A Complicated Life
Frank G. Wisner, Sr. did not dabble in insignificant matters. He built and was the original orchestrator of "The Mighty Wurlitzer Organ," a nickname for the first state-sponsored propaganda network in the United States. Wisner ran a federal agency which piped information through a vast array of contacts in order to sway people's emotions. Later, that agency morphed into The Central Intelligence Agency. A founding father in the covert world of espionage, Wisner paid the ultimate price for his role, eventually succumbing to the weight of the decisions he had made and the repercussions felt by those drawn into his secret web.
Wisner had a remarkable history. After enlisting in the Navy shortly before Pearl Harbor, he gravitated towards the world of counter-intelligence, with the final portion of his tour of duty being spent as a spy on the Soviet Union. He tried to raise the alarm regarding Russia’s intention to annex Eastern Europe, but in vain. His voice, however, was heard and respected in the American defense family. In 1947, none other than Dean Acheson invited Wisner to join the State Department's Office of Special Services (OSS), mainly a paramilitary operation that was mostly ineffectual.
Wisner accepted, even while he lobbied for a brand new intelligence agency. In 1948, the Office of Special Services became the Office of Protective Services, with Wisner appointed to organize and run what was called the Office of Policy Coordination. It was his dream come true – to be the one totally responsible for the espionage and counter-intelligence activities of our country. And it presented an opportunity for Wisner to shift the emphasis of U.S. anti-communist strategies from paramilitary action towards more intelligence operations, eventually making Wisner's agency the forerunner of the modern CIA. He sat at the helm of the fledgling agency, recruited a cadre of old colleagues, including many from Carter Ledyard, and steered the operation's rudder towards propaganda and espionage. According to the organization's secret charter, the responsibilities of Wisner's baby included "propaganda, economic warfare, preventive direct action as well as sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation proceedings, subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance groups, and support of indigenous anti-communist elements in the threatened countries of the free world."
The new covert network was built by an elite cabal of men led by Wisner. They tickled the ivories of "The Mighty Wurlitzer Organ" in order to play upon people's emotions and paint a picture – the beauty of capitalism versus the ugliness of communism. One of his most effective assaults on American public opinion was "Operation Mockingbird." The mission – to infiltrate and manipulate America's media institutions. The operation was so successful that by 1950 Wisner "owned" numerous respected journalists, including Joseph Alsop, James Reston, Walter Pincus and Ben Bradley. He developed a vast network of contacts within front organizations located in Europe, the United States and parts of the developing world. Wisner's layered network of contacts was modeled on the Communist Front, and, in America, it was powered by the natural energy of American "Associationalism" – the tendency of Americans to form groups, especially citizen associations, an American institution.
Why not infiltrate key American groups and use that tendency to influence the mind of the average American – a question which Wisner answered by forming an incredibly pervasive network of propaganda channels that made full use of the iconic organizations of the day.
In America, Wisner's network entwined such diverse elements as labor unions, intellectual groups, feminist groups and others, many of which were considered to be bastions of liberal idealism. And most of the leaders of those groups knew the CIA was involved. Even Gloria Steinhem said, "I was happy to find some liberals in government in those days who were farsighted and cared enough to get Americans of all political views to the festival." So it seemed that Frank G. Wisner, Sr. was a man with flair, someone who could hobnob with the free thinkers even while he was attempting to implement the dogma of anti-communist, radical conservatism. He could come across as liberal as Gloria Steinhem, be a common fixture on the Georgetown dinner party circuit, a member of the set, and, in the same stroke, be the other – a covert CIA senior operative. A dichotomy? A dilemma? The agency men, including Wisner, were old school. They apparently disliked the idea of a corpulent government feeding the masses, and they reviled what they labeled "official secrecy."
But isn't that a paradox, considering the business in which these men worked, engaging covert activity as a government agency, one that was directly in financial and strategic collusion with liberal front groups? They were smart men. They knew what they were doing. But they were more motivated by their desire to fight socialism/communism than they were motivated by the rebukes of their conscience. Was Wisner acting out Ian Fleming's James Bond fantasy, yet feeling guilty over the hypocritical and sometimes dirty nature of its game? In his “The Mighty Wulitzer,” author Hugh Wilford noted that, "the CIA was never able to resolve the fundamental contradiction between cold-war anti-communism and (inclusive) domestic reform at the heart of its front program. In addition, the group never succeeded in resolving their claims to representativeness-at-home/internationalism-abroad with their covert purpose as state-funded weapons of political warfare." George Kennan, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, described that dilemma very personally when he said, "Operations of that nature are not in the character of our country." In response to that statement, Wisner may have nodded in agreement or may have taken on a puzzled look on his face. We know that Wisner's agency used tactics that were arguably unethical.
