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The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the CIA

The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the CIA

by Evan Thomas

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The story of the CIA's early days--before it became The Company--is told through the careers of four men who ran covert operations for the government from the end of World War II to Vietnam. "Thomas has produced a jewel of a book."--David Wise, The Washington Post. Serialized in The Washington Post and Civilization. 16 pp. photo insert. 432 pp.


The story of the CIA's early days--before it became The Company--is told through the careers of four men who ran covert operations for the government from the end of World War II to Vietnam. "Thomas has produced a jewel of a book."--David Wise, The Washington Post. Serialized in The Washington Post and Civilization. 16 pp. photo insert. 432 pp.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A social history of the Cold War careers of four prominent CIA agents. (Dec.)
Library Journal
This excellent addition to material on the early years of the CIA covers the heyday of the Cold War, from the middle 1940s to the middle 1960s. The book focuses on the careers of four operatives: Frank Wisner, Richard Bissell, Tracy Barnes, and Desmond FitzGerald, all of whom helped guide the covert actions and growth of the CIA. Bissell was best known owing to his involvement in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, but Wisner, as the early director of covert operations, was the key figure in the agency's early history. All four appear to have been more interested in the big operation, which could go spectacularly wrong, than in the slow process of intelligence gathering. Much of this same material is covered in Burton Hersh's more critical The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA (LJ 2/15/92). The author, a managing editor at Newsweek, also co-wrote The Wise Men (LJ 10/15/86), which was similar in approach. Recommended for espionage collections of public and academic libraries.-Daniel K. Blewett, Loyola Univ. Lib., Chicago

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
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5.50(w) x 8.48(h) x 1.01(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Very Best Men

Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the CIA
By Evan Thomas

Simon & Schuster

Copyright ©1996 Evan Thomas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0684825384

Chapter One


"Fair play? That's out. "

In the fall of 1948, Frank Wisner, the newly appointed director of the Office of Policy Coordination, was looking for the very best men. He needed to find them quickly, to staff his new outfit, a top-secret organization created to run covert actions in the Cold War.

Wisner wanted amateurs, not EX-FBI agents, former cops, bureaucrats, or, as he called them, "whiskey colonels" who couldn't wait to get to the Officers Club in the evening. Wisner spoke of the "added dimension" that he couldn't find among the paper pushers and timeservers working in the federal buildings along the Mall. He wanted men who would show initiative, who would be innovative, a little quirky if necessary, but bold. They needed to be fluent in foreign languages, and they needed grace and confidence under pressure. The place to find these men, he believed, was on Wall Street, among the bankers and lawyers who had joined the OSS, the wartime intelligence agency, and then drifted back to their peacetime jobs; and from among the graduating classes at their old schools, which generally meant Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

The code name for the CIA's connection tothe Ivy League was "the P Source" (not hard to crack; "P" stood for professor). For some years in the 1950s, the CIA recruiter at Princeton was the dean of students, William Lippincott. "How would you like to serve your country in a different way?" he would ask promising young men. Another recruiter in the early years was the Yale crew coach, Skip Walz. He would work the boathouse and the field house, Mory's and fraternity row, looking for strong young shoulders and quick minds. When the Korean War called for some beef, he broadened his recruiting ground to the National Football League, producing twenty-five former players who would be trained, he was told, for parachuting behind enemy lines. Once every three weeks Walz would meet with his agency contact at the Reflecting Pool in Washington. Walz would pass on his names; he "did not know, or wish to know," Robin Winks writes in Cloak and Gown, which ones actually signed on--or what became of them. (He had heard that his first two recruits died in the field.

In 1950, Walz took a job with a company that manufactured precision gunsights, and he shifted his recruiting territory to the club car between Greenwich and New York. One can imagine what it was like, in this era of the Man in the Gray Flannel suit, for that restless young lawyer riding the 6:43. Perhaps he is bored by probating wills or flyspecking debenture statements. Perhaps, if he is a veteran, he feels a nostalgic longing for the danger and camaraderie of the war. Along comes Skip Walz to chat about the Harvard-Yale boat race--and, by the way, something else....

