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The Birth Of The CIA
When and how it got the green light to conduct “subversive operations abroad”
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
In the State Department, Secretary James Byrnes, acting upon the President’s written instructions to “take the lead in organizing peacetime intelligence,” turned the action over to Dean Acheson, who brought in Colonel Alfred McCormack, an able lawyer from New York who had served G-2 during the war. Valiantly, McCormack tried to organize a research and analytical intelligence branch in State. Opposition came not only from G-2 and ONI but from within the State Department itself. Desk officers of the Foreign Service, certain that the idea was an assault upon their authority and an insult to their expertise, reacted vigorously. In a forecast of an era to come, they succeeded in sinking the effort in a debate about whether one of the OSS men who had been brought into the department was or was not a Communist.
In his memoirs, Dean Acheson described the rout as the story of how the Department of State “muffed the intelligence role,” and placed the blame on Byrnes, for whom, he said, “ideas of organization were not congenial.” Eventually, McCormack resigned, and the unit he had organized was split into seventeen committees. Gradually, it wasted away.
In the War Department, the Smith formula worked a little better. There, Colonel William Quinn, a tough, openfaced man who radiated a bustling confidence—Allen Dulles called it the Donovan spirit—kept intact the spies and forgers, grouped together now under a new name, the Strategic Services Unit, or SSU. Quinn was a rarity among regular army officers because he had worked closely with OSS during the war and had admired the job it had done for him. Quinn had been G-2 of the Seventh Army during the invasion of southern France and had made good use of the OSS agents (mostly German prisoners of war) whom OSS had infiltrated behind the German lines to pick up order of battle information.
“Preserve the assets and eliminate the liabilities,” Assistant Secretary of War Howard C. Petersen had told Quinn when Quinn took over SSU from retiring Brigadier General John Magruder; and among the assets Quinn counted intelligence networks in eastern Europe, Austria, the Balkans, and China. To preserve these networks, he had to hold on to the men who ran them.
There was James Angleton; there was Hugh Cunningham; there was Frank Wisner; there was Richard Helms; there was Harry Rossitzke. These were the men who over the next fifteen years were to conceive and manage the major U.S. intelligence operations against the Soviet Union. Wisner, who as CIA’s Deputy Director of Plans was destined to become their chief, was the only one Quinn could not keep happy. He quit in a huff—to return some years later—because Quinn on a particular occasion refused to provide him with an additional two hundred bicycles for the agents Wisner had hired to peddle into East Germany, take a look at the Russian occupation, and report back what they learned.
Quinn had other problems. G-2, and newspaper columnists Joseph Alsop and Harold Ickes, the former Interior Secretary, suggested that Quinn’s unit harbored Communists. But Quinn quickly established good relations with J. Edgar Hoover, and Hoover, having nothing to fear now from Donovan, came forward to say that he had checked the employees of SSU and found them “clean.”
Whenever Quinn felt sorely threatened, he would call David Bruce, Donovan’s wartime deputy for Europe, and Bruce would invite members of the old OSS hierarchy to dinner at his Washington home. Charles Cheston would arrive from Philadelphia, Donovan and Russell Forgan from New York, and they would discuss strategy for keeping the unit intact. “Without Quinn,” Allen Dulles would later remark, “our profession would have lost many of its pros.”
While McCormack was losing in the State Department and Quinn was hanging on in the War Department, Truman was complaining to Admiral Leahy, his chief of staff, that too many intelligence reports from State, ONI, and G-2 were cluttering his desk, and Leahy was putting pressure on Byrnes to do something about it. It was Byrnes’s failure to do something about it that led to the next move around the circle.
Even as he was ordering the dissolution of OSS in 1945, President Truman was telling intimates that we needed a peacetime intelligence agency. “I was in his office one afternoon right after the war ended—I believe it was in August,” his former naval aide, Clark Clifford, recalls, “when he began to talk to me about Joe Grew’s cables.” (Joseph Grew had been U.S. Ambassador to Japan at the time of Pearl Harbor.) “You go back and read Joe Grew,” Truman said to Clifford, “and then you come in here and tell me how anybody could have read those cables and not known there was an attack coming.” He proceeded to list what he considered to have been other warnings of Japanese intent. Clifford recalls that Truman knew a lot about the amount of scrap iron the Japanese were buying before Pearl Harbor. The new President concluded his lecture, according to Clifford, as follows: “If we had had some central repository for information, and somebody to look at it and fit all the pieces together, there never would have been a Pearl Harbor.”