By Randall B. Woods. Basic Books. 576 pages. $29.99
Reviewed by Michael L. Ramsey
MICHAEL L. RAMSEY is president of the Roanoke Public Library Foundation.
William Egan Colby left his mark on America. He served as operations officer for the Office of Strategic Services behind enemy lines during World War II. He was Saigon station chief for the CIA, and later served as director of Central Intelligence. He lived and died in the shadows.
Randall B. Woods’ new biography of Colby, “Shadow Warrior,” begins with Colby’s mysterious death. Then a flashback takes the reader to Colby’s youth and follows his life full circle, ending with the phrases that announce his death at the book’s beginning.
Colby spent many of his formative years in China, where his father was posted. Upon returning to the United States, the Colbys settled in a house on the shores of Lake Champlain — a house on land near Burlington, Vt., where Colby’s ancestors had lived since the French and Indian War.
William Colby’s experience in China, his facility with languages, his enjoyment of the outdoors and his Ivy League education (Princeton) provided him with a foundation for his career at the CIA. But first, there was war.
Like many young men of his generation, Colby was eager to contribute to the effort to defeat the Axis Powers during World War II. He elected assignment to the OSS. The OSS was interested in an intelligent young man fluent in more languages than English and with a desire for adventure.
Capt. Colby was sent to France to organize members of the French Resistance. His goal was to form a military group to harass the Germans and divert the Wehrmacht from the D-Day invasion at Normandy.
Colby was successful in organizing the French and harassing the Germans. He wanted a posting to the Pacific, but he was sent to Norway instead. He organized a Norse operation whose goal was to halt the movement of German troops being moved to the main European Theater. Once again, he was successful.
Woods summarizes Colby’s World War II experience: “He was a warrior in the making when he arrived in Europe and a veteran of unconventional warfare when he left.”
Before Colby could move to the Pacific, the war was over. He returned to America and studied law at Columbia. His law degree and his network of friends led him to a job in Washington, where he worked for the National Labor Relations Board.
Colby was approached by a former OSS colleague who was working for the CIA, and he began his career with the agency. The former clandestine warrior was set on a path that would lead him to the directorate of the CIA. This new career path had its genesis at the height of anti-communist frenzy in the United States, the hallmark being the now-discredited Army-McCarthy hearings.
Colby resumed his spy business when he was assigned to Europe. While stationed in Rome, he called on his wartime experience in France and Norway to generate and manage a clandestine political move to keep communists from gaining control of the Italian government.
Prior to becoming director of Central Intelligence, Colby’s most controversial assignment was in Southeast Asia, where he ran the Phoenix program — a program designed to neutralize the Viet Cong infiltrators in South Vietnam. Phoenix was designed to fight on the same terms being used by the Viet Cong, and it resulted in the deaths of 20,000 North Vietnamese guerillas.
Colby was a “gentleman spy” in the same class with British counterparts Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming. He liked adventure. He liked making contributions (secretly) to the country’s efforts to keep enemies at bay.
In any bureaucracy, especially the CIA, jealousies develop among departments, and success can be fatal to a successful person. Such was the case with Colby.
When Congress asked about CIA activities in other countries, Colby complied by telling selected members about covert activities. Another Colby contribution was the prohibition of assassination as a sanctioned activity in other countries.
Inside the agency and elsewhere in Washington, many lined up against Colby; President Ford replaced him with George H. W. Bush.
Colby returned to the practice of law and provided services for American companies doing business overseas. He also continued to provide services to the CIA.
Woods tells the story of this “gentleman spy” who liked to be called “Bill,” but it is really the inside story of the CIA from its inception following World War II through the years following Colby’s tenure as director of Central Intelligence.
The book’s ending brings us back to the book’s beginning and the death of Colby. According to his wife and neighbors, Colby had spent the day working on his sailboat and returned home planning to have a quiet dinner (his wife was in Europe) and go to bed early. His body was found far from the cabin several days later.
In closing the circuit, Woods raises questions about Colby’s death, making this story a mystery worthy of a man who led our government’s most mysterious government agency.