John McCone Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Reflections on a Life in Government Service: Conversation with John A. McCone; former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency; 1987-88 by Harry Kreisler

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The Kennedy Years

When President Kennedy brought you in to offer you a government job, were you surprised?

Sure. I was very much surprised. I never expected to serve in his administration in any capacity.

Were you surprised because you were a Republican?

Because I did not know Kennedy. And I did not know, except on handshake, any of the people who were in his administration. I made this report when the Soviets violated the test moratorium. I thought that was the end of it. Then he asked me to come in and see him, and he proposed to me that I become the director of Central Intelligence.

Was there anything special about the way he asked you?

Yes, very special. I had an appointment to see him in his office at noon. I was in Washington intending to fly to St. Louis to attend the board meeting of TWA. He asked if I could come in at six o'clock. And when I went in I was invited up to the living room on the second floor of the White House.

He acted very strangely because it turned out later that he knew that I was en route to New York on a very important business transaction. So gradually he got around to what he wanted to talk about, and he started off by saying, "You know, Mr. McCone, there are other things in the world more important than making money." And I said: "Yes, I assume that you're discussing this concerning this proposal that a certain corporation has made to buy my company.... If that's what is on your mind, I'm on my way to New York to tell the board of that corporation that my company is not for sale."

It seemed to have relieved him a great deal. He said, "What I would like you to do is to come into my administration as director of Central Intelligence."

This surprised me. I had no idea that he had any such thought in his mind. And I said: "Well, I'm deeply honored that you'd think of me in that distinguished capacity. Let me think about it, and I will see whether I can disassociate myself from some of my business activities and still take care of my organization and, most importantly, discuss the subject with my wife." So he gave me ten days or so to do that, ... and he said a very interesting thing. (I don't know whether I should put this on the record or not.) He said: "Now there are only four people besides [current director] Allen Dulles that know that we are having this discussion: Bob McNamara and his deputy Roswell Gilpatric, and Secretary [of State] Dean Rusk, and [Chairman of the Senate Atomic Energy Committee] Senator Clinton Anderson." And he said, "I don't want anybody else to know about it, because if these liberal s.o.b.'s that work in the basement of this building hear that I am talking to you about this, they'd destroy you before I can get you confirmed." It is quite interesting. So I didn't talk to anybody. I came out and talked to my wife about it, and we decided to go ahead and call him on the telephone.

What observations would you make about Kennedy as president?

He did not have enough time to really establish himself. He just had a hairline victory as you know, and he had a very difficult time with Congress because every congressman or senator would look at the vote and find out that in many districts they received more votes than Kennedy did, and therefore they didn't take the demands that he placed on them very seriously. In the months that he was in office he really did not get many programs that he had in mind off the ground.

I feel that history is going to record his greatest accomplishment as insisting upon the project of putting a man on the moon, and arranging the financing of that undertaking, which was successful and a great credit to him. He had to fight his way through his own bureaucracy and Congress to get the money appropriated, but he did it. It was an accomplishment that unfortunately he did not live to see accomplished.

Would our involvement in Vietnam have taken a different course if Kennedy had lived?

When Kennedy took office you will recall that he won the election because he claimed that the Eisenhower administration had been weak on communism and weak in the treatment of Castro and so forth. So the first thing Kennedy did was to send a couple of men to Vietnam to survey the situation. They came back with the recommendation that the military assistance group be increased from 800 to 25,000. That was the start of our involvement. Kennedy, I believe, realized he'd made a mistake because 25,000 U.S. military in a country such as South Vietnam means that the responsibility for the war flows to [the U.S. military] and out of the hands of the South Vietnamese. So Kennedy, in the weeks prior to his death, realized that we had gone overboard and actually was in the process of withdrawing when he was killed and Johnson took over.

So you really believe Kennedy would have made a difference?

Very much so.

Was his finest hour the Cuban Missile Crisis?

He handled the Cuban Missile Crisis with a great deal of skill in my opinion. He was determined that those missiles would not be a threat to the United States. He would destroy them and have them removed irrespective of the consequences, but he always insisted on a gradual approach giving Khrushchev the opportunity to back down, which he finally did. But in order to accomplish this objective, he had to design a plan which would not be so provocative that it would have involved us in a war with the Soviet Union.

