Frank Gardner Wisner was born in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1910. He was educated at Woodberry Forest School in Orange and the University of Virginia. He was a good sprinter and hurdler and in 1936 was asked to compete in the Olympic trials.
After graduating Wisner worked as a Wall Street lawyer. However, he got bored and enlisted in the United States Navy six months before Pearl Harbor. He worked in the Navy’s censor’s office before managing to get a transfer to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). In June. 1944, Wisner was sent to Turkey. Two months later he moved on to Romania where his main task was to spy on the activities of the Soviet Union.
While in Bucharest he became friendly with King Michael of Romania. Later he became an informal adviser to the royal family. OSS agents penetrated the Romanian Communist Party and Wisner was able to discover that the Soviets intended to take over all of Eastern Europe. Wisner was disappointed by the US government’s reaction to this news and he was forced to advise the Romanian royal family to go into exile.
Wisner was transferred to the OSS station in Wiesbaden. While in Germany he served under Allen W. Dulles. Wisner also met Arthur Schlesinger, an OSS sergeant serving in Germany. He later claimed that Wisner had become obsessed with the Soviet Union: “He was already mobilizing for the cold war. I myself was no great admirer of the Soviet Union, and I certainly had no expectation of harmonious relations after the war. But Frank was a little excessive, even for me.”
During the war William Donovan as head of the OSS, had built up a team of 16,000 agents working behind enemy lines. The growth of the OSS brought conflict with John Edgar Hoover who saw it as a rival to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He persuaded President Harry S. Truman that the OSS in peacetime would be an “American Gestapo”. As soon as the war ended Truman ordered the OSS to be closed down leaving a small intelligence organization, the Strategic Services Unit (SSU) in the War Department.
After leaving the OSS Wisner joined the Wall Street law firm, Carter Ledyard. However, in 1947, he was recruited by Dean Acheson, to work under Charles Saltzman, at the State Department’s Office of Occupied Territories.
Wisner moved to Washington where he associated with a group of journalists, politicians and government officials that became known as the Georgetown Set. This included George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Richard Bissell, Desmond FitzGerald, Joseph Alsop, Stewart Alsop, Tracy Barnes, Thomas Braden, Philip Graham, David Bruce, Clark Clifford, Walt Rostow, Eugene Rostow, Chip Bohlen, Cord Meyer, James Angleton, William Averill Harriman, John McCloy, Felix Frankfurter, John Sherman Cooper, James Reston, Allen W. Dulles and Paul Nitze.
Most men brought their wives to these gatherings. Members of what was later called the Georgetown Ladies’ Social Club included Katharine Graham, Mary Pinchot Meyer, Sally Reston, Polly Wisner, Joan Braden, Lorraine Cooper, Evangeline Bruce, Avis Bohlen, Janet Barnes, Tish Alsop, Cynthia Helms, Marietta FitzGerald, Phyllis Nitze and Annie Bissell.
Wisner remained concerned about the spread of communism and began lobbying for a new intelligence agency. He gained support for this from James Forrestal, the Defense Secretary. With the help of George Kennan, the Office of Special Projects was created in 1948. Wisner was appointed director of the organization. Soon afterwards it was renamed the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC). This became the espionage and counter-intelligence branch of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Wisner was told to create an organization that concentrated on “propaganda, economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance groups, and support of indigenous anti-Communist elements in threatened countries of the free world”.
Later that year Wisner established Operation Mockingbird, a program to influence the American media. Wisner recruited Philip Graham (Washington Post) to run the project within the industry. Graham himself recruited others who had worked for military intelligence during the war. This included James Truitt, Russell Wiggins, Phil Geyelin, John Hayes and Alan Barth. Others like Stewart Alsop, Joseph Alsop and James Reston, were recruited from within the Georgetown Set. According to Deborah Davis (Katharine the Great): “By the early 1950s, Wisner ‘owned’ respected members of the New York Times, Newsweek, CBS and other communications vehicles.”
