The Quiet American: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—A Tragedy in Three Acts by Scott Anderson (A Book Review and Introspection)

“In this, the United States really had no one to blame but herself. By the autumn of 1956, she had shown her preference for a dictatorship over democracy in Iran and Guatemala. She had so thoroughly shred her anti-colonial stance of the Roosevelt years as to aid her European imperial allies in quelling independence movements around the world. Under the leadership of the Dulles Brothers, the United States had compiled the hit list of foreign leaders to be removed, by assassinations if necessary. 

Most shameful of all, in the tumult of the autumn of 1956, America may have lost the best chance it ever had to bring the Cold War to an early close, and to avert all the tragedy that was to come.”

The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—-A Tragedy in Three Acts (page 431)

I am used to having my assumptions and preconceptions confirmed when I read a history related book. Sure there may be some minor surprises and some gaps of knowledge filled but when I close most books, there are no major changes in how I feel, especially about our country. Not so with this book…

This book impacted my current thinking about American exceptionalism and honor or lack of as the Pentagon Papers changed my thinking about the Vietnam War and the U.S government when I was in my 20s.

I have always looked at World War II and its aftermath as possibly our greatest hours, based on my knowledge of history. “The Greatest Generation” won a war fought on two fronts and after it was over, helped not only our allies but our vanquished in rebuilding their countries. The United States was respected not only for our military might but also what we stood for, freedom, liberty and democracy.

However as I read Scott Anderson’s well researched and well written book, I realized that much of my thinking was illusion about American history between 1945-1960. 

The events within the book post-World War II were viewed by four different men involved in the U.S. intelligence community. They had different backgrounds, personalities, missions and roles but shared disillusionment with many of our foreign intelligence and policy efforts including: 

  • No or little resistance by the U.S. and Britain to Russia’s ruthless takeovers of Eastern European countries including Romania, Poland and Albania. (Churchill negotiated a secret deal with Stalin to precipitate this.)
  • Intelligence fails by General Douglas McArthur (Philippines invasion by Japanese,; North Korea invasion of South Korea; Chinese troops cross border to fight in Korean War)
  • In house political fighting by J. Edgar Hoover and others to control collection of foreign intelligence. Damage created by Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade to morale and recruitment within U.S. intelligence services.
  • Failure by U.S. and Britain to identify Kim Philby and others as Russian spies. Russia was aware of our atomic weapon secrets and espionage plans.
  • Various failures at insurgency within Russian satellite countries that were anticipated by the Russian KGB resulting in failed missions and tortured and killed agents.
  • President Eisenhower’s refusal to provide any aid or support to Hungary and Poland in 1956 when revolts broke out in both countries. His refusal to do anything resulted in the revolts being crushed by Russia (who were ready to agree to pull their troops from the satellite countries), with thousands killed and imprisoned.
  • Successful violent overthrows initiated by U.S. intelligence over democratic elected governments in Iran and Guatemela. Ramifications over these events still felt today.
  • Intelligence and strategic planning failures (including assassination of South Vietnam President) in Vietnam that precipitated our military involvement there resulting in tumult and riots within the United States after tens of thousands of American soldiers injured or killed.

Just as we are experiencing in our govenment today, there was a lack of leadership, moral cowardice, unbridled ambition, poor judgment and incompetency during the 40s and 50s. Many of the failures committed in foreign affairs then are repeated today. We started a war over “missing weapons of destruction” that were never found but which the Bush administration said existed.

I recommend the book to all no matter your political affiliation or ideology. Very well researched and written.

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