Reviews by Alec Chambers

Review of Bissell, Reflections of a Cold Warrior

Bissell, Richard M., Jr., with Jonathan E. Lewis and Frances T. Pudlo. Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Richard Bissell was one of the most important figures of the early years of the CIA and his role in operations against Guatemala and Cuba (specifically the Bay of Pigs operation) also made him one of the most controversial. This slim memoir, completed by two of his long-time friends after his death, describes Bissell's life and times and his contribution to the US intelligence community.

Part biography, part polemic, the book begins with an account of his early life. As the son of an executive of the Hartford insurance company, his upbringing was very much in the mainstream of the New England privileged with a very conventional Groton and Yale education.

Shortly before World War II, Bissell went from economic theory at Yale to its application in the National Economics Unit of the Department of Commerce and from there to the coordination of shipping and convoys in the Atlantic. After the war, he became involved in his first campaign of the Cold War when he played a major role in the administration of the Marshall Plan. This chapter is likely to be of greater interest to economists than intelligence officers, as it is generous with details of the mechanics of stimulating international trade in Europe. However, without solving such problems during the execution of the Marshall Plan there would have been no Western Europe as we came to know it. This may well have been Bissell's most important contribution to the Cold War. There are some interesting comments about the problems of central planning of economies that stem from this period.

Bissell went from the Marshall Plan to a brief sojourn with the Ford Foundation. There he acted essentially as a consultant to the CIA, dealing with the likes of Frank Wisner, Sherman Kent and Desmond Fitzgerald. This job took ever more time and he became a full member of the CIA in 1954. Almost immediately he became involved in the operation PBSUCCESS to overthrow the Arbenz government in Guatemala. Although the story has been told many times, Bissell tells it from his point of view and adds a useful new perspective. From there he was moved to the management of overhead reconnaissance projects and played a major role in bring the U2, the SR-71, and the CORONA series of photoreconnaissance satellites into service, thereby playing a major role in the most fundamental revolution in intelligence collection.

From the vantage point of high office in the CIA he saw the instability in the Third World, such as that in the Congo and Indochina, generated by the collapse of empires and became entangled in the affairs of Cuba that were ultimately to be his nemesis, leading to his head rolling for the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs. Following his resignation from the CIA in the wake of the Bay of Pigs, Bissell spent much of the rest of his long and productive life in private industry, acting as a consultant through the Institute for Defense Analysis, then as an officer of United Aircraft (later United Technologies). After retirement, he had another brush with controversy when he acted as a consultant for Gerald Bull and his Space Research Corporation during a period when Bull was involved with the illegal export of ammunition to South Africa. He gradually entered a full retirement interesting himself in his local community until his death while this book was being written.

The core of the book is the chapters on his career at the CIA. Bissell's involvement with the operations and projects he talks about is well-known. There are no major disclosures. However, Bissell's personal recollections do add a new and useful viewpoint to the history of these operations. Only a little time is spent pondering the propriety of operations such as PBSUCCESS, much more time is spent on what made these operations successful, and this is where the book shows its polemic side.

Bissell was a highly talented manager and as such he saw the solutions to the challenges he was given in terms of effectively managing the people and the project. He uses the operations he was involved in as case histories to elucidate the principles of successful secret operations. The lesson he wishes us to take home lesson is very simple: covert operations and projects work best when the participants are given a clear mandate and clear goals and high quality, highly motivated and well-led people are left alone to complete the task. The Bay of Pigs operation failed because nobody was able to make clear the aims of the mission or willing to take ultimate responsibility.

Bissell, to his credit, makes no bones about his failings in the prosecution of the operation. He further argues that a properly constituted covert operation organization should not need the elaborate Congressional oversight mechanisms currently in place. This makes a great deal of sense. However, the problem really lies with choosing the operations in the first place.

That is a different problem that lies outside the area Bissell chose to discuss. It is also a problem that is talked about unendingly but it is doubtful that it admits to a general solution. In the meantime, meeting Bissell's requirements of clarity of goals and quality of management should be taken on board. Otherwise, this small volume deserves to be read as a contribution to the future of US intelligence from one of the most significant figures of its recent past.

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