His Father's Secrets

John H. Richardson holds up a V-mail letter from his father written during World War II, when the future CIA station chief first moved into espionage.
John H. Richardson holds up a V-mail letter from his father written during World War II, when the future CIA station chief first moved into espionage. (Photos By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 18, 2005

They touch down at Dulles at 2 a.m., a mother and two children, the family of a spy. The terminal is empty, feels cavernous. The boy, 9, sits on the floor while his mom figures out what to do.

He's used to airports. He and his 11-year-old sister, CIA brats, have flown all over the world. He even got left behind in an airport one time when his father, the spy, boarded a plane without him. John H. Richardson was like that -- so intensely wrapped up in his work he could forget his little boy, his namesake.

Now the family's flown in from Saigon to join him. There's some trouble at the CIA. And it's the middle of the night. And Eleanore Richardson is looking around the airport for someone from "the agency." But no one has come to greet them. No car. No driver.

"CIA Chief Recalled," a headline has blared.

"Arrogant CIA Disobeys Orders," shouted another.

It is 1963 and Richardson is the embattled Saigon station chief for the CIA. He managed the agency's relationship with Ngo Dinh Diem as the South Vietnamese president's regime was crumbling. After a reporter blew Richardson's cover, the agency quickly yanked Richardson out of Saigon and hid him in a Washington-area apartment until the storm could blow over.

But within a few weeks, Diem would be assassinated with Washington's complicity. The United States would plunge deeper into the quagmire of Vietnam. And for the rest of his days, Richardson, a scholarly spy and master manipulator with a nagging conscience, would routinely drink himself into bouts of brooding. He'd torment himself with regret that he hadn't stood against the Diem coup. He'd leave his children clueless about what made their father so melancholy, would leave them grasping at the abstractions of the man called dad. "My Father the Spy," the son calls him in the title of his new memoir.

His mother tried to make their life as normal as possible. That 1963 day before they left Saigon, she threw a party for little John's birthday "and had this elephant come to our house. That was the big news for me," John recalls in an interview.

And then they're trudging through Dulles, finally finding a phone. Eleanore doesn't have a contact number for her husband. Neither he nor the agency has told her where he is. So she calls Bill Colby, her husband's CIA supervisor.

"How can I reach John?" she says.

"I can't tell you," Colby says. He calls John on her behalf.

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