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The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the CIA Simon & Schuster Evan Thomas

30th July 2011 History Books 7 Comments

The Very Best Men is the story of the CIA’s early days as told through the careers of four glamorous, daring, and idealistic men who ran covert operations for the government from the end of World War II to Vietnam. Evan Thomas re-creates the personal dramas and sometimes tragic lives of Frank Wisner, Richard Bissell, Tracy Barnes, and Desmond FitzGerald, who risked everything to contain the Soviet threat.

Within the inner circles of Washington, they were regarded as the best and the brightest. They planned and acted to keep the country out of war — by stealth and “political action” and to do by cunning and sleight of hand what great armies could not, must not be allowed to do. In the end, they were too idealistic and too honorable, and were unsuited for the dark, duplicitous life of spying. Their hubris and navet led them astray, producing both sensational coups and spectacular blunders like the Bay of Pigs and the failed assassination attempts on foreign leaders in the early 1960s. Thomas draws on the CIA’s own secret histories, to which he has had exclusive access, as well as extensive interviews, to bring to life a crucial piece of American history.

“A brisk, readable, lively account of fifteen turbulent years of history . . . Informed, anecdotal, full of colorful details.” — The New York Times

“A jewel of a book.” — The Washington Post

“A thoughtful, provocative, and absorbing book, as scrupulously fair as it is responsible, bringing new details and shedding new light on forgotten events and personalities of years past.” — Chicago Tribune

“An elegantly crafted group biography of four CIA officers during its glory days, from 1947 to its decline after the mid-1960s.” — The Christian Science Monitor

Evan Thomas is the author of The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the C.I.A., a book about the careers of Frank Wisner, Richard Bissell, Tracy Barnes and Desmond FitzGerald; Robert Kennedy: His Life; The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1989; Sea of Thunder: The Last Great Naval Command, 1941-1945; and John Paul Jones. He is at work on a book about President Dwight Eisenhower.

“A brisk, readable, lively account of fifteen turbulent years of history . . . Informed, anecdotal, full of colorful details.” — The New York Times

“A jewel of a book.” — The Washington Post

“A thoughtful, provocative, and absorbing book, as scrupulously fair as it is responsible, bringing new details and shedding new light on forgotten events and personalities of years past.” — Chicago Tribune

“An elegantly crafted group biography of four CIA officers during its glory days, from 1947 to its decline after the mid-1960s.” — The Christian Science Monitor

The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the CIA

  • 7 responses to "The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the CIA Simon & Schuster Evan Thomas"

  • mark holton
    12:39 on July 29th, 2011
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    Richard Helms is, after Allen Dulles, arguably the most significant US spymaster and intelligence manager in history. It is a fortunate circumstance that he overcame his reluctance to publish anything at all, and worked with the trusted William Hood, whose own books are remarkable, to put before the public a most useful memoire.

    Below are a few of the gems that I find worth noting, and for which I recommend the book as a unique record:

    1) Puts forward elegant argument for permissive & necessary secrecy in the best interests of the public
    2) Defends the CIA culture as highly disciplined–he is persuasive in stating that only Presidents can order covert actions, and that CIA does only the President’s direct bidding.
    3) Makes it clear in passing, not intentionally, that his experience as both a journalist and businessman were essential to his ultimate success as a spymaster and manager of complex intelligence endeavors–this suggests that one reason there is “no bench” at CIA today is because all the senior managers have been raised as cattle destined to be veal: as young entry on duty people, brought up within the bureaucracy, not knowing how to scrounge sources or meet payroll…
    4) Compellingly discusses the fact that intelligence without counterintelligence is almost irrelevant if not counterproductive, but then glosses over some of the most glaring counterintelligence failures in the history of the CIA–interestingly, he defends James Angleton and places the blame for mistreating Nosenko squarterly on the Soviet Division leadership in the Directorate of Operations.
    5) Points out that it was Human Intelligence (HUMINT), not Imagery Intelligence (IMINT), that first found the Soviet missiles in Cuba.
    6) He confirms the Directorate of Intelligence and the analysis it does, as the “essence” of intelligence, relegating clandestine and technical intelligence to support functions rather than driving functions. This is most important, in that neither clandestine nor technical collectors are truly responsive to the needs of all-source analysts, in part because systems are designed, and agents are recruited, without regard to what is actually needed.
    7) He tells a great story on Laos, essentially noting that 200 CIA paramilitary officers, and money, and the indigenous population, where able to keep 5 North Vietnamese divisions bogged down, and kept Laos more or less free for a decade
    8) In the same story on Laos, he explains U.S. Department of Defense incapacity in unconventional or behind the lines war by noting that their officers kept arriving “with knapsacks full of doctrine”.
    9) In recounting some of CIA’s technical successes, he notes casually that persistence is a virtue–there were *thirteen* satellite failures before the 14th CORONA effort finally achieved its objectives.
    10) He gives Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) much higher marks at a user and leader of intelligence, such that we wondered why Christopher Andrew, the noted author on US Presidents and intelligence, did not include LBJ is his “four who got it” (Washington, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Bush Senior).
    11) He confirms, carefully and directly, that the Israeli attacks on the USS Liberty were deliberate and with fore-knowledge that the USS Liberty was a US vessel flying the US flag on US official business.
    12) He expresses concern, in recounting the mistakes in Chile, over the lack of understanding by President Nixon and Henry Kissinger (who writes the Foreword to this book) of the time lags involved in clandestine operations and covert actions.
    13) In summary, he ends with pride, noting that all that CIA did not only reduced fear, it saved tens of billions of dollars in defense expenditures that would have been either defeated by the Soviets, or were unnecessary. There can be no question, in light of this account, but that CIA has more than “paid the rent”, and for all its trials and tribulations, provides the US taxpayer with a better return on investment than they get from any other part of the US Government, and certainly vastly more bang for the buck that they get from the US Department of Defense.

    Richard Helms is a one-of-a-kind, and this memoire should be read by every intellience professional, and anyone who wishes to understand how honorable men can thrive in the black world of clandestine and covert operations. RIP.

  • nedendir
    14:05 on July 29th, 2011
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    Given that this book was originally published in 1996, I’m assuming this particular edition was timed for the release of the Robert DeNiro’s Hollywood epic “The Good Shepherd” (screenplay by Eric Roth – “Munich”), purporting to tell the “story of the origins of the CIA” through the eyes of Edwin Wilson (an amalgam of James Jesus Angleton and Richard Bissell).

    DeNiro’s attempt to cover several decades of U.S. covert operations and espionage left me wondering whether his project would have been better realized as, say, a documentary series on PBS television. In the end, I found myself more annoyed than anything else — suffering through the dreary soap-opera of the protagonist’s life and anxious to take in the occasional bits of history.

    Whereas DeNiro attempts to blend history and fiction, a dramatic spy-caper spanning three decades interspersed with allusions to historical events,
    Thomas covers the actual lives of four pioneers of the CIA: Frank Wisner, Richard Bissel, Tracy Barnes and Desmond Fitzgerald, deeply-principled men with strong convictions and goals (stemming the Communist tide) yet flawed and ultimately corruped in their realization.

    Benefiting from extensive interviews, Thomas’ book seeks to portray the CIA “as it saw itself”. One can appreciated the fact that Thomas is both respectful of the purpose and intent of the CIA (never seeking to dismiss or minimize the very real concerns over the Communist threat) and yet writing with a critical eye towards the moral quandaries of their profession. As Thomas concludes: “In the end, they were too idealistic and too honorable, and were unsuited for the dark and duplicitious life of spying. Their hubris and naivete led them astray, producing both sensational coups and spectacular blunders”).

    Evan Thomas’s written history succeeds precisely where DeNiro’s cinematic attempt fails — in achieving a critical social history of the CIA without the taint of propaganda, a faithful account that is at once historical AND engrossing.

  • Ian Davies
    9:21 on July 31st, 2011
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    Pages 300/301 of the Helms book:

    One of the most disturbing incidents in the six days [war between Israel and
    the surrounding Arab states] came on the morning of June 8[, 1967] when the
    Pentagon flashed(urgent top-priority precedence) a message that the U.S.S.
    Liberty, an unarmed U.S. Navy communications(spy) ship, was under attack in
    the Mediterranean, and that American fighters had been scrambled to defend
    the ship….

    …. The following urgent reports showed that Israeli jet fighters and
    torpedo boats had launched the attack. The seriously damaged Liberty
    remained afloat, with thirty-four dead and more than a hundred wounded
    members of the crew.

    Israeli authorities subsequently apologized for the accident, but few in
    Washington could believe that the ship had not been identified as an
    American naval vessel. Later, an interim intelligence memorandum concluded
    that the attack was a mistake and “not made in malice against the U.S.”….

    …. When additional evidence was available, more doubt was raised. This prompted my
    [D]eputy [Director of Central Intelligence], Admiral Rufus Taylor, to write
    me his view of the incident. “To me, the picture thus far presents the
    distinct possibility that the Israelis knew that the Liberty might be their
    target and attacked anyway, either through confusion in Command and Control
    or through deliberate disregard of instructions on the part of

    The day after the attack, President Johnson, bristling with irritation, said
    to me, “The New York Times” put that attack on the Liberty on an inside
    page. It should have been on the front page!”

    I had no role in the board of inquiry that followed, or the board’s finding
    that there could be no doubt that the Israeli’s knew exactly what they were
    doing in attacking the Liberty. I have yet to understand why it was felt
    necessary to attack this ship or who ordered the attack.

    (299 words in a 452 page book)

    Murder… they KNEW they were murdering defenseless American kids barely in their twenties so that they could complete WHAT two Israeli Prime Ministers(Menachim Begin and Moshe Dayan) have since admitted was a “land grab”….

    …to get more land, ….more land than they had already grabbed by the fourth day of the Six-Day War-they left 34 American families without their sons, brothers, dads… and sent a good subset of the 171 injured home to THEIR families in the US maimed for life.

    and the kids burned and maimed for life who are standing up for their 34 fallen comrades unable to rise from the dead to defend their own memories and blameless conduct… now the Israelis call them “liars” and “anti-Semites”…

    …except a couple of the crew members of the USS Liberty were Jewish themselves… so they’re not called “liars” and “anti-semites”… no, the Israeli attackers and Government of Israel call them “liars” and “self-hating jews”…

    David C. Walsh
    The jamming of unique U.S. frequencies during the Liberty incident seems to establish deliberate intent. And in exclusive interviews with this author, several former high-level National Security Agency (NSA) officials agree.

    On 14 February 2003, the “godfather” of the NSA’s Auxiliary General Technical Research program, Oliver Kirby, noted that the Liberty was “my baby.” Within weeks of the calamity, Kirby, deputy director for operations/production, read U.S. signals intelligence (SigInt)-generated transcripts and “staff reports” at NSA’s Fort Meade, Maryland, headquarters. They were of Israeli pilots’ conversations, recorded during the attack. The intercepts made it “absolutely certain” they knew it was a U.S. ship, he said. Kirby’s is the first public disclosure by a top-level NSA senior of deliberate intent based on personal analyses of SigInt material.

    In an interview on 24 February 2003, retired Air Force Major General John Morrison, the agency’s then-second-in-command (and Kirby’s successor), said he had been informed at the time of Kirby’s findings and endorsed them. Former NSA Director retired Army Lieutenant General William Odom said on 3 March 2003 said that, on the strength of such data, the attack’s deliberateness “just wasn’t a disputed issue” within the agency. On 5 March 2003, retired Navy Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, NSA director from 1977-1981, said he “flatly rejected” the Cristol/Israeli thesis. “It is just exceedingly difficult to believe that [the Liberty] was not correctly identified.” He said this was based on his talks with NSA seniors at the time having direct knowledge. All four were unaware of any agency official at that time or later who dissented from the “deliberate” conclusion.

  • Reader
    12:11 on August 1st, 2011
    Reply to comment

    This book is not afraid to look at fundamental problems in the area of intelligence, which America today is finding amazingly similar to the problems that Richard Helms observed in Germany immediately after World War Two. Helms was uniquely qualified to see the big picture, having been a newspaper reporter who had lunch with Adolf Hitler (Chapter 2 is called `Lunch with Adolf’) the day of a big rally in Nuremberg in 1936, a privilege that Americans willing to spend a thousand dollars a plate to attend a fundraiser with American presidents more recently might be jealous of, if being a millionaire is not enough to make them happy. Henry Kissinger was happy to report in the Foreword that Helms was even invited to lunch with President Nixon after an early NSC meeting. (p. xi). There is even a picture of the famous Tuesday lunch group with LBJ, Rusk, Clark Clifford, General Wheeler, Walt Rostow, George Cushman and Walt Johnson. There is even a picture of a lunch with Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush with the caption, “At lunch in the Vice President’s office. Aside from George Washington, the elder George Bush is the only President who had firsthand knowledge of the intelligence world.”

    The Preface reports that February 2, 1973, was the day James Schlesinger was sworn in as head of CIA and Richard Helms lost the position which was his main claim to fame. Richard Nixon had something to do with it, and Chapter 1, `A Smoking Gun’ reports enough about the Watergate break-in to give the CIA perspective from the top, and ends with “Five months later, and a few days after his reelection, President Nixon called me to Camp David. It was the last time we spoke while he was in office.” (p. 13). The Preface even claims “President Nixon had ended my intelligence career with a handshake at Camp David.” (p. vi). If Helms is right about that, there was no personal contact between the Director of the CIA and the President of the United States in December 1972 and January 1973, when the Vietnam ceasefire was being hammered into place and a record number of B-52 bombers were being shot down by North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns and SAMs. That figures.

    The German spies are most fascinating in the beginning of the book. Helms calls Martha Dodd an American, as she was the daughter of the American ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1938, but she was also girlfriend of Boris Vinogradov, the press secretary at the Soviet embassy in Berlin. After being charged with spying in 1957, she fled to Czechoslovakia. “Martha was seventy when she died in Prague in 1990.” (p. 20). Spies and Richard Nixon have an acute sense of which side someone is on, and Helms seems to be particularly sensitive to the issues that Nixon would be prone to notice. Other major personalities are easy to locate in the index: Allen Dulles, James Angleton, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, Yuri Ivanovich Nosenko, and Frank Wisner.

    Chapter 8, “The Gehlen Organization,” deals with the group most responsible for allowing German intelligence after World War Two to maintain some continuity with the information that had been accumulating while Hitler was in power. As the only employer in West Germany that was not averse to employing the upper echelons of the previous regime, it had no trouble recruiting four thousand former Nazis, but Helms did not find them reliable. ” . . . the American officers working with Gehlen in Washington neglected to insist upon being given the names of and biographical data on the RUSTY staff personnel. . . . Even in the confusion of the immediate post-war intelligence picture, this oversight violated one of the fundamental rules of secret intelligence, and helped to set the stage for the security disasters that in time all but destroyed the entire effort.” (p. 86). A lot of people have been jumping to this conclusion without having the kind of in-depth knowledge of the situation which Helms observed.

    On “fundamental rules of secret intelligence,” (p. 86), Helms seems most upset that he received a felony conviction for denying something in testimony to Congress that he felt compelled to deny. Helms was bitter that in his confirmation hearings to be appointed ambassador to Iran, he was asked questions by people who knew that the answer was officially secret, so he was being forced to lie to maintain a cover story that was maintaining dubious deniability. This is the area of books on intelligence that I find most interesting. Nosenko was not allowed to participate in a free debate in America over the nature of KGB activities regarding Lee Harvey Oswald because the entire nature of the KGB was a matter of exclusive CIA jurisdiction within the American system, and holding Nosenko a prisoner for years was the perfect symbol of the amount of control that the CIA believed it was entitled to maintain over such information. Convicting Helms of a felony for lying to Congress was a matter of attempting to establish the principle that laws have a higher function than rules, and any individual within the American system is subject to the possibility of being hauled into court to be a patsy for whatever law the administration of justice intends to glorify in its present incarnation.

    Helms doesn’t exactly vilify Richard M. Nixon in this book, but just honestly stating “It has long been clear to me that President Nixon himself called the shots in the Watergate cover-up,” (p. 13) is damn close. On our most recent impeachment, I think the movie “Candy” (1969, DVD 2001) with Enrico Maria Salerno as Jonathan J. John provides a better joke, when the police ask, “Did you see what happened to the girl in the blue dress?” Film buff J.J.J. responded, “I don’t know. Who directed it?” That is the way most Presidents feel about the CIA.

  • clomid pcos
    19:57 on August 1st, 2011
    Reply to comment

    It’s important to have ideals, but it’s also important to be pragmatic. Some of the greatest problems come from people who cling to pie-in-the-sky notions, even when reality dictates a different approach. From a psychological standpoint, however, facing this reality can be crushing. This is reaffirmed as one of the lessons of Evan Thomas’s early history of the CIA, The Very Best Men.

