What possible connection could there have been between George H.W. Bush and the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Or between the C.I.A. and the assassination? Or between Bush and the C.I.A.? For some people, apparently, making such connections was as dangerous as letting one live wire touch another. Here, in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination in November, is the seventh part of a ten-part series of excerpts from WhoWhatWhy editor Russ Baker’s bestseller, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years. The story is a real-life thriller.
Note: Although these excerpts do not contain footnotes, the book itself is heavily footnoted and exhaustively sourced. (The excerpts in Part 7 come from Chapter 6 of the book, and the titles and subtitles have been changed for this publication.)
Little is Ever What it Seems
The evidence was mounting that Poppy Bush was not the genial bumbler the public remembered – the bland fellow in the turtleneck who drove a golf cart around Kennebunkport and could never make up his mind.
Apparently Poppy had secrets, and he kept them well. It seems that he had been involved in intelligence work for much of his adult life. He had been in and around hot spots of covert action. And in the fall of 1963, he had for some unfathomable reason been worried that someone would discover he had been in Dallas on the evening of November 21 and seemingly the morning of November 22.
As far as I knew, he had attended the oilmen’s meeting and then left for Tyler. Why hide that fact?
One obvious reason is that no one with any political ambition would want to be associated in the public’s mind with the events in Dallas on November 22, 1963. But in that case, what does it say about Poppy that his first instinct was to create an elaborate cover story to airbrush away an inconvenient fact?
It is theoretically possible, of course, that there was something totally apart from the assassination he didn’t want known. But given his documented intelligence ties and the fact that figures close to him were connected to the event, the likelihood that his attempt to distance himself from Dallas on November 22 was unrelated to the tragedy of that day seems low.
In the absence of any plausible alternative explanation, I found the possibility that George H. W. Bush himself was somehow linked to the events in Dallas worth pursuing, as a working hypothesis at least. Among the material I had to consider was that memo from J. Edgar Hoover referring to a briefing given to “George Bush of the CIA” on the day after the assassination. I also had to take into account the visit from England that week by Al Ulmer, the CIA coup expert – and that Ulmer had spent time with Poppy. There were still more disturbing facts, perhaps all coincidental, which I gathered and which will be presented below and in the next chapter.
Still, I was unsure how to proceed. I was well aware of the perils of even touching the assassination topic, and as a journalist with a reputation to protect, I naturally had reservations. I wasn’t eager to be dismissed as gullible or self-aggrandizing or downright wacky – as I know so often happens to people (sometimes justifiably) who tackle such topics, unless they advance the conventional wisdom or simply point to the “unsolved mysteries” that haunt historians. But I knew I should not, and really could not ignore what I was finding.
So I stepped back. Examining the circle around Bush, I could see it was full of people who had grievances – personal, political, or economic – against Kennedy, and whether or not they wanted him out of the way, who clearly were advantaged by his death.
After the Bay of Pigs disaster, JFK had been blunt about his feelings toward the intelligence elite that had concocted the Cuban scheme. “I’ve got to do something about those CIA bastards,” he had raged. Heads had rolled, and Allen Dulles, the Bushes’ close friend, was still smarting over his firing. So was Charles Cabell, the brother of Dallas mayor Earle Cabell and the CIA’s deputy director of operations during the Bay of Pigs invasion; Kennedy deep-sixed his career. Also holding a grudge against the Kennedys was Prescott Bush, who was furious at both JFK and RFK for sacking his close friend Dulles. And there were many others.
The downside of dissembling is that it invites curiosity and the inevitable question: What exactly is the dissembler trying to hide? Poppy Bush went to such lengths, even raising distracting suspicions about a regular volunteer for his Harris County Republican organization and frequent presence in its offices that I felt there had to be more to the story. In Poppy’s book-length collection of correspondence, All the Best, George Bush, there are no letters in the relevant time frame even mentioning the JFK assassination. Remarkably for a Texan, and an aspiring Texas politician of that era, Bush has apparently never written anything about the assassination. This applies even to his anemic memoir, Looking Forward, in which he mentions Kennedy’s visit to Dallas but not what happened to him there. Once I began to piece together the scattered clues to what might be the true narrative, I realized that Poppy’s resort to crafty evasions and multilayered cover stories in this incident seemed to fit a pattern in his life. Over and over, those seeking to nail down the facts about George H. W. Bush’s doings encounter what might be characterized as a sustained fuzziness; what appear at first glance to be unexceptionable details turn out, on closer examination, to be potentially important facts that slip away into confusion and deniability. Little is ever what it seems.
