The Cold War was becoming part of international relations by 1955. Here, some of the key events and trends at the time are explained: the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, and between the US and Europe in general. And how the fledgling CIA operated is also considered. Bill Rapp, author of Cold War Spy thriller The Hapsburg Variation (Amazon US | Amazon UK), explains.

Kim Philby, an important member of British Intelligence who would later defect to the Soviet Union. 

Kim Philby, an important member of British Intelligence who would later defect to the Soviet Union. 

The most realistic thing about The Hapsburg Variation is the general background set at the height of the Cold War, as well as the developing relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom--a relationship that has been labelled as "special" for several decades now.  Following my own recent assignment in London, I can attest that it truly is special--especially in the fields of intelligence and diplomacy.  I enjoyed an extremely close working relationship with my British colleagues.  In fact, I even held a building pass to the Foreign Office that allowed me to move about the halls un-escorted.  I did often get lost, but that had nothing to do with the "special relationship," but more with the elaborate design and recent remodeling that steered British diplomats in the wrong direction on occasion.


That relationship has not always been as close as it is today, nor even that friendly, especially at the time of The Hapsburg Variation.  The British had just gone through the painful experience of having two of their rising stars (Burgess and Maclean) flee to Moscow as they were about to be exposed as Soviet spies, and suspicion for their warning and flight fell heavily on Kim Philby.  As Philby was also considered one of the darlings, and even a possible future leader of MI6, the British resisted the American push to have the man sacked, or at least have his security clearance revoked.  Not only did London resist, but he was even cleared shortly after the Maclean-Burgess affair by a government inquiry.  Washington, of course, remained suspicious and was eventually proven right when Philby disappeared from his Beirut posting and then resurfaced in Moscow as a hero of the Soviet Union some six years later.  Not that some in the American intelligence community hadn't been complicit in their refusal to accept Philby's guilt.  James Jesus Angleton, the head of the Agency's Counter-Intelligence bureau, had spent many a boozy and extended lunch sharing operational secrets with Philby, who promptly reported them to Moscow.  Readers will no doubt pick up Karl Baier's cautious and at times negative attitude toward his British counterparts in Vienna and London, an attitude driven by the CIA's disappointment with MI6's and London's refusal to face the proverbial music on the spies in their midst.  It would takes years for the "cousins" to regain the Americans’ full trust.


An important year in the Cold War

1955 also marked a high point in the Cold War.  Several of the events that precipitated the change in U.S. relations with the Soviet Union from that of wartime ally to peacetime nemesis were part of the very recent past: The Berlin Blockade and Airlift, the Communist coups in Czechoslovakia and Romania, the Greek civil war, the Korean War, the East Berlin uprising and its suppression.  But not all the developments were negative.  Khrushchev had already decided that the Soviet system was badly in need of reform, and that the USSR would undoubtedly benefit from a relaxation in tensions with the West.  In fact, he had probably already begun to draft--or at least consider--his speech for the 1956 party congress that would denounce the crimes of Stalin and usher in a short-lived period of mild reforms at home and in the satellite states of the Warsaw Pact.  This almost certainly helped inspire the agreement to negotiate the reunification of Austria, the withdrawal of all foreign troops, and the restoration of full Austrian sovereignty, all of which culminated in the State Treaty of May, 1955.  Of course, Khrushchev did not enjoy unanimous support at home for this shift, and this opposition that would come to the fore during the Hungarian Revolt a year later.


The impact on European History

Then there is the broader sweep of European history and the part of the United States in that, thanks to the cultural and political legacy the country carries.  Europe had just emerged from two devastating wars, which would end its role as the preeminent geopolitical region. That role would fall first to the United States, and secondly to the Soviet Union, with China waiting in the proverbial wings.  And it would fall to Washington to ensure that the liberal and democratic traditions that were inherited from their European settlers would not be lost in their homelands.

