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Douglas Waller’s ‘Disciples’ a potent look at art, peril of patriotic audacity

“Disciples: The World War II Missions of the CIA Directors Who Fought for Wild Bill Donovan” by Douglas Waller.
“Disciples: The World War II Missions of the CIA Directors Who Fought for Wild Bill Donovan” by Douglas Waller.

Sure-footed determination is both an asset and a hazard in a world that demands disregard for moral ambiguity. Any smart spy will learn that.

Four talented but, in some ways, ordinary Americans – Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby and William Casey – learned it the hard way while fighting the Nazis during World War II, as a country that barely had an army five years earlier, and hardly a foreign intelligence operation, suddenly found itself in a fight for its life.

Their adventures and misadventures, full of valor and deceit, heroism and failure – and foreboding – come to life in Raleigh resident Douglas Waller’s entertaining and enlightening new book, “Disciples.”

These four men – a former reporter and three lawyers, one of whom had recently earned a paycheck pumping gas – learned the murkier trades of espionage and sabotage in director “Wild Bill” Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services, the wartime U.S. intelligence operation.

They soon came to embody a distinct trait of the intelligence business – the inclination to do distasteful things for a noble cause or, at least, with the best patriotic intentions. Their journey also mirrored that of their country, from isolated naivete to the leadership role in a Cold War fight for ideological survival.

Much of Waller’s account is devoted to several absorbing tales of these four men’s wartime service.

His story of Dulles’ tortuous dance with a German informant while running the OSS activities in Switzerland is worthy of John le Carré. His tales of Colby’s paramilitary operations in France and Norway include riveting episodes of heroism (and a possible war crime that got lost in the Allied victory) that would fit in the best war novels.

All the while, Dulles, Helms, Colby and Casey learned to navigate the minefields, including tricky diplomacy with their nominal Soviet allies. Waller documents some less obvious complications, too, including rivalries with British missions; some incompetence and tangled allegiances in the French resistance; and even antagonism in the FBI, whose ever-paranoid director, J. Edgar Hoover, saw the OSS as a rival.

Later, private life in postwar America held little appeal for men suddenly steeped in subterfuge. (Helms didn’t even try it, and Casey soon tired of “writing tax shelter guides.”) Each found his way back to the world of intelligence – and, eventually, to the leadership of the CIA, established in 1947 to do the dirty work of the Cold War.

And each distinguished and also disgraced himself in that office.

Dulles’ passion for covert action led to his downfall as director of central intelligence when he championed the Bay of Pigs operation early in JFK’s presidency. The same trait felled Casey in the Iran-Contra scandal under President Ronald Reagan.

Helms had a distaste for such covert activity but a devotion to secrecy. He pleaded no contest to a charge of deception under oath; “the only thing you can’t tell Congress about are operations you shouldn’t be doing in the first place,” he once said.

And Colby earned the enmity of much of the agency by doing the opposite – giving Congress the “Family Jewels,” the CIA book of secrets, considering it his duty.

Writing a single biography of four distinct men is a challenge, but Waller does a fine job relating their stories to one another. The common threads emerge.

More important, he makes the case that these four men’s wartime actions deeply colored what they did as CIA directors. Their zeal in fighting the Nazis, and their acquired love of intrigue, escalated during the battle against communism. Ardor became audacity. And each fell from grace.

It’s a messy business.

Frederick: 919-829-8956. Twitter: @Eric_Frederick

Nonfiction

Disciples: The World War II Missions of the CIA Directors Who Fought for Wild Bill Donovan

By Douglas Waller,

Simon & Schuster, 592 pages

Appearances

Author Douglas Waller will speak and sign books at 7 p.m. Thursday at Quail Ridge Books & Music, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh.

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