Many Yale (and Harvard and Princeton) men felt a longing to escape. Their lives were so prescribed, beginning with their college "careers." This romantic urge to get off the safe treadmill is captured by the "Whiffenpoof" song, the sweet, sad ballad (lifted from a drinking song by Rudyard Kipling) that Yalemen link arms to sing:

We're poor little lambs who've lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!
Little black sheep who have gone astray
Baa! Baa! Baa!
Gentlemen songsters off on a spree
Damned from here to Eternity
Lord have mercy on such as we
Baa! Baa! Baa!'

Frank Wisner's OPC offered young men a chance to serve their country, in Dean Lippincott's carefully chosen phrase, "in a different way." Bill Colby, a Princetonian and OSSer who signed on (and later became the director of Central Intelligence), credited Wisner with creating "the atmosphere of an order of Knights Templars, to save Western freedom from Communist darkness...." Joining the OPC was "a rather glamorous and fashionable and certainly a most patriotic thing to do," writes Colby in his memoirs, Honorable Men.

World War II had ended American squeamishness about spying. In 1929, Henry Stimson had abolished the Black Chamber, a code-breaking outfit, under the quaint notion that "gentlemen do not open other gentlemen's mail." Hitler, and now Stalin, clearly did not qualify. In 1947, American moviegoers watched the hero of Cloak and Dagger, played by Gary Cooper, listening to his OSS instructor, played by Jimmy Cagney, lecture on the reality of secret war: "The average American is a good sport, plays by the rules. But this war is no game, and no secret agent is a good sport--no living agent... Fair play? That's out."

Spying, covert action, and psychological warfare were in. To work for Frank Wisner was romantic and dashing. Over time the amateurs would become cynics, and intelligence would become a cult. But in 1948 it was still a crusade.

Frank Gardiner Wisner had grown up in a world that was, like the one the CIA would help create, secretive, insular, elitist, and secure in the rectitude of its purpose.

Wisner's family built nearly all of the town of Laurel, Mississippi-the schools, the churches, the museum, the bank, the parks, the golf course, the cemetery. All the land and many of the buildings were donated by the Gardiner and Wisner clans, paid for with the money made cutting and sawing logs at the local mill, which they also built. The company headquarters, erected in 1910, the year Wisner was born, looks incongruous today, backing on a shopping mall. The building is an exact copy of the sixteenth-century casino of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in Caprarola, Italy.

In later years, Wisner was regarded, even by intimates, as a remote figure; capable of charm and warmth, yet somehow not quite all there. Certainly his upbringing set him apart, in ways that at once elevated and burdened him. The Wisners and Gardiners believed in moral uplift. The Eastman/Gardiner Company did not exploit its workers like some other southern lumber companies; it went to a ten-hour day before the law required and built sanitary housing in the lumber camps out of old railway cars. "My family believed it was from Mississippi, but not Mississippian," said a Gardiner descendant, Charles Reeder. By that he meant that his family had no plantation roots and was decent to blacks, which took some courage in a state where night riders planted burning crosses on the lawns of "nigger lovers." "We believed every person was a child of God," said Jean Lindsey, whose mother, Frank Wisner's sister Elizabeth, discovered and promoted the black opera singer Leontyne Price. ("Leontyne used to call herself our chocolate sister," said Lindsey.) Wisner and Gardiner children were expected to "go forth and do good," said Jean Lindsey. "We were told that to whom much is given, much is expected. It was all very Victorian: never complain, never explain."

It was also privileged and self-contained. As a little boy, Wisner did not dress himself; he merely lay on his bed and raised his arms and legs for his maid. His playmates were almost invariably his cousins. "The only people he saw were his own family," said Lindsey. "We had a kind of enclave," said Admiral Fred Reeder, who married a Gardiner after the First World War. "You didn't need any outside contact. You had all you needed right here."

Wisner was an intense child. His cousin Gardiner Green recalled that he never walked anywhere; he always ran. Somewhat small and sickly, he built himself up by lifting weights (like his hero, Teddy Roosevelt). His father tried to build his spirit by enrolling him in the St. Andrew's Society, under the mentoring of a World War I pilot-turned-Episcopal priest who taught the boys to be "young Galahads," said Charles Reeder. "You pledge to spend time in service to your fellow man, to be a straight shooter, and to pray a lot. " The praying part did not take; when he got older, Wisner infuriated his father by refusing to go to church.

