Most Americans have never heard of Frank Wisner, but in the decade or so after World War II, during the early days of the Cold War, he was one of the most powerful men in the world. His title at the Central Intelligence Agency was purposefully bland: deputy director of plans. But his job was chief of covert operations. With a seemingly unlimited budget and virtually no congressional oversight, Wisner had a secret mandate to influence elections and, if necessary, overthrow governments around the world. He was free to allow his agents to lie, cheat, and steal, as long as political leaders could “plausibly deny” their actions. His goal was to stop Communism by beating Communists at their own underhanded game.
Wisner created something called “the Mighty Wurlitzer,” a huge, hellish jukebox of propaganda, disinformation, and black ops. It was “a vast and ever-adaptive apparatus that, over time, was to extend its reach into a bewildering array of political and social spheres around the world. An underground guerrilla force called the Ukrainian Insurgent Army would have association with Wurlitzer, but so would the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra, the AFL-CIO; and an outfit called the Crusade for Family Prayer.” (The agency paid for newspapers, books, and concerts.) Often unbeknownst to them, “blues musicians, Third World colonels, avant-garde poets, and university professors” were included in the company payroll, writes Scott Anderson in his highly entertaining history of four Cold War spies. “Perhaps inevitably, the man sitting atop this fantastically eclectic structure, Frank Wisner, would earn the nickname, ‘the Wiz.’”
The Mighty Wisner
At first, “the Wiz” seemed to relish his task. “We’ll be what America needs in this War, an action arm,” Wisner told a new recruit named E. Howard Hunt, better known for his later role in breaking into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Complex for the Nixon White House. “You’re a man of action. Aren’t you, Hunt?”
Wisner certainly was. He oversaw plots to overthrow the governments of Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954). All coiled energy and Southern charm, he could crack wise in a Georgetown drawing room while, in the back of his mind, planning to parachute saboteurs into Albania.
But, over time, Wisner’s colleagues detected an unease, sometimes a sadness in the flamboyant spymaster. Most of those agents parachuted behind the Iron Curtain simply disappeared, rolled up by Communist police states. Wisner was betrayed by his friend and drinking companion Kim Philby, the British Secret Intelligence Service’s top man in Washington and a Soviet spy. For years, Wisner’s Wurlitzer tried to foment revolution in the Soviet bloc, but when the Hungarians actually tried to overthrow their Kremlin masters in 1956, Wisner could only stand by helplessly as the Soviet tanks rolled in. President Eisenhower was not about to risk World War III to save Hungary. Not long thereafter, Wisner ended up in a mental hospital in Baltimore. He was suffering from what today would be called bipolar disorder. In his day, his mania was treated with electroshock therapy. In 1965, he killed himself with his son’s shotgun.
Wisner had a secret mandate to influence elections and, if necessary, overthrow governments around the world.
In Anderson’s telling, Wisner is a largely sympathetic figure. He could be compulsive and grandiose, but he also had a “core integrity.” As an officer for the O.S.S., the World War II spy agency, he had watched in horror as the Soviets packed innocent civilians into open boxcars and sent them off to concentration camps. He believed in his cause, perhaps too much. In the spy game, “you can’t ever take it personally,” recalled Peter Sichel, one of his colleagues. “Frank took things personally.”
Sichel, a charming bon vivant as well as a veteran of the spy-versus-spy game in Cold War Berlin, became disillusioned with the agency and quit, as did Michael Burke, another dashing spook profiled by Anderson. (Burke was in charge of the Mighty Wurlitzer’s Albanian infiltration: a fiasco. He was later president of the New York Yankees.) Anderson’s fourth spy, Edward Lansdale, is better known to popular audiences. He was the inspiration, more or less, for the 1958 novel The Ugly American and the subject of The Road Not Taken, a biography by Max Boot that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2019.
There is no shortage of books about Cold War hubris and disillusionment in the spy world (including one by this reviewer). But Anderson is a ripping good storyteller, and his last word from Peter Sichel, who, when he spoke to Anderson, was in his 90s but alert and ruefully wise, rings true: “We were young and idealistic, and we were going to defeat communism and liberate the world…. We were the good guys, and because we were good, we didn’t have to think too much about the negative things we did along the way. And we also didn’t think about history. If we had, we would have remembered that crusades always end badly.”
Evan Thomas is the author of The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the CIA