To get a better idea of what happened on November 22 requires a detour, not so much away from Poppy but rather into the spider’s web of connections around him. We start with motive.
How to Win Enemies and Influence People
By the fall of 1963, the Kennedy brothers had made enough enemies to fill an old hotel full of suspects in an Agatha Christie mystery.
There were the many powerful figures under investigation by RFK’s Justice Department, and untold numbers of movers and shakers who felt slighted or humiliated by other Kennedy maneuvers. Jack’s insistence on Allen Dulles’s resignation following the Bay of Pigs debacle was in effect a declaration of independence from the Wall Street intelligence nexus that had pretty much had its way in the previous administration. Like FDR, JFK was considered a traitor to his own class. Also like FDR, he had the charm and political savvy to get away with it. With his wealthy scoundrel of a father in his corner, he could not be bought or controlled.
And of course there was the Mafia, which was desperately attempting to recoup its huge losses after Castro shut down their casinos and exiled or imprisoned leading Mafiosi. After Castro announced in December 1959 that he was a Communist, the CIA recognized its newly found common cause with the underworld and solicited the services of several mobsters, in what became the notorious CIA-Mafia plots against JFK. There was motive aplenty: Attorney General Robert Kennedy relentlessly pursued the mob-tied Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa and a long list of underworld figures.
Then, too, many prominent people nursed more private grievances. For one thing, Jack Kennedy could not keep his pants on. He thought nothing of romancing the wives and girlfriends of the powerful. The FBI tracked many affairs during JFK’s brief time in office, but then J. Edgar Hoover was no fan of the Kennedys either.
And there were the Cuban exiles who blamed the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion on President Kennedy rather than on its overseer, the CIA’s Allen Dulles.
”A warning to the generals”
Kennedy had campaigned on promises to increase the military’s conventional arms budget in order to fight guerilla wars. But he became increasingly wary of the nation’s war machine, especially after the Cuban missile crisis. During those tense days, as the nation seemed to drift toward nuclear confrontation, and his military advisers pushed for a preemptive first strike against the missile sites in Cuba, Kennedy had turned to his adviser Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and said, “The military are mad.” He preferred a negotiated solution for getting the missiles out of Cuba, and he and Khrushchev eventually reached one. This gained them world-wide praise, but it exacerbated tensions for both men with hard-liners in their own countries.
President Kennedy was aware that the Pentagon was deeply concerned about his policies. After reading Seven Days in May, a novel about a coup by U.S. armed forces against a president seen as an appeaser, he convinced John Frankenheimer to make it into a movie. JFK even offered the director a prime shooting location outside the White House – in spite of vociferous objections from the Pentagon. “Kennedy wanted Seven Days in May made as a warning to the generals,” said Arthur Schlesinger.
President Kennedy also alienated critics over Indochina. Historians still debate JFK’s long-term plans regarding troop levels there, but he clearly worried about a looming quagmire. Here, too, the lessons of the Bay of Pigs applied: the United States could not win without the support of the local populace. Anti-Communist hawks were skeptical of Kennedy’s motives. Some even issued preemptive warnings: “If Jack turns soft on communism, Time will cut his throat,” said Henry Luce, the magazine’s publisher, and a friend of Prescott Bush and fellow Bonesman.
Kennedy’s economic policies were drawing additional heat. In Latin America, for example, he antagonized American businessmen, including Nelson Rockefeller, when he interfered with their oil and mineral plans in Brazil’s vast Amazon basin. “Those robbing bastards,” JFK told Walter Heller, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, when Heller mentioned the oil and gas industry. “I’m going to murder them.”
On June 10, 1963, in a speech at American University in Washington, D.C., the president took a direct shot at the military-industrial complex by announcing support for the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited aboveground and underwater nuclear weapons tests. Kennedy had been stunned to learn of the human cost of radioactive fallout. “You mean it’s the rain out there?” he had asked a nuclear adviser while watching rain fall outside the Oval Office.
But the nuclear arms race was another bonanza for business – uranium-mining operations in particular. These constituted a growing share of earnings for the oil exploration and resource extraction industry. (Decades later, the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney administration would pull the United States out of the treaty regime that had begun with the Test Ban Treaty. This would be just one of many instances in which the younger Bush fulfilled objectives long harbored by Kennedy’s right-wing enemies.)