Indeed, one of Wisner's most questionably dark moments came when, after World War II, he used ex-Nazi war criminals as part of Operation Bloodstone.
So it is likely that Wisner wrestled with the issue of his agency's tactics being morally questionable, a wrestling event that would have taken place at some level of his consciousness, although maybe not in his awareness. We'll never know for sure what was going inside of Wisner's mind, but he initially directed the energy of his Office of Protective Services into Eastern Europe, attempting to foment resistance to existing governments, hopefully leading to regime change. That was a fiasco, with nothing accomplished. Wisner then turned the attention of his Office of Protective Services to Western Europe and such regions of the developing world as Southeast Asia, Africa and South America. The emphasis was to prevent "communization" which did enjoy some success. At home, the strings on the "Mighty Wurlitzer Organ" were beginning to unravel.
The notes were losing their resonance due to domestic developments which were tearing the American people apart along philosophical and racial lines. By the late 1960's, America was being split between those who refused to let go of their blind faith in the system and those who were questioning the system. And for those who were questioning the system, there was disagreement over tactics. Many of Wisner's front groups were also questioning. In the past, Wisner had been friends with them; now those friendships dissolved, as the underlying conservative motives of the CIA gang were made more apparent by the changing times. The tensions must have been humming at a high level in Wisner's working world of American intelligence.
A large number of operatives and managers of "The Mighty Wurlitzer" underwent personal crises. And the environment which fostered those individual crises soon exploded onto the national scene, the result of investigative reporting by The New York Times, and Wisner was thrown into even more turmoil. In 1967, The New York Times broke a story on the CIA's involvement in some of our favorite American institutions. Wisner was now trying to control liberal front groups that were in an uproar. Up until then, Wisner had played the game well with liberal front groups. The exposure of agency involvement in bastions of liberalism, however, had a devastating effect on all involved. And the exposure of agency involvement must have had an interesting impact on all of those working for the agency, bringing to the fore all of the ambivalent feelings attached to their experience. Even Wisner's good friend, the liberal-thinking Arthur Schlesinger, a buddy from their days together at the OSS, who had frequently discussed matters with Wisner on the Georgetown party circuit, now felt that he had to break off their friendship because he was concerned about Wisner's obsession with the threat of communist elements.
Wisner's life was now being overrun by the conflicts which he had handled so adeptly in the past. It was the unfolding of Wisner's tragedy. His relentless and obsessive pursuit of victory over the communists had probably narrowed his perspective, as he molded reality to his own liking, somehow maintaining an illusion of nobility required for the execution of his task. Now the seamy underbelly of Wisner's agency body lay exposed. The events of the 1960's put enormous pressure on him, raising the temperature in his cauldron of fears and desires and causing him to suffer a nervous breakdown. He could no longer handle the developments in his life rationally, and he was admitted to a hospital. After being released he did not do well. Wisner was not able to overcome his demons; finally, he killed himself with his own son's shotgun. A tragic story of a man who wanted to do the right thing – protect his country against communism. And the worthiness of that goal has since been proven true, to some degree, by the brutally totalitarian nature of communist governments. But at the same time, Wisner was pushed beyond his own moral boundaries in pursuit of his goal, which assumed possibly paranoid proportions.
Was he a victim of the aggression, narcissism and paranoia of our own American psyche? Certainly, he fell victim to a darker side of the American personality, perhaps to the dark side of the universal struggle between civilization and its individuals. We can all empathize with Wisner's sincere belief in the rightness of his actions. Any wrong he may have done is partly the culpability of a system which reached out to this particular individual, in a moment of desperation and paranoia, and instructed him to "get these guys before they subvert our model of freedom and democracy." He was doing a job; he was a tool of the system, but Wisner was also an independent and creative thinker, a bold tool of the system, someone who took action. And he was one of those individuals who served as a working member of a cultural institution.
He was a part of the American system, indeed, a cog in the machine which he had actually helped to build and shape, the modern CIA. He was an individual and the System, both at the same time – a tough juggling act during a crucial pressure-filled era, which eventually became unmanageable. Yet the fruits of Wisner's labor may have helped to prevent more countries from falling under communist influence back in the late fifties and sixties. That may be a relative good, with a little less suffering by the masses. In the end, who are we to judge? By any standards, Wisner did achieve a great deal and had much success. He professed a love for this country, dedicated his life to the pursuit of his version of patriotism, and became a founding father in an American institution. In his personal life, Wisner raised a well-adjusted and productive family. His son carried on the family tradition of civic involvement by attaining the post of U.S. Ambassador to several countries, even playing a role in the Camp David accords. Frank G. Wisner, Sr. lived an exciting and fruitful life, as he chose and experienced moments of joy and regret. He was a complicated man at a complicated time in a complicated situation. He led a complicated life.
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