The following narrative consists of my recollections and notes from my personal conversations with Harry Dean in 2012, in Hemet, California, as well as some US government artifacts.
HARRY DEAN IN COMMUNIST CUBA – JUNE 1960
In May 1960, Harry Dean prepared to travel to Communist Cuba for two reasons: (1) to receive a decoration for raising funds in support of Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement; and (2) to spy for the FBI.
Harry bought round-trip tickets from Chicago to Miami and round-trip tickets from Miami to Havana. He packed documents from the Chicago FPCC and Chicago Cuban Consul reports directed to Juan Orta, Director General of the Office of the Prime Minister Fidel Castro. Harry also packed personal greetings for Juan Orta from his personal friend, Joaquín Freire.
Harry landed at the Havana Airport on June 10, 1960 and was greeted by Juan Orta who handed him a certificate of recognition and escorted him to the personal office of Fidel Castro. There he was, as big as life and barking orders at his secretary. Fidel turned to Harry with friendly eyes and warmly shook his hand. “Ah, Harry Dean! Bienvenidos a Cuba,” he exclaimed! They shook hands. Fidel repeated warmly, “Muy amable, muy amable. Gracias por todo su trabajo.”
“Gracias,” Harry clumsily replied. Although Harry spoke a little Spanish, he had forgotten to prepare a speech for the occasion. There was an awkward silence. Suddenly, Castro’s secretary broke the silence and Castro turned away toward urgent business. Their meeting was over. Orta guided Harry by elbow out of the room. And that was that.
Orta escorted Harry outside to his jeep and informed Harry that his staff had some questions. Good, thought Harry, they probably want to know about Chicago methods of effective fundraising! Instead a military escort drove Harry to the offices of the G2, the Direccion General de Inteligencia in “La Cabana.” Soldiers further escorted Harry to an interrogation room and handed him over to Francisco Vega and his two men, armed and dangerous.
It didn’t look good.
Vega distrusted all Americans. He had condemned some Americans to firing squads. In Harry’s face, Vega shouted in a thick Cuban accent, “Are you a spy for the US government?” Harry kept his cool and lied. “No, of course I’m no spy, Mr. Vega. Look at my papers here. Look at all the great work I’ve done for the Revolución de Cuba.”
Harry clung to his story, but Vega was relentless. He produced a revolver and aimed it at Harry’s head. “Answer me truly, Dean – are you a spy for the US government?” Harry stuck closely to his story – “Of course not, Mr. Vega.”
Vega detained Harry for several hours with picayune questions, demanding endless details. Somehow G2 knew every aspect of Harry’s travel itinerary. Every sentence Harry spoke was checked by telephone or wire service, probably to the Chicago office of the 26th of July Movement.
After many hours of this grilling, Vega relented. “Thank you for bearing with us, señor Dean,” he apologized, “but we can’t be too careful these days. Of course, you understand.” “Of course, I understand, señor Vega,” echoed Harry. “We can’t be too careful these days.” They shook hands like comrades, but Harry’s stomach was as twisted as a pretzel.
Anyway, Harry was now free to travel through Cuba – sort of. He was assigned a driver. During his tour of Havana some lovely ladies approached him – yet Harry felt certain that they were spies for Vega. As he drove around Havana taking photographs, men in fatigues made no effort to hide the fact that Harry was closely watched.
In simple Spanish he did speak with many people on the streets because Harry was genuinely curious about the Cuban mood. Everyone he met was enthusiastic for Fidel. This wasn’t fake enthusiasm, insists Harry – he could sense a genuine, unanimous support for Fidel from the ordinary citizens of Havana.
After Harry returned to the US, he went straight to the FBI for debriefing. Officers from the CIA also attended, and Harry told them everything. As for the Cuban mood, Harry called it like he saw it – “The people in the street support Castro and they won’t turn on him.” That’s not what they wanted to hear.
Starting in July 1960 the news got worse. Texaco, Shell, and Esso refused to process oil from the USSR, so Fidel nationalized all oil refineries in Cuba. President Eisenhower canceled the US sugar contract with Cuba, and the USSR picked up that sugar contract.
Near the end of July 1960, the Chicago FPCC called a special meeting with Harry Dean. He was formally promoted to the rank of Secretary of the Illinois branch of the FPCC. (Harry’s title is documented in the 1961 US Senate investigation of the FPCC.) Harry’s duties as Secretary were vague – probably because it was an honorary title – and because Harry never changed his weekly routine.
