Few institutions demonstrate America’s changing role in world affairs as vividly as the Central Intelligence Agency. In the 1930s, America did not even have an organized intelligence network. The Office of Strategic Services was mobilized as America prepared for war, eventually including separate branches for Research and Analysis, Secret Intelligence, and Counter-Intelligence (with the cool moniker “X-2”). After World War II, the OSS was disbanded for fear that in peace-time it would create an American Gestapo. R and A was reassigned to the State Department, SI and X-2 were re-assigned to the military and later spun off into the Central Intelligence Agency. Given this precarious start, it is surprising that the CIA is the Cold War institution to out-live and prosper beyond the Soviet threat, while nuclear arsenals and military bases choke on their own moth-balls.
Winks’ history of “scholars in the secret war” is in unique contrast to the monolithic inevitability of the CIA today. He presents an almost anecdotal account of Yale’s involvement in the OSS, in the process showing how this involvement and the resulting intelligence agencies were shaped by the specifics of Ivy League academia. His first chapter, “The University: Recruiting Ground,” provides a sympathetic, yet still critical, insider’s description of the privileged mores of Ivy League campus life. Most significantly, Winks describes how the English-style “college” system, by which Yale organizes students into schools overseen by a headmaster, facilitated professors’ channeling of promising students to the OSS Likewise, Yale alum and University Press editor Wilmarth Sheldon “Lefty” Lewis, developed the Central Information Division’s data-card filing system, using minutiae-honed skills from editing the complete correspondence of Horace Walpole, originator of the Gothic novel (a 42-year project not completed until 1983, four years after Lewis’ death). The resulting system was unmatched in its detail and complexity, serving as the basis of intelligence analysis for decades to come.
Unfortunately, Winks does not print a sample of this information-science marvel, which is less to the point of his book than the fact that Lewis got the assignment “because he was having lunch with the Librarian of Congress one August day in 1941 at the MacLeish home in Conway, Massachusetts.” Such observations are not entirely flippant, but demonstrate the casual way the modern CIA came into being. Winks’ wanderings through social clubs, campus fraternities and faculty luncheons are perhaps his book’s greatest assest, the means by which he secularizes the CIA’s pre-history, removing it from the mythical realms of conspiracy cabals and returning it to the world of real human actions.
Publisher: Yale University
Paperback: 607 pages