- - Tuesday, November 17, 2015


By Douglas Waller

Simon & Schuster, $30, 567 pages

This book will make a dandy holiday gift for the spy story buff who eats up yarns about the dark side of the world of intelligence and those masters of intrigue who exist inside the web.

This is an authoritatively researched and smoothly written tale of four future directors of the Central Intelligence Agency who began their careers in America’s World War II covert action service, the Office of Special Services (OSS) headed by the charismatic Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan.

The four profiles of Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby and William Casey are linked by their ties to Donovan, but their lives also intersected with each other. This presents author Douglas Waller with the tricky task of telling their stories while keeping Donovan in the foreground even after he had been set down as the nation’s spymaster by President Harry Truman 90 days after Japan’s surrender.

Mr. Waller carries it off, however. A former Washington correspondent for both Time and Newsweek magazines, he is a seasoned reporter of the intelligence scene and the author of a respected 2012 biography of Donovan and, in 2004, of Gen. Billy Mitchell. None of these profiles is the last word on Donovan or the four disciples, as Mr. Waller calls them. There are biographies galore of all of them and the four were prolific writers themselves. But as an entertaining read for the armchair spymaster it is a good primer about the OSS and the controversy over whether it really made much difference in the outcome of the war.

Certainly the disciples themselves had their own doubts, although they devoted a lifetime of loyalty to Donovan long after he ceased to have an impact on the succession of postwar intelligence services that ended up being amalgamated into the CIA. Yet without taking even the tiniest bit of credit away from the ordinary infantryman who had to wade ashore from North Africa to Normandy and a hundred islands in the Pacific to bring defeat to the enemy, Mr. Waller does present enough of a case that OSS did make a positive difference and that the four Donovan acolytes contributed significantly.

Dulles by far played the most visibly significant role during his time as the head of OSS operations in Bern, Switzerland. He recruited a German Foreign Office code clerk named Fritz Kolbe who provided an unrivaled flow of gold dust intelligence from inside the Third Reich. At the same time he ran not one but two spy operations inside Occupied France and provided details for the planners of the Allied landings in southern France that followed the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Then there were his negotiations in Italy that led to the early surrender of an entire German army in that theater.

Colby had the more dramatic time. He was seconded to the British commando force, the Jedburghs, and parachuted first into France to aid resistance groups in advance of the D-Day landings, and then again in two covert raids into Norway that required daring escapes on skis from German pursuers. But Casey, who was the head of the OSS operations in London and Helms, who worked with him there, honed the skills needed to be a true master of spies as they planned covert operations into Europe by trial and tragic error.

I do have a complaint about a premise Mr. Waller advances, one that will jar intelligence professionals, particularly those of that early generation of CIA personnel. It is a failing that is all too common among writers of popular nonfiction intelligence stories — which is that the OSS, and thereafter, CIA, were made up of aristocratic, arrogant, privileged dabblers whose spying caused more trouble for America than they were worth.

Mr. Waller goes to great lengths to make both Donovan and the four “disciples” appear to be wealthy WASP upper-class types and to draw by inference comparisons with the Oxford-Cambridge dilettantes of the British secret services of that time. He even uses Donovan’s own pretentious description of his spies as “a league of gentlemen.”

But it just ain’t so. Donovan and Casey both climbed out of Irish Catholic working-class backgrounds, while Colby, also a Catholic, was an Army brat. Dulles, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was a scholarship boy at the slightly shabby church school that was Princeton at the time. Helms, whose father was an Alcoa executive, did have an advantaged education but began his life as a United Press reporter and later an advertising manager for an Indianapolis newspaper. Nor were they unique, for while there were plenty of Ivy Leaguers in OSS (and later CIA), Donovan’s recruits were an eclectic mix of emigres (Berthold Brecht, for one) and upwardly mobile types ranging from labor lawyer Arthur Goldberg, later a Supreme Court justice, and Ralph Bunche, the African-American diplomat and Nobel Prize winner.

That quibble aside, “Disciples” will make good reading for your favorite spy buff.

James Srodes’ biography, “Allen Dulles: Master of Spies” (Regnery), was named Best Intelligence Book in 2000 by the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.

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