The Second World War also accelerated the fracturing of Europe that emerged from the collapse of the three great Central and Eastern European empires in 1919.  Although World War II had helped the nations of Western Europe to put their nationalistic and even xenophobic pasts behind them, further east it strengthened those national and ethnic animosities that continue to bedevil American and European policymakers to this day.  Nonetheless, there have always been some who regretted the loss of the Hapsburg Empire in particular, viewing it as the best answer--with some serious reforms, of course--to the divisive animosities that have undermined the region's stability and prosperity ever since.  Herr von Rudenstein represents those who moaned the loss of that world, a feeling captured in the numerous studies of fin de siècle Vienna, the novels of Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig, and more recently the film The Budapest Grand Hotel.  Such nostalgia should never have a part in policy-making, but you would never convince the likes of Herr von Rudenstein that his dreams were not the stuff of realistic goals.  The history of the twentieth century in the region would suggest that he might have had a point.


The Central Intelligence Agency

Finally, there is the matter of a young Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), just eight years old at this point.  The CIA was still emerging from its apprenticeship as the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, during World War II.  From those early years the Agency carried an unfortunate, in my mind, fascination with covert, paramilitary action that did gain some notable--if momentary--successes with the coups in Iran and Guatemala, but also a host of unmitigated disasters in futile attempts to foment revolts in the Communist states of Eastern Europe.  The Agency was also, again in my mind, too reliant on the British “cousins” in those early years, an admittedly natural dependency given their long history in the business of espionage.  It would take the Americans some years to develop their own capacity for recruiting and handling agents in hostile environments, learning how to vet and protect them, and provide the sort of human intelligence that can best inform policymakers in Washington.  But the Americans were learning in 1955, and they would soon emerge as the more powerful and more successful of the two.  This is the sort of environment Karl Baier was operating in during his tour in Vienna, and he was prone to many of the same assumptions, resentments, and expectations that governed the outlook and perspectives of his real-life colleagues in those days.  But he also learned to overcome the challenges those presented and reach his goals, occasionally with the help and assistance of his hosts and his British partners.


Let us know what you think about the article below.

Bill’s book, The Hapsburg Variation, is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK


Eight years into his career with the CIA, Karl Baier once again finds himself on the front line of the Cold War. He is stationed in Vienna in the spring of 1955 as Austria and the four Allied Powers are set to sign the State Treaty, which will return Austria's independence, end the country's postwar occupation, and hopefully reduce tensions in the heart of Europe. But the Treaty will also establish Austrian neutrality, and many in the West fear it will secure Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe and create a permanent division. Asked to help investigate the death of an Austrian aristocrat and Wehrmacht veteran, Baier discovers an ambitious plan not only to block the State Treaty, but also to subvert Soviet rule in lands of the old Hapsburg Empire. Then Baier's wife is kidnapped, and the mission becomes intensely personal. Many of his basic assumptions are challenged, and he discovers that he cannot count on loyalties, even back home in Washington, D.C. At each maddening turn in the investigation, another layer must be peeled away. Even if Baier succeeds in rescuing his wife, he faces the unenviable task of unraveling an intricate web of intrigue that reaches far back into the complicated history of Central Europe. Book 2 in the Cold War Thriller series, which began with Tears of Innocence.




Bill Rapp recently retired from the Central Intelligence Agency after thirty-five years as an analyst, diplomat, and senior manager. After receiving his BA from the University of Notre Dame, an MA from the University of Toronto, and a PhD from Vanderbilt University, Bill taught European History at Iowa State University for a year before heading off to Washington, D.C. The Hapsburg Variation is the second book in the Cold War Spy series featuring Karl Baier. Bill also has a three-book series of detective fiction set outside Chicago with P.I. Bill Habermann, and a thriller set during the fall of the Berlin Wall. He lives in northern Virginia with his wife, two daughters, two miniature schnauzers, and a cat. For more information, go to

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

This is the third in a series of articles that explores the iconic CIA and its use as a tactical weapon by the US presidents of the Cold War (1947-1991). The Central Intelligence Agency – In the Beginning and The Central Intelligence Agency – Eisenhower and Asia’s Back Door are the preceding posts. 

