In December 1965, a year after the Warren Commission wrapped up its business, Allen Dulles agreed to spend a few days on the Los Angeles campus of the University of California, as a well-paid Regents Scholar lecturer. All he had to do, for what was described as “a princely sum,” was to give a few talks and rub elbows with students in casual settings. Dulles—looking forward to a relaxing winter respite in the California sun—brought Clover with him.
By this point, however, a wide network of Warren Report critics had begun to flourish—men and women from all walks of life, none of them famous (except for Mark Lane, whose CIA-inspired bad press and bullish personality had rendered him notorious). Among these critics of the official story were a poultry farmer, sign salesman, small-town newspaper editor, philosophy professor, legal secretary, civil liberties lawyer, United Nations research analyst, and forensic pathologist. They spent untold hours poring over the most arcane details of the Warren Report, analyzing photos taken during the fateful moments in Dealey Plaza, and tracking down eyewitnesses. Their zeal for the truth would make them the target of unrelenting media mockery, but they were doing the work that the American press had shamefully failed to do—and in many cases, they went about their unsung labors with great skill and discipline.
Among this band of loosely connected independent researchers was a twenty-six-year-old UCLA graduate student in engineering and physics named David Lifton. Lifton had not given the Kennedy investigation much thought—assuming, like most Americans, that the distinguished Warren Commission would get it right—until he happened to attend a Mark Lane lecture one evening in September 1964, around the time the report was released. The grad student went to the lecture on a lark. “For similar reasons I might have listened to an eccentric lecturer that the earth was flat,” he later recalled. But as he took in Lane’s lawyerly presentation that night at the Jan Hus Theater—inside a hulking, old, red-brick church on New York’s Upper East Side—Lifton found it so disturbing that it changed his life forever. Soon afterward, he threw himself into the Kennedy case with an engineer’s passion for detail and precision.
Back in Los Angeles, Lifton plunked down $76 at a local bookstore to buy the entire, twenty-six-volume set of the Warren Report and spent a full year methodically working his way through its contents. He added another dimension to his understanding of the case by reading the best of the conspiracy literature that was starting to emerge, primarily in left-wing publications like The Nation and Liberation, and in more obscure sources like The Minority of One, a cerebral monthly published by a brilliant Auschwitz survivor named Menachem [M.S.] Arnoni that boasted such luminaries as Albert Schweitzer, Bertrand Russell, and Linus Pauling on its editorial board. Lifton further honed his analysis of the assassination by intellectually sparring with Wesley Liebeler—one of the few members of the Warren Commission legal staff to at least consider the possibility that their report was flawed—whom he found teaching law at UCLA.
By the time Allen Dulles arrived at UCLA, David Lifton was ready to do battle. Contacting the student who was acting as Dulles’s host, Lifton passed word that he would like to sit down with the spymaster for a private fifteen-minute interview to discuss the Warren Report. Dulles refused to meet with Lifton alone but did agree to answer his questions in public at a student chat session scheduled for that evening in a dormitory lounge. The student host warned Lifton not to “badger” Dulles. Another Warren Report critic had tried to get the best of Dulles the previous night, the host told Lifton, and the wily old spook had made “mincemeat” of him.
That evening, when Lifton showed up at the Sierra Lounge in Hedrick Hall, he was wracked with anxiety. “I have never been more frightened in my life, in connection with speaking to anyone,” he later wrote Vincent Salandria, a Philadelphia lawyer who had established himself as one of the foremost critics of the Warren Report. Dulles entered the lounge with Clover and the evening’s moderator. He lit up his trademark pipe and leaned back in his chair. Still alert at seventy-two, Dulles scanned the group of forty or so students sitting in chairs arranged in semicircles in front of him, quickly picking out the young man positioned front-row center who had obviously come to duel with him. Lifton had brought along an arsenal of evidence, including two hefty volumes of the Warren Report, a file box filled with documents, and photo exhibits of Dealey Plaza, including copies of the “kill-shot” frames from the Zapruder film. The engineering student had made a point of wearing his best suit, and his friends who accompanied him for moral support were similarly attired. “It was obvious,” he told Salandria, “we were not beatniks of any kind.”
After Dulles wittily deflected a question from a student about the CIA budget, the spymaster suddenly found himself confronted by the earnest, bespectacled student sitting directly in front of him. Lifton, not knowing how long he would be given the floor, leaped right to the heart of the matter, directly challenging the foundation of the Warren Report. “Mr. Dulles,” he began, “one of the most important conclusions of the Warren Commission goes something like this: ‘There was no evidence of a conspiracy—’”
“Wasn’t it, ‘We have found no evidence of conspiracy?’” interrupted Dulles. There was a twinkling charm to his manner, but he made clear that he was prepared to counter Lifton every step of the way.
Undeterred, Lifton plunged forward. Contrary to the commission’s conclusion, he asserted, there was ample evidence to suggest a conspiracy, not least of which was the Zapruder film, which graphically demonstrated that Kennedy’s head was “thrust violently back and to the left by [the fatal] shot.” Lifton knew his law of physics, and the conclusion was unavoidable to him. “This must imply someone was firing from the front.”
Dulles would have none of it. He calmly informed the gathering that he had “examined the film a thousand times” and that what Lifton was saying was simply not true.
At this point Lifton walked over to the evening’s honored guest and began showing him grisly blowups from the Zapruder film. “I know these are not the best reproductions,” said Lifton, but the images were clear enough. Nobody had ever directly confronted Dulles like this before, and the Old Man grew agitated as he glanced at the photos that Lifton had thrust onto his lap.
“Now what are you saying . . . just what are you saying?” Dulles sputtered.
“I’m saying there must be someone up front firing at Kennedy,” Lifton responded.
“Look,” Dulles said, in lecture mode, “there isn’t a single iota of evidence indicating conspiracy. No one says anything like that. . . .”
But now it was Lifton’s turn to school Dulles. Actually, the engineering student informed Dulles, of the 121 witnesses in Dealey Plaza, dozens of them reported hearing or seeing evidence of gunfire from the grassy knoll. “People even saw and smelled smoke.”
“Look, what are you talking about?” fumed the now visibly angry Dulles. “Who saw smoke?”
Lifton began giving the names of witnesses, citing the research done by Harold Feldman, a freelance writer for scientific journals.
“Just who is Harold Feldman?” Dulles scornfully demanded. Lifton informed him that he frequently wrote for The Nation.
This elicited an explosion of derision from Dulles. “The Nation! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.” If Dulles assumed the group of students would join in his mocking laughter, he quickly discovered that he was alone. “It is to the everlasting credit of the students,” Lifton later remarked, “that even if they did not understand the full meaning of the dialogue that was taking place, they did sense the obscenity of that laugh, that it was an attempt to intellectually smear, in disguise, and not one student laughed. Allen Dulles laughed all alone.”
Dulles tried to retrieve the upper hand by making his antagonist look like an obsessive “time hog,” as Lifton put it. “Look,” the distinguished guest said to the group, “I don’t know if you’re really all interested in this, and if you’re not, we’d just as well . . .” But the students emphatically assured him that they were very interested. “No, no,” they insisted, “keep going.”
So with a shrug, Dulles was forced back into the ring. But having failed to knock out Lifton with his display of contempt, he seemed at a loss how to continue the battle. “I can’t see a blasted thing here,” the old spy angrily muttered, taking another look at the hideous photos in his lap. “You can’t say the head goes back. . . . I can’t see it going back . . . it does not go back . . . you can’t say that . . . you haven’t shown it.”
But—after passing the photos around the room—Lifton had the final word. “Each student can look and see for himself,” he told Dulles.
After the heated exchange between Lifton and Dulles, the evening began to wind down. Dulles was given the opportunity to restore some of his dignity when a starstruck student asked a question that allowed him to discourse at length on Cold War spycraft. Then Dulles bade good night to the students, and he and Clover retired to their campus quarters. As Dulles withdrew, dozens of students gathered around Lifton, peppering him with questions about the assassination, and for the next two hours he gave a presentation based on the pile of evidence that he had brought with him. “It was really a neat night,” he reported to Salandria. “I really felt tonight as if I’d won.”
