Hardway on Dulles, RFK and the creation of the Warren Commission

Dan Hardway

Dan Hardway

In response to Phil Shenon’s article on the CIA’s JFK cover-up in Politico magazine, David Talbot disputed the claim that Robert Kennedy was responsible for Allen Dulles being on the Warren Commission.

Shenon responded in a letter to JFK Facts on October 14.

I would like to point out a couple of additional reasons to reject the idea of RFK being behind Dulles’ appointment to the Warren Commission.

As David says, this story’s first public appearance was in LBJ’s memoirs as an unsupported allegation. (The Vantage Point, p. 27.) An earlier telephone transcript of a telephone call between LBJ and Abe Fortas, in December of 1966, has Johnson saying “We even asked the Attorney General to name people he wanted. He recommended people like Allen Dulles and John McCloy.”

The context of the conversation, however, is about countering criticism of the President that they think may be coming from Nicholas Katzenbach, President Johnson is telling Fortas that he needs to talk to Katzenbach and telling him what to say to him. In short, context is LBJ and RFK’s continuing animosity.

(Click here to to hear the recording of the conversation.)

It should be noted that no one who was close to Robert Kennedy has ever confirmed his input into the selection of the members of the Warren Commission, let alone his recommendation of Allen Dulles and John J. McCloy.

Looking at the evidence

Only one contemporaneous document can be cited to supporting that assertion. The document is a Memorandum from Walter Jenkins, LBJ’s top administrative assistant who had worked for him since 1939. The brief memo is dated  November 29, 1963. It reports: “Abe [Fortas] has talked with Katzenbach and Katzenbach has talked to the Attorney General. They recommend a seven man commission – two Senators, two Congressmen, the Chief Justice, Allen Dulles, and a retired Military Man….”

Dulles TIMEA hand written note at the bottom of the page says “orig. not sent to files.” The memo also bears the a stamp that indicates it was received by Central Files on April 20, 1965.

It is unlikely that this document could ever be used as evidence on several grounds. The statement that RFK approved Dulles is, at best triple hearsay – allegedly, RFK told Katzenbach who told Fortas who told Jenkins who wrote the memo.

The document also does not bear standard indicia of credibility in that, as it notes, the original was not preserved in the normal course of business, and a copy was not recorded until seventeen months after the original had been written. The memo asks LBJ to respond to three questions. I have not been able to find a copy of any response.

What J. Edgar Hoover said

Interestingly enough, LBJ also met with J. Edgar Hoover on November 29, 1963, at 1:39 p.m. They discussed the composition of the Commission Johnson was considering, as Hoover reported in a memorandum:
“ He then indicated the only way to stop it is to appoint a high-level committee to evaluate my report and tell the House and Senate not to go ahead with the investigation. I stated that would be a three-ring circus.
“The President then asked what I think about Allen Dulles, and I replied that he is a good man. He then asked about John McCloy, and I stated I am not as enthusiastic about McCloy, that he is a good man but I am not so certain as to the matter of publicity he might want. The President then mentioned General (Lauris) Norstad, and I said he is a
good man. He said in the House he might try (Hale) Boggs and (Gerald.) Ford and in the Senate (Richard B.) Russell and (John Sherman) Cooper. I asked him about Cooper and he indicated Cooper of Kentucky whom he described as a judicial man, stating he would not want (Jacob K.) Javits. I agreed on this point. He then reiterated Ford of Michigan, and I indicated I know of him but do not know him and had never seen him except on television the other day and that he handled himself well on television. I indicated that I do know Boggs.”
There was no discussion here of the Attorney General nor of any recommendations he may have made. They went on to discuss other matters, including some discussion of the Attorney General, but did not discuss anything about the Attorney General and his alleged suggestions regarding the composition of the Commission.

Dulles and  RFK talk about Mississippi

JFK Facs has also published another recorded telephone call between LBJ, RFK and Allen Dulles on June 23, 1964.

