Legacy of Ashes

The History of the CIA

By Tim Weiner
Doubleday. 702 pp. $27.95
Friday, July 20, 2007

Chapter One


All Harry Truman wanted was a newspaper.

Catapulted into the White House by the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, Truman knew nothing about the development of the atomic bomb or the intentions of his Soviet allies. He needed information to use his power.

"When I took over," he wrote in a letter to a friend years later, "the President had no means of coordinating the intelligence from around the world." Roosevelt had created the Office of Strategic Services, under the command of General William J. Donovan, as America's wartime intelligence agency. But Donovan's OSS was never built to last. When the new Central Intelligence Agency arose from its ashes, Truman wanted it to serve him solely as a global news service, delivering daily bulletins. "It was not intended as a 'Cloak & Dagger Outfit'!" he wrote. "It was intended merely as a center for keeping the President informed on what was going on in the world." He insisted that he never wanted the CIA "to act as a spy organization. That was never the intention when it was organized."

His vision was subverted from the start.

"In a global and totalitarian war," General Donovan believed, "intelligence must be global and totalitarian." On November 18, 1944, he had written to President Roosevelt proposing that the United States create a peacetime "Central Intelligence Service." He had started sketching his plan the year before, at the behest of Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, chief of staff to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wanted to know how the OSS would become part of the military establishment of the United States. Donovan told the president that he could learn the "capabilities, intentions and activities of foreign nations" while running "subversive operations abroad" against America's enemies. The OSS had never been stronger than thirteen thousand members, smaller than a single army division. But the service Donovan envisioned would be its own army, a force skillfully combating communism, defending America from attack, and serving up secrets for the White House. He urged the president to "lay the keel of the ship at once," and he aimed to be its captain.

Nicknamed "Wild Bill" after a fast but errant pitcher who managed the New York Yankees from 1915 to 1917, Donovan was a brave old soldier-he had won the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism in the trenches of France during World War I-but a poor politician. Very few generals and admirals trusted him. They were appalled by his idea of making a spy service out of a scattershot collection of Wall Street brokers, Ivy League eggheads, soldiers of fortune, ad men, news men, stunt men, second-story men, and con men.

The OSS had developed a uniquely American cadre of intelligence analysts, but Donovan and his star officer, Allen W. Dulles, were enthralled by espionage and sabotage, skills at which Americans were amateurs. Donovan depended on British intelligence to school his men in the dark arts. The bravest of the OSS, the ones who inspired legends, were the men who jumped behind enemy lines, running guns, blowing up bridges, plotting against the Nazis with the French and the Balkan resistance movements. In the last year of the war, with his forces spread throughout Europe, North Africa, and Asia, Donovan wanted to drop his agents directly into Germany. He did, and they died. Of the twenty-one two-man teams that went in, only one was ever heard from again. These were the kinds of missions General Donovan dreamed up daily-some daring, some deluded.

"His imagination was unlimited," said his right-hand man, David K. E. Bruce, later the American ambassador to France, Germany, and England. "Ideas were his plaything. Excitement made him snort like a racehorse. Woe to the officer who turned down a project, because, on its face, it seemed ridiculous, or at least unusual. For painful weeks under his command I tested the possibility of using bats taken from concentrations in Western caves to destroy Tokyo"-dropping them into the sky with incendiary bombs strapped to their backs. That was the spirit of the OSS.

President Roosevelt always had his doubts about Donovan. Early in 1945, he had ordered his chief White House military aide, Colonel Richard Park, Jr., to conduct a secret investigation into the wartime operations of the OSS. As Park began his work, leaks from the White House created headlines in New York, Chicago, and Washington, warning that Donovan wanted to create an "American Gestapo." When the stories broke, the president urged Donovan to shove his plans under the rug. On March 6, 1945, the Joint Chiefs of Staff formally shelved them.

They wanted a new spy service to serve the Pentagon, not the president. What they had in mind was a clearinghouse staffed by colonels and clerks, distilling information gathered by attaches and diplomats and spies, for the benefit of four-star commanders. Thus began a battle for control of American intelligence that went on for three generations.