But talking about that evening nearly fifty years later, Lifton conveyed a darker feeling about his encounter with Dulles. He had the sense he was in the presence of “evil” that night, recalled Lifton—who by then was a man in his seventies, like Dulles at the time of their UCLA duel. “It was the way he looked, his eyes. He just emoted guile, and it was very, very scary.”
David Lifton was the only person who ever gave Allen Dulles a taste of what it would have been like for him to be put on the witness stand. No doubt Dulles would have reacted the same way if he had ever been cross-examined. First, he would have tried charm to disarm his prosecutor, then scorn, and finally an eruption of fury—perhaps accompanied by vague threats, as he did with Lifton, when he suggested that the grad student should submit to an FBI interrogation, if he had anything new to report.
Dulles’s performance at UCLA offered a glimpse of how vulnerable the spymaster was underneath all his bluster, and how quickly he might have cracked if he had been subjected to a rigorous examination. But with the failure of Congress and the legal system, as well as the media, to investigate the assassination more closely, it was up to freelance crusaders like Lifton to hold Dulles and his accomplices accountable.
Dulles would be forced to spend the rest of his life grappling with the charges leveled by these headstrong men and women, trying to discredit their books, sabotage their public appearances, and—in some cases—to destroy their reputations. He had written Jerry Ford in February 1965, telling him he was “happy to note” that attacks on the Warren Report “have dwindled to a whimper.” But it was wishful thinking. The whimper of criticism was about to become a roar.
Sometime in the winter of 1965–66, after Dulles’s showdown at UCLA, he suffered a mild stroke. But he soon rebounded and Clover despaired that she would ever persuade him to slow down. In February 1966, she wrote Mary Bancroft, asking her advice for how to convince “Allen to take some care.” He insisted on keeping up his busy social schedule, Clover complained, even when he wasn’t feeling well. “He quite often gets a chill and as I give him electric pads, hot water bottles, etc., he says he will be getting up in a minute. This morning he said he didn’t feel well, he had done too much (two dinners in the same evening, one from 5:30 to 7:30 where he spoke, the other purely social) and that he wouldn’t go out to lunch at the Club. But of course he went and the chill came next. I try to wash my hands of it all when I see I do no good, but when I think of how awful for him and for everybody if his next stroke was worse, then I start once again, thinking of how to present the prospect of taking some care of himself.”
The two women knew that Dulles would not scale back until his health failed him. He was “The Shark,” propelling himself relentlessly forward. If he slowed down, it would mean the end of him. He dined with old CIA friends like the Angletons and hosted overseas guests like Dame Rebecca West and her husband, Henry Andrews, when they visited Washington. He hopped up to New York for meetings at the Council on Foreign Relations with longtime associates like Bill Bundy and Hamilton Armstrong. And in November 1966, he even sat for Heinz Warneke, a German-born sculptor best known for his depictions of animals, who produced a bas-relief of Dulles for the lobby of CIA headquarters.
That same year, Dulles published a rose-colored memoir of his World War II spy days, The Secret Surrender, and with the help of former CIA comrade Tracy Barnes, he tried to turn the book into a Hollywood movie. But the project never went beyond the Tinseltown wheel-spinning stage, demonstrating that when it came to dealing with the movie industry labyrinth, even espionage wizards were sometimes at a loss. Or perhaps trying to turn SS General Wolff into a screen hero proved too much even for Hollywood’s imagination.