HARRY QUITS THE CHICAGO FPCC IN JUNE 1961
September 1960 was the law straw. Fidel had nationalized all American banks in Cuba; he slammed the US before the United Nations; and he began to harshly persecute American volunteers who had once supported him. This was the end, thought Harry. As the 1960 Presidential election arrived, Harry hoped and prayed that soon-to-be President Nixon would find a way out of this mess.
As 1961 began, JFK, not Nixon, took the White House. Harry, officially the Chicago Secretary of the FPCC, was secretly reporting everything he saw to the FBI. Harry hated it, and now wished that he had quit the FPCC back in April 1960 when so many others did.
Cuba kept sliding downhill. In January 1961, the US closed its Embassy in Havana and ceased all diplomatic relations. White House Press Secretary James Haggerty announced on TV: “There’s a limit what the United States in self-respect can endure. That limit has now been reached!” A massive exodus of Cubans who were businessmen, doctors, lawyers, professors, and other professionals, swarmed out of Cuba.
Things got even worse for Harry. In March 1961, FPCC leaders asked Harry to be their double-agent by: (1) publicly quitting the FPCC; (2) denouncing Fidel Castro; (3) joining the newly formed anti-Castro raiders, the FRD, or Cuban Democratic Revolutionary Front; (4) attain an official position; (5) spy on them; and (6) tell the FPCC (and Fidel) whatever he found.
It bent Harry’s mind, so he told the FBI about this terrible idea. The FBI thought it was a great idea. The FBI exclaimed, “Stay in places! Pretend to obey the FPCC, pretend to obey the FRD, and finally tell the FBI everything!” Harry suspected danger – and he wasn’t even getting paid for it. But the political intrigue was so tempting!
What in the world were all these groups looking for? Harry saw nothing significant until April 17, 1961, when news radio reported the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Cuban exiles had invaded Cuba and had lost the fight badly. Fidel took many prisoners, and JFK appeared on television to accept responsibility. Harry was horrified.
The FBI kept nagging Harry for leads. Cuban nationals circulated freely in the US, buying as many weapons underground as possible. At last, Harry decided to quit. All Harry had wanted was to help people – and it became a living nightmare. He decided to change his name and move to Los Angeles.
HARRY DEAN MOVES TO LOS ANGELES COUNTY – JUNE 1961
On June 28, 1961, Harry packed his station wagon, and Millie got the two boys, Eric and Kurt all prepared for their trip toward anonymity in Los Angeles. Before driving off, Harry felt it was his patriotic duty to sit down and write a letter to President Kennedy. He explained to JFK everything that he could fit on a single page, and he dropped it in the mail. This important handwritten letter still exists in FBI archives, yet even in PDF format it’s difficult to read Harry’s handwriting. Here is my edit of it – to make it easier to read:
To: President John F. Kennedy
From: Harry Dean
Date: June 28, 1961
I shall explain briefly the case in which I am involved, and also ask of you something if possible, that is of importance to our Country.
I have been the Secretary of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee here in Chicago since July of last year. [My purpose was] to inform the Federal Bureau of Investigation of its activities [after I found] communist books and materials in their box containing Fair Play literature. [This box was] given to me on the night that I was elected by other officers of the organization.
When I called the FBI, they said they did not know that the [FPCC] Committee was starting in Chicago yet, and they asked me to stay inside and [hand over] all information [to them.] I did so gladly. Recently, they stated that I [had] done a great one-man undercover job against the Fair Play communists.
Then, after a meeting today with two agents, I was told I could no longer continue, as they had found out about my past difficulty with the Law. But, if I get my outstanding debts (which are many) straightened out, they would be able to consider using me again.
They [said that they] were very sorry that I could not continue.
I am also very hurt about this outcome now, as here is a job I must do against the enemies of America. I wish to ask if it is possible to gain from you a pardon, for my past mistakes, that I may continue in this urgent work.
I want to focus on the details of this FBI artifact. (1) Harry accurately reported his role as Secretary of the FPCC in Chicago, along with the starting month, July 1960; and (2) Harry claimed that his main purpose in the FPCC was to inform the FBI of Communist activity.
Remember that Harry was joyous when in 1959 victorious Fidel named everybody in the Chicago fundraising effort as honorary members of the 26th of July Movement. In April 1960, the FPCC took over the 26th of July Movement – and Harry automatically became a member of the FPCC.
