John McCone as Director of Central Intelligence, 1961-1965

John A. McCone was the sixth Director of Central Intelligence, serving from 1961 to 1965 during some of the most tumultuous events in American history. The United States narrowly averted nuclear war with the Soviet Union when the Soviets tried to put offensive ballistic missiles into Cuba. An incumbent president fell to an assassin’s bullet. The United States committed itself to defending the Republic of Vietnam against communist aggression and escalated its military support to that beleaguered country.

The Intelligence Community, of which McCone was titular head, saw some of its bitterest bureaucratic battles over control of the National Reconnaissance Office. Within CIA, he faced strong resistance to bureaucratic changes. Those included imposing greater accountability over covert actions, refocusing on analysis, and—perhaps his most far-reaching and enduring achievement—creating an independent directorate responsible for science and technology, which he thought were underutilized as intelligence sources and tools.

On a superficial level McCone was an unlikely DCI. He had built his career in the private sector and had limited experience with intelligence. He was a conservative Republican in a liberal Democratic administration. He appreciated and promoted science and technology in an intelligence organization dominated by the culture of clandestine operations.

Yet this unlikely DCI was one of the best leaders and managers CIA—and the Intelligence Community—ever had. One can make a persuasive argument that he was the best. The problems with which he dealt as DCI often appeared insoluble, but he was an extraordinarily successful engineer and businessman with a reputation as a no-nonsense executive unafraid to make tough decisions, and his list of accomplishments as DCI is long.

This study of McCone is a major contribution to the historiography of US intelligence. Originally published by the Center for the Study in Intelligence in 2005, the work established the criteria for scholarship on future work on such key figures in CIA and the Intelligence Community. At the least it will be the standard work on the sixth director of central intelligence for many years to come.

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