Peter Finn is The Washington Post’s national security editor and the co-author of “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book.”
After reading journalist Douglas Waller’s entertaining and richly detailed “Disciples,” it’s hard not to conclude that all great lives in espionage end in tragedy. The tenaciousness, the risk-taking, the cold-bloodedness and the towering self-confidence — the qualities that make a spymaster — eventually consume their carriers.
The disciples in this book are the four future CIA directors who served under William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan in the Office of Strategic Services, the American spy agency during World War II: Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby and William Casey. Waller is already the author of an accomplished biography of Donovan, and I came to this latest book with the slight suspicion that it might involve some clever repurposing. There is, of course, some cross-pollination, but “Disciples” stands on its own: a textured adventure story that emerges from Waller’s command of the archival material and his fluid writing style.
That latter gift helps Waller overcome what could have been the cumbersome task of weaving together four distinct war experiences: that of Dulles, the aristocratic and effective spy chief in neutral Switzerland; the more bureaucratic experiences of Helms and Casey in Washington and London; and that of the commando Colby, who operated with great physical courage behind enemy lines in France and Norway.
Waller moves among these biographies with ease. Casey was the outlier, an Irish Catholic from an insular world in Queens. Dulles came from a family with a long history of involvement in government; he had served as a diplomat in Europe during World War I. Colby, an Army brat, had lived in China as a child. He was in France in 1939, on a short break from Princeton to study the language, when Germany invaded Poland. Helms, a gifted linguist, had worked as an American correspondent for United Press in Berlin before the war. He, like Dulles, met Hitler. “Everything about Hitler up close seemed commonplace to Helms,” Waller writes, “from his brown mustache flecked with a little gray to his pasty white face tinged slightly pink to the gold that filled many of his teeth.”
But all four were driven, successful and patriotic, and World War II was a call to arms. And they, like most of Donovan’s agents, came to revere the boss — a visionary leader with a large appetite for life. It often seemed as if he gave them their best years; they were young, and the struggle had moral clarity.
Switzerland was familiar ground for Dulles, who had served as a diplomat in Bern during World War I, effectively becoming “the legation’s intelligence officer.” As CIA director, he recalled how he had hung up the telephone on a Russian, whom he later discovered was Lenin, and used the incident to admonish young recruits to never turn down a meeting. He redeemed himself when Fritz Kolbe, an official in the German Foreign Office, approached the Americans. The British had brushed him off, but Dulles sat with him for three hours in their first meeting as Kolbe talked about the Nazi documents he had just handed over. He seemed too good to be true, Dulles thought, but turned out to be a spectacular source.
Kolbe became one of the few agents the Allies had inside the power structures of the Third Reich. And his productivity burnished Dulles’s reputation as one of the OSS’s genuine stars. Donovan “after the war hailed Dulles as his top spy.”
Dulles risked arrest by the Gestapo to cross Vichy France and enter Switzerland. Once in Bern, he dove into this “espionage heaven with a cottage industry of political refugees, asylum seekers, escaped war prisoners, deserters, resistance representatives, disaffected German officials, deposed royalty, business travelers, embassy workers of all stripes and, for lack of a better category, professional snitches trading information among the Germans, British, and Americans.” Dulles thrived in this murky world, while Colby somewhat eclipsed the less-sexy but important organizational work of Helms and Casey. As Waller notes of Casey, he “had a talent for untangling bottlenecks, browbeating sections to work together, and making the machinery of putting spies into Germany speedier and more efficient.”
But it’s difficult to invest the quotidian, even in wartime London, with the same flourish as one of Colby’s greatest feats, a ski and parachute mission into occupied Norway: “Wisps of snow swirled though the mountain passes around the lake and a faint mist shrouded the light from the full moon, but he managed to spot through the Joe hole the four blazing piles of wood on the hard-packed lake arranged like an L — the signal for their drop zone from the reception committee on the ground.”
With his tiny force in Norway, Colby was able to launch only two raids, and his unit “spent as much time surviving in the wild and running from the Germans as it did fighting the enemy.” Colby later took a harsh view of what he had achieved, as did Casey about his own efforts. “I don’t think we changed the course of the war very much,” Colby said in an interview. That echoes the broader criticism of the OSS and its place in the Allied campaign. But it is a harsh judgment. Victory is the sum of all its parts — as is defeat, which each of these four men eventually tasted.
Dulles’s career ended on “a swampy beach along Cuba’s coast,” with the Bay of Pigs disaster. Helms wound up in federal court “striking a plea deal to avoid a felony conviction” for lying to Congress. Colby, in contrast, cooperated with Congress, turning over the “Crown Jewels,” a catalogue of CIA dirty tricks. For that he became “a pariah to many in his agency.” Casey was the subject of “accusation and ridicule” for the Iran-contra affair, the scandal that tarnished President Ronald Reagan as well as the agency Casey was trying to reinvigorate.
“They returned home, invigorated with high hopes, affected profoundly by their service in the OSS, determined to take up arms against communism in the way they had learned to wield those weapons against Nazism,” Waller writes. “It made it all the more tragic that their Cold War after the guns of Europe fell silent finished so badly for each of them.”
By Douglas Waller
Simon & Schuster.
566 pp. $30