An Investigative Memoir

By John H. Richardson

HarperCollins. 314 pp. $24.95

In the 1950s and '60s, the so-called golden age of spying, CIA station chiefs were not so much spies or spy runners as proconsuls. In the "third world," on the front line against communist insurgencies, they often had more influence than the American ambassador and sometimes more real power than the local strongman. With their bags of cash and imperial writ from Washington, their diplomatic covers and ties to the local secret police, they could prop up or bring down governments. They were moral authorities, though sometimes Machiavellian ones, in the long twilight search for benevolent despots who would stand up to the communists and -- one day, it was hoped -- usher in free-market democracy.

John H. Richardson was one of the best of the breed -- or, depending on one's point of view, one of the worst. As Vienna station chief in the early '50s, he ran the CIA's first Soviet "mole," Col. Pyotr Semyonovich Popov of the GRU, or Soviet military intelligence. In Athens in the mid-'50s, he helped support the Greek monarchy against communist insurgents. In Manila, when Philippine President Diosdado Macapagal was inaugurated in 1961, Richardson was the shadowy man standing by the president's side on the reviewing stand. His reward for services rendered was the toughest job in the CIA portfolio: Saigon station chief in 1962.

Richardson looked and acted the part. While other officials in Vietnam dressed in fatigues or short sleeves, he always wore a black business suit. Scholarly, a little ponderous in his manner and speech, he kept a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, his favorite Stoic emperor, by his side. "I do my duty," wrote Aurelius. "Other things do not trouble me."

But in Richardson's case, they did. He developed a fear of heights; he drank 20 cups of coffee a day, as well as too much alcohol, and required large doses of pills to sleep at night; he was secretive and distant with his family and prone to towering rages.

Richardson was not a success in Saigon. He was recalled to Washington in October 1963, ostensibly because he could not work with the ambassador, the headstrong Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge, and because his cover had been blown by the press. At the time, journalists wrote that he had grown too close to President Ngo Dinh Diem's nefarious brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. Richardson was muddling up a Washington-backed coup by some South Vietnamese generals against Diem, it was said, so he was yanked back to Washington.

After training spies on the CIA's "Farm" in southern Virginia, he was given a last post as station chief in South Korea. But he spent his last 30 years living in self-imposed exile in Mexico, brooding and drinking too much tequila. He regretted not having done more to stop the coup against Diem, who was flawed but better than all the hapless and corrupt generals who followed.

Richardson should be the hero, or anti-hero, of a great spy novel. Instead, he is the slightly too elusive subject of a search-for-my-father memoir by his son, also named John H. Richardson (he doesn't use "Jr."). Now a writer at large for Esquire magazine, the author was a rebellious teenager in the '60s. His father "was the kind of guy who worked for the CIA," he writes in My Father the Spy. "I was the kind of guy who wanted to drop acid and listen to the White Album over and over." The two Richardsons fight, reconcile and fight some more over the course of several decades, but the son never really gets inside the father, who remains behind a veil of stoicism and drink.

Written carefully, with historical detachment, Richardson senior's biography might be interesting. But while Richardson junior has done a lot of research, he writes in a maddeningly breezy style ill-suited to describing such complex events as the coup machinations in Saigon in the fall of 1963. The book becomes more engaging -- and at times moving -- when the father, in his cups, lets down his guard for a moment or two late in life. But the portrait of his death from lung cancer is painfully drawn out and more clinical than revealing.

Richardson does have an insider's eye, and the book includes some wonderful snapshots, like the CIA's super-spooky counterespionage chief James J. Angleton going fishing -- and taking along a pair of "secret spy glasses that helped him see the trout." The account of Ambassador Lodge's unconsciously arrogant attempts to ingratiate himself with the author's mother and a Time magazine correspondent at a Saigon dinner party would make a scene in a play. "Everybody says that Cabots talk only to the Lodges and the Lodges talk only to God," says the ambassador, "and here I am talking to all you nice people." Even so, this reader found himself longing to read John Richardson rendered by John le Carre, not John Richardson Jr. *

Evan Thomas is an editor at Newsweek and the author of "The Very Best Men: The Early Years of the CIA."

John H. Richardson with his father, who worked for the CIA, in 1955