This is the second in a series of articles that explores the iconic CIA and its use as a tactical weapon by the presidents of the Cold War (1947-1991). The first of the series was The Central Intelligence Agency – In the Beginning.

Allen W. Dulles, the head of the CIA during the Eisenhower years of the 1950s

Allen W. Dulles, the head of the CIA during the Eisenhower years of the 1950s

In the late 1940s, the CIA grew quickly as it acquired the political turf and added the expert staff required to keep the president informed on who was doing what to whom around the globe. The National Security Act of 1947 added covert operations coupled with ‘plausible deniability’ to the mix of collecting and analyzing data. Covert operations weaponized the agency. Now, not only could the CIA convert data into information, it could, at the behest of the president through the State Department, act on it with impunity; the CIA had become a tactical weapon.

Presidential elections tend to return with grueling regularity in the U.S. and by 1952 it was time, once again, for Americans to choose a leader through the Electoral College.  Truman, who announced he would not run again, took an historic step when he required the CIA to brief the presidential candidates so they would know what-in-the-world was happening. In Chapter 2 of the CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-1992, John L. Helgerson states, “Mindful of how useful the weekly briefings were to him, Truman determined that intelligence information should be provided to the candidates in the 1952 election as soon as they were selected. In the summer of 1952, the President raised this idea with Smith. He indicated he wanted the Agency to brief Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Governor Adlai Stevenson, remarking at the time, "There were so many things I did not know when I became President." Smith suggested to Truman that Davidson might be the proper individual to brief both Eisenhower and Stevenson to ensure they were receiving the same information.[1] It was an unprecedented step based on Truman’s early experience in office and the beginning of a tradition that is still respected.

DCI General Walter Bedell "Beetle" Smith had served as now ‘presidential candidate’ Eisenhower’s chief of staff at Allied Forces Headquarters. Smith tried, and failed, to delegate the briefings to Meredith Davidson, a senior staff officer. It must have been a monumentally awkward situation for Smith as he served his new master and his old master. The record indicates that Eisenhower was not above playing his past relationship with Smith and did not make Smith’s job easy. Just before Eisenhower’s November election Smith resigned from active duty status and later took a lesser position in the State Department.

Eisenhower was a popular candidate and his war hero status effectively tied the opposition’s hands. Adlai E. Stevenson, Eisenhower’s opponent, was at a distinct disadvantage. The planks in Eisenhower’s platform included exiting Korea and getting rid of government corruption, which was a big deal with the bribery incidents that were uncovered among the Truman appointees. The 1952 election was odd even by U.S. standards where election time is referred to as the silly season.[2]  In retrospect, Eisenhower failed to achieve either objective and, during his administration, the U.S. stuck its nose deeply into other countries’ business through CIA actions.

Allen W. Dulles was appointed by the Eisenhower administration in 1953. He would serve in that capacity until 1961 when President Kennedy canned him following the Bay of Pigs. Dulles was from the old school, the OSS, and he came to the job with the mindset of being a major league player back-in-the-day.  “… in training Kuomintang troops in China and Burma, and recruited Kachin, and other indigenous irregular forces for sabotage as well as guides for Allied forces in Burma fighting the Japanese Army. Among other activities, the OSS helped arm, train and supply resistance movements, including Mao Zedong's Red Army in China and the Viet Minh in French Indochina, in areas occupied by the Axis powers during World War II. OSS officer Archimedes Patti played a central role in OSS operations in French Indochina and met frequently with Ho Chi Min in 1945.”…[3]

A banker and corporate lawyer between public service assignments, Dulles was connected to a power network that ran in the family. His brother, John Foster Dulles, served as Eisenhower’s Secretary of State during this same period. It was a cozy arrangement given that covert operations went through the State Department. In reading the documents, no one seemed particularly concerned with the potential for abuse or the loss of checks and balances with this banking family’s arrangement. Perhaps, and this is pure speculation, the arrangement even provided cover for plausible deniability.

