BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Evan Thomas, why the title, "The Very Best Men"?
EVAN THOMAS: Well, it's slightly ironic. They were the very best men in the sense that they were bright, bold, brave men who did the very best they could to conquer communism for the CIA in the early 1950s. But things didn't turn out as well as they'd hoped. And it's a bit of a play on the best and the brightest. A lot of what they tried to do didn't turn out so well. But they were the very best in the sense that they were the smartest around and the boldest around and the most daring.
LAMB: Who were they?
THOMAS: They were a group of four senior officials at the CIA who ran what's called the clandestine service, the part of the CIA that carries out covert action, espionage, the sexy part of the CIA, if you will. They were the covert action specialists. Richard Bissell, who was the most famous, probably, of the group who ran the Bay of Pigs -- or ran the CIA into the Bay of Pigs; Frank Wisner, who began it all in the late 40s; Tracy Barnes, who never ran it but was assistant for all the big operations like Guatemala and the Bay of Pigs; and Desmond Fitzgerald, who ran the covert action part of the agency in the mid-'60s and was a sort of swashbuckling, glamorous figure.
LAMB: Where did you get the idea for the book?
THOMAS: I got it from writing "The Wise Men," which was a book that came out about 10 years ago about the old foreign policy establishment. Two of the wise men were Chip Bohlen and George Kennan. They were senior foreign policymakers after the war, and one of their friends was Frank Wisner. Frank Wisner killed himself in 1965, and I thought, "Boy, there's got to be a story in there." The man who started the CIA's clandestine service, who started the department of dirty tricks, as reporters later called it, shot himself. And I thought, "Why? What happened?" And I started pulling on that string and it led me to these four characters.
LAMB: Why did Frank Wisner kill himself?
THOMAS: The short answer is that he was manic-depressive. The more interesting and longer answer is that he tried to do too much. He tried to create this fantastic covert operation capability to fight the Soviet Union in the 1950s. We were up against a very tough foe: the KGB. And he had, at best, limited success and he had some tragic setbacks, particularly the Hungarian revolution in 1956. And it got to him. He went mad on the job.
THOMAS: At the Central Intelligence Agency in his office down on the Washington Mall, in the tempos, they called them. They have their own, old temporary headquarters down on the mall, and he literally went nuts. He had to be escorted from the building and taken to a mental institution in Baltimore.
LAMB: So what kind of a story was it then?
THOMAS: Well, the story was a tragedy.
LAMB: I mean, was it a front-page story that he killed himself? Was it that big a deal?
THOMAS: He killed himself later. It wasn't -- you know, the press didn't cover the CIA in 1950. When he had his breakdown in 1958, nobody knew. Today, if the head of the clandestine service, the director of operations, was escorted from the building by men in white jackets, it would be all over The New York Times and C-SPAN and everywhere else. In 1958 the press just wasn't paying attention or they felt it was unpatriotic to pay attention to what the CIA was doing. And all of this happened without a murmur. He finally shot himself in 1965, and that got respectful editorials in The Post and The Times but no news play.
LAMB: What was the Georgetown Sunday Night Supper Club?
THOMAS: It was an odd institution. Right after the war, in Georgetown, all the smart set lived, all the really kind of glamorous people who'd gone to places like Harvard and Yale and worked for the kind of most exciting agencies -- and the CIA was the most exciting place to work. And every Sunday night was maids' night out. All these people were well-to-do, and the maids would go out and they would get together and have a potluck supper, at which they would drink a great deal.
It's hard today to imagine how much people drank in those days. Coming out of World War II they were so glad to be alive, Prohibition was over, they all drank like fishes and they had these raucous evenings until 3, 4 in the morning. And the people at them included Joe Alsop, famous, very powerful columnist at the time; Chip Bohlen, who was making our foreign policy; George Kennan, who was famous to many people as a kind of creator of American foreign policy after the war; and many of these CIA hands, including Wisner and Barnes. And they had these sort of raucous, almost fraternity-like at times, good time. They would fight and argue and have a great time.
LAMB: For someone who's never been to Washington, can you describe Georgetown?
THOMAS: Well, it's different. For a long time it was where the sort of attractive Democratic preppies hung out. It's a little bit a contradiction in terms. In Washington the sort of cool crowd in the 1950s were liberal Democrats, Stevensonian Democrats. They didn't like Eisenhower. They sort of put down Eisenhower as being dull, Midwestern, wore bad suits, didn't know the right wines. And the people who were sort of sharper and cooler tended to be liberal, but they were liberal interventionists. It was the kind of liberalism that doesn't really exist anymore. They wanted to save the world by conquering the world. They wanted a very active CIA and a very active State Department. They wanted America to be a great power, to take its rightful role running the world. And these people were, by and large, headquartered in Georgetown.
There are still remnants left. Mrs. Graham, who runs The Washington Post, still has dinner parties in Georgetown where she has policymakers and they eat good food and in a kind of a glamorous setting and everybody's vaguely self-satisfied.
And, you know, they're fun to go to, but they're a vestige of something that was once a very powerful institution. You cannot understand the CIA. In fact, you can't understand the government of the United States, at least the foreign policy part of it, unless you understand what Georgetown was like in the late 40s and early 50s: all friends, they all knew each other, they had gone to school together, they had been in the same clubs together, they were godfathers to each other's children, they drank together at the Sunday night supper. They were a world unto themselves and they made policy.
LAMB: On this program recently we had Ben Bradlee, and I want to make a connection here, because in that book we talked about Mary Myer ...
LAMB: ...and you in your book talk about Cord Myer.
LAMB: You also talk about the towpath along the canal on Sundays where everybody went down there. What's the connection between Mary Myer and Cord Myer and the towpath?
THOMAS: Right. Well, it's all stuff for conspiracy theorists. Cord Myer was this glamorous figure from St. Paul's and Yale who was in the CIA. He ran a division of the CIA. And his wife, Mary, was having an affair with the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy. And when she died, Ben Bradlee, who was married to Mary Myer's sister, went looking for Mary Myer's diary, was asked to find and destroy this diary. He found the diary, and it was a diary of her affair with the president.