In 1951 Allen W. Dulles persuaded Cord Meyer to join the CIA. However, there is evidence that he was recruited several years earlier and had been spying on the liberal organizations he had been a member of in the later 1940s. According to Deborah Davis, Meyer became Mockingbird’s “principal operative”.
One of the most important journalists under the control of Operation Mockingbird was Joseph Alsop, whose articles appeared in over 300 different newspapers. Other journalists willing to promote the views of the CIA included Stewart Alsop (New York Herald Tribune), Ben Bradlee (Newsweek), James Reston (New York Times), Charles Douglas Jackson (Time Magazine), Walter Pincus (Washington Post), William C. Baggs (Miami News), Herb Gold (Miami News) and Charles Bartlett (Chattanooga Times). According to Nina Burleigh (A Very Private Woman) these journalists sometimes wrote articles that were commissioned by Frank Wisner. The CIA also provided them with classified information to help them with their work.
After 1953 the network was overseen by Allen W. Dulles, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. By this time Operation Mockingbird had a major influence over 25 newspapers and wire agencies. These organizations were run by people with well-known right-wing views such as William Paley (CBS), Henry Luce (Time Magazine and Life Magazine), Arthur Hays Sulzberger (New York Times), Alfred Friendly (managing editor of the Washington Post), Jerry O’Leary (Washington Star), Hal Hendrix (Miami News), Barry Bingham Sr., (Louisville Courier-Journal), James Copley (Copley News Services) and Joseph Harrison (Christian Science Monitor).
The Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) was funded by siphoning of funds intended for the Marshall Plan. Some of this money was used to bribe journalists and publishers. Frank Wisner was constantly looked for ways to help convince the public of the dangers of communism. In 1954 Wisner arranged for the funding the Hollywood production of Animal Farm, the animated allegory based on the book written by George Orwell.
According to Alex Constantine (Mockingbird: The Subversion Of The Free Press By The CIA), in the 1950s, “some 3,000 salaried and contract CIA employees were eventually engaged in propaganda efforts”. Wisner was also able to restrict newspapers from reporting about certain events.
During this period Wisner worked closely with Kim Philby, the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) liaison in Washington. Wisner grew very fond of Philby and was unaware that he was a Soviet spy betraying all his operations to his masters in Moscow. However, he began to get suspicious in 1951 and he asked William Harvey and James Jesus Angleton to investigate Philby. Harvey reported back in June 1951 that he was convinced that Philby was a KGB spy. As a result Philby was forced to leave the United States.
Another project started by Wisner was called Operation Bloodstone. This secret operation involved recruiting former German officers and diplomats who could be used in the covert war against the Soviet Union. This included former members of the Nazi Party such as Gustav Hilger and Hans von Bittenfield. Later, John Loftus, a prosecutor with the Office of Special Investigations at the U.S. Justice Department, accused Wisner of methodically recruiting Nazi war criminals. As one of the agents involved in Operation Bloodstone, Harry Rositzke, pointed out, Wisner was willing to use anyone “as long as he was anti-communist”.
Wisner began having trouble with J. Edgar Hoover. He described the OPC as “Wisner’s gang of weirdos” and began carrying out investigations into their past. It did not take him long to discover that some of them had been active in left-wing politics in the 1930s. This information was passed to Joseph McCarthy who started making attacks on members of the OPC. Hoover also passed to McCarthy details of an affair that Wisner had with Princess Caradja in Romania during the war. Hoover, claimed that Caradja was a Soviet agent.
In August, 1952, the Office of Policy Coordination and the Office of Special Operations (the espionage division) were merged to form the Directorate of Plans (DPP). Wisner became head of this new organization and Richard Helms became his chief of operations. The DPP now accounted for three quarters of the CIA budget and 60% of its personnel.
At this time Wisner began plotting the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. He had upset the US government by nationalizing Iran’s oil industry. Mossadegh also abolished Iran’s feudal agriculture sector and replaced with a system of collective farming and government land ownership.