Wisner's moral training was matched by a love of games. Beneath a fey manner, his mother was highly competitive, and Wisner learned to compete fiercely at everything from football to parlor games like mah-jongg. Wisner's aristocratic sensibility, as well as his insularity, was further refined at Woodberry Forest School, in Orange, Virginia. Founded by a Confederate captain after the Civil War, Woodberry preached chivalry. "Give me clean hands, clean words, and clean thoughts," begins the school prayer. "Help me stand for the hard right against the easy wrong." The school was run under an honor code. There were no locks or keys; boys left a white handkerchief on the door if they did not wish to be disturbed.

The University of Virginia, where Wisner went to both college and law school, was more like a private school than "State U." in the 1930s. The young gentlemen at Mr. Jefferson's university wore coats and ties and stood up when a teacher entered the room. They also wildly drank grain alcohol punches at their fraternities on t@e weekend. The great honor was to be tapped by the Sevens, a society so ostentatiously secret that the names of its members were not revealed until death.

Compact and restless, with a gap-tooth grin and bright eyes, Wisner was a great sprinter and hurdler at U.Va., good enough to be asked to the Olympic trials in 1936. His father said no; it would be more character-building to work the summer in a Coca-Cola bottling plant. He had a somewhat ornate sense of humor, which he showed by telling elaborate tall tales and drawing cartoons. In bankruptcy class one day Wisner handed his seatmate, Arthur Jacobs, a drawing of "the courts squeezing debtors, with the creditors lined up with their tongues sticking out to get the droppings." Still, Wisner was regarded as more serious and mature than the hell-raisers in the DKE house. He could drink beer on fraternity row, but he was more apt to be found at a professor's for dinner. He was, inevitably, tapped for the Seven Society.

This combination of high moral purpose and gamesmanship, acted out on a self-consciously higher plane, stayed with Wisner all his life. Years later his nephew Charles Reeder lived for a time with the Wisners in London, where Frank was the CIA chief of station. "Somewhere deep in him," said Reeder, "you knew it was the evil empire versus the good guys. You knew it was part of him. And that it was a great game, to be played with great ferocity." The problem, Wisner discovered after he got to Washington, was that the moral issues were not always so black and white, and the victories against more ruthless opponents, like the Soviet Union, were rare.

Wisner witnessed the greatest moral outrage of his life, the Soviet takeover of Romania, as a spy during World War II. Bored as a Wall Street lawyer, he had enlisted in the Navy six months before Pearl Harbor. But he was relegated to shuffling paper in the Navy censor's office and yearned to see action. (He had been mortified, shortly after America entered the war, when passengers on a subway stood and applauded him as he entered, wearing a naval uniform, hobbling on crutches. His "war wound" was an ankle twisted in a weekend touch football game.) In July 1943, Wisner arranged a transfer to the OSS through Robert Gooch, an old professor from U.Va., a former Rhodes scholar who had an interest in espionage.

Wisner's early experiences at spying ranged from marginally useful to comical. After an uneventful tour in Cairo, he landed in June 1944 in Istanbul, where he worked for a man named Lanning "Packy" MacFarland. Ordered to meet MacFarland at a nightclub there, Wisner tried to be inconspicuous, to preserve his cover as a consular clerk. But when MacFarland made his entrance the music stopped, a spotlight picked him out on the steps leading to the dance floor, and the orchestra struck up a song called "Boop, Boop, Baby, I'm a Spy!" MacFarland, who had two girlfriends, one working for the Soviets, the other for the Germans, later went AWOL.

Wisner's war didn't really begin until he arrived in Bucharest, Romania, just as the Germans were pulling out in August 1944. His first assignment was to organize the return of 1,800 American fliers shot down over the Ploessti oil fields (a success: Wisner commandeered every bus in the city), but his real job soon became keeping an eye on the Russians.

Within a month Wisner was reporting "from a dependable industrial source" that "the Soviet Union is attempting to subvert the position of the government and the King." Not only that, but "Russian sources" were telling Wisner of the Kremlin's goal of "political and economic domination of Southeast Europe, including Turkey." Headquarters in Washington wasn't quite ready to hear that its wartime ally was turning into the Red Menace. General William Donovan, the head of OSS, cautioned Wisner in October against speech or action" that might show "antagonism to Russia." Wisner responded defensively that he was "at aR time exercising the utmost care" not to appear to be siding with the Romanian government against the communists.

