Courtesy Reuters

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.

THE GREAT GAME

Through detail, nuance, and a persistent intelligence, Grose shows what the life of a professional in the Great Game was like. Between November 1916, when Allen Welsh Dulles, then 23 and a new third secretary to the American Embassy in Vienna, and November 1961, when Dulles stepped down as Director of Central Intelligence, we follow an urbane member of the American Establishment as he encounters the affairs of the world. A romantic at heart, Kipling's Kim on his bedside table on the night he went into the hospital to die, Dulles was, to use the words of one of his contemporaries, present at the creation - of the Cold War, of the CIA, of our world.

Grose writes very well, with a wry sense for the humorous situation (of which there were many in Dulles' life), a frank eye on "the gentleman spy" as philanderer, with sympathy for the wife much-philandered against, and with a consistent graciousness. He belies the reports that, as a result of the Bay of Pigs, there was personal animosity between Dulles and the young new president, John F. Kennedy. He provides a balanced assessment of the operations to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and Mohammad Mossadeq in Iran, not failing to remark on how short-term successes were followed by long-term disasters. He is very good with the anecdotal aside, with the intriguing footnote that stands out textually precisely because it is a footnote. He appears almost always to be in command of the larger international contexts and, as befits a former executive editor of Foreign Affairs, can provide the reader with necessary background in a few broad yet clearly defined brush strokes. He seldom repeats himself. Despite the length of this biography, it seems almost spare, without the padding - precise addresses, the color of the walls in an interrogation room, the exact time when a contact is made - that is standard to most books about espionage.

To be sure, there are signs of haste in the final chapters; for example, at least twice Grose turns to a semi-digested catalog of events to force the pace. It is a wonder that there are not more such signs, for in his "Notes on Sources" Grose remarks that the Central Intelligence Agency did not release its record on Dulles' tenure at the agency ("in delayed response to my request of March 1989 under the Freedom of Information Act") until May 1994. The last restrictions on the Dulles papers at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton were lifted only four months earlier. There is a footnote reference to the Aldrich Ames case. To incorporate so much that is timely and fresh so quickly after new materials became available is a remarkable act of applied intelligence by a writer who, one presumes, was never in "the game" himself. Further, Grose shows every sign of having enjoyed the chase.

The "Acknowledgments" are a study in themselves. Grose had the ready cooperation of Allen and Clover Dulles' three children. He was given the interviews and correspondence prepared by Richard Harris Smith, author of an early book on the Office of Strategic Services, from 20 years ago. He has worked in all the relevant presidential libraries, has pursued manuscript collections across the nation and into Moscow, has interviewed directly or by correspondence nearly two hundred principal players in the Dulles story. In intelligence history one can always think of a person who has been missed, of an article not cited - not proof, of course, that it was missed, for perhaps it was simply judged of little worth - of a forthcoming manuscript apparently not seen. Richard Bissell's autobiography exists in manuscript; William Hood, though in the text, is not in the acknowledgments; perhaps the main scholarly journal in the field, Intelligence and National Security, truly has not, in its ten years, published anything relevant. Another reader may disagree on an assessment here and there: is Tom Mangold's Cold Warrior the best biography of James J. Angleton? Is Madeline G. Kalb's excellent Congo Cables the best path into the Lumumba/Congo/ Katanga morass? Though the notes are full and clear, one wishes for more.

There is quite a lot here that is new, as well as much that is put together in a fresh way. We see just how bad American intelligence on Iraq was in 1958 and must conclude how little has changed. We move from Operation Success in Guatemala to Operation Hike in Indonesia and discover again how operatives who understand one culture can be completely at sea in another. We discover how poorly Dulles performed within a bureaucracy that had grown too large for him and how well he could perform if he could reduce that bureaucracy to smaller components. We learn of the relationship between Victor Hedgman, Lawrence Devlin, and Bronson Tweedy, and while this may not be a revelation to all, to this reviewer, who once served with Tweedy in quite a different world, it most certainly is.

