Author Q&A

An interview with Douglas Waller on Disciples

Q. In a nutshell, what is Disciples about?

Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby and William Casey were among the most famous and controversial directors the Central Intelligence Agency has ever had. But before these four men became their country’s top spymaster, they fought in World War II as secret warriors for Wild Bill Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services. This book is about their clandestine missions during that war. Based in Switzerland, Dulles ran the OSS’s most successful spy operation against the Axis. Casey organized dangerous missions to penetrate Nazi Germany with OSS operatives. Colby led daring OSS commando raids into occupied France and Norway. Helms mounted risky intelligence programs against the Russians in war-torn Berlin just after the German surrender. I found a compelling story of four fascinating men, whose exciting espionage and sabotage during World War II shaped how they led the CIA afterwards.

Q. Why did you decide to write this book?

After I finished my biography of General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, I began looking for another biographical subject. It wasn’t easy. Donovan, who was Franklin Roosevelt’s spymaster, the leader of the wartime Office of Strategic Services and the father of today’s CIA, was as rich and controversial a character as you could ever find. Topping him would be difficult. An archivist at the National Archives, with whom I had become a close friend during my Donovan research, finally suggested that I consider writing a book on the OSS years of the four men who served under Donovan and who went on to become directors of the CIA: Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby and William Casey.

Q. Who are Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby and William Casey?

For all their differences in personality, I discovered a common thread running between Dulles, Helms, Colby and Casey. As I write in the beginning of the book, “they were all smart—indeed, intellectuals in one sense because they were voracious readers, thoughtful, curious, and creatures of reason—but they were not the ivory tower types who would sit for long in doubtful introspection. These were strong, decisive, supremely confident men of action, doers who believed they could shape history rather than let it control them. They returned from World War II not emotionally drained or scarred by what they had experienced but rather invigorated and ready for the next battle.”

Helms, on the far right with Dulles (center) and other OSS staffers, became a key member of the OSS’s postwar Berlin base, where he oversaw espionage operations targeting the Russians. CIA Photo

Q. What was the OSS and what role did it play in World War II?

In July 1941, Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Coordinator of Information with William Donovan as its head. The vaguely worded one-page document stated that Donovan would collect intelligence of national security importance and do other unspecified things for FDR. A year later this agency was renamed the Office of Strategic Services. Donovan started with just one man—himself—and by the end of the war he had assembled a force of more than 10,000 spies, saboteurs, commandos, propagandists, research analysts and support personnel operating in stations all over the world. Donovan had clandestine officers who stole secrets from the Axis, guerrillas who fought behind enemy lines, some of the country’s finest minds analyzing the intelligence that was collected, and psychological warfare specialists who tried to sap enemy morale.

Q. Who was Wild Bill Donovan, the man who led the OSS?

He was the son of a poor Irish Catholic family from Buffalo, New York, who married into Protestant wealth. He fought bravely in World War I, where he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He made millions as a Wall Street lawyer until Franklin Roosevelt asked him to be his strategic intelligence chief. It’s remarkable that FDR tapped Donovan considering that he was a Republican and Roosevelt was a Democrat and the two had had some fierce political battles in New York. But Donovan was the only one who seemed to Roosevelt to be thinking seriously about how to set up a worldwide foreign intelligence service, which FDR desperately needed as World War II approached. So he made Donovan head of what eventually became known as the Office of Strategic Services.

Q. How did you go about researching this book?

I knew that writing an ensemble biography would be difficult, but from my book on Donovan I also knew where to go to uncover the secrets wars these four men fought in World War II. I spent a year hunting through the millions of pages of OSS documents stored in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. These once-secret documents have all been declassified, but they are difficult to traverse and material on the OSS operations that Dulles, Helms, Colby and Casey carried out is scattered among thousands of boxes. Fortunately, I knew how to find important information in the OSS files from my research of the Donovan biography, so hunting for needles in the haystack was easier this time.

Colby joined a secret OSS program, codenamed Jedburgh, to parachute three-man guerrilla teams behind the lines in France after D-Day. The Jedburghs trained at Milton Hall, a country estate north of London. U.S. Army Photo

Next I had to spend months at archives around the country that housed the personal papers of these four men. Dulles’s papers are at the Princeton University Library, Colby has papers stored at Princeton as well, Casey’s papers are at the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University, and Helms’s papers are kept at Georgetown University’s Library. I also found material and oral histories on the four men at more than a dozen other archives around the country.

