Was Allen Dulles’ Appointment to the Warren Commission Part of a Cover-Up?

By Kyle Whelton

The Warren Commission and its members have been the source of intense scrutiny by conspiracy theorists ever since the report was published. One of the more interesting claims by conspiracy theorists is that President Johnson appointed Allen Dulles to help coordinate the grand cover-up. Who better to coordinate a cover-up one of the most notorious murders in the history of the United States than the man who served as head of the CIA for over 8 years? Who would have a better motive to help Lyndon Johnson cover up JFK’s death than the man who was fired by Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs debacle? All the starts seem aligned for a very convenient cover-up.

Craig I. Zirbel in his book The Texas Connection claims that Johnson appointed Dulles to the Commission for more than just name recognition. For Johnson, Dulles was the man who knew the CIA’s hidden skeletons and ensure nothing too damning would be uncovered in the Commission’s search. On top of this, Dulles, according to Zirbel, started the “lone gunman influencing effort” amongst the Commission members from the first meeting.[1] Noel Twyman in his work Bloody Treason: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, stresses the fact that Dulles was nothing more than a scapegoat for Kennedy’s mistakes in the Bay of Pigs, giving him motive.[2]

But was this appointment sinister? Did Lyndon Johnson really appoint Allen Dulles as his ace in the hole on a commission chaired by a reticent and aging Earl Warren and made up of congressional light weights? Did Allen Dulles really hold a deep-seated hate for John F. Kennedy because of his firing after the Bay of Pigs incident? To find the answer to these and other questions, we have to go back to November of 1963.

On November 29, 1963, just seven days after the assassination, President Johnson established the Warren Commission to investigate the death of JFK. While the appointment of former CIA director Allen Dulles appears to be a move straight out of Frank Underwood’s (the scheming and vengeful protagonist of House of Cards) playbook, Dulles was actually recommended by Bobby Kennedy. It is no secret that LBJ and Bobby hated one another and wanted as little to do with each other as possible, but LBJ was not an idiot. The Kennedys in 1963 were one of the most influential and powerful families in America and they just lost John in a very public and tragic manner. If this Commission was to have any legitimacy, it had to have the Kennedy’s blessing, in particular Bobby’s blessing.

In his autobiography The Vantage Point, Johnson states, “As for the makeup of the rest of the commission, I appointed the two men Bobby Kennedy asked me to put on it-Allen Dulles and John McCloy-immediately.”[3] But how do we know that this wasn’t just Johnson lying through his teeth? After, Presidents have been known to lie to protect their legacy.

However, there are two pieces of evidence that corroborate LBJ’s claim. On November 29, Walter Jenkins sent Johnson a memo outlining Bobby’s recommendations, which included John McCloy and Allen Dulles, as well as the other potential members of the Commission for Johnson’s approval. The memo states, “Abe [Fortas] has talked with Katzenbach and Katzenbach has talked with the Attorney General. They recommend a seven man commission – two Senators, two Congressmen, the Chief Justice, Allen Dulles, and a retired Military Man (General or Admiral).”[4] Fortas was an important lawyer in private practice and informal advisor to LBJ, and Katzenbach a deputy to Robert Kennedy, who was Attorney General.

Then on December 17, 1966, Johnson has a phone conversation with Abe Fortas. Fortas was by then a Justice on the Supreme Court, who continued to be an ally and confidant of LBJ. Fortas was discussing the manuscript of William Manchester’s book The Death of a President and its treatment of Johnson. LBJ states, “We even asked the Attorney General to name people he wanted [on the Commission]. He recommended people like Allen Dulles and John McCloy.”[5] While it is altogether possible LBJ would have lied in his memoirs to present an image of cooperation with Bobby, it is highly unlikely he was lying to close personal advisor about getting Bobby’s input, especially given that Fortas had been part of the process.

But of course, this conspiracy claim (Dulles appointed to cover up a conspiracy) brings up the broader issue of whether Dulles resented Kennedy.

The first clue we have comes from an interview with Bobby in 1964. When asked about the personnel changes following the Bay of Pigs, Bobby says that Bissell and Dulles left and Dulles in particular handled himself extremely well, never shifting the blame on to the President.[6]

When Dulles left the CIA, John Kennedy awarded him the National Security Medal, and described him as “a friend,” while praising him highly for “devoted public service.”

Next we have reports from several members of the CIA that Kennedy said to Bissell and/or Dulles (the reports conflict), “in a parliamentary government I would resign. In this government the President can’t and doesn’t and so you and Dick (or Allen) must go.”[7] Of course, both would understand that a major screw up happened and that it was only appropriate they leave; it was not personal. Finally we have the oral history from Dulles done by the LBJ library that states he always thought highly of Kennedy and never held anything against him as a result of the Bay of Pigs. Dulles states:

“About six months after — let’s see, from April to November after the Bay of Pigs — and I saw the President a good deal. I think I’ve said that there was never any recrimination on the President’s part. I might well have lost to some extent in the measure of confidence he placed on me — that’s inevitable in things of this kind, I think, but I may say in his personal attitude toward me, in the many meetings we had, he never let that appear, and I retired at about the time I had planned to retire when he first asked me, as I’ve explained earlier, to stay on after he took over the duties as president…I rated (JFK) high, maybe that’s trite to put it that way, but I rated him high. I shall never forget when I first heard the news of the Dallas tragedy. I felt that here is a man who hadn’t had a chance really to show his full capabilities, that he was just reaching a point where his grasp of all the intricacies of the presidency were such that now he could move forward. He’d gone through the very difficult days, problems with Khrushchev [Nikita Sergeyevich Khruschev], the confrontation after the Cuban business, and all that, that he had put behind him, the testing crisis, and he was at a point to move forward and show us the full possibilities of a very extraordinary man.[8]

Of course, it is altogether possible that Bobby was mistaken and was badly deluded about Dulles.  It’s possible that the reports from CIA members were just rumor, and that Dulles lied in his oral history.  But the far and away most straightforward interpretation of the evidence is that Dulles fully understood the magnitude of the Bay of Pigs fiasco and that someone in his position could not survive such a blunder. And the historical record is clear that Johnson’s choice of Dulles was an accommodation of Bobby and the Kennedy family and not a conspiratorial cover-up.

[1] Pg. 24

[2] Pg. 23

[3] Pg. 27

[4] Jenkins Memo 11/29/63

[5] LBJ-Fortas phone call 12/17/66, for a transcript see Max Holland’s The Kennedy Assassination Tapes. Courtesy of The Miller Center, here is the audio.

[6] Robert Kennedy: In His Own Words, 252

[7] The Agency, 375; The Man Who Kept Secrets, 131. Richard Bissell stated in an interview on 7/18/83 the President said it to him directly. Powers states in his book’s footnote on the remark that a half dozen CIA officials repeated the quote verbatim, but there is no consensus as to whom Kennedy made this remark. It is all together possible Kennedy said this to both men individually.  Further, both men would have understood the logic of such a statement, regardless of whether they individually were told that.

[8] Dulles oral History, 34