The CIA During The Cold War


Straight out of the starting gate at the end of World War Two, the CIA was already actively at work interfering in the domestic politics of countries such as Greece and Italy. These interferences were part of a grand strategy to keep communism–as directed by the Soviet Union– from growing stronger or more widespread. The United States considered the growth of communism to be an existential crisis for America… The Soviet Union had made no secret that its aim was the final overthrow all capitalist regimes. However, neither the Soviet Union nor the United States wanted to go to war with each other directly– a war which assuredly would have proven devastating to both sides, if not absolutely world-destroying. So, the two enemies (so recently allied against their common foe of Germany) began a long “Cold War,” a war fought not in trenches or battlefields (at least directly between their own armies), but through the use of many “underground” tactics and numerous proxy wars.

The blueprint for the American side of the long quasi-war was drawn-up– or at least expressed– by statesman George F. Kennan. In his famous “Long Telegram,” sent from Moscow in 1946, Kennan would outline the basic strategy which the United States would use against the Soviet Union for the next half-century. Americans, telegraphed Kennan, could not afford to go to war with the Soviets– and yet friendship between the two countries was also impossible. The United States would have to take third route… one in which its current allies were supported with loans and trading practices, and its potential allies courted with economic aid, fine rhetoric, and promises. The wisest thing the United States could do, wired Kennan, was to contain communism until it collapsed as a result of its own internal contradictions.

I don’t know whether Kennan was merely giving voice to the dominate opinion of the time or whether these were his original suggestions. If the latter, and if his words somehow held sway over those who would make policy, than the Long Telegram is surely one of the most important, influential documents in history– for this is exactly the policy which the U.S. held-to resolutely for five decades. One can understand U.S. policy for multiple generations once one grasps the four fundamental assumptions underlying that policy…

ONE: U.S. statesmen and military leaders subscribed to the “domino theory“– that if one country were allowed to “go communist” in an area of the world, then all the countries in that area would be more likely to accept communist or else have communism thrust upon them.

TWO: Every aggressive move of the U.S.S.R. (Union of Socialist Soviet Republics) had to be pushed-back against immediately and firmly. Unlike with Hitler’s Germany, there would be no Munich-style appeasement.

THREE: Communism– despite the fractured nature of its rise in the different countries of the world– was to be viewed as a monolithic threat. In other words, whether Chinese or Chilean, a communist was a communist, and the Soviet Union was behind it all.

FOUR: If communism could merely be “contained,” then, as Kennan said, it would eventually collapse from its own internal contradictions.

TRUMAN YEARS — Saving Southern Europe… And Korea

Armed with their long-term strategy, America’s CIA– the leaders of the charge in this new, more indirect style of warfare– did not hesitate to engage. By 1948, the CIA was already taking steps to influence the outcome of elections in ITALY in order to prevent the election of a communist government, and it was doing all it could to keep Greece facing westerly, politically speaking. If I remember correctly from a Truman biography I read years ago, Truman was especially concerned not to lose the birthplace of democracy to the Soviets.

When war broke-out in Korea in the early 1950s, the CIA dropped paramilitary teams behind not only North Korean lines, but behind the Chinese border as well (the U.S. was far less afraid of China in those days). Once in position, these teams were supposed to organize attacks on North Korean military formations and installations.

Meanwhile, in Italy (where the CIA would maintain a serious presence for decades), an arm of the CIA was, by 1956, employing 300 people throughout the country to write “correct” newspaper articles and to co-opt native journalists to the cause.

The CIA also trained Italians in paramilitary skills in an operation called “Project Gladio,” providing recruits with dozens of strategically located arms caches. Woods says that this Italian network would remain active for the rest of the Cold War, and would be linked to a series of rightwing terrorists attacks in the 1970s.”

That seems to be a major problem for the CIA– this habit of supporting rightwing, often anti-humanitarian, regimes. In an effort to combat Soviet-sympathizing or outright Soviet-controlled Leftists, the CIA not infrequently supported authoritarian governments guilty of mass-murdering suspected opponents, and of making life generally miserable for its citizens. Even if the checkerboarding of the world with these types of repressive regimes really DID thwart the expansion of Soviet influence, then we still cannot avoid viewing the citizens of these poor countries as lives sacrificed–without their knowledge or consent– for the greater cause.  Of course, the pragmatist must consider that “the greater cause” was merely what was best for America at the time. 

Problematic for the CIA was that the communists –perhaps due to their longer, more complete, multi-generational training in the dark arts of war– were often better at the game than America’s upstart spooks. “Virtually every dissident and paramilitary group behind the Iron Curtain” which Colby and the CIA put together during the 1950s, writes Woods, had been penetrated by “the security apparatus of the communist East European government in question.” The communists knew what was coming, when, and how. The missions were almost invariably failures. Woods’ verdict of Colby’s role in organizing the fight against communism via unconventional warfare is bare-knuckled: “Colby’s piece of the paramilitary war on communism proved to be a disaster.”

For instance, the CIA recruited and trained East European exiles to be dropped into LITHUANIA, LATVIA, and ESTONIA, where they would hook-up with anti-Soviet resistance networks and engage in espionage and sabotage. But the CIA’s infiltration groups, themselves, had been infiltrated. Of the members of the small team which the CIA inserted into Lithuania in 1952, all four men turned out to be communist operatives. This was about par for the course.

EISENHOWER YEARS — The CIA Is Everywhere: from South America to Pacific Islands to the Mideast

In 1953 the CIA managed to successfully bring down not one, but two, national governments which were too cozy for comfort with the Soviets: 1) the government of Mohammed Mossadeq in IRAN and 2) the government of Jacobo Arbenze Guzman in GUATEMALA. A quarter-century later, the coup in Iran would have especially devastating consequences for the U.S. when Iranians initiated a revolution against the descendant of the man the U.S. had put in Mossadeq’s place to rule as Shah. The interference in Iran’s domestic politics by the United States was greatly resented by the Iranian people and would not be forgotten.

In 1956, those two broadcasting mouthpieces of CIA propaganda known as “Radio Free Europe” and “Voice Of America” were ever at work, in particular, encouraging the people of HUNGARY to rise-up against their Soviet-controlled government. When the Hungarians did this, the CIA promptly proceeded to do next-to-nothing – even as the Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest in early November in a bloody crackdown.

In 1958, the CIA started supporting military groups aligned against Indonesia‘s President Sukarno.  Woods writes that when a U.S. friendly government eventually did take power, the CIA, in 1965, “supplied the new government in Indonesia with the names of thousands of suspected communists, who were then systematically liquidated.”

In another island involvement of the ’50s & 60s, after CHINA’s Nationalist party was forced off the mainland and onto the island of Taiwan, CIA agents worked closely with the ousted forces, led by Chang Kai-Shek, to train and insert guerrilla forces into Mainland China.

The CIA also plotted to kill Congo‘s leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961. According to Woods, the CIA had sent POISONED TOOTHPASTE to Congo to eliminate Lumumba — but his enemies had killed him before US operatives could squirt-out their plan.  The CIA’s activities are acknowledged to have contributed to the ouster of Lumumba and to the rise of Joseph Mobutu.


In the 1960s, the CIA was conducting all sorts of activities in Southeast Asia in an effort to keep South Vietnam from going communist. The policies of the CIA and the US government concerning VIETNAM are legendarily misguided, and I invite you to seek-out trusted sources to learn about those shenanigans. Suffice it here to say that the CIA’s activities included: 1) supporting Ngo Dinh Diem as the leader of South Vietnam, in spite of the fact that he was part of the country’s 10% Catholic minority (this would rile the normally unrile-able Buddhist majority of Vietnam), 2) frequent unacknowledged trespasses and war-making activities upon the territory of Vietnam’s sovereign, neighboring state of LAOS,  and 3) the, at least tacit, support for the overthrow and murder of the South Vietnam’s leader, Diem (yes, the same leader which the CIA had been supporting)– apparently the U.S. felt Diem was proving incapable of uniting the southern Vietnamese into a cohesive and successful army.

And we shouldn’t fail to mention the Bay Of Pigs fiasco in the early 1960s (“Bay Of Pigs” and “fiasco” are probably inseparably linked for as long as there’s a human history to relate). The CIA, beginning during the Eisenhower administration, had trained a force of mostly native Cubans for the purpose of invading CUBA and exciting a revolution to overthrow Cuba’s new leader, Fidel Castro. The execution of the plan, during the early days of the Kennedy presidency, proved an unmitigated disaster.

Relatedly, you may have already heard of Operation Mongoose, conducted during the 1960s. This was the CIA’s plan to kill Castro and overthrow Cuba’s new communist government. Brigadier General Edward Lansdale, Woods tells us, devised more than thirty ways to bring down the Cuban government– using everything from psychological warfare to disruption of the island’s economy. Some plots, centering around the assassination of Castro, himself, involved the use of:  exploding cigars, lethal hypodermic needles disguised as ballpoint pens, and lining Castro’s wetsuit with deadly bacteria. The Church Report, issued by Congress after its 1970s investigations of the CIA, said that America’s spy organization had tried and failed to assassinate Castro on EIGHT separate occasions.

It was during Operation Mongoose, when the CIA was exploring ways to get to Castro, that the organization made its infamous– and still largely mysterious– connections with the American MAFIA.

