CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY

At the Beginning

Thomas, Evan. The Very Best Men -- Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the CIA. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. JK468I6T455

This is a good book; but, as good as it is, it should not be the only study one reads on the CIA's early years. Reading and thinking about Very Best Men in concert with Peter Grose's Gentleman Spy, Robin W. Winks' Cloak and Gown, and Burton Hersh's The Old Boys would be a start toward understanding these formative years and the remarkable men who peopled them.

In a positive but emotional review, Warren, Surveillant 4.2 and CIRA Newsletter 21.2, finds it unfortunate that while Thomas gets "his facts ... right," his "analysis is wrong." That analysis, probably unintentionally, "seems to imply that patriotism, decency, good intentions, and bravery are not desirable qualities in the intelligence business." But whom should we hire for this work if not those Americans with exactly those qualities? "Frank Wisner, Richard Bissell, Tracy Barnes, and Desmond FitzGerald spent their lives in the arena in pursuit of that worthy cause called America. The results are in. They won."

Chambers says that Thomas "has put together a fascinating tale" in which the lives of the "fathers of the CIA's covert action programs" are "woven together through layers of family, society, politics, and the CIA.... The best parts of the story are those told by friends and family.... Other aspects of the book are less satisfying. The role of the CIA in policy making is handled superficially at best. The discussion of the role of the President in authorizing covert actions is also fumbled.... This book is well worth reading for its insights into these four personalities and the world that made them." Click for Chambers' full review.

In a review that is ultimately annoying because of the difficulty in separating Thomas' interpretations from the reviewer's, Wise, WPNWE, 23-29 Oct. 1995, comments that "Thomas has produced a jewel of a book. 'The Very Best Men' is a road map to understanding what went on inside the CIA during the height of the Cold War." Thomas has detailed "the lives and fortunes of four men who ran the agency's covert operations during its most free-wheeling era in the 1950s and 1960s." The author "has not glorified these buccaneers of the Cold War. He captures their humanity and succeeds in making them real, often sympathetic, and sometimes likeable. But he also portrays their foibles."

Hood, IJI&C 9.2, says that Thomas "gets the most important facts right" but still "presents a somewhat tilted view of CIA" and his four subjects. The problem is that the author "concentrates on the most conspicuous covert-action operations and all but ignores the agency's intelligence collection, counterintelligence, and analytical responsibilities." In addition, the focus is on failed activities, while the "more successful covert action (CA) operations are mentioned only in passing, if at all." Garthoff, PSQ 111.3, finds that Thomas has developed "a well informed and insightful portrait." His protagonists "come alive" through his "deft biographic historical accounts."

To Waller, WIR 14.6, the book "at times unduly accentuates the negative" in analyzing the role of its protagonists in the Cold War. In addition, "to suggest that CIA was a club for the elite romping in a world-sized playpen is simply wrong." Thomas has failed to see that the "greatest significance" of his work "was in the remarkableness of the CIA's beginnings." Fromkin, FA 75.1 (Jan.-Feb. 1996), believes "Thomas argues persuasively that many of the qualities apparent in CIA covert activities in the formative years of the agency reflect traits of personality common to the Wall Streeters, who were its leaders in those days, and who were products of the same schools, law firms, banks, and clubs."

See also, Michael Thompson, "The Need for Integrity: Thoughts Provoked by The Very Best Men," Studies in Intelligence 39, no. 5 (1996): 25-34.

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