Only weeks later, however – May 1960 – President Eisenhower cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba and declared that any US citizen still supporting Fidel Castro would be regarded as an “unregistered foreign agent!” Harry was shocked! His luck had reversed! This was real trouble.
So, Harry rushed to the FBI to tell them his dilemma and ask for their advice. According to Harry, the FBI informally told him to stay where he was and to bring them FPCC information. Harry was convinced that this was the way to prove that he wasn’t an “unregistered foreign agent!”
From about May 1960 to about May 1961, Harry Dean volunteered information to the Chicago FBI – informally and unpaid – regarding the FPCC and related suspicious persons. This is a matter of FBI record.
In June 1961, however, the Chicago FBI told Harry to get lost. This was because – as Harry says in his letter – he had a “past difficulty with the Law.” So, Harry wanted JFK to “pardon” him so that he could return to his great hobby – spying on the FPCC for the FBI.
We get a clue – perhaps – from Harry’s remark about his “outstanding debts, which are many.” Was he talking about financial troubles? Yet there is no necessary connection between financial troubles and volunteering political information to the FBI.
Harry likes to write poetry; he was no stranger to metaphors in 1961. It is possible that Harry’s “debts” were not financial, but political, known only to the FBI. Certainly, no crime was involved, otherwise Harry would be in prison. So, either it was financial troubles or a metaphor for politics. Harry didn’t explain it in his letter, probably because he presumed that JFK could always call the FBI into his office to demand an explanation.
Anyway, Harry and the FBI parted ways in June 1961 – and Harry described the parting as sad on both sides. Harry expressed to JFK a strong desire to return to this volunteer activity against Communism which was the greatest enemy of his beloved US.
At the end we arrive at the whole point of this letter to JFK. His last sentence illuminates his first sentence. Harry wanted a Presidential “pardon” for his past mistakes. Yes, Harry seems to have missed the fact that Presidential pardons apply only to criminals behind bars. None of Harry’s “mistakes” (peccadillos listed by the FBI) merited imprisonment.
Harry’s letter to JFK reveals an optimistic hope that the US President would have time for his problems inside all the political intrigue of Cuba and the FBI. Last night (8/31/2020) I finally asked Harry Dean what he meant by that phrase, "difficulties with the Law." Today (9/1/2020) Harry told me the following:
* Harry felt sure that the FBI wasn't really obsessed with his personal debts. Harry's number one worry was President Eisenhower's push against Castro supporters in May 1960. Ike had said that any American citizen still supporting Fidel Castro was to be "regarded as an unregistered agent of a foreign government."
* Harry worried about two relationships: (1) his award for helping the 26th of July Movement.; and (2) his status as Secretary of the Chicago branch of the FPCC.
* The real "difficulty with the Law" that worried Harry so much was this sword hanging over his head. He never knew when some detective might arrest him as an "unregistered agent of a foreign government."
* That's why he wanted a "pardon" from JFK. That would make everything all right.
* Harry would not mention any of this to JFK. He had hoped that JFK might call the FBI about it, and in that way get all the details.
* If JFK would grant this "pardon," then Harry would gladly keep volunteering Cuba information to the FBI as he had for many months -- strictly volunteer work out of patriotic duty.
* Harry's letter to JFK was a long shot, but he thought it was worth a try. (JFK never replied.)
After Harry sent this letter to JFK, the Dean family drove from Chicago to Los Angeles. Harry quickly found work as a construction site plasterer and made a new life for his family in the lovely suburbs of Alhambra, California. Millie was pregnant again and their life was lovely and quiet.
Then one autumn day, Harry says, FBI agent Wesley Grapp contacted Harry to ask for informal (unpaid, off the record) help. Harry said no. “I don’t want Cuban politics anymore!” Grapp understood, but that wasn’t what he wanted. He only wanted Harry to positively identify an FPCC member whom Harry had known in Chicago, and who had allegedly moved to a specific area in Los Angeles recently.
Harry was again tempted by the prospect of informally informing the FBI again. Also, he liked driving around enormous Los Angeles and getting the lay of the land while listening to classical music. The FBI wanted him again! Maybe JFK got his letter after all! Maybe everything was all right now. Harry said yes. He identified this man and that was a new beginning.
