- 16 Mar 21
The Ugly Americans
After the Second World War, communism’s tentacles began to spread across the world, most especially in Eastern Europe. Into the breach, and out of the ashes of the Office Of Strategic Services, stepped America’s Central Intelligence Agency. It sounds noble and righteous when I put it like that but you might have had a different point of view were you awaiting American support in Budapest in 1956 or facing off against them in Vietnam.
Anderson, a novelist and journalist with a preference for war correspondence, is no stranger to running foul of the Russians himself - he wrote an article for GQ in 2009 about the 1999 apartment bombings in Buynaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk, which pointed the finger at Putin. He states his point of view from the off. First there’s his subtitle, A Tragedy in Three Acts and then there’s his preface.
As a young journalist, he’s in San Salvador in May 1984. He’s walking behind the El Camino Real hotel, a van pulls to a stop up ahead, the doors slide open, and a woman’s body is thrown on to the sidewalk. As Anderson moves in to investigate, another van pulls up, three soldiers get out, two take the body into the van and the other lets him know, in no uncertain terms, that he should not get involved. Back in his hotel room, he watches a White House spokesman on the television, extolling the “great human rights progress being made in El Salvador.”
“How had it come to this?” Anderson asks himself, and us. “How, in the name of fighting communism – or at least what some claimed was communism – had the American government come to tacitly sanction death squads?”
In order to try and answer his own question, Anderson documents the story of the CIA from in and around the end of World War II to the year of the ill-fated Hungarian Revolution of 1956. While better-known characters like William Donovan – who went from chasing Pancho Villa to being one of the most decorated soldiers in U.S. history to studying the ways of British intelligence first hand, J. Edgar Hoover – furious that the newly established CIA quashes any plans he might have had for the F.B.I as an international concern, and the virulent anti-communist John Foster Dulles all feature, it is the four men of the title that turn these pages.
Frank Wisner was born wealthy and could have made the Olympic team but he chose the law instead. He enlisted in the navy early and might have made it all the way to C.I.A. director was it not for Hoover using a wartime affair with a Romanian princess, who may have been a spy herself, against him. Instead, he had to settle for being deputy director. In Berlin as the war ended, he stood in the bunker and reckoned there was something fishy about Hitler’s cremated remains – it turns out he was right, the Russians had already taken what was left back to Moscow - and saw the Red Army reprisals that happened around the city. He was in Romania when anyone with even a hint of German blood was shipped off to camps in Russia, something that stayed with him forever. All his years of effort to unsettle the communist regimes in Eastern Europe came to naught when President Eisenhower refused support to those who rose up against the “state protection authority” in Hungary in 1956 and the Russian tanks rolled in. He died by his own hand at the age of 56.
Michael Burke - “James Bond before James Bond existed” – was from a poor Irish catholic background but he had charm. He tried, unsuccessfully, to enlist after Pearl Harbour, but he met Donovan at a Washington party who prompted him to join the Coordinator Of Information office, which became the O.S.S. Burke merits a book on his own, for as Anderson says, “Many people had exciting and varied lives, and then there was Edmund Michael Burke – star athlete, black ops commando, Hollywood screen writer, ladies man, spy.” Burke was a pal of Eva Gardiner, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Muhammad Ali, and a drinking buddy of Mickey Mantle, Gary Cooper and Ernest Hemingway.
Gin & Tonic & Blue Nun
The Hemingway meeting is worth retelling. To get to wartime Europe from New York, Burke had to go by flying boat, which landed on the Shannon, and then take a more conventional plane on to London. The flying boat arrived early in the morning and, rather than have the traditional hearty breakfast, Burke joined Hemingway, who had been on the same flight, for a gin-and-tonic in the bar after the great author loudly announced his intentions. They became close and would continue this liquid breakfast tradition in Hemingway’s penthouse suite in the Dorchester hotel on a regular basis.
Peter Sichel, the Jewish-German émigré, from a wealthy wine merchant family in the Mainz region of Germany, was recruited by the O.S.S. for his knowledge of Vichy France. He was the “Special Funds Officer” for the OSS during the war, which meant he manipulated the black markets, and hunted for Uranium and scientists in the falling Germany. He was accused of working for the Russians later on, a false accusation, and ended up in Hong Kong before retiring back to the wine business, going on to make Blue Nun world famous,
Edward Lansdale – a man who studied everything to the point where he ended up writing training manuals - was the agent in the Far East. “So vast was his impact,” reckons Anderson, "that he would serve as the thinly-disguised protagonist of one bestselling book, The Ugly American [the influential 1958 political novel, adapted as a Marlon Brando movie five years later], and quite possibly a second, The Quiet American[1955 Graham Greene novel concerning early American involvement in Vietnam], and be named by a CIA director as one of the ten greatest spies in modern history.” He was a listener, often the quietest man in the room, and “operated a genius level in terms of being able to understand people.” He got Ramon Magsaysay elected as president in The Philippines, but wasn’t afraid to punch him one when he failed to take his advice. Later, in Vietnam, he tried the same trick with Ngo Dinh Diem, but lack of support back home meant this wasn't to be.
With The Quiet Americans, Anderson has delivered another book as accomplished – and exhaustive – as his Lawrence In Arabia award winner. You might find it hard to agree with Agency policy, and the author concludes that it lead to “the fall of the United States’ moral standing in the world, the extinguishing of whatever claim to a higher degree of honour or altruism it still enjoyed… the final laying bare of the myth of America as the herald of freedom”, but there’s no denying the engrossing nature of the history recounted herein.