Speaking of the CIA operating INSIDE the United States during the 1960s, the agency — which is supposed to conduct only FOREIGN espionage– was during this time (at the direction of President Johnson) infiltrating various domestic groups (such as peace and racial-equality organizations) in order to “obtain proof positive that the violent anti-war protests and urban violence were the work of foreign agents.”

The periodical, Ramparts, reported that the CIA during this time had ties to the National Student Association; and the New York Times accused the CIA of having people inside the AFL-CIO.

Furthermore, the Washington Post determined that the CIA was spying on the American Newspaper Guild, itself. The CIA defended its surveillance of journalists as part of the its effort to identify “leaks” of classified government information to the press. The CIA, under the direction of “mole hunter” Jim Angleton, had also penetrated the federal bureaucracy at a number of level.”

In yet another blunder of the CIA during the 1960s, the agency used people–without their prior knowledge or consent– for experimental drug tests. One scientist– working for the CIA on the project– was secretly caused to ingest a high dosage of one of the drugs being worked-on. CIA personnel, realizing things were going wrong when they saw the effects of the drug, sought medical attention for the victim, but while they were at the hotel room they had rented for him, the man –suffering greatly during the frightening and unexpected mental ordeal– jumped through his balcony’s plate-glass door and plunged to his death. His family was never informed of the exact nature of his death until details emerged during the investigation of the CIA by Congress during the 1970s.

The CIA, which funneled untold millions to noncommunist political parties the world over, provided three million dollars in 1964 alone to have a pro-U.S. government elected in CHILE.  In 1970, the CIA had stepped-up its game and was facilitating (unsuccessfully) a coup against Chile’s President Allende, who really was on the payroll of the KGB (Allende would later receive the Lenin Peace Prize from a grateful Soviet government). The CIA also spent millions over the next few years funding Allende’s opponents and attempting to make conditions so bad in Chile that the people would rebel.

In 1973, a coup finally did materialize against Allende, during which he was killed. As best as can be determined, the CIA knew that this particular coup was planned, but the agency neither facilitated nor obstructed it.

Colby would later sum-up CIA attempts to assassinate world political leaders in what appears to be a truthful– if embarrassing– admission: “We have run operations to assassinate foreign leaders. We have never succeeded.”

The anti-Allende coup, however-much the CIA was involved, led directly to the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, the man who would establish, according to Woods, “one of the most feared secret police organizations in the world.”

Woods relates that Colby once admitted that he actually preferred Pinochet to Allende, saying that, “Pinochet is not going to conquer the world. Nobody is worried about Pinochet.”

Here again, in Chile this time, it appears the CIA considered the populations of individual countries as chess pieces upon the board that could be sacrificed for the larger strategy. It is impossible to say how the world would be different today without the machinations of the CIA. Yes, the United States won the Cold War, but did it win in it in the only way –or in the wisest, noblest, or most moral way– possible?

In the mid-1970s, the CIA, working with the Shah of IRAN, was running a covert operation to assist KURDS who rebelling against the government of IRAQ.

Also in the mid-1970s, the CIA was hard at work interfering with AUSTRALIA‘s politics, attempting to bring down the Labor government which had gained power there. Using fabricated cable-messages, the CIA succeeded in implicating the government in a financial scandal, which certainly had much to do with the fall of the government and the return to power of the CIA-approved conservatives.

The CIA’s notorious partner in the Australian affair was the Nugan Hand Bank. Nugan Hand had been accused by the press of facilitating the international heroine trade and of acting as the CIA’s money launderer. Interestingly, when William Colby left the Directorship of the CIA in the late ’70s, one of the jobs he took was as Nugan Hand’s U.S. attorney.

The book also mentions CIA activity in: 1) the Phillippines (putting down the communist Hukbalahap rebellion), and 2) Libya (arms sales)– but Woods doesn’t go into much detail.

Woods also writes that the CIA kept in confinement for three years– and without trial– a KGB defector named Nosenko. Nosenko was suspected of being a double agent.

The question remains open concerning the CIA’s role in the winning of the Cold War… A case could be made that the long quasi-war could never have been won without the brave actions and sacrifices made by the men and women of America’s spy agency. But there’s also a case to made that the failures, repercussions, and unintended consequences of CIA activities (long and short term) ultimately hurt the cause of freedom more than it helped. And maybe it still does…

According to Woods’ biography, Colby was proud of his work with the CIA. “Colby was a champion of covert action, secret armies, pacification, and counterterrorism,” writes Woods. “These alternatives, he argued, were far preferable to conventional combat by main-force units.”

Colby’s tenure with the CIA, and thus the book’s stories about CIA activities which I have been relating in this post, ends before the activities of the 1980s– activities which helped bring down the Berlin Wall and finally end the Cold War (with a great amount of underappreciated help from the Catholic Church). The ’80s were also the decade when CIA operations in Afghanistan were being conducted which would come back to haunt the United States.


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