JFK delivering a speech

JFK delivering a speech

A very tired John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was sworn into office on a clear, windy, brutally cold January 20, 1961.(1) It wasn’t an easy day. Eight inches of snow had fallen the night before, causing a monumental traffic jam. The streets were littered with abandoned vehicles.  Former President Herbert Hoover missed the entire inauguration event because Washington National Airport was closed due to the weather.  An inauguration is an important national symbol that characterizes the Republic and the all-night effort to clear Pennsylvania Avenue greeted the sun with space to accommodate the large crowd that would gather to witness the duly elected president assume the helm of the ship-of-state.  

The snowfall of the previous night and the windy, frigid temperatures of inauguration day are also apt codes for the sea change that had already gathered momentum around the relationship between the new president and his intelligence agency, the CIA.  The CIA, as authorized by The National Security Act of 1947, was still fairly young, but Allen Dulles, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) was an old hand and seemingly enjoyed the game.  By 1961, the CIA, in its short life, had tripped the light fantastic around the globe; Col. Lansdale was merrily fighting rebels in The Philippines following which he ported his obsession with asymmetric guerilla warfare to Vietnam where he spent two-years as a houseguest and confidant of President Diem. Other CIA operatives overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala, and raised general hell with Cuba and Chile. 

During the latter Truman and the Eisenhower administrations there was a trend to combine the Cold War objective of fighting the creep of Communism with business interests. Iran, for example, nationalized British oil interests and Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh refused to budge in spite of punishing sanctions. According to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, “Eisenhower worried about Mossadegh's willingness to cooperate with Iranian Communists; he also feared that Mossadegh would eventually undermine the power of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a staunch anti-Communist partner. In August 1953, the CIA helped overthrow Mossadegh's government and restored the Shah's power. In the aftermath of this covert action, new arrangements gave U.S. corporations an equal share with the British in the Iranian oil industry.”(2)

In Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman initiated land reforms that seriously impacted the holdings of the anti-Communist, New Orleans-based United Fruit Company who controlled over forty percent of Guatemala’s arable land.  The Truman administration came to the support of American business interests by arming the anti-Arbenz rebels.  Under Eisenhower, the CIA finished the job by overthrowing the Arbenz regime and installing Carlos Castillo Armas.  Codenamed PBSUCCESS, the coup d'état was the first-ever clandestine military action in Latin America but it was certainly not the last.(3)


Kennedy and the CIA

After fifty years the controversy surrounding Kennedy and the CIA obscures the landscape like the white-out conditions in a blizzard.   At one end of the opinion spectrum, Marquette University’s John McAdams’ The Kennedy Assassination site concludes that Kennedy and the CIA had some rough spots but got through them. (4) At the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Jerome R. Corsi, who maintains that Kennedy and the CIA locked horns and never retreated. (5) Excellent research and the documented citations for both perspectives leave the reader with many questions.  One corner of this argument does not appear to be disputed; Kennedy consistently refused to use the U.S. military to support private sector interests.  In this matter, President Kennedy was a traditionalist. The military, in his opinion, was to be used only in defense of national security interests.  If we can escape the white-out conditions of the never-ending controversy, the political landscape, once again, becomes hard and navigable.  

As Kennedy came to office, covert CIA actions initiated by the Eisenhower administration were in play in both hemispheres.  Two noteworthy examples are the storm clouds that were gathering around the Diem brothers in South Vietnam and the vexing problem of Fidel Castro in Cuba.  For discussion purposes I have separated these two significant events, but during the early days of the Kennedy administration they were unfolding concurrently linked through the CIA node.

President Kennedy and DCI Allen Dulles

President Kennedy and DCI Allen Dulles

South Vietnam

South Vietnam was a U.S. government construct, a nation-building exercise illuminated by the Pentagon Papers.