Some examples of that were the fact that he proceeded day after day up to a point where he was told by the intelligence people that he had only forty-eight hours to get rid of the missiles or they'd be ready for action against the United States. Then he ordered the action, but in doing so informed the Soviets of what he was going to do, and they immediately withdrew. He did not place a blockade on Cuba because that would have been an act of war. So he devised a quarantine which had the same effect as a blockade, but it was not an act of war.

It was an indication of his cautious but determined approach. Looking back on it, I have great respect for him, for his judgment, in the way he handled that particular problem. Now there are a number of critics who will say that he missed an opportunity to get rid of Castro. But to do that would have required action and would have spilled a great deal of Soviet blood, because there were 16,000 Soviet military in Cuba at the time and they would have retaliated in a variety of ways -- taking over Berlin. There were countless opportunities for them. He was aware of that. So I believe he reached a very satisfactory answer. I think the critics did not evaluate the consequences of a different and more severe course of action had he decided upon it.

Do you think that our understanding of the Soviets behavior has held up through time?

I think that for a number of years the Soviets had suffered under the delusion of being attacked, and that we possessed access to property in their vicinity where we could place missiles that could do very, very serious damage to them. Italy, Turkey, England -- those are just three of the locations. And they had no real estate where they could place missiles that would damage us but could not be turned around to damage them. That was why they followed a policy of never deploying their short-range missiles in their satellites: they were never sure that the satellites wouldn't take the missiles away from their protective military people and turn them on Moscow.

Now Cuba was the first and the only piece of real estate where they had that luxury. Khrushchev wanted to take advantage of that. Well, I think he had other purposes, too. He thought he could sneak those missiles in in secrecy. Then he was to make a speech in two weeks in early November at the General Assembly of the United Nations, and he could announce that he had his guns trained on the United States and they couldn't do anything about it, which was quite immature. This is what I think now. There's just as many opinions as there are people you might speak to on the subject.

Secretary of State Rusk has revealed that President Kennedy would have been willing -- if Khrushchev had not given in sooner in the crisis -- to promise publicly to remove our missiles from Turkey. Do you have any comments on Rusk's revelation?

President Kennedy and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy insisted that they at no time discussed the missiles in either Italy or Turkey with any representatives of the Soviets and that there was no such deal ever made.

The Russians have alleged that Khrushchev was very concerned about a possible American invasion of Cuba. Do you have any thoughts on that Soviet claim?

Yes. He was concerned about an American invasion of Cuba for the reason that there were strong forces in the United States that wanted to get rid of Castro. As long as Castro was a loose card, and was moving continually in the direction of the Soviets and away from us, it became obvious to a great many people that there was danger there. And indeed there was.

You mentioned once that very early in the crisis you had a hunch that something was up.

I thought that a year or more before.

Why?

Because Cuba was the only piece of real estate that fell into the hands of the Soviets where they could put a nuclear missile, short-range or intermediate-range, that could reach the United States but would not reach the Soviet Union. Now, on the other hand, we could put missiles in England or Italy or Turkey or Greece that could reach the Soviet Union but could not reach us. I thought this even before I became associated with the CIA at all. I mentioned it to John Foster Dulles as a reason why he should tread cautiously about disassociating the United States from Castro. Whereas Castro obviously would turn to the Soviet Union, and it would give the Soviet Union access to a valuable piece of real estate. That was with me for a long time.

So it was a move you expected?

Yes. I didn't like to see possession of Cuba fall into the hands of the Soviets. Then when I saw these other actions -- this parade of ships from the Baltic in the North Sea heading toward Cuba, after the Soviets had equipped their 15,000 to 16,000 men with all the ordnance equipment that they needed to deploy surface-to-air missiles. Here is where I had to lean upon intuitive judgment, because I couldn't understand why these ships were coming unless they had missiles on them. Everything else was there. But that was an intuitive judgment. There was no hard intelligence because the missiles were on the ships, and an agent couldn't see them until they had been off-loaded.

How do you assess Kennedy's management of the crisis?

I thought the formulation of the Ex Com -- a committee made up of his principals, his secretary of state, defense, director of CIA, the executive director of NSC and one or two others -- was a good idea. And the attorney general, his brother, as well. It gave him an hour-by-hour opinion and suggestions from his advisors, and he met with them frequently day and night for those thirteen days in October. I think in doing so received the judgment of not only his own staff but many who were not associated with him such as Adlai Stevenson, who was Ambassador to the United Nations; Dean Acheson, retired as secretary of state; McCloy, Lovett, and others who came down to consult with the committee. It was a good organization, I think.

