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  • Writer's pictureFred Litwin

"JFK Revisited" Misleads on Supposed CIA Support of the 1961 Coup Attempt in France

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

Oliver Stone's so-called documentary, JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass, greatly misleads its viewers on supposed CIA support of an April 1961 coup attempt against French President Charles de Gaulle.

Screen shot from JFK Revisited with the generals (Zeller, Jouhaud, Salan, and Challe) who tried to overthrow de Gaulle.

Here is an excerpt from a transcript: (1:33:33)

David Talbot: Jack Kennedy did stand firm. He did not send in the military, he did not make it into an even bigger global crisis than it already was. Kennedy is just furious. He knows he's been lied to, deceived by his senior military and intelligence advisors. He announces that the Agency is going to be downsized, and he vows, famously, he tells friends, he's going to shatter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the wind. It wasn't just the Bay of Pigs that angered President Kennedy, when it came to the CIA. In that same month, in April of 1961, he was also being lied to about a coup in France. A military coup that was aimed at overthrowing President Charles de Gaulle, one of our strongest allies.

Donald Sutherland: Allen Dulles, who had a long history of antagonism with de Gaulle, falsely reported to Kennedy that the vast majority of the French military was staunchly opposed to de Gaulle's support of Algerian self-determination. What he didn't tell him was that, as far back as 1959, the CIA had discussed his overthrow. This coup attempt, orchestrated by four French generals, was quickly put down, and several news reports pointed to Allen Dulles's hand in supporting the episode.

David Talbot: JFK assures the French ambassador, "I had nothing to do with this. I stand in full support of President de Gaulle," but he says something very, very alarming. He tells the French ambassador, President Kennedy [does], that I am not in full control, though, of my entire government. I'm not in control of the CIA. And I can't speak for what's happening there. That's a stunning admission for a U.S. President to make.

Screen shot from JFK Revisited with President Kennedy and President de Gaulle.

The evidence for the allegations in JFK Revisited comes from David Talbot's book, The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, The CIA and the Rise of America's Secret Government.

I will be dealing with JFK's quote about scattering the CIA into the wind in a later blog post. Today, I only want to deal with Algeria and the plot against de Gaulle.

Here is an overview of what happened.

The general's putsch took place in late April 1961. Maurice Challe (former commander-in-chief in French Algeria), Edmond Jouhaud (former Inspector General of the French Air Force), André Zeller (former Chief of Staff of the French Army) and Raoul Salan (former commander-in-chief in French Algeria) were all part of the plot. They were opposed to Algerian independence.

Parachutists took control of major points in Algiers on April 22nd. An announcement was made that the army had taken control of Algeria. A state of emergency was declared and de Gaulle went on television on April 23rd to rally the country. The people stood behind de Gaulle, and the insurgency quickly failed.

Here is de Gaulle's speech:

JFK Revisited makes the following allegation:

...several news reports pointed to Allen Dulles's hand in supporting the episode.

Is there any truth to this?

Here is a screen shot from JFK Revisited:

The article on the screen, "Pentagon to Get Some C.I.A. Duties," is from the New York Times of April 29, 1961, and was written by James Reston. The paragraph on the screen reads as follows:

Second, the disappointing performance of the Central Intelligence Agency, which masterminded the rebel attack on Cuba last week, the U-2 spy plane incident a year ago, and which was involved in an embarrassing liaison with anti-Gaullist officers who staged last week's insurrection in Algeria.

Oliver Stone's so-called documentary leaves out a lot of material. For instance, from the same New York Times article:

Also, in the last few days the President has looked into angry reports from Paris that the C.I.A. was in touch with insurrectionists who tried to overthrow the de Gaulle Government of France.
These reports apparently go back to the fact that C.I.A. agents have recently been in touch with the anti-Gaullist generals in Algiers and that C.I.A. officials gave a luncheon for Jacques Soustelle, a leader of the anti-de Gaulle movement, when M. Soustelle was last in Washington.

So, Richard Bissell, Director of the CIA's Operations section, met with Soustelle on December 7, 1960, about five months before the coup attempt. The luncheon was actually given by the French Intelligence chief in Washington and Bissell and Soustelle were his guests. Given that the CIA's work is in intelligence, and that Soustelle had a major position in Algeria, there is nothing wrong with the lunch.

