- Historic Sites
The Birth Of The CIA
When and how it got the green light to conduct “subversive operations abroad”
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Within a few weeks Truman decided that under the plan suggested by his budget director, Harold Smith, nobody was fitting all the pieces together. His complaint to Admiral Leahy was reflected in the note Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal placed in his diary in October, 1945:
“Mr. Byrnes next raised the question of a central intelligence agency…responsible to a Council of Defense which would consist of the Secretaries of State, War and Navy.…All of the secretaries (Robert Patterson, Secretary of War, Byrnes, and Forrestal) agreed with the principle of the proposal, that any central intelligence agency should report to the three Secretaries rather than directly to the President.”
The Byrnes proposal was exactly what Forrestal wanted to hear, so much so, that one suspects he arranged with Leahy to feed the idea to Byrnes in such a way that Byrnes might project it as his own. Forrestal was then engaged in a fierce struggle with the Army over a proposal to merge the two services. Desperately, he was casting about for ways to avoid it.
As a basis for argument, he had hit upon the idea that Winston Churchill’s war cabinet was the way to run things: “An inner council of the most important and trusted advisers,” he put it, “to care for problems of common concern.” In addition, he had asked his close friend and former partner, Ferdinand Eberstadt, to make “a thorough study of postwar organization of the military services.” Not surprisingly, Eberstadt echoed the idea of coordination rather than merger. The second chapter of Eberstadt’s report was entitled, simply, “Intelligence.” It came out strongly for a central intelligence agency which would not attempt to direct the services of the Army and Navy but which would deal with “problems of common concern,” would “coordinate” and “synthesize.”
“How often,” Dean Acheson later wrote, “those same dismal words…issued from the White House during the war in order to ‘clarify’ various powers, functions and responsibilities…a good many of us had cut our teeth and throats with this sort of nonsense. We had learned that no committee can govern and no man can administer without his own people, money and authority.”
Acheson had learned. But Forrestal had not. And so, on January 22, 1946, Truman, forsaking the Smith plan, directed, by executive letter to Byrnes, the establishment of a new National Intelligence Authority. It would consist of the Secretaries of State, War, and the Navy, and would possess, as its operating arm, something called the Central Intelligence Group. The man on top would be Director of Central Intelligence. He would have no money of his own, no people of his own, and no authority except the highsounding title.
As the first Director of Central Intelligence Truman chose Rear Admiral Sidney Souers, who in private life was a St. Louis businessman. I recall an interview with Admiral Souers shortly after he took office. “What do you want to do?” I asked the new appointee. The admiral looked up from behind Donovan’s old desk and chuckled: “I want to go home,” he replied.
Contrary to assumptions at the time, Souers was not a Truman crony, though he later became one. Forrestal had recommended him; he had promised to stay only six months, and at the end of that time he left. But even within that short period Souers was to find that his mandate “to correlate, evaluate and plan for the coordination of…” was a mushy task. Just before he left, he asked for a budget of his own to be provided by the three departments he was trying to serve. He was turned down.
In June, 1946, the handsome Lieutenant General Hoyt Vandenberg, Air Force ace and nephew of the most powerful Republican in the Senate, Arthur S. Vandenberg of Michigan, succeeded to Souers’ job. Vandenberg wanted very much to be the first Chief of Staff of the Air Force and was not inclined to rock any boats on the way to the job. Nevertheless, his title, his looks, and his relationship to the senator, as well as his high abilities, gave him authority Souers had lacked. Despite opposition from Byrnes and Patterson, he succeeded in getting a specific allocation of money for the CIG, in replacing the FBI as the intelligence collection agency in South America, and in winning the right to conduct research and analysis independent of the military services. Most important, Vandenberg took over Quinn’s SSU, thus acquiring a clandestine collection capability and, incidentally, sending Quinn off to the Army War College for a leg up on what would be a highly successful army career.
But Vandenberg like Souers wanted to leave quickly, and when in May, 1947, he won the top Air Force job, he turned over CIG to a lackluster leader, Rear Admiral Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter.