At CIA headquarters in Langley, one of the newest artifacts in the agency’s private museum is a message from a father to his 3-year-old son. The gold-embossed letterhead features a swastika and the name Adolf Hitler.
“Dear Dennis,” the seven-sentence letter begins. “The man who might have written on this card once controlled Europe — three short years ago when you were born. Today he is dead, his memory despised, his country in ruins.”
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.
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.)
Helms, an OSS operative in World War II, was always vague about the letter. One part still confuses Dennis: The letter is dated V-E Day. But Helms wrote in his memoir that he was in France that day. Most likely, Dennis figures, his father got the stationery shortly after Germany’s surrender and backdated the letter to confer historical sweep.
“He had a chance to get in the bunker early and grab that stuff,” Dennis said, shrugging during an interview at a restaurant in Princeton near his home. “He wasn’t a guy who started stories by saying, ‘You know, we were assembled at the checkpoint and we moved here and there.’ It was as if he landed from a spaceship and was beamed down.”
(It turns out that before he joined the OSS, Helms, who was fluent in German, was a United Press reporter and was among a group of journalists who got to interview Hitler in 1936 after one of his rallies. “When Hitler spoke face-to-face, active salivary glands seemed to make his voice indistinct,” Helms wrote in his memoir.)
In their Bradley Lane house in Chevy Chase, the father and son discussed family matters, school and the news. That was about it.
Dennis couldn’t help but notice how his dashing dad could evade any subject: “If you asked my father what time it was, he’d give you an answer about the weather.”
“The standard conversation with my friends was like this: ‘Uh, what’s your dad do?’ I’d say, ‘He works at the State Department.’ ”
But, they wondered, what does he do? Dennis said he didn’t know. Actually, he knew that his father worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, but he did not know what he did there. “So, they’d say, ‘Oh, well, you’re kinda dumb,’ ” the son said. “People at the agency suppress their egos. They just don’t exist. Dad liked it that way.”
Dennis wanted to be like his father in some ways. In the late 1950s, he interned at the CIA — vacuuming dust off Soviet newspapers in the agency library — and later went to Williams College, just like his dad.
But he didn’t seriously consider a clandestine career because he didn’t want to cope with the expectations of being the son of Richard Helms, a founding member of the agency who was appointed director in 1966.
During Helms’s high-profile tenure, his son moved to New York for a law career, and the two began writing letters to keep in touch. The father typed out short messages about things he could freely discuss — a Time magazine piece about paintings, a Joe Alsop column about liberals, and an article referring to some court matter. “Legal work, I guess, is like the intelligence business: anonymous!” he wrote to his son in 1969, apparently searching for common ground.
In 1973, Helms was pushed out of the directorship by President Richard Nixon, who was reportedly angry that his CIA chief had not helped thwart the Watergate investigation. Later, Helms served as U.S. ambassador to Iran. But he kept being hauled before congressional committees to explain the CIA’s efforts in earlier years to assassinate world leaders and disrupt socialist regimes abroad.
Today, the allegations about his dad’s time at the CIA still make Dennis Helms wonder what really transpired: In 1977, his father pleaded no contest in a federal court to charges of failing to testify fully before Congress about the CIA’s covert campaign to get rid of Chile’s leftist regime.
Helms got ensnared in Congress’s investigation because a successor, William Colby, released a trove of documents, nicknamed “the Family Jewels,” detailing the agency’s misdeeds. Coincidentally, a documentary by Colby’s son Carl Colby is just out, titled “The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Spymaster Father, William Colby.”
Dennis Helms’s own search has been less revelatory. “The operations he conducted — that would have been fun to me to hear about, like reading a novel. In that sense, he was a little frustrating,” he said. “The trouble is, as a lawyer, I can tell you that to find out the actual truth to any of those allegations, you have to go back and dig. But I don’t have the capacity or time to do stuff like that.”
On Christmas Day 1991, Richard, by now enjoying retirement with his second wife, Cynthia McKelvie Helms, wrote a letter to Dennis and his wife, Meg Helms, summing up his career. Intentionally or not, Richard was writing a bookend to the Hitler letter from 1945.
“[M]y life has spanned an historic period, and I am rather awed by that fact,” he wrote. “As I recalled other events, I realized that . . . Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and how many others bit the dust during this century. Now I am afraid that we are entering a troubled time, but of a different kind. . . . So-called ‘terrorism’ may get a new lease on life. . . . But why be pessimistic?”
He signed it “Devotedly, The OM.” (For “Old Man.”)
Earlier this year, the CIA contacted Dennis Helms to let him know the agency was redesigning its in-house museum and wanted to increase its memorabilia from Richard Helms and the three other CIA directors who also served in the OSS: Allen Dulles, William Casey and William Colby.
They asked: Got anything interesting lying around the house?
Dennis mentioned the Hitler letter. Sure, they’d take that.
“When we got it, the hair on our arms stood up,” said Toni Hiley, the CIA museum’s curator.
“Helms had such a sense of his own moment in history,” she said. “The artifact itself would have made any museum professional’s day. But the fact that we received it on the very day that we in the museum received news along with the rest of the world of the successful bin Laden operation stunned us.”
In exchange for the original, the CIA sent Dennis a replica, framed under glass. Dennis figured the original was safer in Langley. For Christmas, he already plans to give the replica to his son, Alexander Helms, a college senior majoring in studio art and photography.
In particular, Dennis loves the letter’s ending. His father signed off with a term that he rarely used for himself.
“The price of ridding society of bad is always high. Love, Daddy.”