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'The Quiet Americans' Examines Tragic Miscalculations In The CIA's Formative Years

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're used to a world in which American intelligence services operate with enormous power and reach. Our guest today, writer Scott Anderson, has a new book about the early years of the CIA, when America was victorious in World War II and former soldiers were improvising a campaign of spying and covert operations to contain and undermine the nation's new adversary, the Soviet Union. It was a time, Anderson writes, when Americans wielded great moral authority in the world and nations struggling to throw off colonial rule looked to the United States as a beacon of freedom and democracy. Anderson concludes that the CIA's rigid commitment to anti-communism and willingness to topple democratically elected governments squandered the goodwill the U.S. held in the developing world and led to a disastrous war in Vietnam.

Anderson tells the story through the lives of four young men who played important roles in the CIA. Scott Anderson is the author of two novels and four books of nonfiction. In 2016, he authored a story about the modern history of the Middle East which took up an entire issue of The New York Times Magazine called "Fractured Lands: How The Arab World Came Apart." He spoke to me from his home in Fleischmanns, N.Y., about his new book, "The Quiet Americans."

Well, Scott Anderson, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

SCOTT ANDERSON: Thank you, Dave. Thanks for having me on.

DAVIES: You lived abroad a lot as a kid, including a long time in Taiwan, where you kind of grew up on the edges of the Cold War. You know, you write that your father, who worked for the U.S. government, eventually became disillusioned with the policy approaches of the government and took an early retirement. You went on to become a journalist, and you were a war correspondent in a lot of conflict zones. And you tell a story of a moment in Central America that kind of captured your own reckoning with the U.S. commitment to anti-communism and its effect. Do you want to share that with us?

ANDERSON: Sure. It was in 1984. I was an aspiring journalist at that point. I had gone down to El Salvador. And in 1984, the so-called dirty war in El Salvador was really starting to wind down a bit. And perhaps over the previous four years, something like 60,000 people died in this war, and the vast majority of them killed by - not in combat, but by right-wing death squads that were part of the government.

DAVIES: You know, it was a leftist insurgency against a right-wing government, right? Yeah.

ANDERSON: That's right, and a right-wing government being supported by the Reagan administration. But by 1984, the Reagan administration's whole attitude was, well, the war is winding down. You know, the death squads are, you know, are not nearly as active as they once were. And, you know, they're really not part of the government. And so it was - this fiction had been going on for quite some time.

And so this one day I was in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, and I was walking along a downtown street, and a van passed me. It pulled to a stop maybe - I don't know - a hundred feet ahead of me. And out came a body of a dead woman. Her thumbs were tied in front of her. And just - the body was just tossed out on the street. And as - I was the only person on this street. And as I kind of tentatively walked towards this woman who I, you know, clearly knew was dead, even before I got to her, a matter of maybe 10 seconds after the first van had pulled away, a military van pulls up. Three soldiers get out. One points a gun at my feet, kind of the universal, you know, stay back symbol, and the other two men - the other two soldiers pick up the body, throw it in their van. They all get back in the van and drive away.

So it was this very kind of - very seamless sleight of hand idea where the, you know, the so-called anonymous death squad has dumped this body, and literally 10 seconds later, the government has come to collect it. And there was something in that moment that just, for me, it just really brought home this idea of, you know, what has the American government come to that we are supporting governments who will murder their own citizens and just throw their bodies out in broad daylight? And so that was really kind of a turning point for me of just how squalid had our foreign policy become.

DAVIES: So this book is about the early years of the CIA kind of from the end of World War II through the mid-'50s and when the CIA had sort of become a primary instrument of policy in fighting the Cold War. You know, we're used to the American intelligence community being huge. But before World War II, the Soviets had - they had a huge intelligence operation. They'd been spying for a long time - not so much the United States. Why?

ANDERSON: You know, America was really - up until we came into World War II, we were still a deeply isolationist country, I think, at our core to the point where we had no permanent foreign intelligence agency. It wasn't until World War II with the creation of the Office of Strategic Services that there was any kind of foreign intelligence office. So the four men I profile were all in the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, during the war.

