Sarah-Jane Corke. U.S. Covert Operations and Cold War Strategy: Truman, Secret Warfare and the CIA, 1945-53. Studies in Intelligence Series. London: Routledge, 2008. ix + 240 pp. $150.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-42077-8.
Reviewed by Mark Montesclaros
Published on H-War (April, 2010)
Commissioned by Janet G. Valentine
Lessons Not Learned
Sarah-Jane Corke provides new insight on policy and intelligence planning during the Truman administration, specifically in the area of covert operations and psychological warfare during the period 1945-53. Benefiting from the flood of documents recently declassified by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the author examines in detail the inner workings of the Cold War-era Washington interagency, as it tried to come to grips with new threats and the means to combat them. In doing so, Corke makes some strong assertions that merit serious attention. Corke is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Corke’s primary contention is that under President Harry Truman, the United States had no overarching, coherent strategy for conducting its Cold War foreign policy. This, in turn, had a direct and largely negative impact on the planning and execution of covert operations, which, in turn, had an abysmal record of success, particularly in Eastern Europe. “Covert operations,” the subject of the author’s work, is an umbrella term used to describe U.S.-sponsored activities against adversaries or in support of friends for which U.S. government involvement is not evident to the general public, or which can be plausibly disclaimed. Corke also uses the terms “political warfare” and “psychological warfare” extensively, the former a more encompassing term while the latter may refer to more specific operations including propaganda, guerrilla warfare, sabotage, and contact with underground groups in adversary territory. The author is careful to point out the nuances and contexts behind use of these terms, and explains their evolution effectively, as they came to be associated, at times, with a particular agency within the Washington national security bureaucracy.
The author argues her thesis by interweaving several themes, each of which is devoted a chapter in her work. Foremost is that Cold War policy under Truman was at best ambiguously stated and responsive primarily to internal vice external factors. Corke interestingly (and counterintuitively) maintains that Soviet policy was much more a result of U.S. domestic politics and bureaucratic infighting than it was based on Soviet action and American counteraction. In the vacuum of ambiguous policy, the various institutions charged with national security policy jockeyed for power and influence in the realm of covert operations and psychological warfare, and in doing so often operated at cross purposes, resulting in flawed policy and failed operations in the field.
Corke also contends that the key organizations involved in national security decision making--the National Security Council (NSC), State Department, Defense Department, and the CIA--largely ran amok and rudderless, all influenced by the relative inability of the Truman administration to corral them. The CIA, for example, was singularly influenced by the legacy of Wild Bill Donovan, its founder and soul. Donovan’s penchant for derring-do and initiative above all else produced a climate that rewarded action vice inaction, regardless of results on the ground.
Of course, Donovan was but one strong character in a narrative replete with larger-than-life personalities--including George Kennan, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, Alan Dulles, Paul Nitze, James Forrestal, etc. It is no wonder that a single entity or personality was unable to harness the collective energy of the interagency, to include President Truman, and provide a single, unifying vision for U.S.-Soviet policy. In military parlance, what was lacking was unity of command and, perhaps more important, unity of purpose in interagency efforts at the time.
Interestingly, frequent and recurring administration attempts to give structure to covert operations and psychological warfare only resulted in further confusion and mismanagement. Corke maintains that such organizations as the Psychological Strategy Board, specifically designed to remove gaps between national policy and operations on the ground, only served to cause further interagency squabbles and confusion. In the end, nearly all of the interagency structures designed to improve the efficacy of covert operations were doomed to inefficiency based on the continuing failure to reconcile visions and agendas of the participating agencies and their heads. Thus, the fundamental strategic problem--getting the “ends” right, was never reconciled, leaving the “means”--caused psychological warfare and covert operations to flounder.
The magnitude of the tragedy in failed covert operations during the period will most likely never be known. The author uses as one case in point the curiously named Operation Valuable (later Project BGFIEND), a covert operation designed to destabilize the government of Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha between 1949 and 1954. Scores of commandos, consisting of Albanian refugees and Albanians of American descent, were inserted into the country to drum up popular support and initiate a potential overthrow of the Hoxha regime. Despite numerous failures and setbacks, CIA operations continued and were even expanded several times. Corke notes that between two hundred and one thousand people died during these unsuccessful operations, which accentuated “the complete breakdown between policy and operations that existed during these years” (p. 99).
Perhaps what readers will find most interesting about the book is the nuanced view of Cold War policy and strategy, along with their attendant national security documents. Those familiar primarily with the policy of containment and NSC-68 may be surprised to learn about the various policy gradations proposed, to include “liberation,” “rollback,” and “Titoism.” These competing strategic visions had their various political and interagency proponents throughout the period and addressed the seminal question of how to deal with Soviet aggression. Likewise, readers may be fascinated by Corke’s meticulous dissection of interagency bureaucratic politics and the policies they produced. The author does a thorough job of explaining how and why the interagency acted the way it did, and how competing personalities and visions resulted in ambiguous policy and multiple interpretations of what the United States was trying to accomplish. As a result, covert operations and psychological warfare continued to thrive, often without government oversight or checks and balances.
Corke’s work has obvious relevance in the modern context, as multiple government agencies struggle to define national security policy and outcomes in the post-9/11 world. It underscores that there is a difference between lessons and lessons learned; that is, national security policymakers must consciously decide whether to incorporate what is learned from the past or choose to ignore such knowledge. There has to be a formal mechanism for this to happen; otherwise, bureaucracies will continue to churn out flawed policies. Next, the author clearly demonstrates the impact of domestic considerations on the foreign policymaking process. As a teacher of the national security strategy making process, it is all too often the case that one focuses on external causes and events vice internal happenings to explain how and why policy is made. Corke clearly shows that Cold War-era policymaking was largely done in the context of domestic politics and bureaucratic infighting rather than as a response to Soviet actions.
Additionally, the author’s painstaking analysis of the interagency process during 1945-53 clearly demonstrates the difficulty in formulating national security policy in a democracy. The author presents a detailed and much more nuanced view of U.S. Cold War policy, one that goes far beyond well-known directives, such as the seminal NSC-68, and such personalities as Truman, Acheson, Kennan, and Nitze. Her explanation of the labyrinthine national security decision-making architecture under Truman is of great value to those studying the interagency process and anyone interested in how national security policy is formulated. Corke’s work makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of Cold War policymaking, adding insightful depth as well as breadth.
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Mark Montesclaros. Review of Corke, Sarah-Jane, U.S. Covert Operations and Cold War Strategy: Truman, Secret Warfare and the CIA, 1945-53.
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