Skip to main content

Agents From Academe


ISSUE:  Autumn 1988

Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939—61. By Robin W. Winks. Morrow $22.95.


At last, a scholar has turned to the world of espionage and intelligence. After the tattletales, cautious memorialists, journalist gossips, and fanciful novelists, a major historian has turned his art toward the OSS, and toward the CIA before 1962. The problems were overwhelming: written sources under wraps and reticent human documents. We shall surely need many more books like this one before we can begin to understand the emergence of an American style of intelligence, the role it has played in our history, and its power to shape our world. But the serious work has begun. All praise to Robin Winks.

Undertaken almost by whim, provoked by a pontificating colleague who denied that universities and their scholars had ever had anything to do with intelligence, this book seems to have taken on a life of its own. Winks, Master of Yale’s Berkeley College, by Hopkins out of Colorado, professes the history of empires, primarily the British. He sees intelligence as a natural requirement of empires, even of our own odd missionary-hegemonic variety. Yale, like other Ivies and even certain universities farther to the South, played an important—perhaps the most important—role in the OSS. Just as British intelligence fed on Oxbridge, its American counterpart drew on our best universities, institutions where, in the thirties, foreign languages were not only taught but required.

Yale alumni did well in the new game. Given the sacred and emotional bonds that American undergraduate colleges try to cultivate, it was natural for these men to recruit their juniors, as natural as it was for Averell Harriman to support his freshman rowing student Dean Acheson in the overt foreign policy establishment. As he rose in the CIA, it was natural for Sherman Kent to work through his former colleagues on the Yale faculty to recruit the best of the bright. Here then is a book about a moment in American history, a time when the values of our best universities played in perfect tune with national needs and interests.

Winks’ approach is through biography, generously defined. The book centers on four individuals: Joseph Toy Curtiss, David Downes, Norman Holmes Pearson, and James Angleton. No more different men were ever created: Curtiss, the consummate bibliophile, gathered materials in Istanbul; the “athlete” Downes became a strangely inept field operative; Pearson returned to Yale to teach British and American literature; and Angleton, a founder of the literary magazine Furioso, stayed on to become the high priest of counterintelligence. With the cool objectivity permitted by distance in time, the author weaves the strands of these lives and others into a subtle oriental fabric.

No petty fears of ambiguity or even contradiction impede the author: he wastes no time lamenting the gap between what was and what should have been. He seems indeed almost to revel in such disparities, and his rich, slightly Baroque, and ever-Gibbonian prose can carry more than one message at a time. Wink’s delight in the complex leads him to introduce a persistent subtextual theme on the ways and wiles of historians. After all, the major contributions of both OSS and CIA lay in their capacity to analyze information, and this work was done at the outset by very great historians indeed—William Langer, Carl Schorske, Bernard Knox, and Arthur Schlesinger, among so many others. Given the grim nature of their work, it is not surprising to find these men indulging in comic relief. Winks himself takes evident joy in burying a fact deep within a footnote, then later referring to it in the text in a manner so oblique as to fly past all but the careful reader. In his spare time, Winks maintains impressive command over the fiction on detectives and spies; he once wrote a delightful book called The Historian as Detective. His droll games suggest a companion volume on The Historian as Jokester.

Any shortcoming of this book was foreseen by its author: materials were unavailable, the human sources quirky and reserved. Thus the fascinating keystone chapter on Angleton fails to resolve into the clarity of the other three biographies, a tribute to the complexity of this strange man, who consented to a series of deep interviews before his death, just after the book went to press. As the CIA’s major theoretician, Angleton became convinced that a mole had burrowed into the highest levels of the GIA. Winks goes no farther than to suggest, with the courage of the cautious, that Angleton’s dedication to the method of worst-case analysis caught its author in a spiraling paranoia.

These lives, magnified by their contribution to the growth of the CIA, then by the CIA’s role in American policyformation, are puzzles for the historian, whose reflections imply questions which we only glimpse through a dark glass. For example, each of the four protagonists is described at one time or another as a “romantic.” Yet beyond the book’s rich context of Yale elms, with its Frank Merriwell-E. Philips Oppenheim derring-do quality, we glimpse the murkier side of such human traits only in the case of Angleton, and Downes to a lesser degree. And there are larger questions. What is America’s role in today’s world? What political and professional institutions both feed and frustrate the proper definition of such a role? What then is the proper function of intelligence and how should intelligence nourish the policy-making process? How can a constitutional form of government, conceived by 18th-century landholders who had no suspicion that their precious but precarious republic would soon become an imperial power, focus the intelligence function so as to support the national interest? And, ultimately, how then should intellect, the universities, and scholarship relate to the State and its power?

This historian knows there are no easy answers, and his book brings bad news to the demon-theorists and equally sad truths to the idealists. As Winks wrote more recently of David Ignatius’ Agents of Innocence: “This is a book for spy fans, certainly, for it tells a good story and tells it well, but it is equally a book for those who hate spy stories. It tells of blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits for the sturdy moralist who still holds to innocence and truth.”

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading