Spies, Paranoia, Revolution, and the Rise of American Empire

Before he was a journalist and a novelist, before he was a globe-trotting war correspondent and a historian with an eye for ordinary people that led extraordinary lives, Scott Anderson was a child of the Cold War. His father worked for the State Department, which took the Anderson family to South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia. All three countries were located on the new fault lines of the geopolitical struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, anti-communism and communism, the “Yanks” and the “Reds.”

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As a kid, Anderson watched his father grow disillusioned with his country’s crusade against communism and the folly of the Vietnam War. But Anderson himself didn’t fully grasp the contradictions, hubris, and stupidity of the American empire’s obsession with anti-communism until the spring of 1984, when he watched a young woman’s body dumped and retrieved with grim efficiency by a group of soldiers on a side street in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. At the time, the Reagan administration was backing the right-wing Salvadoran government in its war against leftist rebels, yet another front in the anti-communism campaign. The incident planted a simple question in Anderson’s mind: How had it come to this?

In his absorbing new book The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War — A Tragedy in Three Acts, Anderson answers that question by zeroing in on a critical juncture in time, the dawn of the Cold War from 1944 to 1956, and on four spooks who not just witnessed but shaped history during that period of time. It would be too on the nose to say Anderson’s book reads like Graham Greene’s classic The Quiet American, but Anderson masterfully weaves together the lives of Frank Wisner, a genteel Southerner who climbs the ranks of the CIA only to fall into despair and take his own life after the U.S.’s betrayal of revolutionaries in eastern Europe; Ed Lansdale, a CIA legend who has been called “the American James Bond” and the “T.E. Lawrence of Asia”; Peter Sichel, a German Jewish refugee who traded currency on the black market to fund covert U.S. operations across Europe; and Michael Burke, a black-ops specialist who directed commando operations behind the Iron Curtain. Each man would meet a different fate, but taken together they capture in vivid detail the early days of the CIA and the origins of the Cold War.

The Quiet Americans

But The Quiet Americans book is more than a real-life le Carré tale. By focusing on the post-World War II period and the critical early days of the Cold War, Anderson’s story raises questions about the rise of American empire and how the trajectory of the 20th and 21st century could have looked so much differently. “If FDR had lived even another year, probably what happened in Eastern Europe would have looked quite a bit different,” Anderson tells Rolling Stone, referring to the upheaval on the European continent after World War II. “I think that Stalin would have responded to FDR. Again, this is a great what if?”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Rolling Stone: I’ve read so many end-of-the-Cold-War stories and end-of-World-War-Two stories. But with this time period from 1944 to 1956, I found myself absorbing the history as much as the characters and their stories. How did you come to zero in on this period in not just American history but world history?
Scott Anderson: As I say at the beginning of the book, I’m very much a product of the Cold War. It was something I spent a lot of time thinking about growing up. And then seeing the residue of it in war reporting in the ’80s and ’90s. When did it all start to go south? When did all this get locked into place where there was this stalemate that went on forever and that I think is currently damaging to an American standing around the world?

I was reading some books about FDR while World War II was going and this idea that this was going to be the end of the age of empires, the dismantling of the British and the French empires, and that America was going to be this this kind of beacon of freedom and the spreader of democracy around the world. And then by the early ’50s, with the CIA knocking over the regimes in Guatemala and in Iran, there was an incredible turnaround in this 12-year period.

Did you have any of these globe-trotting larger than life characters in mind when you picked this time period?
I always want to write history that focuses on people who are at the front lines or the players in the field rather than the generals or diplomats. When you’re talking about the Cold War, the people on the front lines were spies, which kind of works out. I’d rather write about spies than accountants. I’d heard of Wisner and I’d heard of Ed Lansdale. If you read much at all about Vietnam stuff, Lansdale is pretty prominent. But the other two [Sichel and Burke] I’d never heard of. I looked at, I don’t know, 20, 25 different CIA agents through this period. And invariably there were a lot of guys who did cool stuff for a while, but then went to the State Department or were sitting in the embassy somewhere. Or I couldn’t find any paper trail for them. And I really needed that.

