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A Covert Life

It was a rule of thumb for my father’s generation that the spooks came from Fordham, as my father had, and the gumshoes from Holy Cross. Thus did the national security state in its formative stages staff the middle-level apparat of its two major corps, the CIA and the FBI. The upper tiers of The Company, as the CIA fondly refers to itself, were blue-blooded Ivy League, and you could perhaps not have better proof of Adam Smith’s invisible hand at work than that patriciate national interests would be carried out by second-generation Irish and Italian underlings molded in that peculiar Jesuitic pedigree for defense of empire.

My father was representative of that first contingent of CIA officers, Depression-reared and working-class. Their way up and out of the neighborhoods was stymied by the war, and at its close they had jumped headlong at the first tenders of peacetime regimentation. My father’s reaction was typical. At 33, a veteran of Army Intelligence and with a war bride and two children, the CIA’s was the logical entreaty and meant the first real opportunity he had to pursue a livelihood.

I make no excuses for him beyond the exigencies of necessity, and 35 years since his passing entertain no illusions about the nature of his handiwork. He was a tough, firm, and cranky Cold Warrior, an ideologue unmistakably shaped by Coughlinite catholicity and parochial clannishness. What extenuations I could cite for him are of a different order, however insufficient: More than a passing interest in literature, a longing and a reverence for the sea his merchant seaman father had bequeathed him, a public courtliness and affability which was totally genuine, a pampering gentleness toward my mother — offsets, albeit minimal and dilettantish, against the life role he had assumed and which held him in sway. My father did what he had to do without the long view perspective affords. And that allowance, I’d be remiss not to argue, has the heft of moral hindsight: Unlike myself, he lacked a smorgasbord of affluence cushioning his adolescent years, still more the luxury of revisionist history as a political Baedeker or the contemporary tools for decoding the biases of media and propaganda.

Not that those amenities would have necessarily made any difference. I was half expecting to see my father’s name some years ago on a declassified CIA documents list of the agency operatives responsible for the 1954 coup in Guatemala. While it’s true that the scared junior officer off-loading guns at a rebel airfield was a different man from the one two decades later whose disgust at our toppling of Allende helped occasion his early retirement, to his credit my father needed no prompts to admit that there was no inner statute of limitations for such complicity.

But by then compensation owed had long put him in arrears, and my own outrage added punctuation. We quarreled over Vietnam, predictably, with all the ugliness of the most profound estrangement, apparatchik facing off against poet-dreamer, one steadfast to the notions of nest and hearth, the other loosened to the streets and the road and undreamt of possibilities, with a willingness to risk much to realize them.

A sense of decorum born of proud poverty always propelled my father, and gradually it amplified whatever basic instincts for proportion he possessed. The truest thing that can be said of him is that he was a man and of a generation trapped by history, and he well knew it. I still find a bit remarkable his assumption that I should share his confidences, as if my listening would better solidify the distinctions he laboriously mulled over. In the daily service to the wrong ends, his was a serial dramaturgy. “Despicable soldiers of fortune,” was my father’s assessment of the Chiang Kai-Shek generals for whom he toted water as third-in-command of CIA’s secret base on Saipan in the Marianas Islands in the mid-1950s. The training of Kuomintang guerrillas for sabotage missions against the mainland, he was forced to conclude, would not regain the China that had ostensibly been “lost” by John Stewart Service and the old China Hands at the State Department. By degrees, my father would come to hew to an old-school professionalism which prescribed that intelligence and policy never mix. Blame for the Bay of Pigs, he conceded, lay with the operations wing of the CIA foolishly usurping policy prerogatives and expecting that a new president would fully back a plan he hadn’t initiated. The consequence was the worst of possible lapses, and by “bringing embarrassment” to the agency one’s personal repute was similarly tarnished.

The Thomistic scholasticism the Jebbies had provided apparently rooted him: Down and dirty espionage was necessary, even admirable; but fomenting foreign and domestic destabilization except under extreme circumstances failed his ends/means test. My father didn’t live to see Iran-Contra and the cumulative evidence on the CIA’s long involvement in drug running, and missed witnessing the agency’s paymastering of surrogate terrorism in Central America. I suspect he would have regarded these manifestations as an outgrowth of the predilections of the new breed of officers he railed against late in his career, sycophantic bag men like Robert Owen, and semper-fi “assets” like Ollie North, eager to emulate OSS nostalgics like William Casey and the aloof ruthlessness of the perennial Yalie directorate. And yet it’s a given that my father could never abandon his beloved employer. On his deathbed, his frail voice barely audible, he speculated about how the agency should best approach the aftermath of Anwar Sadat’s assassination. In the end, as in life, it was all he had.

Along the way there was always my father’s strained consternation about what would finally become of me. My impulse to challenge the state in the 1960s he could at least ascribe to Quixotic youthfulness. But I had also abandoned the safe sinecure of academia, and later the trivialities of mainstream journalism and its corresponding stench of careerist fear. I had informed my father, to his considerable bewilderment, that I intended to follow Camus’ counsel to “create dangerously.”

Evidently some of the gods are apportioned to look out for renegades like myself, and what laurels of public certification I’ve been accorded would probably please my father, though he would likely rather acknowledge my entrepreneurial abilities than my political analyses.

I daresay in the end I knew the man better than he knew himself. The times in which he lived had made him a quick study. And yet I remain uncertain if he sensed that his example of stealth and cunning, the very covertness of his existence, had found a corollary in me. It’s a rich irony, but certainly it was plain that I needed neither his blessing nor his applause — neither his nor anyone else’s, for that matter.

Such self-containment clearly discomfited him, perhaps because it was a reminder of his own essential isolation, as well as the options he, by contrast, hadn’t exercised, for either want of nerve or the constraints of a sense of responsibility to his era. Once, at the end of a visit, I told him I loved him and he turned quickly back toward the house, sobbing. I realized, in retrospect, that the fact that I absolutely bore no uneasiness in telling him must have been all too apparent, and what I thought was merely embarrassment on his part went far deeper.

For all our disaffected and impassioned differences, he may have seen more reminders of himself in me than he liked. Clearly in that mirror with its vying dance of shadow and light was a reflection each had yet to detect, one where history and ideology were without visage, and what showed was only the timeless calm of blood and gristle, marrow and bone, father and son.

John Hutchison publishes the San Francisco Flier

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John Hutchison publishes the San Francisco Flier.

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