McCone, John Alex

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McCone, John Alex

(b. 4 January 1902 in San Francisco, California; d. 14 February 1991 in Pebble Beach, California), director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who pressed the search for Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba and warned Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson of the dangers of intervention in the Vietnam War.

McCone, the son of Margaret Enright, a homemaker, and Alexander J. McCone, an industrialist, spent most of his early years with his parents and sister in Los Angeles, where the family relocated when he was a child. After finishing Los Angeles High School he entered the University of California at Berkeley, where he received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1922. After graduation and a stint as a boilermaker and riveter, McCone worked as a construction engineer at Llewellyn Iron Works in Los Angeles. He rose though management ranks to become superintendent in 1929, when Llewellyn was absorbed by Consolidated Steel Corporation. McCone became executive vice president and director of Consolidated Steel in 1933.

McCone left Consolidated Steel in 1937 and, with Stephen Bechtel, formed Bechtel-McCone Corporation in Los Angeles. McCone took the position of president of the corporation, an engineering firm that designed and built power plants and oil refineries in North and South America and the Middle East. In 1938 he married Rosemary Cooper; they had no children.

With the onset of World War II, Bechtel-McCone expanded into shipbuilding and aircraft production. A separate entity, California Shipbuilding Corporation, formed in 1941 with McCone as president and director. California Shipbuilding was enormously profitable, earning $44 million during the war on an investment of $100,000, which raised suspicions of war profiteering among congressional investigators. McCone refuted the profiteering allegations and won the trust of President Harry S. Truman, who appointed McCone to his Air Policy Committee in 1947. Bechtel-McCone was disbanded in 1945, and California Shipbuilding liquidated in 1946. McCone bought the Joshua Hendy Iron Works in 1945, expanded its operations into Pacific Ocean shipping, and renamed it Hendy International Corporation in 1969. He retained his ties to the company as its president, chairman, or director throughout his years of government service.

As a member of Truman’s Air Policy Committee from 1947 to 1948, McCone focused on military aspects of air policy. In 1948 he was named special deputy to Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal, and he served as undersecretary of the air force from 1950 to 1951. During this period McCone emerged as a leading proponent of a strong U.S. strategic missile program. He formed a close personal relationship with General Dwight D. Eisenhower, then commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Europe, with whom he worked on matters of strategic air power and NATO’s nuclear capability. McCone, a Republican, left the Truman administration in 1951 and supported Eisenhower for president in 1952.

President Eisenhower offered McCone the position of secretary of the air force, but McCone declined in order to devote himself to private business. In 1954, however, he accepted Eisenhower’s appointment to the Wriston commission, chaired by Brown University president Henry Wriston. This commission developed a program for the rehabilitation of the U.S. Foreign Service, then demoralized by charges of disloyalty from Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and his followers. In 1958 McCone, a devout Catholic, attended the funeral of Pope Pius XII as President Eisenhower’s personal representative.

McCone returned to full-time government service in 1958 as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), a position he held to the end of the Eisenhower administration. As AEC chairman, McCone repaired relations with the Democratic-controlled Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, which had been strained under his predecessor, Admiral Lewis Strauss. McCone gave the committee regular intelligence briefings on Soviet nuclear capabilities, one of his major concerns. He frankly acknowledged his personal opposition to Eisenhower’s unilateral moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing, which he believed hampered the development of strategic weapons necessary for the defense of the United States. McCone insisted on the inclusion of effective safeguards against cheating in any nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. By the time he returned to private life in January 1961, McCone’s tough-minded, principled positions had earned him the respect of defense experts in both political parties.

After an invasion force of Cuban exiles—organized, supplied, and directed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—was defeated at the Bay of Pigs by troops loyal to Fidel Castro in April 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed McCone to head the CIA. McCone had little taste for covert operations and proceeded to reorient the CIA toward the collection and analysis of intelligence gathered by satellites and high-flying reconnaissance aircraft. Responsibility for covert operations was put under a White House “Special Group” headed by the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. As CIA director McCone was an ex-officio member of the Special Group, and he took a dim view of proposals to assassinate Castro. As a Roman Catholic, McCone declared that he could not countenance assassination, so plans were developed to kill Castro without McCone’s knowledge. McCone’s first wife died in 1961. In 1962 he married Theiline Pigott; they had no children.

In 1962 CIA U-2 aircraft detected Soviet surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) in Cuba. Defense and State Department experts concluded that the SAMs were defensive, but McCone suspected that the SAMs were in Cuba to protect intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) capable of raining nuclear warheads on the cities of the eastern United States. McCone pressed the search for the IRBMs, and in October 1962 U.S. aircraft located offensive missile emplacements in western Cuba and IRBMs on Soviet ships en route to Cuba. The U.S. government strongly objected, and the missile crisis of October 1962 resulted in the removal of the IRBMs from Cuba and the restoration of the CIA’s credibility.

McCone advised President Kennedy in 1963 against supporting a coup by South Vietnamese generals against President Ngo Dinh Diem. The CIA director raised moral and practical objections to the likely assassination of Diem. McCone warned that Diem’s removal would lead to instability in South Vietnam and would require massive U.S. military intervention to prevent a Communist takeover. After the assassinations of Diem and Kennedy in the fall of 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson faced a worsening situation in Vietnam. McCone advised the new president that victory would require relentless heavy bombing of North Vietnam, which Johnson rejected in favor of tentative escalation. With Johnson consistently ignoring the CIA’s realistic assessments of enemy strength in Vietnam, McCone resigned his post in 1965. White-haired, trim, and athletic, McCone cut an imposing figure. An avid golfer, he had a high-toned, clubhouse affability that appealed to Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, though not Johnson.

As a private citizen McCone consulted with President Richard Nixon on Vietnam and with President Jimmy Carter on Cuba. In 1987 Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, citing his reputation for integrity, hard work, and unbiased analysis. McCone died in 1991 of cardiac arrest and was buried in Carmel, California.

The University of California in Berkeley holds a major collection of McCone’s papers for the period 1957-1991. Papers pertaining to McCone’s chairmanship of the Atomic Energy Commission, 1958-1961, are in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas. McCone is mentioned in the major histories of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Most useful is Ray S. Cline, The CIA: Reality vs. Myth (1981; also published as The CIA Under Reagan, Bush & Casey: The Evolution of the Agency from Roosevelt to Reagan, 1981). See also Bruce Wetterau, The Presidential Medal of Freedom: Winners and Their Achievements (1996). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times (both 16 Feb. 1991). An interview with McCone by Harry Kreisler is in Reflections, [with] John A. McCone, Television Service, University of California, Berkeley (1988).

Neill Macaulay

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McCone, John Alex

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