Well, at the very same time when Bradlee's looking for Mary Myer's diary, James Jesus Angleton, of the CIA, is out there looking for the same diary. In fact, breaking into a barn, I believe it was, or a garage -- this is all recanted in Bradlee's book. Very creepily, Mary Myer died -- was murdered on the towpath. The conspiratorial significance of the towpath is that's where all the CIA guys used to go for Sunday walks with their kids and their dogs. After lunch on Sunday they would go down to the towpath and go for these long walks and talk to each other. So it's all kind of oddly, spooky connect the dots. I'm not sure it really means anything, but ...
LAMB: Is Cord Myer still alive?
THOMAS: Yes. He's still alive.
LAMB: Did you talk to him for this book?
THOMAS: Yes, I did. He's a very interesting figure. He's a sad story in some ways, a very glamorous figure who was the beau ideal of his generation. He was going to save the world -- a Marine, a hero, lost an eye on Tarawa, I think it was, or one of the islands in the South Pacific -- extremely idealistic; came into the CIA as a matter of idealism; became seriously anti-Communist, and his friends say somewhat warped and bent by it; became a sad figure over time ... a sort of cynical figure, a doubter. His friends -- this is a little harsh, but his friends say he spent a life too long in secrets. He got taken over by that strange world of the CIA and bent in some way. He lost his basic idealism and sense of hope.
LAMB: You say in the beginning that you interviewed 66 CIA agents -- current CIA agents or former?
THOMAS: Agents is a misnomer. Case officers and officials. An agent is somebody that the CIA hires to do their spying, usually a foreign national. These are all case officers or officials. The interesting thing about it was how free they were in talking to me. You would think the CIA would be clammed up. I mean, they're keeping secrets. But the Cold War is over. A lot of these men are older and facing their maker and thought, well, now's the time to tell my story. And also their personalities tended to be larger than life and lively. They are such a distinctive contrast to me with bureaucrats I see today in my day job, working for Newsweek, who tend to be pretty cautious, by and large. This group was not cautious. They were very bold, and they were bold in their actions as CIA officials in the 1950s. And by the time I got to them, they were pretty bold in talking to me. Only, I think, maybe five of them refused to talk at all. There's only one unattributed quote in the entire book. Everything else is on the record.
LAMB: And I wanted to ask you about that because I went back and found it where -- it's number 12 and chapter 21, and the unattributed quote is, "confidential interview." Why was that one out of the whole bunch?
THOMAS: This person was talking to me about the CIA's assassination plots in the early '60s and he didn't want it known that he knew of those plots at that time. He was describing a scene in which he's talking with Tracy Barnes about -- they were kind of laughing about the attempt at hiring the Mafia to kill Castro in the early '60s. And I think he felt he didn't want it generally known that he was witting, as they say, or privy to these plots at that time.
LAMB: You say that you are the first outsider journalist or historian ever permitted to see the CIA's own secret histories of its operations in the first two decades of its existence. How come? Why did they let you do it?
THOMAS: Well, the CIA was sort of fumbling around trying to figure out what to do after the Cold War ended. The operations directorate, the clandestine service, is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. They don't have to tell you anything. But Congress was putting some pressure on them to open up, and so they decided three or four years ago to use me as a kind of guinea pig and allow me in to see some things. I by no means saw everything. What I saw were their own secret histories. The CIA has a whole history staff and they write secret histories that nobody can read because they're classified. It's kind of like librarians who love books so much they don't want anybody to read them.
But I was allowed to read these histories, which are interesting, but it's important to note they are incomplete; they're turgid. They're written by intelligence officers, not professional historians. They don't promise to be complete records. They are very interesting windows into the way the CIA viewed itself at the time. And I took them as that and I found some interesting tidbits. No shocking revelations.
Interestingly, to me, all the big secrets are out. Only in this country would we really know all the big secrets of our intelligence service. In fact, we probably know more about the CIA than we do about the history of the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Housing and Urban Development, because their scandals forced out their big secrets chiefly in the 1970s during the Church Committee hearings.
LAMB: You say that you signed an agreement to do what?
THOMAS: I signed a secrecy agreement. It was a complicated process. I was afraid that if they wanted me to sign an all-purpose secrecy agreement that would allow them to censor my book. I refused to do that. I hired a lawyer, Sven Holmes, who's now a federal judge in Oklahoma, who had been the chief counsel of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He represented me for over two years in long negotiations. And we worked out a deal that worked this way. I wrote an entire book without any access at all. I submitted that book. This is based on my interview. I wrote a book based largely on sources that already exist and my interviews with old spooks. I submitted that manuscript, and I said, "You tell me what bothers you in this manuscript. What are you going to want to take out? What don't you like?" They gave me a list of about 50 items, and then we went through each one and I found basically public sourcing or convinced them these items were in no way a harm to the national security in all but, I think, about two cases.
Once we had settled that, we took that manuscript aside, and they made an agreement not to touch that, to ask for no further changes in that, but to just to accept what I had written. Then I was allowed in. I read their histories. I took notes. I submitted my notes to them. And they looked at that and they decided what, from my notes, they were going to let me print. They let me have just about everything. The thing that they're still sensitive about are some code names, for reasons I'm not entirely clear about. They're sensitive about code names, the identities of agents; they don't like to print that for obvious reasons. If I had read the record of them bribing a foreign official, they weren't to allow me to print that. But generally, they were pretty open. They allowed me to use specific details about covert operations all the way back. They withheld virtually nothing.
LAMB: How many wives of some of your principals did you talk to, that are still living?
THOMAS: All that are still living, which was to say, three of the four. Mrs. Fitzgerald was dead. Polly Fritchie did not tell me much. She was basically against the book, didn't want me writing about her husband.
LAMB: Who was Polly Fritchie?
THOMAS: Polly Wisner, Frank Wisner's widow, was against the book, still doesn't like it, wishes that I had never written it. It's personal. Her husband killed himself, and she didn't want me to write about it.