Much of Dulles’s time during his golden years was absorbed by the growing controversy surrounding the Warren Report. He knew that his legacy was tied to the credibility of the investigation and he took the lead in defending the report, while encouraging other commission pillars to also engage in the propaganda battle. By 1966, Dulles and his commission colleagues found themselves besieged by skeptical reporters and filmmakers, as bestselling books like Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment, Edward Jay Epstein’s Inquest, and Harold Weisberg’s Whitewash ripped holes in the Warren Report, soon to be followed by Josiah Thompson’s Six Seconds in Dallas, which was excerpted in the deeply middle-American Saturday Evening Post. Thompson’s book would even land the Haverford philosophy professor-turned-private-eye an editorial consultancy with Luce’s Lifemagazine, which had earlier played a key role in the assassination cover-up by buying the Zapruder film and locking it away in the company vault.
Dulles was particularly disturbed by Inquest, a methodical dissection of the report’s weaknesses that had begun as Epstein’s master’s thesis at Cornell. To their later regret, some commission staff members had cooperated with Epstein’s research, which gave the book more credibility than other attacks on the Warren Report. In July 1966, Dick Goodwin lauded the book in The Washington Post and used his review to call for a reopening of the investigation—a bombshell that marked the first time a member of Kennedy’s inner circle had issued such a call. Alarmed by the steady erosion of support for the Warren Report, Dulles anxiously conferred with Lee Rankin and Arlen Specter, the future senator from Pennsylvania who had been one of the commission’s more ambitious young attorneys, concocting the infamous “magic bullet” theory to reinforce the lone-gunman story line. As the groundswell for a new investigation grew, Dulles realized that a major counteroffensive needed to be mounted. Once again, he rallied his media allies, like U.S. News & World Report founder David Lawrence—whom Dulles described to Rankin as “an old and close friend of mine”—who published a ringing defense of the Warren Report by Specter in October.
The propaganda campaign on behalf of the Warren Report was primarily run out of the CIA by Dulles stalwarts like Angleton and Ray Rocca. A 1967 CIA document, later released under the Freedom of Information Act, stated that growing criticism of the report was “a matter of concern to the U.S. government, including our organization.” In response, the agency sought to provide friendly journalists with “material for countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists.” One way that its media assets could impugn conspiracy theorists, the CIA suggested, was to portray them as Soviet dupes. “Communists and other extremists always attempt to prove a political conspiracy behind violence,” declared another agency document.
As part of the campaign to smear Warren Report critics, Dulles compiled dirt on Mark Lane, whom he considered a particularly “terrible nuisance” because of his growing media visibility and his influence overseas, where he was often invited to speak. Dulles received one report from an unidentified source that amounted to a sludge pile of salacious unsubstantiated rumors about Lane. “I have been told that his wife was—even is—a member of the Communist Party and I have also been told that Lane is not divorced from his wife as some people claim.” A district attorney in Queens “has in his possession pictures,” the report continued, “showing Lane engaged in ‘obscene acts’ with minors (girls—not boys—groups of girls). I have not seen these pictures personally but know those who have. Lane has the most unsavoury possible reputation.”
Dulles’s informer also offered some crude observations about the lawyer’s race, ethnicity, and mental status. “He is supposedly Jewish—but there are those who claim he is half Negro or at least has Negro blood. He is very dark complexioned, wears horn-rimmed glasses and he’s always in a hurry. My own personal opinion is that he is deranged.”
According to Lane, the CIA went beyond spreading ugly gossip about him, subjecting him to relentless surveillance and harassment. As his public profile started to grow, the agency pressured TV and radio programs to cancel interviews with him. When he traveled to foreign countries to speak about the Kennedy assassination, the agency sent bulletins to the U.S. embassies there announcing that Lane’s local appearances had been canceled.
Dulles assiduously avoided direct confrontations with his articulate nemesis. In August 1966, when he was asked to debate Lane by the producer of a TV public affairs program in New York City called The Open Mind, Dulles declined. Perhaps the Old Man figured that if a UCLA student could rattle him in a casual campus forum, he would be seriously outmatched in a televised duel with an aggressive legal warrior like Lane. Dulles also rejected an invitation to be interviewed for a British documentary in which Lane was involved. The spymaster preferred more nimble surrogates like the Warren Commission staff attorneys to do his fighting for him.
