in Yale’s secretive Skull and Bones society (Class of ’43). But years after he picked up Dulles at the Baltimore airport, Drain vented about the agency’s handling of the doomed Cuba enterprise. He was astounded by the poor quality of the staff assigned to the high-stakes Bay of Pigs operation, Drain told Pfeiffer, despite Dulles’s insistence that it would be run by the agency’s best and brightest. “Allen Dulles, always meaning what he said, would say repeatedly, ‘Now I want the very best people assigned to this project. There is nothing more important that we are doing than this. . . . I want people pulled out of tours overseas if necessary, this thing must be manned.’”
But in truth, said Drain, the Bay of Pigs operation drew agency castoffs. “We would tend to get the people that the [CIA] division chiefs found ‘excess’—which normally meant found insufficient. With many notable exceptions, we did not get the very best people available.”
Even he himself, Drain admitted, was not qualified to play a leading role in the operation. “I don’t mean to be unduly immodest [sic], but really I didn’t have any qualifications for this [job] except I was there and unemployed—had no Spanish language whatsoever, and my entire exposure had been punching cows in Arizona in 1940. That doesn’t really bring you up much on Latin America and Latinos, and any of that. I had never been on amphibious operations, and if that was characteristic of my qualifications, it really characterized the whole damn operation—about which, it seemed to me, there was a good deal of well-meaning hypocrisy.”
Drain’s criticisms of the enterprise echoed those in an earlier CIA report, the damning internal investigation carried out by the agency’s inspector general, Lyman Kirkpatrick, in the months immediately following the disaster. The Kirkpatrick Report, one of the most surprisingly honest self-evaluations ever produced within the CIA, found that despite Dulles’s insistence on “high-quality personnel,” the Bay of Pigs operation was staffed largely by the agency’s losers. According to CIA files, seventeen of the forty-two officers assigned to the operation were ranked in the lowest third of the agency, and nine were ranked in the lowest tenth. The IG’s report concluded that Dulles had allowed his division chiefs to dump “their disposal cases” on the Cuba project.
Robert Amory Jr., the CIA’s highly respected chief of analysis, was one of those who was inexplicably kept away from the Bay of Pigs operation, despite his extensive experience with beach landings as an Army Corps of Engineers officer in the South Pacific during World War II. Amory—who had literally written the book on the subject, Surf and Sand, a regimental history of his twenty-six amphibious operations—was stunned by Dulles and Bissell’s decision to keep him on the sidelines. The CIA men sent to Miami to work with the exile leaders and to Guatemala to help train thebrigadistas were “a bunch of guys who were otherwise not needed,” Amory later recalled. “They were a strange bunch of people with German experience, Arabic experience, and other things like that. And most of them had no knowledge of Spanish . . . and absolutely no sense or feel about the political sensitivities of these [Cuban exiles]. . . . I think we could have had an A team, instead of being a C-minus team.”
The Kirkpatrick Report detailed a number of other glaring errors made by Dulles, Bissell, and their Bay of Pigs team. When plans for the Cuba invasion grew more ambitious and began leaking to the press as early as November 1960, the report stated, the CIA should have terminated its role in the mission since it had outgrown the agency’s covert capability. “When the project became blown to every newspaper reader,” the report noted acerbically, “the agency should have informed higher authority that it was no longer operating in its charter.” The criticisms went on and on, each one more devastating than the last. “As the project grew, the agency reduced the exiled leaders to the status of puppets. . . . The project was badly organized. . . . The agency became so wrapped up in the military operation that it failed to appraise the chances of success realistically. Furthermore, it failed to keep [the president and his] policymakers adequately and realistically informed of the conditions essential for success.”
Kirkpatrick, who prepared his devastating report with the help of three investigators, flatly rejected the main CIA alibi for the failed mission—that Kennedy was to blame by blocking the agency’s last-minute requests for air strikes. The invasion was “doomed” from the start by the CIA’s poor planning, the inspector general concluded. Even if the air strikes had allowed the invaders to move inland from the shore, his report stated, the “men would eventually have been crushed by Castro’s combined military resources strengthened by Soviet Bloc–supplied military materiel.”
Perhaps the most devastating revelation about the CIA operation emerged years later, in 2005, when the agency was compelled to release the minutes of a meeting held by its Cuba task force on November 15, 1960, one week after Kennedy’s election. The group, which was deliberating on how to brief the president-elect on the pending invasion, came to an eye-opening conclusion. In the face of strong security measures that Castro had implemented, the CIA task force admitted, their invasion plan was “now seen to be unachievable, except as a joint [CIA/Department of Defense] action.” In other words, the CIA realized that its Bay of Pigs expedition was doomed to fail unless its exile brigade was reinforced by the power of the U.S. military. But the CIA never shared this sobering assessment with the president.
Nor did Dulles and Bissell share with Kennedy their other “magic bullet” for success in Cuba—the agency’s ongoing plot with the Mafia to assassinate Castro, which had been authorized by Eisenhower. With Cuba’s revolutionary government decapitated, CIA officials were certain that the regime would soon topple. But the Cuban leader had learned from the annals of imperial history and had wisely taken precautions against such plots. He would thwart his enemies for decades to come, as he grew from a young firebrand to a gray-bearded legend.
Dulles and Bissell knew that Kennedy was deeply torn over the Cuba invasion plan. His denunciations of Western imperialism had raised high hopes throughout the hemisphere that the days of heavy-handed Yanqui interference were coming to an end. “Kennedy’s election has given rise to an enormous expectancy throughout Latin America,” Schlesinger noted in his journal in early February 1961. “They see him as another FDR; they expect great things from him.” But Kennedy had also campaigned for a strong, though undefined, response to Castro. Eisenhower’s final words of advice to him were to take out the Cuban leader—and he left behind an invasion plan and assassination plot to do just that. As William Bundy observed, the old general had handed Kennedy “a grenade with the pin pulled”—if he didn’t use it, it could blow up in his face, with serious political consequences.
Kennedy agonized over giving final authorization for the Bay of Pigs plan to the very end. He kept downsizing the operation, to make it as little “noisy” as possible. “What the president really wanted, it seems, was for the CIA to pull off the neat trick of invading Cuba without actually invading it; an immaculate invasion, as it were . . . without all the messy business along the way,” observed historian Jim Rasenberger.
Dulles kept accommodating the anxious Kennedy, convinced that once the brigadistas hit the beaches, JFK would be forced to do anything necessary for success—even if that meant getting very noisy and messy. The wily CIA chief set a trap for Kennedy, allowing the president to believe that his “immaculate invasion” could succeed, even though Dulles knew that only U.S. soldiers and planes could ensure that.
Years after the Bay of Pigs, historians—including the CIA’s own Jack Pfeiffer—painted a portrait of Dulles as a spymaster in decline, bumbling and disengaged and maybe too advanced in years, at age sixty-eight, for the rigors of his job. Only a spy chief with a shaky grasp on the tiller could have overlooked the deep flaws embedded in the Bay of Pigs strategy, it was stated.
But, as usual, there was method to Dulles’s seeming carelessness. It is now clear that the CIA’s Bay of Pigs expedition was not simply doomed to fail, it was meant to fail. And its failure was designed to trigger the real action—an all-out, U.S. military invasion of the island. Dulles plunged ahead with his hopeless, paramilitary mission—an expedition that he had staffed with “C-minus” officers and expendable Cuban “puppets”—because he was serenely confident that, in the heat of battle, Kennedy would be forced to send the Marines crashing ashore. Dulles was banking on the young, untested commander in chief to cave in to pressure from the Washington war machine, just as other presidents had bent to the spymaster’s will.
