The Origins of the CIA - Part 1

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Discussing the origins of the CIA is not quite the same as explaining why it was formed. Origins imply a precedent that might have helped determine the shape of the new agency. But does it need to be a remembered precedent? We shall return to this problem later.

Meantime, a second point needs to be made by way of introduction to this subject. We need to define what we mean by the CIA. Former president Harry Truman claimed in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs debacle that he had never intended the agency to engage in covert operations. There has been a lively debate about that, with partisans divided in their opinions of his senility or opportunism. But in our context it is worth noting that his remark suggests the existence of more than one CIA. There was the agency of analysis that Truman was proud to have fathered, and the agency of operations that he wished to disown. In addition, there is another identity to be considered, the CIA director’s function as DCI, the central coordinator of the entire US intelligence community.

Any explanation of the origins of the CIA depends not just on assumptions about memory, but also on the definition one is using. Recent historiography shows considerable variation in practice. Rarely have historians deployed a full-blown definition of the CIA. By way of illustration, let’s review eight works that have appeared since 1996, dividing them into three categories.

The first category consists of scholarship that focuses on personalities and bureaucratic struggle, accepting the assumption that centralization and control are the main phenomena that need to be explained. An example of this approach is Tom Troy’s book Wild Bill and Intrepid, published in 1996. In this work Troy engaged in some new debates but essentially rehearsed the viewpoint in his official history of the establishment of the CIA, published in 1981 but written earlier. It is an interesting example of how official histories do not necessarily follow a “party line”. In neither of his books did Troy give any prominence to the widely held view that the CIA was a response to the Soviet threat to American security. His explanation of the CIA’s founding rests on the inspiration offered by British intelligence via William Stephenson, the role played by William Donovan, and the way in which Donovan persuaded President Roosevelt to establish first the Office of the Coordinator of Information and then the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). After an unfortunate blip when he demobilized OSS and disregarded Donovan, President Harry Truman came to his senses and established the CIA – the Central Intelligence Agency.[1]

David F. Rudgers had a CIA background like Troy but at first sight offers a contrasting perspective in his book of 2000 on the agency’s origins. He pours scorn on what he sees as Troy’s simplistic portrayal of Donovan as the visionary pioneer who, with ultimate success, battled myopic rivals and the near-treasonable president Truman. His preferred explanation is a utilitarian one – the CIA was a response to the situation in which America found itself in the aftermath of World War II. He focuses on what he calls “the dynamics of institutional change in response to changing events.” But he is similar to Troy in that he sees the agency’s origins in a bureaucratic struggle for control of the commanding center.[2]

A contribution by Richard H. Immerman in 2006 is not materially different. Immerman served in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in the recent Bush administration, but his background is that of an academic historian. In his account of the history of the CIA he notes that the “continuation of a centralized U.S. intelligence agency” beyond World War II “was anything but inevitable”. As with Troy and Rudgers, then, centralization is the issue, and Immerman supplies a bureaucratic history of how that came about.[3]

The second category we can consider is books about covert operations. These are large in number, and not marked by a particular concern about why the CIA was formed. However, they do make indicative assumptions. Sarah-Jane Corke in her 2008 work, U.S. Covert Operations and Cold War Strategy, takes up the theme of Truman’s apparent confusion over such operations. In what she calls a post-modernist approach, she argues that the Truman administration was incompetent and responsible for counter-productive results. She seems to imply, though she is not explicit on the point, that the CIA was the result of muddled thinking.[4]

James Callanan’s book Covert Action in the Cold War (2010) is another recent contribution. Callanan sees the CIA as a tool of American foreign policy, but also hints that it made policy itself – not quite a rogue elephant out of control, but an agency that anticipated presidential needs, and sometimes took initiatives in periods of “interregnum” or dead duck presidency. This is, of course, post-1947 and has to do with why the CIA became the beast it did. The book focuses on one aspect of CIA identity, but without speculating on origins.

In the same category of covert operations and entirely directed at origins is Stephen F. Knott’s rather earlier work, Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency (1996). Knott explores the history of U.S. covert operations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – indeed, he makes a significant contribution in showing that those operations existed, and that they were extensive. Addressing the controversies of the 1970s and since, he takes issue with those who claim covert action is unAmerican in that it does not chime with the intention of the Founding Fathers. He points out that they are simply uninformed about the American past.

While Knott writes about origins, he is also an “originalist” in the sense of assuming that anything the Founding Fathers did is a good and validating precedent. However, to touch briefly on our opening theme, he does not address the issue of memory. If the founders of the CIA had no memory of the means by which Jefferson and his successors obtained Florida, could those clandestine operations really be said to be part of the story of the origins of CIA operations as distinct from being an originalist justification for them?[5]

We move on now to a third and final category, scholarship that takes a broader view of what the CIA was, and of the forces behind its creation. In an essay published in 1997 called “The American Road to Central Intelligence,” Bradley F. Smith considered a number of factors. He agreed with other historians in pointing to the impact of Pearl Harbor and the emergence of the Soviet threat, and to the experience derived from the activities of OSS in World War II. But like Knott he looked for other antecedents. Less interested than Knott in covert operations, he dwelled on America’s excursions into military intelligence in the nineteenth century and in the years up to Pearl Harbor.


[1] Thomas F. Troy, Wild Bill and Intrepid: Donovan, Stephenson, and the Origin of CIA (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996), pp. 4-5. Troy’s precursor work was published internally by the CIA in 1974 and then declassified and issued as Donovan and the CIA: A History of the Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency (Frederick, Md.: University Publications of America, 1981). For his views on the dissolution of OSS, see Troy, “Knifing of the OSS,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 1/3 (1986): 95-106.

[2] David F. Rudgers, Creating the Secret State: The Origins of the Central Intelligence Agency, 1943-1947 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000), p. 3. Rudgers was an analyst at the CIA and also worked at the U.S. National Archives.

[3] Richard Immerman, “A Brief History of the CIA” in Athan Theoharis and others, eds., The Central Intelligence Agency: Security under Scrutiny (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006), p. 3.

[4] Sarah-Jane Corke, U.S. Covert Operations and Cold War Strategy: Truman, Secret Warfare and the CIA, 1945-53 (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 1-4, 159.

[5] See Stephen F. Knott, Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 66, 70

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