Most books on intelligence provide little that truly is new, relying on the reader not to have kept abreast of the field's minutiae. Still, it is in apparent minutiae that intelligence sometimes achieves its greatest triumphs, and Grose uses detail, even gossip, to great effect. There will be something truly new here for every reader, even though it is also quite possible that every fact and speculation in Grose's book has appeared in print somewhere else. It is the pattern, the broad picture, that will most capture the informed reader, even as the anecdotes, the sense of style, and the frequent surprises will hold the person less versed in the subject.

Unhappily, one cannot always be certain what is new, for at times the citations, set out with care at the end of the book, and the lack of a bibliography leave one unclear on just what has been taken into consideration and what has not. Many books in which Allen Dulles plays a role do not appear here. A 13-line note on the Eisenhower Presidential Library leaves the reader confused about just what has been consulted, though the warning that the Walter Bedell Smith papers "remain to be triangulated with evidence from other quarters" suggests somewhat obliquely that perhaps they have not been used after all.

When more is told, by Peter Grose and others, we will surely come to a better understanding of the Cold War by such balanced, clear-headed examinations of the men (and sometimes the women) who helped to define the American vision of a Manichaean world poised on the brink of spiritual and physical destruction. Just as authors of spy fiction, that genre Allen Dulles so loved (his favorite authors were Ian Fleming and Helen MacInnes, and his own most influential books were his two anthologies, Great True Spy Stories and Great Spy Stories from Fiction), have had to find new enemies, so will historians reexamine the old enemies, perhaps to confirm, more likely to modify rather than utterly reject, the vital lies of the last five decades. Then Dulles' own books, including The Craft of Intelligence, and his old certitudes about the nation's enemies, may seem dated.

BAND OF BROTHERS

But Grose has given us more than a history of the Cold War, more than a life and times of a key player. He also shows us a world, of Republican and Democrat alike, of privilege and high personal expectation. Dulles was the grandson of a former secretary of state, John Watson Foster, who served President Benjamin Harrison. His uncle Robert Lansing was secretary of state to Woodrow Wilson. His brother John Foster Dulles was President Dwight Eisenhower's toweringly powerful secretary of state. Allen Dulles knew everyone, would meet everyone, would go everywhere. He was Phi Beta Kappa, Princeton. His closest friend was Hamilton Fish Armstrong. His affairs of the heart (to use the decorous phrase of the time) included Wally Toscanini Castelbarco, possibly Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce (or so Grose strongly suggests), and he was once found locked in a dressing room with Queen Frederika of Greece. Yet he was no snob: he never "bickered" at Princeton to enter one of the upper-class eating clubs, and in 1964 he was sent by President Lyndon B. Johnson to Mississippi to meet with the governor over the burning of a black community church and the disappearance of three civil rights workers. Allen Dulles expected to be secretary of state himself one day, and to the last held out the hope that he might succeed his brother, or so Grose suggests.

Allen Dulles understood that his world had changed. Perhaps the key year was 1959, when he found himself, as Grose sensitively shows, truly alone, despite his wife, his sister, his many friends. His brother died of cancer on May 24. (George C. Marshall, ill in the same hospital, died in October. William J. Donovan, the man who had recruited Allen Dulles, died in February. Late in 1958 his trusted deputy Frank Wisner suffered a nervous breakdown. In April 1959 Fidel Castro made his first and only "friendship visit" to the United States.) Grose shows us this world as it heaved and pushed around Allen Dulles and, to the credit of author and subject, shows Dulles telling a young visitor to his Georgetown home in the spring of 1967 that perhaps the United States had "intervened too much in the affairs of other peoples." Here is social and intellectual history to mix covertly with the overt subject matter of Gentleman Spy.

