Can America find it in its heart to love—or at least forgive—one of the architects of the Vietnam debacle and the Cold War?
National Security Archive researcher and espionage historian Prados (The Blood Road, 1998, etc.) hopes so, it would seem: though critical, his long, exhaustive account of William Colby’s 30-odd years as a CIA stalwart advances a well-reasoned defense of decisions and events that are now bywords for the indefensible. A notable example is Colby’s involvement in Operation Phoenix, the disastrous program to “Vietnamize” the Vietnam War by, among other things, transferring villagers into sealed hamlets to better hinder the comings and goings of Viet Cong agents. Operation Phoenix wasn’t his idea, states Prados, even though “Colby’s name has been linked to Phoenix ever since.” Exploring Colby’s views on the 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese president Diem, the outcome of a long series of CIA efforts to control his regime’s direction, the author notes that Colby opposed efforts to remove Diem and insisted long afterward that the US could have won the war with Diem still in office. Granted, Colby remained a faithful servant in the CIA’s program of inflated order-of-battle and body-count estimates and did his part to widen the war in Laos and Cambodia; he could have done nothing else, suggests Prados, who contends that Colby was made to fall on his sword as agency director largely because of widespread anti-CIA sentiment throughout the government and the nation in the wake of the war and Watergate. Supporters of Richard Helms may find fault with Prados’s review of Colby’s final days in office, but conspiracy buffs will find that his account of Colby’s suspicious death in 1996 offers plenty of intriguing possibilities.
A thoughtful look at the shadow government, unlikely to win Colby or the CIA any new admirers.