And then President Truman shut down the OSS in the immediate aftermath of the war, and it was this idea that, OK, the war is over; we're all going home. The American military was demobilizing at the rate of 15,000 soldiers a day. And it was like, our job is done, and we're just - we're going back home to, you know, our American way of life so utterly unprepared for what was coming.

There was an interim organization started that was kind of the bridge between the OSS and the CIA. And one of the men I write about in the book, Peter Sichel, he was sent to Berlin to head up the - this unit of the Strategic Services unit. And this really goes to just how kind of utterly unprepared the Americans were. Berlin, of course, being - the post-war Berlin was ground zero of the coming Cold War. And there were hundreds, if not thousands, of Soviet intelligence officers running through Berlin.

And the unit that Peter Sichel headed up and was the first covert intelligence unit in Berlin consisted of nine people. And he was the head of it, and he had just turned 24. So it really just shows how completely - I mean, not to take anything away from Peter. He was a brilliant man. But they really were not preparing for what they were in for.

DAVIES: So as World War II was wrapping up and the Soviet army was moving into a lot of nations in Eastern Europe, American policymakers at the top didn't quite get the extent to which the Soviet would seek to create client states in Eastern Europe. And these early spies that you write about in the book, these members, most of whom had been soldiers, in some cases operating clandestinely behind German lines - these guys encountered this and kind of had to alert American policymakers to what's going on. And one of the most striking examples was in the country of Romania. That was Frank Wisner - right? - who was there.

ANDERSON: That's right - Frank Wisner.

DAVIES: Tell us what he experienced there with the Soviet moves in Romania.

ANDERSON: Yeah. Frank Wisner is - he's a fascinating figure, and he would later go on to head the covert operations wing of the CIA, the Office of Policy Coordination. But in 1944, the Romanians, who had been allied with Nazi Germany, switched sides and joined the Allies. And it came when the Soviet Army, the Red Army, was literally on the frontier with Romania. So Romania came under Soviet army control very quickly.

Frank Wisner was the first American in, and this - you're talking August, September - I guess September of 1944. So still, there's still another, you know, year left in the war. And what he saw firsthand was how the Soviets were just dictating the interim government. They were, frankly, looting the country of Romania, dismantling factories and putting them on trains and hauling them back to the Soviet Union. And he started sending these cables saying, our allies, the Soviets, are just completely taking over this country. And again, it's this very early warning. He was the canary in the coal mine - was just ignored to the point where his - the head of the OSS, William Donovan, sent him back kind of a stern cable saying, don't keep beating up on the Soviets; you have to get along with them.

DAVIES: The OSS being the precursor to the CIA, right?

ANDERSON: That's right. That's right. And, you know, and part of it - you know, and this was just in the runup to, you know, the Yalta Conference, where the right-wing - political right wing in the United States and - you know, even today sort of sees Yalta as a sellout of Eastern Europe, that FDR handed Eastern Europe over to the Soviets.

But what you also saw at the same time - and Romania's a good example of this - is what could the Americans have done? Short of going to war or threatening war with the Soviet Union, how were they going to exert their control over Eastern Europe? In Romania, by 1945, by the end of the war, there were 600,000 Soviet troops just in Romania. And the American contingent in Romania was about - it was about 150 - not 150,000, but 150. So how are 150 guys going to stand up to 600,000?

So there was - there really was this element of fait accompli that you saw throughout Eastern Europe unless the United States was really, you know, really willing to threaten war, which also meant stopping the demobilization and gearing up for what would've been World War III.

DAVIES: You know, there's a context here, and that is that, you know, the Soviets had suffered terribly at the hands of the German invasion. You know - what? - 20 million or more killed. And the Romanians were on the side of the Germans here. So when it came time for the Soviets to come back and take the country, there wasn't much goodwill. I mean, there was a sense of hatred and vengeance to be enacted on these people, their former adversaries, who had cooperated with the Nazis. So that was part of what was going on.

But they really took over the government, kind of basically banned all other political parties. And there's another moment which is so striking, where there were about 100,000 people in Romania of ethnic German descent. What did the Soviets do with them?

ANDERSON: Right. And again, this is when the war is still raging, but Romania is now behind the front lines. The Soviets sent down this edict that all ethnic Germans were to be rounded up. And some hundred thousand of them were put on trains - overcrowded trains and sent to the Soviet Union essentially as slave labor.

