The Wise Man of Intelligence: Uncovering the Life of Allen Dulles

There are very few reliable histories of intelligence, and with good cause. The sources lie, are lost, are nonexistent, are withheld. Journalists (often) lack the patience, scholars (often) lack the clout to gain access, to stay the course, to outlast those who would with both good and malign intent seek to influence the writer's conclusions. The public craves romance, exploits of jamesbonderie; the academic too often settles for models, flow charts, and a warm sense of insiderism. The chosen prose style - breathless, confidential, promising more than most sources can honestly deliver - is at war with any serious attempt to assess the value of intelligence to the formulation of foreign policy, to victory or defeat in battle, even to the methodology of research or analysis. Of hundreds of books on intelligence there are, perhaps, a dozen that pass the historian's test: that is, they are significant, they are interesting, and they are, insofar as one can judge of so elusive a subject, true.

Peter Grose's biography of Allen Dulles is one of these books. It is the best book on American intelligence since Thomas Powers' engaging romp through the corridors at Langley, The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA (1979). Professionals in intelligence found some errors in Powers' book, and no doubt there are a few in Grose's account - though I believe I found only two, neither of any significance - but both books have the flavor, the smell, the texture of the truth. That both are biographies suggests that we may best penetrate the mysteries of an intelligence agency on the coattails of its highest officials, perhaps because compartmentalization, the need-to-know principle, and the sheer diversity of modern intelligence work prevents anyone except the most highly placed from having even a moderately coherent picture of the world of intelligence.


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