BOOKS: America Agonistes

The Quiet Americans


NEW YORK TIMES: Once upon a time, there was a nation that saw itself as a beacon to the world. It would lead, as John Quincy Adams put it, by the gentle power of its example. If it all sounds a bit grandiose to us now, it did, too, to Graham Greene, the English author of the 1955 spy novel “The Quiet American.” Greene liked to complain that Yankees were “plump, smug, sentimental, ready for the easy tear and the hearty laugh and the fraternity yell.” He was particularly galled by American pretensions to purity in foreign affairs. “Innocence,” he insisted, “is a kind of insanity.”

Scott Anderson’s enthralling new history of early Cold War espionage takes its title from Greene’s classic — and shares much of its disillusionment. Anderson, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and author of several books, including “Lawrence in Arabia,” follows the story of four C.I.A. operatives — Michael Burke, Edward Lansdale, Peter Sichel and Frank Wisner — from their heady early exploits through their government’s ultimate betrayal of its own idealism. Anderson, whose own father once helped create foreign paramilitary squads as an adviser to the Agency for International Development, casts his characters’ narrative as a tragedy, both personal and national. After a decade of flawed postwar spy games, by the mid-1950s much of the world had come to see the United States as just “one more empire,” Anderson writes, “one that lied and stole and invaded” like the others.

Lying and stealing and invading, it should be said, make for captivating reading, especially in the hands of a storyteller as skilled as Anderson. All the characters of “The Quiet Americans” could have stepped from a film set — and some of them actually had. Burke, a James Bond figure “before James Bond existed,” had been working as a screenwriter before being recruited by the C.I.A. He could just as often be found hanging out with Ava Gardner or sharing bourbon and pancakes with Ernest Hemingway as he could be dispatching infiltrators to Eastern Europe.

Indeed, for all their ill-advised or bungled covert ops — which included coups from Tehran to Guatemala City — it is impossible not to be a little swept up in the spectacle of this bygone era when intrepid individuals actually shaped history, even if it was often for the worse. Anderson quotes an erstwhile ornithologist who had joined the Office of Strategic Services, the C.I.A.’s World War II precursor, lamenting the office’s breakup once the conflict had ended. “Jesus H. Christ,” the operative griped, “I suppose this means that it’s back to those goddamned birds.” MORE

FRESH AIR: We’re used to a world in which American intelligence services operate with enormous power and reach. Our guest today, writer Scott Anderson, has a new book about the early years of the CIA, when America was victorious in World War II and former soldiers were improvising a campaign of spying and covert operations to contain and undermine the nation’s new adversary, the Soviet Union. It was a time, Anderson writes, when Americans wielded great moral authority in the world and nations struggling to throw off colonial rule looked to the United States as a beacon of freedom and democracy. Anderson concludes that the CIA’s rigid commitment to anti-communism and willingness to topple democratically elected governments squandered the goodwill the U.S. held in the developing world and led to a disastrous war in Vietnam. Anderson tells the story through the lives of four young men who played important roles in the CIA. Scott Anderson is the author of two novels and four books of nonfiction. In 2016, he authored a story about the modern history of the Middle East which took up an entire issue of The New York Times Magazine called “Fractured Lands: How The Arab World Came Apart.” He spoke to me from his home in Fleischmanns, N.Y., about his new book, The Quiet Americans. MORE