And so out of all these people I looked at, I ended up with exactly these four. With Peter Sichel, he’s kind of like finding the proverbial chest of letters in the attic sort of thing. He’s still alive, still incredibly sharp, the last surviving member of this generation of the early CIA guys. And had been very prominent. In fact, I probably did eight or nine interviews with him. So he was a real find. It was kind of a treasure hunt.

What I found so fascinating about Frank Wisner is his evolution over the course of the book, from a true believer and early CIA booster to, in the case of Eisenhower and the “new look” policy, a cautionary voice or a skeptic. The guy asked, “Is this right policy? What are we getting ourselves into?”
I don’t think you could put Wisner in a novel. He starts out as this gung ho guy, the Mighty Wurlitzer he creates, and he just wants to start fires everywhere. He’s this deeply emotional guy and he really takes this stuff personally. And I think he just sees coming over his desk the endless list of disasters and agents disappearing and being executed, he really did change.

The incredible irony with the Hungarian Revolution is here, finally, is the thing that he’s been fighting for the last 10 years. And just the irony that he’s in Europe when it happens, he goes down to the border. He sees all the refugees pouring across the border. And has a complete emotional collapse that he never really recovers from.

Along with Lansdale, he is probably the best known because he was so prominent in the early CIA. And most people think of him as just like I said earlier, this is rabid right wing anti-communist, but the Eisenhower people scared him. And by then he had seen all these operations just fail. And I think he started thinking we have to approach this in a different way. And, of course, he wasn’t listened to.

You bring an interesting background and experience to in this case a work of history, being a journalist, foreign correspondent, war correspondent who has written extensively from the places that you also write about decades, generations earlier in this book and obviously in your book Lawrence in Arabia. How do those things interplay?
I suspect that even more than the war reporting the fact I grew up overseas and I didn’t spend any time in the States until I was a teenager, in a funny way, gave me not an outsider’s perspective but a semi-outsider’s perspective on this country.

In thinking of war, I can think back to the very first war I went to, which was in 1983 in Beirut, and it was just before the Marine barracks there got blown up. I was there about a month before that. The American troops on the ground were getting shot at already. A few had been killed. And I remember standing out in front of the American embassy in Beirut that had been destroyed a few months earlier with a massive truck bomb. There was a 19 year old soldier — about my age — sitting on top of a tank in front of the American embassy. We just got talking and he said, “Can I ask you a question? Why are we here?”

He had no clue why they were there or what in fact their mission was. Not to take anything away from him but I doubt he could have found Beirut on a map. He was just some kid out of Kansas or something. And I’ve seen that again and again with American troops around the world that they really don’t understand why they’re where they are or what they’re supposed to be doing. Again, it goes back to this notion that we’re coming in to liberate people. And I think these poor bastards in the field are constantly surprised why the locals are putting IEDs on them or shooting at them. That’s not true with the British and the French and former imperialists. They seem to have a much better sense of well, we’re here, if the French go in to Indonesia to knock some heads because of an insurgency or a guerrilla war going on, they kind of know they’re doing it for their own self-interest or their country’s self-interest and they have this kind of imperial mandate to do it. And I think British likewise. But Americans, they just don’t think that way. The rest of the world thinks of them that way. But they don’t.

You write about the Red Scare and the very profound effect it had on U.S. foreign policy and on the institutions and people in The Quiet Americans. We all know who Roy Cohn is, Joe McCarthy, the black lists in Hollywood. But how did the Red Scare seep into America’s actions abroad?
Out of the four people I write about, two of them were direct victims of the Red Scare. Frank Wisner and Peter Sichel were both at different times investigated for their possible leftist connections. And in Frank Wisner’s case, because of a relationship he’d had with this Romanian woman during the war and who then maybe had gone on to pass information to the Soviets afterwards. J. Edgar Hoover hated Frank Wisner. At one point, right when Eisenhower was coming to the presidency, it looked like Wisner was probably going to be chosen to be the next CIA director like clockwork right after the election, Hoover reopened investigation into Wisner, something that had been going on now for seven years. Until Wisner died in ’65, it was always hanging over his head. McCarthy gets all the credit because they named the era after him, but he was by and large J. Edgar Hoover’s front man.