LAMB: Did she then marry Clayton Fritchie?
THOMAS: Yes. She's married to Clayton Fritchie.
LAMB: Still alive?
THOMAS: Still alive.
THOMAS: Clayton Fritchie was, among other things, an aide to Adlai Stevenson in the early 60s, a former newspaperman, well-known around town. And he married Polly after Frank died -- after Frank killed himself in 1965. Some years later, Polly married Clayton. So she didn't talk to me. Mrs. John Lawrence, Tracy Barnes' widow, talked to me, and so did Mrs. Bissell.
LAMB: I should know this; I don't. But is Frances Fitzgerald the writer?
THOMAS: She's the writer. She's the daughter of Desmond Fitzgerald. Interesting connection. I mean, Frankie Fitzgerald is a really great writer, won a Pulitzer Prize for the book "Fire in the Lake" in 1973 or so. And she...
LAMB: About Vietnam?
THOMAS: About Vietnam. Her father was running the clandestine service of the CIA, heavily engaged in Vietnam, while she was over researching that book in 1967.
LAMB: There's a scene in here at the Sunday night supper club at Joe Alsop's where she's at the table, as I remember.
THOMAS: Actually, it's an offshoot of the Sunday night supper, which was not really a club; it was just known as the Sunday night supper. There's a great scene in which Alsop -- Joe Alsop was a great cold warrior -- is heartened by the idea of young men -- the next generation coming along to fight the next good fight in Vietnam, including Frank Wisner Jr., Frank Wisner's son, and other sort of Harvard-Princeton-Yale types who were in the foreign service -- Richard Holbrooke, who's a pretty important player today; that generation was coming along, and Alsop was, "Go get 'em."
And these guys -- the younger generation looked at Alsop and said, "Are you crazy? This war's a disaster. You're out of your mind." And a huge generational fight ensued, and Frankie's father, Desmond Fitzgerald, who was then running the covert action part of the CIA, looked at the young generation and said, "Oh, you're all so wet." He used the British upper-class put-down of the younger generation for being -- wet means kind of wimpy, soft, weak.
LAMB: There's another reference to wet affairs.
THOMAS: Wet affairs are as -- KGB assassination, blackmail -- it's the dirty end of covert action. The 13th Directorate of the KGB carries out wet affairs.
LAMB: Where did you grow up? What town?
THOMAS: I grew up in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, a town that was full of people very much like the characters I wrote about.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
THOMAS: I went to Andover at a boarding school. And I went to Harvard College and then to the University of Virginia Law School.
LAMB: And your father was in what? What was his...
THOMAS: He was a book publisher. Published people -- not this crowd, but published Chip Bohlen. He published books -- typically, memoirs of statesmen, public affairs books in the 50s and 60s and into the 70s.
LAMB: What was it like growing up in that home?
THOMAS: Well, I got a dose of what then passed for the American upper class. This town was full of people who had gone to Yale and ran Wall Street.
LAMB: Your hometown?
THOMAS: My hometown. It was a commuter town outside of New York, very self-consciously WASP and the kind of town that you read about in Cheever's short stories. I don't know if it's that way today, but it was in the 1950s and 60s, when I was growing up.
LAMB: What role did your grandfather's public life play in your life?
THOMAS: It's a little complicated because my grandfather was a socialist, and this is one of these sort of "only in America" stories. My grandfather was a socialist and against private capital and private wealth or wanted to redistribute...
LAMB: Norman Thomas?
THOMAS: Norman Thomas. He married a wealthy woman and Norman Thomas, the great socialist, basically lived off clipping coupons, dividend checks, from US trust companies. He lived off of capitalism. So I grew up in a highly capitalistic world, even though my grandfather was a socialist. It was a kind of contradictory. It's sort of like -- I guess the analogy is the Fabians in 19th century England. You could live upper class but still preach socialism. And there was a vestige of this in this town, this kind of liberal idealism that these upper-class WASPs had -- a beau example would be John Lindsay in New York in the 1960s.
LAMB: Did I read that your grandfather ran six times for president?
THOMAS: Right. He did.
LAMB: What was the first year? Do you remember?
THOMAS: '24 through '48.
LAMB: He followed Eugene Debs.
THOMAS: Yeah. He was the sort of figurehead and spokesman for the Socialist Party from '24 to '48.
LAMB: What was he like?
THOMAS: Wonderful guy. He was full of stories. And he was a better grandfather than a father. I think my father was utterly neglected by him because he was always off trying to save the world, so my father never saw him or saw very little of him. By the time I came along as his grandson, he had all the time in the world to tell stories. And I got, from the combination of growing up around my grandfather, who had a social conscience and saw the world in a wider way, and growing up in this preppy little town, had an influence on me. I was sort of getting it from both sides.
LAMB: What kind of an influence?
THOMAS: I think it's one of the reasons why I write books like this. I'm interested in the sociology -- this sounds pompous -- but the sociology of the American upper class, such as it existed. I have a somewhat critical take on it. They -- they did some great things: Marshall Plan, Western Alliance, but they also did some stupid things, and I document them in this book, the Bay of Pigs and various CIA excesses. Hiring the Mafia -- what a crazy idea. Why the CIA thought they could hire the Mafia to kill Castro still almost escapes me, although I tried to write about it in this book. And I think that my background growing up in the 60s, going to Harvard at a time that it was pretty liberal, I had a liberal sensibility, but I came from a conservative background; and the combination gave me a sense of curiosity, a sort of a skeptical curiosity and fascination with the workings of the American aristocracy.
LAMB: Coming back to your grandfather again, I read somewhere that he was an anti-Communist.
THOMAS: He was a fierce anti-Communist. In the lefty battles of the 1930s, the Socialists early on saw that the Communists were bad guys. They were dictatorial and totalitarian, and my grandfather was very much a Democratic Socialist. He didn't want Stalin dictating to him. And he early on warned the left, "Don't fall for the Communists. Don't fall into that trap. They're" -- I'm being crude here, but "they're bad guys, and they're going to lead you astray."