Texas had been the center of the uranium-mining industry since the 1920s. After World War II, defense contractors had expanded rapidly there as well, especially in Dallas. The place was thick with people who had serious problems with the Kennedy administration, in terms of both ideology and business interests. It was a combustible mix.
Old Boys, New Money
In the early 1960s, Dallas was not the shining example of administrative efficiency its boosters sought to protect. It was more like New Orleans – spectacularly corrupt, and with forceful elements, from the genteel to the unwashed, jockeying for power. The police force included KKK members and habitués of gangster redoubts such as Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club. Yet Dallas also was a growing bastion of new money and corporate clout, a center of the domestic oil industry, along with a heavy clustering of defense contractors and military bases. Texas was in a sense a feisty breakaway republic with a complicit colony of transplants from the Eastern Establishment. Texas oil riches and Eastern entitlement, combined with the mix of intelligence and defense, gave rise to an atmosphere of intrigue. The established energy giants had long relied on corporate covert operations to help maintain their far-flung oil empires. Now independent producers and refiners were getting into this game as well; and the mind-set tended to spill over into politics. A 1964 New York Times article reported on a group of businessmen who had formed “an invisible government . . . [that ran] Dallas without an electoral mandate.” The group was powerful and confident enough that it essentially advertised the fact that anyone seeking project approval should come to it, rather than the official government agencies. Politically, the members of this new establishment “begin with the very conservative and range rightward,” the Times added.
The Kennedys understood the political importance of Dallas, and of Texas in general. They chose Lyndon Johnson, a fierce competitor for the nomination in 1960, to be Jack’s vice president because they needed Southern, in particular Texan, votes. After the election, they appointed Texans, like John Connally, a lawyer representing oil interests, to be secretary of the Navy, and George McGhee, the son-in-law of Everette DeGolyer, the legendary oil industry figure, as deputy secretary of state. But political accommodation does not necessarily bring affection. Dallas still was not a friendly place for JFK.
Prominent within the group of transplants from the Eastern Establishment was Poppy Bush. As the son of a powerful Connecticut senator, he was unusually well connected, and both ingratiating and indefatigable. While Prescott Bush and Allen Dulles remained anchored in the East, Poppy and “Uncle” Neil Mallon had done well in Houston and Dallas, respectively. Mallon nurtured the de facto power structure emerging in Dallas, most of which worked out of one particular Dallas high-rise, the Republic National Bank Building. A Kennedy rally would not have attracted many people from there, and not for reasons of ideology alone.
If Jack Kennedy angered people accustomed to being treated with deference by mere officeholders, his brother Bobby turned them apoplectic. Where Jack was charming, Bobby was blunt. Where Jack was cautious, Bobby was aggressive. Bobby’s innumerable investigations into fraud and corruption among military contractors, politicians, and corporate eminences – including a Greek shipping magnate named Aristotle Onassis – made many enemies. His determination to take on organized crime angered FBI director Hoover, who had long-standing friendships with mob associates and enjoyed spending time at resorts and racetracks in the company of these individuals. Hoover routinely bypassed the Kennedys and dealt with Vice President Johnson instead. In fact, the Kennedys were hoping that after the 1964 election, they would have the clout to finally retire Hoover, who had headed the FBI since its inception four decades before.
Allowance for Greed
President Kennedy demonstrated his willingness to buck big money during the “steel crisis” of April 1962, when he forced a price rollback by sending FBI agents into corporate offices. But Kennedy’s gutsiest – and arguably his most dangerous – domestic initiative was his administration’s crusade against the oil depletion allowance, the tax break that swelled uncounted oil fortunes. It gave oil companies a large and automatic deduction, regardless of their actual costs, as compensation for dwindling assets in the ground. Robert Kennedy instructed the FBI to issue questionnaires, asking the oil companies for specific production and sales data.
The oil industry – in particular, the more financially vulnerable Dallas-based independents – did not welcome this intrusion. The trade publication Oil and Gas Journal charged that RFK was setting up a “battleground [on which] business and government will collide.” FBI director Hoover expressed his own reservations, especially about the use of his agents to gather information in the matter. Hoover’s close relationship with the oil industry was part of the oil-intelligence link he shared with Dulles and the CIA. Industry big shots weren’t just sources; they were clients and friends. And Hoover’s FBI was known for returning favors.
