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The Origins of the CIA - Part 3

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In the course of the 1947 deliberation, CIG legislative counsel Walter L. Pforzheimer withdrew from the relevant section of the National Security Act a clause that would have authorized „covert and unvouchered funds“ because that would have opened up a „can of worms,“ but he observed that „we could come up with the house-keeping provisions later on.“ This suited General Vandenberg, who as director of CIG was already, in the words of David Rudgers, engaged in a „quest for empire.“ Vandenberg privately told senior government officials he would draft „a short section indicating the necessity for clandestine operations“ that would „not be placed in the record.[1]

The stress in private deliberations and public debate over the proposed CIA was on very recent history. This is understandable given that Pearl Harbor and the victories of the Red Army were in the forefront of people’s minds and thus powerful items in the toolkit of political persuasion. But can the dominant role of contemporary history also be an indication of a further factor, ignorance of the more distant past?


By analogy with more recent episodes, I suggest this is unlikely to be the case. The intelligence reforms of the 1970s are a case in point. The debate focused on recent episodes, the COINTELPRO programs, the covert destabilization of the Allende regime in Chile, and revelations about U.S. assassination policy. But there was an explicit search for more distant historical precedents, and on behalf of the U.S. Congress Anne Karakelas authored a history of the CIA to supply reference points for public debate.

In similar vein, one can point to the intelligence reforms of the Bush years. To be sure, debate about a very recent episode, 9/11, overshadowed all else. But by this time American universities had extensive intelligence studies programs and the revolving door between intelligence agencies and academia was spinning around quite merrily. Just because historical references were relatively sparse in official deliberations and public debate, one should not assume ignorance of U.S. intelligence history.

And while the boom in intelligence studies may be new, we should not assume our forefathers knew so very much much less than we do. Many British historians served in intelligence in World War I, and a remarkable number of future presidents of the American Historical Association served in intelligence in World War II.[2] It is so unlikely that they were incurious about the past. Nor can one make the case that helpful literature was not available to them.

A short review of contemporary works serves to illustrate the point. Under the stimulus of the World War II emergency, Army intelligence took a systematic interest in its own past. Warner McGabe lectured on the subject to the Army War College in 1940. By 1944, the Center of Military History had a collection of materials on the history of U.S. military intelligence from 1885 to the time of compilation. Thus the Army’s input to the peacetime intelligence reorganization debate was historically informed.[3]

The Army’s research materials were not open to the public and in any case were too dry to inspire mass readership. But interest in clandestine affairs was as avid in the 1940s as it is today, and a number of popular writers tried to meet and profit from the demand. Richard D. Rowan’s pot-boiling Story of Secret Service appeared just before the war. George S. Bryan was another spinner of yarns, and his history The Spy in America appeared under the Lippincott trade imprint in 1943. A new edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy appeared at the height of the debate over postwar intelligence. First published in 1821, it was about Washington’s intelligence service in the revolutionary war.[4]


In addition to these works, there were others that reinforced short-term memory and, for propaganda reasons, tried to shape the meaning of current and recent events. William Donovan’s 1940 book on the „Fifth Column“ threat was an effort to whip up hysteria by invoking mythical aspects of the history of the Spanish Civil War. George Milton gave the same idea a patriotic twist in his trade book Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column. The idea was that America had to fight clandestine fire with clandestine fire, with the OSS as the preferred model. After the war, Donovan, assisted by veterans like Allen Dulles who wrote histories of clandestine wartime exploits, promoted the idea that there should be a central intelligence agency modeled on the OSS.[5]

Those who pursued that line tended to focus on recent events to such a degree that they ignored earlier history, and even attacked it. Indeed, there was a pronounced tendency to be dismissive about all that happened before OSS. George Pettee spent the war as an analyst of economic intelligence and then, in 1946 and now a political science professor at Amherst, wrote a pioneering book on the theory of intelligence. He argued that whereas other countries appreciated the need for peacetime intelligence, America was out of step: „for thirty years this country has been surprised and dismayed by the development of world events“ that ranged from the Russian Revolution to the Spanish Civil War.[6]

Pettee stated what would become a staple of intelligence history interpretation. My argument is that Pettee and his ilk were blinkered in two respects. First, they overlooked the fact that the quality of intelligence product varied in other countries, too. Wesley Wark’s study of interwar British intelligence makes the point. Second, they ignored some of the historical strengths of U.S. intelligence.[7]

Neither Pettee nor any of the other authors just discussed mentioned U-1. This was both an antecedent to U.S. central intelligence, and in significant ways an alternative to the path taken when America opted for the OSS and CIA.