The analysts who strive to make sense of the information gathered are one breed of CIA employee and the stuff of great Tom Clancy novels. Covert operators are another breed entirely. To this day covert operatives live according to the OSS creed, which places its “faith in individual initiative or “derring-do”, a willingness to act unhesitatingly in ambiguous situations, to “do something” even if it goes beyond the original mandate, a belief in the efficacy of unconventional methods, and distrust or even disdain for the bureaucratic process and structure.[4]

Under Eisenhower, CIA covert operations meddled early and often in Southeast Asia as the U.S. marched inexorably forward into what became the Vietnam War and the sacrifice of over 58,000 American lives.[5] The Vietnam stage was already set when Eisenhower took his presidential oath in January 1953. The U.S. was picking up about 75 percent of France’s military cost in Indochina (North and South Vietnam), a result of decisions made during the Truman administration. The record indicates that Eisenhower did not particularly care for the French effort to recolonize Indochina after WWII but was politically stuck with them. The spark of war ignited a fire at Dien Bien Phu, in northern Vietnam near the Laotian border. Like two pieces of flint being struck against each other, sparks flew when Giap, with the Viet Minh[6], vowed to wipe out French forces and the French were equally determined to wipe out the Communists.[7] The problem was that while General Vo Nguyen Giap was an acknowledged and experienced military genius, the French decision to lure him into a trap was fatally flawed.

The French managed to get several thousand soldiers trapped in the fortress at Dien Bien Phu, and borrowed a US Navy aircraft carrier, 10 US Air Force B-26s, several C-47s and C-119s, and hundreds of US Air Force personnel to try to dig themselves out.[8] Eisenhower was in a pickle. How much of America was he willing to sacrifice to deny the Communists a victory?  Plans entailing the use of three tactical nukes were drawn up for Operation Vulture. Eisenhower tied Britain’s approval to the execution of Operation Vulture and when Britain refused to sanction the idea it was dropped.[9] In the end, 13,000 French soldiers died[10] in the battle of Dien Bien Phu and the U.S. suffered its first two casualties of the Vietnam War. “On May 6, 1954, CAT pilots James B. McGovern and Wallace A. Buford were flying their C-119 Boxcar on a Dien Bien Phu airdrop mission. Clear weather made it easy for the Viet Minh anti-aircraft gunners to target the aircraft. The stricken Boxcar crashed behind enemy lines. Thus it was that McGovern and Buford—two pilots—became the first Americans known to have died in combat in Vietnam.” (See footnote 7)

A member of the French Foreign Legion in Indochina, 1954

A member of the French Foreign Legion in Indochina, 1954

Dien Bien Phu fell on May 7, 1954 and the French beat their feet to get out of the area. The next day, May 8, 1954, planning for a Geneva conference of the main Indochina actors was initiated. By June of 1954, France granted southern Vietnam independence. In July 1954, the Geneva conference was convened. The major players were the US, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union, while the three Associated States of Indochina, including Hồ Chí Minh 's Democratic Republic of Vietnam, were also at the table. Vietnam was partitioned into north and south at the 17th parallel. This was an interim solution pending the outcome of the 1956 Vietnamese elections, which never came.  The U.S agreed to the Geneva accords but, not liking the partition, never signed the agreement. By September 1954, the US and seven other nations signed the Manila Pact; the basis of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and the rationale for the U.S’s Vietnam War.

While the U.S. military was busy helping the French, what was the CIA doing? Elections? Did somebody say elections in Vietnam? Elections are right up the CIA’s alley and the CIA boys and girls were very busy bees according to declassified documents released about four years ago. South Vietnam’s new Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, was a puppet who had played no role in the war or in the negotiations that ended it. Diem’s credentials were his fluent English, his anti-Communist nationalist position, and his religion, Roman Catholic. Diem was putty in the CIA’s hands.

During this period, the CIA considered itself a nation builder. It drank from the goblet of power filled by placing the Shah of Iran on a throne in 1953 and sponsored a successful military coup against the leftist government in Guatemala in March 1954. In Europe, the CIA supported the Christian Democrats in the 1948 Italian elections ensuring the survival of ‘democratic government’ there. The also CIA participated in the 1954 defeat of the Hukbalahaps or Huk Rebellion, who were labeled as Communists, in the Philippines during Ramon Magsaysay’s regime.

