From Axis of Democracy to Axis of Hypocrisy? A review of
The Quiet Americans
3rd August 2023
When democratic nations fall below their stated ideals, longstanding moral and political costs are incurred, writes M.L.R. Smith.
The older I get, the more I find value in books that stir memories of times past. I am not about to go all Marcel Proust on you; my reflections are not that deep or contemplative, let alone complex or literary. But works that spark a moment of recollection are likely to resonate with those who have reached a point where they look back on life with a mix of conflicting emotions and hope of finding some reconciliation with the past. A book about spies and the early years of the Cold War may not seem the most obvious candidate to induce this reaction, but let me recount the memory it kindled and the way it helped resolve a puzzle that for years had been needling the back of my mind.
A Friday afternoon in Singapore
Friday afternoons in Singapore are particularly languorous. The mixture of tropical heat and humidity, along with the prospect of the end of the working week, induce a distinctive kind of lethargy. The late 1990s found me working in the city-state, helping to set up a Masters programme at the Nanyang Technological University. Sometimes on these sluggish afternoons, one of my colleagues and I would wander over to a small outside café located on the nearby campus of the Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute (SAFTI). We would sip iced tea and embrace our end-of-week indolence by musing over the latest office gossip.
Typically, the café at SAFTI was deserted on these torpid afternoons – the Singapore armed forces adhering to the universal Friday ethic of military institutions the world over of ‘POETS’ day (P**s Off Early Tomorrow’s Saturday). My friend and I would enjoy the solitude but one Friday afternoon, we saw two other people sitting there. Even now, I recall the slight feeling of annoyance at the sight of their presence. I knew we would be compelled to talk to them, distracting my colleague and I from our ritual chinwag.
Their presence also signalled something unusual. Not only had we not seen them before, but they were clearly not Singaporeans. The two men sitting there finishing their drinks were Caucasians; both similar in age – late forties or so – well dressed in colourful short sleeved shirts, and with neatly trimmed beards. We began conversing. Who were they? What were they doing? How did they end up here?
The two men were Americans. Quiet, softly spoken, Americans. They had been in Singapore for over two decades, since the early 1970s, working as English language teachers at SAFTI. Plainly, they led steady, settled lives here. Predictably, our banter ranged over what they thought of life in modern Singapore but at this point they became decidedly unforthcoming. Why, I wondered? I made some cutting remarks about Singapore being an illiberal polity, with little room for dissenting opinions that transgressed the orthodoxy of the ruling party. Anyone from outside Singapore with a liberal sense of ethics was likely, eventually, to find working in the place a challenge. After all, the government persecutes political opponents.
My colleague – an Australian citizen of Singapore-Chinese origin – and I sat back and waited for the anticipated response. We had motioned in the right direction: we believed in tolerance, pluralism, and the innate superiority of Western values. We expected our discussants to reciprocate with a corresponding rhetorical gesture of liberal solidarity.
None came. Instead, one of the men responded: ‘This place persecutes political opponents and is intolerant of dissent you say? It sounds like it is no different from the United States’. The other, visibly assented. This was surprising. It was not the reaction that either my friend or I were envisaging.
A few more minutes of conversation revealed that they had been part of the anti-Vietnam War movement back in the 1960s, organising protests and marches. They said they had been tailed by the FBI, and in other respects had been subject to surveillance and intimidation. The experience had scarred them. Their alienation was complete. Soon after, they finished up their drinks and returned to whatever remained of their day, slightly relieved – I suspected – to end the dialogue with two tiresome expats. This was a discussion that they had almost certainly had on more than one occasion.
We never saw them again. Yet, the memory of this otherwise innocuous occurrence stayed with me. There was something disconcerting about these quiet Americans. How had they become so estranged from their homeland? Despite its faults, surely, the U.S. remained a far freer society than almost anywhere else on earth, with avenues open to pursue reform and to right injustices. And, even if they had bad experiences during the tumult of the late 1960s, why swap a life in an imperfect democracy for the overt authoritarianism of a place like Singapore? There might be many other more agreeable countries to have fled to.
The unipolar years
This chance conversation clearly touched a nerve with me. Reflecting on my own caste of mind back then, I confess that I was probably a different kind of person, one that harboured views that I look upon now with some regret. To a greater or lesser extent I had absorbed elements of the contemporary zeitgeist of the 1990s. These were my ‘unipolar’ years. I never overtly subscribed to the end of history thesis, but I reflected some of its early traits, with a disposition towards believing in the innate desirability of Western hegemony.