In fact, he was deeply involved in palace intrigue in Bucharest, a city that fancied itself as the Paris of the Balkans. Wisner had requisitioned the thirty-room mansion of Romania's largest brewer, Mita Bragadiru, along with his Cadillac Eldorado. He befriended the brewer's wife, Tanda Caradja, a twenty-four-year-old Romanian princess (descendant of Vlad the Impaler) with a wide sensuous mouth and close ties to the royal family. "I became his hostess," she said. "He wanted to meet everyone right away in court society," which she was able to arrange because, she explained with a smile, "when you're rich and above all a good-looking girl, you know a lot of people." She threw elaborate parties for King Michael's advisers (so young they were known as "the Nursery" and invited the Russians as well, advising Wisner to coat his stomach with olive oil for the vodka toasts.

Wisner naturally gravitated to the local elite. He soon became close to King Michael and the Queen Mother, who invited him to her castle and found him well-mannered and self-assured. "Il est tellement calme et tranquille dans ces propos," she told Caradja in her court French. Wisner became an informal adviser to the royal family and, according to Caradja, the life of the party. "He loved dancing and entertainment. He did magic tricks and charades and played backgammon." A photo in a Wisner family album shows Wisner, in the uniform of an American naval commander, squinting at a makeup mirror as he tries to fire a shotgun backwards over his shoulder.

Some of Wisner's staff were put off. A member of Wisner's group recorded, "After about two months, the American Military Unit decided to move away from the Bragadiru residence on the Alea Modrogan. Eating, working, sleeping, drinking, and loving other men's wives all under one roof while husbands and enlisted men were around was just a bit too much for some of us." Beverly Bowie, a staffer assigned to Bucharest, later lampooned Wisner in the novel Operation Bughouse as Commander Downe, a manic OSS operative who sets up headquarters in the large house of Madama Nitti and immediately implores Washington to declare war on the Soviet Union.

Wisner actually did use the names of germs for his codes (his own was Typhoid), but he was not being paranoid about the Russians. On January 6, 1945, Stalin ordered the Red Army to round up all men aged seventeen to forty-five and all women eighteen to thirty who could be determined to be "of German ethnic origin, regardless of citizenship." They were to be deported to the Soviet Union and "mobilized for work." In Bucharest, this caused an appalling scene: Russian troops hauled Transylvanians whose families had been long settled in Romania out of their homes and put them on boxcars for Stalin's work camps. Wisner knew many of these Volksdeutsche from Princess Caradja's soirees. The desperate wife of her architect called him in the middle of the night. They were taking away her husband. Wasn't there anything the Americans could do? Wisner tried. He drove around the city in his jeep, personally trying to stop Russian soldiers from pulling Romanians from their beds. He had some success; the Russian soldiers did not want to make a scene with their wartime ally. But Wisner was unable to save the architect; by the time Wisner arrived at the train station, the man had already vanished, like thousands of others. Wisner could only watch as the Romanians, weeping and begging for help, were herded onto boxcars.

Wisner's wife and children later said that this experience of watching the Russians round up innocents and take them off to misery or death had the most profound influence on his life. Wisner himself talked about his Romanian episode so much and so vividly that Frank Wisner Jr. was startled to learn, when he got older, that his father had spent less than six months in the country.

Throughout the fall and early winter, Wisner had been reading cables from Moscow as they circulated through the Romanian Communist Party, which his agents had penetrated. It was clear to him that the Kremlin meant to take over all of Eastern Europe or, as Stalin's orders to Red Army commanders put it, impose a "broad democratic basis" on the region. Wisner could see as well that the Russians understood who their future foe would be. In late December he warned Washington that the Russians had permitted two trapped Nazi divisions to escape in order to attack American units fighting in the Ardennes in the Battle of the Bulge.

Wisner's cables stirred great interest in Washington, as they were among the first clear warnings of what was to come. But in Wisner's view Washington wasn't doing enough to stop communism from coming to Romania. "He was disgusted," said Caradja. On March 1 the Russians took over the newspapers, the police headquarters, and the palace. A new government under a fellow traveler was set up, and King Michael was driven into exile. Many of the Romanian friends whom Wisner had made in Bucharest were rounded up and simply disappeared.