Other repositories had hundreds and hundreds of pages for me to unearth. The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis provided me with the thick Navy personnel files for Helms and Casey. The FBI provided me with the fat dossier that its agents had compiled on Dulles. Next I travelled to England and spent several weeks mining British special operations and intelligence records on my subjects, which are stored at the National Archives in London. I travelled around England as well, visiting the sites where these men operated and trained.

The families of the four men also cooperated with the project. I spent days interviewing them and copying material from their personal collections. All told I interviewed forty-five family members, friends, OSS colleagues and intelligence experts for this project.

Q. What did you dig up in your research?

Dulles ran what amounted to a mini-CIA in Switzerland. He had widespread espionage operations snooping on the Axis, stealing secrets from the senior levels of the German Foreign Office and infiltrating their military intelligence organization. He funded guerrilla missions and propaganda operations in occupied France and Italy. He also inundated Washington with foreign policy advice on how to deal with the Axis powers—most of it unsolicited. No OSS officer—and for that matter no future CIA officer—had or would have such a far-flung enterprise from an overseas station.

The combat William Colby fought was far more complicated than the dashing portrayals you find in movies of World War II commandos fighting the “good war.” When Colby parachuted into occupied France, his Jedburgh team had to deal with an assortment of Resistance factions that were poorly trained and equipped, had private political agendas, and often squabbled among themselves as much as they fought the Nazis. Colby and his comrades also had to fight alongside a traitor in their Resistance ranks, who, unknown to them, had collaborated extensively with German counter-intelligence.

Before joining the OSS, Bill Casey was a number cruncher writing analytical reports on the military industrial complex. He knew absolutely nothing about spying. He learned the job of running secret agents into Nazi Germany largely on his own and he learned it quickly. Casey was like a human tornado when he worked in the OSS’s London station. As one officer there said of Casey, “you could not not pay attention to him.”

Richard Helms operated in the ultimate gray area when he entered war-torn Berlin. It’s hard for us today to imagine how devastated, chaotic, and still violent the European theater was after Germany’s surrender. Berlin was like the Wild West when Helms arrived. Millions of homeless and starving souls filled the city, billions of flies buzzed over thousands of rotting corpses, criminal gangs roamed the rubble-strewn streets (many of them made up of young orphans), and Soviet spies infested the western sector. Helms, Dulles and the other OSS officers had to build a station from scratch in Berlin. Helms also soon had to clean up corruption among American officers in his station trying to make a fast buck in Berlin’s mushrooming black market.

Pictured here with two officers in front of the Queen Victoria Memorial and Buckingham Palace, Casey (left) was sent to London to manage the OSS station’s flow of paperwork. Soon he was dabbling in almost every secret operation the station ran. Bernadette Casey Smith Collection

Pictured here with two officers in front of the Queen Victoria Memorial and Buckingham Palace, Casey (left) was sent to London to manage the OSS station’s flow of paperwork. Soon he was dabbling in almost every secret operation the station ran. Bernadette Casey Smith Collection

Q. What kind of impact did their World War II service in the OSS have on Dulles, Helms, Colby and Casey?

In a word: profound. None of the four talked much about their OSS years after the war, but it’s clear World War II had a huge impact on their lives. Dulles ran the CIA much as he did his OSS station in Bern, Switzerland. Before the war, Helms wanted to be a newspaper publisher, but the OSS taught him how to be a spy and after the war he decided intelligence collection and not the news business was his calling. Colby, who wore his floppy fatigue cap from World War II when he tended his garden, quickly grew bored with being a lawyer after the war and joined the CIA to fight the communists as he had the Nazis for the OSS. When Casey became CIA director he hung two pictures in his Langley office—Ronald Reagan’s and a photo of his mentor, Wild Bill Donovan. Casey also commissioned a statue of Donovan, which he placed in the main foyer of CIA headquarters.

Q. Which man interested you the most?

As has been the case with my previous biographies, Disciples put me deep inside the lives of Dulles, Helms, Colby and Casey. Thumbing through their writings, their official memos and their private letters, interviewing extensively their family and friends, I grew intimately close to all four. I’ve often wondered how I would respond if someone asked: “Which man was the most interesting?” I would have to say that I honestly don’t know. It would be like being asked which of your children you love the most. I found all four characters equally intriguing.