LAMB: I wrote down a whole bunch of names, and I don't know that we can do this, but if we go through them -- maybe some of them fast to give you -- tell us who they are. Some of them have connections with today. You keep quoting in this book Tom Braden.
THOMAS: Tom Braden, who's known to many people as a TV and radio commentator, early on ran propaganda at the CIA and international organizations. He came out of Dartmouth, went to World War II; and the idealistic thing to do was join the CIA. So he did, and worked there for about four years.
LAMB: E. Howard Hunt.
THOMAS: E. Howard Hunt's famous for breaking into the Watergate. He was an early CIA operative. In the jargon of the time, he thought black. He always saw things in a kind of deceptive, deceiving -- or he always thought the CIA was being deceived and he always wanted to figure out how to trump them by doing something duplicitous. And he was a clever covert action operator; obviously, not clever enough, because they got caught breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters in 1972. But early on, he was a clever CIA operative.
LAMB: Did you talk to him for this book?
LAMB: What's he doing now?
THOMAS: I read that he's in bankruptcy. I think he's having a hard financial time. I don't really know what he's doing. He's obviously retired. He's an interesting character, kind of a strange American character. He wrote 60 novels -- I think 60 novels -- often spy novels, mystery novels. He's kind of a delightful character who is always going to be a footnote in American history because he got caught in Democratic Party headquarters on June 19th -- was it June 1972? -- he got caught.
LAMB: What is Tom Braden doing now?
THOMAS: Braden is retired. I think he still does some journalism, but not as much. He used to be a pretty regular radio commentator. I don't think he does as much now.
LAMB: You also had a name that -- I think it's his son that ran for vice president -- but Endicott Peabody...
THOMAS: Yeah. Endicott Peabody was the famous rector of Groton. He was kind of the earl WASP.
LAMB: Let me stop you about -- about Groton. Where is Groton?
THOMAS: Groton School is a little tiny school that most people have never heard of, northwest of Boston, that was a kind of ruling-class preserve. The Morgans and the Vanderbilts and sort of the American ruling class of the late 19th century and early -- the Harrimans -- early 20th century sent their sons there to be educated and also to get a sense of public service. Endicott Peabody preached public service, and one reason why so many of these chaps went into the CIA or the State Department was what they learned in chapel at Groton School.
LAMB: And Frank Wisner, Des Fitzgerald, Tracy Barnes, Richard Bissell, did they all go to Groton?
THOMAS: Two of them went to Groton. Fitzgerald went to St. Mark's, which is the sort of sister school of Groton, and Wisner was a Southerner, a Mississippi boy, who came out of a variation on the American aristocracy, the kind of Mississippi version. His family literally built a little town in Mississippi, owned lumber mills down there, and they built the parks, the library, the school; they owned the place. And young Wisner grew up as almost a kind of feudal lord.
LAMB: You say you went to Andover. Where is that?
THOMAS: Andover is a boarding school not unlike Groton. It's a little bigger and a little bit less upper-crusty; north of Boston -- about 30 miles north of Boston.
LAMB: Who are some of the alums that we might know?
THOMAS: George Bush is the most famous one. Oliver Wendell Holmes. Henry Stimson, Humphrey Bogart.
LAMB: What's it like being at Andover compared to the regular public school? What's the difference?
THOMAS: There's a difference. The quality of education is good. I mean, the teaching is rigorous. But it is a world unto itself. When you go to a boys' boarding school, it is insular and this is not true today so much; they're co-ed and they're freer. But for many years, for a couple of centuries at Andover, they were isolated, insulated world where they have their own ethos, their own ethic, their own way of living and looking at the world and it's profoundly affecting to its graduates.
LAMB: Other names. Donald Gregg is in your book.
THOMAS: Donald Gregg was George Bush's national security adviser and ambassador to Korea, I believe, and an old CIA hand who was our man in Korea for many years; goes way back as a Far East hand.
LAMB: Did you talk to him?
THOMAS: Yes, I did.
LAMB: What's he doing now?
THOMAS: I think he's running a Korea Friendship Society up in New York. I don't think he has any CIA contacts; he's an old Korea hand.
LAMB: Another name from the past that popped up in your book is the Reverend William Sloane Coffin.
THOMAS: Believe it or not, William Sloane Coffin, famous to all of us as a great anti-war protester, started in the CIA. He was running agents behind the Iron Curtain in the late 1940s.
LAMB: Where is he now?
THOMAS: I think he's living up in Vermont. I think he's retired, although he probably still preaches. I think he's still a -- probably has a social conscience and still trying to do good, but my memory is, I talked to him over the phone in Vermont.
LAMB: Where did you go that you had to go to the greatest lengths to get to in order to get this book written?
THOMAS: Most of these old spooks live within 20 miles of this studio, so it wasn't that tough. I did go to Paris to talk to Frank Wisner's old mistress, Princess Caraja, this Romanian princess that he took up with in World War II; kind of a romantic figure. I met her up in her garret in Paris. I guess that's about as exotic as I got.
LAMB: What's she all about today?
THOMAS: She's sitting there with her love letters -- older woman, you know, kind of an old grande dame who met Frank -- a very romantic story. Wisner was the OSS man. The OSS was the Office of Strategic Services, America's spy agency in World War II. And Wisner was sent to Bucharest -- excuse me, to Romania, to Budapest, in 1944, and he, early on, saw that the Russians were coming, and that was an important moment because everybody else was paying attention to the Germans. We were still fighting Germany. And Frank Wisner said next fall, it was going to be the Russians, because the Russians were trying to take over Romania.
And while he was there, he began a love affair with this Princess Caraja. Like a lot of wartime love affairs, it ended. But Joe McCarthy, the right-wing demagogue, and the FBI tried to use it against Wisner in the 1950s when they were out to get the CIA in bureaucratic warfare. The FBI basically tried to blackmail the CIA by saying to Frank Wisner and to Allen Dulles, who was running the CIA, "Remember Princess Caraja? We have information about her. She's a Communist spy." I don't think that was true, but they claimed it. "You'd better come up here and answer questions about it," all an intimidation attempt by the McCarthyites to get the CIA. To the CIA's credit, they stood up to it and refused to be blackmailed.
