Harry S. Truman had only come around to the idea of founding the Central Intelligence Agency – established 26 July, 1947 – somewhat reluctantly. He did so out of fear of the Soviet threat which emerged in the years after World War II as the division of Europe and Korea became permanent, as did the reality of enforced Communist political domination in the Soviet sphere. Truman's organization was initially limited in its tasking and remained somewhat unaggressive in its leadership.

This was natural for a new agency which had yet to cut its teeth and win credibility in interagency turf battles. However, even during Truman's presidency the CIA started to grow rapidly under a variety of external pressures – first the need to counter Soviet subversion abroad, and then the sudden outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula. The next decade was a boom time for the CIA, as it emerged as a modern intelligence agency.

It enhanced its capabilities at all stages of the intelligence cycle (tasking, collection, analyzing and dissemination) from building new tools for collection to becoming more adept at dissemination. At the same time, its covert operations allowed it to exert a very real influence on world affairs with a degree of forcefulness which never occurred under Truman. The story of the first years of the CIA is hence one of expansion, technological progress, and capability enhancement. These processes led to an Agency that looked very different in 1960 to the one founded by Truman in 1947.

Early days

The early Agency was tasked with the creation of intelligence assessments of foreign nations and foreign espionage (in the Office of Special Operations, or OSO), tasks which the CIA would continue to perform indefinitely. However, fear of Communist influence in Western European politics (specifically, France and Italy) led to covert action designed to swing election results away from the Communist Parties. Apparent success in this venture led to the creation of the Office of Policy Coordination in 1948 by NSC 10/2. The Central Intelligence Act 1949 allowed OPC to grow at a rapid rate, an opportunity its idealistic head Frank Wisner was keen to take advantage of. Covert action was hence begun with the Truman administration, but never really got off the ground during it.

Truman had come to accept that as the Communists were experienced at dirty tricks and covert action, the U.S. could not afford to be innocent in this regard either. However, he was never as enthusiastic about it as Eisenhower would become. This went for the Agency in general, which Truman would criticize harshly later in life, claiming it did not turn out the way he had intended.

The two men who held the position of Director of Central Intelligence during Truman's presidency, and were picked for the position by him, shed some light on Truman's views toward the Agency. The first, Roscoe H. Hillenkoeter, was not as aggressive in asserting the Agency’s prerogatives as he might have been. The second, Walter Beddell Smith, was no fan of covert action and insisted on bringing OPC fully under his command so that its adventurism might be curbed.

Covert action

The legislative framework established by the acts of 1947 and 1949 allowed significant room for the role of personality in the development of the CIA. Although Truman had signed NSC directives giving OPC responsibility for a range of covert operations, these operations never expanded much beyond attempts to infiltrate the Soviet bloc and Red China during his presidency. He and his DCIs would not sign off on the coups that Eisenhower was later to endorse in Iran and Guatemala.

By a twist of fate, he had hence limited himself to activities expected to have a limited chance of success, as penetration of Communist territory was so difficult that it was later routinely referred to as 'denied area'. Eisenhower appointed Allen Dulles as DCI, and both men were very keen on covert action and optimistic about its effectiveness – opinions reassured by successes in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954.

Eisenhower was happy to have a cheap foreign policy tool and one which avoided conventional military conflict, which had proved unpopular in the latter stages of the Korean War. This passion for executive action which could apply decisive force at a crucial point culminated in a series of assassination plots run by the CIA in the 1950s targeted at foreign leaders. This transformation can be attributed to the personality and predilections of key policymakers during the Eisenhower administration.

Good old-fashioned intelligence

The CIA also enhanced its capabilities in intelligence collection during the Eisenhower administration. This meant that it could not only influence global events through direct intervention, but through the information it collected and disseminated to the federal government. The CIA's ability to influence other branches of the federal government has varied throughout its history depending on the extent to which it is trusted by the executive branch, Congress and the public.

