In 1966, Bill Buckley went back to Yale to defend our war in Vietnam against the university chaplain, Bill Coffin. There were fights at the door of the Law School to get in. The president of the Political Union lingered, in his introduction, over comparison of the two men—Coffin ‘49, Buckley ‘50; both Skull and Bones, and members of the Elizabethan Club; both veterans when they entered Yale—Buckley as a second lieutenant after two years, Coffin a captain after four (the students cheered). Both had contentious later lives, and in unexpected ways—it was Coffin who served in the CIA.
The young man did not know, yet, that Buckley also joined the CIA. That well-guarded secret was one of many little things exposed around the edges of the Watergate affair. Buckley had gone in at the top—or bottom. He was recruited as a “deep cover” agent—the meaning of that is spelled out in Buckley’s semi-autobiographical novel, Saving the Queen.1 His sister Priscilla also worked for the CIA; but when she looked through every office file she could, searching for her brother’s name, she did not find it. He was the secretest kind of spook. He can speak with some authority—and, indirectly, does—in his novel.
Buckley was recruited right out of college. He intended to enroll in Yale’s graduate school, to study under the fierce but stylish anticommunist ogre, Willmoore Kendall. But Kendall was going back into government intelligence, and he persuaded Buckley that the Korean conflict would shortly become World War III, so the two of them might as well make a place for themselves, ahead of time, in the civilized branch of the service. It was, in 1950, like being tapped for Bones. Gentlemen songsters off on a spree. Kendall introduced Buckley to CIA man James Burnham (whose books the hero in Buckley’s novel must read as an assignment from the Agency). Later, when these three men launched the journal National Review, Burnham called his regular column for the magazine “The Third World War.” When Buckley calls for a war, he does not let it decline the invitation.
Kendall, brilliant, melodramatic, self-destructive, was an improbable secret-keeper. (He is the loosely fictionalized subject of Saul Bellow’s tale, “Mosby’s Memoirs.”) But it was the genius of the CIA to create a discipline for free spirits. This was its heritage from the Office of Strategic Services, that permanent floating faculty meeting where the boys were also the masters. It is fitting that Buckley’s quite skillful spy tale draws a long implicit comparison between the Agency and a British public school. In both, the rebellious are admired, within bounds—Steerforth, were he alive in America during the 1950s, would infallibly have drifted toward the CIA. Buckley’s protagonist, who becomes a boyish hero to his peers by cool insult to “the system” at his school, remains a hero amid spooks by defying Congress at the novel’s end, refusing to break his binding higher oath to the secret society. Once Bones, always Bones.
The English school tie is what makes Buckley’s story so appropriate and revealing. His hero is qualified for service in England because his school connection makes that a good “cover” for him—yet he resents the country where his 1941 “America First” attitude led to persecution and a Swinburnian scene under the master’s rod. Buckley indulges the sadistic conventions of the Howard Hunt spy tale when he makes his hero “punish” the Queen of England (no less) with nine counted-out coital strokes, evening the score for nine lashes from the headmaster. “Bang,” types Mickey Spillane, as he dribbles white “bullets.”
The CIA was born, by way of OSS, from England’s MI-6. General William Donovan put his new organization to school with British intelligence service. And that service had grown up in a matrix that left three principal marks upon it, of social ties, colonialism, and a sense of peerage with the foe. Each mark would be imprinted, in faint but definite ways, on the American pupil, deep as lashes delivered at one’s school.
1) MI-6 was always a very good club. The necessary secrecy was imposed on a previously developed exclusivity. It was the last refuge for bright Blimps. While Msgr. Ronnie Knox, closest friend-tutor of Harold Macmillan, was trying quixotically to “decipher” the Old Testament without training in Semitic cultures, his brother Alfred cracked enemy codes with the family genius for tossing off Times crossword puzzles. The rare Bertie Wooster with a brain could only serve his sovereign (if at all) in military intelligence. Waugh caught the mood exactly in Put Out More Flags, where Basil Seale uses MI gobbledygook to awe air wardens and headwaiters. Seale’s real pitch to MI-9 was intended to be silly in the novel, but it sounds like a state paper in the age of Angola. It is a plan for annexing Liberia:
The German planters there out-number the British by about fourteen to one. They’re organized as a Nazi unit; they’ve been importing arms through Japan and they are simply waiting for the signal from Berlin to take over the government of the state. With Monrovia in enemy hands, with submarines based there, our West Coast trade route is cut. Then all the Germans have to do is to shut the Suez Canal, which they can do from Massawa whenever they like, and the Mediterranean is lost. Liberia is our one weak spot in West Africa. We’ve got to get in first. Don’t you see?
The official does not understand why Seale has come to him—it is, he answers, so the man can explain it to America after Liberia is taken.
It was natural for Basil Seale’s friends to think his one chance at making something of himself was as a gentleman warrior off on a spy. They were not far wrong. Near-Basils, and even odder types, did perform important services for the Empire in its last hour: Alan Turing, who listened every day to the favorite BBC radio show of his childhood, about Larry the Lamb, and who called his mother immediately after each show to compare diagnoses of its incidents, reproduced the German “Enigma” machine to read Hitler’s most carefully guarded cipher. (The Germans were reluctant admirers of British intelligence, too—their machine was named for Elgar’s variations.)
At times, reading Anthony Cave Brown’s flawed and too admiring history of MI-6 in World War II (Body-guard of Lies),2 we seem to step back through Waugh’s world to Wodehouse’s: Sir Hughe Montgomery Knatchbull-Hugessen, Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George, MI-6’s man in Ankara, was known to his friends as “Snatch,” and kept his spy-servant (known as “Cicero”) dressed in Turkish costume with turned-up toes. Cicero sang lieder while Snatch played the piano. It was Waugh out-Waughed by reality.
MI-6 likes to trace its ancestry to Walsingham’s spying on the Spanish Armada. In the twentieth century, Captain Mansfield Smith-Cumming, who had commanded His Majesty’s fleet in the China Sea, became the first head of intelligence to call himself “C” and insist on total secrecy for the organization. Smith-Cumming was a bit like Ritchie-Hook; he stabbed a knife into his peg leg for emphasis instead of pounding on the desk. He extended the despotic Official Secrets Act into the twentieth century.
When Stewart Menzies became “C” in 1939, the Admiralty resented this “upstart” from the Life Guards taking over the Navy’s post—even if Menzies had been president of “Pop” at Eton, a super-Bones position. King George overcame these objections by presenting Menzies with the Ivory, a pledge of instant access to the king, given only to a handful of men. The Menzies crew had people with genuine flare in it. The first chief of deception for European landings was Colonel the Honorable Oliver Stanley, son of the seventeenth Earl of Derby, grandson of the seventh Duke of Manchester, son-in-law of the seventh Marquess of London-derry, known as “The Fox.” He had blackballed the Age Khan at the Turf. He resigned in protest when he felt his men had not been properly used in the Dieppe landing. A friend interpreted his objection to this feint (meant to draw troops from the Russian front): “A man whose ancestors had put the Tudors on the throne saw no reason to bow low to foreign potentates.” Stanley left military intelligence to become minister of colonies.
The controller of deception, minister to what is now known as “disinformation,” was bound to be well connected in World War II. John Bevan, of Eton and Christ Church, married to a descendant of Lord Lucan, commander of the Light Brigade at Balaklava, had been preceded in this office by a son of the Earl of Derby and a brother of the Earl of Scarborough. It is not suprising that when German intelligence meant to make contact with Menzies in the 1930s it dispatched Germans like Robert Treeck, who could ride to hounds with Menzies in the blue and buff livery of the Beaufort Hunt (instead of ordinary pink and black) and move through the country-house circuit around the Menzies seat, Bridges Court. One had to join the club in order to spy on its members.
2) English military intelligence was tempered throughout by the imperial mentality. Administering the colonies demanded a world-wide information system. Beyond that, it called for an intelligence operation within each colony, not only to know what was going on among rival native factions but to play them off against each other. That is why a controller of deception was already a traditional part of English intelligence by the time of World War II. The skills involved came from the fact that England had two distinct sorts of government, one for the Home Country and another for the colonies. Things were possible for the colonial governments that could not be undertaken in the motherland—things, in fact, it were better for the ordinary Englishman not to know about. Whenever you have two such governments not entirely recognizing each other’s norms, a coordinating mechanism is needed, which tends to think of itself as the “real” government. In England, the natural home of such a force was the Establishment, the ruling families still politically active, who had all along thought of themselves as the protectors of King and Country.
Out of this complex of circumstances arose the paradox of MI-6. It was a unit whose binding force was honor; yet it dealt naturally in the violence and deception of “special operations” (dirty tricks). The very top of society could stoop below the very bottom because the Empire had to manipulate “lesser breeds without the law” for the Empire’s good, and for the good of the lesser breeds themselves—if the ingrates could only recognize that fact.
It was a point of great pride, in this atmosphere, to understand the native mind to enter into all its labyrinthine schemes and ruthless internal wars—without ever going native or losing one’s honor toward one’s own. One had to touch pitch constantly yet remain undefiled. James Bond’s elaborately choreographed meals, his connoisseur’s tastes, are the modern equivalent of dressing for High Tea in India or South Africa. Assassination is a necessity, after all, when one is dealing with assassins, or thugs, or whatever. But that is no reason to be blackballed at White’s.