In 1915, at a time when the world was engulfed in military conflict, the Department of State undertook to coordinate the U.S. intelligence effort. In 1919, the new organism acquired a name, U-1, reflecting the nomenclature of a new office at Foggy Bottom, that of the Undersecretary of State. U-1 had six subdivisions known as U-2, U-3, and so on. These branches conveyed information or distillations of it to U-l. This central intelligence organism evaluated and disseminated information and transmitted it to the secretary of state. The arrangement lasted until 1927, when U-1 was dissolved.[8]

Tom Troy devoted the final chapter of his book Wild Bill and Intrepid to a rebuttal of the significance of U-I in intelligence history, and especially as an antecedent or alternative to the CIA. He placed a heavy emphasis on historical amnesia. He writes that „U-1 was not just abolished; it passed into oblivion.“ The office was „unremembered . . . especially by the Department of State.“ Alluding to more recent amnesia, Troy observed, “Most readers, unless they have read American Espionage by Jeffreys-Jones, are likely to find U-1 such a new term that they might mistakenly think it an early version of the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft.“ Troy asserted that „U-1 was a dead past.[9]

Can the past be dead? Can events as recently as 15 years before the creation of OSS be assumed to be not only forgotten but also uninfluential? On the other tack, is there a case for being originalist about U-1 – even if it died and left no memorial, could it justify future policies in the style of those who extol the Founding Fathers?

[1] Pforzheimer quoted in Tom Braden, „The Birth of CIA,“ American Heritage, 28 (February 1977), 11; Rudgers, Creating the Secret State, p. 114; Vandenberg, private memorandum for the Secretaries of State, War, and the Navy and for Admiral William D. Leahy, 29 April 1947, Document No. 232, CIA Collection, Special Collections, Department of State Electronic Reading Room (, the collection being a supplement to Thorne and Patterson, FRUS: Emergence.

[2] [check] references

[3] E.R. Warner McGabe, „The Military Intelligence Division, War Department General Staff“ (1940), typescript of lecture delivered at the Army War College, Washington, D.C., 1940, in records of the War Department general Staff Military Intelligence Division, National Archives; Historical Branch, G-2, „Materials on the History of Military Intelligence in the Unites States, 1885-1944,“ in the USA Center of Military History library, Forrestal Building, Washington, D.C.

[4] Richard W. Rowan, The Story of Secret Service (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1937); George S. Bryan, The Spy in America (Philadelphia: Lipincott, 1943); James Fenimore Cooper, The Spy: or, A Tale of Neutral Ground (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1946 [1821]).


[5] William Donovan and Edgar Mowrer, Fifth Column Lessons for America (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Public Affairs, ca. 1940); George F. Milton, Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column (New York: Vanguard Press, 1942); Allen W. Dulles, Germany’s Underground (New York: Macmillan, 1947). Troy suggests that Donovan did not personally write the Fifth Column book or the articles on which it drew, but allowed Mowrer to use his name at the behest of President Roosevelt: Troy, Wild Bill and Intrepid, p. 204.

[6] George S. Pettee, The Future of American Secret Intelligence (Washington, D.C.: Infantry Journal Press, 1946), p. 1.

[7] [check] give learned Wark citation. Check his current reputation via Jeffrey.

[8] For an assessment of U-1, see Jeffreys-Jones, Cloak and Dollar, Chapter 5: „U-1: The Agency Nobody Knew,“ pp. 60-80.

[9] Troy, Wild Bill and Intrepid, pp. 205, 207, 208.



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