The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War – a Tragedy in Three Acts, Scott Anderson

Not sure who thought such a convoluted title was a good idea, but writing and publishing this book certainly is one – a good idea, that is.  In telling the story of how the CIA evolved out of WWII’s OSS, Anderson actually shows us how the Cold War began and how it was – if his account is as valid as it feels – prolonged and its damages increased geometrically by the infighting and maneuvering of a smattering of egotistical self-believers.  Who are not, in fact, the four operatives upon whom Anderson hangs his narrative, but the more famous political operatives – Roosevelt, Stalin, Truman, Hoover (J. Edgar, not Herbert), Eisenhower, Kennedy and perhaps most of all, the Dulles brothers, Allen and John Foster, titular heads of the Agency and the State Department, respectively.

One begins reading in anticipation of spy-craft and derring-do, and while there is some of that, it is far outweighed by the bureaucratic maneuvering – who is put in what job at what moment, by whom, with what instructions and accountability, or lack thereof.  Even more so, who in Washington is using the entire intelligence effort for what purpose of their own – to justify a policy or a budget, to settle a score, to win election (or re-election), to demonstrate the gospel truth of their own worldview and ambition.

John LeCarre’s George Smiley and Karla must be looking on from above with bittersweet satisfaction at having their cynicisms confirmed by Anderson’s skewering of post-war intrigue in Berlin and Eastern Europe as pointless and heartless missions with no hope of success except in justifying the ambitions of higher-ups who neither understand nor care about their human cost.  And all those who protested the Viet Nam War would be similarly reassured by his evisceration of its genesis in pre-war colonialism and failed schemes to prop it up after the war, followed in failure by anti-communism-at-any-cost.  Just as the protesters claimed at the time, what happened in Southeast Asia in the fifties and sixties had little to do with the needs of the Vietnamese people and everything to do with the fortunes of politicians tens of thousands of miles away.

The volume’s Epilogue opens by recounting John Foster Dulles’ admission in 1958 that his rabidly anti-communist reading of so many self-determination movements around the world was utterly mistaken.  And yet that vaunted ‘Domino Theory’ continued to guide US policy in Vietnam for over ten years more, and in other places still seeks to drive it today. 

Thus, where first we expected the ‘Tragedy’ of the title to refer to how its four protagonist’s lives played out, we eventually see that that is only partly the case.  Yes, the good and dedicated Frank Wisner was broken by all the deception and waste of lives, eventually taking his own.  But Ed Lansdale managed a more or less successful life to the age of 79, Michael Burke an almost James Bond-ian series of re-inventions to pass away in the quiet Irish countryside, and Peter Sichel lived till at least 97, becoming the wise and wry elder who apparently provided much of the material for this book.  No, it is to the greater geopolitical tragedy, whose cost is measured not in single digits but in the millions of lives, that is really the subject here.  A cautionary tale for those who seek to understand current events – and one can only hope – for those who seek to guide them.

(There are, for what it’s worth, several other books available about Ed Lansdale; Peter Sichel and Michael Burke have written their own memoirs; and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie bears mention as well, among so many others, for further reading on the themes plumbed here.)

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