The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Quiet Americans
The Quiet Americans
Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War--A Tragedy in Three Acts
by Scott Anderson

Paperback (25 May 2021), 608 pages.
Publisher: Anchor Books
ISBN-13: 9781101911730
Genres
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Critics:
  

From the bestselling author of Lawrence in Arabia, a gripping history of the early years of the Cold War, the CIA's covert battles against communism, and the tragic consequences which still affect America and the world today.

At the end of World War II, the United States dominated the world militarily, economically, and in moral standing - seen as the victor over tyranny and a champion of freedom. But it was clear - to some - that the Soviet Union was already executing a plan to expand and foment revolution around the world. The American government's strategy in response relied on the secret efforts of a newly-formed CIA.

The Quiet Americans chronicles the exploits of four spies - Michael Burke, a charming former football star fallen on hard times, Frank Wisner, the scion of a wealthy Southern family, Peter Sichel, a sophisticated German Jew who escaped the Nazis, and Edward Lansdale, a brilliant ad executive. The four ran covert operations across the globe, trying to outwit the ruthless KGB in Berlin, parachuting commandos into Eastern Europe, plotting coups, and directing wars against Communist insurgents in Asia.

But time and again their efforts went awry, thwarted by a combination of stupidity and ideological rigidity at the highest levels of the government - and more profoundly, the decision to abandon American ideals. By the mid-1950s, the Soviet Union had a stranglehold on Eastern Europe, the U.S. had begun its disastrous intervention in Vietnam, and America, the beacon of democracy, was overthrowing democratically-elected governments and earning the hatred of much of the world. All of this culminated in an act of betrayal and cowardice that would lock the Cold War into place for decades to come.

Anderson brings to the telling of this story all the narrative brio, deep research, skeptical eye, and lively prose that made Lawrence in Arabia a major international bestseller. The intertwined lives of these men began in a common purpose of defending freedom, but the ravages of the Cold War led them to different fates. Two would quit the CIA in despair, stricken by the moral compromises they had to make; one became the archetype of the duplicitous and destructive American spy; and one would be so heartbroken he would take his own life.

The Quiet Americans is the story of these four men. It is also the story of how the United States, at the very pinnacle of its power, managed to permanently damage its moral standing in the world.

1
OPERATION DOGWOOD

As Frank Wisner watched from a dark corner of the nightclub, the diverted stage spotlight swept over the crowd until it found the man who had just stepped through the entranceway. He was in his mid-forties, bespectacled and wore a well-tailored suit. He was also clearly well known at the Park Hotel for, along with drawing the spotlight, his arrival caused the nightclub band to slide into a different jazzy number.

I'm involved in a dangerous game,

Every other day I change my name,

The face is different, but the body's the same,

Boo boo, baby, I'm a spy!

Wisner felt a growing irritation, directed less at the song than at the man being serenaded. His name was Lanning "Packy" Macfarland, and he was, in fact, a spy, the head of the Istanbul branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America's wartime intelligence agency. He was also the man that Frank Wisner, a fellow OSS officer, had made the 1,400-mile overland journey from Cairo to meet.

You have heard of Mata Hari,

We did business cash and carry,

Papa caught us and we had to marry,

Boo boo, baby, I'm a spy!

"Boo Boo, Baby, I'm a Spy" was a popular ditty in Istanbul in the spring of 1944, and with no group more so than the habitués of the Park Hotel bar. Located near the sprawling German consulate in neutral Turkey's largest city, the bar was the favored watering hole for officials of the Abwehr, the Nazi military intelligence agency. Naturally, that status also made it a destination spot for all the other spies circulating through wartime Istanbul, along with the assorted lowlifes—con men and arms merchants, prostitutes and pimps—inevitably drawn to such an underworld. Wisner had arrived early for his rendezvous with Macfarland and situated himself in a dark corner of the bar so as to avoid notice, a pointless precaution judging by the extravagant welcome given the American spy chief.

Now, as a lad, I'm not so bad,

In fact, I'm a darn good lover.

But look, my sweet, let's be discreet,

And do this undercover.

In Macfarland's defense, he may have simply accepted as absurd any notion that his Axis counterparts didn't know exactly who he was; as author Barry Rubin notes, World War II–era Istanbul practically survived on espionage: "Would-be spies for rent strolled up and down Istiklal Boulevard and around Taksim Square with its neo-baroque monument to the republic. They lounged in Istanbul's bars, dining places, nightclubs, and dance halls... . ​The music from the cafes and the bells of the crowded trolleys played accompaniment as men weaved through the streets trying to follow or evade each other."

I'm so cocky, I could swagger.