“The United States moved quickly to prevent the unification and to establish South Vietnam as an American sphere. It set up in Saigon as head of the government a former Vietnamese official named Ngo Dinh Diem, who had recently been living in New Jersey, and encouraged him not to hold the scheduled elections for unification. A memo in early 1954 of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that intelligence estimates showed "a settlement based on free elections would be attended by almost certain loss of the Associated States [Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam-the three parts of Indochina created by the Geneva Conference] to Communist control." Diem again and again blocked the elections requested by the Vietminh, and with American money and arms his government became more and more firmly established. As the Pentagon Papers put it: "South Viet Nam was essentially the creation of the United States."(6)

By 1961, Southeast Asia was rapidly becoming a tinder box.  During a discussion of an Edward Lansdale report on Vietnam with Walt Whitman Rostow, the National Security advisor, Kennedy lamented, “'This is the worst one we've got. You know, Eisenhower never mentioned it. He talked at length about Laos, but never uttered the word Vietnam.”  Lansdale’s report brought the deterioration of South Vietnam’s political stability into focus for Kennedy as he remarked to Rostow that the “Lansdale's narrative was 'an extremely vivid and well-written account of a place that was going to hell in a hack.'…” (7)

Diem and his brother persisted in implementing domestic policies based on impressing the Catholic religion and requiring personal loyalties that accelerated the destabilization of the country.  The prevailing religion in Vietnam was Buddhism at the time and the Diems were persecuting Buddhists terribly.  Making matters worse were two notable supporters of the Diem’s, neither of whom had a clue about the national culture of Vietnam.  Senate Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield, a Montana Democrat, lectured in Far Eastern and Latin American history in his previous life. Mansfield was also a practicing Catholic.  While Mansfield openly admitted he knew nothing about Vietnam, he very much liked Diem and he was generally considered to be Congress’ resident Vietnam expert.  The second big player who knew nothing about Vietnam was Col. Edward Lansdale, a CIA asset who befriended and used the Diems but was only committed to his concept of counterinsurgency warfare.  The Pentagon Papers revealed that, based on Lansdale’s advice, Kennedy approved secret operations to "dispatch of agents to North Vietnam" to engage in "sabotage and light harassment”.


Growing involvement

The Diem brothers’ refusal to cease and desist acting on their paranoia, resulted in thousands of Buddhists and dissenters being imprisoned, tortured, and murdered.  The Geneva Accords permitted the U.S. to have 685 military advisers in South Vietnam. Eisenhower sent several thousand and, under Kennedy, the figure rose to sixteen thousand with some of them taking part in combat operations. Diem was losing. Most of the South Vietnam countryside was now controlled by local villagers organized by the NLF.(See Footnote 6)  It became clear that a new government was necessary if the U.S. was to be effective in keeping Vietnam out of Communist hands.  Kennedy authorized the overthrow with the provision that the Diem brothers would be extracted to live in exile. 

Henry Cabot Lodge, Ambassador to South Vietnam, received a cable (Cable 243) outlining the issues and actions that were the next steps in changing regimes or bringing the Diem regime into line with American interests, following the midnight raids on the Buddhist Pagodas on August 21, 1963.(8)  The Diem brothers would not or could not change direction and South Vietnam’s Diem government was overthrown in a military coup d'état according to play book.  What did not go ‘according to plan’ was the murder of the Diem brothers whose desperate calls for rescue went unheeded by the U.S. government that had put them in power.  The brutal assassinations of the Diems on November 2, 1963 haunted Kennedy.  By November 22, 1963, less than three weeks later, Kennedy himself would die from an assassin’s bullet(s).