And Frank Wisner was in Bucharest, the capital, when this was going on. He tried to prevent it. He couldn't prevent it. And that image haunted him forever. It is watching these tens of thousands of ethnic German families being, you know, herded onto rail cars and sent off to the Soviet Union. It's something that came up again and again with Frank Wisner throughout the rest of his life. And his wife at one point said, you know, I think everything changed for him at that moment.

DAVIES: You know, this image of these civilians being hauled into railroad cars and taken away just inevitably calls to mind the Holocaust. Was that comparison apparent to anybody at the time?

ANDERSON: I think that's exactly what was in Wisner's mind. And I got to say the interesting thing is, in fact, most of those hundred thousand ethnic Germans that were sent to the Soviet Union in 1944 - the vast majority of them actually came back. They were - worked hard labor for the Soviets, but the vast majority of them came home. But I think the reason that was such a - had such a profound effect on Wisner as a witness to that was that in his own mind, it inevitably drew comparisons to the Holocaust. So I think that's the image that he kept in his mind.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. Scott Anderson's new book is "The Quiet Americans." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "SPY MEETING")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson. He has a new book about the early years of the CIA from the end of World War II through the mid-'50s, when the agency was a key instrument of policy in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Anderson's book is "The Quiet Americans."

So eventually, a U.S. policymaker realizes that the Soviet Union intends to dominate the countries of Eastern Europe. And, you know, there was an argument that they needed a buffer zone given the suffering that they had suffered in World War II. But it was heavy-handed. It was ruthless. And so they directed this growing little spy operation, the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, which became the CIA, to start doing something about it, to fight back. And you write about one of the first places was Albania, you know, between Greece and Yugoslavia. What did they try and do to deal with the Soviet client regime there?

ANDERSON: Right. So the interesting thing with Albania from a kind of, you know, geopolitical standpoint is that of the Soviet bloc countries, it was the one that was - that had no border with the Soviet Union. It was the most geographically isolated. And especially Yugoslavia, which surrounds it on two sides, had kind of broken away from the Soviet bloc. So Albania was quite isolated and also had a really despotic dictator who ran things. So the CIA decided that, you know, if they were going to be able to peel off any country from the Soviet bloc, it would be Albania. And, you know, this was an idea hardly endorsed by the, you know, thousands - tens of thousands of Albanian refugees who escaped communist rule there.

So they launched this operation called Operation Valuable Fiend. It's a great name. I actually got very lucky with the operational names in my book because, you know, I could've been stuck with really quite tedious ones. But, I mean, Valuable Fiend is just perfect. And so one of the other characters of my book, Michael Burke, he was put in charge of Operation Valuable Fiend. He operated it out of Rome.

So - and there's this kind of wonderful kind of James Bond quality to this - to Michael Burke's time in Rome, where he has no job, but he has a lot of money. He's throwing around a lot of money. So he has to look like a man of means and - so he passes himself off. His cover story is that he's a film producer.

DAVIES: Right. Yeah. He has a lot of money because he got it from the CIA, right (laughter)?

ANDERSON: That's right. That's right. Yeah, yeah (laughter). And so he's hanging out with the whole film set of "Rome." And the late '40s was kind of the heyday of the Italian cinema scene. So during the day, he's hanging out with all these actors and movie directors. And at night, he's slipping off to meet with his Albanian conspirators that - planning these - they're going to be dropping paramilitaries in airdrops into Albania - and this kind of bifurcated life he went to back and forth.

And at one point, he became worried that, you know, I'm passing myself off as a film producer. But I'm not actually producing anything. And at certain point, aren't people going to start asking questions about, you know, what I'm doing? But then it - but it turned out that, you know, the Italian film people were just as self-absorbed as...

(LAUGHTER)

ANDERSON: ...People in Hollywood. And all they wanted to do was talk about themselves. They were never going to ask questions about what (laughter) he was up to. So his cover remained intact. But the Operation Valuable Fiend turned into a disaster. It was a precursor of a number of disasters that were coming.

DAVIES: So what they would do is they would get these Albanian anti-communist patriots and convince them to be dropped in groups of, you know, four, five, 10 behind Albanian lines and do what, exactly?

