The Clandestine Cold War in Asia, 1945-65: Western Intelligence, Propaganda, and Special Operations

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The Clandestine Cold War in Asia, 1945-65: Western Intelligence, Propaganda, and Special Operations

Richard J. Aldrich, Gary Rawnsley, and Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley, eds., The Clandestine Cold War in Asia, 1945-65: Western Intelligence, Propaganda, and Special Operations. London: Frank Cass, 2000. 298 pp. $57.00.

As an intelligence operations officer who began his career with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at the height of the Cold War, I have frequently wondered how succeeding generations would view the activities we conducted during that era. In 1999 the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham organized a conference that revealed how a group of contemporary academics, mostly British, judge the performance of the intelligence services of both the United Kingdom and the United States on missions in Asia during the first twenty years of the Cold War. All but one of the participants were professional scholars rather than participants in these covert operations; hence no issues of self-defense were involved. Their overall scorecard on the objectives and accomplishments of these operations was mixed but generally negative. Although this verdict was in some ways discomforting to the veterans of those days, their conclusions provide useful insights into the limitations inherent in covert activities and the problems that may be encountered when they are implemented.

The book begins with an analysis by Matthew Aid of the failure of U.S. intelligence organizations to predict the North Korean invasion of June 1950, a seminal event in bringing the Cold War to Asia. The outbreak of the Korean War set the context for most of the covert operations described by the other authors. Aid is an American intelligence scholar who has drawn skillfully on U.S. archives to help explain the reason for this failure. His description of the disorganized state of the U.S. intelligence community both in Washington and in the field is detailed and well documented. He properly sets this disorganization and its costly effects in the context of the general state of unpreparedness of the U.S. military and the various intelligence agencies. The national security organizations had been under severe budgetary and political pressures in a country that was anxious to return to peacetime life. Aid's account of the intense but petty rivalry between MacArthur's intelligence chief, Major General Charles Willoughby, and the CIA--a rivalry bred by Willoughby's defense of his turf, with unfortunate consequences for all concerned--is equally accurate and damning.

Aid's analysis covers only the invasion and the events of the following four months. He therefore does not deal with the second unpleasant intelligence jolt of 1950, the entry of the Chinese Communist armed forces into the conflict in late October of that year. The two shocks produced major changes in both the wider distribution of communications intelligence within CIA's Intelligence Directorate and a more formal structure for analyzing and reporting indications of hostile Communist intentions. My first assignment in the CIA, in late 1951, was to the Directorate's Indications Staff. Even though it was a year after Chinese troops had crossed the Yalu River to join the Korean conflict, there was still a fierce debate (which continues even today among the veterans of that bitter experience) over whether the Directorate had missed [End Page 92] signals that could have forecast the Chinese entry. By this time the Staff was producing the weekly Situation Summary (Sitsum), which reported indications based on exhaustive analysis of political, economic, and military items gleaned from all sources, especially communications intelligence. Analysts compared their findings with a checklist of indicators of potential hostile actions by members of the Soviet bloc. By the standards of today's intelligence publications, the Sitsum was primitive. It was a seven- to eight-page document, typed and retyped (no erasures were permitted) by the Staff secretary each Thursday evening and hand carried to President Harry Truman early the following morning. By noon it arrived back with the president's comments, frequently handwritten in the margin asking for further information or follow-up action. The process was not fancy, but it was a direct way of ensuring that all available bits of intelligence were considered, filed (on 5 3 8 cards) for future reference, and reported to Washington's top consumer.

There was a great sense of satisfaction in working on the Sitsum. The document had been born in crisis, and many officials were concerned that another cataclysm would erupt. Good intelligence delivered in a timely manner was intended to alert those who could act on it to avert World War III. This sense of immediate peril motivated those who designed and carried out the U.S. and British covert actions that are described in the other chapters of The Clandestine Cold War in Asia. This is an important factor that should be taken into account in judging these operations, a perspective difficult for those who have no personal memories of the acute tensions in the late 1950s.

For the most part the authors have done a creditable job of trying to place the covert operations in context by scrutinizing the historical records available to them. More complete assessments of the motivations of U.S. officials who were responsible for initiating and implementing these activities can be expected as the U.S. official archives declassify increasing amounts of documents from this era. In the interim it might have been useful if the conference had included some of the real-life participants in these events. The final essay in the book, by Brian Stewart, describes both the problems and the successes that he encountered as a Chinese affairs officer in the Malayan government's successful battle against Communist guerrillas in the early 1950s. His chapter confirms the value of such first-hand accounts. Stewart's observations are reinforced by Karl Hack's meticulous analysis of the eventual success of British policies and tactics in Malaya. Hack's study is based on extensive research in government archives and personal histories fleshed out by an exceptional workshop that the Malayan Communist Party leader, Chin Peng, held with historians in Canberra in 1991. A companion study by Kumar Ramakrishna provides a useful history of the Malayan government's efforts to quell the insurgency.

In the 1950s the prevailing philosophy was to win hearts and minds in current and potential client states. Eva-Lotta Hedman's critique of the relationship between the Philippine political hero Ramon Magsaysay and the ugly/quiet American prototype, Edward Lansdale, concludes that the legend that grew out of their collaboration was an extension of the "Frontier Myth"--in which "Asians became figurative Apaches and the Philippines became a symbolic equivalent of Daniel Boone's Kentucky or [End Page 93] Sam's Houston's Texas" (p. 191). This is an imaginative analysis, but it seems to neglect the pragmatic aspects of the Magsaysay program, which was built around some very down-to-earth electoral reforms and anticorruption measures coupled with land grants to win over poor farmers. Hedman might well argue that these were also measures adopted from the days of "winning the West" in America, but surely she would not write off the efforts of these two men as merely those of two romantics who saw themselves as latter-day cowboy "white hats" fighting the "black hats." There may have been elements of the Frontier Myth in the legend they produced, but it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between political myths and political vision. Isaiah's pronouncement--that when leaders have no vision the nation perishes--seemed unusually prophetic when Magsaysay's plane crashed into a mountainside in 1957, leaving a vacuum in Filipino politics that has since rarely been filled.

Gary Rawnsley presents an interesting critique of the use of propaganda by the Chinese Nationalist government built around the theme of the inevitability of its return to power on the Chinese mainland. Chiang Kaishek and his family were masters of playing the American press and the Congress to support their cause. Whether they believed their own propaganda is unknown. They probably took some encouragement from the guerrilla raids on the islands off the Chinese coast supported by the CIA in the early 1950s and hoped to continue to enlist this kind of aid. As late as September 1963 Chiang's son, Chiang Ching-kuo, was unsuccessfully trying to persuade a skeptical John F. Kennedy to lend support to his plans to conduct airdrop operations of 100 to 300 men and seaborne landings of 300 to 500 men on the mainland. Although Chiang admitted that past raids of this sort had sustained a casualty rate of 85 percent, he argued that the deepening Sino-Soviet dispute offered a unique opportunity to weaken the Chinese Communists, and prevented them from launching a successful counterattack. (See the memorandum of conversation in Record Group 59, Central Policy File 1963, National Archives.) Chiang's son and his family and colleagues were realists with keen political instincts, but it took many years for them to give up the notion that their identity could be defined as anything but the rulers of China. Rawnsley argues that the Nationalists could have found "easier and more profitable ways to win friends and influence people" (p. 98) than to continue their increasingly threadbare propaganda, but it did serve to sustain their pretenses for a surprisingly long time.

Richard Aldrich's colorful account of the support given by renegade elements of the Special Operations Executive (SOE)--the British wartime counterpart to the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA)--to the Karens in their struggle for autonomy in postwar Burma is particularly fascinating. Aldrich very properly and objectively begins by noting the debate and problems generated by the arming of insurgent groups who were fighting a common enemy during World War II: "Clandestine struggle might help to evict an occupying enemy, but only at the risk of rendering the territory ungovernable" (p. 131)--a lesson that the United States was to find painfully relevant some decades later in Afghanistan. Aldrich goes on to recount a tale that reflects a grudging admiration for the SOE officers who decided to act in [End Page 94] 1948 when they felt that their government had betrayed people who had served them well in their common cause of evicting the Japanese from Burma. Having felt a similar resentment when the U.S. government walked away from the Tibetans whom we had been supporting in their resistance of the Chinese occupation, I could identify with these earlier British rebels who had committed the intelligence taboo of "falling in love with your agents." It is painful when loyalties come into conflict with policy. In this case, if any of the SOE renegades are still alive they must feel some sense of vindication following British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's visit with groups of Karens refugees during a trip to Thailand in 2000.

In the spirit of Santayana's oft-quoted admonition that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," this book can well serve as a valuable guidebook for policy makers when they weigh the potential benefits of using covert intelligence operations and as a manual for those who may be ordered to carry them out.


Reviewed by John Kenneth Knaus, Harvard University

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