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A LOOK OVER MY SHOULDER by Richard Helms Kirkus Star


A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency

by Richard Helms, William Hood

Pub Date: April 15th, 2003
ISBN: 0-375-50012-X
Publisher: Random House

Of spooks, spies, double agents, and Ivy League gentlemen who certainly did read each other’s mail: former CIA director Helms revisits a long career doing Uncle Sam’s shadow work.

That career effectively came to an end thanks to Richard Nixon, for whom Helms expresses some disdain but some understanding, too. Nixon, he writes, always figured, and perhaps rightly, that the East Coast types who dominated American intelligence on Allen Dulles’s watch had it in for him. He finally vented his anger on Helms when the CIA, try as it might, could not stop the people of Chile from electing socialist Salvador Allende to be their president. Helms has little to say about the agency’s subsequent work in overthrowing Allende, but he offers plenty of eye-opening reminiscences on the American conduct of the war in Vietnam, which involved considerable tension and miscommunication between the CIA and the Army. The former projected enemy strength in the South to be far greater than did the latter, writes Helms, and the CIA never quite bought into the domino theory of Communist aggression in Indochina. Helms also reveals a dark secret of the Cold War era: the CIA’s early network of spies inside the Soviet Union was made up mostly of agents who had previously worked for Hitler, while former Nazis were recruited to work in joint US–West German intelligence operations. An erstwhile journalist who served Berlin during the early years of the Third Reich, Helms brings solid storytelling skills to his pages, along with a sharp analysis of evolving geopolitical conditions during his years in the CIA. Though vetted by the agency before publication, his memoir is surprisingly candid and refreshingly free of self-serving evasions—even though, he wryly notes, “As Dean Acheson once commented, the writer of a memorandum of conversation does not come off second best.”

Indispensable for understanding the role of secret intelligence in foreign policy and national defense.