Like many kids, young Carl Colby’s curiosity led him to investigate his father’s dresser. He found socks in one drawer, underwear in another and shirts in a third. When he pulled out the top drawer, he found military ribbons, a passport, bullets and a gun—certainly enough to make a boy wonder what his father did for a living.
Carl's search to understand his father—William Colby, head of the CIA from 1973 to 1976—has produced a fascinating documentary aptly titled “The Man Nobody Knew” which opened Friday (9/23) at the Lincoln Plaza Theatre in New York.
What Carl and his audiences discover by the end of the movie hardly satisfies that quest. Bill Colby’s enigmatic life ended with his unexpected death—a probable suicide—leaving behind lots facts, figures and fascinating history of some 35 years of American intervention abroad, but very little insight into whatever made this man tick.
Compounding the problem is that depending on your age (and whether you majored in political science), Colby’s name no longer evokes the strong anti-CIA reaction that made him a controversial figure in the 1970s. We’ve had plenty of reason since 9/11 to question the reliability and efficacy of the agency.
A first-generation “company” man, Colby started out as one of those action spies you meet in Steven Seagal movies—even though he never looked the part. A Princeton graduate pursuing a law degree from Columbia, Colby volunteered for parachute duty when World War II broke out, and volunteered again when a commanding officer was recruiting for what became the OSS. Scholarly in appearance and slight of build, this physically unassuming young American parachuted behind enemy lines in France and Norway, leading resistance efforts to blow up bridges and rail lines.
When the OSS was demobilized after the war, Colby married, briefly practiced law under his old OSS boss, “Wild Bill” Donovan, and joined the CIA when it was assembled from remnants of OSS intelligence operations. The year was 1951, the same year Carl Colby, the first of the family’s five children, was born.
When the Iron Curtain fell, Colby’s career as a quintessential Cold Warrior began in earnest. After fieldwork in Sweden, he was deployed to Rome in 1953, where he is credited with preventing Italy from going Communist by channeling—through the Vatican—American funds that ultimately elected the Christian Democrats.
Among the many talking heads Carl Colby interviewed for the film, an Italian official attributes Colby’s efforts to creating La Dolce Vita—the good life that Italy came to enjoy in the sixties. By then, however, Colby and his family had moved on to Saigon where he became CIA Station Chief after the fall of the French. There he became a driving force in efforts to isolate rural villages from Communist influence through what was called The Strategic Hamlet Program—an extension of his wartime counter-insurgency efforts in Europe. Colby’s primary mission, however, was to support the US-sponsored regime of President Ngo Din Diem—a responsibility that later cost him when the Kennedy administration decided to encourage a coup against that government.
The political history detailed in the film comes to life with news footage, family photographs and the fascinating selection of sound bites from—among others—former National Security Advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, former Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and James Schlesinger (also an ex-CIA Director), former Senator Bob Kerrey and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Bob Woodward, Tim Weiner and Seymour Hersh.
Weaving all of it together are Carl’s extensive interviews with his mother, a bright, beautifully-spoken example of a fifties’ wife and mother who accepted her duty to stand by her man, even when she was never quite sure where his place was. Under State Department cover, the family enjoyed a privileged diplomatic life abroad socializing with foreign government leaders and American officials in Italy, Vietnam and Washington. And if occasionally Dad slipped away from a family picnic in the Italian countryside on a Sunday afternoon to exchange an envelope with a stranger, no one asked any questions.
In the end, it was Hersh who leaked damaging internal CIA data through his New York Times pieces that was Colby’s undoing—although even Hersh insists that Colby’s personal integrity and candor regarding the CIA were as much a part of his character as any covert activities. Bill Colby’s least enigmatic feature appears to have been loyalty to his government, whether the President’s name was Kennedy, Nixon or Ford. So when he defied Ford before the Church Committee, spilling clandestine beans about the agency’s “Family Jewels” for example, he stood willing to take the punishment: in 1976 Ford replaced him as CIA Director with George H.W. Bush in 1976.
For me, the scanty details of Colby’s later years are as mystifying as the rest of his life, and somehow even more stunning. But attempts to link his final disappearance to his career were clearly a romantic embellishment that a “spymaster” like Colby would probably have dismissed. Like his son, we’ll never understand exactly what enabled Bill Colby to become such an important actor in the political and military history of the 20th Century. But when you see this film, you’ll never forget that he was.
“The Man Nobody Knew” opened Sept. 23 in New York.