The Quiet Americans. By Scott Anderson.Doubleday; 576 pages; $30. To be published in Britain by Picador in February 2021; £20.
THIS INTRIGUING book is an indictment. From its first page it argues that the CIA lost its way, in all senses, in the first decade of the cold war. Its witnesses are four courageous and initially idealistic patriots. Frank Wisner oversaw some of the earliest efforts to “roll back” communism in Europe. Michael Burke was a daredevil figure in the same game. Edward Lansdale (pictured) was an éminence grise in the Far East. Peter Sichel, a German-born Jewish wine-merchant and Wunderkind—and the only one of the four still alive—held his nose as he co-opted former Nazis into the agency, an initiative cited as one of its original sins.
Scott Anderson, a veteran foreign correspondent and novelist, weaves a beguiling if sometimes puzzling narrative from their criss-crossing careers. He takes in the Philippines, Vietnam and the CIA’s early venality in Central America. He traipses along the Iron Curtain to unveil a string of early disasters in eastern Europe. His verdict is damning, yet also imprecise.
All four agents had brave, brilliant starts in the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s forerunner, during the...