A Look Back … John Alex McCone Becomes DCI
In the fall of 1961, following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, John Alex McCone was asked to assume a role of great significance: Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). While serving as the sixth DCI (1961-1965), McCone became known for being the first US government official to predict that the Soviet Union would place offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba.
At the time of his death, then-DCI William Webster said, “Mr. McCone made an enormous contribution to the security of this nation,” supplying President John F. Kennedy with invaluable intelligence during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
A Surprising Request
McCone had just returned to his shipping business after serving the government for several years and was preparing to leave for New York when President Kennedy asked to see him. The purpose of the meeting was to ask McCone to serve as DCI. The request came as a surprise to McCone. He did not know Kennedy well and he was a Republican. The appointment of McCone also was surprising because he had built his career in the steel, construction, shipping, shipbuilding and aircraft production industries and had not previously held an intelligence-related position.
McCone was a West Coast businessman with a degree in engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. The engineering and construction firm he founded with a classmate became one of the leading US shipbuilders during World War II. McCone’s work with military aircraft production during the war caught the attention of President Harry S. Truman, who appointed him to the Air Policy Commission in 1947 to help devise a strategy for American military airpower. The following year he was named special deputy to the Secretary of Defense. In 1950, McCone became undersecretary of the Air Force. He then went on to serve as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission under President Dwight Eisenhower until 1961.
During McCone’s tenure as DCI, the CIA underwent a shift from emphasizing covert actions to placing more importance on analysis, technology and collection. One of DCI McCone’s greatest accomplishments was the establishment of the Directorate of Science and Technology in 1963. He understood and advocated the presence of science and technology in an intelligence organization dominated by clandestine operations.
McCone is known as one of the best managers CIA ever had. He dealt with some daunting challenges, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, but his no-nonsense manner allowed him to make tough decisions and implement lasting changes in the CIA’s organization and mission focus.
Because of McCone’s leadership, the Agency began to develop into a well-rounded intelligence organization with equal focus on covert actions, analysis and science and technology.
After the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, McCone continued to serve under President Lyndon B. Johnson. However, the relationship between McCone and President Johnson was not as strong as it was with President Kennedy and became strained over differences concerning the war in Vietnam. In 1965, McCone retired and returned to his position as chairman of his steamship company, the Joshua Hendy Corp. in California.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan presented McCone with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the US Government can bestow on private citizens. McCone died in 1991 at the age of 89.