This is truly a remarkable, fascinating conversation, especially considering the strained relationships between RFK and LBJ and RFK and Dulles. Those considerations make some of the conversation’s subtleties ambiguous at best. Of particular note are the references to the Warren Commission and its on-going work:
At 5:23, Dulles says to RFK:

RFK

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy

“What is the timing on this? (The proposed Dulles trip to Mississippi). I’m on this other Commission you know, and we are trying to finish up our work, you know, and I wouldn’t want the Chief Justice to think I’d run out on him.”

Is he concerned that this is a move by RFK to get him less involved in the final deliberations of the Committee? Missing a perfect opportunity to remind RFK that he is on the WC by his nomination, Dulles here says nothing about it.

Note the chronological proximity of this assignment to the  Warren Commission’s executive session of June 29, 1964, which followed not long after the Executive Sessions in may where the remarkable conversations about the possibility of LHO being a government asset happened. Dulles was present at the meeting, apparently arriving back in D.C. from Mississippi in the early morning hours of June 26, 1964, as seen in this YouTube video

At 7:03 Dulles asks RFK, “Why did you pick me for this?”

“Because I know you,” RFK responds,

Dulles responds with a long hearty laugh, adding, “I’ve been a little mad at you, you know, oh a little bit on this Bay of Pigs book, but I might forget that very easily.(laughing)”

RFK: “Well, anyway…”

Dulles: “I don’t stay angry long.”

RFK: “Fine.”

Kennedy then turns the conversation back to Mississippi. You can hear the irritation in RFK’s voice at this point. He never joins Dulles’s laughing. “This Bay of Pigs book” that Dulles refers to was, most likely, Haynes Johnson’s The Bay of Pigs: The Leaders’ Story of Brigade 2506, which was published in May, 1964– the month before this conversation.

Given the long prior relationship between RFK and Haynes Johnson, Dulles may have considered the book to be part of his ongoing propaganda battle with RFK over the Bay of Pigs that started with the post-invasion press maneuvering and the Taylor Commission. It is another indication of continued antagonism between RFK and Dulles, further weakening the case for believing that RFK would have nominated Dulles to serve on the Commission charged with investigating his brother’s murder.

At 8:43, Dulles to LBJ, “You remember that I’m on this, that you put me on this Commission that I’m working on with the Chief Justice and the others… and that is reaching a point where I would not want to neglect that work…for anything.”

The ellipses represent LBJ interjections of affirmation and understanding. Johnson then assures him that he will have access to a presidential jet and that he would be going down to Mississippi and back very quickly.

The most remarkable thing about the conversation is that nothing is said about RFK involvement in selecting Dulles for the Warren Commission. When talking to RFK, Dulles did not say anything about serving on the Commission at his request or nomination. In speaking with LBJ, he points out that he is serving on the Commission by LBJ’s appointment, but does not say anything to him about his appointment being in any way connected with RFK.

Also, the exchange between Dulles and RFK, quoted above would seem to indicate that the relationship between the two men was, even at this point, strained at best. You have to hear the voice tones to really appreciate this. And this context, at the 2:00 minute mark, Dulles opening his conversation with RFK by expressing his condolences about, apparently, Ted Kennedy’s illness, is downright strange.

Warren Commission

The Warren Commission issued its report in September 1964

Over all, the predominant subtext seems to be that Dulles’s main concern is that this is designed to divert him from his involvement with the Warren Commission’s final deliberations. Hence, the need to reassure him of the minimal role he is to have in Mississippi, the expeditious travel arrangements, and the time assurances.

From the LBJ/RFK side, it is apparent that they have agreed in advance to ask Dulles to do this. But, on the other hand, there is absolutely nothing in this conversation to indicate that they had agreed previously on his appointment to the Warren Commission by LBJ. Indeed, listening to the whole conversation, especially that between RFK and Dulles about the reason for his selection to go to Mississippi strongly militates against believing that RFK had been involved in Dulles appointment to the Commission.

But don’t take my word for it, listen to the conversation yourself here..

Talbot comments

“This is indeed a fascinating conversation, which I’m just now absorbing,” Talbot told me. ” I completely agree with your analysis. I would add how unnerving it is to hear Dulles tell Bobby how sorry he was about his brother (meaning Teddy, of course, not JFK…but still).