So what you saw was the Red Scare play out on an international level or the level of foreign policy in two really significant ways. One was obvious: When you are in the height of the Red Scare, there’s no downside to if you in the CIA to launch an operation that was going to fail or that or that would overthrow a democratic regime. You can only run into trouble if it looks like you’re obstructing the American advance against the communists.

The great irony of the CIA’s covert operations around the world in the ’40s and ’50s was that the most successful aspects of it were the soft power ones — Radio Free Europe, Voice of America. This kind of battle for hearts and minds started in Europe as this kind of intellectual counter movement against the communists overseas. There was a program where we’d sent hundreds of thousands of books overseas and had these open libraries. They were sponsoring Langston Hughes and putting on Porgy and Bess in Berlin. It actually had a huge cultural effect. And all that disappeared during the Red Scare.

When I finished the book, I feel like there are many ways to describe it, but on one sort of more abstract level, I almost came away feeling like it was sort of counterintuitive in the history of American empire or at least a sort of American interventionism and meddling overseas. And that there was a moment, a sort of a crossroads, where the U.S. didn’t go down this path that it did. Did you set out to do that?
I felt it kind of came about pretty organically. To my mind, there are two great turning points or potential turning points that where things could have gone the other way. One being FDR dying like three weeks before the end of the war. I do think that if FDR had lived even another year, probably what happened in Eastern Europe would have looked quite a bit different. I think that Stalin would have responded to FDR. Again, this is a great what if? I think he would have been more equipped to deal with what was happening in Eastern Europe. Where I think Truman was just like a deer in headlights. So for about two years, he still seemed to labor under this idea that Oh, maybe we can deal with the Soviets. Maybe our wartime alliance can still be repaired until finally in 1947, he comes out with the Truman Doctrine, he starts the CIA, but at that point it’s too late. All of Eastern Europe is essentially sewn up at that point.

I think the other great turning point is around the time of Stalin’s death and the Hungarian Revolution. There are probably three or four times, culminating in the Hungarian Revolution, when the Kremlin was sending out peace feelers to the West. They were the ones who started talking about peaceful coexistence. And every time, the Eisenhower administration, led by John Foster Dulles, spurned them. And so I think that’s the second great turning point to me, and you really see it in the Hungarian Revolution where, on one day, Khrushchev decides, We have to let Hungary go. We can’t fight back. We’re going to liberalize all of Eastern Europe. Basically, he was talking about what Gorbachev did 33 years later. And then in one day, he flips around and thinks to himself, “Well, if the Americans were going to do anything about Hungary, they would have done it by now.” Then from that time, you see Khrushchev changing and he becomes more and more hard line. And so the Cold War goes on for another 33 years.

Another key turning point in the future course of Middle Eastern history is the overthrow of Mosadegh in Iran, which you write about. I always come back to the what if with Iran. If we had not done that, what would Iran look like today?
The astonishing thing to me is I’ve spent a lot of time in the Middle East is, you know, you look at old pictures of Iran or Egypt or, you know, anywhere in the Middle East, Iraq from the 1950s and they’re very westernized. America had huge influence in the 1950s in that region, as it did in a lot of other regions around the world.

All of that was squandered by the overthrow of Mosadegh, and the fact that for a number of years after the coup there the CIA bragged about their role. You know, this is a great triumph. And it was really probably not until like the mid-’70s when they said Oh, you know what? Maybe we shouldn’t be bragging about this so much. And then, of course, the shah is overthrown, you have a Islamic fundamentalist regime come in, and now, throughout that part of the world, though this is complicated by Israel, of course, you’ve seen this incredible swing back to this Islamic fundamentalism everywhere. Even in American satellites like Egypt, you would never have seen a woman in a burqa in Cairo 15, 20 years ago. You see it all the time now.

These things tend to have a second life and it’s a bad life from the standpoint of American power and prestige. History is weird, how a certain event comes along and how, only in hindsight, you can see what a crucial turning point it probably was.