The 1950s is a story of its increasing credibility to other branches of the federal government, and of relative non-intervention by Congress. The posting of John Foster Dulles to State when his brother Allen was at CIA, and Eisenhower's enthusiasm for the Agency, meant that there was more faith in the CIA at the highest levels of government during the Eisenhower administration. However, obstruction continued at lower levels, as did disagreement and rivalry between the CIA and other agencies, as for instance between it and air force intelligence (A-2) over the 'bomber gap' and 'missile gap' between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

The CIA's credibility and its ability to disseminate its intelligence so that it might be made use of were heavily bolstered by its successes in developing new sources of intelligence in the 1950s. This was part of a trend in government in general toward the application of high technology to intelligence work, a trend epitomized by the founding of the National Security Agency in 1954.

Although signals intelligence (SIGINT) was highly important in the Cold War, the CIA also made a decisive contribution in the 1950s by its development of the U-2 photo-recon plane. The CIA's tasking had not changed much since the days of Truman, and it was still focused mostly on the Soviet Union. However, under Eisenhower the CIA could produce reliable (because technological rather than human) intelligence on its primary target.

The organization was also flexible enough to be directed elsewhere, as demonstrated by the U-2 overflights of the Middle East during the Suez crisis. The IMINT produced by the CIA had a large influence on the policy of the Eisenhower administration, which discovered through it that the 'bomber gap' was nonexistent. This not only informed policy choices Eisenhower subsequently made, but also raised the credibility of the CIA vis-à-vis rival agencies, especially A-2.

The human factor

It was not only in technical intelligence that the CIA made strides in the 1950s, although these were the most prominent. The application of science to espionage was a huge growth area, and carried the appeal of the novel. It gave the DCI gadgets and reliable results to show off in closed meetings, and was reassuring given the technological progress of the Soviet Union. The heavy resources directed into this area by the CIA in the 1950s represented a shift from priorities in the Agency that Truman founded in 1947, but they represented pursuit of the task he had laid down: keeping track of the Soviet target.

The CIA was also involved in more traditional espionage activities under the Eisenhower administration, especially the handling of several defectors-in-place in the Soviet Union – first, Lieutenant Colonel Pyotr Popov, and then Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, who first approached America during the Eisenhower administration. These moles provided vital information on Russian strategic forces and conditions within the Soviet Union. Penkovsky's intelligence was vital during the Cuban missile crisis, when it prevented a sharp and unneccesary escalation by the American side.

This is in contrast to HUMINT successes during the Truman administration, which were few and far between. The CIA was gradually realizing the limits of its own ability to collect HUMINT from within the Soviet bloc, and had ceased the Truman administration practice of trying to use displaced persons in German refugee camps to go behind the Iron Curtain. This had almost without exception resulted in the death of those involved at no appreciable gain to the United States.

At the same time, the CIA had to be very careful about collaboration with groups inside the Eastern bloc after the revelation that the Polish group WIN was a front of the Polish secret police.

A more sensible Agency..?

In some ways, then, the CIA had become more sensible by the 1950s. It was realized in most parts of the organization that 'rollback' in Eastern Europe was an unobtainable goal, although Frank Wisner still wanted to intervene to help during the Hungarian Revolution. That he was blocked by his seniors indicates that the CIA had by the 1950s become more tightly-controlled, and some might say more mature.

When Beddell-Smith ordered this rearrangement it had been partly because he wanted to bring the 'Cowboys' of OPC under his control, but the long-term result of this would clearly depend on the personality of the next DCI – who was Allen Dulles, advocate and one-time practioner of covert action. Dulles was willing to engage in covert action, but he picked his battles with some care. The CIA had in the eyes of the top leadership by now proved its ability to bring about decisive change abroad – such power meant a degree of care was needed in how it was applied.

Hence in the 1950s the CIA's covert action was mostly directed against the Third World, a situation which might well have been predictable in 1947. What was not predictable was that penetration of the Soviet target would prove so difficult and that covert efforts would be directed almost exclusively elsewhere.

... Not really

This brief survey shows that although the fundamental goals of the CIA had not much changed between the days of Truman and Eisenhower, the Agency had grown and adapted to the world situation a great deal during this time. Its abilities had grown at all stages of the intelligence cycle as it responded to challenges and started to realize what it might accomplish given the application of resources.