“Kennedy learned of the deaths on the following morning when National Security Council staffer Michael Forrestal rushed into the cabinet room with a telegram reporting the Ngô brothers' alleged suicides. According to General Maxwell Taylor, "Kennedy leaped to his feet and rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face which I had never seen before." Kennedy had planned that Ngô Đình Diệm would be safely exiled and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. recalled that the U.S. president was "somber and shaken". Kennedy later penned a memo, lamenting that the assassination was "particularly abhorrent" and blaming himself for approving Cable 243, which had authorised Lodge to explore coup options in the wake of Nhu's attacks on the Buddhist pagodas.  Forrestal said that "It shook him personally ... bothered him as a moral and religious matter. It shook his confidence, I think, in the kind of advice he was getting about South Vietnam."   When Kennedy was consoled by a friend who told him he need not feel sorry for the Ngô brothers on the grounds of despotism, Kennedy replied "No. They were in a difficult position. They did the best they could for their country." 



While the South Vietnam pot was coming to a boil in the Eastern Hemisphere, the Cuban kettle had boiled dry with the Bay of Pigs and was heating up a second time with Operation Mongoose in the Western Hemisphere.  Without getting into the ‘why’ of it, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy left the door open to depose Cuba’s new dictator Fidel Castro during the fourth presidential debate.(9)  The New York Times the next day ran the story as the lead item on the front page with the headline: "Kennedy Asks Aid for Cuban Rebels to Defeat Castro, Urges Support of Exiles and Fighters for Freedom." James Reston wrote in the Times that "Senator Kennedy (has) made what is probably his worst blunder of the campaign.”(10)  After Kennedy was inaugurated, DCI Allen Dulles came calling to cash the Bay of Pigs check and Kennedy approved the invasion as had been planned under the Eisenhower administration except that he refused to commit the U.S. military support. 

George Washington University’s National Security Archives Bay of Pigs Chronology provides a wonderfully detailed account of the invasion and reads like a spy thriller.  Prior to the invasion factories and cane fields were fire bombed using white phosphorus and other incendiaries, E. Howard Hunt and others made covert trips into Cuba to check the lay of the land, small aircraft overflew Cuba taking pictures and reporting back to the CIA (at least one was shot down by Castro’s forces), communication stations on remote islands were constructed in preparation for command and control of the prospective invasion, and exiled Cubans were trained.  The exiles wanted to return home to the country they remembered and American business interests wanted the island playground back in their domain.

The pressure was on to execute the invasion and, in April, about three months after Kennedy’s inauguration the green light was given. “On April 15, 1961, C.I.A. pilots knocked out part of Castro's air force, and were set to finish the job. At the last minute, on April 16, President Kennedy called off the air strikes, but the message did not reach the 1,511 commandos headed for the Bay of Pigs. Three days of fighting destroyed the invading force. A brigade commander sent his final messages: ''We are out of ammo and fighting on the beach. Please send help,'' and: ''In water. Out of ammo. Enemy closing in. Help must arrive in next hour.''(11) The help never came and 1500 Cuban exiles fighters did not come back.

To his credit, President Kennedy assumed full public responsibility for the debacle although he allowed the blame to spread through leaks and rumors.  Kennedy fired Allen Dulles and threatened to break the CIA apart.  The fiasco that was the Bay of Pigs, however, did not deter the effort to rid the Western Hemisphere of Castro.  In November 1961, Operation Mongoose was born with a primary objective to identify mechanisms to get rid of the Cuban leader and the CIA was not the lead player.  Robert Kennedy and General Maxwell Taylor were the operation’s overseers.  Col. Edward Lansdale was recruited to coordinate activities between the CIA, Defense Department, and State Department. 

Operation Mongoose employed intelligence collection, sabotage operations, and identifying and recruiting leaders within Cuba who could overthrow Castro. But there were other methods used. With Lansdale’s obsession on asymmetrical warfare, a subset operation known as the Northwoods operation was developed. This considered using faked and real terrorist activities which could be blamed on Castro and used as a provocation for invasion.  It has never been decisively determined whether or not assassination plots were a component of Operation Mongoose.(12)  The Church Committee did, however, uncover a 1962 memo from Lansdale to Robert Kennedy claiming that "we might uncork the touchdown play independently of the institutional program we are spurring."  Operation Mongoose was ‘officially’ ended in October 1962 with the advent of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The ‘official’ efforts to ‘get Castro’ fade from the presidential office in October 1962 and go deep underground.  The next blip on the ‘get Castro’ radar appears in New Orleans in the rabid anti-Communist, anti-Castro corporate culture at the United Fruit Company upon whose trustee board the fired DCI Allen Dulles sat.  The United Fruit Company story must be told at another time, however.