On April 4, 1953, Wisner persuaded Allen W. Dulles to approve $1 million to be used “in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh.” Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, was put in charge of what became known as Operation Ajax. According to Donald N. Wilber, who was involved in this CIA plot to remove Mossadegh from power, in early August, 1953, Iranian CIA operatives, pretending to be socialists, threatened Muslim leaders with “savage punishment if they opposed Mossadegh,” thereby giving the impression that Mossadegh was cracking down on dissent. This resulted in the religious community turning against Mossadegh.
Iranians took to the streets against Mohammed Mossadegh. Funded with money from the CIA and MI6, the pro-monarchy forces quickly gained the upper hand. The military now joined the opposition and Mossadegh was arrested on August 19, 1953. President Dwight Eisenhower was delighted with this result and asked Wisner to arrange for Kermit Roosevelt to give him a personal briefing on Operation Ajax.
Wisner’s other great success was the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz. He had been elected as President of Guatemala in March, 1951. Arbenz began to tackle Guatemala’s unequal land distribution. He said that the country needed “an agrarian reform which puts an end to the latifundios and the semi-feudal practices, giving the land to thousands of peasants, raising their purchasing power and creating a great internal market favorable to the development of domestic industry.”
In March 1953, 209,842 acres of United Fruit Company’s uncultivated land was taken by the government which offered compensation of $525,000. The company wanted $16 million for the land. While the Guatemalan government valued $2.99 per acre, the American government valued it at $75 per acre. Samuel Zemurray, United Fruit Company’s largest shareholder, with the help of Tommy Corcoran, organized an anti-Arbenz campaign in the American media. This included the claim that Guatemala was the beginning of “Soviet expansion in the Americas”.
The Central Intelligence Agency decided that Arbenz had to be removed from power. Wisner, as head of the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), took overall responsibility for the operation. Also involved was Richard Bissell, head of the Directorate for Plans, an organization instructed to conduct covert anti-Communist operations around the world. The plot against Arbenz therefore became part of Executive Action (a plan to remove unfriendly foreign leaders from power).
Jake Esterline was placed in charge of the CIA’s Washington task force in the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. Tracy Barnes was field commander of what became known as Operation Success. David Atlee Phillips was appointed to run the propaganda campaign against Arbenz’s government. According to Phillips he initially questioned the right of the CIA to interfere in Guatemala: In his autobiography Phillips claims he said to Barnes: “But Arbenz became President in a free election. What right do we have to help someone topple his government and throw him out of office?” However, Barnes convinced him that it was vital important that the Soviets did not establish a “beachhead in Central America”.
The CIA propaganda campaign included the distribution of 100,000 copies of a pamphlet entitled Chronology of Communism in Guatemala. They also produced three films on Guatemala for showing free in cinemas. Phillips, along with E. Howard Hunt, was responsible for running the CIA’s Voice of Liberation radio station. Faked photographs were distributed that claimed to show the mutilated bodies of opponents of Arbenz. William (Rip) Robertson was also involved in the campaign against Arbenz.
The CIA began providing financial and logistic support for Colonel Carlos Castillo. With the help of resident Anastasio Somoza, Castillo had formed a rebel army in Nicaragua. It has been estimated that between January and June, 1954, the CIA spent about $20 million on Castillo’s army.
The Guatemalan Foreign Minister, Guillermo Toriello, asked the United Nations for help against the covert activities of the United States. Toriello accused the United States government of categorizing “as communism every manifestation of nationalism or economic independence, any desire for social progress, any intellectual curiosity, and any interest in progressive liberal reforms.”
President Dwight Eisenhower responded by claiming that Guatemala had a “communist dictatorship.. had established… an outpost on this continent to the detriment of all the American nations”. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles added that the Guatemala people were living under a “communist type of terrorism”.
On 18th June, 1954, aircraft dropped leaflets over Guatemala demanding that Arbenz resign immediately or else the county would be bombed. CIA’s Voice of Liberation also put out similar radio broadcasts. This was followed by a week of bombing ports, ammunition dumps, military barracks and the international airport.
