I’m too young to have ever seen a 1951 drama with a provocative title, I Was a Communist for the FBI. I do recall my parents tuning in to a related TV series, I Led Three Lives (1953-1956). In both, an All-American good guy joins the Communist Party to spy on behalf of the red, white, and blue. Such was life in the 1950s, when those in the know were spotting saboteurs and commie stooges under every bed.
Evan Thomas, eminent historian and biographer, published in 1995 a fascinating book called The Very Best Men. Subtitled Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the CIA, it offered an inside look at a shadowy organization I knew little about, one established at the close of World War II to combat the red menace beyond U.S. borders. (By contrast, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were rooting out Communist infiltration on American soil.)
This was the era when Ian Fleming was starting to publish his James Bond novels. They reached U.S. shores by the late Fifties, and the first film followed in 1962. President Kennedy was one of many serious devotees; politicians as well as Americans of every stripe were agog at the idea of secret agents heroically (and with flair) keeping us safe from the evil forces that threatened our way of life. Thomas himself notes that “at a time when J. Edgar Hoover was still a national hero, there was no reason for the public to believe that the CIA was any less noble.”
The men who led the early CIA turn out to be a colorful bunch. Thomas focuses on four of them—Frank Wisner, Des FitzGerald, Tracy Barnes, and Richard Bissell—who had several things in common. They were all smart, brave, well-educated, and patrician. (Many CIA higher-ups followed a trajectory from Groton, one of the nation’s toniest prep schools, to Yale.) They tended to dislike administrative duties, and far preferred being where the action was, in faraway places where they could foment coups and otherwise disrupt Soviet influence. They loved spontaneity, and had little use for oversight, especially from other branches of the U.S. government. They sometimes succeeded brilliantly, but often made a hash of things.
The fingerprints of the CIA were everywhere in this era. They scared a Guatemalan president out of office and helped install as Iran’s prime minister a general so panicked by his new responsibilities that a CIA agent had to help him button his uniform collar on the day of the coup. They tried to depose Sukarno of Indonesia by shooting a pornographic movie in which a lookalike was seduced by a sexy Soviet spy posing as a flight attendant. As the Sixties wore on, many CIA hands became obsessed with destabilizing Cuba’s Castro regime. They quickly moved from schemes designed to embarrass Castro—like using a depilatory powder to make his beard fall out—to outright assassination attempts involving poisoned pens, poisoned diving suits, exploding seashells, and bacteria-laced cigars. None of this, obviously, makes the CIA look very good.
The lives of the four men profiled by Thomas did not turn out well. One killed himself; two ended their careers in disgrace; only one lived beyond the age of 62. When Tracy Barnes read John Le Carré’s bitter The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, he recognized its essential truthfulness about the burden of a covert life. According to his daughter, “It was like it hit him, that this really was a dirty business, no more James Bond . . . but rather a creature that eats its own.”
Evan Thomas (most recently the author of Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World) will be featured on the panel I’m moderating at a conference sponsored by the Biographers International Organization. Other panelists, including Will Swift (Pat and Dick: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage) and Brian Jay Jones (Jim Henson: The Biography) will join Evan in exploring the topic “Getting the Family On Board.” It all happens on the University of Massachusetts’ Boston campus on Saturday, May 17. The public is most welcome.