Drunk on the wine from these victories, the CIA entered Vietnam certain of another success. Unfortunately, they did not understand the Vietnamese people, their culture or their history. Diem was inaugurated in July 1954. He won the presidency by dubious means and the CIA knew he did not have the support of the people. Toward that end they had been grooming his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, for several years. By that time, the CIA had been busy in Vietnam for four years. The Agency first reestablished the covert action section in the Saigon Station, which had its plug pulled when the French found out about its activities in Hanoi. Secondly, Colonel Edward Lansdale of the USAF, renowned for his work as "kingmaker" in the Philippines, was to find a Vietnamese equivalent of Ramon Magsaysay. Lansdale’s assignment was approved about the time that Harwood arrived in Saigon. Colonel Lansdale followed him in June, assigned to the Embassy as Assistant Air Attache.[11] Paul Harwood was the CIA’s Saigon Chief of Covert Operations and very good friends with Ngo Dinh Nhu. And Diem soon became quite the dictator. By the time his administration was drop-kicked and Diem was assassinated during the Kennedy administration, Diem had killed thousands and extended his hatred of Communists to include political and religious dissidents, such as Buddhists, and anti-corruption whistleblowers. 

President Eisenhower greets South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem in Washington, 1957

President Eisenhower greets South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem in Washington, 1957

The CIA in Vietnam, spearheaded by Lansdale and Harwood, failed both in providing accurate information and in nation-building. When Diem was overthrown and assassinated, Hồ Chí Minh reportedly stated: “I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid.” But stupid we were. In 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson dropped the pretext of plausible deniability when he admitted to the murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem.[12]

The U.S. had its CIA nose under the Vietnamese tent for twenty-five years before it finally accepted it had lost. Vietnam was a political war, not a military war, and it cost millions of lives, including tens of thousands in the U.S. military services, trillions of dollars and the loss of the American ‘good guy’ innocence.

Instead of opening trade and freeing markets following WWII, the U.S. pulled in, went underground, and embarked on an imperialistic march through the back alleys of the world. Where trade was allowed to flourish, countries recovered and thrived after WWII; Japan, Hong, Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan come to mind.  Those early CIA victories in Iran, Guatemala, and Italy did not lead to long-term stability or democracy. The Philippines did better, although it appears we slew the wrong dragon there. The Dulles dynasty in the CIA and State Department was weighted by numerous disasters offset with very few victories. Perhaps bankers look at the balance sheet from a different perspective. In the end, it is the President of the United Sates, Eisenhower in this case, who must take responsibility for the CIA; it was his baby and his choices.

For the years I served the government as a member of the contractor community, my least favorite agency to do business with was the CIA followed quickly by the DEA. While I wrestle the bias to the ground most of the time, it still manages to creep into my writing on occasion. We, each of us, had a job to do for the United States government and most of us took that responsibility very seriously. Our oaths were pretty much the same and have no expiration date; to uphold and protect the U.S. Constitution. How we go about doing that, however, is very different.


By Barbara Johnson


Barbara is the owner of, a site about the men and women from all the cold wars who worked so hard for something they believed in and played so hard they forgot the pain.


To find out more about the Vietnam War, why not listen to our audio podcast on that war? Click here. 


[1] George Washington University NSA Archives; John L. Helgerson; CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-1992;

[2] Kennesaw State University; Political Sciences and International Studies Department; 1952: The Election of a Military Hero;

[3] Wikipedia; Office of Strategic Services;

[4] CIA Library; The Way We Do things;

[5] National Archives; Statistical Information about Fatal Casualties of the Vietnam War;

[6] The term "Viet Minh" is an abbreviation for VietNam Doc Lap Dong Minh-the Vietnam Independence League-the national front created by Ho Chi Minh in 1941 to resist the Japanese occupation and the Vichy French colonial regime that collaborated with it. South Vietnam as a separate, provisional entity came into existence as a result of the Geneva Accords. The other two Associated States, which together with Vietnam made up French Indochina, were Cambodia and Laos. Under the terms of the ceasefire, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was to take control of all Vietnamese territory north of the 17th parallel, while the French Expeditionary retired to the south.

[7] Bernard B. Fall; 1961; Street Without Joy: The French Debacle In Indochina;

[8] Air Force Magazine; Rebecca Grant; August 2004; Dien Bien Phu;

[9] Google Books; Nathan Miller; 1977; The U.S. Navy: A History;

[10] Asian History; Kallie Szczepanski; The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, 1954;

[11] George Washington University; National Security Archives; Thomas L. Ahern, Jr.; House of NGO covert Action in South Vietnam,

[12] Youtube; November, 1, 1963; LBJ Admits Murder of South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem;