In his calendar for October 2, 1963, Dulles penciled in an interesting appointment. “Dillon,” he wrote—by which he meant C. Douglas Dillon, the Treasury secretary and former Wall Street financier. After Dillon’s name, Dulles scrawled “Bank Reps.” There was no further explanation for the scheduled appointment. But the proximity of the meeting to the Kennedy assassination raises compelling questions, particularly since Dillon, as Treasury chief, was in charge of President Kennedy’s Secret Service protection. And the banking industry was locked in a long-running battle with the president over his economic policies.
When it came to undertaking secret missions, Allen Dulles was a bold and decisive actor. But he acted only after he felt that a consensus had been reached within his influential network. One of the principal arenas where this consensus took shape was the Council on Foreign Relations. The Dulles brothers and their Wall Street circle had dominated this private bastion for shaping public policy ever since the 1920s. Over the years, CFR meetings, study groups, and publications provided forums in which the organization’s leading members—including Wall Street bankers and lawyers, prominent politicians, media executives, and academic dignitaries—hammered out major U.S. policy directions, including the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan and the Cold War strategy of “containment” aimed at the Soviet Union. The CIA-engineered coup that overthrew Guatemala’s democratic government was put in motion by Dulles after a CFR study group urged tough action against Arbenz’s left-wing administration. If CFR was the power elite’s brain, the CIA was its black-gloved fist.
As the global reach of American industry and finance grew during the postwar era, so did the U.S. national security complex. America’s vast system of military and covert power was aimed not just at checking the Soviet threat but at protecting U.S. corporate interests abroad. Behind the rapid international growth of multinational giants like Chase Manhattan, Coca-Cola, Standard Oil, and GM lay a global network of U.S. military bases, spy stations, and alliances with despotic regimes. The twin exigencies of the Cold War and U.S. empire gave the national security establishment unprecedented free rein to operate. The CIA was empowered not only to engage in the deadly “spy versus spy” antics against the KGB that became the stuff of Cold War legend but to subvert democratic governments that were deemed insufficiently pro-American and to terminate these governments’ elected leaders.
Dedicated to the dark necessities of expanding American power, this security complex began to take on a hidden life of its own, untethered from the checks and balances of democracy. Sometimes CIA officials kept the White House and Congress informed; often they did not. When John Chancellor of NBC News asked Dulles if the CIA made its own policy, the spymaster insisted that during his tenure he had regularly briefed congressional committees about the agency’s budget and operations. But, he added, Congress generally preferred to remain blissfully ignorant of the distasteful things done in the government’s name. “When I appeared before them,” said Dulles, “again and again I’ve been stopped by members of the Congress, who said, ‘We don’t want to hear about that, we might talk in our sleep. Don’t tell us this!’”
This head-in-the-sand attitude gave men like Dulles enormous leverage to take drastic action when they felt so inclined. But Dulles was not some out-of-control freebooter within the system of American power. Though his actions often revealed the knife-cold psyche of a murderer, in many ways he remained a sober-minded corporate lawyer. When he took extreme action—or “executive action” in the CIA’s euphemistic parlance for political murder—he did so with the confidence that he was implementing the will of his circle—not the will of the people, but of his people.
Doug Dillon was the kind of affluent Washington power player Allen Dulles listened to. Over the years, the Dulles brothers and Dillon grew quite close. It was in Dillon’s comfortable Florida retreat, at Hobe Sound, where the dying Foster spent some of his final days. And Allen was invited to enjoy himself at the palatial château overlooking the legendary vineyards that the Dillon family owned in southern France. The week he once spent at the Dillons’ Château Haut-Brion “renewing my acquaintance with my favorite wines from the Bordeaux country” was among the most “delightful” memories of his life, Dulles later wrote Dillon’s wife, Phyllis.
When it came to taking executive action, Dulles might have been chairman of the board, but he answered to a group of men with far more wealth and, in some ways, more power than he had—men like Doug Dillon. Dulles controlled the country’s secret machinery of violence throughout much of the Cold War, but the spy chief’s power came from the fact that—even after his departure from the CIA—his wealthy sponsors continued to invest him with it. In retirement, Dulles was still asked to take prestigious positions with the Princeton Board of Trustees, the Council on Foreign Relations, and various defense advisory and blue-ribbon committees.
Dulles was invited to play leadership roles in these organizations because the men who funded them knew that he shared their aggressive views about maintaining America’s wealth and prestige in the world. The men who sat on Dulles’s board of directors, as it were—the men with whom he discussed major decisions, exchanged correspondence, and shared sunny getaways—occupied the very center of American power. Threats to these men’s wealth and stature brought out their lethal impulses. This is when they turned to Dulles, the gentlemanly enforcer with the ice-blue eyes.
Nobody occupied a more central position in the Dulles brothers’ power circle than the Rockefeller brothers. Nelson and David were the most public of the five grandsons of John D. Rockefeller—the founder of the Standard Oil behemoth, an unprecedented empire of wealth that would grow to include global banks, mining companies, sprawling ranches, and even supermarkets. The glad-handing, irrepressible Nelson would become the cheery face of centrist Republican politics in mid-century America, working as an adviser to President Eisenhower on Cold War strategy and later becoming a popular governor of New York and perennial factor in Republican presidential equations. His less gregarious and more analytical younger brother, David, would rise to become chief executive of the family’s bank, Chase Manhattan, as well as a leading spokesman for international finance. Less well known, both brothers were militant advocates of U.S. imperial interests, particularly in Latin America, where the Rockefeller family had extensive holdings. And they both had backgrounds in U.S. intelligence.
During World War II, Nelson did not follow other sons of East Coast high society into the OSS. Instead the elder Rockefeller brother, who had a strained relationship with top spy Wild Bill Donovan, ran his own private intelligence network in Latin America, as FDR’s south-of-the-border point man. Nelson resumed his espionage duties under President Eisenhower, who put him in charge of a special advisory group that oversaw the CIA. In the press, Rockefeller was described as Ike’s “Cold War general”—a title that probably said more about the sway that the Rockefeller name had with the media than about Nelson’s actual clout within the administration.
Meanwhile, David Rockefeller served with a special Army intelligence unit in Algeria during World War II, where he was assigned to spy not on Nazis but on the country’s nascent anticolonial movement. After being transferred to Paris, he was asked to snoop on the Communist Party elements that had played a key role in the French resistance and were emerging as a strong political force in postwar France. Rockefeller also set up a spy ring inside the provisional government of General de Gaulle and soon came to dislike the “arrogance, inflexibility and single-mindedness” of the French war hero.
The Dulleses identified the Rockefeller brothers, who were a generation younger, as up-and-coming players, and they sought to bring them into the inner circle of the Cold War establishment. Over the years, the two sets of brothers became close partners in the country’s game of thrones, helping advance one another’s ambitions. The Dulleses ushered David Rockefeller into the Council on Foreign Relations, where he soon became a major force, and Foster would become chairman of the family-controlled Rockefeller Foundation. The Rockefellers contributed campaign funds to Dulles-favored Republican candidates, including Foster himself when he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate from New York in 1950. In January 1953, while Allen nervously waited to see whether newly inaugurated president Eisenhower would appoint him CIA director, David took him to lunch in Manhattan and assured him that if things didn’t work out in Washington, he could return to New York and take over the Ford Foundation, which—like the Rockefeller Foundation—Dulles had already used to secretly finance CIA activities. After Allen did win control of the spy agency, he again turned to the Rockefellers to help finance CIA projects like MKULTRA mind control research.
The Rockefeller brothers served as private bankers for Dulles’s intelligence empire. David, who oversaw the donations committee of the Chase Manhattan Bank Foundation, was a particularly important source of off-the-books cash for the CIA. Tom Braden, one of Dulles’s top propaganda men, later recalled David’s largesse. “I often briefed David, semi-officially and with Allen’s permission,” Braden said. “[David] was of the same mind as us, and very approving of everything we were doing. He had the same sense as I did that the way to win the Cold War was our way. Sometimes David would give me money to do things which weren’t in our budget. He gave me a lot of money for causes in France. I remember he gave me $50,000 for someone who was active in promoting an [anti-Communist] united Europe [campaign] amongst European youth groups. This guy came to me with his project, and I told David, and David just gave me the check for $50,000.”
When the ambitious Nelson overreached as Eisenhower’s Cold War adviser and began to infringe on the Dulles brothers’ territory, Foster became exasperated with him and succeeded in having him jettisoned from the administration. But Allen managed to stay on genial terms with Nelson, and with David, too. As he left the Eisenhower White House in December 1955, Nelson sent the CIA chief a gushing letter. “I can’t begin to tell you how much my association with you over this past year has meant to me,” Nelson told Allen. “I have admired tremendously your strength and courage, your understanding, and your penetrating insight into the many problems which confront us. You give yourself quietly and unselfishly, but your qualities of human understanding have shone forth to give courage to us all. Only a few will ever know how great your contributions have been to the security of our country.”
Even Dulles, who had a robust self-regard, seemed stunned by Rockefeller’s effusive praise. “Dear Nelson,” he replied. “To say that I appreciate your kind remarks is an understatement—overwhelmed would be a little more accurate.”
Dulles and the Rockefellers continued their mutual courtship over the years, with both sides keenly recognizing the value in the relationship. After his 1958 election in New York, Nelson invited Allen to speak at the 1959 conference of state governors, which was held in Puerto Rico that year. While there, Dulles stayed at the exclusive Dorado Beach Club, a palm-shaded luxury resort created by Nelson’s brother, Laurance, on prime coastal real estate owned by the Rockefeller family. When he got home, the CIA director wrote Laurance, asking him to pull strings so that a friend and his wife could become club members, “as they are both devotees of golf and swimming.” Meanwhile, Dulles supplied the Rockefellers with CIA information about global hot zones like Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, where the family had petroleum interests.
Although Jack Kennedy, as a young congressman and senator, often used the language of the Cold War that was the lingua franca of American politics, he was never fully accepted within this inner sanctum of power. Members of the American elite were uneasy about Kennedy’s presidential bid from the very beginning. Their skepticism started with old Joe Kennedy, the candidate’s father, who was remembered as an ardent New Dealer—despite his prickly relationship with FDR—and as a banking maverick (or some would say traitor) who had agreed to serve as Roosevelt’s Wall Street watchdog. Nor did the young senator’s provocative criticisms of Western imperialism inspire confidence in corporate circles, where aggressive overseas expansion was viewed as American capital’s next great frontier. John McCloy, the diplomat and banker known as “the chairman of the establishment,” could not bring himself to support JFK in 1960, despite the two men’s shared Irish ancestry. Kennedy’s standoffish attitude toward the Council on Foreign Relations crowd put off McCloy, who was the organization’s chairman at the time. While McCloy found Nixon hard to warm up to, he dismissed Kennedy as a lightweight who had not been properly indoctrinated in the ways of the American establishment.
If the establishment harbored suspicions about the Kennedy family, the feelings were mutual. Despite his privileged upbringing, JFK had imbibed his father’s bitter feelings as an Irish Catholic outsider. After he narrowly won the presidency, Kennedy told his aide Theodore Sorensen that he suspected that Wall Street bankers had tried to sabotage his election by spreading word that his election would set off a financial panic.
In public, President Kennedy tried to defuse Wall Street hostility against him with his dry wit. During a June 1962 press conference, Kennedy was asked about a news report that big business was using the current stock market slump “as a means of forcing you to come to terms with business. . . . [Their] attitude is now they have you where they want you.” After a well-timed pause, Kennedy replied, “I can’t believe I’m where business—big business—wants me,” to gales of laughter from the press auditorium. But, as usual, there was a point—an edge—to JFK’s humor. After the laughter died down, he drove home his message, making it clear that he would regard any such corporate sabotage of the economy as beyond the pale of acceptable politics.
The growing gulf between Kennedy and the corporate class was epitomized by the increasingly fractious relationship between JFK and the Rockefeller brothers. Kennedy’s domestic and foreign policies posed a direct threat to the Rockefeller dynasty on multiple fronts, and, considering the central role in U.S. finance and industry played by the network of Rockefeller interests, any such threats were viewed by the business community as challenges to American capitalism itself.
Kennedy’s tax reform policies, which sought to place a heavier burden on the superrich, were a primary source of friction. When the president—who was concerned about the flight of capital in the emerging era of the global market—tried to crack down on overseas tax shelters, international bankers like David Rockefeller cried foul. Wall Street financiers saw the Kennedy move as an assault on their ability to transfer wealth to any corner of the globe as they saw fit.
Walter Wriston—the rising young leader of First National City Bank, and David Rockefeller’s chief competitor in the global finance arena—frankly expressed Wall Street’s frustration with Kennedy. “Who is this upstart president interfering with the free flow of capital?” he demanded to know. “You can’t dam capital.”
While many Wall Street executives complained bitterly about JFK in private, David Rockefeller took it upon himself to challenge the president’s economic policies in public. Henry Luce helped elevate Rockefeller as a Kennedy antagonist by giving the two men a debate forum in Life, the picture magazine of the American masses. The magazine’s introduction to the piece touted the young banker as “an eloquent and logical articulator for the sophisticated business community.” In the open “businessman’s letter” to Kennedy that followed, Rockefeller took issue with the president’s tax policies, which he insisted put too much burden on the investor class, and demanded “a material reduction in the corporate income tax rate.” The banker also took the president to task for his social spending, urging him to cut expenditures and make a “vigorous effort to balance the budget.”
The Rockefellers were perhaps even more alarmed by Kennedy’s foreign policies—particularly in Latin America, which was not only home to the family’s oil and real estate holdings but also the primary target for Chase Manhattan’s overseas expansion. It seemed like an affront to the Rockefellers’ southern dominion when Kennedy announced the Alliance for Progress in March 1961, a massive foreign aid program for Latin America designed to stimulate economic growth, redistribute wealth, and promote democratic governments in the region. The alliance was spearheaded by Richard Goodwin, one of JFK’s youngest and most ardent New Frontiersmen. And White House officials made no secret that the program was designed not only to counter Castro’s revolutionary appeal in the area but also to sideline the corporate interests that had long been exploiting the impoverished hemisphere.
Goodwin began pushing a variety of measures, which, by the standards of the pro-business Eisenhower era, were decidedly radical, including providing equipment for nationalized mines in Bolivia and offering U.S. government financing to state-run oil companies—“even if Standard Oil and David Rockefeller objected,” added Kennedy’s young Turk. Soon enough, the corporate pushback—along with the inevitable Republican Party and media fireworks—did come. “Neither U.S. nor Latin American businessmen took kindly to indications by Richard Goodwin, the president’s chief Latin American adviser, that he thought private enterprise had a bad connotation in Latin America because it is associated with U.S. imperialism,” harrumphed a business newsletter specializing in coverage of south-of-the-border investments.
Under increasing political pressure, JFK finally caved on Goodwin, transferring him from the Alliance for Progress to the Peace Corps. But Kennedy continued to resist efforts to privatize the alliance led by David Rockefeller. America’s reputation in Latin America as an imperial bully mortified Kennedy. He was sick of the U.S. government being seen “as the representative of private business,” he told Goodwin. He was tired of Washington propping up “tinhorn dictators” and corrupt regimes in countries like Chile where “American copper companies control about 80 percent of all the foreign exchange. We wouldn’t stand for that here. And there’s no reason they should stand for it. . . . There’s a revolution going on down there, and I want to be on the right side of it.”
Kennedy’s Latin American policies continued to be a point of contention between the Rockefeller brothers and him for the rest of his presidency. Even after JFK’s death, his brother continued to fight the battle. During a 1965 tour of Latin America, Robert Kennedy—by then a senator from New York—found himself in a heated discussion about Rockefeller influence in Latin America, during an evening at the home of a Peruvian artist that had been arranged by Goodwin. When Bobby brashly suggested to the gathering that Peru should “assert [its] nationhood” and nationalize its oil industry, the group was stunned. “Why, David Rockefeller has just been down here,” one guest said. “And he told us there wouldn’t be any aid if anyone acted against International Petroleum [a local Standard Oil subsidiary].”
“Oh come on, David Rockefeller isn’t the government,” Bobby shot back, still playing the role of Kennedy family tough guy. “We Kennedys eat Rockefellers for breakfast.”