ANDERSON: That was the part that was very vague. It was, you know - it ranged everything - oh, you're supposed to go in just to, you know, is there the potential for counterrevolution here? Maybe they were going to go in to set up revolutionary cells, to organize people to fight against the regime. But the reality was that, certainly, Albania was one of the most battened down countries. The secret police were everywhere. And so the moment these people parachuted in, the secret police were already looking for them. Plus, the fact that, almost certainly, the emigre organizations back in Europe - in Western Europe - had been thoroughly infiltrated by the KGB.

DAVIES: So they went badly. And a lot of these people were captured and killed - right? - if not all, right?

ANDERSON: Right. And Albania was a precursor to other infiltration operations all through Eastern Europe. And uniformly, they were a disaster.

DAVIES: Well, I wanted to talk about that. So after this Albanian operation, the CIA decided to try and create covert operations to foment revolution or resistance in a lot of Eastern European countries now dominated by the Soviet Union - Poland, of course, the eastern half of Germany, Czechoslovakia. And Michael Burke, who's one of the characters that you write about, organizes these things. Just give us a sense of sort of how many of these operations they were, how they were executed and what the results seemed to be.

ANDERSON: There were hundreds of these operations. And, yes, they ranged all the way from Bulgaria in the southeast of Europe all the way up to Poland, even in the Baltic states that were under Soviet control - or were part of the Soviet Union. They were uniformly disastrous. Virtually everybody who was parachuted in either disappeared or were captured and executed. And the most astonishing case of that was in Poland, where immediately after the end of World War II, this organization had started up called Freedom and Liberty opposing Soviet control of Poland. And by 1947-48, it had been completely wiped out.

Couple of years later, all of a sudden, it reappears. And it starts sending messages out to the West starting around 1949 saying, OK, we're not the 30,000 fighters we were two, three years ago. But we're still fighting. And, you know, we need help. So the CIA launches this operation to help this anti-communist group inside Poland, air dropping partisan commandos in. And Michael Burke is one of the people in the field who's overseeing these airdrop missions, dropping in weapons, dropping in money and dropping in commandos.

And it finally turns out that the whole thing has been a hoax all along, that, in fact, this organization had been wiped out in 1947. And the whole thing was just a Polish government and KGB sting operation that had involved, certainly, dozens, if not, hundreds of people in this massive hoax. And for two years, the CIA had been sending these commandos in, sending this money in right into the hands of the Polish secret police and the KGB. In Michael Burke's case - I think, as with a lot of the CIA people in Europe at the time who were overseeing these operations - the Polish hoax really had this effect of, like, well, if they could pull this off, if they could pull off a hoax like this, a deception operation, that clearly involved scores and scores of people and we never had a clue, how do we ever penetrate this world?

DAVIES: We're speaking with Scott Anderson. His new book is "The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies At The Dawn Of The Cold War - A Tragedy In Three Acts." He'll be back to talk more after we take this short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDERIC CHOPIN AND ARTHUR RUBINSTEIN'S "NOCTURNES, OP. 9: NO. 2 IN E-FLAT MAJOR. ADANTE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Scott Anderson. He's a veteran war correspondent who's written two novels and four nonfiction books. His latest looks at the early years of the CIA from the end of World War II through the mid-1950s. He says it was a time when American goodwill in the post-colonial world was squandered by ill-advised covert operations, some of which toppled democratically elected governments in the developing world. His book is called "The Quiet Americans."

You know, in 1952 when Dwight Eisenhower is elected president, he appoints as secretary of state John Foster Dulles, who is the brother of Allen Dulles, who headed the CIA. Both were corporate lawyers in their civilian lives. Describe the approach that the Secretary of State John Foster Dulles brought to the challenge of dealing with the Soviet Union.

ANDERSON: Dulles is just a remarkable figure and, from my vantage point, probably did more damage to Americans' standing in the world than almost anyone I can think of in the 20th century. John Foster Dulles had this - everything was black and white. And around the world, you were either with the United States or you're with the Soviets - allowing no countries to be neutral, essentially. If you were neutral, then you were with the other side. But he also had this very bizarre view of the Soviet Union that was simultaneously a power that was trying to take over the world by any means possible, but at the same time, about to disintegrate, about to fall apart, which to my mind seems almost kind of mutually opposing ideas. But John Foster Dulles saw everything through that prism. So any overture from the Soviets was a trick. It was either a trick to enhance their ability to takeover. Or it was a sign of their internal weakness.

So if they - after Stalin died, the new leaders of the Soviet Union expresses interest of peaceful coexistence. They came up with the phrase peaceful coexistence and extended an olive branch to the West, one that the British and the French wanted to work with. Dulles shot it down, saying, you know, this - it's a trick and it proves how weak they are. Why accept half a loaf when we're just about to get the whole thing? So there's this very schizophrenic foreign policy within the Eisenhower administration. And Eisenhower seemed to really hand over most of the heavy thinking, the heavy lifting, of Soviet policy off to Dulles.

DAVIES: And we should note that as the '50s progressed, you know, the strategic situation changes because the United States loses its monopoly on nuclear weapons. And there's the possibility, increasingly, of a nuclear war, which no one wants. So it makes these, you know, kind of brushfire encounters or covert operations kind of a central front. And, you know, so Dulles' perspective was we have to maintain maximum pressure on the Soviet Union to hasten its disintegration. And don't take any peaceful overtures seriously.

One of the things that was fascinating about these covert operations, which Michael Burke, one of the people you write about, supervised - sending hundreds of people over in small groups into these Soviet dominated states, mostly to be captured and caught immediately - was if they were actually successful in building a cell of resistance and creating an armed revolt in one of these countries - Poland, Czechoslovakia - what would the United States do? I mean, that's - you know, would it lead to military assistance from the West?

ANDERSON: You know, it's absolutely astonishing. But that very question seems to have been one that the Eisenhower administration in general and John Foster Dulles in particular never really thought through. They stayed with this rhetoric of rollback. We're going to rollback communism. We're going to deliberate the so-called captive nations of Eastern Europe. So they continued the infiltration operations all around the world. It was this idea of, you know, keep pushing against the Soviets but without really any thought of, exactly as you said, of how much the world had changed. And it's interesting. When Eisenhower came in, he enacted this policy called the New Look policy. And it was this idea that Americans reserve the right of - to take massive retaliation against Soviet aggression, that being a euphemism for a nuclear first strike.

And what no one seemed to kind of think through with the New Look policy is that what that then did was that locked into place the dividing line in Europe, because now Western Europe was in the vital interest of the United States. If the Soviets tried to do something there, it would hasten a nuclear war. But the same thing in reverse in Eastern Europe. And it really wasn't until you finally had an anti-communist uprising in the east - in Eastern Europe in Hungary in 1956 that the built in contradiction of the New Look policy, all of a sudden you see it's utterly unworkable.

DAVIES: You know, there was a case in Berlin, where on the Soviet-controlled side of it, there was a strike, which turned into massive street demonstrations. And people were looking for the United States to act in some way, you know provide weapons, provide strong statements of support. Nothing much happened there.

ANDERSON: Right.

DAVIES: And then, in 1956 - this is a remarkable thing that some will remember. But demonstrations in Hungary kind of progressed into a full-on revolt in which the police in some cases turned weapons over to the demonstrators. And they took on Soviet units in Budapest and killed a lot of Russian soldiers. This created an enormous crisis. Describe what happened and how the United States reacted.

ANDERSON: Yeah. When - the great irony of the Hungarian Revolution is that, you know, after a decade of the CIA trying to foment anti-communist uprisings in Eastern Europe, here one came. And it was spontaneous. It was not CIA-sponsored. The CIA had no idea it was coming. And, in fact, it would have been very hard to predict because it really did have this quality of spontaneous combustion. At the same time, there was a precursor. There had been a big liberalization movement that happened in Poland just the month before. And this is in the early days of Khrushchev. And he is - he's clearly trying to liberalize both in the Soviet Union and in the satellite nations of Eastern Europe.

So when the Hungarian Revolution blows up - and it literally happened overnight - Frank Wisner, who was the head of the covert operations unit of the CIA, this is his dream come true. This is what he has been fighting for, you know, for the last 10 years. And he argues, you know, we've got to - we've been telling them we're going to come to their aid. Radio Free Europe has been telling people to rebel. We have to move.

And, you know, the graybeards back in Washington all of a sudden realize or decide we can't because if we do, we might trigger the nuclear war that we're all fearing because we are - if we go into Hungary, we are going into, you know, the sphere of Soviet influence that could be inviolate and could trigger the war. So they do nothing, and they let the - they just let the revolution be crushed by the Soviets.

DAVIES: Right. And you describe how some of these Hungarian rebels, as they're hoping they can hold out against the Soviet tanks who are approaching, keep looking to the western skies for American aircraft.

ANDERSON: Yeah. It's amazing. He's since passed away, but one of the last American journalists who was in Budapest at the time of the revolution, a man named Michael Foot - he described this just heartbreaking story of - on the day that the revolution was getting crushed - November 4, 1956 - the rebels, the freedom fighters, were being pushed into this very small pocket of Budapest. And it was really the last hours, and all of a sudden, he heard these people who were trapped cheering. And he'd talked to some Hungarians like, why are they cheering? They said it's - the Americans have just come across the border. The Americans are on their way. And, of course, the Americans weren't on their way. And within a few hours, you know, the last of the holdouts had been captured or killed.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again, and we're going to take a break here. We're speaking with Scott Anderson. His new book is "The Quiet Americans." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RHYTHM FUTURE QUARTET'S "IBERIAN SUNRISE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson. He has a new book about the early years of the CIA from the end of World War II through the mid-1950s, when the agency was a key instrument of policy in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Anderson's book is "The Quiet Americans."

Historians hate to be asked to play what if, but let's just do this for a second. You know, you look at when Stalin dies - when was that? - about 1953, right?

ANDERSON: Yes.

DAVIES: Khrushchev comes to power. He talks about peaceful coexistence. At one point, I think he says, you know, well, if you guys are forming NATO as mutual defense, maybe we should join NATO.

ANDERSON: Right.

DAVIES: You know, he does - once the the Hungarian rebellion occurs, there's a moment where he seems to relent and say, OK, you can have the reformist Prime Minister. I'll pull Soviet troops out of the country. We'll have sort of a commonwealth rather than this Soviet client state. And throughout all of these steps, the U.S. policymakers, led by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, have no interest in courting a friendship with the Soviet Union or encouraging some of these steps. Had they taken a different approach, would history be different?

ANDERSON: I think it would be radically different. I often think that - and I think you hit it on the nose - that that moment - and it's why my book kind of ends with the Hungarian Revolution because I think that was the absolute key moment when this Cold War could have started to end right there. The Soviet Politburo, at Khrushchev's insistence, on October 31, 1956, decided they were pulling out of Hungary and, as you said, that they were going to change the relationship of all the Eastern European countries with the Soviet Union to being this loose confederation. The next day - November 1, 1956 - over the course of that night, Khrushchev had a complete change of heart. And he goes back to the Politburo the next day and says, look. If the Americans were going to do anything, they would have done it by now. And if we lose Hungary, we're going to lose all the others. This is going to become a cascade.

So on that day Khrushchev and the Politburo completely changed course, and they ordered the tanks back into Hungary. And, of course, this was after, you know, three years of there being a number of overtures by the Soviets towards the West for a rapprochement and being rebuffed every time. And what you see after Hungary is Khrushchev, who really had been very much a reformer for the previous three years - he was the one who led the de-Stalinization policy - he becomes more and more of a hardliner, you know, to the point where he precipitates the October Missile Crisis in 1962. But that was absolutely one of those great historical what if moments - if the Americans had played things differently with Hungary.

DAVIES: The CIA was, of course, active in other parts of the world - I mean, not just Europe - particularly the developing world, where, you know, you had a lot of countries that had been European colonies for decades and were looking to strike out an independent course. In general, what was U.S. policy in the third world at a time when they feared Soviet, you know, ambitions everywhere?

ANDERSON: Right initially after the end of World War II, there was this idea that - and it was FDR's idea of - that we will be a force for fostering democracy in the developing world. That went very quickly by the wayside by just the onslaught of events. I think that it was really ultimately discarded completely by the time of the Korean War in 1950. Now the United States saw the world as, we need to defend what we have. We're not going to be a force for change. We're going to - it's going to be this defensive policy of protecting people against the spread of communism. So if that means propping up or cozying up to military dictatorships around the world or despots, then so be it.