As time went by, even friends of Dulles began to air their doubts to him about the Warren Report. His European friends grew particularly skeptical, but some of his intimates closer to home—including Mary Bancroft—also started challenging Dulles’s explanation of the assassination. After feeding Dulles with tattletale reports about “the quite fiendish” Lane throughout the Warren Commission inquiry, Bancroft—a weather vane of shifting opinion in her Upper East Side circle—started to consider whether the outspoken critic might be right after all. “After listening to him, even I begin to wonder!” Mary wrote Dulles in July 1964. By 1966, Dulles’s longtime confidante had gone over to the other side, much to his chagrin. That November, after Mary sent Clover a letter about the commission’s many failings, Allen wrote back, telling her, “I imagine that we will have to agree to disagree about the Warren Report. . . . I respect your views and I doubt whether I can have any great influence on them, but I may make a try when we next get together.”
By 1967, polls showed that two-thirds of the American public did not accept the Warren Report’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin. That same year, against the backdrop of growing public skepticism, New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison launched the first (and what will likely be the only) criminal investigation related to the Kennedy assassination. “At the beginning of the investigation,” Garrison later wrote, “I had only a hunch that the federal intelligence community had somehow been involved in the assassination, but I did not know which branch or branches. As time passed and more leads turned up, however, the evidence began pointing more and more to the CIA.”
In February 1968, Garrison subpoenaed Dulles to testify before an Orleans Parish grand jury—which undoubtedly came as a cold slap for a man long accustomed to being invited to speak before gatherings of the Brookings Institution, Princeton alumni association, Council on Foreign Relations, Carnegie Endowment, and other august forums. As Garrison and his investigators examined the work of the Warren Commission, they discovered that “leads pointing to the CIA had been covered up neatly by [the panel’s] point man for intelligence issues, former CIA director Allen Dulles. Everything kept coming back to Cuba and the Bay of Pigs and the CIA.” The New Orleans district attorney wanted to question Dulles under oath about the CIA’s connections to Oswald and to local figures in the Kennedy case, like David Ferrie and Guy Banister, whose paths had crisscrossed intriguingly with that of the accused assassin.
The Garrison investigation set off alarm bells in CIA headquarters. It soon became clear, however, that the authority of a crusading district attorney was no match for the U.S. intelligence establishment. Days after Garrison sent off the Dulles subpoena to the nation’s capital, he received a letter from the United States attorney in Washington, D.C., who tersely informed the DA that he “declined” to serve the subpoena on Dulles. Meanwhile, the CIA—which, by then, was led by Helms—mounted an aggressive counterattack on the district attorney. Subpoenas like the one sent to Dulles were simply ignored, government records were destroyed, Garrison’s office was infiltrated by spies, and agency assets in the media worked to turn the DA into a crackpot in the public eye. Even the private investigator Garrison hired to sweep his office for electronic bugs turned out to be a CIA operative. After Dulles was subpoenaed by Garrison, the security specialist—Gordon Novel—phoned the spymaster to slip him inside information about the DA’s strategy.
In the end, Garrison’s powerful enemies managed to turn the tables on him, and the New Orleans prosecutor himself became the target of an investigation, on trumped-up federal corruption charges. “This is what happens to you,” he observed years later, “when you do not go along with the new government’s ratification of the coup.”
Despite the public’s overwhelming rejection of the Warren Report, Dulles could count on the unwavering support of the Washington establishment and the corporate media. An exchange of letters between CBS news director William Small and Dulles in July 1967 summed up the media’s lockstep allegiance to the official story, no matter how many holes were punched in it by new research. “I hope you had a chance to view the four-part series on the Warren Commission,” wrote Small, referring to his TV network’s massive apologia for the Warren Report. “We are very proud of them and I hope you found them a proper display of what television journalism can do.” Dulles commended Small for a job well done, although he noted that he had missed the third installment. After reviewing transcripts of the entire series that Small had obligingly provided him, Dulles assured the CBS news executive, “If I have any nitpicking to pass on to you, I shall do so as soon as I have read them.” The spymaster was always happy to offer guidance to his media friends, down to the smallest details.