Any comments on the performances of any of the Ex Com members?

No. I think the Ex Com was the deliberation of a group, and I can think of no individual whose views stand out or were advanced that influenced the Ex Com, although all the members had strong views. And sometimes they'd have a strong view at five o'clock in the afternoon and change it entirely by nine o'clock the next morning, depending upon their thoughts and who they talked with, and so forth. I can recall a number of the members who did that for various reasons, but I won't mention it because it would be interpreted as a criticism.

What was your role in the Ex Com committee?

As far as I was concerned, I felt my responsibility as a member of the Ex Com was to keep that committee fully informed on intelligence matters as they surfaced from day to day, but I refrained as best I could from becoming an advocate of a policy, because if I became a champion of any one course of action or any particular cause, any intelligence reporting would be subject to question. I couldn't stay out of policy altogether, because when the discussion went on and I was asked my opinion, I'd have to give it. But I used to use a cliché: "This is beyond my competence, but here's what I think." That statement always provoked laughter.

Does this remain the number one thing in terms of historic importance of your contributions?

Well, it was important, but it was not important to the exclusion of a great many other problems -- our relationship with our allies and our appraisal of the Soviet threat. We had a continuous flow of information from various sources throughout the world, many of them of course being from agents in the Soviet Union, and many of those were very, very important.

What about the role of the attorney general?

The attorney general's intimate relationship with his brother was very useful to the president and his administration because the attorney general could be a conduit between the White House and the Soviet ambassador, for example, and the president would be confident that the attorney general, who was a very, very smart young man, would develop all the information that could be developed and would transmit it to the president without embellishment or distortion. And that was a very valuable relationship, and the president used it frequently.

We are told that Bobby Kennedy was concerned that we would be perceived in history as having launched a Pearl Harbor against Cuba. What do you think of his argument?

Well, the thought of the strongest nation in the world attacking a very small, relatively unarmed neighbor, in the opinion of the president and his advisors, would not go down well in history. One of the reasons, but only one of the reasons, why the president was so deliberate in reaching his decision was that he did not want history to carry that in his record. So he was only going to shoot first if it was absolutely necessary to do so. It doesn't relate in any way to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese struck when they had no threat whatsoever. So the two situations are in no way parallel.

What do you think is the most important lesson in the Cuban Missile Crisis?

That's a hard question to answer. I think that the senior people in the government from the president on down, and particularly the president's close advisors -- for instance, McNamara, Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy and some of the senior people in the Central Intelligence Agency -- should have been more alert to the possibility or probability that the Soviets were planning to put missiles in Cuba, but they would never accept that probability because the missiles hadn't actually arrived.

They would not accept the judgments that I had espoused at several meetings: that there was no explanation for the shipping that was going on in the Baltic and the North Sea to Cuba other than the fact that they in all probability were carrying missiles. Nobody had seen the missiles because they weren't there. They were still on the water, and here were a dozen ships or so on the way in order to give them the surface-to-air missiles. Fifteen or sixteen thousand men had been delivered with all their ordnance guns and tanks, and so forth so there was no compelling reason to send shiploads of material duplicating what was already there. It seemed to me that judgment alone would dictate the fact that there was something more that was coming ... and what could it be?

This was the position I took, and I preached it to everybody, but nobody listened. Although they were warned of the possibility, it was a judgment factor. One thing about a professional intelligence analyst is that he deals with known facts in his analytical processes. He does not deal with intuition or judgment factors. But not being a professional intelligence officer, I was dealing with intuition and judgment which you often use in business. But I was a loner.

In the Senate, Senator Keating was charging that there was a problem [missiles in Cuba]. What led to the turnaround on the president's part?

Well, he never changed -- the president and his advisors never changed until they saw the pictures. That's what changed them.

When they saw the missiles there?

Yes, when they saw the missiles there. As far as Senator Keating was concerned, he was just using an Irishman's intuition. He had no information whatsoever. I went to him a number of times -- I went to him twice to find out his sources, and he would not reveal them. I dined with him in Paris shortly before he died, and I asked him a question of what his sources were and he wouldn't tell me then. So I didn't think he had any sources.