LAMB: How old is the princess today?
THOMAS: I'm guessing 70-something. She's an older lady.
LAMB: And when he had her as a mistress, what year was it?
THOMAS: 1945 -- winter of 1945.
LAMB: Was he married then?
LAMB: Was he married to Polly?
THOMAS: Yes, he was.
LAMB: Did she know about the mistress?
THOMAS: Yeah. She knows about it now. I don't think she knew about it at the time.
LAMB: Speaking of mistresses, you also tell us in the book that Allen Dulles had lots of mistresses.
THOMAS: He was famous for it. The...
LAMB: Was he famous then? And was it public then?
THOMAS: Nothing was public then. Nothing was public about the CIA. The press was completely in the dark.
LAMB: Did you make it public for the first time, that Allen Dulles...
THOMAS: No. No. This has been written about. Dulles is -- the joke was that his wife knew that he'd gotten a new lover because he'd go to Cartier and buy his wife a new diamond, and that meant that Allen Dulles had just gotten a new mistress.
LAMB: Who was he?
THOMAS: Allen Dulles was the kind of great -- they used to call him the great white case officer. He ran the CIA in the '50s during this high age when they were swashbuckling and he loved covert action and encouraged the kind of shenanigans that I write about in my book.
LAMB: And his brother?
THOMAS: His brother was John Foster Dulles, who was the secretary of state. It made foreign policy a lot easier in the 1950s, because when you had the head of the CIA and the head of the State Department as brothers, one could just pick up the phone, call the other and get the job done.
LAMB: Let me name a couple of countries you write about and give us some background on it. You spend a little time on Albania. Why?
LAMB: Where is Albania?
THOMAS: Albania is a little pocket of the world off of the Aegean Sea. It's north of Greece and south of Yugoslavia. And it was the CIA's first target for what they call rollback. The hope right after World War II, after the Iron Curtain fell, was to roll back the Iron Curtain. And the CIA's first target was the country of Albania, which they thought they could stage a revolution in. Frank Wisner parachuted a lot of agents in there, hoping to cement a revolution. It was a fiasco. All the agents were killed or, more typically, doubled. They were turned into Communist agents and played back the other way. It's a standard Communist trick, to capture a spy, double them and make them work against the side that he had come from. And this was the first operation. This was about 1949, '50, '51.
LAMB: In your book, what's new for someone that follows this whole story?
THOMAS: There are tidbits. What I wanted to do was bring stick figures to life. It's really a social history as much as anything else -- to make you understand that all the spooky stuff the CIA was doing had a human dimension, and the human dimension was this insular, clubby group that lived in Georgetown, that went to places like Groton, that had a certain mind-set, a certain ethic, and to try to explain that and to understand that. There are a few new operational details. Richard Bissell told me about an assassination plot against Sukarno of Indonesia. This is a little crude, but the CIA was going to give Sukarno a case of venereal disease somehow through -- Sukarno was a sex fiend who liked airline stewardesses.
LAMB: He's still around.
THOMAS: Not Sukarno.
LAMB: No, I'm thinking of Suharto.
THOMAS: Suharto -- Suharto.
LAMB: I'm sorry. You're right.
THOMAS: Sukarno was a well-known lover of sex who bragged about it, and he specialized in Pan Am stewardesses. And the CIA was going to somehow give a Pan Am stewardess a case of potentially lethal VD. This all sounds wacky. This is a plot that was never carried out. Bissell did tell me about it and one of his assistants confirmed it. It was interesting. Bissell, when he told me about this nutty plot -- Bissell is a very articulate man, speaks in whole paragraphs -- or was; he died a year and he was famous as a briefer.
But when he talked about assassination plots, he became very orotund and he became, in his words, circumlocutious. He described this plot to assassinate Sukarno by giving him a case of VD as an attempt to biologically immobilize Sukarno through the use of a female associate. It was typical of him when he began talking in this area. He wouldn't use the word assassination; he would say "executive action" or "this method of international rivalry." And his kind of ornateness and indirection told me that he really was still uncomfortable about it. He really wasn't proud of his involvement in these plots -- that even though he expressed no moral regrets -- specifically said to me, "I have no moral regrets. I have chagrin that they failed, but no moral regrets that we started or that we tried them" -- I don't really believe that. I think he was troubled by it. And one tip-off or one clue was the way he spoke so circumlocutiously.
LAMB: Where did you find him?
THOMAS: He had a little office above a shopping center in Hartford, Connecticut. He sat up there with his Greek histories. He loved Greek -- he was a great -- he's hard to describe. He believed in empire. He grew up as a wealthy boy. He went to Groton. He studied empire -- he studied Greek and British empire. And he believed that America's empire had come after World War II and he was the man to lead the Secret Service of the American empire. And in his old age, he would sit up there reading the history of the Peloponnesian Wars and Homer and Greek history and relive this empire that he wasn't able quite to replicate for the United States and the Cold War.
LAMB: How many days did you spend with him?
THOMAS: I spent about four days. He could talk all day long even though he was, then, 80 years old. He drank a lot. We would sit there drinking wine, and by the end of the day, I'd be looped and he seemed completely sober and always lucid.
LAMB: What years did you talk to him -- or what year?
THOMAS: I saw him in '92 and '93. And then I would talk to him -- I talked to him on the phone in '94. I would call him up with follow-up questions. He was, like all these men, a complete gentleman. You know, it's curious. It was Bissell's idea to hire the Mafia -- one of the truly crazy ideas in American government, to have the CIA hire the Mafia.
LAMB: What year?
THOMAS: 1960 -- September, 1960.
LAMB: How did he do it?
THOMAS: He got his chief of security to approach a cut-out, to go to Johnny Roselli, a mid-level mobster in Las Vegas, who then went to Sam "Mo Mo" Giancana, to deliver poisons to Castro.
LAMB: Sam Giancana, the same man who had Judith Exner's girlfriend...
