Since the 1974-75 Church Committee investigations into CIA illegality. the image of the Agency has wavered between inept bunglers or hyper-secretive fanatics operating as a shadow government. (Usually these perceptions are divisible by age. The former is attributed to the young who chastised the Agency for not preventing 9-11; the latter, composed of the 60s’ Left who blame the CIA for everything from the Kennedy assassination to the crisis in the Ukraine).
Certainly there is some credence in both. The Agency’s assassination tools to kill Castro–exploding cigars, beard-destroying drugs, toxic wet suits–were the last word in musical comedy. At times, the CIA has acted as a “state within a state,,” hiding its CIA-Mafia plots against Castro from Congressional Oversight committees (i.e Allen Dulles didn’t even mention these to his fellow Warren Commission members) and having a tendency to “lose” requested files from Congress.
But the CIA director at the time of the hearings William Egan Colby, born ninety years ago, always defied these categorizations. His Operation Phoenix, a CIA backed plan designed to capture or assassinate key Vietcong personnel destroyed NLF infrastructure in many areas. As a result, Vietcong attacks on grassroots political and economic development (the NLF instituted killing quotas, sometimes 400 a month, on villagers participating in the pacification program) were sharply curtailed; indeed many North Vietnamese after the war testified to the effectiveness of Phoenix (some 20,000 thousand of them were killed by the Phoenix Project).
Against the image of hyper-secrecy, Colby cooperated with the Church Committee by releasing evidence that the CIA partnered with the Mafia to kill Castro, spied on citizens, and experimented with mind-altering drugs. This disclosure led some in the Agency, chief among them the insanely paranoid James Jesus Angleton, to believe Colby was a Soviet mole
The reality was that Colby was a vital center liberal, a group that supported the Cold War abroad and New Deal-like economic policies at home. After serving with the OSS in World War II, Colby would soon leave a prestigious law firm because he did not want to serve “a corporate elite” and would aid Philadelphia garment workers trying to unionize.
Despite the plethora of upper level agents applying outdated methods (i.e The Bay of Pigs mentality that the very appearance of Americans in Cuba would trigger popular support), Colby was by turns teachable. While running agents embedded in Iron Curtain countries, Colby realized, courtesy of the Soviets controlling every aspect of citizens’ lives and encouraging them to spy on each other, that new and revolutionary methods must be attempted in order to win popular support.
As CIA station chief in Saigon, Colby would adapt himself to Vietnamese conditions. Unlike others who saw everything through an Americanized lens, Colby went to the countryside to learn about Vietnamese society and politics. From this, he concluded that direct political and economic aid was essential to win popular support. But even during the JFK era, with the president expressing enthusiasm for counterinsurgency, Colby’s approach would be rebuffed. Kennedy adviser Robert McNamara, in Colby’s eyes, was more interested in getting hardware to the government and Army than any development of popular support (through his ground-based experience Colby realized that villagers hated the Army because of its exploitive policies). With the Army taking over CIA operations, it soon became apparent that they were more committed to political stability than political reform. When the Vietcong began frustrating any economic and political development in the countryside by sneaking into the villages and killing its proponents, Colby reacted with Phoenix, not merely to provide body counts which the Army believed was the key to winning but to give South Vietnamese villagers a protected space for development to work.
After the war, Colby would frustrate those trying to place him in an ideological category. Colby’s belief that Vietnam could have been won had Congress not cut off support put him at odds with other vital center liberals like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who regarded American involvement as a tragic mistake. His support for President Carter’s arm control agreements alienated him from liberal “hawks” such as Senator Scoop Jackson and conservative Republicans. He disdained Reagan’s accelerated arms race, the purpose of which was to force the Soviets to compete and hence implode ( a strategy even some liberals acknowledge worked), and yet supported their covert actions in third world countries.