The Warren Commission posing for its official picture. Representative Gerald R. Ford (R-Michigan) is sitting in the lower left corner, followed by Representative Hale Boggs (D-Louisiana), Senator Richard B. Russell (D-Georgia), Chief Justice Earl Warren, Senator John Sherman Cooper (R-Kentucky), John J. McCloy, Allen W. Dulles, and J. Lee Rankin, the panel’s general counsel.
By Max Holland
Gerald R. Ford’s FBI files, released under the Freedom of Information Act this month, will not force an instant reappraisal of America’s 38th president some 20 months after his death.
Unlike John F. Kennedy’s bureau file, which documented JFK’s trysts in the 1960s with Judith Campbell (a Mafia moll) and Ellen Rometsch (a suspected East German spy), the FBI files on Ford hold no information about any dangerous liaisons.
The files do contain information, though, on a curious liaison. Ford secretly arranged to share information with the FBI while serving on the Warren Commission, the panel charged with investigating President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. This would surely have been an explosive revelation but for one fact: Ford’s covert dealings with the bureau in 1963-1964 have been public knowledge since 1978, when 58,000 pages from the FBI’s files on the assassination were first released.
Notwithstanding the passage of 30 years, there is a great deal of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what Ford’s secret liaison with the bureau in 1963-1964 signified. A recent Washington Post article on the newly-released files, for example, insinuated that Ford all but volunteered to steer any skeptical colleagues on the Warren Commission to the conclusion already reached by the FBI in early December 1963—namely, that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, assassinated President Kennedy.
The problem with such breathless accounts can be traced to a lack of historical understanding. The Post article both misread the documents and missed their point because it did not put the FBI memos into the context of what was going on at the time. This article will describe what troubled Ford about Warren’s leadership of the commission in the weeks immediately following the assassination.
• • • • •
The 1948 election, which initially brought Jerry Ford to Washington, was the first to be conducted after the onset of the cold war. But foreign policy was not the main issue in the September GOP primary. Instead, bread-and-butter issues like veterans’ housing defined the difference between the candidates in the race to represent Michigan’s fifth congressional district. In a stunning upset, Jerry Ford, a 35-year-old lawyer and Navy veteran with no political experience, defeated Bartel “Barney” Jonkman, a five-term incumbent who campaigned all too casually against a novice. And winning the primary was tantamount to being elected, because the fifth district was overwhelmingly Republican.
Still, foreign policy was the subtext of the campaign, if not the reason for the primary contest in the first place. The 64-year-old Jonkman was an isolationist, notwithstanding the causes and consequences of World War II, whereas Ford was now a committed believer in US world leadership. In fact, one of the Senate’s leading internationalists, Arthur H. Vandenberg (R-Michigan), had quietly encouraged Ford to challenge Jonkman, though Vandenberg could not openly take sides in a primary in his home state.
The flip side to Ford’s internationalism, of course, was a deeply embedded anti-Communism both foreign and domestic. Once Ford arrived in Washington in January 1949, he aligned himself with those congressmen who were unstinting supporters of the FBI, the arm of the government directly involved in combating the US Communist Party and Soviet espionage. Indeed, one of the ancillary revelations from the bureau’s files is that Ford himself came close to being on the front lines of the domestic war against subversion. In early 1942, while apparently uncertain about his Navy appointment, Ford applied to become an FBI agent. His background check was favorable, save for his role in organizing the “America First” committee while attending Yale University’s law school in the fall of 1940.
One of freshman Ford’s earliest statements on the House floor directly involved J. Edgar Hoover, who had already been FBI director for 25 years by 1949. Ford had nothing but praise for the director, although it was already abundantly clear that Soviet spy rings had operated with near-impunity in war-time Washington. “The question of domestic security is of vital importance,” Ford noted on July 8, and “Mr. Hoover’s record for the past 25 years is unassailable.”
Ford’s statement occurred during a discussion of compensation for top federal employees, including the directors of agencies. Ford believed that Hoover should not receive a penny less in salary than men in comparable positions, such as the much newer director of the Central Intelligence Agency. This statement of support was bound to attract Hoover’s attention and warm his heart, for the FBI’s legislative office regularly monitored the Congressional Record for all mentions of the bureau or its director. “It is always extremely gratifying to learn of such favorable observations,” Hoover wrote in response a few days later, as he thanked Ford for his “gracious comments” and expression of confidence.
Over the next
decade, as Ford concentrated on issues of interest to his district or
national defense, the Michigan congressman actually had little
direct business with the bureau. But since he held a coveted seat on
the Appropriations Committee—though not on the subcommittee with direct
oversight of the FBI’s budget—Jerry Ford was a valuable man to
cultivate as part of the bureau’s “Hill contact” program. As one
internal memo put it, Ford represented “a contact in the event his
services are needed on matters of interest to the bureau.”
During the 1950s, Ford also became close friends with Louis B. Nichols, an assistant director whose duties included liaison with members of Congress. Nichols, who developed many of the FBI’s public relations techniques, was considered one of the most influential officials in the bureau until his 1957 retirement. Then too,
Ford was clearly a Republican politician on the rise; by 1960, he was
even being mentioned as a possible running mate for Richard Nixon, the
GOP’s presidential nominee. So every two years, when fifth district
voters returned Ford to Washington by wide margins, Hoover made sure to
send a hearty note of congratulations and his best wishes.
• • • • •
The second session of the 87th Congress began in January 1963 on a familiar note for Jerry Ford and the FBI. Shortly after the Congress convened, Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, the FBI’s congressional liaison, personally presented Ford with a special gift in light of the re-elected congressman’s “friendly attitude” toward the bureau. It was a signed copy of the director’s latest book, A Study of Communism (which was actually written by William C. Sullivan, assistant director of the Domestic Intelligence Division, but publicly credited to Hoover). The gesture affirmed that Ford stood in good stead with the FBI, and certainly complemented the picture of Hoover that had been furnished to Ford the year before.
Then, late in 1963, the cordial relationship
between Ford and the FBI suddenly took a very serious turn. The reason
was the assassination of President Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson’s
appointment of Ford to the presidential commission headed by Supreme
Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.