“I would also add this as general context: At this point in his life, Bobby is still in major turmoil and uncertain of how to proceed in his political career. He suspects the assassination came from within the CIA’s plot against Castro, but he probably hasn’t focused on Dulles yet, who after all was supposedly out of the CIA by the time of the assassination. (RFK was likely unaware of the extent to which Dulles was STILL involved with CIA affairs, as I report in my new book.) A

nd Bobby, though he and LBJ hated each other, was still figuring out whether he should stay in the Johnson administration — and even had hopes that Johnson would pick him as his running mate in ’64. This conversation about Mississippi took place in June of that year, while Bobby didn’t announce for the Senate until Aug. 25, after Johnson had made clear he would not pick him.

So everything is up in the air for Bobby at this stage.

“The one thing he remained focused on during this period as attorney general was civil rights, since he knew that would be a big part of his brother’s and his legacy. And my guess is Bobby thought that by sending a heavyweight like the former director of the CIA down to Mississippi would put the fear of God in the locals. At this point, they hadn’t even found the bodies of the young civil rights workers, and I’m sure RFK wanted to send a strong message to the governor et al that they better cooperate if they knew what was good for them.

“Despite Dulles’s concerns about being pulled away from his Warren Commission work, Bobby clearly had no respect or concern for that (he knew by then it was going to be a whitewash.) I doubt that sending Dulles to Miss was an attempt to deflect him from his commission work (since he was only going to be gone a couple of days). But it certainly showed that RFK considered this civil rights crisis more important than whatever Dulles was doing on the commission, whose conclusions RFK regarded as foregone.

“And finally, yes, I find the uncomfortable little exchange about “the Bay of Pigs book” very telling. The ideological battle over the telling of the Bay of Pigs story remained a huge point of contention between the Dulles and Kennedy camps. Dulles clearly hated the Haynes Johnson book (Johnson in fact told me he was the target of CIA spleen after the book came out). And he was so disturbed by the way Schlesinger and Sorensen wrote about the Bay of PIgs–(as a fast one pulled on JFK by the CIA–the following year, that he put a great effort into telling his version of the operation in an article for Harpers (which he finally abandoned).

“Dulles clearly knew that Haynes Johnson was a Kennedy confidante and his book reflected that. Here, in this conversation, Dulles tries to laugh off the fact that “I’ve been a little made at you on this Bay of Pigs book.”

“But, he goes on to say, I don’t stay mad long. Hah! This was a man who nursed grudges long and hard and never forgot them. RFK’s response to Dulles is terse and equally telling. He knows the subject is a minefield and he moves swiftly on.

LBJ and Dulles
Another relevant taped conversation is the call President Johnson made to Dulles on November 29, 1963, to advise him that he would be on the Commission. This is one of the shortest calls that LBJ had to make to the potential members of the Commission. Unlike others who were reluctant to serve, Dulles expressed no reluctance, the call only lasted approximately a minute and thirty or so seconds, but Johnson appears to try to repeat the arguments he made to others anyway.Neither Dulles nor LBJ mention Robert Kennedy or his possible involvement in Dulles selection.

The conversation opens with LBJ apologetically advising Dulles:

LBJ

President Lyndon Johnson works the phones.

I have some unpleasant news for you.” Dulles says,

“Yes.” LBJ goes on, “We are going to name very shortly a presidential commission made up of seven people … as a study group to go into this FBI report … in connection with the assassination of our beloved friend, and you’ve got to go on that for me.”

Dulles responds, “Because I can really serve you,”

“I know you can,”LBJ interrupts. “II know you can, not any doubt about it. Just get ready now to go in there and do a good job. America’s got to be united in this hour.”

At this point the tape becomes somewhat garbled and hard to understand as Dulles says something about his “previous job.” LBJ’s response is  garbled as well but he can be heard to say “you always do a good job as I found out long ago.”

