Talking With the Son of 'The Man Nobody Knew'

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First Run Features

One of the things he did was write a memoir, Honorable Men, published in 1978.

I remember he announced that he wanted time apart from us to write a book. I thought, God, he's lying. A man doesn't need "time apart" from his family to write. Even Balzac only wrote 12 to 14 hours a day. Then you put down the pen and have a drink and a meal. I was angry because I also thought, 'Is he lying about anything else? Are we important? Who were we to him—just a cover?'

How long after that did he tell your mom he wanted a divorce?

A few years. But to go back to the book for a second—when he told me he was calling his book Honorable Men, I said, "That's from Julius Caesar, correct?" He said, "Yeah." I told him that I thought Shakespeare intended the phrase "honorable men" ironically—not literally. "What do you mean?" he asked. But I didn't say anything else, and just let it go. Look, I don't want to paint a picture of a simple-minded person. I think he saw himself as a warrior. And in our family, raised Catholic, our heroes were warriors, saints, and martyrs.

What qualities in them did your dad most admire?

That they were holy men and women with pronounced vision, almost zealotry. At the same time, they were people of action. Warriors. Richard the Lionhearted, Joan of Arc, and St. George the Dragon Slayer—all were in his pantheon. One ran a crusade, the other went up against England at the age of what, seventeen? And as a woman. That's astonishing. And the other one, St. George, was completely shrouded in legend. But my dad also had a realistic, cold, almost harsh view of the world—and that came from his time in the OSS.

He joined in 1943, when he was about 23.

That's right. He would parachute into France and Norway. Maybe because of something he did with the resistance he saw the Nazis get their reprisals. They would bring villagers out and execute them—men, women, and children. Once I remember telling him that I'd been to Germany and traveled through Homburg. I asked how he liked Germany, what cities appealed to him. He said, "I try not to go to Germany anymore."

Did your father ever talk about novels, plays, or movies that he enjoyed?

He basically worked all the time, so he didn't particularly read novels. Still, it was very strange, even when he was quite young, he would always be telling me that he had stopped in Madrid and visited with Graham Greene. Or when he was in Hong Kong, James Clavell would come out to the airport to talk to him.

Did he go to the movies?

Yes, and there were mainly three characters he talked about. The first was Lawrence of Arabia. That character basically takes on another identity. He erases—almost sheds the skin of being this English clubman, an English soldier, and becomes this Bedouin incarnation, leading troops against the Turks, and succeeding. Dad also loved Commander Shears as played by William Holden in Bridge on the River Kwai. He's the American can-do guy who looks to the Brits like they have theories but the American is just going to do what needs to be done. I saw a Cablegram from my dad's OSS days. The resistance in Norway needed help, and they were debating whom to send. The message was: "Send Colby, damn it. He'll get the job done." The other movie he loved is The Third Man, starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten.

And which of those characters did he look to?

He could recite the dialogue from the scene at the top of the Ferris wheel. It was actually kind of chilling. Joseph Cotten plays a character called Holly Martins, and he's confronting Orson Welles, who is Harry Lime, for trafficking in adulterated penicillin. Children are dying in hospitals in Vienna. "Don't be melodramatic," Harry Lime tells him. "Look down there. Tell me—would you really feel any pity if one of these dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped, would you really tell me to keep my money—or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?"

And your dad would recite this scene?

He loved it. Including the most famous part where Harry Lime gives his speech—"In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."

But Harry Lime is a racketeer.

That's what I said to him—"Harry Lime is immoral." But dad would just shrug, as if to say,That's life. You see, I think dad lived in the Harry Lime world, not the Holly Martins world.

What were William Colby's thoughts about spy movies?

James Bond amused him. He would say, "There are very few James Bonds because James Bond is English." He would explain that the men and women out doing the undercover work are usually the nationality of the nation they're spying on. The spies in Syria and Damascus probably aren't Americans from Boise, Idaho—they're most likely native Syrians who lived in London for a while, speak several languages, and are embedded in the Assad government. They're your spies.

William Colby has a unique vantage point on politics. Were there any politicians whom he respected?

My dad was a creation of Franklin Roosevelt. He bought FDR hook, line, and sinker. He was a bit ambivalent about Dwight Eisenhower, but he truly latched on to John F. Kennedy. I remember listening to Kennedy's inaugural address on my transistor radio with dad. When he heard those lines—"We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty"—it was as if he was getting his marching orders. He turned and walked out of the room. He was going to go and do his job.

How did your father regard Nixon, who appointed him director of CIA?

He obeyed the President, and respected authority. Just before Nixon resigned, I remarked to him, "This president is a liar. He deserves to be thrown out." Dad replied, "Watch what you say. You don't call your president a liar." Even though he probably knew more than anyone that Nixon had been lying, it was very difficult for him to accept that the President—the ultimate authority, the one who's signing these findings authorizing CIA actions—was dishonest.

Did he talk about Ronald Reagan?

He thought Reagan was a kind of buffoon. That was Beltway thinking, though. Dad didn't have a lot of domestic political horse sense. For instance, he thought that Michael Dukakis would ride right over George Bush in the 1988 election.

Among CIA hands, the agency timeline is divided into "before the fall" and "after the fall"—the "fall" being the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster. The agency trained Cuban exiles to try to remove Fidel Castro. However, Castro's army overwhelmed them when they landed on the beach. What did your dad say about the operation?

He regarded it as a fiasco. He probably saw it from the point of view of Richard Bissell, who was chief of clandestine service. Bissell's position was, President Kennedy launched this operation and said he would support it with air cover—but didn't. He sent guys down there who were practically defenseless, and they were slaughtered. For my dad, that was an omen of how fickle the White House could be.

That experience had to be pretty shattering for anyone at the CIA.

He saw a similar thing in Italy during the '50s. Frank Wisner, dad's boss, assured the Hungarians that the U.S. would support them with guns and money in Budapest if the Soviets invaded. But then President Eisenhower said, Absolutely not. The Russians will just crush them. When the Russians did crush them, Wisner saw it with his own eyes. He watched the people he had promised to support get executed. Then he went to Rome and debriefed the American station, including my father. After that, Frank Wisner returned to the United States and shot himself in the head with a shotgun.

Hollywood often portrays anti-communists as hysterical. But your picture shows that Soviet communism was for real.

There was a pitched battle between the Soviets and Americans over the future of Western Europe. As Zbigniew Brzezinski says in the film, "This was a time of really serious political contest over the future."

That perspective is missing from many depictions of the Cold War.

Well, when you meet an Italian communist, it all seems like, "If I can have my pasta and prosciutto and drive my Lancia and live in Tuscany and have free travel, then communism seems sort of good." But the Soviets were pouring much more money into Europe than we were. Plus, they had tanks.

What would your dad think of The Man Nobody Knew?

That I treated him fairly. I'm not here to lionize or celebrate him. He wouldn't want that, anyway. He'd want a close examination.

Presented by

John Meroney and Sean Coons

John Meroney (@john_meroney) is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars. Sean Coons (@seancoons) is a writer and musician in Redondo Beach, California.

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