Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Bill Colby -- Viet Nam Redux


Again, events have overtaken me.  My friend the astute Merle Allshouse has alerted me to the piece in the December 6 Huffington Post by Christina Wilkie.  Filmmaker Carl Colby, the son of ex-CIA Director William Colby, has produced a documentary dealing with the controversial life and -- especially -- the final moments of his father's life.  Colby disappeared in a canoe, leaving his dinner half eaten, into the Wimlico River in Maryland one evening in 1996.  Rumors circulated as to whether he had died of a heart attack, whether he had been dispatched, or whether Colby had taken his own life, an explanation Carl seems to favor.

Everybody familiar with Colby recognized that he was self-controlled to the edge of utterly cold-blooded.  As it happened, I knew Bill Colby fairly well.  The night after he disappeared I appeared on the Lehrer Show to speculate on his whereabouts. Colby had a history freighted with contradictory performances.  He ran the "Phoenix" program in Viet Nam, an initiative which resulted in the arbitrary singling out and assassination of somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 alleged Viet Cong agents, largely on hearsay evidence or to settle village feuds or eliminate prominent Buddhists.

After he came clean before the Church Committee and revealed the Agency's notorious "family jewels," Bill left the CIA and developed a law practice heavy with arms merchants and druglords.  Such clients had played a very important if carefully classified role in the later years of the Viet Nam War itself.  I would guess that they were the ones that did him in.  Nelson Rockefeller had been openly alarmed by Colby's impulse to divulge Agency secrets before committees of Congress -- to "go to confession," as the ubiquitous Henry Kissinger remarked at the time.

The recurrent allegations that Bill Colby might have committed suicide strike me as unfounded -- Colby was a devout Catholic.  The Agency had traditionally done a great deal of business with dope dealers, who supplied a lot of the financial resources stashed away in off-the-books accounts for operations the Congress would no doubt have refused to fund had they ever been disclosed.  Once, when I brought that up with Richard Helms while researching The Old Boys, he literally threw up his hands.  "Don't ask me about that," he laughed.  "You could not overestimate the amount of money we sloshed in and out of bank accounts all over the world."  The presumption was always that the gentlemen operatives at the top of the Agency were far better equipped to decide when to step in and rejigger Third-World governments than those bumblers in Congress.  It could be that his post-CIA legal clients were starting to get alarmed at the possibility that Colby might go public one more time.

The paradox in Colby's case was the fact that he was a very serious Roman Catholic.  Perhaps the extent to which Cardinal Spellman and his like pushed us into Viet Nam -- see my treatment of Vatican politics and the lead-up to the war in Bobby and J. Edgar -- justified Colby's ambiguous moral stance.  Colby personally never gave up on defending our military presence in Southeast Asia, and later wrote a book with the inimitable James McCargar, Lost Victory, to justify his conviction that we were that close to winning over those elusive Vietnamese hearts and minds.

Personally, I always found Colby likeable and a bit shy, but straighforward.  Find and read my piece in The Washingtonian on Colby and Jim Angleton (Sept., 1985, Dragons Have To Be Killed).  Both of these intractable cold warriors are very much front and center in The Old Boys, my group portrait of the first few generations of the American  intelligence community. 

I suppose that it is interesting that the media are starting to heave up these remnants of our disastrous war in Southeast Asia just as we are starting to face reality and extract ourselves from Afghanistan.  As Von Clausewitz said, "Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

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