One of Hoover’s good friends, the ultrarich Texas oilman Clint Murchison Sr., was among the most aggressive players in the depletion allowance dispute. Murchison had been exposed as far back as the early 1950s – in Luce’s Time magazine no less – as epitomizing the absurdity of this give-away to the rich and powerful. Another strong defender of the allowance was Democratic senator Robert Kerr of Oklahoma, the multimillionaire owner of the Kerr-McGee oil company. So friendly was he with his Republican colleague Prescott Bush that when Poppy Bush was starting up his Zapata Offshore operation, Kerr offered some of his own executives to help. Several of them even left Kerr’s company to become Bush’s top executives.
Kerr today is almost completely forgotten, except perhaps in his native Oklahoma. But he was for decades one of the most powerful men in American politics. He played a significant role in the career of Harry S. Truman, with whom he shared early roots as a fellow Freemason and member of the militaristic American Legion. Although the former haberdasher would publicly exhibit some independence, he often buckled privately to Kerr and his like-minded friends. One example was Truman’s decision to create the nation’s first true peacetime spy apparatus, which eventually became the Central Intelligence Agency.
Kerr-McGee was also the nation’s leading producer of uranium, and profited handsomely from the arms race. Even among a cutthroat Washington crowd, Robert Kerr’s vicious side stood out – and he did not much like the Kennedys. As an old friend and mentor to LBJ, Kerr had been so angry on learning that Johnson had accepted the number-two spot under Jack Kennedy that he was ready to start shooting. Wheeling on Johnson, his wife, Lady Bird, and Johnson aide Bobby Baker, Kerr yelled: “Get me my .38. I’m gonna kill every damn one of you. I can’t believe that my three best friends would betray me.”
Jack vs. Lyndon
Lyndon Johnson shared in the prevailing oil belt enmity toward Kennedy. In fact, he was the one person in the White House the oilmen trusted. The Kennedys, for their part, had never like LBJ – he had run hard against Jack in the 1960 primaries. They asked him to be Jack’s running mate for political purposes alone. Within a year of the inauguration, there was already talk of dumping him in 1964. RFK, in particular, detested Johnson, and the feeling was mutual. RFK’s investigations of military contractors in Texas increasingly pointed towards a network of corruption that might well lead back to LBJ himself. According to presidential historian Robert Dallek,
[RFK] closely followed the Justice Department’s investigation, including inquiries into Johnson’s possible part in Baker’s corrupt dealings. Despite wrongdoing on Baker’s part that would eventually send him to prison, Johnson believed that Bobby Kennedy instigated the investigation in hopes of finding something that could knock him off the ticket in 1964.
LBJ had numerous connections with the Bushes. One came through Poppy’s business partners Hugh and William Liedtke, who probably knew LBJ even before they knew Bush. While in law school in Austin, the Liedtkes had rented the servants’ quarters of Johnson’s home. (At the time, the main house was occupied by future Democratic governor John Connally, a protégé of Johnson’s.) Another connection came through Senator Prescott Bush, whose conservative Republican values often dovetailed with those of Johnson during the years when LBJ served as the Democrats’ majority leader. After Johnson ascended to the presidency, he and newly elected congressman Poppy Bush were often allies on such issues as the oil depletion allowance and the war in Vietnam.
The Texas Raj, as it has been called, was a tight and ingrown world. Denizens sat on one another’s board, fraternized in each other’s clubs, and intermarried within a small circle, with most of the ceremonies being held in the same handful of churches. Whether one was nominally a Democrat or Republican did not much matter. They all shared an enthusiasm for the anything-goes capitalism that had made them rich, and a deep aversion to what was known in the local dialect as “government inference.” That meant anything the government did – such as environmental rules or antitrust investigations – that did not constitute a favor or bestowal.
The man who perhaps loomed largest in this world is also among the least well known. His name was Everette DeGolyer, and he and his son-in-law George McGhee represented, to a unique degree, the ongoing influence that the oil industry has had on the White House, irrespective of the occupant. They were also allies of the Bushes. In addition to his consulting firm DeGolyer-MacNaughton, DeGolyer founded Geophysical Service Inc., which later became Texas Instruments, and was a pioneer in technologies that became central to the industry, such as aerial exploration and the use of seismographic equipment in prospecting. His career spanned the terms of eight American presidents, many of whom he knew; he was also on close terms with many Anglo-European oil figures and leaders of the Arab world. He sat on the board of Dresser Industries for many years, and, as we shall see in chapter 13, played a central role in cementing the U.S.-Saudi oil relationship. Until he died in 1956, DeGolyer was the man you went to if you wanted to get into the oil and gas game. The intelligence agencies sought him out as well.