Even the prominent group of men who had served President Kennedy were loath to break ranks with the establishment on the Warren Report. Dark talk of conspiracy had begun circulating within the Kennedy ranks immediately after Dallas, but with the exception of Dick Goodwin, no one dared to voice these suspicions in public.
Arthur Schlesinger was cast adrift by Kennedy’s murder. The scholar had thrived in Kennedy’s court, where his intellectual and political aspirations intersected. Working in the Kennedy White House not only gave Schlesinger a voice in global affairs, it offered the decidedly unglamorous intellectual a chance to rub elbows with everyone from French novelist and cultural minister André Malraux to Hollywood siren Angie Dickinson. He gossiped over lunch with the sultry actress about Frank Sinatra, who had been deeply wounded when he was jettisoned from the Kennedy circle because of his association with the mob. Schlesinger was sipping midday cocktails with publishing queen Kay Graham and her Newsweek editors, who had flown him to New York to advise them on a magazine makeover, when the devastating news from Dallas was announced.
Schlesinger soon realized that he was odd man out in the anti-intellectual Johnson administration. More than a month after the assassination, Schlesinger confided woefully in his journal, he still had not received “a single communication from the [new] president—not a request to do anything, or an invitation to a meeting, or an instruction, or a suggestion, not even the photographs or swimming or cocktail invitations which have gone to other members of the Kennedy staff.”
The entire mood of the White House suddenly shifted under Schlesinger’s feet. “LBJ differs from JFK in a number of ways—most notably, perhaps, in his absence of intellectual curiosity,” Schlesinger observed. “He has the senatorial habit of knowing only what is necessary to know for the moment and then forgetting it as soon as the moment has passed. . . . LBJ lacks the supreme FDR-JFK gift of keeping a great many things in his mind at the same time, remembering them all, and demanding always to know new things.” On January 27, 1964, two months into Johnson’s presidency, Schlesinger submitted his resignation. “It was accepted with alacrity,” he drily noted.
Schlesinger’s early resignation from the Johnson administration—which came seven months before Bobby Kennedy’s own departure, to run for the Senate—solidified his position of trust within the Kennedy enclave. The historian was the recipient of murmured confidences, from Bobby, Jackie, and members of their entourage. Schlesinger heard disturbing reports about the events in Dallas. RFK told him that he was wracked with suspicions about what had happened to his brother. Even CIA director McCone thought “there were two people involved in the shooting,” Kennedy confided to Schlesinger. Meanwhile, Air Force general Godfrey McHugh, who had served as JFK’s military aide in Dallas, gave Schlesinger a harrowing account of “that ghastly afternoon” when they bumped into each other at a French embassy party in June. McHugh had found LBJ huddled in the bathroom of his private quarters on Air Force One before the plane took off from Dallas. The panic-stricken Johnson was “convinced that there was a conspiracy and that he would be the next to go.”
Schlesinger took an interest in the first wave of Kennedy conspiracy articles that began appearing in the press, sending RFK a piece titled “Seeds of Doubt” from the December 21, 1963, issue of The New Republic. Nobody was more aware than Schlesinger of the explosive tensions that had surged within the Kennedy presidency. “Certainly we did not control the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” the historian would acknowledge late in his life. And, as he knew from his futile efforts to reform the CIA, the Kennedy White House perhaps had even less control over the spy agency. But despite Schlesinger’s inside knowledge of the Washington power struggle during the Kennedy years—and his ability to see through such shoddy work as the Warren Report—the historian did nothing to explore the truth about Dallas.
In the years after the assassination, Schlesinger secured his reputation as the official historian of Kennedy’s Camelot with his epic, Pulitzer Prize–winning book on the abbreviated presidency, A Thousand Days. The 1965 bestseller—which carefully avoided the dark, unanswered questions about Kennedy’s murder—burnished the historian’s intellectual celebrity and opened new doors for him on the cocktail party circuit. His bold-faced name popped up in New York gossip columns, including a sighting at a raucous Norman Mailer party in January 1967, highlighted by a trapeze apparatus that the more daring guests used to go flying through the air. “Any party with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and me in it can’t be a failure,” chirped Monique van Vooren, a Belgian-born actress who was once the va-va-voom girl of the moment.