By the mid/late 1990s, people had been moulded by multiple events: the ideological struggles of the Cold War, culminating in the collapse of Soviet power in 1990/91 and the ‘victory’ of the West. The prospect of a more liberal ‘New World Order’, presaged by the successful reveral of Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait in 1991, the Balkan Wars of the mid-1990s and the Rwandan genocide of 1994, demanded a moral imperative to act in the face of monstrous crimes against humanity. The brave struggles of Hong Kong’s fledgling democrats to preserve a modest set of freedoms in the face of China’s authoritarian gaze during the lead up to the territory’s handover in 1997 had an especially strong impact.
Had a combination of these factors caused me to imbibe the facets of Western self-satisfaction and hubris that I sensed had irritated the two quiet Americans all those years before? Later, 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 would cause me to re-evaluate my assumptions. But I was left still with unanswered questions. How had these Americans come to repudiate the land of their birth, and all its best political traditions? And, if they were really exercised about political freedom, why settle in Singapore, a country not known for courting left-wing peaceniks (indeed, it had largely backed U.S. intervention in Vietnam)?
From moral mission to moral cynicism
Scott Anderson’s compelling, The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War – A Tragedy in Three Acts, helped provide some answers to these questions. The book’s premise is that between 1944 and 1956, the moral arc of the United States underwent a transformation. In 1944, the U.S. stood tall as an industrial and moral colossus. It was the arsenal of ‘democracy’, the powerhouse that defeated the tyranny of the Axis powers in World War II. Fundamentally, this democratic beacon-on-the-hill held out the promise of carrying on that moral mission, envisioning an end to the obsolete, and widely despised, European empires.
Yet, in the space of twelve years, far from dismantling those empires, the U.S. was paying for their maintenance, and instead of fostering democracy was busily undermining freely elected governments. Not only did these foreign policy missteps come back to haunt U.S. policymakers, the Vietnam War being the most obvious, but the wages of sin that accompanied the American crusade against communism succeeded in destroying much of the U.S.’s moral standing in the eyes of many nations, leaving a legacy of deep suspicion over U.S. motives no matter how neatly dressed up in the language of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’.
Equally damaging, the author points out, was the impact of this era upon American society in general, which endured the slow-motion hysteria of state sanctioned anti-communist witch-hunts, largely engineered by the manipulative head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover’s primary motivation, so it seems, was less to expunge communists from the U.S. domestic polity, than to outwit his bureaucratic opponents, not least those in the fledgling CIA, who were perceived to be a threat to his institutional power. Cumulatively, these years, according to Anderson, fuelled a ‘cynicism and distrust of governments from which the United States has never truly recovered’. At last, I was perhaps beginning to apprehend the mentality that afflicted my two American interlocutors back in Singapore.
The anti-communist conundrum
The conundrum that Anderson presents us with is that, given its appalling historical record, anyone in their right mind should be anti-communist but the anti-communist cause has become tarnished. The author himself admits being troubled by the question from his childhood in Taiwan, where he came to see that much of the regime’s anti-communist rhetoric was merely political theatre to justify authoritarian rule. Years later, as a journalist, he bore witness to a political assassination carried out by the U.S. backed regime in El Salvador. How did it come to all this? How did the noble vision of America at the end of World War II end up legitimising the direct opposite of its ideals?
Anderson answers these questions through the personal journeys, stories, and experiences of four notable American intelligence officers at the dawn of the Cold War – the eponymous quiet Americans: Michael Burke, Edward Landsdale, Peter Sichel and Frank Wisner. All four were present at the creation of the U.S. intelligence apparatus in the later years of the Second World War with the Office of Strategic Services, which was later to evolve into the Central Intelligence Agency. Wisner, Burke and Sichel were initiated into the world of espionage in World War II, undertaking covert operations in Eastern and Western Europe. Landsdale, perhaps the most renown of the group, was the late bloomer who was to make his mark shortly after the end of the war in Southeast Asia, first in the Philippines and later in South Vietnam.
The book charts the highs and lows of the careers of each of these ‘Quiet Americans’, but also conveys the progressive disillusionment each suffered partly as a result of the moral compromises involved in living in the secret world but also as they gradually realised the impact of the corrupted idealism that they had conspired to create. Their doubts coalesce in questions about what their missions were meant to accomplish, and whether it was worth the costs, both human and moral.
These doubts became acute for those like Michael Burke and Frank Wisner, who were responsible for running early infiltration operations into communist Eastern Europe. The known failures of these missions, be it parachuting anti-communist commandos into Albania, landing agents by sea into the Baltics, running partisan teams in Poland or the Ukraine, were such that no-one to this day can be sure that any of these missions yielded anything worthwhile. Burke himself estimated that over half the commandos he had dispatched into Albania ended up dead or captured. Those that survived were more than likely to have been compromised and ‘played back’, so adept was the Soviet KGB, and its East European appendages, at trapping and turning agents.
Despite the failures, Wisner attested to the ‘mindless momentum’ that often saw such fruitless operations continue even though the likely odds were known. The CIA’s freewheeling approach meant that a junior officer with a pet project could work their way around more seasoned, and cautious, supervisors. Sichel recalls the sheer bureaucratic complexity and amateurishness that prevailed. Shutting down poorly performing or clearly compromised operations was inordinately difficult. With so many agents on the payroll, it became difficult to drop them for fear they would defect and betray everyone else. Far easier to let dead-end missions limp on.
The futility of it all seemed increasingly obvious. Anderson suggests we should forget the idea of a secret agent sneaking through the forests to spy on some hidden Soviet missile base. The entire Soviet bloc was battened down by systems of internal passports and travel permits, while security perimeters often began dozens, sometimes hundreds, of miles from the installations themselves. No western intelligence-gathering agent was ever going to get anywhere near them. So what were the operations for? No one really knew.
Such questions were even more acute with respect to those who were infiltrated to stir up rebellion against communist rule in Eastern Europe: what would happen if these underground movements were successful? What support from the West would be forthcoming? The answer had been delivered with the popular uprisings in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956: none whatsoever. For the Eisenhower administration, the uprisings merely validated the belief that the Soviet empire was crumbling, which justified even more (useless) covert operations.
Often the four protagonists consoled themselves that they were merely foot-soldiers in a great moral contest, and that there were better minds in Washington working out how all these events would play-out on the geo-strategic chessboard. But utimately, each came to realise that there was no synchronisation of operations and no thought-through planning. They came to believe that operations were haphazard at best and, at worst, an exercise in cynical opportunism. Those in the American foreign policy bureaucracy, like the Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, didn’t care about moral principles. They were happy to trade lives for propaganda points and wished only to create more situations where this happened. According to veteran CIA officer Miles Copeland, the Agency was the equivalent of an arsonist-fireman that would seek fires to put out, ‘even if we had to light them ourselves’.
Through bureaucratic self-perpetuation, the U.S. became addicted to covert operations and interfering in the affairs of other states. Furthermore, during this era, U.S. administrations learnt the pleasing lesson that in contrast to the ‘dreary stasis’ in Eastern Europe displacing uncongenial regimes in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia was far easier. Working through proxy forces, the intelligence services could bolster regimes it regarded as allies and get rid of those it did not. Facilitating the overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953 and installing the monarchical rule of the Shah provided the initial proof of concept. Sponsoring the coup against Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954 was rated another ‘success’, as was Landsdale’s manoeuvring to install Ngo Dinh Diem as the premier of South Vietnam.
Few, if any, of these regime-change operations forestalled communist take-overs. The governments in Iran and Guatemala were not Soviet stooges, or in danger of falling into the communist orbit. They were democratically elected administrations that were inconvenient to U.S./Western commercial interests. In the ideologically charged atmosphere of the Cold War, however, there was no room for ambiguity. Non-aligned countries were seen as dupes of the Soviet Union in the ultimate clash between good and evil. The overall result, Anderson observes, was the erosion of the U.S.’s moral standing and ‘the extinguishing of whatever claim to a higher degree of honor or altruism it still enjoyed. It was the final laying bare of the myth of America as the herald of freedom’.
Anderson’s damning verdict is that the U.S. had no one to blame but itself. It had chosen dictatorships over democracy. It had supported France in quelling anti-colonial resistance in Southeast Asia. It had compiled hit lists of awkward foreign leaders to be removed, sometimes assassinated. It promoted the rhetoric of freeing the ‘enslaved peoples’ in Eastern Europe while doing nothing to support them on the few occasions that they were courageous enough to rise-up. It missed opportunities to lower the temperature of superpower confrontation, especially in the wake of Khruschchev’s efforts to de-Stalinise the USSR. It had institutionalised a system that was to lead to countless other proxy wars, coups, death-squads, and tragedies. All the while, at home, it instantiated a bureaucracy that was willing to spy on its own population.
