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As his father nears death in his retirement home in Mexico, John H. Richardson begins to unravel a life filled with drama and secrecy. John Sr. was a CIA "chief of station" on some of the hottest assignments of the Cold War, from the back alleys of occupied Vienna to the jungles of the Philippines?and especially Saigon, where he became a pivotal player in the turning point of the Vietnam War: the overthrow of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. As John Jr. and his sister came of age in exotic postings ...
As his father nears death in his retirement home in Mexico, John H. Richardson begins to unravel a life filled with drama and secrecy. John Sr. was a CIA "chief of station" on some of the hottest assignments of the Cold War, from the back alleys of occupied Vienna to the jungles of the Philippines—and especially Saigon, where he became a pivotal player in the turning point of the Vietnam War: the overthrow of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. As John Jr. and his sister came of age in exotic postings across the world, they struggled to accommodate themselves to their driven, distant father, and their conflict opens a window on the tumult of the sixties and Vietnam.
Through the daily happenings at home and his father's actions, reconstructed from declassified documents as well as extensive interviews with former spies and government officials, Richardson reveals the innermost workings of a family enmeshed in the Cold War—and the deeper war that turns the world of the fathers into the world of the sons.
Mom calls. Dad's in the hospital, on oxygen. It's his heart. I fly down. They live in Mexico in a big adobe house with cool tile floors and high ceilings. Servants move quietly through the rooms. Mom greets me at the door, telling me through tears that she found him last night flopped across the bed with his legs hanging off the edge. He lay there for an hour before he started calling her, then he apologized for bothering her. We both smile because it's just so Dad -- he's always so polite, so maddeningly self-denying. Sometimes Mom cries out: "Don't ask me what I want! Just tell me what you want!"
I go into his room. With his dentures out and his head laid back on the pillow, he's like a cartoon of an old codger, lips sucked over his gums and grizzled chin jutting out. When he sees me, his face brightens.
In his pajama pocket he wears a handkerchief, neatly folded.
A few minutes later he gets up to go to the bathroom. I'm used to seeing him hobble around the house. He's been juggling congestive heart failure, osteoporosis, cirrhosis, and about half a dozen other major illnesses for almost a decade. But now the nurse takes one elbow and I takethe other and he leans over so far he's actually hanging by his arms, bent in half with his chest nearly parallel to the floor. He goes three steps and pauses, rests against the bureau, then takes five more steps and rests again. Glancing sideways I see gray in his cheeks, a whitish gray, like dirty marble.
He makes us wait outside the bathroom. He won't be helped in there. So we stand in the hall and when the toilet flushes I open the door and see him shuffle to the sink. He leans down with his elbows against the yellow tiles and washes his hands. On his way out, he stops to put the toilet seat down.
My father was a spy, a high-ranking member of the CIA, one of those idealistic men who came out of World War II determined to save the world from tyranny. After hunting saboteurs and Nazis during World War II, after sending hundreds of men to death or prison camps during six years behind Soviet lines in occupied Vienna, after manipulating the governments of Greece and the Philippines, and the two terrible years when he helped depose the leader of Vietnam and stored up the raw material for a lifetime of regrets, he retired to Mexico and moved behind these ten-foot-high walls. His bitterness was the mystery of my childhood. Eventually I became a reporter and started trying to put his story together, but whenever I pulled out my tape recorder for a formal interview my father would begin by reminding me that he had taken an oath of silence. That was always the first thing he said: "You know, son, I took an oath of silence."
Later I started interviewing his old friends and colleagues, traveling to Washington and writing to Europe and New Zealand. Some were helpful and pleasant, painting pictures of a tough-minded, piano-playing spy who drank martinis till dawn and carried a gun through the ruined cities of post-war Europe -- a man I could hardly imagine. But many of his friends resisted me. One refused even to have a cup of coffee. "I don't approve of what you're doing," he said.
"What am I doing?"
"You're trying to find out about your father." Another time, I drove to Maryland for a meeting with a group of retired spies. But after the coffee and small talk, they started trying to discourage me. One said that my father would be angry if he knew I was asking questions. Another broke off in the middle of a harmless anecdote and refused to continue. The wife who refilled my cup told me that her kids never asked a single question. "I've had people ask me, 'What was it like being married to a spy?' I would say, 'Oh, was I married to a spy?'"
Tonight I set up my futon on the floor of the study, close enough to hear him if he needs help. Later he starts wheezing so hard I think he's about to die right now. The nurse pounds on his back until he recovers and a minute later he starts worrying again, this time about my mother and whether she's adequately covered by insurance and his pension, things we've gone over a million times before. He gives me advice on dealing with the house after he dies and tips on getting his estate through the Mexican system. I tell him not to worry, kissing his scabby forehead.
Back in the study, I crawl into my bed and take comfort in the familiar setting. This same furniture has gone with us from the hilltop mansion in Athens to the former secret police headquarters in Saigon: the red leather chairs my mother bought at a garage sale in Virginia, the capiz-shell lampshade from the Philippines, the drop-front desk and round cherry table Mom picked up in Vienna after the war, when gorgeous old furniture was selling for a lieder, the autographed pictures of the king and queen of Greece waving from red leather frames embossed with raised gold crowns, mementos of the glory years when Dad fished with the queen and squabbled with the foreign minister and ran spies into Bulgaria and Albania.
And the books -- the books most of all. Bound in red leather with his initials pressed in gold leaf into the spine, complete sets of Aristotle and Plato and Cicero, the essays of Montaigne and the Anatomy of Melancholy and The Confessions of St. Augustine. There's plenty of George Orwell and Winston Churchill and volume after volume on communism, from Conversations with Stalin to the collected works of Lenin to more specialized titles like. . .
Excerpted from My Father the Spy by John Richardson Copyright © 2006 by John Richardson. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 25, 2008
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Posted August 5, 2009
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