The OSS had little standing at home, and less inside the Pentagon. The organization was barred from seeing the most important intercepted communications from Japan and Germany. Senior American military officers thought an independent civilian intelligence service run by Donovan, with direct access to the president, would be "an extremely dangerous thing in a democracy," in the words of Major General Clayton Bissell, the assistant chief of staff for military intelligence.

These were many of the same men who had slept through Pearl Harbor. Well before dawn on December 7, 1941, the American military had broken some of Japan's codes. It knew an attack might be coming, but it never imagined Japan would take so desperate a gamble. The broken code was too secret to share with commanders in the field. Rivalries within the military meant that information was divided, hoarded, and scattered. Because no one possessed all the pieces of the puzzle, no one saw the big picture. Not until after the war was over did Congress investigate how the nation had been taken by surprise, and not until then was it clear that the country needed a new way to defend itself.

Before Pearl Harbor, American intelligence covering great swaths of the globe could be found in a short row of wooden filing cabinets at the State Department. A few dozen ambassadors and military attaches were its sole sources of information. In the spring of 1945, the United States knew next to nothing about the Soviet Union, and little more about the rest of the world.

Franklin Roosevelt was the only man who could revive Donovan's dream of a far-seeing, all-powerful American intelligence service. When Roosevelt died on April 12, Donovan despaired for the future. After sitting up half the night grieving, he came downstairs at the Ritz Hotel, his favorite haunt in liberated Paris, and had a gloomy breakfast with William J. Casey, an OSS officer and a future director of central intelligence.

"What do you think it means for the organization?" Casey asked. "I'm afraid it's probably the end," Donovan said.

That same day, Colonel Park submitted his top secret report on the OSS to the new president. The report, fully declassified only after the cold war ended, was a political murder weapon, honed by the military and sharpened by J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director since 1924; Hoover despised Donovan and harbored his own ambitions to run a worldwide intelligence service. Park's work destroyed the possibility of the OSS continuing as part of the American government, punctured the romantic myths that Donovan created to protect his spies, and instilled in Harry Truman a deep and abiding distrust of secret intelligence operations. The OSS had done "serious harm to the citizens, business interests, and national interests of the United States," the report said.

Park admitted no important instance in which the OSS had helped to win the war, only mercilessly listing the ways in which it had failed. The training of its officers had been "crude and loosely organized." British intelligence commanders regarded American spies as "putty in their hands." In China, the nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek had manipulated the OSS to his own ends. Germany's spies had penetrated OSS operations all over Europe and North Africa. The Japanese embassy in Lisbon had discovered the plans of OSS officers to steal its code books-and as a consequence the Japanese changed their codes, which "resulted in a complete blackout of vital military information" in the summer of 1943. One of Park's informants said, "How many American lives in the Pacific represent the cost of this stupidity on the part of OSS is unknown." Faulty intelligence provided by the OSS after the fall of Rome in June 1944 led thousands of French troops into a Nazi trap on the island of Elba, Park wrote, and "as a result of these errors and miscalculations of the enemy forces by OSS, some 1,100 French troops were killed."

The report personally attacked Donovan. It said the general had lost a briefcase at a cocktail party in Bucharest that was "turned over to the Gestapo by a Rumanian dancer." His hiring and promotion of senior officers rested not on merit but on an old-boy network of connections from Wall Street and the Social Register. He had sent detachments of men to lonely outposts such as Liberia and forgotten about them. He had mistakenly dropped commandos into neutral Sweden. He had sent guards to protect a captured German ammunition dump in France and then blown them up.

Colonel Park acknowledged that Donovan's men had conducted some successful sabotage missions and rescues of downed American pilots. He said the deskbound research and analysis branch of OSS had done "an outstanding job," and he concluded that the analysts might find a place at the State Department after the war. But the rest of the OSS would have to go. "The almost hopeless compromise of OSS personnel," he warned, "makes their use as a secret intelligence agency in the postwar world inconceivable."

After V-E Day, Donovan went back to Washington to try to save his spy service. A month of mourning for President Roosevelt was giving way to a mad scramble for power in Washington. In the Oval Office on May 14, Harry Truman listened for less than fifteen minutes as Donovan made his proposal to hold communism in check by undermining the Kremlin. The president summarily dismissed him.