External events such as the Korean War (which allowed OPC to blossom) and the founding of the KGB in 1954 (the same year James Angleton became Chief of Counterintelligence) spurred its growth, but this growth was also self-perpetuating. One thing that did not change about the CIA was that it was staffed primarily with young idealists who were highly-educated (however well this education transferred over into competence in the intelligence field) throughout the 1940s and '50s, and these people grabbed with both hands the money and opportunities made available to them by the 1949 Central Intelligence Act. This meant that the Agency grew under its own impetus, experimenting with a range of activities which would never see the light of day due to a lack of Congressional oversight (until the exposure of the 'Family Jewels', a catalogue of wrongdoing, in the 1970s).

The Agency under Eisenhower had become a significant world-historical actor. That its influence and power was growing is evident by the feelings of State Department officials toward the Agency and its operatives. In 1947 the State Department had rejected the idea that the functions of what later would become the CIA be placed under its jurisdiction, but by the mid-1950s they perhaps had some reason to regret this decision.

Had they foreseen the range of activities which the CIA would eventually perform and the destabilizing effect it could have on America’s relations with the world, State Department officials might have preferred to have the CIA's operators where they could see them. The U-2 flights are a case in point. Although each was approved by Eisenhower personally, the CIA had a degree of leverage in what they told the President about, for instance, the risks of a shoot-down and what the results might be. When Gary Francis Powers was shot down on May Day, 1960, it precipitated a crisis in relations between the USA and the USSR as the latter used the incident for propaganda advantage.

The CIA had, over the course of six years, developed a potent spying tool, persuaded the President to allow its frequent use (as well as subletting the aircraft to the British), and then provoked a significant international incident with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower was not duped, and he genuinely appreciated the value of IMINT, but clearly the CIA had in the process of becoming a major factor in the foreign relations of the United States also become a powerful lobby for its own interests and abilities. CIA's disagreement with State was a sign of the maturity of the former, as it was bound to run into trouble with the United States’ overt diplomatic arm as its power and influence grew.

What had not changed since the days of Truman was the role of personality, which remained strong in the Agency and in its relations with other branches of the federal government. The DCI had much higher stock by the time of Dulles than he had under Hillenkoeter, as he had a series of successes under his belt and the tools to continue delivering them. Truman's fear of an 'American Gestapo' had led him to fear an intelligence agency that was too strong and unified (one reason OPC did not report to the DCI when he first created it), but by the time of Eisenhower this was seen as a boon.

By the time of Eisenhower, the Agency had many of the features of a modern intelligence agency. It had grown confident in its own abilities and was not ashamed to assert its interests at home and what it perceived to be those of the United States abroad. A series of successes in spying on the Soviet Union and stopping the spread of Communism had given it credibility in the executive branch, meaning the military intelligence agencies soon began to feel the heat.

It would not be quite correct to say the Agency was not recognizable as the one founded by Truman in 1947, as it represented one possible outcome of the development of Truman’s agency. It still had essentially the same tasking – closing the 'dirty tricks gap' between the USA and the USSR and spying on the USSR – as well as ancillary functions which it was able to provide, such as assessments of third countries and other international situations. It had simply developed many more tools with which to carry out these tasks, occasionally with unforeseen implications for the foreign policy of the United States. Perhaps the most salient difference is the cult of covert action that was allowed to get out of control in the CIA under Eisenhower, leading to the assassination plots and ultimately the Bay of Pigs. Such activities would not have been recognizable to Truman as part of the Agency's duties in 1947.

Further reading

The standard account of the rise of American intelligence community is C.M. Andrew, For the President's Eyes Only (London, 1996). A narrative of the early days of the CIA, centered around four of its most interesting characters is E. Thomas, The Very Best Men: the Early Years of the CIA (London, 1996). R. Jeffreys-Jones and C.M. Andrews (eds.) provide an interesting set of articles in Eternal Vigilance? 50 Years of the CIA (London, 1997). Finally, see R. Jeffreys-Jones, The CIA and American Democracy (New Haven, 1989) for a slightly different approach.

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