Dulles, in raising his previous job, is expressing a concern that his service as the director of the CIA would disqualify him from service on the commission. Many consider that he did so based on a concern that it could serve as a basis for adverse propaganda. On the other hand, it could be that he knew, especially considering the circumstances of his departure from the job, that he had a serious conflict of interest that should prevent his serving. The nature of the basis of his concern is not apparent from the conversation. No one at the time, however, raised Dulles apparent conflict of interest.
Is there a countervailing theory as to how Dulles got on the Warren Commission? In his book, Brothers, David Talbot says that Allen Dulles lobbied to be appointed to the Warren Commission.
David Talbot returned to this issue in his recently published book, The Devil’s Chessboard:
“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.

Kurtz’s characterization of the motivations behind LBJ appointing Dulles to the commission is given some support from statements made in Robarge’s article on McCone as reported by Shenon

Robarge wrote that  while there is “[n]o documentary evidence indicat[ing] whether McCone ordered the circumscribed approach [to providing the Warren Commission information] on his own or at the White House’s behest …. the DCI [McCone] shared the administration’s interest in avoiding disclosures about covert actions that would circumstantially implicate CIA in conspiracy theories and possibly lead to calls for a tough US response against the perpetrators of the assassination.” [Emphasis added.]

Unfortunately, Robarge does not say where he found the expression of the administration’s interest, or how it was expressed or communicated. He just rules out it being done in a documented order from the White House.

Later, in the same article, he says, “McCone and Dulles both wanted to draw attention away from CIA and encourage endorsement of the FBI’s conclusion soon after the assassination that a lone gunman, uninvolved in a conspiracy, had killed John Kennedy. The DCI could rest assured that his predecessor would keep a dutiful watch over Agency equities and work to keep the commission from pursuing provocative lines of investigation….”

Indeed, in keeping with the interests they shared with the Johnson administration. Dulles proved true to his comment to LBJ on November 29, 1963, the he could really serve him. He, indeed, very effectively protected the administration and the CIA’s interest in preventing a real investigation of the murder.

There is evidence that RFK’s deputy at the Justice Department, Nicholas Katzenbach, was lobbying for the appointment of a Presidential Commission. Early after the assassination, LBJ was expressing a desire for a Texas Court of Inquiry to handle the investigation into the assassination. It appears that the idea for a Presidential commission came from Washington pundits, such as the CIA connected Joseph Alsop, and from Nicholas Katzenbach.

Katzenbach’s interest in such a commission was first expressed by J. Edgar Hoover in a call to Walter Jenkins on November 24. That same day, Eugene Rostow, Dean of Yale Law School, called Bill Moyers and reported the same thing. On November 25, Katzenbach delivered his famous memo on the subject to Bill Moyers. It is this memo that begins:
“It is important that all of the facts surrounding President Kennedy’s Assassination be made public in a way which will satisfy people in the United States and abroad that all the facts have been told and that a statement to this effect be made now.
“1. The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial.”

These actions on Katzenbach’s part, taken while RFK was largely incapacitated by his grief in the days immediately following the assassination, do not lend substantial credence to the idea that RFK nominated McCloy and Dulles to serve on the commission. Indeed, there is no mention of such a nomination in any of the contemporaneous documentation presently available on Katzenbach’s activities.

In view of all this, it is my opinion that there is no sufficient proof that RFK had anything to do with Allen Dulles being on the Warren Commission.

2 comments

  1. Aditya says:

    Great analysis and refutation

  2. J.D. says:

    According to Robert Caro’s “The Passage of Power,” when LBJ asked Richard Russell to serve on the Warren Commission, this transpired:

    “During the call, Russell asked Johnson, ‘Now you [are] going to let the Attorney General nominate someone, aren’t you?’ Johnson’s reply was ‘No, uh-uh,’ although, of course, he not only had asked Robert Kennedy to nominate someone, but had already accepted both his nominees, Dulles and McCloy.” (pp. 445)

    Caro’s source for the idea that LBJ allowed RFK to nominate anyone to the Commission is an unpublished manuscript from 1969 called “The Reminiscences of Lyndon B. Johnson.” (pp. 679) This, rather than LBJ’s memoirs (published in 1971), appears to be the first time that LBJ made this claim.

    Whatever really happened, it’s interesting to note that LBJ initially denied that he had allowed RFK to nominate anyone. He would not claim otherwise until after RFK’s death.

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