Master of Spies

By James Srodes

Regnery. 624 pp. $34.95

Reviewed by Jeff Stein

Talk about dead white men. They are nearly all gone now, the hard-eyed, tweedy bunch who ran the Central Intelligence Agency in its legendary glory days, when a misjudgment in Berlin could lead to nuclear war, not just the mistaken bombing of a Chinese embassy.

Allen Dulles was the best of them all, the great white case officer whose World War II spying exploits and family connections (his grandfather was briefly President Benjamin Harrison's secretary of state; his brother John Foster was Eisenhower's) made him the inevitable choice to run the fledgling CIA. A witty, pipe-smoking raconteur -- one part Wilsonian idealist, one part cold-hearted spy -- Dulles was a legend in his own time, a prize catch at Georgetown dinner parties, where once upon a time liberal Democrats thrilled to the presence of a CIA man.

This, in other words, is yet another story of a supposedly sparkling era that is much in vogue with aging yuppies. But it's also one that now has been told many times, unfortunately for James Srodes, a veteran Washington writer and co-author of the bestselling Dream Maker: The Rise and Fall of John Z. De Lorean.

Yet respect must be paid. Our fathers really did hold the fate of the world in their hands for the middle third of the century, much more than is sometimes realized, as Dulles was wont to say himself. What if the Nazis had invaded Britain instead of getting bogged down in Russia? he'd ask visitors. The unanswerable question is how much the Allies owed to Hitler's blunders, and how much to American resources and brilliance. By almost all realistic accounts, however, the secret agents of the American OSS, or Office of Special Services, no matter how bold or courageous, had little effect on the war's outcome.

Dulles was a first-rate agent handler, as Srodes dutifully recounts. After he was posted to Switzerland, his most important agent was a clerk in the German Foreign Ministry, who showed up after being rebuffed by the British and began feeding Dulles German cables, some 1,200 in all. There was a moral in this tale, Dulles would tell his young charges in later years. Back in 1917, when he was a young diplomat in Switzerland, he'd turned away a young Russian by the name of V.I. Lenin, who promptly persuaded the Germans to send him to Russia. The rest, as they say, is history.

Dulles also conspired in plots to kill Hitler or induce a Nazi surrender, all of which, of course, came to nought. He fared better as President Eisenhower's chief instrument for overthrowing governments or otherwise secretly swaying events around the world. "He had this ability to make cold-blooded assessments while remaining warm and gracious that was quite remarkable," James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, who worked as an intelligence analyst under Dulles, told Srodes. Ever the operator, Dulles also never gave up gathering his own information, either from his wide circle of friends outside the government or from young agents just in from the field, whom he'd often summon to his office for a first-hand briefing. Thus, at the White House one day, Dulles passed along his agency's analysis that Poland was firmly in the grip of Moscow, then added, according to Billington, "They may be right, but . . . the people I have talked to recently tell me it is decidedly more volatile than this estimate suggests. Poland could blow up before Hungary." "And it did," Billington said.

Unlike today, the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in the 1950s was truly a bipartisan affair. Thus Dulles was able to recruit liberals like the journalist Tom Braden to engage left-wing artists, writers, intellectuals and union leaders in the anti-communist cause, especially in Europe. He cut through red tape to get the U-2 spy plane in the air. But the agency was on less firm footing elsewhere in the world. The Korean War caught the CIA by surprise. Despite early successes in overthrowing socialist regimes in Iran and Guatemala in 1954, it failed miserably in Indonesia, Tibet, Vietnam and, of course, Cuba. The CIA was lulled by its easy coup d'etat in Iran, according to Kim Roosevelt, the agent who just about single-handedly pulled it off, into thinking that it could apply covert action like a kit: You have to have the support of the people, he often lectured, to topple a dictator.

The Bay of Pigs was Waterloo for Dulles, "undoubtedly the greatest U.S. professional intelligence officer of his time," in the estimate of a top Eisenhower aide. But like an aging ball player, Dulles had hung on too long. The failed invasion cost him his job. Not even enlisting in plots to assassinate Castro and other foreign leaders, which began under Eisenhower, could save him.

"I probably made a mistake in keeping Dulles on," Kennedy rued, according to his biographer Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. "Dulles is a legendary figure, and it's hard to operate with legendary figures." It's even harder, we're finding out, when there aren't any legends left at all.

Jeff Stein, a U.S. Army intelligence case officer in Vietnam and author of "A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story That Changed the Course of the Vietnam War," covers national security issues for the online magazine Salon.

CAPTION: Allen Dulles (right) with Sen. Joseph McCarthy, chairman of the Senate investigations subcommittee, in 1953, after an agreement was reached for limited questioning of CIA employees.