The real question is about the "angry reports from Paris." This is indeed true. There were angry reports from Paris - but what was the source of these reports and were they true?

It is important to understand that the relationship between de Gaulle and the United States was difficult. De Gaulle was a staunch nationalist who wanted to chart a course independent of the United States and he took umbrage at the slightest hint of American interference in French internal affairs.

Talbot writes that "De Gaulle quickly concluded that Challe must be acting with the support of U.S. intelligence, and l'Élysée officials began spreading this word to the press." (page 413) Talbot's source is the London Observer of May 2, 1961, and Vincent Jauvert's book, L'Amerique Contre De Gaulle. (page 198-199)

Let's start with the London Observer article. I had trouble finding the Observer article in question because the newspaper was only published on Sundays and so there was no edition for May 2, 1961. However, the edition for April 30, 1961, does have a few articles about the coup attempt. The front page article, "Conspiracy 'leaders' still at large," says this:

One reaction, at least in President de Gaulle's own entourage and perhaps inspired by him, is to blame the Americans. Repeated American denials that any American military or civilian - encouraged - General Challe's rebellion have not succeeded in preventing official French spokesmen from telling journalists there must have been some unofficial American backing.

Talbot would never report what the same article said near the end:

There is no evidence that General Challe received active encouragement from American secret agents. But he seems to have hoped for some help from this direction.

What about Jauvert? What does his book say about de Gaulle? Here is a translation of an excerpt from page 198:

What did de Gaulle really think of this secret service affair? Back from Paris, where he probed the Elysée, Jean-Claude Winckler, adviser at the French embassy in Washington, dines with Pentagon number two, William Bundy, and tells him about his discoveries. Bundy brings them back to the White House. “Pierre Guillaumat [minister without portfolio] told Winckler that de Gaulle really believed that a few US government officials had encouraged Challe. De Gaulle did not have in mind any action by people from the CIA, but a series of conversations - of which he was told - between General Challe and American officers linked to SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe]." What would they be talking about? “In January, Challe reportedly told these officers that De Gaulle's policy vis-à-vis NATO was totally bad, that an independent Algeria opened the way to chaos and communism and that a government of pro-American generals would lead to France's acceptance of greater NATO integration and other American desires. The American officers would have nodded.” That's all. In any case, this is the official version of De Gaulle's discontent.

So, de Gaulle did not "have in mind any action by people from the CIA" but just a nod from American officers.

Even David Talbot realizes that the rumors then spread from the French Foreign Ministry: (page 414)

De Gaulle's foreign ministry was the source of some of the most provocative charges in the press, including the allegation that CIA agents sought funding for the Challe coup from multinational corporations, such as Belgian mining companies operating in the Congo. Ministry officials also alleged that Americans with ties to extremist groups had surfaced in Paris during the coup drama, including one identified as a "political counselor for the Luce [media] group," who was heard to say, "An operation is being prepared in Algiers to put a stop to communism, and we will not fail as we did in Cuba."

Talbot's source for this is Jauvert's L'Amerique Contre De Gaulle.

Talbot doesn't tell readers the full story. Jauvert writes that the rumor of CIA support came from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The director of information wrote to the Foreign Affairs Minister about the allegations. At the end of his paragraph on the rumors, Jauvert writes, "Rumors, unconfirmed information, but no proof." (page 193)

And JFK Revisited doesn't dare tell you this from page 199 of Jauvert's book:

Confidentially, "a French official from Agency A [code for Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST; English: Directorate of Territorial Surveillance, part of the French National Police]" gives the US Army counter-intelligence service some details on the alleged American support for Challe. They would be people "linked to the CIA and certain American soldiers belonging to the NATO structures. All would be opposed to the policy of the Kennedy administration in Africa and more particularly North Africa." The proof? None.

