By Russ Baker
While Barack Obama and Donald Trump are currently the most recognized names in politics, they have each only put their stamp on America for a very short time.
Another recent president has had a much different impact. As a one-termer with a self-effacing manner who was later supplanted by a livelier fellow with the same name, he has been largely reduced to a historical footnote. But George H.W. Bush and his forefathers had a profound effect on the country’s power equation — mostly in ways they sought to obscure. With tomorrow’s celebration of America’s birthday, we thought this a good time to inject a little perspective into the proceedings.
To provide readers with that missing historical background, we present a revealing excerpt from my book, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years.
Note: Although the story below does not contain footnotes, the book itself is heavily footnoted and exhaustively sourced. (This excerpt, which was originally posted in 2013, comes from Chapter 3 of the book, and the titles and subtitles have been changed for this publication. For additional excerpts, please start here.)
Introduction by Russ Baker
Correction: A previous version of this posting incorrectly stated that today is Bush’s 93rd birthday. That occurred on June 12.
Skull and Bones
In 1945, with the end of the war, George H. W. “Poppy” Bush entered Yale University. The CIA recruited heavily at all of the Ivy League schools in those days, with the New Haven campus the standout. “Yale has always been the agency’s biggest feeder,” recalled CIA officer Osborne Day (class of’43), “In my Yale class alone there were thirty-five guys in the agency.” Bush’s father, Prescott, was on the university’s board, and the school was crawling with faculty serving as recruiters for the intelligence services . . . Yale’s society’s boys were the cream of the crop, and could keep secrets to boot. And no secret society was more suited to the spy establishment than Skull and Bones, for which Poppy Bush, like his father, was tapped in his junior year. Established in 1832, Skull and Bones is the oldest secret society at Yale, and thus at least theoretically entrusted its membership with a more comprehensive body of secrets than any other campus group. Bones alumni would appear throughout the public and private history of both wartime and peacetime intelligence . . .
When Bush entered Yale, the university was welcoming back countless veterans of the OSS to its faculty. Bush, with naval intelligence work already under his belt by the time he arrived at Yale, would have been seen as a particularly prime candidate for recruitment.
Bonesmen Have All the Muscle
Out of Yale, Bush went directly into the employ of Dresser Industries, a peculiar, family-connected firm providing essential services to the oil industry. Dresser has never received the scrutiny it deserves. Between the lines of its official story can be discerned an alternate version that could suggest a corporate double life . . .
The S. R. Dresser Manufacturing Company had been a small, solid, unexceptional outfit, . . . [when it found]eager buyers in Prescott Bush’s Yale friends Roland and W. Averell Harriman — the sons of railroad tycoon E. H. Harriman — who had only recently set up a merchant bank to assist wealthy families in such endeavors. At the time, Dresser’s principal assets consisted of two very valuable patents in the rapidly expanding oil industry. One was for a packer that made it much easier to remove oil from the ground; the other was for a coupler that made long-range natural gas pipelines feasible. Instead of controlling the oil, Dresser’s strategy was to control the technology that made drilling possible. W.A. Harriman and Company, which had brought Prescott Bush aboard two years earlier, purchased Dresser in 1928.
Prescott Bush and his partners installed an old friend, H. Neil Mallon, at the helm. Mallon’s primary credential was that he was “one of them.” Like Prescott Bush, Mallon was from Ohio, and his family seems both to have known the Bushes and to have had its own set of powerful connections. He was Yale, and he was Skull and Bones, so he could be trusted . . .
Hiring decisions by the Bonesmen at the Harriman firm were presented as jolly and distinctly informal, with club and family being prime qualifications . . . Under Mallon, the company underwent an astonishing transformation. As World War II approached, Dresser began expanding, gobbling up one militarily strategic manufacturer after another. While Dresser was still engaged in the mundane manufacture of drill bits, drilling mud, and other products useful to the oil industry, it was also moving closer to the heart of the rapidly growing military-industrial sector as a defense contractor and subcontractor. It also assembled a board that would epitomize the cozy relationships between titans of industry, finance, media, government, military, and intelligence — and the revolving door between those sectors . . .
Poppy Gets his Hands Oily
After graduating from Yale in 1948, Poppy headed out to visit “Uncle Neil” at Dresser headquarters, which were then in Cleveland. Mallon dispatched the inexperienced Yale grad and Navy vet, with his wife Barbara and firstborn George W. in tow, to Odessa, the remote West Texas boomtown that, with neighboring Midland, was rapidly becoming the center of the oil extraction business.