All summer long, Donovan fought back in Congress and in the press. Finally, on August 25, he told Truman that he had to choose between knowledge and ignorance. The United States "does not now have a coordinated intelligence system," he warned. "The defects and the dangers of this situation have been generally recognized."

Donovan had hoped that he could sweet-talk Truman, a man he had always treated with cavalier disdain, into creating the CIA. But he had misread his own president. Truman had decided that Donovan's plan had the earmarks of a Gestapo. On September 20, 1945, six weeks after he dropped America's atomic bombs on Japan, the president of the United States fired Donovan and ordered the OSS to disband in ten days. America's spy service was abolished.

Chapter Two


In the rubble of Berlin, Allen Dulles, the ranking OSS officer in Germany, had found a splendid and well-staffed mansion for his new headquarters in the summer of 1945. His favorite lieutenant, Richard Helms, began trying to spy on the Soviets.

"What you have to remember," Helms said half a century later, "is that in the beginning, we knew nothing. Our knowledge of what the other side was up to, their intentions, their capabilities, was nil, or next to it. If you came up with a telephone book or a map of an airfield, that was pretty hot stuff. We were in the dark about a lot of the world."

Helms had been happy to return to Berlin, where he had made his name as a twenty-three-year-old wire service reporter by interviewing Hitler at the 1936 Olympics. He was dumbstruck by the abolition of the OSS. At the outfit's operations center in Berlin, a commandeered sparkling-wine factory, the anger and alcohol flowed freely on the night the order from the president arrived. There would be no central headquarters for American intelligence as Dulles had envisioned. Only a skeleton crew would stay on overseas. Helms simply could not believe the mission could come to an end. He was encouraged a few days later when a message arrived from OSS headquarters in Washington, telling him to hold the fort.


The message came from Donovan's deputy, Brigadier General John Magruder, a gentleman soldier who had been in the army since 1910. He adamantly believed that without an intelligence service, America's new supremacy in the world would be left to blind chance, or beholden to the British. On September 26, 1945, six days after President Truman signed away the OSS, General Magruder stalked down the endless corridors of the Pentagon. The moment was opportune: the secretary of war, Henry Stimson, had resigned that week, and Stimson had been dead-set against the idea of a CIA. "Seems to me most inadvisable," he had told Donovan a few months earlier. Now General Magruder seized the opening left by Stimson's departure.

He sat down with an old friend of Donovan's, the assistant secretary of war, John McCloy, one of the great movers and shakers of Washington. Together, the two men countermanded the president. Magruder walked out of the Pentagon that day with an order from McCloy that said, "the continuing operations of OSS must be performed in order to preserve them." That piece of paper kept the hope for a Central Intelligence Agency alive. The spies would stay on duty, under a new name, the Strategic Services Unit, the SSU. McCloy then asked his good friend Robert A. Lovett, the assistant secretary for air war and a future secretary of defense, to set up a secret commission to plot the course for American intelligence-and to tell Harry Truman what had to be done. Magruder confidently informed his men that "the holy cause of central intelligence" would prevail.

Emboldened by the reprieve, Helms set to work in Berlin. He purged officers who had plunged into Berlin's black market, where everything and everyone was for sale-two dozen cartons of Camels, purchased for $12 at the American military PX, bought a 1939 Mercedes-Benz. He searched for German scientists and spies to ferret out to the West, with the aim of denying their skills to the Soviets and putting them to work for the United States. But these tasks soon took second place to the struggle to see the new enemy. By October, "it was very clear our primary target was going to be what the Russians were up to," remembered Tom Polgar, then a twenty-three-year-old officer at the Berlin base. The Soviets were seizing the railroads and co-opting the political parties of eastern Germany. At first the best the American spies could do was to try to track the movement of Soviet military transports to Berlin, giving the Pentagon a sense that someone was trying to keep an eye on the Red Army. Furious at Washington's retreat in the face of the Soviet advance, working against the resistance from the ranking American military men in Berlin, Helms and his men began trying to recruit German police and politicians to establish spy networks in the east. By November, "we were seeing the total takeover by the Russians of the East German system," said Peter Sichel, another twenty-three-year-old SSU officer in Berlin.


© 2007 Tim Weiner