The Quiet Americans by Scott Anderson

Journalist Scott Anderson has brought us a new entry to the recent riches of Cold War Nonfiction, as records are declassified and writers and historians begin searching the archives.  Told from the point of view of four different American spies, The Quiet Americans traces the Cold War from its origins in the aftermath of World War II until the 1960s, when his four subjects take their various paths away from the CIA.  I won’t ruin the ending, but suffice it to say, the subtitle:  Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War–a Tragedy in Three Acts is not misleading. 

For those who are aware of how deeply the United States was involved in dirty tricks during the Cold War, there won’t be any real surprises here, but there is plenty of evidence that our current foregin policy difficulties are mostly self-inflicted. Anderson has no liking for Ike, and spares none of the Cold Warriors from his unflinching analysis. One of the saddest things about this book is the list of missed opportunities: The Philippines, South and Central America, the death of Stalin, Iran, Hungary and the list goes on. So many turning points that could have gone differently but for stubbornness, self interest, and sometimes plain old incompetence. 

Speaking of self-interest, J. Edgar Hoover gets a lot of “page time” and he is no less a villain in this telling than he is anywhere else.  I always wonder how it was that he was able to continue his petty scheming for so long, but in a culture so unforgiving, his files kept people scared and in line.  Those who did dare to fight back were often ruined even if they were proven innocent of wrongdoing, eventually. There is a lesson for today if we care to see it. Tolerance means letting people have opinions that might be different from ours, and different opinions don’t mean someone is evil, but I digress.

Anderson takes aim at George Kennan, one of the devisers of Cold War foreign policy, unblinkingly naming him two faced.  The Dulles brothers don’t escape the spotlight either–John Foster comes off especially buffoonish. These are the famous names and faces of the Cold War and Anderson examines their records in all their unflattering detail.  It’s not all bad, but he portrays the giants, clay feet and all.  None of our spies remain convinced of the rightness or the urgency of the fight against Communism–and this is also a lesson.  The end never justifies the means. When we do wrong to get the “right” result, it isn’t the right result. 

Even though this is a book of “popular” history, Anderson is making the argument that the CIA is the ultimate fall guy–taking the blame when things go wrong, giving powerful men plausible deniability, all the while working back-room dirty deals to further shadowy policies. Efforts to make it more efficient were fought from within and without.  Its very conception was shrouded in layers of deception, so that leaders could claim ignorance if their machinations were discovered.  This is not to say that Anderson gives the impression that all CIA spooks are bad guys.  He obviously admires Peter Sichel, has a lot of sympathy for Frank Wisner and a kind of awe for Michael Burke and Ed Lansdale. And yet, all of them ultimately fail to redeem the mission they initially believed in from the relentlessly secretive bureaucracy that the CIA became and the personal shortcomings of men like Hoover, the Dulles brothers, and Eisenhower. 

In our current moment, it serves us well to think on how we might try to fulfill the promise of America as it was at the end of World War II. We cannot undo what has been done, but we can proceed from this point forward with caution and a willingness to listen and learn.

Anderson’s book is meticulously researched and includes notes, bibliography and a pretty good index. Fans of narrative nonfiction, history, and Cold War shenanigans will not be disappointed.

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