Oil was certainly a strategic business. A resource required in abundance to fuel the modern navy, army, and air force, oil had driven the engine of World War II. With the end of hostilities, America still had plenty of petroleum, but the demands of the war had exhausted many oil fields. As President Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior and later his petroleum administrator for war, Harold Ickes had warned in 1943, “If there should be a World War III it would have to be fought with someone else’s petroleum, because the United States wouldn’t have it.” . . . Ickes’s eye was then on Saudi Arabia.
If the young George H.W. Bush understood anything about the larger game and his expected role in it, he and his wife Barbara certainly did not let on to the neighbors in those early days in dusty West Texas . . . Poppy’s initial jobs included sweeping out warehouses and painting machinery used for oil drilling, but he was soon asked to handle more challenging tasks . . .
Dresser was well-known in the right circles as providing handy cover to CIA operatives . . . Continuing his whirlwind “training,” Dresser transferred Bush to California, where the company had begun acquiring subsidiaries in 1940. Poppy has never written or spoken publicly in any depth about the California period of his career. He has made only brief references to work on the assembly line at Dresser’s Pacific Pump Works in the Los Angeles suburb of Huntington Park and sales chores for other companies owned by Dresser. In later years, when criticized for his anti-union stands, he would pull out a union card which he claimed came from his membership in the United Steelworkers Union. Why Bush joined the Steelworkers (and attended their meetings) is something of a mystery, since that union was not operating inside Pacific Pump Works.
To be sure, the company was not just pumping water out of the ground anymore. During World War II, Pacific Pump became, like Dresser, an important cog in the war machine. The firm supplied hydraulic-actuating assemblies for airplane landing gear, wing flaps, and bomb doors, and even provided crucial parts for the top-secret process that produced the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
While in California training for Dresser, Poppy, the pregnant Barbara, and little George W. were constantly on the go, with at least five residences in a period of nine months — Huntington Park, Bakersfield, Whittier, Ventura, and Compton. Poppy was often absent, according to Barbara, even from their brief-tenure outposts. Was he truly a Willy Loman, peddling drill bits, dragging a pregnant wife and a one-year-old child with him? Or was he doing something else? Although “ordinary” scions often toil briefly at the bottom, Bush was no ordinary scion.
Bush would so effectively obscure his life that even some of his best friends seemed to know little about what he was actually doing — though they may have intuited it. A longtime friend of Bush’s said that Bush probably would have been happiest as a career intelligence officer. Another longtime Bush associate told a reporter anonymously that Poppy’s own accounts of various periods in his life “are often off 10 to 30 percent … there is a certain reserve, even secretiveness.”
From Dallas, with Love
In 1950, during the time Poppy Bush squired a Yugoslav Communist around the oil fields for Dresser Industries, the cold war got hot in an unexpected quarter when North Korean Communist forces launched an invasion of the south. Their attack had not been even vaguely anticipated in the National Intelligence Estimate — from the fledgling CIA — which had arrived on the president’s desk just six days before. Heads rolled, and in the ensuing shake-up, Allen Dulles became deputy director in charge of clandestine operations, which included both spying and proactive covert operations. For the Bushes, who had a decades-long personal and business relationship to the Dulles family, this was certainly an interesting development.
The Dulles and Bush clans had long mixed over business, politics, and friendship, and the corollary to all three — intelligence. Even as far back as World War I, while Dulles’s uncle served as secretary of state, Prescott’s father, Samuel Bush, oversaw small arms manufacturing for the War Industries Board, and young Allen played a crucial role in the fledgling intelligence services operations in Europe. Later, the families interacted regularly as the Bush clan plied their trade in investment banking and the Dulleses in the law.
In 1950, Dresser was completing a corporate relocation to Dallas which, besides being an oil capital, was rapidly becoming a center of the defense industry and its military-industrial-energy elite. Though a virtual unknown on his arrival, Neil Mallon quickly set about bringing the conservative titans of Dallas society together in a new local chapter of the non-profit Council on World Affairs, in whose Cleveland branch he had been active. Started in 1918, the World Affairs Councils of America were a localized equivalent of the Rockefeller-backed Council on Foreign Relations, the presidency of which Allen Dulles had just resigned to take his post at the CIA…Continue Reading →