Reading the biography of William Colby is basically like reading a big chunk of the history of the CIA, so intertwined were his life and the life of “the company” during the 3rd quarter of the 20th century.
While reading Shadow Warrior: William Colby And The Cia by Randall B. Woods, I realized that so much of the STYLE of 20th century espionage can be traced back to the revolutionary tactics of the century before. During the 1800s, much of Europe seethed beneath the authoritarian surface with revolutionary fervor. This fervor can be said to have begun with the ideals expounded by the successful American Revolutionaries, and carried forth through Europe at the point of the bayonet by Napoleon’s armies. Of course, Napoleon only used the fiery notions of liberty, democracy, equality, and fraternity to win the hearts and minds of the peoples he conquered in his own quest for titanic power (for this, I rank Napoleon as one of the greater Judases of history). What hopes Napoleon, himself, did not crush beneath his backside-stepping boot-heel, were trod-down by the anti-French coalition of authoritarian regimes which united against, and ultimately, defeated him (twice).
Nevertheless, the revolutionary ideas of human dignity which Napoleon’s armies spread (regardless of the intention behind their dispersal)– once kindled were not easily doused. The passions and hopes unleashed by the American and French revolutions went underground after Napoleon’s final defeat, where they simmered for two decades– mixed with a large dose of developing nationalism– until geysering up again in the tragic revolutionary year of 1848.
After Europe’s authoritarian empires triumphed yet again –this time over the nationalists and social revolutionaries of 1848– the forces of freedom and dignity were again forced underground, where ideas of nationalism, socialism, and anarchism roiled into a bubbling cauldron of anti-imperialism. But the rebels and liberal intelligencia of the day had to be careful… they could not simply discuss their revolutionary ideas out in the open… Political meetings and liberal publications were both outlawed throughout large swaths of Europe. In this way, some of the most intelligent, compassionate individuals of the 1800s became outlaws, for in the world of the 19th century, moral righteousness and the law were as far apart as they have ever been. Europe, from Spain to Russia, would remain honeycombed with secretive revolutionary organizations for the next half-century-plus, basically until the outbreak of World War One, which changed everything.
Toward the end of World War One, communists– one sizeable sect of the subterranean population during the half-century-plus since 1848– succeeded in gaining power in Russia. I think it is insightful to keep in mind that the culture of communists had been born and bred in the political underground– a world dominated by the dark arts of secrecy, infiltration, violence and preparation for violence, as well as the secretive distribution of propagandizing materials– from pamphlets to posters to graffiti. These types of groups would typically operate in small units or cells, and by necessity would have little or no contact with other such cells.
Naturally enough, when this culture emerged from darkness into the light of day, it brought with it habits and frames-of-mind deeply inculcated over the decades spent as enemies of the State. Still rife with revolutionary spirit, the Russian communists considered that their revolution was just the beginning of a worldwide revolution. It was their duty, as the first group of modern revolutionaries to successfully seize the resources of a major state, to support the globe’s remaining underground forces so that, together, all humanity could march arm in arm toward ultimate victory over the forces of authority and exploitation which had so long made human life so needlessly miserable.
It is no surprise, therefore, to find that the tactics of the underground continued to be used by the new Russian government… They used every means in the revolutionary’s arsenal to abet like-minded clandestine groups across the globe, whose members they trained, supported financially, and encouraged to infiltrate useful, competitive, or enemy non-communist groups in their home countries. Groups targeted by the worldwide communist network included: labor unions, racial societies, women’s organizations and many others. Communists also exerted power over left-leaning magazines and even publishing houses. And their infiltration was not limited to merely private groups… Agents also gained access and influence within government bureaucracies.
The United States before World War Two had never possessed anything like a real spy service. However, during the 1940s it was becoming evident to more and more Americans that the nature of war was changing, that the line between battlefield and non-battlefield activities was growing blurred, and that if America was to successfully defend itself against a nemesis such as the Soviet Union (the Russia-dominated confederacy of Asian and Eastern European states), then they would have to adopt some of the tactics of the enemy– a creature which had arisen from its subterranean world without shedding its subterranean nature.
And so it was that (what was to become) the CIA was invented. Instead of outright war waged in the open, such as U.S. military forces had normally practiced since the end of America’s Revolutionary War (guerrilla tactics were often used during the Revolution, itself), the CIA’s forte would be the dark arts of war– precisely those arts practiced by the 19th century’s underground societies: espionage, counter-espionage, and sabotage. Over the coming decades, the CIA would spent vast amounts of money and man-hours secretly giving support to groups attempting to destabilize or overthrow their home governments– even legitimately emplaced governments. The CIA also was in the seemingly constant business of supporting the assassinations of major political figures across the world.