Authors: Tim Weiner
The FBI’s Paul Brana was in the first wave of ten agents. “
They fly us down in this C-130,” a military transport with master bedrooms in the main compartment, Brana said. “We land the C-130 in the Dominican Republic, and they have helicopters to fly us over. I said, ‘How come they’re flying us over in helicopters? How come we don’t drive over?’ ”
A military officer responded: “Well, the enemy has the roads.”
‘The enemy has the roads?
’ Nobody had told us that there was a combat operation going on. So we’re going up in this goddamned helicopter and I see this machine gun fire. I say, ‘Christ, nobody told us we were coming into combat.’ ”
Brana’s bosses had told him that the president “was very unhappy because of the fact that he knew nothing” about the political situation in the Dominican Republic. LBJ ordered the FBI to run a background check on everyone vying for power.
E WAS THE MAN OF THE FUTURE
The president and Hoover called each other three times on May 14, as the FBI was setting up operations in Santo Domingo. The final call came from LBJ, at 7:05
, in the middle of a two-and-a-half-hour Cabinet Room meeting with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara; national security adviser McGeorge Bundy; undersecretaries of state Tom Mann and George Ball; the CIA director, Red Raborn; and his deputy, Richard Helms.
The president told Hoover to put an FBI detail on Joaquín Balaguer, the exiled president who had served as Trujillo’s figurehead. “Get right after
him in New York,” LBJ commanded. “I sure want your operation stepped up wherever it is for the next forty-eight, seventy-two hours unless you want to have another Castro.”
Hoover promised to deliver. The results would surprise even LBJ. Within seventy-two hours, the FBI had recruited the Dominican exile as a trusted confidential source.
On the afternoon of May 17, the top State Department officer for the Dominican Republic, Kennedy Crockett, flew to New York for a hastily scheduled meeting with Balaguer. The White House wanted Balaguer on a 5:00
flight to Puerto Rico for a meeting with his rival Bosch; the plan was being improvised by LBJ’s lawyer, Abe Fortas. LBJ and Hoover spoke about the anticipated meeting with Balaguer at 3:02
I arrived at the Regency Hotel at 3:40
,” Crockett wrote in a secret memo to the White House. “Balaguer was not there. At 3:50
he had still not appeared on the scene.”
Fortas and Crockett cooled their heels in the plush hotel lobby. “Balaguer turned up at about 3:55
,” Crockett wrote. “I told him time was short—I had a cab standing by—I would brief him on developments since our last meeting as we drove to Kennedy Airport. Balaguer said we would have to wait until 4:00
, as his suitcase was in the car which had dropped him off at the hotel and it would not be back until 4:00
He suggested we ride out to Kennedy Airport in ‘his car.’ I objected, pointing out that I did not want to have anyone else listening in on our conversation. He said this would not be a problem as ‘his car’ had been provided by the FBI.”
“ ‘Balaguer’s car’ turned up at 4:00
sharp,” Crockett wrote. “The senior Special Agent accompanying him was Heinrich Von Eckardt.” Balaguer was now a recruited source for the FBI; Von Eckardt was his handler.
“After examining each other’s credentials, we all climbed aboard and started for Kennedy Airport,” Crockett reported. In the backseat, Fortas and Crockett assured Balaguer that the United States would back him to the hilt—“that he was the man of the future in the DR and we would do nothing that did not take into account both his short- and his long-range value for both the USG [U.S. government] and the Dominican people.” Then Fortas bought Balaguer a ticket to San Juan; Von Eckardt caught the same flight.
In San Juan, the FBI’s Wally Estill sent a driver to meet the former president and bring him to his meeting with Bosch. “We arranged for a particular
cab to pick him up at the airport and take him to a particular hotel,” Estill remembered. “And we had set up mikes in the hotel room and actually covered that damn conversation, so we could wire it back to D.C. It was a kind of double-check on whether Balaguer was leveling. And it was after that Von Eckardt puts Balaguer on the plane to be flown to Santo Domingo.”
The president hardly could have asked for more. But he did.
