Harry Truman on the CIA

Andrew Sullivan linked to a column written in 1963 by former President Harry Truman about the CIA and the need to restrain its actions around the world. Truman, who created the CIA, talks about how it had transformed from an intelligence gathering agency to an arm of American foreign policy, to the detriment of the country.

For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas. I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations. Some of the complications and embarrassment I think we have experienced are in part attributable to the fact that this quiet intelligence arm of the President has been so removed from its intended role that it is being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue—and a subject for cold war enemy propaganda.

With all the nonsense put out by Communist propaganda about “Yankee imperialism,” “exploitive capitalism,” “war-mongering,” “monopolists,” in their name-calling assault on the West, the last thing we needed was for the CIA to be seized upon as something akin to a subverting influence in the affairs of other people… I, therefore, would like to see the CIA be restored to its original assignment as the intelligence arm of the President, and that whatever else it can properly perform in that special field—and that its operational duties be terminated or properly used elsewhere.

But of course, the CIA was a subverting influence in the affairs of other countries. Truman wrote this in 1963, after the CIA-led coups in Iran and Guatemala but before similar operations in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, El Salvador and many other places. And this is more than a bit naive:

I well knew the first temporary director of the CIA, Adm. Souers, and the later permanent directors of the CIA, Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg and Allen Dulles. These were men of the highest character, patriotism and integrity—and I assume this is true of all those who continue in charge.

Allen Dulles was the one who approved the installation of those dictatorships in Iran and Guatemala. He was a malevolent force against liberty and democracy and in favor of US-supported thugs.

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  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    In his brilliant “Legacy of Ashes” Tim Weiner says that the CIA has become “America’s Department of Dirty Tricks” when what we really needed was an intelligence agency. He illustrates how, time and again, the CIA failed to do intelligence-gathering and analysis in favor of flying in an agent with a suitcase full of money to do “regime change” or topple the odd democracy.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    He was a malevolent force against liberty and democracy and in favor of US-supported thugs.

    No, he was a force for liberty and democracy, as long as it remained within acceptable boundaries. If it wasn’t, we helped them be free of liberty, by electing ourselves representation for them.

  • abb3w

    Hm. I wonder if there might be advantages to separating the “intelligence gathering” and “covert policy actions” into separate groups. Contrariwise, that’s somewhat like trying to separate scientific research from engineering design — difficult to do completely, in that research often involves experiment design.

    Nohow, even with such separation, “covert policy actions” management in both theory and practice seems tricky… so to speak.

  • Michael Heath

    My reading of Harry Truman puts his level of courage right up there with George W. Bush.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Michael Heath “My reading of Harry Truman puts his level of courage right up there with George W. Bush.”

    Counter-point: EO 9981.

  • Alverant

    I can see how this can happen. If there’s a situation where protecting the USA means interfering with another government, shouldn’t the CIA do it? It starts small and snowballs from there. It can be “justified” until you realize that someone else may use the same “logic” against us (like Israel). How upset would we be if we found out another government was trying to influence, or even tampering with, our elections to benefit themselves? What the CIA has done is American Exceptionalism at its near worst. (I’d say it was the worst, but conservatives always find a way to dig deeper when they’re at the bottom of a hole.)

  • colnago80

    On one of his memoirs, Truman opines that possible the worst mistake he made as president was setting up the CIA.

    Re Michael Heath @ #4

    Actually, Truman made a number of courageous decisions as president. He severely jeopardized his election chances in the 1948 presidential election by insisting on a strong civil rights plank in the Democratic platform, which caused Strom Thurmond to bolt the party, taking 4 southern states with him. He supported the creation of the State of Israel, despite the almost unanimous opposition of the State Department, including the Secretary of State George Marshall, a man who he admired above all others. He supported the Marshall Plan, which was decidedly unpopular with many conservatives. He intervened in the Korean War, a very unpopular decision, the ultimate correctness of that decision being validated every day by the success of South Korea. I would say that his courage compares more then favorably with that of his successors.

  • colnago80

    Re Modus @ #5

    I forgot about that decision, opposed by virtually the entire military high command. Truly a profile in courage.

  • colnago80

    Re Alverant @ #6

    Let’s not forget the covert intervention of the Clinton Administration in the 1999 Israeli election where the Clinton’s mad dog, the raging Cajun James Carville, was sent over to assist the Ehud Barak campaign to oust the government of Bibi Netanyahu who had stoked their ire.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Plus, writing his memoirs took bravery. Particularly Volume I: Year of Decisions In Cold Blood. Or maybe that was Harry Truman Capote.

  • bushrat

    The problem here is that Harry Truman obviously unconsciously wanted the CIA to become ‘Merika’s Hammer of Foreign Policy and Domestic Oppression, no matter what his conscious brain thinks he wanted. Just like the good Socialist Atheist Jihadi Communazi he was.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    In Legacy of Ashes cited by Marcus Ranum @ # 1, Tim Wiener also reports that approximately 10% of Marshall Plan funds were covertly earmarked for the fledgling CIA, with freshly-signed-up CIA agents waltzing into US embassies across Europe with empty suitcases and mazurkaing out with full suitcases.

    This was also the era of Operation Gladio in Italy and the Greek civil war, the first an OSS/CIA op from the get-go and the latter a major target of such ops (including lots of death squads). Unless Truman deliberately turned his eyes away from everything the US did in Europe 1948-1953, he had to have known of and supported the CIA as an interventionist tool weapon while in office.

    Give ’em hell, Harry.

  • colnago80

    Re Modus @ #5

    We should not forget his firing of Douglas MacArthur, a very unpopular move at the time. MacArthur was coming off his Inchon Landing triumph and was a big hero to the nation.

  • birgerjohansson

    “Hm. I wonder if there might be advantages to separating the “intelligence gathering” and “covert policy actions” into separate groups.”

    The Brits did this during WWII, using SOE for direct intervention (smuggling weapons to resistance fighters).