James Jesus Angleton, the spy whose nightmares propelled the Cold War

James Jesus Angleton finished Harvard Law in 1943 and after a failed attempt to run a literary journal he joined a group of his buddies crusading to stop communism from taking over the world. These guys were America’s first post-war spies and Angleton, with a leg up from his father who had done intelligence work in the US Army in the first world war, soon ran US intel in Italy. Over the next three decades he came to manage much of America’s global spying enterprise, which was essentially dedicated to taking over the world.

Up to mid-last year, there had been four serious biographies of Angleton (as well as several novels, two movies, and a TV series about the man in the Homburg hat) but last year’s The Ghost — the secret life of CIA spymaster James Jesus Angleton (Scribe 2018) is a definitive, hard-nosed assessment of America’s über-spy which is almost as scary as it ought to be.

 After Yale, Angleton joined the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) whilst living in his family’s compound in Milan, and when FDR created the CIA in 1945 Angleton took charge of fixing that year’s Italian elections to prevent a Communist victory. He saved prominent Italian fascists from execution and financed their entry into the new rightist government, all in the name of stopping the communist juggernaut. Through the ‘50s, he was a key player in the overthrow of the reformist Arbenz government of Guatemala, after they threatened to redistribute United Fruit Company land; he had a hand in the Iran coup that brought the Shah to power, leading, 25 years later, to rule by the Ayatollah Khomeini. He was instrumental in the assassination of Congo leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961, and the dozens of plots to assassinate Fidel Castro.

 His interventions were often farcical and invariably ill-advised.  

 Angleton believed that “counterintelligence” was the key to running a successful spy agency which, for him, meant knowing everything Soviet Russia was doing, especially knowing who inside US and allied intelligence were secretly spying for Moscow. But for 14 years, his partner in this grand mission was Britain’s MI6 man in Washington, Kim Philby, and no matter how hard these two super-spies spied together, American and British secrets kept showing up in the Soviet KGBs inbox, and spies working for America and Britain kept showing up dead. Jim and Kim drank gallons of Johnny Walker Black Label while hatching new plots to whack the “mole” Angleton was certain was somewhere inside his team until, in 1963, Philby himself vanished and re-emerged living in Moscow. Angleton was shattered, unable to comprehend such treachery. He became even more paranoid than his mole-obsessed self had been. His wife and daughters found more meaning in the teachings of Yogi Bhajan and left Angleton home alone.

 In the late ‘60s Angleton added a new project to his crusade. Even though the CIA was prohibited from domestic spying, the counter-intelligence chief joined FBI-Director J Edgar Hoover in intercepting vast amounts of US mail to keep tabs on Americans whom they suspected of being un-American. They started with Black Panthers and less-rad black activists, including Martin Luther King, then expanded to include Americans against their war on Vietnam, then citizens who challenged any norms, such as second-wave feminists, environmentalists, and for reasons best known to themselves, Janis Joplin and Liberace. This illegal spying by FBI-CIA agents was kept secret even from Presidents Johnson and Nixon, but most of the targeted radicals assumed such a program existed anyway.

Angleton’s mission of domination was wildly fueled by his personal demons, but it was essential to the CIA itself. While Angleton himself had been eased into retirement by 1975, the agency had a firm hand in the Whitlam government’s ‘dismissal’, because that was their job — to make the world safe for US corporate interests. In 1980, in the course of writing for the US magazine Mother Jones, I rang Angleton at home and asked him about the fact that the CIA’s south-east Asia director Ted Shackley had threatened to excommunicate Australian intelligence agencies unless Whitlam stopped talking publicly about CIA dark money being paid to the Liberal Party. “I can say that in my period with the Agency,” Angleton replied, very slowly, “there was never any interfering in the internal relations of an ally.” I was rendered momentarily speechless by the preposterousness of his claim, and at the ever-so-slightly-wounded tone of his delivery. Ironically, he was incensed to learn later that I’d taped our phone chat without asking his permission.

Angleton’s fundamental failure, which had tragic consequences for the world, was that he could never step outside his Americanism and catch even a glimpse of the violence and misery his nation’s small but tenacious class of warlords and business moguls have inflicted on every country on Earth, including his own.

 But this exceptionalism runs deep in American life, and through its radicalism. Even Americans in disadvantaged social groups are drilled in a low-level exceptionalism that’s hard to shake off, and that’s true too for many Americans with radical perspectives. For an Australian working in New York as I was through these latter years – as a writer and editor in radical media – such a mindset was easy to see, harder to talk people out of. Some of my best friends are still fighting for justice unaware of the cape of American exceptionalism that hovers phantom like, over their courageous selves.

 Morley is one of them. He has written journalism and books over his long life from a progressive, American liberal perspective, with some seriously radical ideas, such as that JFK was indeed killed in a conspiracy that included the CIA. Morley makes a fair case that Angleton was director of the Kennedy assassinations’ cover-ups.  Angleton himself wrote that the Oswald-did-it-alone theory was “incomplete”, and he would know because he was the keeper of the CIA’s extensive files on Oswald, gathered from agents who tracked the oddball ex-Marine from well before the JFK assassination.

 For Angleton and his small coterie, led by top-dogs Alan and John Foster Dulles, managing the world on behalf of American business was indeed manifest destiny (his mum made “Jesus” his second name ferchristsake) and their exceptionalism powered the Cold War. Since the second world war’s end, they inflicted their zeal on every part of the world that had a whiff of material value, or of cultural drift away from the individualist fantasy world of wealthy American alpha-males. In the 1950s, they financed cultural enterprises such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), dedicated to anti-communism in thirty-five countries. In Australia they funded Overland magazine, and built Pine Gap. But they were not themselves men of deep self-examination, nor even particularly bright.

 Morley quotes a review James Angleton wrote of the film High Noon, in 1952; it’s about a gunslinger who gets out of jail and heads for the town whose citizens had busted him years before, with revenge in his fevered brain. The town Marshall implores the citizenry to join him in fighting the evil one, but “the banker, the merchant, the lawyer, the town clerk, all drew back” writes the 35 year-old super-spy reviewer, idolizing the Marshall played by Gary Cooper. “They all drew back…it was the Marshall’s responsibility…he put aside everything he held dear — his bride, the honeymoon in which they were about to leave. He went out into the street and did the job.”

 Which is to say, shot the evil guy dead, at high noon. That’s the high calling Marshall Angleton pursued, and that’s how low his culture hung.

I said Morley’s book is almost as scary as it ought to be. Jeff almost acknowledges the consequences the planet is suffering for the hubris of these guys, but he can’t go all the way and say it — that the American Project of the 20th Century was a failure, a disaster, run by a coterie of frat boys who grossly fucked the world including their own unhappy nation. That’s a place too scary for well-mannered American dissidents to go.

The ranks of less-well-mannered citizens of the USA are growing, particularly by women who reckon they’d better take over being the banker, the merchant, the lawyer, the town clerk and the spies for that matter — and all work together, communally. To which Donald Trump stands fat-assed and firm to stop the lot of ‘em, while his feral Svengali Steve Bannon corals the Western World’s rich and bitter yearning to be free-er than everyone else. These boys won’t give up their weapons, and their’s are bigger than everyone else’s. High noon approaches. In his grave, Jimmy Angleton rolls over, desperate for another shot of Scotch; there it is, Made in China.

  • This review of Morley’s Angleton is in the November 2018 issue (#156) of Arena Magazine at bookshops in Australia

Phillip FrazerComment