A thorough biography of “the ultimate subversive” that probes the shadowy U.S. intelligence efforts through the Vietnam War.
Arguably part of the problem or part of the fix, CIA operative William Colby (1920–1996) was intimately involved in the questionable clandestine practices of the U.S. intelligence service in Southeast Asia, as well as instrumental in the reforms stemming from the “family jewels” revelations of 1974-1975, when he was ultimately forced out as director. Woods (History/Univ. of Arkansas; LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, 2006, etc.) looks at a complicated individual who was at heart a liberal activist, schooled in the ideas of unconventional warfare championed by his father, a military man and instructor. An only child in a deeply Catholic family, Colby also gravitated toward the Army. From key training in World War II’s Jedburgh Operation, Colby became part of the newly minted CIA, swept up in the “mortal danger” presented in Soviet communism, and sent first to Scandinavia, Italy, then Vietnam by 1959, when the “people’s war” was heating up. Covert action against North Vietnam was approved by President John F. Kennedy and carried out enthusiastically by Colby and others in a “counterinsurgency think-tank” in Saigon, ultimately undermined by the military ascendancy in Washington. An increased compartmentalization of the CIA led to clandestine operations around the world, encouraging a rogue atmosphere within the agency. Woods carefully sifts through Colby’s involvement in the Phoenix Program and his short-lived tenure as DCI, where he implemented reforms that would ultimately get him fired by Henry Kissinger.
A nuanced treatment spirals through the crucial years of CIA operations.