THOMAS: Right. The plot thickens here, because the suspicion has always been that Judith Exner was somehow a liaison between then President Kennedy and Sam Giancana in their plots to either kill Castro or buy the vote in Cook County in the '60 elections.
LAMB: Judith Exner's still alive.
THOMAS: Yes, she is, and...
LAMB: How about Sam Giancana?
THOMAS: Dead. Killed in a mob hit while he was cooking Italian sausages in his basement in 19 -- right before he was set to testify before the Church Committee looking into CIA plots.
LAMB: Who was Church?
THOMAS: George Ch -- not George Church. Senator Church...
LAMB: Frank Church.
THOMAS: Frank Church -- excuse me -- was a Democratic senator who, right after Watergate, conducted a series of hearings looking into CIA abuses. After Watergate, it was like we picked up a giant rock -- the rock of government. We wanted to see everything scurrying around underneath. And one of the things they looked at was the CIA. And out of those hearings came sort of amazing stories about plots to make Castro's beard fall out or to assassinate Trujillo or Lamumba, various heads of state -- these were known as the family jewels, illegal acts undertaken over the years by the CIA in the service of their country.
LAMB: Did you talk to Judith Exner?
THOMAS: No, I didn't.
LAMB: And back to the Bissell story about the Mafia, how far did this go?
THOMAS: Oh, it went pretty far. I mean, they hired the Mafia, and the relationship went on for three or four years. I've always suspected, though, and particularly the suspicions of people that worked in the Justice Department at the time -- that this was all a scam by the Mafia. And it goes to an important issue about my men. They were urbane and sophisticated, but they were naive in a fundamental sense. They thought that you could hire the Mafia to kill Castro. I think the Mafia took them for the ride. I think the Mafia agreed to do this to pick up a marker against the United States government so if the Justice Department turned around and tried to prosecute Sam Giancana or Johnny Roselli, the mobsters could say, "Hey, we work for you. We're working for Uncle Sam." And, in fact, that's exactly what happened.
LAMB: How much did they get paid?
THOMAS: Nothing. We offered them -- I don't remember -- $50,000 or $100,000. They wouldn't take the money because they said it was their, quote, "patriotic duty," which further enhances my feeling that this was all a scam.
LAMB: Now the four men that you write about -- Frank Wisner, Des Fitzgerald, Tracy Barnes and Richard Bissell -- three of them died by the time they were -- before they were 61 years old. And so the only one you talked to is Richard Bissell.
LAMB: Paint a little picture of Frank Wisner.
THOMAS: Well, the key to him is that he was manic, in the best and worst senses. He had enormous energy. He flew. He was high. He used to call the CIA his mighty Wurlitzer. He could play any tune on it. He could plant newspaper stories or hire spies or stage coups or bribe foreign officials to spread the influence of the United States around the world. It was a wonderful kind of ideal, but it was an illusion. He couldn't really do these things, and a lot of them backfired. And when the crash came, when the downer from his mania came, it really came and eventually killed him.
LAMB: Who painted the best picture for you?
THOMAS: Of Wisner?
THOMAS: Oh, social friends, probably, in Georgetown -- his old social chums. Also the spooks, but the people who knew him best were his social buddies.
LAMB: Did you talk to Joe Alsop before he died?
THOMAS: Not about this book. I interviewed him for "The Wise Men," but I didn't -- he died before I really got going on this.
LAMB: I notice you credited Bob Merry for giving you material on Joe Alsop. And Ed Yoder wrote a book on Joe Alsop. What's the fascination with him?
THOMAS: He was the center of the universe. His dinner parties were the most important. I mean, the most important dining table in Georgetown and, hence, Washington and, hence, the world, was Joe Alsop's in the 1950s. Jack Kennedy, when he was president, would come for dinner there and hold forth, and it was a kind of forum. Alsop was a brilliant, loyal, belligerent, slightly sad homosexual who was an imperious figure. And he would say to Kennedy, "Now why aren't we doing enough about the Communists?" And Kennedy, sitting at his table, would try to answer him in quite specific detail. In those days, public officials trusted journalists and they would, over dinner, reveal state secrets, trusting those journalists not to print them. Different rules in the 1950s.
LAMB: Let me ask you about the business of homosexuality and a lot of the people that are talked about and the mistresses and all that. If you lived back in those years -- 50s, 60s -- did people know all these stories that are now in your book?
THOMAS: Yes and no. It was suspected that Joe was gay, but they didn't know, for instance, that he'd been caught in a honey trap by the KGB in Moscow in 1956. Joe's first trip to Moscow, he stupidly allowed himself to be set up by the KGB. They caught him in a honey trap and tried to blackmail him. To his credit, he refused to be blackmailed. He refused to have anything to do with the CIA. And he said, "Go ahead." You know, "Do what you will, but I'm my own man." That story was not known until many years later. However, it was generally known that he was homosexual. But that era, unlike ours, which is so exhibitionist, people had enormous respect for secrecy and privacy and they just let Joe alone.
LAMB: You quote Susan Mary Alsop a lot in the book. Is she his ex-wife?
THOMAS: Ex-wife. She married him in the early '60s, was married for a number of years and divorced him, I think, not necessarily because he was homosexual; I think it was more of a friendship and an arrangement -- but because he was difficult to live with. Joe was a hard guy to live with. He was a wonderful man in many ways -- loyal friend, brilliant, fun -- but difficult.
LAMB: Paint a picture of Desmond Fitzgerald.
THOMAS: He was often compared to a kind of Renaissance cavalier. He was romantic, swashbuckling, he had a sense of whimsy. He would always quote for Al -- quote from "Alice in Wonderland." When he was planning covert operations, he would quote from "Alice in Wonderland," and his aides would have to go look up these allusions to figure out what he was talking about. Very romantic figure -- smart but not always shrewd. It was Desmond Fitzgerald's idea to plant an exploding seashell near the beach where Castro went skin diving. Now why he thought Castro was going to pick up this particular seashell has never been clear. I think, in fact, this was, like so many of their plots, a plot they never carried out. But he was an overly ambitious, smart, romantic, very charming, somewhat cold spy master.
