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The Origins of the CIA - Part 2

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Our troublesome question can again be asked here. While the contributions of General Donovan were fresh in people’s minds in the months leading up to the National Security Act of 1947, did the framers of those clauses that set up the CIA really draw on pre-World War II traditions? Smith himself implied a negative answer, suggesting that Washington had historically played second fiddle to London and borrowed its analytical products, even drawing, in the course of the Indian wars of the 1870s, on a British intelligence report on Sitting Bull. There were American memories, but they were of British traditions and of American dependency on them.[1]

This brings us to another work under our third category, Larry Valero’s Ph.D. dissertation of 2002 subtitled „Aspects of the Management and Coordination of American Intelligence, 1941-1953.“ In this work executed under the supervision of Christopher Andrew at Cambridge University, Valero looks at centralization in a non-CIA-specific manner, suggesting that the agency needs to be explained in a broader context. Not content with this, he places the entirety of intelligence history in the context of general history. The emerging intelligence community, he believes, can be understood as an aspect of the history of the New Deal with its state-building tendencies. Valero’s work neatly illustrates the maxim that if you want to explain how the CIA originated, you have to define what you mean by the CIA. It furthermore underlines how intelligence history needs to escape from its array of over-specialized capsules.[2]


As we can see from our review of the three categories, recent scholarship operates on the basis of varying definitions of what the CIA was, and the resultant variety has enriched our perspectives on the agency’s origins. At this point, I’d like to offer a thumbnail sketch of some of the agency’s antecedents, before going on to offer some further reflections about the role of memory.

 Both as commander of the Continental Army and as president, George Washington was a consummate spymaster. As Knott illustrated, his successors carried on the tradition. The activities were varied and sometimes momentous. For example, the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806 was essentially an exercise in intelligence collection that laid the groundwork for the United States becoming a continental power. Military intelligence featured in the Mexican and Civil Wars. Established in Lincoln’s last cabinet meeting, the U.S. Secret Service supplied intelligence that enabled the crushing of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1870s, destroyed the Montreal Spy Ring in the Spanish-American War of 1898, and trained the counterintelligence agents who were so successful in World War I, some of them by now working for the newly established Bureau of Investigation. Army and Navy intelligence were on a permanent peacetime footing from the 1880s. The American Black Chamber arose from the World War I experience, was disowned by the State Department in 1929, but continued in reduced format within the Army ultimately expanding to form the basis of the NSA.

But were these events remembered in such a way that they contributed to the decision to form the CIA, and to the shape that the agency took? They feature neither in the records of debates that took place amongst Truman’s officials nor in the debates of the floor of the U.S. Congress over the relevant clauses in the National Security Act. If you make a comparison with other debates, that could be significant. For example, present-day American conservatives like to cite President Reagan and sometimes Theodore Roosevelt in support of what they propose. Similarly progressives like to remember Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, and occasionally Woodrow Wilson in foreign policy matters. Politicians and policymakers do refer to the historical register.

It is not so much that there were no historical references in the 1945-47 debate. On the contrary, they abounded. But they were restricted to two recent events, Pearl Harbor and the emergence of the Soviet threat to U.S. national security. The main evidence for the role of Pearl Harbor in motivating support for the CIA is to be found in congressional hearings and in the floor debate in both houses in July 1947. Memories of the event were vivid in that quarter.[3]

Participants in the debate drew conclusions about what had gone wrong on December 7, 1941. For example, when quizzing Vice Admiral Forrest Sherman in hearings of the Committee on Armed Services, Senator Millard E. Tydings (Dem., Maryland) stressed the absence of central coordination. This needed to be remedied, „otherwise, we may have another Pearl Harbor.“ In the same hearings, Central Intelligence Group (CIG) director Hoyt Vandenberg showed himself aware of what worried congress when he reminded his listeners of the question asked by the recent Joint Congressional Committee to Investigate the Pearl Harbor Attack: „Why, with some of the finest intelligence available in our history — why was it possible for a Pearl Harbor to occur?“ According to Vandenberg, Pearl Harbor had left two legacies: it had demonstrated the need for a central organization to coordinate the great mass of intelligence, and it had shocked the American people into an acceptance of the need for such an organization.[4]

In House hearings, Congressman William Jennings Bryan Dorn (Dem., South Carolina) said he had always „believed that if Admiral (Husband E.) Kimmel at Pearl Harbor was furnished with proper intelligence from Washington that Pearl Harbor would never possibly have occurred.[5] In the House floor debate Ralph Edwin Church (Rep., Illinois) portrayed the Japanese surprise attack as conclusive evidence of a deficiency that would have to be remedied. Alabama’s Carter Manasco (Dem.) was another who emphasized the overriding need to avoid another Pearl-Harbor style fiasco.[6]

President Truman and his advisers were concerned with a different agenda, and with even more recent history. From about 1943, it became evident that Germany was going down to defeat and that Soviet power would be a new challenge to American hegemony once the war had ended. Truman’s contemporary enemies accused him of being weak on communism and since then he has been portrayed as being merely a rhetorical anti-communist.[7] The idea that he dropped America’s guard by „knifing“ the OSS fits in with these criticisms. However, the release of new documentation in the 1990s made it clear that the single most important reason for the formation of the CIA in 1947 was the determination of President Truman to counter the Soviet threat.

Truman was a Cold Warrior from the beginning. In intelligence terms, this led to unbroken cooperation with the British in codebreaking, Germany giving way to the Soviet Union as the prime target. And when the CIG received its first „tasking“ directive on 29 April 1946, it was given a single target: „There is an urgent need to develop the highest possible quality of intelligence on the USSR in the shortest possible time.“ This focus never changed in the formative years of the CIA, and remained constant throughout the Cold War.[8]


Here, we can insert a parenthetical note about the origin of the CIA defined as a covert operational agency. This function was not an afterthought.

[1] Bradley F. Smith, „The American Road to Central Intelligence,“ in Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones and Christopher Andrew, eds., Eternal Vigilance? 50 Years of the CIA (London: Frank Cass, 1997), p. 3.

[2] Larry A. Valero, „From World War to Cold War: Aspects of the Management and Coordination of American Intelligence, 1941-1953“ (Cambridge University Ph.D., 2002), pp. 6, 32, 53. Add INS article if relevant.

[3] Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, „Why Was the CIA Established in 1947?Intelligence and National Security, 12 (January 1997), 25-26.

[4] Tydings and „Statement of Lt. Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Director of Central Intelligence,“ in Grover S. Williams, ed., „Legislative History of the Central Intelligence Agency as Documented in Published Congressional Sources“ (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 1975), pp. 30, 34-35.

[5] Dorn in Williams, „Legislative History,“ p. 123.

[6] Williams, „Legislative History,“ p. 144.

[7] [check] Reference contemporary criticisms eg Flynn on creeping socialism and give Freedman ref. Add a saner judgement.

[8] Sidney W. Souers memo, „Development of Intelligence on the USSR,“ 29 April 1946, in Thomas C. Thorne and David S. Patterson, eds., Foreign Relations of the United States: Emergence of the Intelligence Establishment (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1996), p. 344.



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