The CIA: Present at the Creation
Scott Anderson describes the history of the CIA from 1946-1956 through the eyes of four of its founding officers. They are Michael Burke who would go on to be the general manager of the NY Yankees, Peter Sichel an émigré from Nazi Germany who would return to his family’s wine business, Frank Wisner, who become Deputy Director and Edward Lansdale who would be the model for Graham Greene’s “The Quite American.” All of them previously served with great distinction in the OSS during World War II.
Burke and Sichel ran agents into Communist Eastern Europe to no avail. The police states were too strong to allow the infiltrations to work and most died. Wisner witness the horrors of Soviet occupation of Romania and East Berlin which made him a lifelong antagonist to Communism. Lansdale would make his bones as an advisor to a young Filipino congressman who ultimately become its president, Ramon Magsaysay. From there he would go on to advise President Diem in South Vietnam, who unlike Magsaysay would become an autocrat. Interestingly Lansdale supported the planned Vietnam referendum believing that Diem would actually beat Ho Chi Minh.
Anderson is critical of the CIA’s role in the coups in Iran and Guatemala in 1954 which at the time were viewed as great successes. According to Anderson by cozying up to dictators of the Right, America lost its moral authority in the world. Likely true, but what was the alternative?
The villains in this piece are President Eisenhower, his secretary of state John Foster Dulles, F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, and surprisingly, liberal hero George Kennan. He views Kennan as the architect of the secret war against the Soviets which the CIA would play a leading role. He goes after Hoover as bureaucratic enemy of both the OSS and the CIA along with his role in fomenting the red scare and the attack on gays in the government.
Most of his vitriol is directed against Eisenhower and Dulles who fail to see an opening to the Soviets first after the death of Stalin and later after Khrushchev’s speech denouncing him. Who knows, maybe the Cold War could have been cut short, not likely in my opinion. He also attacks the “New Look” policy of massive nuclear retaliation as opposed to a gradual response. Well, Kennedy tried a gradual response in Vietnam, and it didn’t work out all that well.
Wisner became incensed after the U.S. failed to act in support of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. After years of calling for rebellion, the U.S. sat idly by as the rebels were slaughtered by Soviet tanks. However, what could the U.S. actually do in the Soviet sphere of influence short of World War III.
I would note two intriguing morsels in the book. First, Dulles wanted to provoke a rebellion in East Berlin during a four-power conference that would have led to the slaughter of thousands of innocents. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Second, he discusses how successful Soviet spy Kim Philby was in inveigling himself into the U.S. power structure as the MI-6 liaison to both the CIA and FBI.
Anderson tells a great story about the pure physical heroism of his four protagonists and how they did their jobs under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I only wish he were more nuanced about his policy conclusions.
For the full Amazon URL see: The CIA: Present at the Creation (amazon.com)