That same night, a minute after midnight, LBJ convened a White House meeting on the Dominican Republic. McGeorge Bundy, Tom Mann, Abe Fortas, and other top LBJ aides had been meeting with Dominican leaders in San Juan and Santo Domingo. The Americans proposed that Balaguer and Bosch could run for president after tempers cooled and soldiers left the streets. Meanwhile, a rich pro-American businessman named Antonio Guzmán could run a provisional government.
In the middle of the night, LBJ was trying to pick a cabinet for the provisional government.
“Are they going to let you bring in J. Edgar Hoover’s man to come in as legal adviser to the Embassy, to advise Mr. G. on the bad characters, and have him watch them?” the president asked Mann. The answer was yes: an American Red squad in Santo Domingo, led by the FBI, would serve the provisional government. But LBJ quickly torpedoed the deal, fearing it could not guarantee a government free of Communists. His diary notes that he was up until 4:30
, slept for perhaps three hours, and called the Situation Room at 8:06
On May 19, shortly before noon, Abe Fortas telephoned LBJ. The president angrily asked him if American military officers were backing the firepower of right-wing attacks in the Dominican Republic.
LBJ: Have we done that, in your judgment?
LBJ: Do we
that we’ve done it?
Fortas anxiously assured the president he almost had finished the master list of potential Dominican leaders, military and political, making sure they were free of the faintest taint of the left. Then the president cut Fortas off: “I’ve got Hoover waiting on the other line.” Not knowing whom to trust, he wanted Hoover’s help.
“Now, Edgar, here’s the play,” he said. “Our State Department, far as I can tell, and I wouldn’t say this to anybody but you, is not worth a damn, they’re a bunch of sissy fellows and they never come up with a solution …
, Fortas, I called him in,” said LBJ, ever more intense. “He’s as close to me as you are. He wants to do what I want done if it can be honorably done …
” the president barked. “We want a democracy. We want the will of the people. We want to help
that will, and help direct it.… But let’s get an anti-communist government.… Most people are
, ’cause we’ve acted such damn fools, throwing our weight around.”
“Yes, we have, we have …,” said Hoover.
Now! I’ve got to decide today
, I’ve got to
,” LBJ said. “But I’m not going to decide on
that either you or Raborn or somebody responsible doesn’t tell me they’re not a communist.”
“Yes, I understand,” said Hoover.
“I don’t know, I’m not infallible,” said the president. “Hell, I’ve made mistakes in my life.”
“We all do,” said Hoover.
“So you get the best men you got to check these names,” LBJ said.
“We’re getting on it and checking it now,” Hoover said. “We’ll have that information for you if possible by this evening.”
“Check out everybody you can …,” LBJ said. “I don’t want to work a month and make a deal and send in 30,000 soldiers and then
piss it off to the communists
“That’s right,” Hoover said.
you the man I’m depending on
to keep me from pissing it off! Now that’s ugly language, but it’s expressive, and you know what I want.”
“We won’t let you down,” Hoover said.
LAYING FOR KEEPS
Joaquín Balaguer was now the chosen one in the Dominican Republic. The blessings of J. Edgar Hoover had paved his way to power.
Balaguer had reconfirmed his bona fides to the Bureau on May 27, 1965. He reported in full to the FBI on his conversations in New York with Kennedy Crockett, the State Department’s director of Caribbean affairs. The American diplomat asked the exiled leader for additional names to serve in the Dominican government and discussed Balaguer’s strategies. The Dominican played back the conversation for his FBI handlers before Crockett’s report reached Washington. That won Hoover’s trust.
His dominion in the Dominican Republic was a glory for Hoover. It was reflected in the orders the CIA’s new leader, Richard Helms, gave to his new station chief in Santo Domingo, David Atlee Phillips. Helms was famous for sending officers out to foreign assignments with laconic one-liners. Phillips, in a memoir, captured the moment:
What would my instruction be from Helms? Certainly this time the marching orders would be detailed, the demands clearly enumerated. People were still killing each other in Santo Domingo, and the President was observing developments there with keen interest.… But my instruction was a one-liner too.
Helms said, “Get along with the FBI.”
Was Helms joking? He was not. “Get along with the FBI. It is very important!”
The command reflected the degree to which LBJ depended on Hoover.
Hoover dominated a White House meeting with the CIA’s leaders on September 1. Hoover strongly suggested that a two-man race would be best for the Dominican Republic; a wide-open contest with four or five candidates could “
provide excellent fodder for the Communists.” Hoover warned that perhaps two or three hundred “hard-core, skilled, trained Communists” remained at large on the island, and the provisional government “must identify these Communists and take them out of circulation right away; they have no guts if you pick them up and lock them up.” Hoover noted that the military were “too heavy-handed and ill-trained” for this type of work; a strong national police would better serve the cause. So the
FBI would provide training and facilities to help create a new Dominican national intelligence force, a Department of Special Operations, a secret police to combat subversives.
The president asked Hoover to help pick a new United States ambassador—a man tough enough to handle the American-engineered regime change in the Dominican Republic. Hoover had in mind “a good tough individual who will stand up and be able to dominate the government.” He gave his blessings to John Hugh Crimmins, an experienced Caribbean and Cuba hand, who had been spending long days and nights watching over the crisis in the Dominican Republic at the State Department’s emergency center. When the new ambassador arrived in the Dominican Republic, he found twenty-six FBI legal attachés ensconced in the American embassy.
That whole operation was really weird,” said Crimmins. “The policy-making and policy execution apparatus of the U.S. Government was stretched to the absolute maximum. It was just madness. It was just chaos.… Oh, it was crazy.”
As Ambassador Crimmins took over, LBJ called Hoover again. The tape is heavily redacted on national security grounds.
It is an awful mess,” Hoover said. “I think the situation down there is very critical.…”
“I’d kinda hate to see your people pull out of there until we form a government,” LBJ said.
“Well, we won’t pull out of there until you say so,” Hoover assured him.
“This is playing for keeps. We just can’t have a communist government there,” the president said. “We can’t lose that one, Edgar. If we do I’m gonna put it right in your lap, I’m gonna say J. Edgar Hoover did this, and I’m gonna resign.” Hoover laughed heartily.
E WANTS TO WIN
On September 25, Juan Bosch returned home from San Juan, where he had been under an all-pervasive FBI surveillance net for five months. American soldiers still patrolled the streets of Santo Domingo, and the FBI’s legal attachés kept close watch over Bosch and his allies. President Johnson received a warning that “FBI sources in Santo Domingo are picking up an increasing number of reports that Bosch would like to see the elections
postponed for several months because of what he describes as the existing state of political insecurity.”
The United States proclaimed that a free election between Balaguer and Bosch would take place. But Richard Helms explained the facts of life to Desmond FitzGerald, his covert operations chief at the CIA: “
The President,” Helms said, “expected the Agency to devote the necessary personnel and material resources in the Dominican Republic required to win the presidential election for the candidate favored by the United States Government. The President’s statements were unequivocal. He wants to win the election, and he expects the Agency to arrange for this to happen.”
The United States provided as much cash as could be safely smuggled into Balaguer’s hands. President Johnson had ordered that the candidate would receive all the campaign money he needed, along with information and propaganda, courtesy of the CIA and the State Department.
Balaguer won the vote by a margin of 57 percent to Bosch’s 39 percent—a landslide built on American money, intelligence, and power. The American press universally reported that the vote was free and fair.
Ten days after the election, President Johnson received satisfying news from his national security adviser. “
Hoover has furnished security reports on 35 of Balaguer’s first appointments,” the June 11, 1966, report said. “These cover the Cabinet and sub-Cabinet, the Supreme Court and some of the key independent agencies such as State Properties, Industrial Development, Immigration, Communications and Airport Administration.… Security-wise the Cabinet looks good.… Balaguer made a clean sweep of the Supreme Court.… The Attorney General is also given a clean bill. We can expect the new Supreme Court to clean house further down the ranks of the judiciary.”