By then, Wisner was gone, pulled back to Washington at his own request, for reassignment. He was sent to Germany, to work out of the OSS station in Wiesbaden. Postwar Germany held no allure for Wisner. "It is not the same as Bucharest," he wrote Caradja on August 17. "There are no nice people--no opportunities for any pleasure or relaxation from the long hours I put in at my desk. I think often of Romania. It was one of the most interesting and pleasant experiences, and it was you who were responsible for so much of that..." In Germany, Wisner could already see the sparks of the next war in the embers of the last. His cables back to headquarters reported on Russian mischief. One told of a socialist leader in the Russian zone who "expressed in rather strong terms his opposition to the Communist Party"--and promptly disappeared in the company of several Russian officers." Another described an anti-American "whispering campaign" fomented by Russian propaganda specialists to spread rumors around Berlin that American soldiers were robbing elderly, well-dressed German women.

Policymakers did not want to hear what Wisner was telling them. Having fought and won a war, almost no one in Washington wanted to think about another. The Russians were communists and not trustworthy, but they had been allies, and official Washington still wanted to find a way to make common cause in the postwar world. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., an OSS sergeant in Wiesbaden, found Wisner obsessed with Russia. "He was already mobilizing for the cold war," Schlesinger told Burton Hersh for his book The Old Boys. "I myself was no great admirer of the Soviet Union, and I certainly had no expectation of harmonious relations after the war. But Frank was a little excessive, even for me."

As Wisner was gearing up for a spy war, Washington was gearing down. Ever eager to protect his own turf, the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover had, through a campaign of leaks and innuendo, convinced Harry Truman that the OSS in peacetime would be an "American Gestapo." In September 1945, Truman folded up the OSS, leaving a vestigial intelligence organization, the Strategic Services Unit (SSU), languishing in the War Department. Wisner rushed back to Washington to argue for more resources. When Colonel William Quinn, the head of the SSU, turned down Wisner's request for two hundred bicycles, to be given Germans so they could ride through the Russian zone of Berlin and record Soviet troop movements, Wisner quit. As he turned in his commission, he told Colonel Quinn, "You're cutting our throat."

Grudgingly, Wisner went back to his Wall Street law firm, Carter Ledyard, in the winter of 1946. In Germany, he had worked under Allen Dulles, the OSS's top spymaster in Europe. Dulles, like Wisner, had returned to Wall Street to his own law firm after the war. The two men began having lunch together to talk about old times and to discuss the need to build a strong peacetime intelligence service. Peter Sichel, who worked with both men in Germany, went to one of those lunches, at the Down Town Association: "They were pining to get back. They were boy scouts who were bored in their law jobs. They were like fighter pilots in England after the Battle of Britain. They couldn't adjust. They were both great romantics who saw themselves as the saviors of the world."

As it became clear that the country was beginning a Cold War against the Soviet Union, Wisner increasingly began to ponder ways to join in. He toyed with the idea of going to Washington and joining up with the remnant of the wartime OSS, the SSU, but he considered the organization to be weak and badly run. (There is some evidence as well that the SSU was not eager to have him; the Army colonels who dominated the intelligence agency at the time were wary of Wisner as "another ['Wild Bill'] Donovan who'll run away with the ball," according to author William Corson.)

By the spring of 1947, Wisner was unable to stay away any longer. In Europe, the winter had been the worst in memory, and England, France, Italy, and especially Germany were threatened by famine and unrest. Washington was rising out of its postwar torpor: at the State Department, Dean Acheson could see that the time had come for the United States to take over Britain's imperial role. The Truman Doctrine, declared in March, promised that America would aid "free peoples" everywhere in the fight against communism.

In 1947, in the opening days of the Cold War, the State Department was the place to be for an ambitious Cold Warrior like Wisner; the best men with the best minds were there--undersecretary Dean Acheson, Soviet experts George Kennan and Chip Bohlen. That summer Wisner took a job, at Acheson's urging, as the number-two man in the State Department's Office of Occupied Territories. His boss, Charles Saltzman, was a former head of the New York Stock Exchange and a Carter Ledyard client.

Wisner was also State's representative on the State-Army-Navy-Air Force Coordinating Committee, an interagency group that was supposed to study "psychological warfare" to counter Soviet ambitions. The threat had been vividly described in Kennan's famous "Long Telegram," the Russian expert's warning of Soviet global ambitions that had been received from Moscow and passed around by anxious officials in Washington. Stalin was implementing Trotsky's strategy of "neither war nor peace" by a campaign of subversion, propaganda, and intimidation. Washington did not at the time fear a Soviet invasion of the West, but rather a slow rotting from within, fomented by communist agents bribing politicians, taking over labor unions, infiltrating the army and the police. The feeling was that the Kremlin had plenty of experience in this area; the West almost none.