The long journey back to Singapore
All of which brings us back to the two very different quiet Americans I chanced upon in Singapore. Having read Anderson’s impressive account, I now wondered whether these former anti-war activists had not found their own form of peace there for one simple reason: honesty. Singapore’s political system may not be very democratic, but it was at least honest. The authorities made little secret of their disdain for aspects of Western democracy, and their lack of tolerance for political dissent. Combined with a record of competent government, Singapore autocrats could sustain their claim to rule. Competence and honesty present themselves as potentially attractive alternatives to the hypocrisy of twisted idealism as recounted in this book.
Was this the line of reasoning that inspired the life choices of these Americans? I’ll never know. Did this answer the question that had been bothering me for all these years? I’m not sure. This reflection did, though, prompt another reminiscence. In 2000, while attending a seminar, I ran into the Head of Operations of the Internal Security Department (ISD), Singapore’s ‘secret police’. Benny was his first name. He looked disconcertingly young and was very self-assured. But he spoke quite openly about the kind of work his organisation undertook – namely, keeping tabs on those with undesirable, dangerously liberal, points of view. As far as Benny was concerned, politics was a game of winner takes-all. Those in power had done a good job, so they have a right, if not a duty, to ensure that the system remains stable and does not allow disruptive elements anywhere near power. That’s the set up here, he said. An unpleasant perspective, I remember thinking. But in its own way, it did possess the integrity of being scrupulously candid.
All the flaws and hypocrisies aside, I am thankful that I live in a society that, for the moment, preserves most of the freedoms and benefits of liberalism. The most salutary aspect for me in reading Anderson’s work, however, was that it underlined how far I had travelled in my personal and political journey, away from the presuppositions of the unipolar years to a position which finds itself more in sympathy with the book’s core arguments than once might have been the case.
Red-scare, red states
The importance of Anderson’s analysis is that it makes clear the moral costs that are incurred when democratic nations fall below their stated ideals. He points especially to the harm inflicted upon the American body-politic by an excess of anti-communist zeal, which he believes accounts for the current dividing line in the contemporary U.S., between red and blue states. Those who embraced the Red Scare, believing that America was under siege from within, going down one path, while those who believed it was all a ‘cynical myth’ going down another. So antithetical are these perspectives that they lack even a modicum of empathy for each other. Knowing where someone stood on the Red Scare, Anderson maintains, is a reliable predictor of where their views, and often their offspring’s views, reside on all manner of foreign policy issues, be it support for or against the Vietnam War, the Star Wars programme in the 1980s, or the Iraq War after 2003.
Anderson claims, ‘There is very little sign that this divide, rooted in the Cold War passions of seventy years ago, will narrow any time soon’. Here, the critical reader might take issue with this contention, as the evidence suggests that it is blue-state Democrats rather than red-state Republicans who increasingly present themselves as the modern heirs of McCarthy and Hoover. The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency in 2016 highlighted a convergence among elements of the left and right in American politics with once solidly Democrat constituencies switching allegiance to a Republican candidate who advocated an end to foreign policy adventurism and an America-First emphasis that sought to fix problems at home, rather than engage in endless meddling abroad.
By contrast, ever since President Bill Clinton’s policy of triangulation in the 1990s, the modern Democrat Party’s movement towards, if not outright capture by, commercial-donor interests, including large arms corporations, has facilitated a political role reversal. It is the Democrat establishment that now appears all too willing to pursue confrontation, regime-change, and reckless military intervention externally, while directing the efforts of the intelligence agencies and the wider bureaucracy internally against domestic political adversaries, who are now deemed to be subversive rather than simply oppositional as one would expect in any functioning democracy.
Plus ça change?
The irony is that much of the turbulence in U.S. domestic politics in recent years rotates around a variant of the Red-Scare with routine allegations that domestic opponents are in league with Russia, leading to confected conspiracies of Russian collusion – often endorsed by senior former intelligence officers. These have proved every bit as pernicious and damaging to the democratic fabric than anything McCarthy or Hoover dreamt up. I discern that Anderson’s political inclinations reside on the Democrat-leaning centre-left of U.S. politics. I hope he would agree that the contemporary Russia-scare is as equally fallacious as the Red-scare of the early Cold War years, especially when these concoctions are used to bend the domestic political apparatus towards suppressing dissent and persecuting political opponents. It was wrong then and it is wrong now.
Meanwhile, I do wonder which side of the political fence the two quiet Americans in Singapore would now find themselves.
M.L.R. Smith is a writer and acadmic. His latest book is The Strategy of Maoism in the West (Elgar, 2022) (with David Martin Jones).
Purchase The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War – A Tragedy in Three Acts by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2021), here.