Weekly Read: The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War – A Tragedy In Three Acts

What if the CIA hasn’t been a bad idea all along? That’s the theory underpinning The Quiet Americans, a look at the early days of the agency and its roots in World War II. Fascinating and detailed as the book is, I’m not sure I completely buy Scott Anderson’s thesis that if the guys on the ground would have been allowed to do it their way things might have worked out better.

Telling even part of the history of the CIA is a sprawling affair, which Anderson does by focusing on four early agency operatives, all of whom came out of the hastily assembled intelligence groups the United States used during the war. This Washington Post review summarizes them well:

Frank Wisner, the first chief of the CIA’s covert-operations unit, provides a top-down view of the early Cold War, while Michael Burke, a jack-of-all-trades charmer, delivers an agent’s experience from the ground up. The German émigré Peter Sichel, the most intriguing and least known of Anderson’s characters, spends most of his time in Berlin and Eastern Europe, while Edward Lansdale, the best known of the four, traipses through the Philippines. Lansdale gives the book its title, borrowed from Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American,” rumored to be based on Lansdale’s misadventures in Southeast Asia. An early adopter in the emerging field of “psychological warfare,” Lansdale would become best known for his clandestine scheming in Vietnam, but Anderson captures him at an earlier moment, as a young man grappling with the moral and logistical complexities of foreign intervention — more “Lawrence of Asia,” as his nickname suggested, than Dr. Strangelove.

What the CIA eventually becomes – a black hole out of which clandestine operations toppled governments and propped up dictators – has an origin story in Anderson’s telling. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Soviets treated the areas of Eastern Europe they liberated less as newly freed lands than as conquered territories. They installed puppet regimes, stripped resources, and even hauled people away to work in the Soviet Union in scenes reminiscent of the transport of Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust. This was evil, without a doubt, but it was also a kind of fait accompli and there wasn’t anything short of another war that the US and its allies could do about it.

With Eastern Europe locked up, US foreign policy eyes turned toward what was now being called the Third World. The problem was that the thing that gave the Soviets such leverage in Europe – geographical proximity and boots on the ground – didn’t apply in Asia, Africa, or Central and South America. More to the point, populations in these areas often had legitimate grievances arising from generations of colonial rule. Instead of recognizing and working with that anger, the US saw everyone who didn’t toe their line as communists and battled against them accordingly.

A large part of Anderson’s story is about how the four titular quiet Americans came to become disillusioned with the CIA’s work. Part of that came from the abandonment of two American ideals in the name of fighting communists. The first was rejecting the anti-colonial position of the Roosevelt administration in favor of helping Cold War allies prop up their failing empires. This was always a bit hypocritical – we’ve got our empire, too – but siding with, say, the French in Southeast Asia over local independence movements only proved to the locals that if they wanted outside support it wasn’t coming from the Americans. Most spectacularly, this led to the morass that was the Vietnam War.

The other guiding principle that the US let slide in the name of fighting communism was a commitment to democracy. Two of the early CIA’s successes were orchestrating coups in Iran and Guatemala that deposed popularly elected leaders that were perceived as problematic. In Iran it was more down to British oil interests than anything else, while in Guatemala the CIA managed to turn an elected president who was, at most, a little left leaning into a communist scourge who had to be stopped at all costs (though Moscow didn’t even know who he was).

If ditching those principles were strike one and two, then the third was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. For most of the Cold War up to that point CIA operatives had staged operations behind the Iron Curtain, flying in expat agents (many of whom were captured or killed – or both) and generally trying to lay the groundwork to aid in a popular uprising, should it come. When it did, in Hungary, the US didn’t do anything. Part of this was due to the specter of a nuclear war which everyone figured would arise from conflict in Europe. That led to the CIA guys, as one of them put it, not knowing what to do if they “won.”

Of course, there was no “winning” the games they were playing. I followed up this book with The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins, which focuses on the CIA’s role in overthrowing the Indonesian government in 1965. What’s interesting is that, in laying the background, Bevins provides some more detail on things like the Iranian and Guatemalan coups, making their unsavorinous clear, while pointing out the long-term consequences for those countries. In other words, even the successes of the early CIA really weren’t, in the long run.

This comes out sounding a little harsh on The Quiet Americans, which isn’t really fair. It’s a very compelling book, with lots of interesting details about not just some of the overseas operations, but also the political context back in the US. Indeed, one running thread was how J. Edgar Hoover pretty much had it in for the CIA from the beginning, since he wanted to run the intelligence show from the FBI. But there’s a definite theme that the CIA itself wasn’t a failure, but that it was failed by higher ups, in much the same way that, for years, the debacle in Vietnam was framed as what happens when the politicians don’t just get out of the way and let the military run the show.

But, overall, this is a very worthy read. Just remember to take it with just a few grains of salt.

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