How to fight back? In the summer of 1947, Wisner traveled to his new State Department domain, the occupied territory of Germany. While he was there he visited the "displaced persons" (DP) camps set up to handle the flood of East Europeans who had fled before the Red Army as it drove west in 1944-45. There were 700,000 people in these camps, almost all of whom hated communism. There were Ukrainians, and Czechs, and Poles, and Hungarians who had fought against the Russians; perhaps they could be persuaded to fight again. Here, Wisner realized, was an entire army--a potential secret army that could be recruited and trained to infiltrate the lands they had lost. True, many of its would-be recruits had worn Nazi uniforms during the war. Some of them presumably had committed acts that would be regarded as war crimes. But that had been a matter of expediency in wartime. In any case, the common enemy was clear.

Back in Washington, Wisner set up a study group looking into "Utilization of Refugees from U.S.S.R. in U.S. National Interests." By May 1948, it had cranked out a proposal for a major effort to use "native anti-communist elements ... which have shown extreme fortitude in the face of Communist menace." Wisner was fascinated by the communists' ability to use innocuous-seeming civic organizations--student groups, farmers' collectives, labor unions, study groups--as tools of propaganda and subversion. If the communists could use these techniques, he reasoned, the West could, too. And who better to fight back than the victims of Soviet oppression, the thousands of refugees who had fled Stalin's boot? While other government officials saw the displaced persons camps as a burden, squalid bogs of hunger and want, Wisner saw them as recruiting grounds for a force that could fight fire with fire. In language that would prove overly optimistic, the interagency committee document praised the emigres' "'know how' to counter communist propaganda," their knowledge of "techniques to obtain control of mass movements." The emigres, Wisner believed, could ape the communists' ability to manipulate "Socialist, trade union, intellectual, moderate right wing groups and others." The program, code-named Bloodstone, called for $5 million, appropriately laundered for "secret disbursement."

It was an ambitious plan, but as Wisner was well aware, there was no one to carry it out. The State-Army-Navy-Air Force Coordinating Committee was a talk shop. It had no capacity to conduct operations. What was needed, Wisner urged his fellow planners at State and the Pentagon, was "an entirely new propaganda agency within this Government."

When Wisner moved to Washington, he bought a farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and rented a house in Georgetown. He immediately fell in with a crowd that was unusually lively and self-confident. At the center were two rising Soviet experts from the State Department, Charles "Chip" Bohlen and George Kennan. Bohlen was especially charming and gregarious. He loved to argue with his college clubmates Joseph Alsop, a well-connected newspaper columnist, and Paul Nitze, another young comer at the State Department. Kennan, while admired for his intellect, was less socially at ease; he was prone to periods of brooding.

The young couples, lawyers down from New York, diplomats returned from abroad, bought or rented small eighteenth- and nineteenth-century row houses in Georgetown. The New Deal and wartime had transformed the neighborhood from a backwater, inhabited largely by lower-middle-class blacks. The new crowd felt a sense of arrival and belonging. They were not stuffy, like the old-time "cave dwellers" of Washington society, yet they were confident of their place in a new order that placed the United States on top. Susan Mary Patten, the daughter and wife of diplomats (and later Joe Alsop's wife), felt the euphoria on a trip home from Paris as she walked down the streets of Georgetown, past "the black maids sweeping the steps of the little brick houses and saying their beaming 'Good morning, how are you?' ... Washington is the coziest capital in the world and it's nice to feel the optimism and the sense of controlled power," she wrote her friend Marietta Tree. "Life is much less luxurious than when we were girls, but people give delightful little dinner parties with next to no help in the kitchen...."

Along with America's rise in the world came the rise of the Washington political dinner party," said Townsend Hoopes, a young Yale graduate who had taken a job in the Pentagon after serving in the Marines. Tables of twelve would gather and argue over how best to fight communism. "There was a great intensity," said Hoopes. "It had to affect policy. Dinner parties were an extension of the working day." For all its global reach, Washington was still small. There was in 1948 none of the vast modern apparatus of foreign policy making, no national security staff or think tanks, but rather a fairly informal circle of friends who had known one another through their schools, banks, and law firms before coming to Washington. "You'd go to the F Street Club for lunch and there'd be [Undersecretary of State] Bob Lovett in one corner and [Secretary of Defense] James Forrestal in the other," said Hoopes.