It was Dick Bissell, the man in charge of the high-stakes operation, who stood to lose the most when the motley brigade of Cuban patriots and cutthroats inevitably bogged down on the beaches. That was perfectly fine with Dulles, who had been content all along for Bissell to take the lead on the Bay of Pigs—and also the heat. Bissell supported Dulles’s decision to fly off to Puerto Rico on the eve of the mission. The ambitious deputy director was eager to run his own show. JFK had put out the word that Bissell was going to replace Dulles by July, and the supremely confident Bissell thought it was time to show what he could do. “I was prepared to run it as a single-handed operation,” he later said. “I was impatient if Dulles raised too many questions.”
Dulles was only too pleased to accommodate his rising deputy. As the mission went to hell, the CIA chief would be far from the Washington inferno. By the time Dulles returned home from his Puerto Rico retreat, he would look like one of the grown-ups riding to the rescue. The spymaster and the Pentagon brass would make the new president see that he had no choice: he had to escalate the fighting in Cuba and march all the way to Havana. Afterward, as the dust settled, if Bissell suffered an unfortunate career reversal because his ill-conceived escapade had to be salvaged by the big boys, well, so be it. After all, he was the face of the Cuba mission, just as Dulles had made him the front man for the risky U-2 enterprise and the assassination operations against foreign leaders.
Years later, Bob Amory would acknowledge that JFK was indeed “a little bit trapped” by the CIA on the Bay of Pigs, though Amory himself had nothing to do with it. But if Dulles thought he could force Kennedy to carry out his Cuba plan, he had seriously underestimated the young man in the White House.
Around midnight on Tuesday, April 18, in the midst of the unfolding fiasco, some of the principal advocates for a bigger war in Cuba made one final assault on Kennedy, gathering with him in the Oval Office after the annual congressional party in the East Room. Among those pressing the case for escalation were Bissell and two longtime Pentagon allies of Dulles, Joint Chiefs chairman Lyman Lemnitzer and Navy chief Arleigh Burke. Dulles was absent, still keeping his distance from the mess and hoping that Bissell would take the fall for it. The CIA director was placing his confidence in Lemnitzer and Burke, hoping that the two blunt-spoken, highly decorated warriors could strong-arm Kennedy into unleashing the U.S. military. The president was still in formal white-tie-and-black-tails attire from the East Room party, and the military men were in their full dress uniforms. But there was nothing polite or decorative about the intense discussion in the president’s office.
Admiral Burke was especially gruff with Kennedy, treating him as if he were a weak-kneed ensign. Without informing the president, Burke had already taken the liberty of positioning two battalions of Marines on Navy destroyers off the coast of Cuba, “anticipating that U.S. forces might be ordered into Cuba to salvage a botched invasion.” It was one of many extraordinary acts of Pentagon and CIA insubordination that plagued the Kennedy presidency from the very beginning. Now the Navy chief was browbeating Kennedy into taking the first steps toward a full-scale war with Castro.
“Let me take two jets and shoot down the enemy aircraft,” growled “31-Knot” Burke, who had become legendary for his speed and daring as a destroyer squadron commander in the South Pacific during the war, while JFK was a mere PT boat captain. But by this point in the unfolding disaster, Kennedy was not inclined to take any more advice from his national security wise men, even if they were World War II idols. “What if Castro’s forces return fire and hit the destroyer?” Kennedy sensibly asked.
“Then we’ll knock the hell out of them!” Burke bellowed.
Now Kennedy began to show some of his own icy, if more restrained, temper. He had made it clear all along that he did not want the Bay of Pigs to blow up into an international crisis with the United States in the middle—and here was his Navy chief urging just such a course of action. “Burke, I don’t want the United States involved in this,” he firmly repeated one more time.
“Hell, Mr. President,” the admiral shot back, “but we are involved!”
But Kennedy stood his ground. As he had repeatedly warned them, there would be no air strikes, no Marine landings—and the fate of the Bay of Pigs operation was sealed.
“They were sure I’d give in to them,” Kennedy later told Dave Powers. “They couldn’t believe that a new president like me wouldn’t panic and try to save his own face. Well they had me figured all wrong.”
JFK was even more vehement when he spoke with another old friend, Paul “Red” Fay Jr., whom Kennedy installed as undersecretary of the Navy. “Nobody is going to force me to do anything I don’t think is in the best interests of the country,” he vented. “We’re not going to plunge into irresponsible action just because a fanatical fringe in the country puts so-called national pride above national reason.”
As the last of the brigadistas were rounded up by Castro’s troops in the swamps surrounding the Bay of Pigs, Dulles seemed shell-shocked. He had never suffered a humiliation like this in his career. Seeking consolation, Dulles made a Thursday night dinner date with his old protégé, Dick Nixon. The spymaster was acutely aware that if Nixon had been the one sitting in the White House, the events in Cuba would have taken a much different course. When he finally arrived at the Washington residence that Nixon still maintained, over an hour late, Dulles did not seem himself. It looked to Nixon like he was under “great emotional stress.” The CIA chief shuffled in wearing slippers—a sign that he was in the midst of another agonizing gout attack, the recurring affliction that seemed to strike whenever Dulles was entangled in a high-stress operation. After asking for a drink, the Old Man collapsed into a chair and exhaled, “This has been the worst day of my life.”
If Dulles thought he could escape Kennedy’s wrath by making Bissell the scapegoat, he was deeply mistaken. Both CIA officials would eventually be ousted, but JFK placed most of the blame squarely on the top man. The CIA chief later swore that he never “sold” the president on the Bay of Pigs scheme. “One ought never to sell anybody a bill of goods,” he told an interviewer for the JFK Presidential Library. But Kennedy knew the truth. Dulles had lied to his face in the Oval Office about the chances for the operation’s success. “I stood right here at Ike’s desk,” Dulles told JFK on the eve of the invasion, “and I told him I was certain our Guatemalan operation would succeed—and, Mr. President, the prospects for this plan are even better than they were for that one.”
Kennedy and Dulles had not gotten off to a good start with each other during the first months of the new presidency. The minor rifts and strains began accumulating from the very beginning. Still wedded to the ancien régime, Dulles never hung an official portrait of President Kennedy in the CIA headquarters. The CIA director immediately created an atmosphere of distrust between his agency and the White House, telling his deputies to make sure that they retrieved any sensitive documents they showed to Kennedy’s staff, so they didn’t wind up in White House files. Dulles “didn’t really feel comfortable with” Kennedy, observed Bob Amory.
The spymaster regarded the young New Frontiersmen Kennedy brought into his administration as if they were an alien force. In February 1961, Adam Yarmolinksy, one of the young Ivy League–educated “whiz kids” assembled by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to modernize the management of the Pentagon, scheduled an appointment with Dulles. Before the meeting, the spymaster requested a report on Yarmolinsky from CIA general counsel Lawrence Houston, as if he were meeting a foreign official. Dulles was briefed about Yarmolinsky’s liberal inclinations by Houston, who then phoned the director’s office with additional observations about the young Kennedy official. “Mr. Houston says [Yarmolinksy] is an extremely bright fellow,” reported the Dulles aide who took the phone call, “although not particularly personally attractive. He is of Russian-Jewish background.”
Dulles insisted on personally handling all of the agency’s briefings at the White House, but JFK—who was more widely traveled and sophisticated about global affairs than his age would indicate—did not think much of the CIA chief’s presentations. He found Dulles patronizing and uninformative. According to White House aide Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy “was not very impressed with Dulles’s briefings. He did not think they were in much depth or told him anything he couldn’t read in the newspapers.”
But if relations between Kennedy and Dulles were strained before the Bay of Pigs, afterward they were all but nonexistent. Kennedy made it clear that he no longer wanted to be briefed by Dulles, so the agency began sending him briefing booklets called the President’s Intelligence Checklist, filled with short summaries of world developments. Kennedy clearly preferred this method, firing off follow-up questions to the agency, along with requests to see source materials, such as the complete text of speeches by foreign leaders and the unabridged versions of CIA reports.
In public, the president took full blame for the Cuba fiasco. And Kennedy remained personally courteous in his face-to-face dealings with Dulles. “There was never any recrimination on the president’s part,” Dulles later recalled. “I might well have lost to some extent in the measure of confidence he placed on me—that’s inevitable in things of this kind, I think, but I may say in his personal attitude toward me, in the many meetings we had, he never let that appear.”
But behind the scenes, Dulles waged a vigorous battle with Kennedy to control the media spin on the Bay of Pigs and to hold on to his command of the CIA. The intelligence chief took immediate steps to rally his corporate base of support. On May 1, Dulles convened a private meeting of CEOs to discuss “current problems confronting business enterprise in Latin America and specific ways of meeting them.” The gathering at New York’s Metropolitan Club—which Dulles emphasized was “strictly off the record”—gave the spymaster and his corporate clientele an opportunity to reevaluate their strategy in the post–Bay of Pigs climate.
Dulles’s corporate circle encouraged his aggressive political tactics by sending him supportive messages. Charles Hilles Jr., executive vice president of ITT, was among those who wrote Dulles to buck him up after the Cuban catastrophe. “I have the greatest admiration for your calmness and fortitude, and for your devotion to the country’s good,” wrote Hilles on May 4, “and I sense that I am one of an overwhelming majority.” The following month, a conservative New York corporate attorney named Watson “Watty” Washburn, known as a tennis wizard in his youth and later as the attorney who defended P. G. Wodehouse against the IRS, offered Dulles more militant encouragement. Washburn urged Dulles to slough off his earlier failure and organize a new invasion of Cuba to liberate the Bay of Pigs captives from Castro’s prison on the Isle of Pines. “This would be mere child’s play as a military operation,” assured Washburn, “and would qualify as an humanitarian enterprise rather than ‘imperialism.’”
If Dulles had lost the battle at the Bay of Pigs, he was determined to win the war of ideas over the failed operation. He began his psywar campaign by sending an all-station cable to CIA personnel with his version of the Cuba disaster. According to Ralph McGehee, a twenty-five-year CIA veteran serving in Vietnam at the time, Dulles’s cable to his troops “implied that had events taken their planned course, we would have been victorious in [the] invasion of Cuba.” The Dulles message, which the Old Man continued to promote for the rest of his life, was emphatically clear: the mission had been doomed by Kennedy’s failure of nerve, or, as he put it more diplomatically in his unpublished article for Harper’s, by the president’s lack of “determination to succeed.”
Years after the Bay of Pigs, Dulles was still spinning reporters, scholars, and anyone else who showed an interest in the fading story. In April 1965, when a Harvard Business School student named L. Paul Bremer III—who would find his own place in the annals of American disasters as President George W. Bush’s proconsul in Iraq—sent Dulles his dissertation on the Bay of Pigs, the spymaster sought to correct the young man’s impression that it was a CIA failure. It was Kennedy’s “final decision to eliminate the air action” that had killed the expedition, Dulles wrote Bremer. “I can assure you that it would never have been mounted . . . if it had been even suspected that this vital element of the plan would be eliminated.”
Dulles’s spin on the Bay of Pigs began appearing in the press as soon as the smoke cleared from the invasion. His version received prominent play in a September 1961 Fortune magazine article titled “Cuba: The Record Set Straight.” The article was written byFortune staff writer Charles Murphy, a journalist so close to Dulles that the spymaster used him as a ghostwriter. The previous year, Murphy had fawningly agreed to write a Dulles memoir, telling the CIA chief “you have honored me with your invitation to me to lend a hand with your book, and I am looking forward to the association.” Much of Murphy’s article in Fortune sounded like it was dictated directly by Dulles, shifting blame from the CIA to the White House. Murphy later claimed that Admiral Burke had been his source, but the Kennedy brothers suspected that Dulles’s deputy, General Charles Cabell, was also involved.
Kennedy was furious about the Fortune article, and he had the White House prepare a point-by-point rebuttal for publisher Henry Luce. The media-savvy president knew that he was confronting a formidable opponent in the war of ideas over Cuba. At his first press conference following the Bay of Pigs, JFK put the Washington press corps on alert, telling reporters, “I wouldn’t be surprised if information wasn’t poured into you” from “interested agencies.”
If the president could not match Dulles’s wide network of media assets, he brought his own impressive skills to the public relations war with the CIA. Kennedy was adept at massaging influential journalists like New York Times Washington columnist James “Scotty” Reston. While the Bay of Pigs disaster was still unfolding, JFK invited Reston to lunch at the White House, confiding to him, “I probably made a mistake in keeping Allen Dulles on. . . . I have never worked with him and therefore I can’t estimate his meaning when he tells me things. . . . Dulles is a legendary figure, and it’s hard to operate with legendary figures. . . . It’s a hell of a way to learn things, but I have learned one thing from this business—that is, that we will have to deal with the CIA.”
Word quickly got back to CIA headquarters that if Kennedy was taking the blame in public for the Bay of Pigs, he was privately stabbing Dulles and the agency with his sharp invective, vowing to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.”
Kennedy deployed two of his most passionately loyal White House aides, Sorensen and Schlesinger, in the war of words with Dulles’s empire. Both men brought a cutting eloquence to the political duel. The week after the Bay of Pigs, Schlesinger, who had adamantly opposed the operation, observed, “We not only look like imperialists . . . we look like stupid, ineffectual imperialists. . . . Allen Dulles and Dick Bissell brought down in a day what Kennedy had been laboring patiently and successfully to build up in three months.”
Dulles knew that JFK was maneuvering to dump him, but he made it clear that he would not go without a fight. On May 23, Schlesinger discussed the CIA director’s fate with Dulles’s mole in the White House, Mac Bundy. Bundy, no doubt channeling his headstrong patron, told Schlesinger that “there would be serious difficulties about procuring the resignation of Allen Dulles.” According to Bundy, Dulles believed that “his only mistake was in not having persuaded the president that he must send in the Marines.”
As JFK’s national security adviser, Bundy was in a delicate position, trying to earn the confidence of the president whom he had just begun serving, while at the same time subtly advocating for Dulles. In the midst of the Bay of Pigs crisis, Bundy had tried to turn Bissell into the scapegoat. He told Schlesinger that Dulles “actually had more misgivings about the project than he had ever expressed to the president, and that he had not done so out of loyalty to Bissell.” Bundy added that “he personally would not be able to accept Dick’s estimates of a situation like this again.” Bundy, who had endorsed the Bay of Pigs plan, was clearly acting on Dulles’s behalf when he threw Bissell under the bus. But he failed to halt the White House momentum that was building for Dulles’s termination.
The battle over Dulles’s future as CIA director came to a head during the presidential investigation of the Bay of Pigs debacle. A few days after the failed invasion, Kennedy appointed General Maxwell Taylor to chair the official inquiry. Taylor, who would later become JFK’s military adviser, was closely aligned with Dulles. Fletcher Prouty, an astute observer of Dulles’s far-flung Washington network, later called Taylor another key “CIA man at the White House.” Dulles, who was appointed to the Taylor Committee along with his ally Admiral Burke, must have thought he had the Bay of Pigs panel tightly wired—just the way he had controlled the blue-ribbon CIA oversight committees during the Eisenhower era.
But Max Taylor also felt a sense of loyalty to Kennedy, who had championed the handsome, ramrod-straight general when Taylor broke with the Eisenhower-Dulles policy of massive retaliation in favor of a more nuanced strategy he called “flexible response.” JFK, who was influenced by Taylor’s 1959 book, The Uncertain Trumpet, called the scholarly Taylor “my kind of general.” As chair of the investigation, Taylor maintained a delicate balance, striving diplomatically to avoid putting too much blame on the CIA or the Pentagon. But Taylor’s “strongest tilts,” in the estimation of CIA historian Jack Pfeiffer, “were toward deflecting criticism of the White House.”
Meanwhile, Bobby Kennedy, whom Pfeiffer archly observed “crossed all lines as the president’s alter ego,” used his position on the Taylor Committee to make sure his brother would be protected. The young, sharp-elbowed attorney general proved to be a tougher advocate for the White House than Dulles and Arleigh Burke were for their respective institutions. RFK deftly blocked the two Kennedy antagonists from focusing blame on the president. As the committee completed its report, Dulles and Burke were reduced to lobbying Taylor to at least insert a footnote stating that if Kennedy had approved air coverage of the landing, “it could well have caused a chain reaction of success throughout Cuba, with resultant defection of some of [Castro’s] Militia, the uprising of the populace and eventual success of the operation.” But this hypothetical scenario was a pipe dream that only Dulles and Burke were smoking.
Nearly two decades later, Pfeiffer’s Bay of Pigs history still reflected agency resentment at how JFK’s brother outmaneuvered the CIA and Pentagon during the Taylor investigation. “At the conclusion of the testimony of the witnesses,” Pfeiffer wrote, “it was clear that Burke and Dulles . . . were headed for the elephants’ burial ground—thanks to Robert Kennedy’s denigration of them and their Agencies and, in no small part in the case of Dulles to his abysmal performance as a witness.” By the end of the investigation, wrote Pfeiffer, the outplayed Dulles and Burke “were nattering at each other” over how much of the responsibility for the disaster the Navy should share with the CIA.
If the Taylor Committee, which presented its findings to Kennedy on May 16, badly damaged Dulles, the Kirkpatrick Report sealed his fate. Tall, handsome, athletic, and charming, Lyman Kirkpatrick had been one of the agency’s rising stars. A graduate of Deerfield and Princeton, he served with the OSS and as an intelligence adviser to General Omar Bradley during the war. A streak of daring ran through the Kirkpatrick family. His sister, Helen, was an intrepid war correspondent, riding with the tanks of the Free French Forces to liberate Paris. Photos of the attractive reporter in a combat helmet and tailored uniform gave her dispatches for the Chicago Daily News a glamorous flair. After the war, Lyman Kirkpatrick joined the CIA in its infancy and made his way quickly up the ranks, becoming CIA chief Beetle Smith’s right-hand man. Kirkpatrick appeared to be on a fast track to the top of the agency, as covert action chief and then perhaps director.
But in 1952, he was stricken by polio while on assignment in Asia. After a long hospitalization—including a nightmarish ordeal at Walter Reed Hospital, where Dulles had pulled strings to get him admitted—Kirkpatrick returned to the CIA. He was paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, but he was determined to resume his career. Dulles, who had just taken over the CIA, appointed Kirkpatrick inspector general—an unpopular post since it involved monitoring the agency’s internal affairs. By accepting the job, Kirkpatrick was acknowledging that his hopes for the top office were gone. But he demonstrated integrity as IG, recommending that the CIA employees who were responsible for the 1953 death of MKULTRA victim Frank Olson be punished, although they never were. Kirkpatrick also went on record within the agency as opposing the assassination of Lumumba.
Kirkpatrick, who had worked with Joe Kennedy on Eisenhower’s intelligence advisory board, belonged to the pro-Kennedy faction inside the CIA. Kirkpatrick and JFK were on friendly terms. The president, who knew how important swimming exercises had been for the polio-afflicted Franklin Roosevelt, invited Kirkpatrick to use the White House pool, where Kennedy swam to ease his own back ailments. It was Kirkpatrick who noticed that there was no official portrait of President Kennedy on display at CIA headquarters, and after Dulles had left the agency, the inspector general arranged for one finally to be hung.
Still, Kirkpatrick was a lifelong CIA man, and he owed his resurrected career to Dulles. So the Old Man felt deeply betrayed when Kirkpatrick handed him and his deputy, Charles Cabell, copies of the highly critical Bay of Pigs autopsy. A furious Dulles denounced the report as a “hatchet job.” Dulles and Cabell “were both exceedingly shocked and upset, irritated and annoyed and mad and everything else,” Kirkpatrick recalled.
Agency loyalists like Sam Halpern began spreading the word that Kirkpatrick was acting out of acrimony. The report was “basically Kirk’s vendetta against Bissell,” said Halpern years later, still promoting the agency line. “He had been a real rising star. Once he had polio, he got sidetracked and became a bitter man.” But, in truth, Kirkpatrick was a man of conscience. “When you speak honestly about what people did wrong, you’re going to step on toes,” said Kirkpatrick’s son, Lyman Jr., a retired Army intelligence colonel. “But that was his job.”
Dulles succeeded in suppressing the Kirkpatrick Report; it would remain locked away until the CIA was finally compelled to release it in 1998. But as word spread in Washington circles about the harsh report, it added to the anti-Kennedy passions flaring within the CIA.
The Bay of Pigs debacle produced a “stuttering rage” among CIA officers aligned with Dulles, according to CIA veteran Joseph B. Smith—especially among those on the Cuba task force. “I had the feeling all those [agents] there felt almost that the world had ended,” Smith remembered. In August, months after the failed venture, when longtime veteran Ralph McGehee returned from Vietnam to agency headquarters, he, too, found the CIA in turmoil. Rumors spread that Kennedy was going to exact his revenge by slashing the CIA workforce through a massive “reduction in force,” code-named the “701 program” by the agency.
“It seemed [to us] that the RIF program was aimed more at the CIA than other agencies,” McGehee observed. “This was a tension-filled, dismal time. . . . The halls seemed filled with the strained, anxious looks of the soon-to-be unemployed.”
When Kennedy’s ax did fall, McGehee was stunned by the carnage. “About one of every five was fired. The tension became too much for some. On several occasions, one of my former office mates came to the office howling drunk and worked his way onto the 701 list.”
The anti-Kennedy rage inside CIA headquarters also reverberated at the Pentagon. “Pulling out the rug [on the Bay of Pigs invaders],” fumed Joint Chiefs chairman Lemnitzer, was “unbelievable . . . absolutely reprehensible, almost criminal.” Years later, the name Kennedy still made “31-Knot” Burke boil over. “Mr. Kennedy,” the admiral told an oral historian from the U.S. Naval Institute, “was a very bad president. . . . He permitted himself to jeopardize the nation.” The Kennedy team, he added, “didn’t realize the power of the United States or how to use the power of the United States. It was a game to them. . . . They were inexperienced people.”
If Kennedy’s national security mandarins were filled with contempt for him, the feeling was clearly mutual. On the heels of the Bay of Pigs, when Lemnitzer urged militant action in other hot spots such as Laos, the president brushed him off. He disliked even being in the same room with the men who had led him astray on Cuba. JFK “dismissed [Lemnitzer and the others] as a bunch of old men,” Schlesinger recalled years later. “He thought Lemnitzer was a dope.”
Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Johnson, was disturbed by JFK’s growing estrangement from the military and the CIA. “Of course, Johnson was a great admirer of the military,” recalled Jack Bell, a White House reporter for the Associated Press. “He didn’t believe that Kennedy was paying enough attention to the military leaders.”
Chatting with Bell one day, LBJ told the reporter, “You don’t hardly ever see the chiefs of staff around [the White House] anymore.” As Johnson was painfully aware, he was not part of JFK’s inner circle either—“he just sat around with his thumb in his mouth,” as Bell put it.
It was Bobby, the tough kid brother reviled by Johnson, who was the president’s indispensable partner. “Every time they have a conference down there [at the White House], don’t kid anybody about who was the top adviser,” Johnson bitterly told Bell. “It isn’t McNamara, the chiefs of staff, or anybody else like that. Bobby is first in and last out. And Bobby is the boy he listens to.”
It was Cuba that created the first fracture between Kennedy and his national security chain of command. But while the Bay of Pigs was still dominating the front pages, the CIA mucked its way into another international crisis that required the president’s urgent attention. The Cuba invasion has all but erased this second crisis from history. But the strange events that occurred in Paris in April 1961 reinforced the disturbing feeling that President Kennedy was not in control of his own government.
Paris was in turmoil. At dawn on Saturday morning, April 22, a group of retired French generals had seized power in Algiers to block President Charles de Gaulle from settling the long, bloody war for Algerian independence. Rumors quickly spread that the coup plotters were coming next for de Gaulle himself, and that the skies over Paris would soon be filled with battle-hardened paratroopers and French Foreign Legionnaires from Algeria. Gripped by the dying convulsions of its colonial reign, France braced for a calamitous showdown.
The threat to French democracy was actually even more immediate than feared. On Saturday evening, two units of paratroopers totaling over two thousand men huddled in the Forest of Orleans and the Forest of Rambouillet, not much more than an hour outside Paris. The rebellious paratroopers were poised for the final command to join up with tank units from Rambouillet and converge on the capital, with the aim of seizing the Élysée Palace and other key government posts. By Sunday, panic was sweeping through Paris. All air traffic was halted over the area, the Metro was shut down, and cinemas were dark. Only the cafés remained open, where Parisians crowded anxiously to swap the latest gossip.
News that the coup was being led by the widely admired Maurice Challe, a former air force chief and commander of French forces in Algeria, stunned the government in Paris, from de Gaulle down. Challe, a squat, quiet man, was a World War II hero and, so it had seemed, a loyal Gaullist. But the savage passions of the war in Algeria had deeply affected Challe and left him vulnerable to the persuasions of more zealous French officers. He had promised Algeria’s French settlers and pro-French Muslims that they would not be abandoned, and he felt a soldierly responsibility to stand by his oath, as well as by the memory of the French servicemen who had lost their lives in the war. In his radio broadcast to the people of France, the coup leader explained that he was taking his stand against de Gaulle’s “government of capitulation . . . so that our dead shall not have died for nothing.”
De Gaulle quickly concluded that Challe must be acting with the support of U.S. intelligence, and Élysée officials began spreading this word to the press. Shortly before his resignation from the French military, Challe had served as NATO commander in chief, and he had developed close relations with a number of high-ranking U.S. officers stationed in the military alliance’s Fontainebleau headquarters. Challe and American security officials shared a deep disaffection with de Gaulle. The stubborn, seventy-year-old pillar of French nationalism was viewed as a growing obstacle to U.S. ambitions for NATO because he refused to incorporate French troops under allied command and insisted on building a separate nuclear force beyond Washington’s control. De Gaulle’s enemies in Paris and Washington were also convinced that the French president’s awkward steps toward granting Algerian independence threatened to create a “Soviet base” in strategic, oil-rich North Africa.
In panic-gripped Paris, reports of U.S. involvement in the coup filled newspapers across the political spectrum. Geneviève Tabouis, a columnist for Paris-Jour, zeroed in directly on Dulles as the main culprit in an article headlined “The Strategy of Allen Dulles.” Other news reports revealed that Jacques Soustelle—a former governor-general of Algeria who joined the Secret Army Organization (Organisation de l’Armée Secrète, or OAS), a notorious anti–de Gaulle terrorist group—had a luncheon meeting with Richard Bissell in Washington the previous December.
De Gaulle’s foreign ministry was the source of some of the most provocative charges in the press, including the allegation that CIA agents sought funding for the Challe coup from multinational corporations, such as Belgian mining companies operating in the Congo. Ministry officials also alleged that Americans with ties to extremist groups had surfaced in Paris during the coup drama, including one identified as a “political counselor for the Luce [media] group,” who was heard to say, “An operation is being prepared in Algiers to put a stop to communism, and we will not fail as we did in Cuba.”
Stories about the CIA’s French intrigues soon began spreading to the American press. A Paris correspondent for The Washington Post reported that Challe had launched his revolt “because he was convinced he had unqualified American support”—assurances, Challe was led to believe, “emanating from President Kennedy himself.” Who gave these assurances, the Post reporter asked his French sources? The Pentagon, the CIA? “It’s the same thing,” he was told.
Dulles was forced to issue a strong denial of CIA involvement in the putsch. “Any reports or allegations that the Central Intelligence Agency or any of its personnel had anything to do with the generals’ revolt were completely false,” the spymaster declared, blaming Moscow for spreading the charges.
C. L. Sulzberger, the CIA-friendly New York Times columnist, took up the agency’s defense, echoing Dulles’s indignant denial. “To set the record straight,” Sulzberger wrote, sounding like an agency official, “our Government behaved with discretion, wisdom and propriety during the [French] insurrection. This applies to all branches, [including] the CIA.” Years later, investigative reporter Carl Bernstein exposed the ties between Sulzberger and the CIA. “Young Cy Sulzberger had some uses,” a CIA official told Bernstein. “He was very eager, he loved to cooperate.” (Bernstein conveniently left unexamined the long history of cooperation between the CIA and his own former employer, The Washington Post.)
But The New York Times’s Scotty Reston was more aligned with the sentiments of the Kennedy White House. Echoing the charges circulating in the French press, Reston reported that the CIA was indeed “involved in an embarrassing liaison with the anti-Gaullist officers.” Reston communicated the rising fury in JFK’s inner circle over the CIA’s rogue behavior, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the French escapade: “All this has increased the feeling in the White House that the CIA has gone beyond the bounds of an objective intelligence-gathering agency and has become the advocate of men and policies that have embarrassed the Administration.”
Allen Dulles was once again making his own policy, this time in France. There was a long history of acrimony between Dulles and de Gaulle, dating back to World War II and the complex internal politics of the French Resistance. As OSS chief in Switzerland, Dulles favored a far right faction of the Resistance that was opposed to de Gaulle. In his war memoirs, de Gaulle accused Dulles of being part of “a scheme” that was determined to “silence or set aside” the French general. Pierre de Bénouville, a right-wing Resistance leader on Dulles’s OSS payroll, was later accused of betraying Jean Moulin, de Gaulle’s dashing representative in the French underground, to the Gestapo. After he was captured, Moulin was subjected to brutal torture before being beaten to death—by the notorious war criminal Klaus Barbie, according to some accounts.
After de Gaulle was elected president in 1958, he sought to purge the French government of its CIA-connected elements. Dulles had made heavy inroads into France’s political, cultural, and intelligence circles in the postwar years. According to some French reports, during his visits to Paris the spymaster would set himself up at a suite in the Ritz Hotel, where he would dispense bags full of cash to friendly politicians, journalists, and other influential figures. Some were wined and dined and enticed with beautiful Parisian call girls.
De Gaulle was particularly determined to shut down the secret “stay-behind army” that Dulles had organized in France—a network of anti-Communist militants with access to buried arms caches who were originally recruited to resist a potential Soviet invasion but were now aligned with the rebellious generals and other groups plotting to overthrow French democracy. De Gaulle ordered his young security adviser, Constantin Melnik, to shut down the murky, stay-behind network of fascists, spooks, and criminals, which Melnik agreed was “very dangerous for the security of France.” But Melnik, who was trained at the RAND Corporation, a leading think tank for the U.S. national security complex, was another admirer of Dulles, and the stay-behind underground continued to operate in France. Melnik—who was the son of a White Russian general and the grandson of Czar Nicolas II’s personal physician, who was executed along with the imperial family—was as passionately anti-Soviet as his U.S. security colleagues.
In May 1958, when de Gaulle returned to power in Paris after a twelve-year absence, Dulles flew to Paris for a face-to-face meeting with the legendary Frenchman to see if their differences could be resolved. Dulles had great confidence in his personal powers of persuasion. But the proud de Gaulle refused to see the spymaster, handing him off to one of his close associates, Michel Debré. A formal dinner was organized for Dulles and Jim Hunt, the CIA station chief in Paris, which was also attended by Melnik. Dulles seemed unfazed by de Gaulle’s slight. But, as French journalist Frédéric Charpier later commented, “Upon returning to the Ritz Hotel, Dulles drew some lessons from the evening, which confirmed his fears. De Gaulle promised to be a tough and hostile partner who was sure to put an end to the laissez-faire attitude which up until then had characterized the [French government].”
World leaders defied Allen Dulles at their peril—even leaders like Charles de Gaulle, whose nation’s warm, fraternal relations with the United States dated back to the American Revolution. After Dulles flew home to Washington, the CIA’s reports on de Gaulle took a sharper edge. At a National Security Council meeting convened by Eisenhower in September 1958, gloomy prognostications were made about the French leader’s ability to settle the Algerian crisis to America’s satisfaction. The possibility of overthrowing de Gaulle and replacing him with someone more in tune with U.S. interests was openly discussed, but the idea was discarded at that point as too risky.
However, by the time Kennedy took office in January 1961, the CIA was primed for a power switch in Paris. On January 26, Dulles sent a report to the new president on the French situation that seemed to be preparing Kennedy for de Gaulle’s imminent elimination, without giving any hint of the CIA’s own involvement in the plot. “A pre-revolutionary atmosphere reigns in France,” Dulles informed JFK. “The Army and the Air Force are staunchly opposed to de Gaulle,” the spymaster continued, exaggerating the extent of the military opposition, as if to present the demise of the French president as a fait accompli. “At least 80 percent of the officers are violently against him. They haven’t forgotten that in 1958, he had given his word of honor that he would never abandon Algeria. He is now reneging on his promise, and they hate him for that. De Gaulle surely won’t last if he tries to let go of Algeria. Everything will probably be over for him by the end of the year—he will be either deposed or assassinated.” Dulles clearly knew much more, but he wasn’t sharing it with Kennedy.
When the coup against de Gaulle began three months later, Kennedy was still in the dark. It was a tumultuous time for the young administration. As he continued to wrestle with fallout from the Bay of Pigs crisis, JFK was suddenly besieged with howls of outrage from a major ally, accusing his own security services of seditious activity. It was a stinging embarrassment for the new American president, who was scheduled to fly to Paris for a state visit the following month. To add to the insult, the coup had been triggered by de Gaulle’s efforts to bring French colonial rule in Algeria to an end—a goal that JFK himself had ardently championed. The CIA’s support for the coup was one more defiant display of contempt—a back of the hand aimed not only at de Gaulle but at Kennedy.
JFK took pains to assure Paris that he strongly supported de Gaulle’s presidency, phoning Hervé Alphand, the French ambassador in Washington, to directly communicate these assurances. But, according to Alphand, Kennedy’s disavowal of official U.S. involvement in the coup came with a disturbing addendum—the American president could not vouch for his own intelligence agency. Kennedy told Alphand that “the CIA is such a vast and poorly controlled machine that the most unlikely maneuvers might be true.”
This admission of presidential impotence, which Alphand reported to Paris, was a startling moment in U.S. foreign relations, though it remains largely unknown today. Kennedy then underlined how deeply estranged he was from his own security machinery by taking the extraordinary step of asking Alphand for the French government’s help to track down the U.S. officials behind the coup, promising to fully punish them. “[Kennedy] would be quite ready to take all necessary measures in the interest of good Franco-American relations, whatever the rank or functions of [the] incriminated people,” Alphand cabled French foreign minister Maurice Couve de Murville.
To solidify his support for de Gaulle, Kennedy ordered U.S. ambassador James Gavin to offer the French leader “any help” he might need—clearly indicating that U.S. troops would even fire on rebel forces from Algeria if they tried to land at American military bases in France. De Gaulle proudly declined the offer as “well-intentioned, but inappropriate”—perhaps horrified at the prospect of American GIs killing French soldiers on his nation’s soil. But Kennedy did arrange for U.S. base commanders to take steps to camouflage landing sites, in case rebel planes attempted to use them.
In the wake of the crises in Cuba and France provoked by his own security officials, Kennedy began to display a new boldness. JFK’s assertiveness surprised CIA officials, who had apparently counted on Kennedy to be sidelined during the French coup. Agency officials assured coup leaders that the president would be too “absorbed in the Cuban affair” to act decisively against the plot. But JFK did react quickly to the French crisis, putting on high alert Ambassador Gavin, a decorated paratrooper commander in World War II who could be counted on to keep NATO forces in line. The president also dispatched his French-speaking press spokesman, Pierre Salinger, to Paris to communicate directly with Élysée Palace officials.
As Paris officials knew, the new American president already had something of a prickly relationship with de Gaulle, but he had strong feelings for France—and they made sure to absolve JFK of personal responsibility for the coup in their leaks to the press. French press accounts referred to the CIA as a “reactionary state-within-a-state” that operated outside of Kennedy’s control.
After JFK’s death, Alphand spoke fondly of the bonds between Kennedy and France. “He thought that harmonious relations between the U.S. and France were a fundamental element of world equilibrium. He knew France as a boy. He came to France for his holidays—the south of France—and he knew France also through his wife. Jacqueline made many, many trips to Paris. I know that Jacqueline helped him very much to understand France. She loves France—she has French blood—she speaks our language very well and she asked him to read the memoirs of General de Gaulle.”
Kennedy’s strong show of support for de Gaulle undoubtedly helped fortify French resolve against the rebellious generals. In the midst of the crisis, the American president issued a public message to de Gaulle, telling him, “In this grave hour for France, I want you to know of my continuing friendship and support as well as that of the American people.” But it was de Gaulle himself, and the French people, who turned the tide against the coup.
By Sunday, the second day of the coup, a dark foreboding had settled over Paris. “I am surprised that you are still alive,” the president of France’s National Assembly bluntly told de Gaulle that morning. “If I were Challe, I would have already swooped down on Paris; the army here will move out of the way rather than shoot. . . . If I were in the position Challe put himself in, as soon as I burst in, I would have you executed with a bullet in the back, here in the stairwell, and say you were trying to flee.” De Gaulle himself realized that if Challe did airlift his troops from Algiers to France, “there was not much to stop them.”
But at eight o’clock that evening, a defiant de Gaulle went on the air, as nearly all of France gathered around the TV, and rallied his nation with the most inspiring address of his long public career. He looked exhausted, with dark circles under his eyes. But he had put on his soldier’s uniform for the occasion, and his voice was full of passion. De Gaulle began by denouncing the rebellious generals. The nation had been betrayed “by men whose duty, honor and raison d’être it was to serve and to obey.” Now it was the duty of every French citizen to protect the nation from these military traitors. “In the name of France,” de Gaulle shouted, thumping the table in front of him, “I order that all means—I repeat all means—be employed to block the road everywhere to those men!”
De Gaulle’s final words were a battle cry. “Françaises, Français! Aidez-moi!” And all over France, millions of people did rush to the aid of their nation. The following day, a general strike was organized to protest the putsch. Led primarily by the left, including labor unions and the Communist Party, the mass protest won broad political support. Over ten million people joined the nationwide demonstrations, with hundreds of thousands marching in the streets of Paris, carrying banners proclaiming “Peace in Algeria” and shouting, “Fascism will not pass!” Even police officers associations expressed “complete solidarity” with the protests, as did the Roman Catholic Confederation, which denounced the “criminal acts” of the coup leaders, warning that they “threaten to plunge the country into civil war.”
Hundreds of people rushed to the nation’s airfields and prepared to block the runways with their vehicles if Challe’s planes tried to land. Others gathered outside government ministries in Paris to guard them against attack. André Malraux, the great novelist turned minister of culture, threaded his way through one such crowd, handing out helmets and uniforms. Meanwhile, at the huge Renault factory on the outskirts of Paris, workers took control of the sprawling complex and formed militias, demanding weapons from the government so that they could fend off rebel assaults.
“In many ways, France, and particularly Paris, relived its great revolutionary past Sunday night and Monday—the past of the revolutionary barricades, of vigilance committees and of workers’ councils,” reported The New York Times.
De Gaulle’s ringing address to the nation and the massive public response had a sobering effect on the French military. Challe’s support quickly began melting away, even—humiliatingly—within the ranks of his own military branch, the air force. Pilots flew their planes out of Algeria, and others feigned mechanical troubles, depriving Challe’s troops of the air transport they needed to descend on Paris.
Meanwhile, de Gaulle moved quickly to arrest military officers in France who were involved in the coup. Police swooped down on the Paris apartment of an army captain who was plotting pro-putsch street riots, and de Gaulle’s minister of the interior seized the general in charge of the rebel forces that were gathered in the forests outside Paris. Deprived of their leader, the insurrectionary units sheepishly began to disperse.
By Tuesday night, Challe knew that the coup had failed. The next day, he surrendered and was flown to Paris. Challe emerged from the plane “carrying his own suitcase, looking crumpled and insignificant in civilian clothes,” according to Time. “He stumbled at the foot of the landing steps, [falling] heavily on his hands and knees.” It was an ignominious homecoming for the man who had fully believed that, with U.S. support, he was to replace the great de Gaulle. Challe expected to face a firing squad, but de Gaulle’s military tribunal proved surprisingly merciful, sentencing the fifty-five-year-old general to fifteen years in prison.
After the failed coup, de Gaulle launched a new purge of his security forces. He ousted General Paul Grossin, the powerful chief of SDECE, the French secret service, and he shut down its armed unit, the 11th Choc (Shock Battalion), which he suspected of being a breeding ground for the coup. Grossin, who was closely aligned with the CIA, had told Frank Wisner over lunch that the return of de Gaulle to power was equivalent to the Communists taking over in Paris.
The 11th Choc had grown into a dangerously unhinged killing unit, targeting representatives of the Algerian independence movement and their European supporters, even on the streets of France. Those branded enemies of the French empire were gunned down, blown up, or poisoned by SDECE’s action arm. Aided by ex-Nazi agents of Reinhard Gehlen’s organization, the 11th Choc’s assassination campaign reached the point where “liquidations [were] an almost daily routine,” according to Philippe Thyraud de Vosjoli, a veteran SDECE agent who served as the liaison to the CIA.
Shortly after pushing out Grossin, de Gaulle also jettisoned his security adviser, Constantin Melnik, Dulles’s close ally. Late into his life, Melnik continued to insist that the CIA was always a friend to de Gaulle—which would have come as a surprise to the French president. Writing in his 1999 memoir, Politically Incorrect, Melnik flatly declared, “I can testify that . . . despite suspicious yelping by Gaullist camp followers . . . the CIA always was a faithful ally of General de Gaulle, even of his often torturous Algerian policies.” After de Gaulle dumped Melnik, Dulles—who by then had also been fired—immediately offered to hire him for a new private intelligence agency he was planning in the Third World. But Melnik declined, instead pursuing a career in French publishing and politics.
For the rest of his ten-year presidency, which ended with his retirement from politics in 1969, de Gaulle continued to take strong countermeasures against forces he regarded as seditious threats. In 1962, he expelled CIA station chief Alfred Ulmer, a gung ho veteran of Dulles’s Cold War battlegrounds. In 1967, de Gaulle evicted NATO from France to regain “full sovereignty [over] French territory” after discovering that the military alliance was encouraging Western European secret services to interfere in France’s domestic politics.
Following the Algiers putsch, de Gaulle remained an assassination target—particularly during the explosive months before and after he finally recognized Algerian independence in July 1962. The most dramatic attempt on his life was staged the next month by the OAS—an ambush made famous in the Frederick Forsyth novel and movie The Day of the Jackal. As de Gaulle’s black Citroën sped along the Avenue de la Libération in Paris, with the president and his wife in the rear seat, a dozen OAS snipers opened fire on the vehicle. Two of the president’s motorcycle bodyguards were killed—and the bullet-riddled Citroën skidded sharply. But de Gaulle was fortunate to have a skilled and loyal security team, and his chauffeur was able to pull the car out of its spin and speed to safety, despite all four tires’ being shot out. The president and his wife, who kept their heads down throughout the fusillade, escaped unharmed.
The French president demonstrated that he was willing to fight fire with fire. According to de Vosjoli, de Gaulle loyalists in SDECE even recruited their own secret assassins—including a particularly violent group of Vietnamese exiles—who blew up cafés in Algeria frequented by enemies of de Gaulle and kidnapped, tortured, and murdered other OAS combatants deemed a threat to the president. Democracy in France in the early 1960s was sustained as the result of a vicious underground war that the old French general was willing to fight with equal ferocity.
Because of the severe security measures he took, Charles de Gaulle survived his tumultuous presidency. He died of a heart attack the year after he left office, just short of his eightieth birthday, slumping over quietly in his armchair after watching the evening news.
President Kennedy met only once with de Gaulle, on his state visit to Paris at the end of May 1961, a month after the failed coup. The president and First Lady were feted at a banquet in Élysée Palace, where the old general—dazzled by Jackie—leaned down closely to hear every breathy word she spoke to him, in fluent French. During the three-day visit, the two heads of state discussed many pressing issues, from Laos to Berlin to Cuba. But Kennedy and de Gaulle never broached the touchy subject of the coup, much less the CIA’s involvement in it. As French journalist Vincent Jauvert later observed, “Why wake up old demons who had barely fallen asleep?”
Kennedy knew that he would have to resume wrestling with those demons as soon as he returned home. He would have to decide how deeply to purge his own security agencies, as de Gaulle had already begun to do in France. Kennedy knew there would be steep political costs involved in taking on the CIA and Pentagon. But, as Walter Lippmann had told Schlesinger, “Kennedy will not begin to be President until he starts to break with Eisenhower.” Continuity in Washington was no longer the new president’s concern. Shaken by the traumatic events in Cuba and France, JFK was ready to remake his government.
A few weeks after the Bay of Pigs and the foiled French coup, JFK asked Jackie to invite Dulles for drinks or tea at the White House. Charlie Wrightsman and his wife were also dropping by, and Kennedy wanted to make a point. The Florida tycoon had self-righteously told Kennedy that he was not going to be seeing his old friend Dulles during his trip to Washington—his way of snubbing the spymaster for bungling the job in Cuba. The president was “disgusted” by Wrightsman’s disloyalty to Dulles, according to Jackie, so he went out of his way to include the disgraced CIA leader in the White House’s get-together. By now, enough time had elapsed since the disasters of April, and with Dulles on his way out, Kennedy was feeling magnanimous toward the Old Man.
“[Jack] was so loyal always to people in, you know, trouble,” the First Lady later recalled. “And he made a special effort to come back from [the Oval Office] and sit around with Jayne and Charlie Wrightsman, just to show Charlie what he thought of Allen Dulles. And, I mean, it made all the difference to Allen Dulles. I was with him about five [or ten] minutes before Jack got there. He just looked like, I don’t know, Cardinal Mindszenty on trial,” she said, referring to the Hungarian prelate who was sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of treason by a Soviet-run show trial. “You know, just a shell of what he was. And Jack came and talked—put his arm around him. . . . Well, wasn’t that nice? It was just to show Charlie Wrightsman. But it shows something about Jack. I mean, he knew [that] Dulles had obviously botched everything up. [But], you know, he had a tenderness for the man.”
But “poor Allen Dulles,” as Jackie took to referring to him, was likely untouched by the president’s gesture. The CIA director’s resentment of Kennedy was growing by the day, as his fingers slowly lost their grip on power. Feeling the young man’s arm wrapped paternally around his shoulder would have chilled Dulles, not warmed him. The spymaster had served every president since Woodrow Wilson. And now, here he was, being comforted by this weak pretty boy who did not belong in the same company as the great men who preceded him. It was appalling that he, Allen Dulles, should be consoled by such a man.
Though Dulles himself kept his fury carefully concealed, his most loyal aides and political allies freely vented their feelings against the Kennedy White House on the Old Man’s behalf. Howard Hunt, who worked as the CIA’s political liaison with the volatile Cuban exile community on the Bay of Pigs, called Dulles and Bissell “scapegoats to expiate administration guilt.” Hunt, whose anti-Communist passions equaled those of his militant Cuban compadres, was deeply moved by the way his boss comported himself during his slow fadeout at the CIA. “As a member of Dulles’s staff,” Hunt remembered, “I lunched in the Director’s mess, seeing him return from each [Taylor] Committee session more drawn and gray. But on taking his place at the head of the table, Mr. Dulles’s demeanor changed into hearty cheerfulness—a joke here, a baseball bet there, came from this remarkable man whose long career of government service had been destroyed unjustly by men who were laboring unceasingly to preserve their own public images.”
The summer following the Bay of Pigs, Prescott Bush—the CIA’s man in the Senate—and his wife, Dorothy, invited Dulles to dinner at their Washington home. The spymaster showed up with John McCone in tow—the Republican businessman and former Atomic Energy Commission chairman Kennedy had just privately tapped as Dulles’s replacement. Bush, who was still unaware that Dulles had been officially deposed, was surprised to see McCone, “whom,” he later recalled in a letter to Clover, “we had not thought of as a particular friend of Allen’s. But Allen broke the ice promptly, and said that he wanted us to meet his successor. The announcement came the next day.” The dinner conversation around the Bush family table that night was awkward. “We tried to make a pleasant evening of it,” Bush wrote, “but I was rather sick at heart, and angry too, for it was the Kennedy’s [sic] that brot [sic] about the fiasco. And here they were making Allen seem to be the goat, which he wasn’t and did not deserve. I have never forgiven them.”
On November 28, 1961, Dulles was given his formal send-off at the CIA, in a ceremony held at the agency’s brand-new headquarters, a vast, modernist complex carved out of the woods in Langley, Virginia. It was a day of clashing emotions for Dulles. The gleaming new puzzle palace, which Dulles had commissioned, was seen by many as a monument to his long reign—but he would never occupy the director’s suite. Now some agency wits were snidely christening the Langley edifice “The Allen Dulles Memorial Mausoleum.”
President Kennedy was gracious in his farewell remarks, as he bestowed the agency’s highest honor—the National Security Medal—on Dulles. “I regard Allen Dulles as an almost unique figure in our country,” he told the crowd gathered in a sterile, fluorescent-lit theater, including a somber-faced Clover and Eleanor Dulles, and an equally stern-looking General Lemnitzer and J. Edgar Hoover, who almost certainly were wondering when they would be next to go. “I know of no man,” the president continued, “who brings a greater sense of personal commitment to his work—who has less pride in office—than he has.”
This last piece of flattery was particularly overblown, as Kennedy well knew, because there were few men in his administration brimming with as much self-admiration as Allen Dulles. The departing CIA director had made sure that invitations to his medal ceremony were sent out to a who’s who list of Fortune 500 executives, including the chiefs of General Electric, General Motors, Ford, DuPont, Coca-Cola, Chase Manhattan, U.S. Steel, Standard Oil, IBM, CBS, and Time-Life. He kept copies of all the flowery farewells that poured in from the corporate world, including letters from 20th Century Fox movie mogul Spyros Skouras, and conglomerate tycoon J. Peter Grace, who wrote, “It is almost unbelievable that one family could produce two men of the caliber of yours and your late, sorely missed, brother.”
But, after the ceremony, Dulles looked a bit lost and forlorn as he waved to Kennedy’s departing helicopter from the front steps of the headquarters he would never occupy. The following day was even more melancholy for Dulles as JFK swore in McCone at the old CIA building on E Street. Clover dropped him off at the ceremony in the family car, since Dulles was no longer entitled to a CIA limousine and driver. “Clover, I’ll be home later in a taxi,” the Old Man told his wife as he climbed out of the car. He was overheard by Lawrence “Red” White, the agency’s efficient, nuts-and-bolts administrator, who insisted that Dulles be driven home in an official car. Dulles made a show of protesting but accepted the kind gesture—one of the few bright spots in what colleagues described as a very dark day for the espionage legend. “His morale,” White recalled, “was pretty low on his last day as DCI [Director of Central Intelligence].”
Retired at home in Georgetown, the old spymaster’s funereal mood did not lift as Kennedy proceeded to rid his administration of remnants of the fallen Dulles dynasty. First to go were the Dulles deputies most closely associated with the Bay of Pigs, Dick Bissell and Charles Cabell. Then Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, his brother’s vigilant watchman, tracked down Eleanor Dulles, who was still working quietly on German affairs in Foggy Bottom, and had Secretary of State Rusk fire her. “I don’t want any more of the Dulles family around,” the attorney general was heard to say. Eleanor took it hard. “It was silly, I suppose,” she later remarked. “I was 66 years old, and a lot of my friends asked why I should want to go on working. Well, I had psychological and financial reasons. My job at State was a valuable thing to cling to. Besides, I had debts. I had put two children through college, and I needed a salary.”
Over at the Pentagon, JFK had already begun to purge Dulles Cold Warriors like Arleigh Burke, who was drummed out of the Navy in August. Next to go was Lemnitzer, who was replaced as Joint Chiefs chairman by Maxwell Taylor in November, the same month Dulles himself was shown the door.
Kennedy took further steps to signal that the Dulles era was over and that the CIA would no longer be allowed to run wild; he placed overseas agents under the control of U.S. ambassadors and shifted responsibility for future paramilitary operations like the Bay of Pigs to the Pentagon. It was the Kennedy brothers, not the Dulles brothers, who now ran Washington.
Dulles found it hard to adjust to life on the political sidelines. “He had a very difficult time to decompress,” said Jim Angleton, his longtime acolyte. But it soon became clear that the Dulles dynasty was not entirely dismantled.
In truth, the Kennedy purge had left the ranks of Dulles loyalists at the CIA largely untouched. Top Dulles men like Angleton and Helms remained on the job. And the Old Man’s shadow knights never abandoned their king. They continued to call on him in Georgetown, with Angleton visiting two or three times a week. They consulted with him on agency affairs, as if he were still DCI, and not John McCone. They collaborated with him on plans for books and film projects. They continued to kneel before Allen Dulles, their banished commander, and kiss his ring. And soon, Dulles began to emerge from his gloomy refuge, ready for action. By mid-January 1962, the “retired” spymaster was writing an old comrade, “As you know, I am not much of a believer in either retirement or long vacations.” The house on Q Street was already on its way to becoming the seat of a government in exile. Dulles had been deposed, but his reign continued.