Back Issues |

June 12, 1997

Full Flaps

A Covert Life

It was a rule of thumb for my father's generation that the spooks would come 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 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 Brahmanic national interests were carried out by second-generation Irish and Italians molded in that peculiar Jesuitic pedigree of 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 had to make a respectable living.

I make no excuses for him beyond the exigencies of necessity, and 16 years after 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. Whatever extenuations, however insufficient, I could cite for him are of a different order: More than a passing interest in literature, a longing and a reverence for the sea bequeathed to him by his merchant seaman father, a public courtliness and affability which was totally genuine, the 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 to not argue, has the heft of moral hindsight: Unlike myself, he lacked a smorgasbord of affluence cushioning his adolescent years, much less the luxury of revisionist history as a political Baedeker or the deconstructing of the strategic 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 on the newly-declassified CIA documents' list of 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 20 years later so sickened by our toppling of Allende that it occasioned his early retirement, my father needed no prompts to admit that there was no inner statute of limitation 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 hearth and propriety, the other loosened to the streets and the road and undreamt of possibilities, even if it took prison to realize them.

It was that sense of decorum born of proud poverty which always propelled my father, and gradually it had amplified whatever basic instincts for proportion he possessed. The truest thing that could 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 by my listening the distinctions he laboriously mulled over would better solidify. 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 Mariana 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, he would come to hew to the old-school officers' code which prescribed that intelligence and policy never mix. Blame for the Bay Of Pigs, he conceded, lay with the operations wing of 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 decorum was diminished.

He didn't live to see Iran-Contra and the recent evidence on the extent of CIA's traditional involvement in drug running. I suspect he would regard these manifestations as an outgrowth of the predilections of the new breed of officers he railed against late in his career, the sycophantic bag men like Robert Owen, toadies to military types like Ollie North and intemperate old-boy romantics like William Casey. But I'm hardly persuaded that my father would cease all defense of his beloved employer. On his deathbed, his frail voice barely audible, he mused 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.

* * *

I'll be off momentarily for the East Coast and a visit with my mother, and, as it happens, to pick up a national journalism award which has been vouchsafed this modest sheet.

I remember with particular amusement 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 eternal bewilderment, that I intended to follow Camus' counsel to "create dangerously."

Evidently some of the gods are apportioned to look out for mavericks like myself, and my forthcoming honors 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, and certainly it was plain that I was not one who had need of his blessing or his applause -- his or anyone's 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, either for want of nerve or the constraints of his acute sense of responsibility. 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 very dire 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.

--Copyright John Hutchison 1997

Home | Current Issue | Back Issues |