Of course, the rumors emanating from the Foreign Ministry were greatly amplified by the communist press. The communist-controlled Rome daily Il Paese (the morning edition of Paese Sera) ran a story about the CIA and that traveled throughout the communist world, and then back to the mainstream press. Here is a paragraph from Christopher Andrew's and Vasili Mitrokhin's book: The KGB and the World: The Mitrokhin Archive II: (page 432)

In April 1961 the KGB succeeded in planting on the pro-Soviet daily Paese Sera a story suggesting that the CIA was involved in the failed putsch mounted by four French generals to disrupt de Gaulle's attempt to negotiate a peace with the FLN which would lead to Algerian independence. Among other media taken in by the story was the leading French newspaper Le Monde, which began an editorial on the putsch: "It now seems established that some American agents more or less encouraged [General Maurice] Challe.

All of this had a familiar ring to it.

The same thing happened in 1967 when Paese Sera wrote a series of articles alleging that Permindex was a CIA front to distribute money to right-wing extremists. Those articles were picked up by the communist press and then moved to the mainstream press (in this case Le Devoir in Montreal).

  • Paris-Jour

  • Jauvert book, L'Amerique Contre De Gaulle

  • London Observer, May 2, 1961

  • Andrew Tully's book, CIA: The Inside Story (page 48-49)

  • The Nation, May 20, 1961

  • Washington Post, April 30, 1961

  • New York Times, April 28, 1961

It's interesting that DiEugenio lists the May 2, 1961 date for the London Observer. Clearly, he just took the sources from Talbot's book, and did not check them. As noted above, the Observer was not published on May 2, 1961 and the actual articles about the coup attempt appeared on April 30, 1961.

Do DiEugenio's sources back up the story? We've already covered The Observer, the Jauvert book, and the New York Times. What about the other sources?

  1. Andrew Tully's book, CIA: The Inside Story

I am not sure if James DiEugenio has read Tully's book. Here is a quote from page 48:

Paul Ghali of the Chicago Daily News got into the act, too. He reported that "a determined campaign of anti-Americanism" had been started "within Army circles here in the French capital. These circles made it known that they had 'irrefutable' documents proving that CIA agents in Paris and Algiers promised General Challe full U.S. support if the coup succeeded. Simultaneously, the Polish Ambassador in Paris, Stanislaw Gajewski, volunteered the same information with even more precision to colleagues and social acquaintances.
Certainly the Soviet propaganda machine was having a field day. But now the gossip was taken up by respected and responsible French newspapers which could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be including in the normally anti-American fringe of French opinion. The story was considered important enough to be the subject of the lead editorial in Le Monde, the most respected and influential newspaper in France.

Pierre Salinger went to Paris on May 2 to make arrangements for Kennedy's upcoming trip to visit with de Gaulle. He met with Pierre Baraduc, Chief of the Press Section of the Foreign office: (page 50 from Tully's book)

"Why are you putting out this story?" Salinger asked Baraduc, his voice sharp with irritation.
"I'm not putting it out," Baraduc replied. "It seems to have sprung from nowhere. But you have to admit the story sounds logical. It seems to me that President Kennedy should investigate and see if it is true."
"What do you want him to investigate?" Salinger asked. "No charge has been made, no evidence has been submitted. There's nothing to investigate. It looks to me as if somebody is trying to place the President at a disadvantage for his meeting with President de Gaulle."

The next day there was a scene at a luncheon with James Gavin, the American Ambassador to France. A reporter asked him about the rumors and Baraduc, the French Press Chief of the Foreign Ministry, asked the reporter to leave. Gavin just answered that he was not concerned about the rumor.

New York Times, May 4, 1961

But the next day, Salinger sat down with the French foreign minister, Maurice Couve de Murville: (page 52 from Tully's book)

Salinger then asked De Mourville if he had any evidence that CIA was involved in the generals' revolt and, when De Mourville said he did not, Salinger suggested that the French stop putting out the story. The next day De Mourville appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Deputies to testify that there was no evidence of CIA complicity.

2. The Nation, May 20, 1961

The Nation’s article, “The CIA in Algeria,” took its information from an article in the left-wing French newspaper L’Express by journalist Claude Krief. He claimed that:

Both in Paris and Washington the facts are now known, though they will never be publicized. In private, the highest French personalities make no secret of it. What they say is this: The CIA played a direct part in the Algiers coup, and certainly weighed heavily on the decision by ex-general Challe to start his putsch …”

Krief also mentions the Washington lunch meeting with Soustelle but then goes further:

The next episode related by Krief is a meeting in Madrid on April 12 between “various foreign agents, including members of the CIA and the Algiers conspirators, who disclosed their plans to the CIA men.”

Jauvert reported on these rumors in his book. They came from an article in the newspaper Afrique-Action written by their American correspondent. The meeting in Madrid was allegedly attended by a French general, two French colonels, and agents from the United States, Spain, and Germany. No evidence has ever surfaced that such a meeting took place.

3. The Washington Post, April 30, 1961

The Washington Post ran an article on April 30, 1961 entitled, "Challe Felt He Had Vow of U.S. Aid," by Waverley Root. The opening few paragraphs are illuminating:

When former Gen. Maurice Challe agreed to assume command of the Generals' revolt in Algeria, it was in part because he was convinced that he had unqualified American support.
In fact, an informant qualified to interpret Challe's motives told this writer, he believed that he had received assurances from President Kennedy himself of eventual support.
"Who gave them?" This correspondent asked.
"They came from the Pentagon," was the answer.
"I thought everybody was blaming the CIA?"
"The Pentagon, the CIA -- it's all the same thing."
From other sources, it appears that France is shifting to the opinion that the supposed inspiration for Challe came not from American intelligence services but from the U.S. Army.

The article then goes on to discuss NATO and the fact that Challe commanded the Europe-Center Sector. He might have gotten some inspiration for his coup from military and diplomats at NATO.

The only other source mentioned by DiEugenio is Paris-Jour, which published pieces by Genevieve Tabouis. She made some things up, and she had it in for Allen Dulles. Richard Helms discussed her reports in his testimony before the Senate subcommittee (see above):

On Friday Madame Tabouis continued the attack in an article headlined "The Strategy of Allen Dulles." She assured her readers that "the fact that the effort of Challe was encouraged, if not supported, by the most Atlantic of American services, is from now on a secret everyone knows."

Waverley Root of the Washington Post commented on her in the April 30th article:

Only columnist Genevieve Tabouis -- The Pythoness, as she is called here -- continued to belabor CIA chief Allen Dulles, by heading an article, "The Strategy of Allen Dulles." But she also seemed confused about who does what when she writes:
'The fact that the effort of Challe was encouraged, if not supported, by the most Atlantic of American services, is from now on a secret everyone knows.'
This cryptic description must mean NATO, where Challe until early this year commanded the Europe-Center Sector, and not the Dulles-headed CIA.

To sum up so far, there is no evidence that the CIA supported or encouraged the coup attempt against de Gaulle. The rumors about the CIA started from the Foreign Ministry and were then played up by the communist press.

A key question is why the Foreign Ministry spread such rumors.

Irwin Wall, in his book France, the United States, and the Algerian War, writes: (page 239)

Joseph Alsop wrote that Challe believed he could get U.S. support by playing the anti-communist card, given de Gaulle's hostility to NATO. Another reason was thus handed de Gaulle for blaming the Americans: the generals' revolt was the consequence of the American refusal to accept French plans for the reform of NATO.

Another possible answer comes from Thomas Powers' book, The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms And The CIA. Here is an excerpt from page 337:

In late 1961, for example, the CIA arranged for Frantz Fanon, author of The Wretched of the Earth and a theoretician for the FLN [National Liberation Front], to be flown to Washington for treatment of terminal cancer. After Fanon's death on December 6, a CIA officer named Oliver Iselin accompanied Fanon's body back to Tunis, where the FLN carried it across the border into Algeria for burial. Iselin, accompanied by another CIA officer who flew to Tunis from Geneva, according to a State Department source, was present at the funeral. This sort of thing angered de Gaulle.

Might this have been the reason why de Gaulle or others started the rumors against the CIA? Powers' source was Peter Geismer's book, Fanon. Fanon had leukemia and his treatment in Moscow had not gone well. He was desperate to go the United States and get some first-rate care. Geismer writes that "it was the C.I.A., working within the [U.S.] Foreign Service, that negotiated Fanon's transportation to the United States."