The CIA and Kennedy in perspective

President Kennedy’s fractured relationship with the CIA meant, for his term in office, a reduced CIA influence on foreign policy and affairs.  Kennedy, however, did recognize the usefulness of covert operators and plausible deniability’s lack of presidential fingerprints.  Publicly Kennedy was shamed twice by CIA failures and fired the powerful Allen Dulles.  Did Kennedy really forget and forgive as some analysts portray or would his ego have driven him to keep his promise to break up the CIA?  Certainly, Kennedy attempted to dilute the CIA influence during Operation Mongoose.  Kennedy’s assassination ended all of the speculation of the CIA’s relative political standing as the status quo quickly returned under the Johnson administration.

The Kennedy administration lasted just 1036 stormy days. His last day, like his first, was preceded by a storm in Dallas, Texas.  As on Kennedy’s inauguration day, the storm cleared and Kennedy elected to have his convertible open to the people; the better to relate to the people.  That, of course, worked well for the assassin(s).  I find it interesting where the ubiquitous Allen Dulles shows up; on the United Fruit Company Board of Trustees and on the Warren Commission investigating the death of the man who fired him.  The Diem brothers may have been assassinated but Fidel Castro, the object of so much time and effort, outlived them all.


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.

This article has been published as we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F Kennedy. We shall be posting about JFK on Twitter and Facebook this week.

To find out more about John F Kennedy’s life, listen to our podcast on him. Click here.


1.       NOAA’s National Weather Service Forecast Office; Presidential Inaugural Weather;

2.       University of Virginia; Miller Center; American President: Eisenhower Foreign Policy A Reference Resource;

3.       The Cold War Museum; Guatemala 1954; Article 1 of 2;

4.       Marquette University; Craig Frizzell and Magen Knuth; Mortal Enemies? Did President Kennedy Plan on Splintering the CIA?;

5.       Dr. Jerome R. Corsi; Who Really Killed Kennedy?: 50 Years Later: Stunning New Revelations About the JFK Assassination; 

6.       A People's History Of The United States; Howard Zinn; Chapter 18: The Impossible Victory: Vietnam;

7.       George Washington University National Security Archives; The Wall; Episode 9; INTERVIEW WITH WALT ROSTOW;

8.       George Washington University National Security Archives; Cable 243;

9.       Commission on Presidential Debates; October 21, 1960 Debate Transcript; The Fourth Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debate; October 21, 1960;

10.   George Washington University National Security Archives; Chapter 3; Into Politics With Kennedy and Johnson;   

11.   New York Times; TIM WEINER; February 22, 1998; C.I.A. Bares Its Bungling in Report on Bay of Pigs Invasion;

12.   George Washington University National Security Archives; July 25, 1962; Brig. Gen. Lansdale; Review of Operation Mongoose;  

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;


This is the first 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).

20130828 Image 1 CIA_floor_seal.gif

A unique Cold War tactical weapon, the CIA was created by President Truman who did not like or trust the quality and timeliness of the intelligence he was receiving. The agency was born to serve one master, the president, not the people.  The birth of the CIA was spawned by nasty surprises beginning with Truman’s sudden rise to the oval office upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in Warm Springs, GA on April 12, 1945.[1] Truman and Roosevelt were estranged bedfellows thrown together to win an election. For his part, Roosevelt reportedly did not hold Truman’s intellect in high regard and Truman did not like Roosevelt’s politics. Certainly a portion of their mutual disdain was caused by then Senator Truman who chaired the Truman Committee. The committee had exposed considerable waste, fraud, and abuse by government defense contractors during WWII. It is not surprising that the two did not meet often and, in general, Truman was excluded from cabinet and most other high level meetings during his vice presidency.