The Kennedys were indeed more successful at the rough-and-tumble of politics than the Rockefellers. But, as JFK had understood, that was not the full story when it came to evaluating a family’s power. He fully appreciated that the Rockefellers held a unique place in the pantheon of American power, one rooted not so much within the democratic system as within what scholars would later refer to as “the deep state”—that subterranean network of financial, intelligence, and military interests that guided national policy no matter who occupied the White House. The Kennedys had risen from saloonkeepers and ward heelers to the top of American politics. But they were still overshadowed by the imperial power of the Rockefellers.
JFK always displayed a sharp curiosity about the much wealthier family, pumping mutual friends—like presidential adviser Adolf Berle—for inside information about the Rockefellers. Jack and David had been contemporaries at Harvard, but as David was quick to point out, “we moved in very different circles.” As Kennedy pursued his own career, he always kept one wary eye on the politically ambitious Nelson, who had openly proclaimed his desire to occupy the White House. It was an ambition he nursed “ever since I was a kid,” he once said. “After all, when you think of what I had, what else was there to aspire to?”
Nelson let slip his cheery facade only when contemplating looming threats to his family’s wealth. He had long fretted about “losing our property” to nationalist movements overseas. When Castro gave a bearded face to these fears, expropriating the Standard Oil refinery and other Rockefeller properties in Cuba, Nelson was outraged. He grew increasingly frustrated with Kennedy as he sidestepped opportunities to invade Cuba, becoming convinced that the president had cut a deal with the Russians to leave Castro alone.
It was Nelson’s growing sense of Kennedy as a Cold War “appeaser” that drove him to begin mounting a presidential challenge for 1964. In his final political speeches before the Kennedy assassination, Rockefeller lashed into the president for his “indecision, vacillation and weakness” in foreign policy. The Kennedy administration’s dynamic image was a public relations myth, Rockefeller insisted. In truth, he charged, JFK’s unassertive leadership had encouraged our enemies and demoralized our allies, and had made the world more dangerous.
These views of Kennedy were widely echoed in the pages of the business press, where JFK was portrayed as a soft-spined commander in chief who was putting the country at risk and, in the estimation of The Wall Street Journal, an incompetent economic manager with a pronounced hostility to “the philosophy of freedom.” Like the Luce press, the Journal became increasingly vitriolic in its descriptions of the president, describing him as an enemy of big business and as a hopeless left-wing romantic “living in a dream world” and laboring under the spell of “deep and damaging delusion.” In short, Kennedy was seen as an aberrant president in elite circles—an unqualified man who, it was broadly hinted, had barely squeezed into office thanks to the underhanded dealings of his Mafia-connected father.
The attitudes toward Kennedy were even more rabid in national security chambers, where men like Angleton and LeMay regarded the president as a degenerate, and very likely a traitor. If the Soviets launched a sneak nuclear attack on America, Angleton brooded, the Kennedys would be safely cocooned “in their luxury bunker, presumably watching World War III on television, [while] the rest of us . . . burned in hell.”
Angleton seemed obsessed with Kennedy’s sex life. He reportedly bugged JFK’s White House trysts with Mary Meyer, the ex-wife of his deputy, Cord Meyer—an artistic blond beauty with whom Angleton himself was enamored. He told friends and family that Kennedy’s rule was marked by sexual decadence, as well as criminality—a particularly ironic twist, since Angleton himself was later revealed to have been connected to the Mafia ever since his wartime days in Rome.
Over the final months of JFK’s presidency, a clear consensus took shape within America’s deep state: Kennedy was a national security threat. For the good of the country, he must be removed. And Dulles was the only man with the stature, connections, and decisive will to make something of this enormity happen. He had already assembled a killing machine to operate overseas. Now he prepared to bring it home to Dallas. All that his establishment colleagues had to do was to look the other way—as they always did when Dulles took executive action.
In the case of Doug Dillon—who oversaw Kennedy’s Secret Service apparatus—it simply meant making sure that he was out of town. At the end of October, Dillon notified the president that he planned to take a “deferred summer vacation” in November, abandoning his Washington post for Hobe Sound until the eighteenth of the month. After that, Dillon informed Kennedy, he planned to fly to Tokyo with other cabinet members on an official visit that would keep him out of the country from November 21 to November 27. If he was later asked to account for himself, Dillon would have a ready explanation. The tragic events in Dallas had not occurred on his watch; he was airborne over the Pacific at the time.
There is no evidence that reigning corporate figures like David Rockefeller were part of the plot against President Kennedy or had foreknowledge of the crime. But there is ample evidence of the overwhelming hostility to Kennedy in these corporate circles—a surging antagonism that certainly emboldened Dulles and other national security enemies of the president. And if the assassination of President Kennedy was indeed an “establishment crime,” as University of Pittsburgh sociology professor Donald Gibson has suggested, there is even more reason to see the official investigation as an establishment cover-up.
Oswald was still alive, and that was a problem. He was supposed to be killed as he left the Texas School Book Depository. That’s what G. Robert Blakey, the former Kennedy Justice Department attorney who served as chief counsel for the House Select Committee on Assassinations, later concluded about the man authorities rushed to designate the lone assassin. But Oswald escaped, and after being taken alive by Dallas police in a movie theater, he became a major conundrum for those trying to pin the crime on him.
To begin with, Oswald did not act like most assassins. Those who decapitated heads of state generally crowed about their history-making deeds (Sic semper tyrannis! ). In contrast, Oswald repeatedly denied his guilt while in custody, emphatically telling reporters as he was hustled from one room to the next in the Dallas police station, “I don’t know what this is all about. . . . I’m just a patsy!” And the accused assassin seemed strangely cool and collected, according to the police detectives who questioned him. “He was real calm,” recalled one detective. “He was extra calm. He wasn’t a bit excited or nervous or anything.” In fact, Dallas police chief Jesse Curry and district attorney William Alexander thought Oswald was so composed that he seemed trained to handle a stressful interrogation. “I was amazed that a person so young would have had the self-control he had,” Alexander later told Irish investigative journalist Anthony Summers. “It was almost as if he had been rehearsed or programmed to meet the situation he found himself in.”
Oswald further signaled that he was part of an intelligence operation by trying to make an intriguing phone call shortly before midnight East Coast time on Saturday, November 23. The police switchboard operator, who was being closely monitored by two unidentified officials, told Oswald there was no answer, though she actually did not put through the call. It was not until years later that independent researchers traced the phone number that Oswald tried to call to a former U.S. Army intelligence officer in Raleigh, North Carolina. CIA veteran Victor Marchetti, who analyzed the Raleigh call in his book, The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, surmised that Oswald was likely following his training guidelines and reaching out to his intelligence handler. “[He] was probably calling his cut-out. He was calling somebody who could put him in touch with his case officer.”
The Raleigh call probably sealed Oswald’s fate, according to Marchetti. By refusing to play the role of the “patsy” and instead following his intelligence protocol, Oswald made clear that he was trouble. What would be the CIA procedure at this point, Marchetti was asked by North Carolina historian Grover Proctor, who has closely studied this episode near the end of Oswald’s life? “I’d kill him,” Marchetti replied. “Was this his death warrant?” Proctor continued. “You betcha,” Marchetti said. “This time, [Oswald] went over the dam, whether he knew it or not. . . . He was over the dam. At this point it was executive action.”
Oswald was not just alive on the afternoon of November 22, 1963; he was likely innocent. This was another major problem for the organizers of the assassination. Even close legal observers of the case who continue to believe in Oswald’s guilt—such as Bob Blakey who, after serving on the House Assassinations Committee, became a law professor at Notre Dame University—acknowledge that a “credible” case could have been made for Oswald’s innocence based on the evidence. (The 1979 congressional report found that Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy involving Oswald and other unknown parties.) Other legal experts, like San Francisco attorney and Kennedy researcher Bill Simpich, have gone further, arguing that the case against Oswald was riddled with such glaring inconsistencies that it would have quickly unraveled in court.
As Simpich has detailed, the ballistics evidence alone was a mess. The bullets and shells from the crime scene did not match the murder weapon and were poorly marked by law enforcement officers. The so-called magic bullet that delivered the fatal blow to Kennedy’s skull before proceeding on its improbable course later turned up just as magically, in nearly pristine condition, on a stretcher at Parkland Memorial Hospital where the fatally wounded president was rushed. Then there was the alleged murder weapon—a $19.95 Italian military surplus rifle from World War II with a faulty sight. Using such a clumsy tool to pull off the crime of the century with rapid-fire precision—especially in the hands of a marksman who had a hard time shooting rabbits—simply defied the imagination. There was also the fact that FBI technicians who tested the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle could find none of Oswald’s prints on the weapon, and the Dallas police failed to detect any trace of gunpowder on the arrested man’s cheek, which indicated that he had not fired a rifle that day.