The Wisners and their friends were determined, in a relaxed way, to have fun while doing good. The style showed itself in an institution known as the Sunday Night Supper. "We'd get bored with our children on Sundays and abandon them and have dinner with each other," said Tish Alsop, wife of Stewart Alsop, Joe's brother and fellow columnist. What began as maid's night out, just a few couples having potluck, became, without anyone quite realizing it, a much-sought-after invitation in the insular world of postwar Washington. There was the night that Averell Harriman turned off his hearing aid and stared straight ahead rather than talk to Richard Nixon (who had been invited as a last-minute guest); and there was the night that Chip Bohlen, forgetting where he was in the heat of debate, tried to throw Joe Alsop out of his own house. The idea was to leave by 11 P.M. "But I remember Stew pushing Chip [Bohlen] out the door at 4:30 A.M.--'Goddamn Chip! I've got to get some sleep,'" recalled Tish Alsop. The survivors of these dinners marvel at the stamina it took to keep pace. "Chip, of course, trained in Russia," said Mrs. Alsop. "You either dropped dead or learned how to deal with it."

The Wisners were often the last to leave the party after midnight. There was always time for one more drink, one more point to make. "Frank loved to tie one on and dance all night in those days," said Ella Burling, a Georgetown hostess. "He used to do a dance called the crab walk. He loved parties; he was exotic and interesting." He could also seem, at times, a little self-satisfied. At one party he grabbed Elizabeth Graham. "Have you ever seen such a collection of beautiful women?" he asked. "It made me a little mad," said Graham. "It was: 'We have the best, the best wives, the best everything.'" At other times he was funny and light, spinning ornate southern tales.

At the Sunday Night Suppers, Wisner, Kennan, Bohlen, the Alsop brothers, and the various movers and shakers who were invited to join them engaged in ferocious debates. The argument most often focused on what to do about the Soviet Union. The debate had moved beyond ends--whether or not to stand up to the Kremlin--to the question of means. Another war was out of the question. The economic aid generated by the Marshall Plan was the best bet, perhaps, but there was no assurance in the winter and summer of 1948 that Congress would foot the entire bill, or that the aid would not be somehow blocked or subverted by the active communist insurgencies in Western Europe, especially France and Italy. It seemed possible that the governments of these countries would go communist, or at least be paralyzed by social chaos. There needed to be some way, Frank Wisner argued, of beating the Soviets at their own game.

All through history national leaders have felt the need to take actions for which they do not wish to be held accountable--spying; sabotage; blackmail; bribery; subversion; disinformation; in extremis, assassination. At least since King Henry II cast about for someone to "rid" him of a troublesome priest, Thomas a Beckett, some eight centuries ago, national leaders have from time to time confronted a quandary: how to make others do their dirty work without blame attaching to the sovereign? In modern times the answer has been called the doctrine of "plausible deniability."

Wisner believed, as did many of his friends and colleagues, that the United States needed the capacity--an "entirely new agency"--that could carry out acts that could be plausibly denied.

Actually, in 1948 there already existed an organization that could be used for this purpose. Though weak, the postwar vestige of the OSS had survived through bureaucratic shuffles and a succession of new acronyms. In 1946 the Strategic Services Unit (SSU) had been partly reincarnated as the Office of Special Operations (OSO) and placed under an umbrella organization, the Central Intelligence Group, rechristened, in 1947, as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA was essentially a shell in its early days, and its operations arm, the OSO, was supposed to engage in espionage, not political action; it was set up to gather and analyze information, not to take "active measures" like propaganda.

Still, the OSO had been used successfully that spring of 1948 in the Italian elections. The situation had been deemed an emergency. The communists appeared very strong in Italy, and Washington feared that if the Kremlin's campaign of subversion was allowed to proceed unchecked, Moscow would be able to make Italy go communist one day just by "picking up the phone." To fight back, the OSO adopted Russian tactics: bribes had been paid, newspaper editors suborned, labor unions co-opted. Paying for the operation had been touch-and-go; at one point, old intelligence hands like Allen Dulles had literally passed the hat in their New York clubs, the Brook and the Links, to raise cash to buy right-thinking politicians. But Italy had not gone communist.