Guillermo Toriello appealed to the United Nations to help protect Guatemalan government. Henry Cabot Lodge tried to block the Security Council from discussing a resolution to send an investigation team to Guatemala. When this failed he put pressure on Security Council members to vote against the resolution. Britain and France were both initially in favour but eventually buckled under United States pressure and agreed to abstain. As a result the resolution was defeated by 5 votes to 4. The UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold was so upset by the actions of the USA that he considered resigning from his post.
Carlos Castillo and his collection of soldiers now crossed the Honduran-Guatemalan border. His army was outnumbered by the Guatemalan Army. However, the CIA Voice of Liberation successfully convinced Arbenz’s supporters that two large and heavily armed columns of invaders were moving towards Guatemala City.
The CIA was also busy bribing Arbenz’s military commanders. It was later discovered that one commander accepted $60,000 to surrender his troops. Ernesto Guevara attempted to organize some civil militias but senior army officers blocked the distribution of weapons. Arbenz now believed he stood little chance of preventing Castillo gaining power. Accepting that further resistance would only bring more deaths he announced his resignation over the radio.
Castillo’s new government was immediately recognised by President Dwight Eisenhower. Castillo now reversed the Arbenz reforms. In July 19, 1954, he created the National Committee of Defense Against Communism and decreed the Preventive Penal Law Against Communism to fight against those who supported Arbenz when he was in power. Over the next few weeks thousands were arrested on suspicion of communist activity. A large number of these prisoners were tortured or killed.
The removal of Jacobo Arbenz resulted in several decades of repression. Later, several of the people involved in Operation Success, including Richard Bissell and Tracy Barnes, regretted the outcome of the Guatemala Coup.
Wisner managed to get a copy of the speech that Nikita Khrushchev made at the 20th Party Congress in February, 1956, where Khrushchev launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He condemned the Great Purge and accused Stalin of abusing his power. He announced a change in policy and gave orders for the Soviet Union’s political prisoners to be released.
Wisner leaked details of the speech to the New York Times who published it on 2nd June, 1956. Khrushchev’s de-Stalinzation policy encouraged people living in Eastern Europe to believe that he was willing to give them more independence from the Soviet Union. Over the next few weeks riots took place in Poland and East Germany.
In Hungary the prime minister Imre Nagy removed state control of the mass media and encouraged public discussion on political and economic reform. Nagy also released anti-communists from prison and talked about holding free elections and withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev became increasingly concerned about these developments and on 4th November 1956 he sent the Red Army into Hungary. Wisner expected the United States would help the Hungarians. As Thomas Polgar later pointed out: “Sure, we never said rise up and revolt, but there was a lot of propaganda that led the Hungarians to believe that we would help.”
Wisner, who had been involved in creating this propaganda, told friends that he felt the American government had let Hungary down. He pointed out that they had spent a great deal of money on Radio Free Europe “to get these people to revolt”. Wisner added that he felt personally betrayed by this behaviour. During the Hungarian Uprising an estimated 20,000 people were killed. Wisner told Clare Boothe Luce, the American ambassador in Italy: “All these people are getting killed and we weren’t doing anything, we were ignoring it.”
In December, 1956, Wisner had a mental breakdown and was diagnosed as suffering from manic depression. During his absence Wisner’s job was covered by his chief of operations, Richard Helms. Wisner’s friends believed the illness was triggered by the failure of the Hungarian Uprising. A close friend, Avis Bohlen said he “was so depressed about how the world was going… he felt we were losing the Cold War.”
The CIA sent Wisner to the Sheppard-Pratt Institute, a psychiatric hospital near Baltimore. He was prescribed psychoanalysis and shock therapy (electroconvulsive treatment). It was not successful and still suffering from depression, he was released from hospital in 1958.
Wisner was too ill to return to his post as head of the DDP. Allen W. Dulles therefore sent him to London to be CIA chief of station in England. Dulles decided that Richard Bissell rather than Richard Helms should become the new head of the DPP. Wisner arrived in England in September, 1959. His work involved planning a coup in Guyana, a country that had a left-wing government.
Frank Wisner killed himself with one of his son’s shotguns on 29th October, 1965.
(1) David Wise and Thomas Ross, Invisible Government (1964)
A decision was reached to create an organization within the CIA to conduct secret political operations. Frank G. Wisner, an ex-OSS man, was brought in from the State Department to head it, with a cover title of his own invention. He became Assistant Director of the Office of Policy Coordination.
Under this innocuous title, the United States was now fully in the business of covert political operations. (A separate Office of Special Operations conducted secret actions aimed solely at gathering intelligence.) This machinery was in the CIA but the agency shared control of it with the State Department and the Pentagon. On January 4, 1951, the CIA merged the two offices and created a new Plans Division, which has had sole control over secret operations of all types since that date.
It is doubtful that many of the lawmakers who voted for the 1947 Act could have envisioned the scale on which the CIA would engage in operational activities all over the world.
(2) Richard Bissell, Reflections of a Cold Warrior (1996)
I was very uninformed about covert activities… Even with my curious nature, I myself was unaware, except in the vaguest terms, what political action projects were going forward and how (Frank Wisner was spending Marshall Plan counterpart funds.) I don’t think any of us were worried… I suspect that had we known more (it would have just made us more appreciative.) It has since become known (that) we in the Marshall Plan were dealing-with quite a number of people who were beneficiaries of the CIA’s early covert political action programs, (including) many left-of-center organizations… Vibrant democratic parties, even socialist ones, were preferable to a Communist victory.
(3) Edward G. Shirley, Atlantic Monthly (February, 1998)
In the 1950s and early 1960s the CIA’s top leaders – men like Allen Dulles, Frank Wisner, Richard Bissell, Tracy Barnes, and Desmond Fitzgerald – were profoundly devoted to covert action. Covert action (orchestrating coups, anti-Communist insurgencies, academic conferences, labor unions, political parties, publishing houses, and shipping companies) required considerable manpower, and it drew the intellectual crème de la crème. It compelled a higher degree of intellectual curiosity, accomplishment, and operational savior faire than did espionage (“espionage” referring specifically to the recruitment of foreign intelligence agents). With so many talented officers working in covert action, and with most of the foreigners involved being friendly collaborators and not “recruited” assets, the do could scarcely base promotions on the number of recruitments a case officer made each year.
(4) David Atlee Phillips, The Night Watch; 25 Years of Peculiar Service (1977)
“Tomorrow morning, gentlemen,” Dulles said, “we will go to the White House to brief the President. Let’s run over your presentations.” It was a warm summer night. We drank iced tea as we sat around a garden table in Dulles’ back yard. The lighted shaft of the Washington Monument could be seen through the trees. . . . Finally Brad (Colonel Albert Haney) rehearsed his speech. When he finished Alien Dulles said, “Brad, I’ve never heard such crap.” It was the nearest thing to an expletive I ever heard Dulles use. The Director turned to me “They tell me you know how to write. Work out a new speech for Brad…
We went to the White House in the morning. Gathered in the theater in the East Wing were more notables than I had ever seen: the President, his Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of State – Alien Dulles’s brother, Foster – the Attorney General, and perhaps two dozen other members of the President’s Cabinet and household staff….
The lights were turned off while Brad used slides during his report. A door opened near me. In the darkness I could see only a silhouette of the person entering the room; when the door closed it was dark again, and I could not make out the features of the man standing next to me. He whispered a number of questions: “Who is that? Who made that decision?”
I was vaguely uncomfortable. The questions from the unknown man next to me were very insistent, furtive. Brad finished and the lights went up. The man moved away. He was Richard Nixon, the Vice President.
Eisenhower’s first question was to Hector (Rip Robertson): “How many men did Castillo Armas lose?” Hector (Rip Robertson) said only one, a courier… . Eisenhower shook his head, perhaps thinking of the thousands who had died in France. “Incredible…”
Nixon asked a number of questions, concise and to the point, and demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the Guatemalan political situation. He was impressive – not at all the disturbing man he was in the shadows.
