Book Reviews: Cloak and Dollar: A History of American Secret Intelligence

Book Reviews


Cloak and Dollar: A History of American Secret Intelligence
Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones
Yale University Press

In the midst of a national debate on the failure of our intelligence-gathering establishment to prevent the terrorist attacks of September 11 comes historian Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones’ scathing appraisal of American espionage, from the Revolution to the present. The author charges that intelligence agencies have historically "tended to run amok with taxpayers’ money," while recent inter-agency rivalry has undermined effectiveness. This has cost America dearly, a perception made timely by revelations that FBI concerns about Middle Eastern students in U.S. flight schools never registered at the highest levels of the FBI or the CIA.

Jeffreys-Jones, a Welsh-born professor of American history at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh and author of two previous books on the CIA, views the intelligence establishment as more proficient at self-promotion than spycraft.

He takes the long view, beginning in the early years of the Republic, when the entire country’s population was less than Ireland’s and westward settlement did not extend much beyond the Appalachians. In 1792 President George Washington spent no less than $1 million, or 12 percent of the entire federal budget, on what Congress primly called a "contingent fund of foreign intercourse," that is, espionage, against the British in Canada and Indians to the west.

We meet such half-forgotten figures as Allan Pinkerton, the onetime Scottish radical turned private detective whose undercover operation saved Abraham Lincoln from assassination on his way to his first inauguration in 1861. Pinkerton went on to serve with demonstrable incompetence as chief of intelligence for the Union Army and so grossly inflated the Confederacy’s troop strength that he likely helped prolong the war. We also meet the hard-drinking, poker-playing cryptographer H. O. Yardley, who was once honored for cracking the Japanese diplomatic code during the 1920s. Later he sold his skills to the Japanese, possibly contributing to their ability to launch the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

As for the FBI, which got its start investigating land fraud and antitrust cases, it made itself appear indispensable by inventing an epidemic of "white slavery" cases. (The bureau claimed that young American women were being abducted and sold to brothels.) Later the agency tried to discredit Charles Lindbergh, whose isolationist statements threatened to undermine American support for entering World War II, by alleging that he consorted with prostitutes and flew whiskey into the United States from Canada during Prohibition. The episode reminds us that disinformation has always been one of the sharper tools of the spy’s tradecraft.

Jeffreys-Jones calls the 1950s "the golden age of operations and hype." From 1949 to 1952 alone, the CIA’s covert-action division swelled from 302 to 2,812 staffers. It was a time when CIA officials, "flashing ID cards and looking like they belonged at the Yale Club," routinely debriefed journalists returning from foreign assignments. It was also a time when the CIA engineered the defeat of leftist insurgents in the Philippines and overthrew popular governments in Iran and Guatemala. By 1961, the agency was leading the United States into the Bay of Pigs debacle. (This chapter opens with an account of a 1960 dinner party at which Presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy was heard asking novelist Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, for ideas on overthrowing Fidel Castro; an amused Fleming suggested shaving Castro’s beard off as a way of emasculating him.) Perhaps the agency’s most glaring failure, however, was its inability to predict the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for example, accused the agency of having overestimated the size of the Soviet economy by 300 percent.

Swashbucklers of the past would no doubt be mortified to know that the once-exclusive, all-male, largely Ivy League men’s club that ran the CIA has opened its doors, if grudgingly, to today’s more diverse society. In 1995, a woman, Nora Slatkin, was appointed to the number three job at the agency.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, critics called for reducing the scale of the nation’s intelligence services. Today, the events of September 11 have refocused attention on the importance of spycraft to national security. Both the FBI and the CIA are calling for increases in funding. Yet, the author warns, no intelligence agency, however well provided for, can totally guarantee the security of the citizenry it is charged with protecting. Nor, recent developments seem to suggest, can America always count on the competence of its espionage establishment.

Reviewer Fergus M. Bordewich is a journalist who has written widely on foreign affairs.

The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World

Nicholas Dawidoff

Arriving as an American immigrant today, Alexander Gerschenkron might find himself driving a taxi. But in an era before the academy succumbed to credentialism, a man like Gerschenkron, possessing a degree in economics—but no doctorate—from the University of Vienna, could still end up a tenured professor at Harvard. There, from the 1950s on, he would influence a generation of economic historians. He would also be offered appointments in Slavic studies and Italian literature (posts he turned down) and teach himself Icelandic for sport. He played chess with artist Marcel Duchamp, flirted with actress Marlene Dietrich and feuded with his colleague John Kenneth Galbraith, among other illustrious adversaries.

Gerschenkron’s biographer and grandson, Nicholas Dawidoff, derives his title, The Fly Swatter, from his grandfather’s tendency to apply ferocious energy, a kind of psychic overkill, to endeavors great or small. Take, for instance, insect control. "Some men just kill a fly," writes Dawidoff. "My grandfather had an arsenal of swatters.... [He] never allowed his victims to be cleaned up. He claimed they were deterrents."

Gerschenkron’s major contribution to economics was to emphasize the ways in which adversity can be helpful to a country’s development, a process that mirrored his own life. He fled the Communists after the Russian revolution of 1917. After remaking himself into a Viennese, he fled the Nazis in 1938 and immigrated to America.

At first, he swept floors and worked in a boatyard, before managing to get hired as a lecturer at Berkeley. In 1948, in his mid-40s he won the Harvard appointment. Determined to demonstrate his singular abilities, the driven instructor commenced a period when he "was sleeping only every other night and inviting those who wanted a word with him to stop by his office at six in the morning."

He gained renown as the rumpled economist who knew "all about everything—German historiography, the emigration theory in Romanian history, the complexities of infinitely divisible time. He understood Kant, Chekhov, Aristotle and Schopenhauer better than people teaching them at Harvard for a living." He had perhaps 20 languages at his command.

Dawidoff’s book is both a study of the immigrant experience and a vivid picture of mid-century intellectual life at America’s preeminent university. But most of all it is a touching portrait of a complex and staggeringly learned individual, written by one of the few people he allowed to touch his heart. The author, along with his sister and several cousins, spent childhood summers with his grandfather in New Hampshire, sojourns Dawidoff recalls with profound affection: "Each night, without fail, he tucked us all in and slipped us each a piece of unwrapped milk chocolate. He said it was our reward for brushing our teeth."

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