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The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA

by Burton Hersh
1992, Charles Scribner’s Sons
ISBN 0-684-19348-5
536 pages, illustrated

From Tree Farm Books web site
The unprecedented willingness of senior decision-makers in the CIA to cooperate with the upcoming television series The Agency provides some measure of the desperation sweeping Langley these days. Under attack in editorials and roasted by members of Congress for shortfalls ranging from botching up political analysis in Iraq during Desert Storm to targeting the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in the midst of the Kosovo campaign, the CIA has again been reduced to exceedingly gingerly public relations. Fallout from the Hanssen case, revealing that this born-again FBI functionary managed to sell out whichever of the CIA’s agents in Russia the Agency’s own Aldrich Ames didn’t compromise, has deeply alarmed the surviving intelligence community.

Across the government, outrage is general. Inside the CIA itself, morale is crumbling fast. How could this happen again? legislators on the Select Committees of the House and Senate keep demanding. A level of scrutiny unapproached since the pyrotechnic Church Committee hearings of 1973 is descending on Langley. Why must they operate like this? Where did it come from, this sometimes brilliant and all too often blunder-ridden appendage across the Potomac? Who put this tortured thing together?

It’s time to reissue The Old Boys.

The initial publication of The Old Boys in 1992 raised so much dust that it has taken a decade for the air to clear. Subtitled The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA, the work laid out the involvement of the lawyers who founded civilian intelligence in the United States — ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, Allen and Foster Dulles, Frank Wisner — with several generations of reactionary, even Nazi-lining clients. Abetted by counterparts from the diplomatic side of the sheets, from Bill Bullitt to George Kennan and the notorious Carmel Offie, the founders incorporated both practices and personalities long associated with the Third Reich into their anticommunist crusade, and by so doing undermined almost everything they attempted. Patriotic and well-intentioned men, they played into the hands of forces that threatened us.

What permitted The Old Boys to survive its brickbats was the enormous body of research, documentation and interviews both, on which the argument rested. By 1995, when Evan Thomas’ treatment of several of the secondary figures of the early Agency, The Very Best Men, backed up the main conclusions of The Old Boys, the ClA’s own in-house publication, Studies in Intelligence, noted specifically that The Old Boys had obviously been justified as to both its particulars and its final judgments. Even the vitality of the style would ultimately be forgiven. Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 1997, the CIA put The Old Boys at the top of the list it distributed of accurate treatments of its internal history, noting that there was much to be found here ‘not available elsewhere.’

The years since publication have made the lessons of The Old Boys more relevant than ever. Reedited, with a new preface, the 2001/2002 edition is intended to meet the obvious call for the book in a relatively inexpensive and attractive format. The author receives calls frequently from college teachers eager to include The Old Boys in their upcoming curriculum but unable to locate enough copies at a reasonable price. Librarians lodge the same complaint. With every appearance Burton Hersh makes on television — on the Lehrer Report, The History Channel, A&E and elsewhere — as well as his innumerable radio interviews, requests come in for copies of the book. Hopefully, this fresh edition will meet the need.

Review by Andrew Witmer, Virginia Quarterly Review
“Playing devil’s advocate to Robin Winks’s upbeat Cloak and Gown, this volume argues that the wealthy, well-connected, even intellectually-inclined founders of the OSS and the CIA were considerably less than idealistic. According to this account, for instance, the Dulles brothers collaborated for large legal fees with Nazi industrialists and ‘inevitably,’ Hersh concludes, ‘remnants of the Third Reich quietly infiltrated our intelligence system.’ Such amoralism prevailed, with devastating effects, right down to Iran-Contra, with what Hersh describes as a ‘fever for long shots,’ lawlessness, and perjury, as well as the reduction of people to ‘assets,’ and the euphemizing of murder as ‘executive action.’ For Hersh, the critical question is whether the new CIA director Robert Gates can realize his wish to reinvent the Firm and thus dispel its reputation as a ‘hotbed of ruthless operators.'”

(Copyright 2006 Virginia Quarterly Review)


THIS BOOK IS IN PRINT. Available commercially. Learn more about Burton Hersh.

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