And then what you also saw happening at the same time was - and, again, as a result largely of Korea - was now the United States, all of a sudden, is supporting the French and the British in maintaining their colonial outposts throughout the world, especially in Asia. So the United States under FDR that had been demanding the French leave their possessions in Indo-China, in Vietnam - now in 1954, the Americans are actually bankrolling the French to stay on in Vietnam. So there is just a complete turnaround in this very short span of time.

DAVIES: Right. And then there were cases where government would come to power, in some cases, through democratic elections and pursue courses that were regarded as dangerous - you know, expropriating foreign investments, et cetera. You want to give a couple examples of ways in which the CIA dealt quickly and effectively with those?

ANDERSON: Yeah. And I think this is the next stage on. And then you see this when Eisenhower comes to power and has John Foster Dulles as secretary of state. Now we're not just propping up dictatorships, we're creating them (laughter). And the two places that happened early in Eisenhower's administration was in Iran in 1953 and then Guatemala the following year - both democracies, but they both had functioning, working parliaments.

And the irony is that neither of them had - really had any sort of relations with the Soviet Union. But as you said, industrial powers - in Iran's case, the oil companies, and in Guatemala, the United Fruit Company that ran Guatemala as, essentially, a plantation - they began fomenting that these leftist leaders are going to - you know, they're going to take their countries into the Soviet orbit. And we've got to get rid of them. So under orders from on high, the CIA overthrew both of those governments, the Mossadegh regime in Iran and the Arbenz regime in Guatemala.

DAVIES: You know, you've covered a lot of conflict zones. And the parts of the book of the United States, in some cases, you know, cynically supporting right-wing dictatorships, you know, is not exactly news. People have talked about this before. I will say that the stories that you tell in Europe, where the United States, the CIA, is pursuing these really foolhardy missions against Eastern European states, which get, you know, sincerely intended patriots killed time and time and time again, bespeak a kind of - a lack of clear thinking, a lack of strategy, this improvisational approach which is really reckless. Do you think that's changed? Or were you surprised by it?

ANDERSON: You know, I wasn't surprised by it. I think what happened was - you know, one thing I was not aware of until I really started to look at this whole period, you know, almost on a day-by-day account, the barrage of events that were happening constantly. And, you know, you talk about foreign crises today and stuff. There's - you can't compare to what was happening in the 1940s and 1950s.

I have this line in the book that in one month in 1950, the U.N. launched its counter-offensive into Korea that pushed the communists back into North Korea. Same month, communist China invaded Tibet. A French garrison of 6,000 soldiers in Indochina was wiped out by, you know, the communist guerillas. And the Polish government arrested 5,000 dissidents in a 24-hour dragnet. And that was in one month. So I think these guys were just getting pummeled by so many things happening so quickly that they just went into this reactive mode of, we have to try something. And even if it doesn't work, we don't have the luxury of time to sit back and think out thoughtful counter-offenses. We just have to do something.

And, you know, the other thing to keep in mind is this is coming right after the heels of World War II. So - and these were all men who had been in World War II. So you know, if the OSS screwed up in World War II, you might have 5,000 guys die. You know, the raid on Dieppe, which was a complete fiasco, 2,000 men died. So it seemed like small potatoes if you're sending across, you know, a half-dozen guys and they don't come back. And I think that that was part of the mindset also is that the numbers were low. And we have to try whatever we can to turn this tide back.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We're going take a break here. We're speaking with Scott Anderson. His new book is "The Quiet Americans." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson. He has a new book about the early years of the CIA, from the end of World War II through the mid-1950s, when the agency was a key instrument of policy in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Anderson's book is "The Quiet Americans."

You know, it's kind of remarkable that the CIA was so utterly feckless in its attempts to foment revolution in Eastern Europe. But they actually succeeded in overthrowing these two governments. Take the one in Iran, Mossadegh. This was the Shah of Iran. I mean, the traditional imperial ruler was a factor here. Tell us exactly what happened. And how did the CIA affect this change?