Allen Dulles was a powerful and ever-supportive figure at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a Cold Warrior who never deviated in his conviction that Soviet communism was evil and a threat to the nation's security. He was adept at sidestepping Senator Joseph McCarthy and in supporting his men against witch-hunts. He believed in the civil rights movement. He was, in fact, though a self-styled conservative, an old-fashioned liberal and internationalist. Some found contradiction in him. It is Peter Grose's accomplishment to lead us to see that Dulles was neither contradictory within his times nor are those positions contradictory now. He was, his much put-upon wife Clover said, fun to be with. Grose shows us why.

DOES INTELLIGENCE MATTER?

But beyond the intrigue and suspense of the game, just what is the purpose of intelligence? Helping a nation's political leadership obtain some grasp of another's capacities and intentions with respect to oneself, in world affairs broadly, and with respect to potential domestic changes. More narrowly and traditionally, producing the enemy's order of battle. All too often, engaging in destabilizing covert paramilitary activity. Making us, as President Richard M. Nixon said in a statement he issued from the White House the day after Allen Dulles died, on January 29, 1969, feel that "the world is a safer place today."

Those most acute of typologists, librarians, classify intelligence history with military history rather than diplomatic history, and perhaps it is a comment on both intelligence since World War II and on the Cold War that this seems less and less appropriate. Grose writes hardly at all about military matters, notwithstanding a fine chapter on the Bay of Pigs, and Allen Dulles appears to have thought relatively little about military outcomes, despite his role in Operation Sunrise and his post-retirement memoir, The Secret Surrender (1966). It may be counted among the successes of intelligence that so little of it pertains to wars that were fought and, one might think, so much to wars that were forestalled, but it is also true that we are not likely to know whether this is true for many years to come, for it is of the nature of intelligence professionals to deny researchers, historians, presidents, and the public access to the truth.

If one finds a book such as this entertaining, informative, and apparently quite accurate, does this mean that a life of Allen Dulles is important? We cannot know, for the central question remains, does intelligence truly matter? Has it demonstrably contributed a determining difference to victory in any battle, success in any policy? We are to believe that there are substantial achievements of which we cannot be told, and precisely because we do not know of them, that they are successes. But there are many commentators who assert that intelligence agencies do more harm than good. I am not one of these - indeed, I believe a democracy particularly needs an effective intelligence agency, since information on its policies and broad capacities is available for the asking at any good university library, while closed societies, or societies without modern informational systems, or societies in perpetual chaos do not yield up their most precious data simply upon the presentation of a reader's card. Still the question remains: does intelligence matter? Until we have some answer to this question, we cannot decide what a biography of a long-time and legendary director of the Central Intelligence Agency really signifies.

In this respect, I must admit to disappointment. Grose does not tell us what he thinks of intelligence as an enterprise. By tone, occasional aside, and infrequent though pungent observation, he evaluates favorably or unfavorably this or that operation. But he does not argue whether or why the nation needs men like Allen Dulles, then or now. He does not say, as I wish he had done, that any intelligence agency is fatally compromised if the person who leads it is so close a personal friend of the country's president (or prime minister) as to fail the test of political objectivity. He does not tell us, as I wish he had done, that paramilitary exercises, if ever legitimate, are the domain of departments of war, defense, or whatever euphemism a government may choose, but that they are destructive to intelligence. He does not suggest whether human, or signals, or any other particular form of intelligence deserves more or less support, produces sound or unsound results. Perhaps to say that Grose should have done so is to fall into the reviewer's trap of asking for a book the author did not intend to write. Should a biography of Abraham Lincoln or Napoleon never reveal how the author views power and the people who pursue it? Given the flavor of this excellent book, which is about the times as well as the life of Allen Dulles, it does not seem unreasonable to want to know whether the author judges the enterprise in which his subject was engaged ultimately to the benefit of the nation or not. Does he, with Nixon, conclude that the world is a safer place today because of Dulles, his agency, and the world he helped make? If so, would he - would someone, please - give us the evidence?

Browse Related Articles on {{search_model.selectedTerm.name}}

{{indexVM.results.hits.total | number}} Articles Found

  • {{bucket.key_as_string}}