The things I know would make you stagger.

I'm ten percent cloak and ninety percent dagger,

Boo boo, baby, I'm a spy!

Certainly, Macfarland's own OSS colleagues had been little help in maintaining his cover as a banker with the U.S. government's Lend-Lease program, the wartime structure that funneled American weapons and matériel to its allies. Soon after setting up shop in the Istanbul Lend-Lease office, the frustrated spymaster had fired off a despairing cable to OSS Cairo: "Please, please, please! Instruct everyone to leave out any reference whatsoever to Office of Strategic Services in addressing envelopes. Today there came two more that bear this inscription."

The element of farce aside, the mission of the OSS in wartime Istanbul was deadly serious—so deadly serious, in fact, that by the time of Wisner's arrival in the city, Packy Macfarland had managed to compromise a whole series of intelligence missions and may have been instrumental in prolonging the course of World War II. Indeed, so calamitous was the workings of his Operation Dogwood, a spy network that extended throughout Eastern Europe but which had been thoroughly infiltrated by Nazi agents, that many details of the story still remain classified. What is known is that by the late spring of 1944, OSS leadership in Washington had become so alarmed by the dire news coming out of Istanbul on Dogwood that they scrambled to find an operative close at hand who might be brought in to stanch the bleeding. The man they chose was a thirty-four-year-old naval officer attached to OSS Cairo, Frank Gardiner Wisner.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Quiet Americans by Scott Anderson. Copyright © 2020 by Scott Anderson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

A page-turning journey through Cold War espionage through the eyes of four American secret service operatives reveals the depth of American involvement in — and manipulation of — foreign governments.

Print Article Publisher's View   

In the twilight days of a hot World War II, the emergence of a strange new "cold" war with the Soviet Union, a former ally, pushed American intelligence into a committed battle against the spread of communism. The years between 1944-1956 saw the founding of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) — the first federal agency in American history tasked with gathering intelligence and conducting covert operations around the world — followed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Despite its frosty connotations, the Cold War was very hot for those frontline soldier-spies who dedicated their hearts, minds and bodies to a cause that, over time, would creep into blurry realms of moral compromise and disillusionment.

The Quite Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—a Tragedy in Three Acts by Scott Anderson tells the story of America's shift from a nimble and principled anti-communist stance in the early post-war years to a clumsy and misguided shamble among foreign governments a mere decade later. Anderson creatively focuses his overarching historical narrative on the careers of four secret service operatives — Frank Wisner, Michael Burke, Peter Sichel and Edward Lansdale — to reveal the depths of American involvement in anti-communist espionage operations, while vividly painting the human toll it took.

Despite its exploration of a relatively short 12-year timeframe, Anderson's book is sprawling in scope. From detailed accounts of covert ops in post-WWII Germany and southeast Europe to new intelligence "battlegrounds" in the far-flung jungles of the Philippines and Vietnam, the reader learns how the CIA began to infiltrate sovereign countries to support nascent anti-communist groups or set up new forms of resistance to counter a Soviet Union increasingly more cunning and savvy in its counter-espionage operations. The book's jumping off point is the dapper and urbane Southerner of inherited wealth Frank Wisner, who oversaw spy operations in southeastern Europe during the waning days of the war. He climbed the spy ladder to become the deputy director of the CIA, working tirelessly during the late '40s and early '50s to combat the spread of communism in Eastern Europe through the insertion of intelligence operatives into "enemy" territory, along with propaganda campaigns aimed at demonstrating the appeal of democracy. The failure of America to assist a burgeoning democratic movement in its fight against the communist government in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution — and the civilian bloodbath that ensued — ultimately crushed Wisner's spirit, leading to one of the tragedies hinted at in Anderson's subtitle.

The other three stars of this fascinating spy history are Michael Burke, a former football player and later Hollywood movie scriptwriter; Peter Sichel, a German Jew who escaped the Nazis and eventually established the first CIA foothold in Berlin after the war; and Ed Lansdale, the swashbuckling spy who stamped his imprint on southeast Asia through his "hearts-and-minds" campaign, serving as advisor to key politicians such as Ramon Magsaysay of the Philippines and Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. Anderson is an engaging storyteller as he recounts each man's personal and professional commitments (and compromises) in a balanced yet sympathetic light.

No such sympathy is saved for those viewed by the author as the "bad guys," however. Coming in for extremely harsh judgment is John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State in the Eisenhower administration, whose hatred of communism blazed hotter than the sun and blinded him to realities on the ground. The conniving and scheming J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, denigrated the CIA and targeted its operatives (including Wisner) at every turn to bolster his own personal fiefdom, and is duly roasted in Anderson's account. Perhaps less deservedly, Anderson skewers Eisenhower himself for listening to Dulles too much and allowing Hoover's shenanigans to go unchecked, while ignoring the steps the president did take to rein in the more rabid among his cabinet.

Toward the end of the book, Anderson brings us back to his overriding argument — that America tarnished its reputation as a defender of freedom in the 1950s. By supporting totalitarian movements and covertly undermining or overthrowing democratically elected foreign governments that might prove troublesome down the road, America abdicated its moral leadership. What makes his case most persuasive are the experiences of the four CIA spies who lived on the front lines and saw the results on the ground. The author draws from their written and verbal accounts, which are detailed, damning and tragic in the sense of what could have been. The Quiet Americans is a riveting testament to those early Cold War warriors who put their lives on the line for a mission that eventually lost its meaning in the frenetic overreach of American foreign affairs.

Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski

New York Times
Enthralling...Lying and stealing and invading, it should be said, make for captivating reading, especially in the hands of a storyteller as skilled as Anderson...the climate of fear and intolerance that it describes in Washington also feels uncomfortably timely.

Washington Post
If all of this sounds rather grim, Anderson’s book, The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War — a Tragedy in Three Acts, is anything but...[a] skillful and engaging writer, he manages to provide efficient historical context for these local-but-global situations, each one hopelessly complex in its own right.

Library Journal
A fascinating and compulsively readable account of wartime spying.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Over the course of the narrative, the author amply shows how the CIA was increasingly pushed to function as an instrument of politically charged ambitions. An engrossing history of the early days of the CIA.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[F]ascinating...Laced with vivid character sketches and vital insights into 20th-century geopolitics, this stand-out chronicle helps to make sense of the world today.

Author Blurb Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Say Nothing
In this sweeping, vivid, beautifully observed book, Scott Anderson unearths the devastating secret history of how the Unites States lost the plot during the Cold War. By focusing on the twisty, colorful lives of four legendary spies, Anderson distills the larger geopolitical saga into an intimate story of flawed but talented men, of the 'disease of empires,' and of the inescapable moral hazard of American idealism and power. It's a hell of a book, with themes about the unintended consequences of espionage and interventionism that still resonate, powerfully, today.

Print Article Publisher's View  

Graham Greene's The Quiet American

Vintage cover of The Quiet American featuring a man in a suit lighting a cigaretteThe Quite Americans by Scott Anderson takes its name and inspiration from a highly popular 1955 spy novel by Graham Greene called The Quiet American.

Henry Graham Greene (1904-1991) was an English novelist, short story writer, journalist and playwright whose writing often focused on moral ambiguities set within political contexts. Many of his novels were very popular, especially his thrillers, or as he liked to call them, "entertainments."

Greene enjoyed writing "entertainments" dealing with spycraft and international espionage and was first inspired to write The Quiet American in 1951 after a jeep ride back to Saigon with a young American economic aid official. The young man regaled Greene with a lecture on how the Vietnamese needed to find a "third force" in Vietnam that was neither communist nor colonial, preferably a democratic force. The novel Greene published in 1955 centered around a young American intelligence operative named Alden Pyle and his support for the democratically-minded warlord Trinh Minh The, who advocated for this same concept of a "third force."

Colonel Ed Lansdale, a high profile CIA operative in both the Philippines and Vietnam, claimed for many years that the novel was based on his experiences. One reason he and many others believed this was due to his nickname in intelligence services as the "quiet American," referring to his well-known habit of listening intently to his Philippine and Vietnamese contacts, rather than speaking over them. Greene, however, always denied the book was based on Lansdale, saying "Pyle was a younger, more innocent, and more idealistic member of the CIA. I would never have chosen Colonel Lansdale, as he then was, to represent the danger of innocence."

Greene's novel was extremely prescient for its time in predicting — through the experiences of its main characters Thomas Fowler, Alden Pyle, and Pyle's lover, Phuong — the eventual disastrous outcome of the Vietnam War and the misguided foreign policy of America in the 1950s.

The Quiet American was received warmly by English readers but received an extremely chilly reception in the United States upon its publication there in 1956. It was considered by many in U.S. cultural circles to be an "anti-American" novel that portrayed Americans as murderers. Despite that, the book was adapted twice into major motion pictures in 1958 and 2002. It was named one of the 100 Novels That Shaped Our World by BBC News in November 2019, and former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg cited the novel as an influence for his philosophy on American foreign affairs during the 2020 primary election.

1955 Bantam cover of The Quiet American, courtesy of The Ugly American Book Club

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