The Origins of the CIA - Part 4

In arguing that antecedents can be precedents only if they are remembered, Troy raised an interesting question that can be addressed both in the field of intelligence history and beyond it. Historians habitually draw attention to politicians’ historical references when they want to argue that history repeats itself, or that politicians have learned from history. Sometimes they make the same argument in the absence of those references. Other historians emphasize the significance of politicians’ ignorance of the past. They argue that one of the reasons why history repeats itself in unfortunate ways is precisely that it is not remembered.

Troy’s dismissal of U-1 invites a caution and a number of rebuttals. The caution is about selective originalism. Intelligence historians, like historians of other topics, like to point to favoured precedents. For example, it’s OK if it’s in the Bible. Even the intelligence critic Bernard Porter starts his account of political surveillance in the year 4,000 B.C. with references to the Book of Genesis. Clearly influenced by a vacation in Tuscany, British intelligence czar David Omand makes reverential remarks about fourteenth century frescoes in Siena – just to set the scene. Numerous works on American intelligence history refer to the undercover operations of the Founding Fathers, especially George Washington. It’s all to do with the iconography of presentism and the justification of the present day. [1]


The more objective historian should divorce moral justification from analysis of causation. That is not to deny that universal trends such as espionage can have common causes across time and space. But it is wrong to resot to „pick ‘n’ mix“. Universal truths are universal, and not commodities in a game of historical disinformation.

The first point to be made in rebuttal of the Troy dismissal of U-1 is that obscurity is not necessarily the enemy of effective intelligence work. In fact, there is a case for the contrary. Matters have changed in our more open age, but for decades MI-5 and MI-6 were admired precisely because they managed to operate in the shadows with no public acknowledgement of how they operated, or even of their existence. In his repeated expressions of admiration for British intelligence, Troy – and others of similar outlook – overlooked its unhyped character, and the implications of that for U-1 on the one hand, and on the other hand for the efficacy or otherwise of those noisy marching bands, the OSS and CIA.

A second ground for rebuttal of Troy’s viewpoint has to do with the irrelevance of nomenclative continuity. In order for the U-1 tradition to endure, it was not necessary for the term „U-1“ to be employed. On 26 June 1939, with war imminent in Europe, President Roosevelt ordered the FBI, MID, and ONI to establish an intelligence coordinating committee. Though State was not officially represented on this committee, by 1940 it was customary for an official from that department to sit in on its meetings as the representative of the president. This job fell to the heir to the Wilsonian undersecretary, assistant secretary of state Adolph A. Berle.

Berle was lukewarm about the more sensational aspects of intelligence work. After a meeting with J. Edgar Hoover and other members of the committee on 31 May 1940, he noted „we had a pleasant time, coordinating, though I don’t see what the State Department has got to do with it.“ Early in June, the committee met again, and Berle now claimed to have converted the FBI and MID to a plan that would „transfer some of this paranoid work into positive and useful channels.“ The committee decided at this meeting to set up a „secret intelligence service.“ Berle wrote in his diary that was something „every great foreign office in the world has, but we have never touched.“ So an influential diplomat saw a need for a souped-up U-1 even if he did not use that term, and identified the department of state’s continuing vested interest in this sensitive policy area.[2]

U-1 was dead only in name. As Troy himself noted in his original work on the founding of the CIA, at the war’s end Truman first turned to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes asking him to develop „a comprehensive and coordinated foreign intelligence program for all Federal agencies.“ And as Troy also noted, this time in his reprise of 1996, the respected Senator Daniel P. Moynihan (Dem. – N.Y.) saw the end of the Cold War as an opportunity to abolish the CIA and reassert State Department control over secret intelligence. The U-1 idea had remained alive both as a model for the CIA, and as an alternative to it.[3]

A third and final rebuttal of Troy’s dismissal of U-1 is about historical preconditions. In World War I, the embryonic U-1 came into existence because of a variety of factors, America’s nascent position as a great power, the threat to that position represented by the ambitions of other great powers, an increasing acceptance of the role of federal government in American policymaking, the need to coordinate a hitherto disparate intelligence effort, and even the invention of carbon copying, which made coordination possible in government as in business. These preconditions still existed in the next great national security emergencies, World War II and the Cold War. History never repeats itself exactly, but it was to be expected that similar solutions would be sought. The end results, the OSS, CIA, and NSA, recall the principles behind U-1 even if they were also dissimilar in a number of ways with, for example, photocopiers and computers taking over from carbon paper. U-1 is part of the story of the origins of the CIA not as a remembered term, but as a predetermined outcome to a set of circumstances that would be repeated.


On a wider plane, too, the origins of the CIA must be sought not only in the events of the early 1940s, but in earlier eras as well. As Knott demonstrated, the preconditions for covert operations long predated the arrival of Cold War contingencies, and of course they exist today in our post-Cold War world. As Valero established, state-building and centralizing tendencies were rooted in the pre-war New Deal. However one defines the CIA, it had many precursors, and these contributed to the model indirectly, not just through memory.

[1] Bernard Porter, Plots and Paranoia: A History of Political Espionage in Britain 1970-1988 (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 1-2; introduction to David Omand, Securing the State (London: Hurst, 2010); Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, Cloak and Dollar: A History of American Secret Service (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002), Chapter 2, „The Washington Style“, pp. 11-23.

[2] Navigating the Rapids 1918-1971: From the Papers of Adolph A. Berle, eds. Beatrice B. Berle and Travis B. Jacobs (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanivich, 1973), p. 320

[3] Byrnes quoted in Troy, Donovan and the CIA, p. 463; Troy, Wild Bill and Intrepid, p. 208.

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