Dennis is Dennis Helms, now a 69-year-old intellectual-property lawyer in New Jersey. The letter writer was his father, Richard Helms, the CIA director during the Vietnam War and Watergate eras, who died in 2002. Right after Germany’s surrender, Lt. Helms, an intelligence operative, sneaked into Hitler’s chancellery in Berlin and pilfered the Fuehrer’s stationery. He dated the letter “V-E day” for May 8, 1945.
The letter astounded the CIA museum’s curatorial staff when it was acquired in May — and not only because Helms wrote with such paternal tenderness. It also conveyed a certain historical intuition about the evil that one man could do. The letter happened to arrive at Langley the day after Osama bin Laden was killed in May.
Dennis Helms included the letter in an album of correspondence and photos from his home that he turned over for the museum’s new exhibit highlighting the history of the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor agency. But he never knew its back story. How and when exactly did his father sneak into that compound to grab the stationery (along with a dinner plate)? His dad never explained in full.
That’s the way it often goes in CIA families. A child can be proud of his parent but also frustrated by the lack of details, the opaque explanations about careers, the questions that can’t even be asked.
“This letter was an opportunity to say what was on his mind,” said Dennis Helms, Richard’s only child. “I just wish there had been more such occasions.”
Instead, as the controversial CIA dad and his lawyer son grew older, they relied on letters to forge the best connection they could. The Hitler-chancellery letter, it turns out, was the beginning of an epistolary relationship that would span about 50 years.
That particular letter is one that only agency employees and their guests can see. But several other letters between the Helms men are available for public viewing at Georgetown University’s library, which obtained the father’s papers in 2008.
Relic from Germany
The Hitler letter arrived in a brown envelope, postmarked May 29, 1945, and bearing two 3-cent purple stamps with the words: “WIN THE WAR.” The recipient: “Master Dennis J. Helms c/o Mrs. Richard Helms,” of Orange, N.J.
After his introductory lines, Helms wrote of Hitler:
“He had a thirst for power, a low opinion of man as an individual, and a fear of intellectual honesty. He was a force for evil in the world. His passing, his defeat — a boon to mankind. But thousands died that it might be so.”
Dennis was too young to remember receiving it, of course; he vaguely recalls reading it as a high-schooler in Bethesda, where he attended the Landon School in the 1950s. While Dennis was growing up in Washington, the letter went into family scrapbooks. At some point, he lost track of it. (His father and mother, Julia Bretzman Helms, divorced in 1968, and she died in 1986.)