Now there was some gossip that he had a source through the labor unions, but we traced that down very carefully. We were sure that there was no information coming to him through that source. Our agency, the CIA, was in very close touch with the labor unions in Cuba, and our agents in Russia were quite familiar with what was loaded on their own ships and had no information. Our informers on the Baltic and Black Seas had no information. I think Keating was kind of shouting "wolf." It was very embarrassing to me because here I was a Republican in a Democratic administration. Keating was also a Republican, so some in the Kennedy hierarchy thought that this was an arrangement between Keating and myself and I was actually accused of that by somebody, but I was sure that no such communication took place.

For Kennedy and Khrushchev, what made the difference in resolving the crisis?

Well, I don't know what Khrushchev thought, but I do know that Kennedy feared that there would be some short-range missiles or intermediate-range missiles in Cuba that would have the capability of destroying any point in the United States east of the Mississippi River, and he was determined not to let that happen, and to take such steps as were necessary to see that it did not happen. He was determined to give Khrushchev an escape hatch so that he could back away, which he did. Now what was in Khrushchev's mind, nobody knows. But I disagree wholeheartedly with some, particularly Secretary McNamara, who said that missiles didn't make any difference. They had 500 warheads that could strike the United States and they had 50 of them in Cuba. What difference does that make? Well, it makes a great deal of difference.

Was it the political consequence of a successful placement of missiles in Cuba?

No, the difference is this: that if a missile was fired from Cuba and struck Washington, let's say, then in the long pages of history that action was plausibly deniable by the Soviets as an event that they had nothing to do with -- that it was done by the Cubans. Now if a missile were fired from Russia itself and destroyed Washington, they would have no such denial. That's a very important difference.

You became Director of the CIA shortly after the Bay of Pigs invasion. What was the intelligence failure in the Bay of Pigs?

Well, the intelligence failure was in the procedures followed by the intelligence community, by the CIA. There was a high degree of compartmentalization, so the planners that planned the Bay of Pigs operation actually were not in consultation with the analysts who knew the true position of the Cuban army and the Cuban people. As a consequence, the invasion by the trained brigade was sent over on the assumption by the planners that the Cuban army and Cuban people would embrace them in freeing them from the domination of Castro.

Actually, the Cubans were not emotionally prepared to turn their back on Castro.... A post-mortem indicated that had the planning succeeded and all the ships gone to shore with their equipment and their manpower and so forth, the conflict would have lasted for three to four weeks rather than three days. And had the operators for the CIA called in two or three of the analysts who were feeling the pulse of the Cuban people and the Cuban military, they would have advised against the invasion, but they didn't call them in. Kind of like sending a salesman out to sell a job, with no check or balance on the price. The Bay of Pigs told me that any covert operation must be examined not only by the men that are planning it, but by a separate group of analysts that could evaluate the prospect of success and assess whether the political temperature was favorable. So I insisted then, and to this day, that any covert operations must have a group in power, small to be sure, analyzing the prospects of its success.

You have to keep everything in balance. You do this normally in business, but in the traditional way of intelligence operators, they keep it just as compartmentalized as they can to keep it secret.... But too much compartmentalization makes for trouble and for mistakes in judgment. I think that was one of the biggest changes that I made in the functioning of the CIA, and that is a practice that is still followed.

Was this compartmentalization something built into the organization?

It was built into the tradition of the art of intelligence.

When you were brought in to reorganize the agency, what did you set about doing?

Well, I insisted that on any sensitive covert operation or paramilitary operation, of which there were many, that in addition to the planners and operators that were conducting the operation, that they have a couple of analysts who would look the thing over and say this won't work because [for example] the people in Cuba don't want these Harvard-trained Cubans to come in and take over, or the military are not prepared to rebel against Castro at this point.

The record of the Church Committee suggests that the Kennedys were very focused on doing something about Castro. Any comments on that record?

Well, you don't have to go to the Church Committee. A11 you have to do is go to the campaign that President Kennedy used when he was getting elected. He was campaigning against Nixon on the basis that the Eisenhower administration, in which Nixon was the vice-president, had been soft on Castro, and had been soft on communism elsewhere. So this was carrying out his campaign pledge to do something about Castro and Cuba.

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