LAMB: Did you talk to his daughter...
LAMB: ...Frances Fitzgerald? And where is she today?
THOMAS: She is writing books in New York. Brilliant woman. She did not like this project at first.
THOMAS: Because she thought I was being too tough and sort of one-dimensional about her father. I painted a kind of a stick figure -- in an early draft which I showed her -- I painted kind of a stick figure version of her father that was harsh and kind of wrong. I talked to her a great deal after that and she flushed out a lot of the human details and gave me a better sense of him, as did various of his friends.
LAMB: What did she think of him?
THOMAS: She loved him. She was his rather distant daughter. When she was a little girl, her parents' marriage broke up. Desmond Fitzgerald was married to Marietta Tree, famous socialite, longtime mistress of Adlai Stevenson in later years. Marietta, then Peabody, the granddaughter of Endicott Peabody, the rector of Groton -- it's all a small world -- it's all one of...
LAMB: The father of Endicott Peabody Jr., who ran for vice president...
THOMAS: Right. Right. All one tiny world. The got married before the war. Desmond went off to war. When he came back, Marietta was having an affair with John Huston, the movie director. That was the end of that marriage. So Frankie -- daughter Frankie -- lost her father at a young age and didn't see as much of him as she would have liked; loved him very much; was close to him from afar; had a kind of romantic view of him. He was cold, but he was quite tender with her.
LAMB: Tracy Barnes?
THOMAS: Very swashbuckling figure; a great athlete at Groton and Yale. Grew up on the Whitney estate on Long Island with his own private golf course, so he was a par golfer by the time he was about 12 years old. Loved to jump out of airplanes, OSS hero in World War II, jumped behind enemy lines. Won a Silver Star by capturing a German garrison. Along with one other Frenchman, he went running around firing his carbine in the air scaring the Germans into thinking they were surrounded and they surrendered to just these two men. Barnes won a Silver Star for that; later became a very senior official in the CIA and played an important role in the Guatemala coup and in the Bay of Pigs.
LAMB: When you look back at these years, how much of that -- and you know what's going on today; you're the bureau chief at Newsweek -- how much of this is going on today? How many dinner parties do they have in Georgetown and CIA people who come out of Yale and Harvard and Princeton?
THOMAS: Much less. There is still a clubby feel to the CIA because it's insular, but it's not WASP. Mostly graduates of state universities. It's much more middle class. There are a lot of Mormons today in the CIA. They like Mormons because they have language skills, they've traveled a lot, they're good proselytizers. It's not Groton and Yale anymore. In fact, I doubt there's a single Groton graduate active in the CIA today. At the time, just to give you a sense of how important Groton school was to the CIA, the first significant coup in Iran was run by Kermit Roosevelt, class of '36, with assistance from Archie Roosevelt, class of '34. The second big coup a year later in Guatemala was planned by Tracy Barnes, class of '32, with assistance from Richard Bissell, class of '31. Bissell and Barnes planned the Bay of Pigs with assistance from John Bross, who was the senior prefect of the class of '32. The poisons that were mixed to kill Castro were mixed in a lab run by Cornelius Roosevelt, class of '34. I mean, Groton played a big role in the CIA in the 1950s.
LAMB: Graham Greene, "The Quiet American," and Edward Lansdale. Explain all that.
THOMAS: Edward Lansdale, known as "The Quiet American" or "The Ugly American" in Lederer and Brudick's novel by that name, was the real-life figure. Colonel Lansdale went to the Philippines and ran a counterinsurgency against Communist guerillas or leftist guerillas that became the model for the idea of you have to get their hearts and minds if you're going to defeat the Communists, you have to win their hearts and mind. The expression in Vietnam later became grab them by the nuts and their hearts and minds will follow. But at the time, it was get their hearts and minds through psychological warfare, by, oh, disinformation, blackmail. Lansdale was a great expert at this and he had a great success in the Philippines. They beat back the leftist insurgency. He was then sent to Vietnam, where he helped install President Diem. And Graham Greene ran into him in Vietnam in the mid-60s and wrote a book called "The Quiet American."
LAMB: Who was Graham Greene?
THOMAS: Graham Greene was a great British novelist who had a great sense of American character. And the thing that was interesting about "The Quiet American" was that Lansdale was a great idealist, kind of a good soul, but naive. He had a kind of naive, well-intentioned arrogance that the United States was going to save the world; that we knew best; that these Third World people didn't know best; that we could impose our democracy or our democratic ideals on them and they would gratefully accept them. Of course, this didn't happen -- didn't happen in Vietnam, didn't happen in many places.
LAMB: There's one scene that I remember you -- General Lansdale used to have -- is it Magsaysay? Is that the way you say it?
THOMAS: Magsaysay, which ...
LAMB: Slept in the same room with him for a while? What was that all about?
THOMAS: Right. In the 50s, the CIA station chief often ran the Third World country. The most powerful person in the country was not the head of state, not the American ambassador, it was the CIA station chief, because the CIA station chief had several things: cash -- they could bribe senior officials; they had -- this is a funny detail -- medical services. A lot of Third World leaders wanted American medical services. There was a part of the directorate of operations at the CIA that handed out medicine. They would cure the VD or the strange diseases that these guys had picked up. They'd fly them back to Sloan-Kettering to have their cancer treated -- very effective way of winning the loyalty, the allegiance of Third World leaders. And all through the Third World, the CIA was handing out bribes, medical services, occasionally blackmail, to get colonels, police chiefs and heads of state on the payroll. Lansdale was an example of this kind of station chief, and he literally slept in the same room as Magsaysay, who was the president of the Philippines.
LAMB: How long did that go on?
THOMAS: Several years. He helped get Magsaysay elected and was a wonderful sort of triumph of the West. They beat back the Communist party in a fair election; I don't think it was rigged. Magsaysay won in 1953 or '54, I think it was, and died tragically in a plane crash in about 1957.
LAMB: You meant ...
THOMAS: I'm a little rough on these dates, but that's the rough period.
LAMB: You mentioned Graham Greene, and then maybe it was Anthony Cave Brown's book, and I think you cite him in your book -- there was a picture of Graham Greene and Kim Philby together.
LAMB: Kim Philby's throughout your book, too.
THOMAS: Kim Philby is the famous mole, the third man. He's the early Aldrich Ames. Kim Philby was a well-born Englishman. He went to Westminster and Cambridge, and he rose up inside the British intelligence service. He was slated to be the head of MI6, the foreign intelligence service. He was working for the Kremlin the whole time. And he was finally caught, or at least flushed out, by the Americans in 1951 and sent back to Britain, although he was never arrested -- in fact, escaped to Moscow in 1959.
LAMB: Was Graham Greene ever a spy?
THOMAS: I think he was, but I'm not sure. I'm not sure of that. I think he was in the foreign service, but I'm not sure. He was spooky, certainly. I just don't know.
LAMB: After -- I mean, you went to Harvard; you went to Andover; you're the bureau chief of Newsweek and all that. I mean, when you look back at your past and you look at this, where do you come down on all this stuff? And what do you like and what don't you like?
THOMAS: Well, I'm torn about it. I admire the courage of these men. I admire their idealism, their sense of grandeur, which you don't find in Washington today. You don't find the same, "Boy, we're going to try to save the world here. We're going to be confident in our world leadership." You don't see that.
What I don't miss are the mistakes, obviously. These guys made a lot of mistakes. The Bay of Pigs was a fantastic blunder. It was profoundly humiliating to the president of the United States and dangerous. One reason why we had a Cuban Missile Crisis is the CIA spent so much time trying to kill Castro that Castro said to the Russians, "Sure, I'll take your missiles. The CIA's trying to kill me." I don't think those missiles would have been based in Cuba but for the CIA's nutty plots to try to kill Castro. So there was a real downside, to put it mildly, to what they did. They suffered from the ancient Greek disease of hubris, a kind of overweening arrogance. They were good and idealistic men who went too far. They were too brave, too -- too confident.
LAMB: What do you think of the CIA?
THOMAS: It's necessary. I think great superpowers have to have an intelligence service. You have to know what your enemies and your friends are up to. I think their technical intelligence is fantastic. The fact that our satellites can listen in on their phone calls -- and I sure want an intelligence service when there are terrorists out there who are capable of getting nuclear weapons that could conceivably blow up my hometown of Washington, DC. I definitely want an intelligence service. It's easier in the abstract, though, to say, "We should have an intelligence service," than to actually carry out intelligence operations. They often go wrong; they leak; they're insecure. It's hard in this kind of country to keep secrets. Our CIA has had a lot of mistakes.
LAMB: In the middle of your book, you tell a story about a tunnel.
THOMAS: The Berlin tunnel.
LAMB: Is that new?
THOMAS: No. It's been out. In fact, when it was discovered, the funny thing -- the Berlin tunnel was dug under the -- not the Berlin Wall, but from West to East Berlin in 1955 to tap into Soviet army land lines to listen in on the Russians to get some intelligence about -- well, what they really wanted to know was whether the Russians were going to attack. You have to remember the time. In 1955, we were really worried that the Soviet Union was going to attack Western Europe. There would be a massed tank attack of western Europe, and we wanted some intelligence. So we dug this tunnel, many yards, into the east sector of Berlin and tapped their phone lines. After about a year, the tunnel got discovered.
LAMB: Who was responsible for building the tunnel?
THOMAS: The British and the Americans. I think it was a British idea -- well, there's argument. The British claimed credit; the Americans claimed credit. I think it was a British idea. The money typically came from the United States and the engineering know-how came from the United States, but the Brits, who were good spies, I think, had the original concept. It got discovered after a year. And at the time, the CIA first thought, "Fiasco. Disaster. We've been caught with our pants down." But then they discovered something else. The people were so happy that we were doing something to fight communism that it was considered to be a great success. The headline in Time was called Wonderful Tunnel, and the Berliners were delighted that the CIA was fighting a secret war, that they were doing something against Communists. So even though it only lasted for a year before it got found, it was a great psychological boost to the West.
LAMB: How long have you been Newsweek bureau chief now?
THOMAS: Nine years.
LAMB: I read somewhere where you're going to leave that job.
THOMAS: Next year, after an even 10 years. I figure a decade is enough.
LAMB: What are you going to do?
THOMAS: I'm going to write articles for Newsweek. I'm going to stay at Newsweek. I'm going to have another title of assistant managing editor. And I am involved in management in New York, and I'll continue to go to New York one day a week and wear that management hat, but I won't run the bureau day to day. Somebody else will do that.
LAMB: What is your next book?
THOMAS: I'm thinking about it. I'd like to do something about the death of liberalism, looking, perhaps, at New York City in the 1960s. I'm fascinated by the hopefulness that there was in the early '60s. They were going to end poverty and end racism, and yet, by the end of the '60s, it had all sort of gone to hell. And I'm interested in exploring what happened in New York in the 1960s to make the sort of liberal hope founder.
LAMB: What time of day do you write?
THOMAS: I take a leave to write. I've always taken a three-month leave. I've done this three times now. And I just write as fast as I can for three months to get a manuscript down, to get a basic rough -- and I do mean rough -- draft. And then I spend a lot of time and odd hours reworking it: early in the morning, sometimes late at night, sometimes at lunch -- whenever I can get a spare hour.
LAMB: What's the hardest thing about writing a book?
THOMAS: For me, it's joy. I get a writer's high. I find it euphoric. The hardest thing is waiting for the reviews. That's what's hard about it. The doing of it for me is sheer pleasure.
LAMB: How do you feel about the reviews on this book?
THOMAS: Well, so far, so good. I mean, I got a great review in The Post and a very good review in the Daily Times, and now I'm nervously waiting for others.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like, "The Very Best Men" by Evan Thomas. Thank you very much for joining us.
THOMAS: Thank you.
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