In addition, Buell Wesley Frazier, the young Texas School Book Depository employee who drove Oswald to work that morning, insisted that the package the alleged assassin carried into the building that day was not big enough to contain a rifle. The nineteen-year-old Frazier refused to change his story, despite being arrested and subjected to a withering interrogation by Dallas police, including threats to charge him as a co-conspirator. “I was interrogated for many, many hours—interrogators would rotate,” Frazier recalled years later. “The way they treated me that day, I have a hard time understanding that. I was just a rural boy; I had never been in trouble with the law. I was doing my best to answer their questions.” He could never figure out in his own mind whether Oswald was guilty or not. But there was one thing he knew for certain, he told a newspaper reporter fifty years later: the brown paper package that Oswald put on the backseat of his car on the morning of November 22, 1963, did not hold a rifle. “There is no way it would fit in that package.”
And then there was the inconvenient home movie taken by dress manufacturer Abraham Zapruder, as Kennedy’s limousine passed by him in Dealey Plaza. The film captured the moments JFK was struck by gunfire in gruesome detail and—along with the testimony of dozens of eyewitnesses—graphically demonstrated that bullets were fired from the front, as well as the rear, of the presidential motorcade. As many as twenty-one law enforcement officers stationed in the plaza—men trained in the use of firearms—said their immediate reaction to the sound of the gunfire was to go search the area looming in front of Kennedy’s advancing limousine, the tree-topped rise that would become famously known as “the grassy knoll.” Even if Oswald did shoot at the president, this meant that there was at least one other gunman and Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy. The CIA’s own state-of-the-art photography analysis unit came to this conclusion after analyzing the Zapruder film. (FBI analysts would later concur.) But the CIA technicians’ report was quickly suppressed.
The surgeons who labored futilely over the mortally wounded president at Parkland Hospital also saw clear evidence that Kennedy had been struck by gunfire from the front as well as the rear. But the doctors came under severe pressure to remain silent and it would take nearly three decades before two of them mustered the courage to speak out.
Fortunately for the conspirators, the deeply flawed case against Lee Harvey Oswald never made it to court. The Oswald problem was abruptly eliminated on the morning of Sunday, November 24, when the accused assassin was shot in the stomach in the basement of the Dallas police station while in the process of being transferred to the county jail. He died two hours later in the same emergency room where President Kennedy was pronounced dead.
Oswald’s shocking murder—broadcast live into America’s homes—solved one dilemma for Dulles, as he monitored the Dallas events that weekend from the Farm, his secure CIA facility in Virginia. But it soon became apparent that Oswald’s murder created another problem—a wave of public suspicion that swept over the nation and beyond. Jack Ruby, Oswald’s killer—a stocky, fedora-wearing nightclub operator—looked like a triggerman right out of a B-movie. Ruby even sounded like a Hollywood gangster as he gunned down Oswald, snarling, “You killed my president, you rat!” To many people who watched the horrifying spectacle on TV, the shooting smacked of a gangland hit aimed at silencing Oswald before he could talk.
In fact, this is precisely what Attorney General Robert Kennedy concluded after his investigators began digging into Ruby’s background. Bobby, who had made his political reputation as a Senate investigator of organized crime, pored over Ruby’s phone records from the days leading up to the Dallas violence. “The list [of names] was almost a duplicate of the people I called before the Rackets Committee,” RFK later remarked. The attorney general’s suspicions about the death of his brother immediately fell not just on the Mafia, but on the CIA—the agency that, as Bobby knew, had been using the mob to do some of its dirtiest work.
Robert Kennedy was not the only one in Washington who immediately sensed a conspiracy behind the killing of his brother. The nation’s capital was filled with edgy chatter about the assassination. Talking on the phone with Kennedy family confidant Bill Walton, Agnes Meyer, the outspoken mother of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, snapped, “What is this—some kind of goddam banana republic?” Eisenhower, retired on his Gettysburg farm, had the same reaction. He remarked that the bloodshed in Dallas reminded him of his tour of duty in Haiti as a young Army major; when he visited the national palace in Port-au-Prince, he was shocked to realize that two-thirds of the former heads of state whose marble busts were on display had been slain in office.
Meanwhile, down in Independence, Missouri, another retired president, Harry Truman, was fuming about the CIA. On December 22, 1963, while the country was still reeling from the gunfire in Dallas, Truman published a highly provocative op-ed article in The Washington Post, charging that the CIA had grown alarmingly out of control since he established it. His original purpose, wrote Truman, was to create an agency that simply coordinated the various streams of sensitive information flowing into the White House. “I have never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations,” he continued. But “for some time, I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of Government.” The CIA had grown “so removed from its intended role that it is being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue.” But the increasingly powerful agency did not just menace foreign governments, Truman warned—it now threatened democracy at home. “There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position [as a] free and open society,” he concluded ominously, “and I feel that we need to correct it.”
The timing of Truman’s opinion piece was striking. Appearing in the capital’s leading newspaper exactly one month after the assassination, the article caused shock waves in political circles. There was a disturbing undertone to the straight-talking midwesterner’s warning about the CIA. Was Truman implying that there was “sinister and mysterious intrigue” behind Kennedy’s death? Could that have been what he meant when he suggested that the agency represented a growing danger to our own democracy?
Overseas, the speculation about Kennedy’s murder—and the suspicious shooting of his alleged assassin—was even more rampant. The foreign press was filled with commentary suggesting that there were powerful forces involved in the assassination and naming Cold War militarists, big business, and Texas oilmen as possible culprits. Some of this coverage, unsurprisingly, came from Soviet bloc newspapers, eager to dispel the rumors that Oswald was part of a Communist plot—rumors that were often traceable to CIA propaganda shops. But much of the conjecture about Dallas came from publications in the Western European alliance. In Hamburg, the daily Die Welt editorialized that the official handling of the Kennedy and Oswald cases left a “forest of question marks.” In London, the Daily Mail spoke of “whispers” that Oswald was a fall guy who was rubbed out, and the Daily Telegraph derided Police Chief Curry’s announcement that Oswald’s death put a close to the Kennedy case as a “monumental absurdity.” And in Italy, where the limitations of the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle were well known to a generation of World War II veterans, the newspaper Corriere Lombardo observed that there was no way Oswald could have used the bolt-action weapon to squeeze off three shots in six seconds, as official reports from Dallas were claiming.
Suspicions of a conspiracy were particularly strong in France, where President de Gaulle himself had been the target of CIA machinations and had survived a barrage of gunfire on his own limousine. After returning from Kennedy’s November 24 funeral in Washington, de Gaulle gave a remarkably candid assessment of the assassination to his information minister, Alain Peyrefitte. “What happened to Kennedy is what nearly happened to me,” confided the French president. “His story is the same as mine. . . . It looks like a cowboy story, but it’s only an OAS [Secret Army Organization] story. The security forces were in cahoots with the extremists.”
As a matter of survival, de Gaulle and his loyal deputies had been compelled to investigate the underworld where intelligence forces, political zealots, and gangsters all converged. More than any other Western leader, he was well aware of how security services—in the name of combating Communism—joined hands with some of the most extreme and vicious allies to win their goals. De Gaulle was convinced that Kennedy had fallen victim to the same forces that had tried repeatedly to kill him.
“Do you think Oswald was a front?” Peyrefitte asked de Gaulle.
“Everything leads me to believe it,” he replied. “They got their hands on this communist who wasn’t one, while still being one. He had a sub par intellect and was an exalted fanatic—just the man they needed, the perfect one to be accused. . . . The guy ran away, because he probably became suspicious. They wanted to kill him on the spot before he could be grabbed by the judicial system. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen exactly the way they had probably planned it would. . . . But a trial, you realize, is just terrible. People would have talked. They would have dug up so much! They would have unearthed everything. Then the security forces went looking for [a clean-up man] they totally controlled, and who couldn’t refuse their offer, and that guy sacrificed himself to kill the fake assassin—supposedly in defense of Kennedy’s memory!
“Baloney! Security forces all over the world are the same when they do this kind of dirty work. As soon as they succeed in wiping out the false assassin, they declare that the justice system no longer need be concerned, that no further public action was needed now that the guilty perpetrator was dead. Better to assassinate an innocent man than to let a civil war break out. Better an injustice than disorder.
“America is in danger of upheavals. But you’ll see. All of them together will observe the law of silence. They will close ranks. They’ll do everything to stifle any scandal. They will throw Noah’s cloak over these shameful deeds. In order to not lose face in front of the whole world. In order to not risk unleashing riots in the United States. In order to preserve the union and to avoid a new civil war. In order to not ask themselves questions. They don’t want to know. They don’t want to find out. They won’t allow themselves to find out.”
These astonishing observations about Dallas were captured in Peyrefitte’s memoir, C’était de Gaulle (It Was de Gaulle), which was published in France in 2002, three years after the author’s death. Snippets of the conversation appeared in the U.S. press, but the book was not translated and published in America, and de Gaulle’s remarks about the Kennedy assassination were never fully reported outside of France.
A half century later, this extraordinary commentary by the French leader—a political colossus of the twentieth century—remains one of the most disturbing and insightful perspectives on this traumatic American event. They don’t want to find out. They won’t allow themselves to find out.
Allen Dulles knew the danger of words, the wrong kind of words. As CIA director, he had spent an untold fortune each year on countering the Soviet propaganda machine and controlling the world’s conversation, including the political and media dialogue in his own country. Within minutes of the Kennedy assassination, the CIA tried to steer news reporting and commentary about Dallas, planting stories that suggested—falsely—that Oswald was a Soviet agent or that Castro was behind JFK’s murder. In actuality, both Khrushchev—who broke down weeping in the Kremlin when he heard the news—and Castro were deeply distressed by Kennedy’s death. Both men had been greatly encouraged by Kennedy’s peace initiatives in the final year of his presidency, and they feared that his assassination meant that military hard-liners would take control in Washington. “This is bad news,” Castro muttered to a visiting French journalist, who was carrying an olive branch from Kennedy when the Cuban leader was informed of the gunfire in Texas. “Everything is changed.”
Castro immediately predicted that the agency would try to pin the murder on him. And sure enough, as the Cuban leader and French journalist listened to U.S. radio, a broadcaster suddenly connected Oswald to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.
But despite the CIA’s strenuous efforts, press coverage of the Kennedy assassination began spinning out of its control. Dulles knew that immediate steps must be taken to contain the conversation. One of his first concerns was the Washington echo chamber itself. He quickly realized the danger posed by Truman’s explosive piece in The Washington Post, which instantly caught fire and inspired similar anti-CIA editorials in newspapers from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Sacramento, California. Syndicated columnist Richard Starnes, a bête noire of the spy agency, used the Truman op-ed to launch a broadside against the CIA, calling it “a cloudy organism of uncertain purpose and appalling power.” Meanwhile, Senator Eugene McCarthy, another agency critic, weighed in with an essay for The Saturday Evening Post—the popular middle-American magazine that featured the homespun art of Norman Rockwell—bluntly titled, “The CIA Is Getting Out of Hand.”
There was no telling how far the media whirlwind would go and what it would stir up. The frenzy of criticism that was suddenly directed at the CIA’s cloak-and-dagger operations seemed to be connected, if only subliminally, to the billowing anxiety that the public felt about the unsolved mysteries in Dallas. If Harry Truman—the man who created the CIA—was worried that it had become a Frankenstein, it might be only a matter of time before prominent European figures, and even some stray voices in America, began to question whether the agency was behind JFK’s murder.
It was Dulles himself who jumped in to put out the Truman fire. Soon after the Post published Truman’s diatribe, Dulles began a campaign to get the retired president to disavow his opinion piece. The spymaster began by enlisting the help of Washington power attorney Clark Clifford, the former Truman counselor who chaired President Johnson’s intelligence advisory board. The CIA “was really HST’s baby or at least his adopted child,” Dulles pointed out in a letter to Clifford. Perhaps the attorney could talk some sense into the tough old bird and get him to retract his harsh criticisms of the agency.
Dulles also appealed directly to Truman in a strongly worded letter, telling the former president that he was “deeply disturbed” by his article. In the eight-page letter that he mailed on January 7, 1964, Dulles tried to implicate Truman himself. Calling Truman the “father of our modern intelligence system,” Dulles reminded him that it was “you, through National Security Council action, [who] approved the organization in CIA of a new office to carry out covert operations.” So, Dulles continued, Truman’s ill-advised rant in the Post amounted to “a repudiation of a policy” that the former president himself “had the great courage and wisdom to initiate.”
To an extent, Dulles had a point. As the spymaster pointed out, the Truman Doctrine had indeed authorized an aggressive strategy aimed at thwarting Communist advances in Western Europe, including CIA intervention in the 1948 Italian elections. But Truman was correct in charging that, under Eisenhower, Dulles had led the CIA much deeper into skulduggery than he ever envisioned.
Unmoved by Dulles’s letter, Truman stood by his article. Realizing the threat that Truman posed, Dulles continued his crusade to discredit the Post essay well into the following year. Confident of his powers of persuasion, the spymaster made a personal trek to Independence, Missouri, in April, arranging to meet face-to-face with Truman at his presidential library. After exchanging a few minutes of small talk about the old days, Dulles mounted his assault on Truman, employing his usual mix of sweet talk and arm-twisting. But Truman—even on the brink of turning eighty—was no pushover, and Dulles’s efforts proved fruitless.
Still, Dulles would not accept defeat. Unable to alter reality, he simply altered the record, like any good spy. On April 21, 1964, upon returning to Washington, Dulles wrote a letter about his half-hour meeting with Truman to CIA general counsel Lawrence Houston. During their conversation at the Truman Library, Dulles claimed in his letter, the elderly ex-president seemed “quite astounded” by his own attack on the CIA when the spymaster showed him a copy of the Post article. As he looked it over, Truman reacted as if he were reading it for the first time, according to Dulles. “He said that [the article] was all wrong. He then said that he felt it had made a very unfortunate impression.”
The Truman portrayed in Dulles’s letter seemed to be suffering from senility and either could not remember what he had written or had been taken advantage of by an aide, who perhaps wrote the piece under the former president’s name. In fact, CIA officials later did try to blame a Truman assistant for writing the provocative opinion piece. Truman “obviously was highly disturbed at the Washington Post article,” concluded Dulles in his letter, “. . . and several times said he would see what he could do about it.”
The Dulles letter to Houston—which was clearly intended for the CIA files, to be retrieved whenever expedient—was an outrageous piece of disinformation. Truman, who would live for eight more years, was still of sound mind in April 1964. And he could not have been shocked by the contents of his own article, since he had been expressing the same views about the CIA—even more strongly—to friends and journalists for some time.
After the Bay of Pigs, Truman had confided in writer Merle Miller that he regretted ever establishing the CIA. “I think it was a mistake,” he said. “And if I’d known what was going to happen, I never would have done it. . . . [Eisenhower] never paid any attention to it, and it got out of hand. . . . It’s become a government all of its own and all secret. . . . That’s a very dangerous thing in a democratic society.” Likewise, after the Washington Post essay ran, Truman’s original CIA director, Admiral Sidney Souers—who shared his former boss’s limited concept of the agency—congratulated him for writing the piece. “I am happy as I can be that my article on the Central Intelligence Agency rang a bell with you because you know why the organization was set up,” Truman wrote back to Souers.
In a letter that Truman wrote to Look magazine managing editor William Arthur in June 1964—two months after his meeting with Dulles—the ex-president again articulated his concerns about the direction taken by the CIA after he left the White House. “The CIA was set up by me for the sole purpose of getting all the available information to the President,” wrote Truman. “It was not intended to operate as an international agency engaged in strange activities.”
Dulles’s relentless effort to manipulate Truman—and failing that, the Truman record—is yet one more example of the spymaster’s “strange activities.” But Dulles’s greatest success at reconstructing reality was still to come. With the Warren Report, Dulles would literally rewrite history. The inquest into the death of John F. Kennedy was another astounding sleight of hand on Dulles’s part. The man who should have been in the witness chair wound up instead in control of the inquiry.
How did Allen Dulles—a man fired by President Kennedy under bitter circumstances—come to oversee the investigation into his murder? This crucial historical question has been the subject of misguided speculation for many years. The story apparently began with Lyndon Johnson, a man not known for his devotion to the truth. It has been repeated over time by various historians, including Johnson biographer Robert Caro, who one would think would be more skeptical, considering the exhaustive detail with which he documented LBJ’s habitual deceit in his multivolume work.
In his 1971 memoir, Johnson wrote that he appointed Dulles and John McCloy to the Warren Commission because they were “the two men Bobby Kennedy asked me to put on it.” With Bobby safely dead by 1971, LBJ clearly felt that he could get away with this one. But the idea that LBJ would huddle with the man he considered his rival and tormentor, in order to discuss the politically sensitive composition of the commission, is ludicrous.
The Warren Commission’s inquiry had the ability to shake the new Johnson presidency—and the U.S. government itself—to their very core. In making his choices for the commission, Johnson later wrote, he sought “men who were known to be beyond pressure and above suspicion.” What LBJ really wanted was men who could be trusted to close the case and put the public’s suspicions to rest. The Warren Commission was not established to find the truth but to “lay the dust” that had been stirred up in Dallas, as McCloy stated—“dust not only in the United States, but all over the world.”
Equally preposterous is the notion that Bobby Kennedy would nominate Dulles and McCloy—two men who had fallen out with President Kennedy while serving on his national security team—to investigate his brother’s murder. Like Dulles, whose former agency Bobby immediately suspected of a role in the assassination, McCloy was a Cold War hard-liner. McCloy had resigned as JFK’s chief arms negotiator at the end of 1962, in frustration with what he felt was Soviet intransigence. But it was McCloy himself who was the obstacle. Several months after Kennedy replaced him with Averell Harriman—a man the Russians trusted—the two superpowers reached a historic agreement to limit nuclear arms testing.
McCloy, who had served as chairman of Chase Manhattan before David Rockefeller moved into the bank’s leadership role, was closely aligned with Rockefeller interests. After leaving the Kennedy administration, McCloy joined a Wall Street law firm where he represented anti-Kennedy oilmen Clint Murchison and Sid Richardson, with whom he had done business since his days at Chase Manhattan.
It was the national security establishment, not Bobby Kennedy, that advised the new president to put Dulles and McCloy on the Warren Commission. And Johnson—finely tuned to the desires of the men who had put him in the Oval Office—wisely obliged them.
The Dulles camp itself made no bones about the fact that the Old Man aggressively lobbied to get appointed to the commission. Dick Helms later told historian Michael Kurtz that he “personally persuaded” Johnson to appoint Dulles. According to Kurtz, Dulles and Helms “wanted to make sure no agency secrets came out during the investigation. . . . And, of course, if Dulles was on the commission, that would ensure the agency would be safe. Johnson felt the same way—he didn’t want the investigation to dig up anything strange.”
William Corson, a former Marine Corps officer and Navy intelligence agent who was close to Dulles, confirmed that the spymaster pulled strings to get on the Warren Commission. He “lobbied hard for the job,” recalled Corson, who had commanded young Allen Jr. in the Korean War. After he took his place on the commission, Dulles recruited Corson to explore the Jack Ruby angle. After spending months pursuing various leads, Corson eventually concluded that he had been sent on a wild-goose chase. “It is entirely possible I was sent on an assignment which would go nowhere. . . . Allen Dulles had a lot to hide.”
Among those urging Johnson to give Dulles the Warren Commission job were establishment allies like Secretary of State Dean Rusk, former president of the Rockefeller Foundation. These same voices were raised on behalf of McCloy. In fact, the commission was, from the very beginning, an establishment creation. It was sold to an initially reluctant LBJ by the most influential voices of the Washington power structure, including Joe Alsop—the CIA’s ever-dependable mouthpiece—and the editorial czars of The Washington Post and The New York Times. Johnson wanted the investigation handled by officials in Texas, where he felt more in control, instead of by a “bunch of carpetbaggers.” But in a phone call to the White House on the morning of November 25, Alsop deftly maneuvered Johnson into accepting the idea of a presidential commission made up of nationally renowned figures “beyond any possible suspicion.”
When Johnson clung to his idea of a Texas investigation, the sophisticated Alsop set him straight, as if lecturing a country simpleton. “My lawyers, though, Joe, tell me that the White House—the president—must not inject himself into local killings,” LBJ said, almost pleadingly. “I agree with that,” Alsop said as he smoothly cut him off, “but in this case it does happen to be the killing of the president.”
Dulles immediately accepted Johnson’s request to join the commission when the president phoned him on the evening of November 29. “I would like to be of any help,” Dulles told Johnson, though he did feel compelled to at least raise the propriety of appointing a former CIA director who was known to have a troubled relationship with the deceased president: “And you’ve considered the work of my previous work and my previous job?” Dulles asked inelegantly.
“I sure have,” LBJ replied, “and we want you to do it. That’s that. . . . You always do what is best for your country. I found that out about you a long time ago.”
In the end, it all worked out just as the Washington establishment wanted—and as de Gaulle had predicted. The commission to investigate Kennedy’s murder was made up of pliable senators and congressmen who were close to the CIA, FBI, and Johnson—and it was dominated by the two craftiest men in the hearing room, Dulles and McCloy. After months of investigative wheel spinning, the panel would reach its foregone conclusion. Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in the killing of the president. Case closed.
When President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana—one of the new African leaders who had considered Kennedy a vital ally—was handed a copy of the Warren Report by U.S. ambassador William Mahoney, he opened it up, pointed at the name Allen Dulles in the list of commissioners, and handed it back to Mahoney.
“Whitewash,” Nkrumah said simply. It summed up the entire charade.
The Warren Commission was named after Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren, the distinguished jurist President Johnson strong-armed into chairing the JFK inquest. But as attorney Mark Lane—one of the first critics of the lone-gunman theory—later observed, it should have been called the “Dulles Commission,” considering the spymaster’s dominant role in the investigation. In fact, Dulles was Johnson’s first choice to chair the commission, but LBJ decided that he needed Warren at the helm to deflect liberal criticism of the official inquiry. Although the chief justice was a former Republican governor of California and an Eisenhower appointee to the bench, he had a sterling reputation among liberals for his court’s strong record on civil rights.
“I don’t think Allen Dulles ever missed a meeting,” Warren remembered years later. Behind the scenes, Dulles was even more active than the commission chairman. Warren was forced to juggle his commission duties with his ongoing responsibilities on the high court. But Dulles was the only member of the panel without a day job. He was free to devote himself to commission work, and he promptly began assembling his own informal staff, drawing on the services of his former CIA colleagues and his wide network of political and media contacts.
The other two principal players in the inquest were Dulles’s longtime friend and fellow Cold War heavyweight, McCloy, and future president Gerald Ford, who was then an ambitious Republican congressman from Michigan with close ties to the FBI. While the rest of the commission—Congressman Hale Boggs of Louisiana and Senators Richard Russell of Georgia and John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky—shuttled back and forth between the Capitol building and the National Archives, where the panel’s legal team had set up shop, the Dulles-McCloy-Ford triumvirate took control of the investigation.
The three men demonstrated their dominance at the commission’s first executive session, held on December 5, 1963, when they joined forces to block Warren’s strong personal favorite for the chief counsel position, Warren Olney, a longtime political disciple of the chief justice. As an assistant attorney general in the Eisenhower Justice Department, Olney had earned the wrath of the FBI’s Hoover for his aggressive prosecution of civil rights cases and was suspected of being “hostile” to the bureau. Instead of Earl Warren’s man, the trio installed their own veteran of the Eisenhower Justice Department—a Republican Party stalwart named J. Lee Rankin. In 1958, Dulles had “heartily” recommended Rankin for membership in the Century Association, the exclusive midtown Manhattan social club. As the Warren Commission’s lead counsel, Rankin worked closely with the Dulles trio to set the parameters of the investigation, keeping the focus tightly on Oswald and assiduously avoiding any areas that carried the faintest tinge of conspiracy.
Dulles tried to establish the framework for the inquiry early on by handing the other commission members copies of a book titled The Assassins by Robert J. Donovan, a Washington journalist. Donovan’s history of presidential assassins argued that these dramatic acts of violence were the work of solitary fanatics, not “organized attempts to shift political power from one group to another.” It was quickly pointed out to Dulles that John Wilkes Booth, who shot Lincoln as part of a broader Confederate plot to decapitate the federal government, rather famously contradicted Donovan’s theory. But, undeterred, Dulles continued to push the commission to keep a tight frame on Oswald.
Dulles was a whirlwind of activity, especially outside the hearing room, where he deftly maneuvered to keep the investigation on what he considered the proper track. He showered Rankin with memos, passing along investigative tips and offering guidance on commission strategy. There was no detail too small for Dulles to bring to the chief counsel’s attention. “A great deal of the description of the motorcade and the shooting will be unclear unless we have a street map and, if possible, a photo taken from the sixth floor window,” Dulles wrote Rankin in a July 1964 memo. “Is this possible?” Dulles was particularly eager to explore any leads suggesting Oswald might be a Soviet spy—a soon discredited idea that Angleton would nonetheless keep promoting for the rest of his life.
Despite Dulles’s efforts to keep the commission away from any hints of a domestic conspiracy, from time to time uncomfortable questions along these lines cropped up. During an executive session convened by the panel on December 16, 1963, Warren raised an especially sensitive matter—the mysterious failure of the country’s security agencies to keep close watch on someone with Oswald’s background. How, for instance, did a defector simply stroll into the U.S. immigration office in New Orleans—as he did the previous summer—and obtain a passport to return to Russia? “That seems strange to me,” Warren remarked.
Actually, passports were rather easy to obtain, Dulles observed. When the discussion turned to the puzzling ease with which Oswald got permission to return to the United States with his Russian wife, Dulles offered that he would like to get these aspects of the inquiry “into the hands of the CIA as soon as possible to explain the Russian parts.”
Senator Russell, long used to dealing with the intelligence community, reacted skeptically. “I think you’ve got more faith in them than I have. I think they’ll doctor anything they hand to us.”
Russell was edging painfully close to the fundamental problem at the core of the Warren panel’s impossible mission. How could the board run a credible inquest when it had limited investigative capability of its own and was largely dependent on the FBI and the other security agencies for its evidence—agencies that were clearly implicated in the failure to protect the president?
The Warren Commission was, in fact, so thoroughly infiltrated and guided by the security services that there was no possibility of the panel pursuing an independent course. Dulles was at the center of this subversion. During the commission’s ten-month-long investigation, he acted as a double agent, huddling regularly with his former CIA associates to discuss the panel’s internal operations.
Despite the chronic tensions between the CIA and FBI, Hoover proved a useful partner of the spy agency during the JFK inquiry. The FBI chief knew that his organization had its own secrets to hide related to the assassination, including its contacts with Oswald. Furthermore, taking its cues from the CIA, the bureau had dropped Oswald from its watch list just weeks before the assassination. An angry Hoover would later mete out punishment for errors such as this, quietly disciplining seventeen of his agents. But the FBI director was desperate to avoid public censure, and he fully supported the commission’s lone-gunman story line. Angleton, who had a good back-channel relationship with the FBI, made sure that the two agencies stayed on the same page throughout the Warren inquest, meeting regularly with bureau contacts such as William Sullivan and Sam Papich.
Angleton and his team also provided ongoing support and advice to Dulles. On a Saturday afternoon in March 1964, Ray Rocca—Angleton’s right-hand man ever since their days together in Rome—met with Dulles at his home to mull over a particularly dicey issue with which the commission was grappling. How could the panel dispel persistent rumors that the CIA was somehow a “sponsor” of Oswald’s actions? The story had broken in the press the previous month, when Marguerite Oswald declared that her son was a secret agent for the CIA who was “set up to take the blame” for the Kennedy assassination. Rankin had obligingly suggested that Dulles be given the job of clearing the CIA by reviewing all of the relevant agency documents that were provided to the commission. But even Dulles thought this smacked too much of an inside job. Instead, after conferring with Rocca, Dulles proposed that he simply provide a statement to the commission swearing—as Rocca put it in his report back to Dick Helms—“that as far as he could remember he had never had any knowledge of Oswald at any time prior to the date of the assassination.”
But Senator Cooper thought the allegations that Oswald was some kind of government agent were too serious to simply be dispelled by written statements. During a Warren Commission executive session in April, he proposed that the heads of the CIA and FBI be put under oath and questioned by the panel. It was a highly awkward suggestion, as Dulles pointed out. “I might have a little problem on that—having been [CIA] director until November 1961.” There was a simple solution, however: put his successor, John McCone, on the witness stand. That was fine with Dulles, because—as he knew—McCone remained an agency outsider, despite his title, and was not privy to its deepest secrets.
When McCone appeared before the Warren Commission, he brought along Helms, his chief of clandestine operations. As McCone was well aware, Helms was the man who knew where all the bodies were buried, and he deferred to his number two man more than once during his testimony. Conveniently ignorant of the CIA’s involvement with Oswald, McCone was able to emphatically deny any agency connection to the accused assassin. “The agency never contacted him, interviewed him, talked with him, or received or solicited any reports or information from him,” McCone assured the commission.
It was trickier when Helms was asked the same questions. He knew about the extensive documentary record that Angleton’s department had amassed on Oswald. He was aware of how the agency had monitored the defector during his exploits in Dallas, New Orleans, and Mexico City. David Phillips—a man whose career was nurtured by Helms—had been spotted meeting with Oswald in Dallas. But when Helms was sworn in, he simply lied. There was no evidence of agency contact with Oswald, he testified. Had the agency provided the commission with all the information it had on Oswald, Rankin asked him. “We have—all,” Helms replied, though he knew the files that he had handed over were thoroughly purged.
Helms was “the man who kept the secrets,” in the words of his biographer, Thomas Powers. Commission staff attorney Howard Willens politely called him “one of the most fluent and self-confident government officials I ever met.” Helms was the sort of man who could tell lies with consummate ease. It would eventually win him a felony conviction, and he wore it like a badge of courage. When one was defending the nation, Helms would lecture the senators who pestered him late in his career, one must be granted a certain latitude.
It was David Slawson, a thirty-two-year-old attorney on leave from a Denver corporate law firm, who was given the unenviable job of dealing with the CIA as part of the Warren Commission’s conspiracy research team. Rankin had told Slawson to rule out no one—“not even the CIA.” If he did discover evidence of agency involvement, the young lawyer nervously joked, he would be found dead of a premature heart attack. But Rocca, the veteran counterintelligence agent assigned to babysit the commission, made sure nothing turned up. “I came to like and trust [Rocca],” said the young staff attorney, who found himself dazzled by his first exposure to a spy world he had only seen in movies. “He was very intelligent and tried in every way to be honest and helpful.” Slawson was equally gullible when evaluating Dulles, whom he dismissed as old and feeble—precisely the aging schoolmaster act that the spymaster liked to put over on people.
Years later, as the Church Committee began to reveal the darker side of the CIA, Slawson came to suspect that Rocca had not been so “honest” with him after all. In a frank interview with The New York Times in February 1975, Slawson suggested that the CIA had withheld important information from the Warren Commission, and he endorsed the growing campaign to reopen the Kennedy investigation. Slawson was the first Warren Commission attorney to publicly question whether the panel had been misled by the CIA and FBI (he would later be joined by Rankin himself)—and the news story caused a stir in Washington. Several days after the article ran, Slawson—who by then was teaching law at the University of Southern California—got a disturbing phone call from James Angleton. After some initial pleasantries, the spook got around to business. He wanted Slawson to know that he was friendly with the president of USC, and he wanted to make sure that Slawson was going to “remain a friend” of the CIA.
Far from shuffling through the Warren Commission proceedings, the septuagenarian Dulles seemed to spring back to life for the inquiry. In fact, the entire denouement to the Kennedy presidency gave new meaning to his career. While Earl Warren, who turned seventy-three during the investigation, seemed exhausted and demoralized by the experience, Dulles was energized. When a friend congratulated Dulles on his seventy-first birthday in April 1964, he responded, “There have been many, too many, of them. At least I can say that I don’t feel any older, despite the passage of time; and with the work of the President’s Commission, I find myself busier than ever.”
Dulles went about the grave business of probing Kennedy’s death with an oddly sprightly attitude. When it came time for the commission to examine JFK’s gore-soaked clothing, Dulles stunned his fellow investigators with an inappropriate quip. “By George,” he exclaimed, as he inspected Kennedy’s tie, which had been clipped off with surgical scissors by the Parkland doctors, “the president wore a clip-on tie.” By contrast, when Warren had to view Kennedy’s autopsy photos, he later remarked, “[They] were so horrible that I could not sleep well for nights.”
His new job on the commission gave Dulles an opportunity to connect with old friends, such as Mary Bancroft and actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.—who passed along tips and bits of gossip related to the case—as well as British novelist Rebecca West. In March, Dulles wrote West, beseeching her to draw on her fertile imagination to come up with possible motives for Oswald’s crime. The commission was so baffled by the question that Warren even suggested leaving that part of the report blank. “I wish sometime you would sit down and write me a line as to why you think Lee Oswald did the dastardly deed,” Dulles wrote the novelist in March, as if discussing the plot of a whodunit. “All I can tell you is that there is not one iota of evidence that he had any personal vindictiveness against the man Kennedy.”
Meanwhile, the following month, Mary relayed a news report about Mark Lane to Dulles, informing her old lover in high dudgeon that Lane had apparently told a conference of lawyers in Budapest “that the killers—plural—of JFK were still at large . . . even I am amazed that Lane has the temerity to go to Budapest and shoot off his mouth in that fashion. I regard him as insane—but nevertheless I do hope the FBI has its eye on him.”
Dulles and McCloy, in fact, were very concerned about European public opinion regarding the Kennedy assassination, and they urged the commission to closely monitor both Lane and Thomas G. Buchanan, a Paris-based American journalist who had written the first JFK conspiracy book, Who Killed Kennedy?—an advance copy of which was airmailed to Dulles from the CIA station in London, where it was published. During an executive session in April, Dulles even proposed that Buchanan be subpoenaed to appear before the commission.
Earl Warren was obsessed with press coverage of the inquiry and agonized over press leaks, including a May report by Anthony Lewis in The New York Times—midway through the panel’s work—that the inquiry was set to “unequivocally reject theories that the assassination was the work of some kind of conspiracy.” Warren was very upset by the premature news report, which suggested that the commission had rushed to judgment before hearing all the evidence. The leak was clearly intended to counter the publicity being generated by authors like Lane and Buchanan.
While the commission frantically attempted to determine the source of such leaks, the answer was sitting in their midst. The two most active leakers were Ford and Dulles. It was Ford who kept the FBI constantly informed, enabling Hoover to feed the press with bureau-friendly stories about the inquest. And Dulles used the CIA’s own network of media assets to spin Warren Commission coverage.
The New York Times was a favorite Dulles receptacle. In February, the Times had run another leaked story—also bylined by Lewis—that clearly led back to Dulles. Lewis reported that Robert Oswald, the accused assassin’s brother, had testified that he suspected Lee was a Soviet agent. As the commission hunted the source of the leak, a staff attorney suggested that the Times reporter might have overheard a dinner table conversation that he and Dulles had with Robert Oswald at a Washington restaurant—a highly unlikely scenario that nonetheless provided Dulles with the fig leaf of a cover story.
There was a smug coziness to the entire Warren investigation. It was a clubby affair. When Treasury secretary Dillon finally appeared before the commission in early September—less than three weeks before its final report was delivered to the president—he was warmly greeted by Dulles as “Doug.” Dillon was treated to a kid-gloves examination by the commission, even though there were troubling questions left unanswered about the Secret Service’s behavior in Dallas, where Kennedy’s protection had mysteriously melted away.
Led by Willens, the commission staff had tried for months before Dillon’s appearance to obtain Secret Service records related to the assassination. Willens believed that “the Secret Service appeared to be neither alert nor careful in protecting the president.” This was a delicate way of characterizing what was a criminally negligent performance by the service entrusted with the president’s safety. The buildings surrounding Dealey Plaza and its shadowy corners were not swept and secured by the Secret Service in advance of Kennedy’s motorcade. There were no agents riding on the flanks of his limousine. And when sniper fire erupted, only one agent—Clint Hill—performed his duty by sprinting toward the president’s vehicle and leaping onto the rear. It was an outrageous display of professional incompetence, one that made Robert Kennedy immediately suspect that the presidential guard was involved in the plot against his brother.
But Dillon stonewalled Willens’s efforts to pry loose Secret Service records, and when the commission staff persisted, the Treasury secretary huddled with his old friend, Jack McCloy, and then appealed to President Johnson himself. “Dillon was a very shrewd guy,” Willens marveled late in his life. “I still can’t believe he involved President Johnson in this.”
Instead of being grilled by the commission about why he had withheld records and why his agency was missing in action in Dallas, Dillon was allowed to make a case for why his budget should be beefed up. If the Secret Service was given more money, staff, and authority, Senator Cooper helpfully asked, would it be possible to offer the president better protection in the future? “Yes, I think [we] could,” Dillon replied brightly.
If any blame was assigned in the death of the president during Dillon’s gentle interrogation, it was placed on the victim himself. Soon after the assassination, Dillon and others began circulating the false story that Kennedy preferred his Secret Service guards to ride behind him in motorcades, instead of on the side rails of his limousine, and that Kennedy had also requested the Dallas police motorcycle squadron to hang back—so the crowds in Dallas could enjoy an unobstructed view of the glamorous first couple. This clever piece of disinformation had the insidious effect of absolving the Secret Service and indicting Kennedy, implying that his vanity was his downfall. And with Dulles’s help, Dillon was able to slip this spurious story into the commission record.
When the Warren Commission delivered its 912-page report and twenty-six volumes of appendices to President Johnson in the White House on September 24, 1964, the towering stack seemed designed to crush all dissenting opinions with its sheer weight. But the bulk of the Warren Report was filler. Only about 10 percent of the report dealt with the facts of the case. On Dulles’s insistence, most of it was taken up with a biography of Oswald that, despite its exhaustive detail, managed to avoid any mention of his contacts with U.S. intelligence. The CIA, in fact, was given a clean bill of health by the report, which reserved its modest criticisms for other arms of government.
Predictably, The New York Times and The Washington Post set the euphoric tone of the press coverage, with Robert Donovan—the same journalist whose book on assassinations had already proved so useful for Dulles—trumpeting the official report in the Postas a “masterpiece of its kind.”Newsweek national affairs editor, John Jay Iselin, sent Dulles a complimentary copy of the issue with the Warren Report on its cover, along with a fawning note. “Without exception, every one of our editors who was involved in our too-hasty assimilation exercise found himself deeply impressed with the judiciousness and thoroughness of the Commission’s findings. I think we can all be proud of your labor.” Iselin thanked Dulles for helping to guide the magazine’s coverage of the report, telling him that the editorial staff’s efforts to absorb the massive report on a tight deadline “was made easier through your kindness in giving us some idea of what to be on the watch for.” Meanwhile, just as he had put Dulles in charge of investigating himself, LBJ put Dillon in charge of implementing the Warren Report’s recommendations.
This pattern continued into the next decade when now president Ford appointed Dillon to another panel that examined a possible CIA connection to the Kennedy assassination. The 1975 commission was chaired by a lifelong friend of Dillon—none other than Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. After pondering the matter, the Rockefeller Commission—which also included another old Kennedy antagonist and Dulles ally, retired general Lyman Lemnitzer—surprised no one by concluding that any allegations of a CIA conspiracy in the JFK case were “far-fetched speculation.”
Following the release of the Warren Report, there were still a few murmurs of doubt, including some within the commission itself. Senator Russell, who strongly suspected that Oswald had been backed by others, seemed eager to distance himself from the report as soon as it was released. He fled home to Georgia, refusing to make himself available to sign ceremonial copies of the report or to autograph the official group photo of the commission.
Some tendrils of suspicion even fluttered here and there in Dulles’s own social circle. Bill Bundy over in Foggy Bottom was among those who did not find the Warren Report completely convincing. “I think he accepted the Warren Report, but did he believe it? That’s another matter,” recalled Bundy’s daughter, Carol, after his death. “I think he thought it was for the good of the country—this is what we put together and now we need to move forward.”
Even those establishment personalities who were nagged by doubts about the official story convinced themselves that the national shame had to be laid to rest. But the nightmare of Dallas kept afflicting the nation’s slumber. Its telltale heart kept beating beneath the floorboards where it had been buried. And it would not leave Dulles alone.