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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 334

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This is the grave of William Colby.

Born in 1920 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Colby came from a military family. His father was a longtime officer who had served in China among other places, though he was more of an intellectual interested in military tactics than a soldier. He went to Princeton, graduated in 1940, and then went to Columbia Law. He strongly identified as a liberal Catholic and was proud of the fact that his father had stood up against the murder of a black soldier in Georgia by a white man who was not punished for it.

In 1941, Colby left law school and joined the military as the nation entered World War II. He served with the Office of Strategic Services as a special operator, requiring him to parachute behind enemy lines on multiple occasions. Somehow he survived all of that. He then went back to Columbia at the end of the war and completed his law degree. He was quite interested in labor issues and took a job with the National Labor Relations Board, openly a pro-labor lawyer. But the CIA came knocking. With Colby’s war experience, with the CIA growing rapidly after its creation in 1947, perhaps this move seems inevitable.

A good liberal but a staunch Catholic anti-communist, Colby had no problem entering into a world to defeat the Soviets. He started his career in Stockholm, helping to create Operation Gladio, a paramilitary organization designed to resist Soviet invasion in Europe if it happened. He was then in Rome, working undercover in the State Department funding anti-communist political parties in Italy’s chaotic political system. His desire to work with non-communist leftists brought Colby into conflict with the CIA’s vile spy chief, the paranoid James Angleton.

In 1959, Colby was assigned to South Vietnam, where he became an advisor to Ngo Dinh Diem. Unfortunately, in one of the stupidest of this nation’s many stupid foreign policy decisions, major US policy figures, from Colby to Mike Mansfield to the Dulles brothers, backed Diem because he was Catholic and they understood him instead of a Buddhist or animist. This horrible reason to support a leader in a nation basically no one in the U.S. understood would have massive, horrifying consequences. If only our policymakers had learned from this and not, oh I don’t know, later invaded Iraq without knowing the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. Anyway, Colby long was bitter about the Kennedy administration’s decision to abandon Diem, which led to his assassination. All I can say about that is that it’s not as if anyone who replaced him was any better, but Diem was not going to save South Vietnam, as he was awful. Like a lot of Cold War liberals, Colby continued to engage in a lot of terrible activities to defeat communism, in this case the rural pacification program in South Vietnam, including the Phoenix Program, which used assassination among many other tactics to undermine the Viet Cong. Colby would later say this would have worked to save South Vietnam if the U.S. had continued its commitment to the country. Uh huh. Color me extremely unconvinced. Over 21,000 Vietnamese were killed under the Phoenix Program and Colby has more than his share for blame. He later became a direct target of antiwar protestors for all of this, with 1973 antiwar protests using posters of his face with a target over it.

In 1971, Colby returned to the U.S. as one of the CIA’s top executives under James Schlesinger. And then when Schlesinger got bumped to Secretary of Defense, Colby took over the CIA. It was a pretty rough tenure, largely because Colby was so open about the need of the CIA to reform its worst tendencies that he told Congress a whole bunch of stuff that Nixon and Ford didn’t want them to know. Plus the Church Committee exposed so much of what the agency had done over the years, which Colby testified to. Colby himself later said he felt disgusted by many of the agency’s illegal actions, especially after discovering CIA operatives helped with the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychologist’s office. In 1974, the material he shared with senators in private sessions leaked and ended up in a New York Times story. Colby also finally got rid of James Angleton, which relieved many but also alienated others who were allies of the paranoid spymaster.

So finally Ford, who was far more of a right-winger than he is credited for today, replaced Colby with George Bush on the same day he dumped Schlesinger for Donald Rumsfeld. Did I just say that Ford was a right-winger? Yes, because he was awful. The justification for Ford firing Colby was that the president thought he had told too many agency secrets, which by this time Colby felt was necessary to save the agency. Colby was offered UN ambassador as a consolation prize but turned it down. Instead, he went back into private life, using his law degree and, embracing his liberalism, fought for nuclear arms reduction and a freeze to military spending, as well as for gun control in the United States. He also became an advisor for the early video game Spycraft. In his late life, he was highly satisfied with the defeat of the Soviet Union and traveled to Moscow to appreciate what he felt he had accomplished.

In 1996, Colby went on a solo canoe trip near his home in Maryland. He had a heart attack or stroke on that trip and died in his boat. He was 76. Of course, Americans engaged in conspiracy theories that someone offed the spy chief, but this is ridiculous, if for no other reason than no one cared about Colby in 1996.

William Colby is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. If you would like this series to cover more of the foreign policy figures of the Cold War, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James Schlesinger is in Springfield, Ohio, while it turns out Mike Mansfield is at Arlington too, which I didn’t know so I guess I will have to stop by the next time I am in DC. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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