Schlesinger was frequently invited to appear on talk shows, and that year he found himself at a Los Angeles TV station where he was the guest of local news personality Stan Bohrman. After the show, Bohrman asked Schlesinger whether he would be willing to meet backstage with Ray Marcus, a respected Warren Report critic. Marcus, who had concluded that the official report was “the most massively fraudulent document ever foisted on a free society,” thought it was urgent that former Kennedy officials like Schlesinger examine his photographic evidence. He was certain that it would convince the New Frontiersmen that there had been a conspiracy. But when Schlesinger set eyes on Marcus’s display—which included the Zapruder film’s infamous Frame 313 kill shot—he visibly paled. “I can’t look and won’t look,” Schlesinger said, turning his head and walking briskly away from Marcus. This was a perfect summation of the prevalent attitude among the Kennedy crowd. It was best not to linger on the horrors of Dallas.
Despite the bad blood between Kennedy and the CIA, Schlesinger managed to maintain affable relations with the spy set after Dallas. As he had throughout his career, Schlesinger kept up a friendly, chatty correspondence with Dulles. In December 1964, Schlesinger even commiserated with the spymaster over Hugh Trevor-Roper’s “disgraceful piece” in the London Sunday Times, in which the eminent Oxford historian denounced the Warren Report as “suspect” and “slovenly.” After Dulles thanked him for the letter, Schlesinger wrote again in January, informing Dulles that British political scientist (and dependable Cold War pundit) Denis Brogan was working on a “detailed dissection of Trevor-Roper” for the CIA-funded Encounter magazine. “Perhaps if you are feeling up to it,” Schlesinger warmly signed off, “I could come by and see you one of these afternoons.” Schlesinger’s courtship of Dulles in the midst of the Trevor-Roper controversy was oddly sycophantic, especially considering the fact that Schlesinger himself shared some of the British historian’s doubts about the Warren Report.
The cordial relationship between Schlesinger and Dulles suffered a bit of strain in the summer of 1965 when Life magazine ran an account of the Bay of Pigs that was excerpted from A Thousand Days. In his book, Schlesinger put the onus for the disaster on the CIA, which—he accurately wrote—had maneuvered Kennedy into the sand trap. Dulles found the Life article—along with a similar one that Look magazine excerpted from Ted Sorensen’s memoir, Kennedy—“deeply disturbing and highly misleading.” The Schlesinger and Sorensen broadsides on the Bay of Pigs spurred Dulles into action, but after wrestling with a long, belabored—and unbecomingly bitter—response for Harper’s, he decided it was best to take the high road. President Kennedy had done the honorable thing and taken responsibility for the fiasco, he told journalists calling for comment, and he would leave it at that. By November, Dulles had resumed amiable relations with Schlesinger, sending him condolences on the death of his father.
In October 1966, Schlesinger again rushed to Dulles’s defense when The Secret Surrender was harshly reviewed in The New York Review of Books by revisionist historian Gar Alperovitz, who suggested that the spymaster had helped kick off the Cold War by going around Stalin’s back to cut a deal with Nazi commanders in Italy. “I was so irritated by the wild Alperovitz review that I sent [the magazine] a letter,” Schlesinger wrote Dulles. In his letter to the Review, Schlesinger ridiculed the attempt to blame the Cold War “on poor old Allen Dulles. . . . Nothing the United States could have done in 1945 would have dispelled Stalin’s mistrust—short of the conversion of the United States into a Stalinist despotism.” When it came to fighting the cultural Cold War, Schlesinger and Dulles were still brothers in arms.