DeGolyer’s son-in-law, the husky and voluble George McGhee, was the son of a bank president from Waco, with a career trajectory similar to Poppy Bush’s: Phi Beta Kappa, Rhodes scholarship (offered but not accepted in Poppy’s case), and naval service in the Pacific, followed by work in Washington on the War Production Board. McGhee also sat on the board of James and William Buckley’s family firm, Pantepec Oil, which employed George de Mohrenschildt, whom McGhee knew personally. Both McGhee and de Mohrenschildt were active in Neil Mallon’s Dallas Council on World Affairs. After the war, McGhee served as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.
“The Middle East had the one greatest capacity of oil in the world and was extremely valuable,” McGhee said in an oral history interview. “When I was assistant secretary of state, I dealt with this issue.” In 1951 he spent eighty hours at the bedside of Iran’s prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in an attempt to mediate the terms of ownership for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Two years after their unsuccessful talks, Mossadegh was overthrown in a CIA-led coup. Time and again, McGhee “was on the front lines in the early crises that defined the Cold War,” according to Daniel Yergin, author of The prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power.McGhee became a protégé of Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, even serving in 1959 as chairman of the Dallas County LBJ for President Club. When LBJ became vice president, he oversaw McGhee’s appointment as undersecretary of state for political affairs. McGhee’s elevation to one of the top posts in the State Department particularly annoyed Robert Kennedy, who managed to get him reassigned as ambassador to West Germany. McGee “was useless,” said RFK. “In every conversation you had with him, you couldn’t possibly understand what he was saying.” Needless to say, McGhee did not become a member of the Bobby Kennedy fan club.
In many respects, Bobby became the lightning rod for the hostility that Jack deflected with his charm. Bobby did not shrink from the role of enforcer. For as long as Jack remained president – and in 1963 a second term seemed likely – Bobby would have the sheriff’s badge. And even worse was the prospect that the Kennedys could become a dynasty. After Jack there might be Bobby, and after Bobby, Ted. It was not an appealing prospect to the Bushes and their circle; and it is only stating the obvious to observe that this was not a group to suffer setbacks with a fatalistic shrug.
The Kennedy administration struck at the heart of the Southern establishment’s growing wealth and power. Not only did it attack the oil depletion allowance, but its support of the civil rights movement threatened to undermine the cheap labor that supported Southern industry. Yet in the space of five years, Jack and Bobby were dead, and the prospect of a Kennedy dynasty had been snuffed out. Instead, within a dozen years of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, a new conservative dynasty was beginning to emerge: the House of Bush.
Assassination as a Policy Tool
That the president of the United States, not to mention a senator and presidential candidate, could be assassinated by domestic enemies does not sit easily in the American mind. We want to believe in our institutions and in the order they embody. It is unnerving to even consider the possibility that the most powerful among us might deem themselves exempt from the rules in such a fundamental way. Yet, the leaders of these same institutions have frequently seen nothing wrong with assassinating leaders in other countries, even democratically elected ones. The CIA condoned, connived at, or indeed took an active role in assassination plots and coups against figures as varied as Guatemala’s Arbenz, the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo, Congo’s Lumumba, Chile’s Allende, Cuba’s Castro, Indonesia’s Sukarno, Iran’s Mossadegh, and Vietnam’s Diem. Is it that difficult to believe that those who viewed assassination as a policy tool would use it at home, where the sense of grievance and the threat to their interests was even greater?
One of the assassination enthusiasts, at least where foreign leaders were concerned, was George McGhee, who served the State Department in two places ruled by leaders who became targets: Patrice Lumumba and Rafael Trujillo. As the Washington Post wrote in McGhee’s obituary: “In the early 1960s, as undersecretary for political affairs, Dr. McGhee was dispatched to Congo and the Dominican Republic when the instability of civil wars and unaccountable governments threatened to destabilize the peace.” Some years before McGhee’s death, a JFK assassination researcher asked him in writing if he had had a role in Trujillo’s death. McGhee wrote back that while he had not, the assassination “was not a problem for me.”
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GRAPHIC: IMAGE: THUMBNAIL IMAGE: Locked Door IMAGE: JFK & Khrushchev IMAGE: movie still IMAGE: Johnson IMAGE: Connally in motorcade IMAGE: motorcade IMAGE: Robert F. Kennedy IMAGE: MR DE IMAGE: McGhee