Eisenhower turned to his Chief of the Joint Chiefs. “What about the Russians? Any reaction?”
General Ridgeway answered. “They don’t seem to be up to anything. But the navy is watching a Soviet sub in the area; it could be there to evacuate some of Arbenz’s friends, or to supply arms to any resisters.”
Eisenhower shook hands all around. “Great,” he said to Brad, “that was a good briefing.” Hector and I smiled at each other as Brad flushed with pleasure. The President’s final handshake was with Alien Dulles. “Thanks Allen, and thanks to all of you. You’ve averted a Soviet beachhead in our hemisphere.” Eisenhower spoke to his Chief of Naval Operations “Watch that sub. Admiral. If it gets near the coast of Guatemala we’ll sink the son-of-a-bitch. ‘ The President strode from the room.
(5) John Ranelagh, The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA (1986)
The nature of Arbenz’s government, however, meant that Operation Success launched both the CIA and the United States on a new path. Mussadegh in Iran was left-wing and had indulged in talks with Russian diplomats about possible alliances and treaties. Arbenz, on the other hand, had simply been trying to reform his country and had not sought foreign help in this. Thus by overthrowing him, America was in effect making a new decision in the cold war. No longer would the Monroe Doctrine, which was directed against foreign imperial ambitions in the Americas from across the Atlantic or the Pacific, suffice. Now internal subversion communism from within – was an additional cause for direct action. What was not said, but what was already clear after the events in East Germany the previous year, was that the exercise of American power, even clandestinely through the CIA, would not be undertaken where Soviet power was already established. In addition, regardless of the principles being professed, when direct action was taken (whether clandestine or not), the interests of American business would be a consideration: if the flag was to follow, it would quite definitely follow trade.
The whole arrangement of American power in the world from the nineteenth century was based on commercial concerns and methods of operation his had given America a material empire through the ownership of foreign transport systems, oil fields, estancias, stocks, and shares. It had also given America resources and experience (concentrated in private hands) with the world outside the Americas, used effectively by the OSS during World War II American government, however, had stayed in America, lending its influence to business but never trying to overthrow other governments for commercial purposes. After World War II, American governments were more willing to use their influence and strength all over the world for the first time and to see an ideological implication in the “persecution” of US business interests.
(6) Evan Thomas, The Very Best Men: The Early Days of the CIA (1995)
Wisner was obviously too sick to go to Spain. He was so depressed that his wife, Polly, worried that he would try to commit suicide. On October 28, before he drove out to his farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, she called the caretaker and asked him to remove the guns from the house. Wisner found one of his boys’ shotguns and killed himself on October 29, 1965.
Wisner’s death saddened but did not shock his colleagues. “I got a cable in Kuala Lumpur, where I was stationed,” said Arthur Jacobs, the “Ozzard of Wiz” who had been Wisner’s aide in the early 1950s. “The cable was from Des FitzGerald. It said that Frank had died and gave no reason, but I knew.” Wisner’s suicide was “entirely rational, if you can say such a thing,” said his niece Jean Lindsey. “He realized that his life would be circumscribed by increasing cycles of depression. I saw Frank three days before he died and he seemed in good spirits. He talked about his children. Perhaps he had made up his mind to kill himself.
At his funeral the Bethlehem Chapel in the National Cathedral was overflowing with old friends who sang “Fling Out the Banner” as Wisner’s family marched down the aisle at the end of the service. “Instead of a dirge, it was exuberant, powerful, exultant,” recalled Tom Braden. At Arlington Cemetery, Frank Wisner was buried as a naval commander, his wartime rank. All the top officials of the agency, from director on down, were in attendance. (The CIA posted guards to keep the KGB from seeing who was there.)
Henry Breck, a junior CIA officer out of Groton and Harvard, watched his grim-faced elders as they mourned. They were defiant and proud, but besieged. The CIA was feeling particularly embattled that October. A month earlier word had spread through the agency that the New York Times was embarking on a first-ever investigation of the CIA.