Scott Anderson, “The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War” (2020) – God help me, I can’t remember why I put this book on my list. That makes it sound worse than it is. But I know enough about the Cold War that this was, as they say, “surplus to requirements.” That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything! But like… I’m just trying to figure out my thought process. Did LARB or somebody run a review that made it sound revelatory? Then I just unthinkingly put it on my amazon list and a gracious relative picked it up for me for Christmas? That’s the most likely etiology, here.
This book is about four spies who made the transition from the World War II era OSS to the Cold War era CIA. There’s Frank Wisner, the OG company man; Peter Sichel, Weimar refugee turned Cold War operator; Ed Lansdale, ad man turned counterinsurgency guru and the one I know the most about; and some guy I forget and haven’t got the book on me, but he was the classic “he was on the football team at an Ivy League school so let’s make him a SPY” type (just for extra pathos, he was Irish-American, not WASP like most people in that clade). They all did hella derring-do in the war, were mad that they got decommissioned and they just let the Soviets do whatever, supposedly (Lansdale, more Asia-oriented, had a more complicated mad-on about, like, corruption letting communists in the door, or something), wound up in the Company when “Dean” Dean Acheson himself tapped them for our new permanent civilian foreign intelligence service, the CIA.
We all know what’s coming: high ideals compromised by, uhhh… and here’s the thing. The “high ideal” that Scott Anderson, a fairly standard establishment liberal journalist whose dad was an “agricultural adviser” in Asia in the sixties (read: he either was a spy, or reported to some) is anticommunism. Free the Romanians/Vietnamese/whoever from oppression! Show Stalin what’s what! Well… what they wound up doing, the stuff that would go on to reave the souls (such as they were) of our four spies, it was all pretty standard anticommunist stuff.
I’m well aware of the idealism surrounding liberal anticommunism in the period Anderson writes about. I wrote a dissertation about it, mostly about the Kennedy era but I read plenty on the times that preceded it. I don’t think everyone involved was lying, exactly, when they thought they were liberating people. Ed Lansdale is the one I know the most about, and he was a cipher: he probably thought he was doing something good, but he only “thought,” as in “performed ratiocination,” to a very limited degree. He mostly just zoomed around doing whatever. But you know… insofar as people bound and determined to avoid thinking too hard about things can be said to have sincere values, some of these Company guys probably did.
Here’s the big question… so fucking what? Where exactly is the pathos? Lansdale was upset that when his schemes, like trying to dissuade the Vietnamese peasantry away from the National Liberation Front via tricking them with astrology (this is how actually racist he and the others were, that they thought that would work), invariably failed, that they called in the bombers to try to keep Vietnam in the “free world.” Sichel quit because his higher-ups kept parachuting Ivy League kids like the one from the Penn football team whose name I can’t remember into Poland or Ukraine or wherever, to meet up with a non-existent WWII-style “resistance” to the USSR. They all got caught, they all got killed — that’s most of the stars on the wall at Langley that every CIA movie lingers on — but the Company kept doing it, because, uhhh, it wasn’t the desk jockeys being dumped out of a plane there and who knows, it might work?
It’s not pathos. It’s bathos and dark comedy. The Coen Brothers knew what to do with the CIA, in “Burn After Reading.” John Malkovich’s character, Ozzie Cox, actually waxes into a tape recorder for the memoirs no one asked for about how much he admired the old Cold Warriors, doing the thing back when men were men and you couldn’t get shitcanned for being a sloppy drunk, like Ozzie did (it’s a funnier scene when you know that Malkovich is something of a pretentious, right-leaning ass, too- and I think he knows it). The joke is, it was always a fucking joke. It’s a sad joke, a deadly one, a joke about missed opportunities, less for a “good” anticommunism than for a saner policy… but a joke nevertheless.
Anderson misses the joke. The reasons I’m giving this a star rating above the threshold where a book is likely to get included in my “worst of” list at the end of the year are that Anderson is a capable writer, and I just can’t discourage baby’s first thinking that maybe Cold War anticommunism wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He’s outraged, outraged! By the ways the likes of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover advance their own agendas at the expense of the noble goals of Acheson and the Company. These, along with the inevitable hubris and a bit of Silicon Valley style failed iteration, explain how the CIA erred as it did, failed as it did, became something that men like Sichel (who went on to make a fortune marketing Blue Nun- “the wine so bad it made the news!”) could no longer be proud of. Anderson occasionally points to something like “well, the US and the UK really DID delay a second front in Europe in a way that probably got millions of Soviets killed” or other elements poking a hole in Cold War mythology, with the miffed indignance of a high schooler watching his first Oliver Stone movie. Maybe… follow that train of thought? But what I do know. I don’t think I could get published in New York Times Magazine.
But like… what did the CIA exist for other than as an extension of what the J. Edgars of the world had in mind? You can see why the Hoosier Gollum was pissed that the Ivy League boys got the assignment to extend his surveillance regime globally! He might have been better at it! In all seriousness, the dream of a meaningfully democratic anticommunist liberalism, even if you think it’s not a pipe dream at any point in history, definitely was circa 1945, after communist resistance movements just got done playing a major role in defeating fascism, and leading the fight against colonialism. There wasn’t any way to combine the disparate vagaries of the liberal anticommunist imagination at that period with anything like reality on the ground. You could, with something like Hoover’s vision of mass surveillance, manipulation of political and social structures the world over, and the occasional use of massive lethal force. And that’s what we did, the whole Cold War through. And, in a sense, it worked. As usual, Ellroy knows the score better than the liberals.
If anyone deserves pathos, it’s the people on the receiving end, not the people doling it out but feeling bad about it. If you want to do something other than straight-up condemnation of those people, want to humanize them, the answer is obvious. As J.K. Simmons puts it at the end of “Burn After Reading,” “What did we learn? We learned not to do it again… but I’ll be fucked if I know what we did!” Put that in bronze letters on the wall at Langley, above those stars. ***