The coup attempt was in April 1961 and I wondered if the CIA contacts with Fanon started before the coup. If they did, then perhaps that is what angered de Gaulle. Thomas Meaney, author of "Frantz Fanon and the CIA Man," provides some important answers:

During the height of the war between the FLN and France, Iselin continued to develop contacts within the FLN. By 1960, he had two reliable informants. “One turned out to be, when Algeria became independent, very high-level. The second one I recruited was medium-level, and after a while, when he went back, he decided to pursue a business career, which lost his access. While he was an agent being paid and everything, he provided us with an unbelievable amount of material from the FLN, really. All the files of the whole Tangiers setup.” Iselin also made regular trips across the border into Algeria to get information from the ALN [Algerian Liberation Army]. “Obviously I hoped the French didn’t know about [it]. I felt very strongly, being American, what we went through here in this country, I was entirely for independence as the rightful thing to do. I was morally into this completely.”
French authorities in Algeria were aware of the CIA’s interest in national liberation movements across North Africa, where the agency worked through the American Federation of Labor to infiltrate trade unions in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, building on its earlier support for anti-communist trade unions on the French mainland. The CIA first became interested in Fanon sometime in the late 1950s.

Iselin came back to the United States at the end of 1960 and was contacted by M'hamed Yazid, an FLN representative in New York, to discuss Fanon's health. Joseph Alsop wrote in his syndicated column in February 1969 that Fanon asked the local CIA representative for help in February, 1961.

It is quite possible that de Gaulle knew about these CIA contacts with the FLN. And this might indeed be the reason why the CIA was blamed for the coup attempt in April 1961.

Irwin Wall agrees with Thomas Powers (page 240) but offers yet another possible explanation:

Redha Malek [in his book, L'Agerie a Evian, claimed that the rumors arose because two American military attaches were seen using the studios of Radio France, which was under the control of the insurgents in Algiers, to transmit their dispatches; the Quai was alleged to have protested, but then to have withdrawn the protest with apologies.

And last, but not least, U.S. News and World Report had a very simple explanation: (Jeffreys-Jones, op. cit., page 125)

[There was] a search for scapegoats, particularly for non-French scapegoats. It was against this background that officials of the French government, including Cabinet Ministers and other high officials, privately encouraged the idea that U.S. generals were to blame for supporting the conspirators.

Whatever the reason, Kennedy was certainly not happy about the rumors regarding the CIA. Wall notes: (page 242)

Kennedy was so irritated at continued French charges of CIA complicity with the insurrection that he considered calling off his June 1961 trip to Paris.

In any event, JFK Revisited misleads viewers into believing the CIA was behind the coup attempt.

I also cannot find any support for its claim that JFK told the French Ambassador:

I am not in full control, though, of my entire government. I'm not in control of the CIA. And I can't speak for what's happening there.

This quote is not in Talbot's book, and so there is no reference. The closest I can find in his book is on page 412 where he writes "But the strange events that occurred in Paris in April 1961 reinforced the disturbing feeling that President Kennedy was not in control of his own government." There is no footnote for that statement.

Jauvert's book does include the anecdote, but a little differently. Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State, told the French Ambassador in Washington, Hervé Alphand, on April 30, that their investigations into supposed contacts between the rebel generals and Americans "have shed no light." Alphand wrote the French Foreign Affairs Minister that, according to Kennedy, "the CIA is a machine so vast and so poorly understood that the most improbable maneuvers can be true. The most improbable maneuvers ..."

I will be writing another blog post to discuss this quote.

To summarize, JFK Revisited reported speculation and rumors about purported CIA involvement in the coup attempt. No evidence was presented in any of these sources:

  • Paris-Jour article by Genevieve Tabouis

  • Jauvert book, L'Amerique Contre De Gaulle

  • London Observer, May 2, 1961

  • Andrew Tully's book, CIA: The Inside Story (page 48-49)

  • The Nation, May 20, 1961

  • Washington Post, April 30, 1961

  • New York Times, April 28, 1961

JFK Revisited seems desperate to score points against the CIA. Instead of offering a measured realistic approach to what actually happened, JFK Revisited offers a quick cartoon, devoid of any nuance, and without any intent to educate viewers.

It's a shame. There's no need to resort to making up incendiary material about the CIA's shenanigans. There's already enough real material out there.

I want to thank Max Holland, Paul Hoch, and Alecia Long for their help with this blog post.

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Steve Roe Blog Posts on JFK Revisited

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