Reviews by Alec Chambers

Review of Thomas, The Very Best Men

Thomas, Evan. The Very Best Men -- Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the CIA. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. ISBN 0-684-81025-5

Frank Wisner, Richard Bissell, Des Fitzgerald and Tracy Barnes were the fathers of the CIA's covert action programs. They were four sons of the New England Establishment, graduates of Groton and the Ivy League, swashbucklers and heroes to some, evil incarnate to others. How did a group of men brought up in such privilege become the dirtiest of tricksters?

Evan Thomas, Assistant Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Newsweek, has helped to answer these questions. Using a combination of personal recollections from friends and family members, CIA retirees now willing to speak on the record, CIA histories and some of the best of recent writing on the CIA, he has put together a fascinating tale in which the four lives are woven together through layers of family, society, politics, and the CIA.

Starting at the very beginning, Thomas looks at the earliest days of the four. Using a rich collection of personal and family recollections, the traits that marked them for their later careers were already visible (at least in retrospect) in their teens. All were brought up in well-to-do families (although each appears to have been unhappy in its own way) and were set up for good careers with education in exclusive private and Ivy League schools. The privileged backgrounds gave them a level of self-confidence that some have characterized as arrogance but that should really be seen as hubris. When the US entered World War II, three of the four abandoned comfortable livings in Wall Street to see action in Europe and Asia, with each of them having a "good war." The fourth (Bissell) played an important role in the organization of Atlantic convoys and in the prosecution of the Marshall plan.

The post-war years saw the four trying to return to Wall Street . Wisner was the first to decide that his future lay in more direct action and went on to form the Office of Policy Coordination, originally in the State Department and later to be subsumed by the CIA with the other three following with not unreasonable haste. Wisner's return was at a very propitious time for him: the Cold War was at its coldest and the need to "do something" was very strongly felt in Washington. Although OPC and CIA set to with a will, they were a group of naifs completely outclassed by Soviet intelligence services with a tradition going back to Ivan the Terrible's Oprichnina. The comments of John Bruce Lockhart (SIS liaison to the CIA 1952-54) on US covert action in the later part of World War II and the early days of the Cold War are alone almost worth the price of the book. Unfortunately, the lessons that should have been learned from the failure of these operations were not necessarily learned.

As the CIA found its footing and covert actions were unleashed in Italy, Albania, Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, and Cuba, these men were in the thick of it. For Wisner, the strain eventually proved too much and after failed treatment for manic depression, he finally committed suicide. Thomas' description of Wisner's descent into his manic-depressive final days and suicide is humane and moving.

Although Fitzgerald and Barnes had been lieutenants of Wisner throughout, they were passed over as his replacement in favor of the technocratic Bissell. Although an extraordinarily capable and tough-minded manager, he had, by his own admission, not a clue about covert operations. It is at this point that CIA covert action began to fall apart. Starting with the Bay of Pigs disaster, the continuing campaigns against Castro, the plans to assassinate Lumumba, Trujillo, and Sukarno, the Directorate of Operations appears to have operated entirely without the discrimination, discipline, or planning that had helped the earlier operations to succeed. Bissell left the CIA shortly afterwards. Fitzgerald and Barnes were the only two left of the original four and they were in the Far East for the Vietnam War. After these operations, Laos and Vietnam, and the Church Committee, they eventually left the CIA. Fitzgerald was forced to fire Barnes by then-DCI Richard Helms as the final action in an ideological struggle between Helms and his prudent professionals and the bold Northeasterners epitomised by these four characters. The book rounds off their stories with retirement and final days as they managed to recover from the physical and spiritual erosion they experienced as Cold Warriors.

The best parts of the story are those told by friends and family. This is where we learn about what made these men and how they thundered with such unreflective self-confidence into the shadowlands of the Cold War. They appear to have bounded through everything in much the same manner, Bissell's love of sailing by dead-reckoning in the worst of New England sailing conditions is perhaps a paradigm of the character. When the book moves closer to established history, it is not quite as valuable. It depends on published accounts with official CIA histories used to flesh out the stories. However, these parts are well executed and useful. For example, Thomas' version of the overthrow of Arbenz (Operation PBSUCCESS) shows the thing to have been less well-organized and closer run than the popular mythology would have us believe.

Other aspects of the book are less satisfying. The role of the CIA in policy making is handled superficially at best. The discussion of the role of the President in authorizing covert actions is also fumbled. For example, he describes Bobby Kennedy as an intense supervisor of the campaign against Castro who pushed very hard for drastic action. The relationship of the Kennedy brothers makes plausible deniability unworkable, as does Truman's unconditional pardon of Bedell-Smith for anything he might do in the future. Despite his observations, Thomas falls back on the Thomas á Becket scenario of vague commands misunderstood by underlings. Thomas Powers once pointed out that a major function of the CIA was to protect the President and take the blame. Thomas would have done well to consider this in his discussion.

This book is well worth reading for its insights into these four personalities and the world that made them. It should not be read in isolation, rather it should be taken together with Peter Grose's Gentleman Spy or Christopher Andrew's For the President's Eyes Only or with the books that Thomas generously compliments in his chapter notes. In this context, the book becomes a useful addition to one's understanding of the CIA.

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