Facing Reality: From World Federalism to the CIA, by Cord Meyer, New York: Harper & Row, 1980, 433 pp., $15.95.
For more than a quarter of a century (1951–77) Cord Meyer served as a high-ranking official in the Central Intelligence Agency. During six of these years he headed the section involved in clandestine, or covert, operations. From at least three different levels this volume offers some interesting insights into the history of the Cold War and the foreign-policy options now facing Americans.
The first part is a very candid autobiography. Severely wounded in the war against the Japanese, Meyer returned to study toward a graduate-school education, while working to raise a growing family. Several of his writings as a journalist led to his involvement in the movement for world federalism. His first contact with communist tactics came in attacks on him as a United World Federalist and in communist efforts to take over the American Veterans Committee.
It was in the midst of the Korean War that Meyer gave up his pursuit of a doctorate from Harvard and went to Washington to seek a position somewhere in the foreign-policy bureaucracy. Clearly, his social-educational "Eastern Establishment" background and contacts (St. Paul's School, Harvard) were of considerable advantage in landing a position with the CIA. And from the beginning he was assigned to covert operations.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this early part of his career is that Meyer, due to his past associations, almost fell victim to one of the "witchhunts" of the McCarthy era. His reprinting of the memorandum of charges against him offers a glimpse of the innuendo and hearsay that often served as the flimsy basis for such accusations. He suggests that Allen Dulles's support of those whom Dulles had personally investigated and believed innocent helped the spirit and recruitment efforts of the agency, while John Foster Dulles's lack of such support within the State Department led to a decline there.
A second facet of the book is Meyer's recounting of many CIA activities during the Cold War years. Unintentionally, he provides some remarkable insights into the worldview of Cold War liberalism. This was remarkably like the paternalism that motivated domestic welfare programs. For Cold War liberals, interventionism, in a variety of methods, was essential: because the Russians did it, so must we. Meyer is quite correct that the CIA never carried on activities that had not been approved at the level of the presidency; but on the other hand, he appears totally unaware of the possibility that funneling monies into the National Student Association, for example, aided in the erosion of the notion that universities ought to be something other than simply another instrument with which to fight the Cold War. Under Cold War liberalism not only could almost any action to counter the Russians be justified; the notion that only government, and not voluntary associations of free individuals, could bring together the financial and organizational assets to wage such a battle became self-fulfilling.
Lower taxes, or incentives, could have made it possible for the private sector to mount the same kind of communication effort against the Iron Curtain areas as was subsidized by the CIA. Recent studies of foreign aid, for example, have conclusively demonstrated that the churches have built schools and developed other kinds of appropriate technology at far less expense and greater efficiency than governments—either our own or the Soviets'—which were usually competing in some ostentatious display of spending, including paying off local politicians.
At the political level Meyer provides an abundance of evidence of the left-wing, liberal, progressive bias of the CIA. This was the thrust of the CIA's financial intervention in Chilean elections. Meyer argues that such a "middle-of-the-road" intervention ought to have been undertaken in Nicaragua to get rid of Somoza and prevent the victory of the Sandinistas. For Meyer, it is not "facing reality" to overlook the American role in placing the Somoza family in power and sustaining them over the years. As Meyer does note, there was, up to the very end, a considerable argument from anticommunist conservatives, within and without Congress, that Somoza deserved our continued support.
The final part of the book recounts the growing Soviet interventionism in the so-called Third World, especially Africa. In addition to this "geo-political" analysis are chapters on the Soviet apparat, on both the government and the KGB, which handles state security, spying, and intelligence.
The burden of Meyer's argument is a plea that we put the era of Vietnam and Watergate behind us. Any abuses by the agency have been eliminated, and, given the growing scale of Russian intervention, some kind of ability for covert intervention must be restored in order to counter this offensive. He considers it naive to suggest that interventionism either overt or covert, is in the long run counterproductive.
But interventionism does simply breed more interventionism! This is what the Soviets are finding out from Poland to Afghanistan. In the same way that we do not have the wisdom to build a welfare state that is more productive than the market, neither do we have the wisdom to intervene in foreign affairs to achieve the ends we would like.
Meyer admits that with all its considerable structure (and high cost) for gathering intelligence, the CIA was badly out of touch with events in Iran. This was also the case with the situation early on, and later, in Vietnam. It is probably too much to hope—since power does tend to corrupt—that the military and intelligence bureaucracies will give up their penchant for interventionism, especially the covert variety that denies the American people any debate over the issues. If we are to have that capacity, it might be best to remove such debate from those institutions that are also involved in gathering and assessing the information. Meyer notes that this was a reason for establishing the CIA above other agencies involved in gathering information as well as making policy. One might build a good case to demonstrate that the appeal of "doing something"—that is, intervening—has led to a poorer level of intelligence analysis than might otherwise have been undertaken.
In place of governmental interventionism, overt or covert, which reflects so well the paternalism of the liberal mentality, we might ask that our "free" allies take more of a responsibility and cost for their own defense. Granted, this would mean shared decisionmaking for American policymakers long accustomed to directing rather than consulting.
Meyer exercised power with more balance and restraint than most of us might have done, and he does admit the present tensions in the Soviet system make possible some future changes. But a return to covert actions will cancel those opportunities. A whole network of relationships at the people-to-people level, sometimes derided as detente, would in the long run be far more effective. Far from "doing nothing," such approaches, whether in Cuba or Russia, set in motion their own dialectic of dynamic tensions. Robert Wesson has suggested that recognition of Cuba, for example, would offer a much more creative challenge for change, and Laurence Beilenson (in Survival and Peace in the Nuclear Age) has sketched out a number of approaches through which we might take the initiative without resorting to the kind of imperial interventionism specialized in by the CIA.
William Marina is a contributing editor of REASON and a professor of business history and general systems analysis at Florida Atlantic University.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Uncloaking the Dagger".