[ Read an excerpt from “The Quiet Americans.” ]
Indeed, for all their ill-advised or bungled covert ops — which included coups from Tehran to Guatemala City — it’s unimaginable to not be a bit swept up within the spectacle of this bygone period when intrepid people truly formed historical past, even when it was usually for the more severe. Anderson quotes an erstwhile ornithologist who had joined the Office of Strategic Services, the C.I.A.’s World War II precursor, lamenting the workplace’s breakup as soon as the battle had ended. “Jesus H. Christ,” the operative griped, “I suppose this means that it’s back to those goddamned birds.”
Some of the individuals on this guide can be acquainted to college students of C.I.A. and Cold War historical past. The story of Wisner, the pinnacle of the early intelligence equipment’s covert motion arm, has been effectively advised many instances earlier than. Anderson is at his greatest, nevertheless, when he plows contemporary floor — as he does with the story of Sichel, a German émigré who signed on to assist the O.S.S. as a “special funds officer,” buying and selling gold cash on the black market and artificially getting old contemporary financial institution notes by stomping on them. Sichel finally rose to the place of head of C.I.A. operations in Eastern Europe, operating brokers deep inside Soviet territory.
The drawback, Sichel found, is that after these infiltrators arrived, that they had nearly no help system to latch onto. Often the native resistance networks have been ephemeral, mere “catchment basins” for Ok.G.B. counterintelligence. Sichel got here to view these operations as ineffective at greatest and immoral at worst. Anderson interviewed Sichel, who’s now in his late 90s, eight instances, and his story sensitively and dramatically illuminates the sensible and ethical dilemmas of mid-20th-century spycraft.
Anderson’s guide is a interval piece, masking the years 1944 to 1956 — however the local weather of concern and intolerance that it describes in Washington additionally feels uncomfortably well timed. Even because the fledgling C.I.A. was swiftly increasing its attain in Europe and Asia, home enemies have been starting to chip away at its political help at dwelling. Seeing a possibility to hobble a bureaucratic rival, the F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover launched his personal covert struggle in opposition to the C.I.A., spreading rumors that Wisner had compromised himself by a relationship with a Romanian princess and relentlessly hounding homosexual intelligence officers out of the service, a purge that got here to be referred to as the Lavender Scare.
Both these components — creeping right-wing hysteria at dwelling and cynical maneuvering overseas — mixed to embitter Wisner’s operators. “For a man like Burke — erudite, cultured, liberal, but also engaged in a war where ideas themselves were weapons — it was all enough to call into question just what sort of nation and society he was fighting to defend,” Anderson writes. Burke in the end stop the company in frustration in 1955 and took a job as normal supervisor of the Ringling Brothers circus. (“You’ve been training for it all your life,” his new boss needled him. “You just haven’t known it.”)