HARRY DEAN ENCOUNTERS THE RIGHT WING – AUTUMN 1961
In California, Harry vowed that he would never be fooled by left-wing propaganda again. The answer was obviously the opposite – namely, right-wing politics! Harry thought that right-wing politics would never make the President angry as Eisenhower became angry at the FPCC. Los Angeles had many right-wing bookstores, so he began reading.
Harry was particularly intrigued by the American Opinion magazine from Robert Welch’s John Birch Society (hereafter JBS). Some of the writing was academic, but the bottom line was that the JBS agreed that Communism was the greatest evil facing the world. No sacrifice would be too great to reverse its slow creep in the US. Harry’s Chicago experience had led him to this.
In 1962 the JBS was about three years old, and after the Bay of Pigs debacle their membership had soared to a hundred thousand. Robert Welch welcomed all types of Anticommunists – and Harry himself fostered a desire for revenge on Fidel Castro.
The JBS turned Harry’s politics upside down. Most people thought that Communism was about labor unions, but Robert Welch revealed exactly the opposite. Communism was really a conspiracy of the wealthiest and most educated families, who were ruthless and would sacrifice anybody for their personal power! The whole media circus about the oppressed workers was a Big Lie.
The wealthy Communists of Washington DC and New York City had helped Fidel Castro take power to serve themselves. This Eastern Establishment was the real enemy of the US. FDR worked closely with Joseph Stalin. Truman and Eisenhower obeyed the United Nations. JFK was another East Coast, Harvard-graduate, rich Communist.
Harry sincerely wondered if this was right – because in 1962 Communists were winning in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the US. Yet, even if the JBS doctrine was extreme – taking an extreme U-turn might just be what America needed. Harry pondered all of this very seriously – since Cuba was still Communist, was it only because JFK wanted it that way? Yet the Bay of Pigs seemed to be solid proof! The JBS put JFK and Earl Warren in the crosshairs. The JBS was going to revive McCarthyism and expose the Communists inside the Oval Office!
In November 1961, the JBS learned that General Edwin Walker, who had been dismissed from his command in Germany earlier in the year for teaching JBS doctrines, was now resigning from the US Army and spurning his Army pension. Walker would join the JBS in the streets to teach the JBS truth.
JFK dismissed Walker from his command, they said, because Walker courageously told the truth to his ten thousand troops, that FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and JFK were all Communists.
These young patriotic soldiers put their lives at risk to fight Communism and General Walker only wanted to teach them solid Anticommunist principles. That made JFK (the Communist) remove General Walker from his command. The JBS believed this like Scripture.
On November 18, 1961, JFK flew to Hollywood to speak at a dinner in the Palladium where he would lash out against right-wingers who allegedly “find treason in our Churches, in our highest court, in our treatment of water.” JFK didn’t mention the JBS by name, but those were JBS party lines.
General Walker was already in Hollywood that night, organizing a large crowd of JBS members in the Hollywood High School auditorium, to picket JFK’s speech. Hollywood High was just a few blocks from the Palladium, and Walker led the crowd with all their placards as they boisterously marched through the sidewalk to arrive outside of the Palladium.
HARRY DEAN JOINS THE JOHN BIRCH SOCIETY – 1962
Harry told me personally that he thought JBS extremism could have been useful to pull many American voters closer to the right – closer to the Republican Party. That’s why Harry, a moderate Republican, now joined the extreme right wing.
Early in 1962 Harry met one of the local JBS volunteer officers, David Roberts (name changed) an engineer who organized JBS speaker events at Pasadena City Hall. David started doing this at work, Fluor Corporation, as his employers had long invited right-wing speakers to their company auditorium during business hours, and David began by organizing those events.
David was also friendly with Congressman John Rousselot, also an officer in the JBS. Rousselot owned a building that included the San Marino headquarters of the John Birch Society. Harry and David became pals, so Harry and Millie would visit David and his wife at their home for dinner.
Harry was impressed by David’s events at Pasadena City Hall for the biggest names on the right-wing circuit, like Robert Welch, Dan Smoot, Cleon Skousen, Dr. Fred Schwarz, Dean Manion, Gerald K. Smith, famous WW2 war hero Guy Gabaldon, freedom fighters like Loran Hall, and also the resigned General Edwin Walker.
Harry would rarely miss a meeting.
In our next post we’ll summarize the perspectives of three JBS speakers at Pasadena City Hall in 1962 who would strongly influence Harry Dean’s personal behavior over the next two years.