ANDERSON: In both cases, actually, in both in Iran and Guatemala, they actually were these monumental bluffs that somehow worked. In both countries, the CIA basically rented - you know, it was rent-a-mob. In Iran, they - it was literally rent-a-mob. In Iran, they rented demonstrators to protest against the Mossadegh regime and to support the shah who was trying to get rid of Mossadegh. And it created these spontaneous demonstrations in the streets of Tehran.

DAVIES: You mean they passed out cash to people to...

ANDERSON: Handed out cash. And at a certain point, the military joined the demonstrators. And in Guatemala, it was a phantom army of some 400 mercenaries that the CIA bankrolled that was, you know, allegedly this popular movement that was coming to, quote, "liberate" Guatemala from Arbenz - and again, just a monumental bluff. The liberation army - so-called liberation army - never got across the border. They were pinned down at the border.

But in both cases - it's really remarkable symmetry. In both cases, it reached a point where the CIA and the people who were watching this back in Washington had given up. They saw both of these operations as complete failures. And there's this great detail of the CIA officer who was orchestrating the event in Iran. As he waited for the collapse of the coup, he holed himself up in a CIA safehouse, listening to Broadway show tunes and drinking sloe gin rickeys (laughter).

But in both cases - in Iran and Guatemala - at the 11th hour, when the CIA was about to pull the plug, everything turned. And the other side blinked, and Mossadegh collapsed. Arbenz collapsed. And the other key factor in both of these coups was they were incredibly cheap. It was essentially lunch money overthrowing these two countries. And, of course, it was so easy in both cases that it helped set up what was to come with the Bay of Pigs in 1961 - another really slapdash operation, but hey; it worked twice before. Why not a third time? And instead, of course, the Bay of Pigs - it was a fiasco.

DAVIES: You know, I guess in the case of the coups in Iran and in Guatemala, a critical factor was creating a situation in which the military felt like they had to step in. Once the people who have the weapons weigh in on the side of the United States, that can be decisive, right?

ANDERSON: Absolutely. And - but, of course, there is the long term repercussions of that. We saw how well having a military dictatorship with the Shah in power, you know, worked in Iran. And, of course, the American-led coup in Guatemala led to 25 years of military dictatorships and slaughter in Guatemala.

DAVIES: And what was the impact throughout the developing world on the image of the United States? I mean, you made the point that, coming out of World War II, a lot of people looked to the United States, you know, as a force for freedom and independence.

ANDERSON: That's right. America was always seen, up until - really, until the end of World War II, it was the reluctant empire. It was the superpower, the emergent superpower that had no interest in taking over colonial possessions like the British and the French and especially with the way Roosevelt was talking throughout the '30s and certainly into World War II as this idea that America was going to be this beacon of freedom and the bringer of democracy.

By the time of Guatemala and Iran, under the Eisenhower administration - again, just 12 years later - it wasn't just Guatemala and Iran. Those were the successful coups the CIA pulled off. But what they'd also done is foment revolutions throughout the world. And I had this comment in the book that it was almost - it almost seemed by design that, under the Eisenhower administration, the CIA had gone into almost every region and subregion of the entire world, you know, as if to enrage (laughter) - you know, to enrage all the different, you know, regional blocs of the globe.

And it really had that effect. You saw - certainly, the Arab world had, by the end of the Eisenhower administration - that's a little more complicated because of Israel. But the Arab world, which had been very pro-Western, is almost uniformly anti-American. Latin America certainly had felt, you know, the heavy boot of the Americans because of Guatemala and other things they had been trying in the region. And, of course, what you see, you know, happening in Asia - so America really, by the mid-1950s - and, again, to my mind, largely through the exertions of John Foster Dulles, were - America was reviled and seen as the new imperial power looking to take over.

DAVIES: Well, it's quite a story. Scott Anderson, thank you so much for speaking with us again.

ANDERSON: Thank you, Dave. I really appreciate being on.

DAVIES: Scott Andersen's new book is "The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies At The Dawn Of The Cold War - A Tragedy In Three Acts."

On tomorrow's show, we speak with New York Times Washington correspondent Michael Schmidt. He's broken many stories about Donald Trump. He breaks more in his new book "Donald Trump V. The United States: Inside The Struggle To Stop A President." I hope you can join us.

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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "SO WHAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.