    To a large extent, the four principal figures of Thomas’s book are all idealists, out to create a better world by containing the evils of the Soviet Union. Of the four, Frank Wisner dominates the early part of the book, as he laid the foundation for the post-World War II intelligence agency that would become the CIA. Wisner would eventually be overcome by his own demons and Richard Bissell would take his place. Also important, but to a lesser degree, were Tracy Barnes and Desmond Fitzgerald.

    Thomas makes the distinction between the two types of operations the CIA would be involved in. The first sort involved espionage, the secret gathering of information. The second sort (often in conflict with the first) involved trying to effect political outcomes, often through covert operations. Both types would have their victories in the 1950s, leading to a hubris that would hurt the CIA in later years. For example, the successes in creating coups in Iran and Guatemala would lead to the belief that other governments could be as easily overthrown, resulting in the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Similarly, the U2 spy plane would provide some great intelligence but also embarrassment when the Soviets shot it down. These attempts to win the Cold War often made it worse.

    Beyond the wins and losses for the agency, Thomas also delves into the human toll, as his four “heroes” pay a price for their efforts. At best, they would be burned out, but there would also be damaged reputations (Bissell had a leading role in Bay of Pigs) and physical and mental effects. The CIA would go on, of course, and suffer perhaps greater damage in its faulty intelligence on WMDs in Iraq. To many, this would be even a greater crime than the Bay of Pigs: the seeming cherry-picking of information to suit the goals of a particular administration, with all the resulting costs.

    The Very Best Men is a reminder that even in the seemingly simpler time of the Cold War, things weren’t really that simple. It also reminds the reader that the CIA is not a bunch of James Bonds and Jason Bournes, but a bureaucracy with all the attendant issues. Thomas has done a good job of bringing one part of our Cold War history to life.

  • TrafficWarden
    20:21 on August 1st, 2011
    Reply to comment

    A fascinating book about Richard Helm’s career in the CIA. From his work in OSS to his entering the foreign service in 1973, Helms made the CIA an effective weapon in the fight against communism. He was a devoted civil servant, who saved the country billions of dollars by using human intelligence to discover his enemies weaknesses.
    The CIA did some things right, some things wrong, but always served the nation. Helms was DCI for both the Johnson and Nixon presidencies. He chaffed at serving as a tool of Nixon in the Watergate episode, and contained Walters desire to pay off
    the Watergarte burglars. Nixon retaliated by ousting Helms two months short of his 60th birthday and retirement date. In his discussion about an ambassador position, Helms was asked a question on the Chilean coup. Since this was an open forum, Helms lied, even though he had answered the same question by the same senator in a closed session truthfully. That senator (Symington) was a disgrace to the nation. He played politics and discredited a patriot.

    This is a great read about the early CIA. Helms is as good an author as he was a Spymaster. A long but throughly interesting book.

  • Johnny Dingo
    21:12 on August 2nd, 2011
    Reply to comment

    This is a biography we have been waiting for a long time. In fact, few even thought Richard Helms would even write his memoirs when one considers he spent his life working within the world of secrets, assassinations, political underdealings. Indeed, this can be a fascinating book for a realistic view of the world stuff like the Bond movies paint in more cartoonish terms. Helms takes us on a historical journey through World War 2 and his meeting with Hitler (where he describes the power of the Hitler aura upon the German people), he goes on into the years of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon during which he was director of the CIA. But…should we take Helms’ version of history as official? Probably not. Consider he makes an attempt to bash any theory that tries to show uptight men like him as anything other than squeaky clean. He especially tries to brush off the idea that the CIA might have been involved in the JFK assassination. He goes out of his way to especially criticise New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison who first brought the assassination conspiracy theories to the public and the Oliver Stone film based on the investigation and evidence of conspiracy, “JFK.” He calls the idea of a conspiracy hogwash and tries to support the idea of Oswald acting alone with evidence that has already been shredded apart by investigators. Helms even tries to defend the image of FBI head J.Edgar Hoover, he confirms that Hoover kept certain files on people, but he attempts to deny the idea brought about by overwhelming evidence and testimony that Hoover lived a homosexual lifestyle. Helms presents a good story but also tries too hard to clean-up the image of a government that runs wild in some areas, something that has been long ago proven. It is a good read, well-written and detailed, but like any open-minded reader, read but carefully tread the waters because are we to believe Helms would honestly reveal secrets that even today would awaken rage from the general populace? Helms tells a good story, how much of it is true we will never know.

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