It was not until many years later, long after Dulles was dead, that Schlesinger began to question his cozy relations with the Georgetown CIA crowd. By then, some of the skeletons in the CIA closet had come rattling out the door, when it was opened just a crack by post-Watergate congressional investigations. In 1978, seated at an awards banquet next to Jimmy Carter’s CIA director, Admiral Stansfield Turner—who was trying to at least straighten up the closet—Schlesinger listened wide-eyed as Turner regaled him with CIA horror stories. Many of the CIA director’s astonishing tales related to Jim Angleton, who—though deposed three years earlier—still cast a shadow over the agency. “Turner obviously regards Angleton as a madman and cannot understand a system under which he gained so much power,” Schlesinger later wrote in his journal.
In September 1991, Schlesinger found himself at the Sun Valley estate of Pamela Harriman—Averell’s widow—with fellow guest Dick Helms, with whom he had been friends ever since their days together in the OSS. Schlesinger characterized their relationship as a “rather wary friendship, since we both know that there are matters on which we deeply disagree but about which, for the sake of our friendship, we do not speak.” Still, he had socialized regularly with Helms over the years, sipping cocktails with him at the Wisners, swapping information with him over lunch during the Kennedy years, and later, during the 1970s, playing tennis and enjoying barbecues in the backyard of Dick and Cynthia Helms’s comfortable home near Washington’s Battery Kemble Park. One evening, Schlesinger’s son Andrew accompanied him to a Helms barbecue. “I remember feeling kind of weird about [being there] . . . but my father thought he was the most honorable of the CIA people.”
By 1991, however, Schlesinger had begun to question his assessment of Helms. He had recently read a series of articles about the CIA’s brainwashing experiments on Canadian medical patients, in which Helms had played a central role. “It is a terrible story of CIA recklessness and arrogance, compounded by an unwillingness to assume responsibility that went to the point of destroying incriminating documents,” Schlesinger wrote in his journal. “Helms was a central figure both in recommending the experiments and in getting rid of the evidence.”
Now Schlesinger found himself relaxing in Idaho’s alpine splendor with the man who had been convicted of one felony—lying to Congress—and undeniably should have been prosecuted for more. But the historian held his tongue. “In view of my long truce with Dick Helms and my liking for him, I certainly did not bring up the [CIA medical experiments]. But I did wonder a bit at one’s capacity to continue liking people who have been involved in wicked things. Bill Casey [Reagan’s CIA director and another old OSS comrade] is another example, though my friendship with Helms is considerably closer; [Henry] Kissinger, I guess, still another. Is this deplorable weakness? Or commendable tolerance?”
It’s a measure of Schlesinger’s decency that he could raise these painful, introspective questions. And it’s a sign of his weakness that he could never break with these “wicked” men.
In the 1990s, Schlesinger found himself dragged back into the Kennedy assassination swamp, with the release of Oliver Stone’s explosive 1991 movie, JFK, a fictional retelling of Garrison’s ill-fated investigation that proposed Kennedy was the victim of reactionary forces in his own government. On Halloween evening that year, Stone himself showed up at the door of Schlesinger’s New York apartment. The filmmaker had ignited a media uproar (stoked, in part, by the CIA’s reliable press allies), and Stone—looking for support in the Kennedy camp—was reaching out for Schlesinger’s support. The historian found the director “a charming, earnest man, but, I surmise, scarred into paranoia by his experience [as a soldier] in Vietnam and dangerously susceptible to conspiracy theories.”
In truth, Schlesinger had long been racked by his own doubts about the Warren Report. His second wife, Alexandra, firmly believed that JFK was the victim of a conspiracy, but to her endless frustration, Schlesinger evaded the tough question by declaringhimself an “agnostic” on the subject. As his son Andrew later observed, the historian simply didn’t have the “emotional resources” to confront the sordid facts surrounding the assassination.
Near the end of his life, when Schlesinger was weakened by Parkinson’s disease and withering away, Andrew asked him if there was one book he never wrote but wished that he had. His father got “a little agitated,” recalled Andrew. “He said he wished he’d written a book about the CIA. He felt the CIA was terribly corrupting our democracy. He emotionally was saying [this]. He believed until the end that the CIA was undermining our democracy.”