Having created an organization capable of effective covert action, the top officials in Washington decided not to use it. The secretary of state, General George C. Marshall, wanted the United States to have a covert action capacity, but he did not want it in the State Department. Diplomacy, he believed, would be undermined. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal was a strong advocate of covert action, but not in the Pentagon, at least in peacetime. Neither Marshall nor Forrestal--nor, for that matter, any other major policymaker--wanted to have his fingerprints on anything that might smack of a "dirty trick." Even the CIA, they believed, was too accountable. Under the 1947 National Security Act, it reported to the newly created National Security Council of the president's top advisers. None of the members of that august group wanted to be held responsible for a program of covert action.

Frank Wisner had the solution, the "entirely new agency" he began lobbying for in the spring of 1948. Wisner was a formidable pleader. He had an urgency of manner, he was well-spoken, if orotund when he got wound up, and he knew everyone. He found an ally and sponsor in Defense Secretary Forrestal, who shared his anticommunist passion and interest in propaganda and "psychological warfare." Wisner's friend George Kennan, the State Department seer who had most articulately warned of the Soviet threat in his cables home from Moscow in 1946, also strongly believed in the need for a covert action capacity. The White House, under political pressure to do something to counter Russian adventurism, signed on. Under national security memorandum NSC 10/2, drafted by Kennan and dated June 18, 1948, a new organization was created, named with intentional vagueness the Office of Special Projects, then quickly renamed, even more innocuously, the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC).

The language of its secret charter was more vivid: the organization's purpose would be to counter "the vicious covert activities of the USSR, its satellite countries and Communist groups to discredit the aims and activities of the U. S. and other Western powers." OPC's covert operations were to include all the tools the Russians had perfected: "propaganda, economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, antisabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance groups, and support of indigenous anti-communist elements in threatened countries of the free world." These efforts were supposed to be "so planned and conducted" that if they ever surfaced publicly, the U.S. government could "plausibly disclaim any responsibility."

Having helped to create the secret new organization, Wisner was now asked to run it. The new chief of the Office of Policy Coordination kept a copy of NSC 10/2 in a safe in his office. Anyone who wanted to see the directive had to sign a special request. One of Wisner's assistants later told author Thomas Powers that he couldn't quite understand the aura of mystery Wisner attached to the document: "All it said was, they do it, and therefore we have to do it, too."

To Wisner, it was a broad license. OPC was attached to the CIA, but only for "quarters and provisions"--essentially for housing and salaries. The CIA director, Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, exercised almost no control over Wisner. Nor did anyone else in government. Nominally, Wisner reported to Kennan, the head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, as well as to a pair of generals in the Pentagon who had their own unrealistic demands for behind-the-lines guerrilla warfare. Kennan, once enthusiastic in his support for covert action, was experiencing second thoughts by the winter of 1949. He felt the reaction to his warnings about Soviet aggression had been overwrought, its message distorted by minds less supple than his own.

At the time Kennan did not resist Wisner's ambitions. Moody and insecure, Kennan simply withdrew to his private study at the Library of Congress. Wisner was left to deal with Bob Joyce on the Policy Planning Staff. Since Joyce was an old OSS friend who knew Wisner from Romania days, he did not exercise much restraint.

Wisner had, at last, the job he really wanted. But when William Harding Jackson, one of Wisner's partners at Carter Ledyard, heard about Wisner's new job, he was troubled. Jackson was a perceptive man, known by his law partners for his uncanny intuition. During the war he had served in the OSS and become an expert on the British intelligence services, which had long experience in the spy trade. Jackson knew both Wisner and the job he was getting into. Wisner would be crazy to take it, he told one of his partners, Edward Clark. "It will kill him," Jackson said.


Excerpted from The Very Best Men by Evan Thomas Copyright ©1996 by Evan Thomas. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Evan Thomas is the author of The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the C.I.A., a book about the careers of Frank Wisner, Richard Bissell, Tracy Barnes and Desmond FitzGerald; Robert Kennedy: His Life; The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1989; Sea of Thunder: The Last Great Naval Command, 1941-1945; and John Paul Jones. He is at work on a book about President Dwight Eisenhower.

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