Journalist and novelist Richardson (In the Little World, 2001, etc.) tries to understand what his abstracted, distant father faced as a high-ranking CIA officer.
John Richardson Sr. was an idealist: a man who loved great literature, Thomas Jefferson, and democracy, a Quaker who undertook dangerous missions during WWII. He also witnessed Tito’s slaughter of Germans and Croats, as well as Stalin’s pause outside Warsaw while the Germans went about their dirty work in the city; these experiences led him to join the fight to thwart communism. As he shifted from the OSS to the fledgling CIA, John Sr. essentially became a classified secret himself, and John Jr. lost his father, who was out of the loop. The author pores over all the evidence he can find concerning his father’s role in various authoritarian outposts, endeavoring to make sense of an honorable man who helped facilitate a foreign policy that increasingly relied on despots and thugs. He tracks Dad from Greece to the Philippines, Vietnam during the cheery days of Diem and Nhu and strategic hamlets, and finally to Seoul under the thumb of the grim Park Chung Hee. Richardson never learns exactly what his father did, but he does artfully draw the family’s home life in all its stress, distance, and disconnect. John Jr. and his sister were very much a part of the counterculture; their behavior could easily rub their father the wrong way. John Sr. was patient and decent—he railed against the ugly Americans—but he held the conviction that “we have to support vicious dictators because an authoritarian government can evolve but a totalitarian government can only be opposed from the outside.” He took his authoritarian poison, Richardson notes, and “stored up the raw material for a lifetime of regrets.”
A beautiful, gracious act of connection with a man who kept his secrets. (8 b&w photos, not seen)