While Truman knew he was ‘out of the loop’, he discovered just how much he did not know when he assumed the presidency. In his previous life as the Senator from Missouri, Truman had heard rumors of a super-secret defense project. As vice president, he’d caught a scent of it again, but twelve days into his tenure he was fully briefed for the first time on the Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project by Henry Stimson, Secretary of War. The briefing by Stimson and others coupled with the complex bureaucratic Washington, D.C. maze that horded information like gold convinced Truman that he wanted his very own intelligence gathering service. Irrespective of all the excuses he heard from various agencies and departments, Truman was determined to have the intelligence he required to do his job on a daily basis. In January of 1946, the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) was formed and, by September 1947, the National Security Act of 1947, transmuted it into the Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, headed by Rear Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter.  

It was not smooth sailing for the CIG. Its very existence threatened the military, State, and War (Defense) Departments’ intelligence rice bowls and the governmental infighting was intense. According to John L. Helgerson’s CIA Briefings of Presidential Candidates, 1952-1992, “The President was virtually alone in expecting to receive a daily, comprehensive current intelligence product, whatever the formal charters of the CIG and CIA might say. Needless to say, his expectations carried the day.”[2]  

The go-ahead for broad-based covert activities was on Hillenkoetter’s desk a short nine months later in the form of National Security Council directive NSC 10/2.  The directive created the Office of Special Projects within which it placed covert activities. The Chief of Special Projects, who reported to the CIA director, was appointed by the Secretary of State and approved by the National Security Council. The CIA covert operations authorization was simple: 1. coordination with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2. National Security Council approval of any plans, and 3. provided for action "against hostile foreign states or groups or in support of friendly foreign states or groups but which are so planned and executed that any US Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the US Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them.” The directive provides a very broad loose definition of covert activities:

Specifically, such operations shall include any covert activities related to: propaganda, economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation groups, and support of indigenous anti-communist elements in threatened countries of the free world. Such operations shall not include armed conflict by recognized military forces, espionage, counter-espionage, and cover and deception for military operations.[3]

Adversity, properly channeled, yields increased resilience and strength. Professional embarrassment, properly channeled, yields a fortified resolve. A government rice bowl filled with taxpayer dollars for continued survival yields strong motivation. The CIA was still young and wet behind the ears when the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb, which the U.S called Joe-1 after Joseph Stalin. While the CIA knew the Soviets were working on the Bomb, it was the Air Force that produced the proof enabling Truman to crow ‘I-told-you-so’ at the top of his voice to the whole world.  The ‘government game’ is replete with players that run, not walk, to the boss to be the first one through the door with new information. It’s called the ‘kibble’ effect. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we in the government and the government contractor community are conditioned to receive treats when we fetch new data ‘the boss’ can use. The boss rewards those who bring the best information with kibbles, or other treats. The boss collects the data, places it in a context his boss can use and runs the information up the ladder to the next boss as soon as possible so he can get his or her kibble.

One can only imagine the pure joy the Air Force felt at being the first through the president’s door with proof of the Soviet atomic bomb test and how professionally embarrassed the CIA was. Sixty four years ago this month the Joe-1 test was conducted at the Semipalatinsk Test Site, STS, in Kazakhstan on August 29, 1949.  Joe-1 yielded a 22 kiloton detonation over twice the estimated yield of the Hiroshima bomb. The STS is about the size of New Jersey, which is five times larger than the U.S.’s former Nevada Test Site,[4] and very remote so how was the test discovered? According to George Washington University’s Nuclear Vault, the answer to that question lies in the direction given the Army Air Force by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Army Chief of Staff, in 1947 to develop an Atomic Energy Detection System (AEDS) to remotely sense nuclear testing through the emissions it released. Between 1947 and 1949, the Defense Department developed and deployed an "Interim Surveillance Research Net" that was fully operational by the spring of 1949.

Harry S Truman

Harry S Truman

Shortly after the Soviet test, on 1 September 1949, a WB-29 ["W" for weather reconnaissance] operated by the Air Force's Weather Service undertook a routine flight from Misawa Air Force Base (Japan) to Eilson Air Force Base (Alaska) on behalf of the secretive Air Force Office of Atomic Energy-1 [AFOAT-1] [later renamed the Air Force Technical Applications Center, or AFTAC]. The plane carried special filters designed to pick up the radiological debris that an atmospheric atomic test would inevitably create.  So far none of the flights in the Northern Pacific had picked up a scent, but after this flight returned to Eilson and a huge Geiger counter checked the filters, the technicians detected radioactive traces. This was the 112th alert of the Atomic Energy Detection System (the previous 111 had been caused by natural occurrences, such as earthquakes). After a complex chain of events, involving more flights to collect more air samples, consultations among U.S. government scientists, consultants, and contractors, including radiological analysis by Tracerlab and Los Alamos Laboratory, and secret consultations with the British government, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Moscow had indeed conducted a nuclear test. On 23 September 1949, President Truman announced that "We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R."[5]

Joe-1 was a nasty surprise for the U.S., which had no idea the extent of the Soviet penetration into the Manhattan project and really did not expect the Soviets to develop nuclear capability until 1953 at the earliest. And Truman’s revelation of the test was a nasty surprise to the Soviet Union, which had no idea the U.S. had the capability to detect the test. And the test was a nasty surprise to the newly hatched CIA. Director Hillenkoetter contended that "I don't think we were taken by surprise" because of an error of only a "few months".  As you might imagine, Hillenkoetter’s lame excuse signaled the end of his CIA leadership.

By 1950, the Truman Doctrine that would become labeled as the ‘Domino Theory’ was entrenched, the pieces of the CIA puzzle were in place and recognizable as the CIA we know and love today, and President Truman received daily CIA briefings with a sharp focus on Korea and its ramifications. ‘Beetle’, General Walter Bedell Smith, who had served as Eisenhower’s chief of staff during the invasion of Italy during WWII, was selected to replace Hillenkoetter, who returned to active duty commanding a cruiser division in the Korean War.

Can the CIA or any agency be effective at both covert action and intelligence analysis? David Fromkin’s brilliant review of Daring Amateurism: The CIA's Social History authored by Jeffrey T. Richelson in the Council on Foreign Relations book section begins:

In his 1928 Ashenden stories, W. Somerset Maugham, who had undertaken missions for British intelligence in the First World War, portrayed espionage even for our side as morally corrupting, usually incompetent, and more likely to harm our friends than our enemies. Graham Greene and John le Carré later made these their themes. We now know that this body of literature should not be classified as fiction.[6]

Truman breathed life into the CIA and made it his intelligence water bearer. His action has had profound effects on the geopolitics of the world. Truman insisted that no president should enter office as clueless as he had been and used the CIA to brief the primary presidential candidates; a practice still in place. An agency that tends to go rogue, the CIA appears to operate with little or no oversight. Remember, though, it is the President who commands it and one of the CIA operating mission directives is to maintain plausible deniability for the U.S. government for its actions. Over the next several posts, we will explore how various presidents chose to use the CIA and what the consequences have been. When it comes to the CIA, never forget Harry S Truman’s most famous words, “The buck stops here.”


How much has the CIA benefitted the US? Let us know below..


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.


And to find out about more great articles, why not join us?! Click here.


[1] The Truman Library; Eleanor and Harry: The Correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman edited by Steve Neal;

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

[3] The Department of State Office of the Historian; National Security Council Directive on Office of Special Projects; NSC 10/2;

[4] Department of Defense; Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS); Posted: March 2012;

[5] George Washington University, NSA Archives, Nuclear Vault; September 23, 2009; Edited by William Burr; U.S. Intelligence and the Detection of the First Soviet Nuclear Test, September 1949;

[6] Council on Foreign Relations; January/February 1996; David Fromkin; Daring Amateurism: The CIA's Social History;

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones