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The Spook of Spooks

Eventually a new publisher recruited Grose to “complete” the book, but while some sections still show the influence of Smith’s earlier work this is still very much Grose’s book. Smith’s thousand pages, filled with operational detail, have been largely thrown out by Grose, who has instead written a genuine life—a biography which sticks closely to the man, his character, and the influence on history which was truly and uniquely his, not simply the work of the agency under his command. What emerges is a portrait of Allen Dulles as one of the architects and early commanders of the cold war, a man whose profound selfconfidence gave a vigorous pugnacity to American foreign policy for a decade.

Europe was the prize fought over during the cold war, but by the time Dulles became director of Central Intelligence in 1953 Europe was no longer the principal battleground. The division of the continent mapped by the Iron Curtain was too dangerous to cross, a fact recognized by the Russians at the end of the Berlin blockade and by the Americans, with some internal self-questioning, and even anguish, after the popular antiCommunist uprisings were suppressed in Berlin in 1953 and Hungary in 1956. The CIA under Dulles had hoped and even prepared for rebellion in the East, and had actually organized Hungarian resistance forces; but when the moment arrived, and any serious attempt to help rebels defeat Soviet tanks would have demanded American tanks, realism prevailed. The battlegrounds of the cold war thereafter moved to the third world, where actual combat by covert warriors and proxy armies could be safely conducted—that is, without threatening the interests of an opponent so obviously vital that full-scale war was bound to result.

The principal campaigns of the CIA under Dulles form a kind of silent coda to whatever was agitating the White House and John Foster Dulles at any given moment—the propaganda war with the Soviets; the “immoral” (in Foster’s view) neutralism of Indonesia and India; Soviet ambitions in the Middle East, where oil, Israel, and European allies all tugged American policy in different directions; revolutionary movements in Africa, Central America, and Cuba; and Soviet military programs which might threaten American reliance on nuclear deterrence.

This last probably burned up more calories of human energy in argument than all the others combined. The general public, horrified by the escalating levels of nuclear weaponry, never quite grasped what was at stake in the dispute over “deterrence”—whether the United States could sanely threaten to defend Europe with atomic and hydrogen bombs. Defense budgets hinged on the answer to that question. Whenever the Soviets “caught up” in the development of strategic weapons, deterrence required another upward spiral in the arms race, at staggering cost, with a corresponding increase in the danger that a failure of deterrence—that is, an outbreak of war—would more or less destroy the world. Grose provides a standard account of the beginning of this intelligence war, when the U-2 spy plane and satellite reconnaissance were brought into play. But about the ceaseless quarreling between the CIA and the Pentagon over the extent and purpose of Soviet military programs, Grose has very little to say. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, the discussion grows lethally boring once the central question of suspense—Would the arms race end with destruction of the world or not?—has been resolved by events. But just as important is the fact that White House officials and directors of Central Intelligence for the most part trusted aides to tell them what mattered most—what it would cost to “stay ahead.”

Much has been written about the covert adventuring of the Dulles years, especially the successful overthrow of governments in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954). In both cases the argument for overthrowing them revolved around the danger of “Soviet footholds’ in the Middle East (thus threatening Western oil supplies and the Suez Canal) and Central America (ditto the Panama Canal). But Grose is quick to point out the importance of commercial interests—nationalization of British oil companies by Iran and of banana plantations in Guatemala owned by the United Fruit Company, a client, not incidentally, of the law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. These are twice-told tales, but Grose has added new information and unfolded the stories with clarity and dramatic verve.

Also good are Grose’s accounts of the CIA’s bungled attempt to overthrow the government of Indonesia in 1958, which came undone when an American pilot on a secret bombing mission was shot down and captured;* and of the agency’s success in obtaining a copy of Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin’s crimes. It has long been generally known to have come from the Israelis, but the means by which it did so—through the circle of former Soviet political prisoners close to the Polish leader Wladyslaw Gomulka—have never been laid out with the detail Grose provides here. And there is much else besides, from Dulles’s deft handling of the Red-hunting forays of Senator Joseph McCarthy, to the slow unfolding of the disaster of the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, which ended Dulles’s career.

Grose has a firm sense of the manner in which the operation to get rid of Castro, started under Eisenhower, cast all doubts aside and grew until it reached behemoth size. The thousand men who went ashore in April 1961 were far too many for the nucleus of a long-term guerrilla army—Fidel Castro himself began with fewer than a score—but far too few to beat Castro’s huge army and militia, backed up by the overwhelming support of the Cuban people. How intelligent men convinced themselves that there was promise in this mad endeavor has been described before, but the disaster offers a lesson about the limits of “covert” action, and Grose tells it well.

With perhaps one exception. It seems to me that Grose has thrown up his hands too soon in his attempt to trace the history of CIA plans to assassinate Castro. This episode has proved unexpectedly difficult for historians, Grose now included, for reasons which have more to do with the public pain of John F. Kennedy’s own murder and the literary energy of the late President’s friends than they do with the inevitably spotty written record. The plots to kill Castro and other foreign leaders were the subject of an entire volume of the Church Committee’s report on intelligence activities in the late 1970s. Just who bears ultimate responsibility for undertaking these efforts, however, the committee never quite spelled out. Kennedy’s colleagues all heatedly denied he had ever approved, or for that matter known about, the efforts to kill Castro; and the Church Committee discovered no hard evidence proving that he did know.

Kennedy’s secretary of defense Robert McNamara neatly laid out the dilemma posed by the record: on the one hand, he told the Church Committee, the CIA was a highly disciplined institution and so far as he knew it had never undertaken a single important measure without proper authority; but on the other hand McNamara certainly knew of no plan to kill Castro and he was morally certain President Kennedy didn’t either. “I just can’t understand how it could have happened,” he said. “I understand the contradiction that this carries with respect to the facts.”

To resolve this contradiction Peter Grose proposes resort to the “Thomas à Becket defense,” prepared for monarchs with tell-tale drops of blood leading to their door and named for the British archbishop murdered in the twelfth century by agents of King Henry II, who had wished aloud for someone to free him of this trouble-some cleric. CIA officers all told the Church Committee that “bad words” like assassination were never uttered in the same sentence with Castro’s name, and that the subject was discussed with high officials in muffled manner, with delicate obliquity and airy circumlocution. “It may well be,” Grose suggests, “that Kennedy, new to the job and confused by Allen’s manner, simply did not understand what Allen thought he was communicating.” In short, it was all a muddle: Kennedy never said do it, and the CIA never went off on its own.

American public life has been agitated by three questions of this kind in the last twenty years: Did Kennedy know about the plots to kill Castro? Did Richard Nixon know about the Watergate cover-up? Did Ronald Reagan know about Iran-contra? Those who find these questions too deeply baffling for mere men to hope to answer will perhaps be content to join Grose, who has elected grace over rigor on this point, and let it go. In fact there is a great deal of evidence about Kennedy’s knowledge of the CIA plots and much of it is not at all ambiguous. If we press the question it is not in order to judge Kennedy but because it tells us two things about the CIA, true about other intelligence services as well, which are fundamental to understanding the agency’s role in American politics.

The first is that the CIA works for the president. The second is that the CIA attempts to keep its covert actions secret. When they become known, effort is made to ensure they cannot be attributed to the United States. When the United States is obviously the author, the CIA protects the president by taking the blame. This is what is meant by “plausible deniability.” But the concept has a flaw. When the CIA has really done something awful on its own, the responding fury of the office of the president is unmistakable and unrestrained. But when the agency is only falling on its sword in time-honored fashion, then the president’s men treat the alleged excess with great gentleness, in the manner of McNamara saying with the sweet candor of a boy next to an empty cookie jar, “I just can’t understand how it could have happened.”

Kennedy was plenty angry about the embarrassing failure at the Bay of Pigs, but he was also man enough to admit he could have said no. Many of his aides wanted to chastise Dulles with a public flogging but Kennedy made a point of treating him with great courtesy, partly because one never burns all bridges to the man who knows your secrets, but also because a sense of personal decency was part of the President’s character. Dulles was so bucked up by Kennedy’s reassurance he allowed himself to hope he might stay on for another couple of years. The decent interval Kennedy had in mind was much shorter. In August, Dulles returned from the White House to tell an assistant, “I’ve been fired.”

Dulles’s life ticked on for another eight years, but his career was over, saving one further episode. After Kennedy was assassinated Dulles was appointed to the Warren Commission to investigate the crime. One of his first acts was to submit to his fellow commissioners a book arguing that American assassins were all lone nuts. It is probable he believed this. It also meant the commission had no need to know about the CIA plots to kill Castro, and Dulles made sure it didn’t.

Allen Dulles did not lack for critics during his decade in power. The best informed were two old friends from the war years, diplomacy, and the Council on Foreign Relations, Robert H. Lovett and David Bruce, both princes of the establishment who were asked to study the CIA’s covert action programs in 1956. The report is still classified but Grose obtained extensive excerpts from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who found a copy in Robert Kennedy’s papers. Far from congratulating Dulles on his success in confounding America’s enemies, the Lovett-Bruce report registers alarm and dismay:

The CIA, busy, monied and privileged, likes its “kingmaking” responsibility… There are always, of course, on record the twin, well-born purposes of “frustrating the Soviets” and keeping others “pro-Western” oriented. Under these, almost any [covert] action can be, and is being, justified…. Should not someone, somewhere in an authoritative position in our government…[be] keeping in mind the long range wisdom of activities which have entailed our virtual abandonment of the international “golden rule,” and which, if successful to the degree claimed for them, are responsible in a great measure for stirring up the turmoil and raising the doubts about us that exist in many countries of the world today?

The well-financed, aggressive, “kingmaking” secret intelligence organization answerable to the president alone, which alarmed Lovett and Bruce, was Allen Dulles’s contribution to the American form of government. Dulles was sometimes called “the great white case officer” for his delight in the tradecraft of spyrunning, but intelligence-gathering of the traditional sort was never the favorite son in Dulles’s CIA. It is doubtful any other intelligence service has ever plunged more deeply into the political affairs of sovereign neighbors, punished enemies more vigorously, paid friends more lavishly, financed secret armies on a bigger scale, given national leaders a greater range of secret political and military weapons than the CIA as it was invented during the Dulles years. Is this why the United States won the cold war?

We might put forward half a dozen plausible answers to this question, none of them a plain yes or no. But the moment for the attempt has not quite arrived; too much still remains unexplored in Russian files. What is clear is that the cold war was a war fought by other means. Principal among them were the arms race itself and the secret war of intelligence operatives and proxy armies. We may question whether this war-that-never-was could have been avoided, or might have been carried out more sensibly, or won more easily or cheaply. These questions will be long debated by the cold war’s many victims. But there is now not much question that the secret war and the cold war were the same thing, and that Allen Dulles did for American intelligence what John Paul Jones did for the American Navy.


The CIA and Vietnam March 23, 1995

  1. *

    The Indonesian operation is the subject of a new 600-page documentary history just issued by the State Department. It adds new details to the story told by Grose but without altering it fundamentally. The study is the first to incorporate CIA documents in accordance with a law passed in 1991.

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