The Quiet Americans
‘A darkly entertaining tale about American espionage, set in an era when Washington’s fear and skepticism about the agency resembles our climate today.’ New York Times
At the end of World War II, the United States dominated the world militarily, economically, and in moral standing – seen as the victor over tyranny and a champion of freedom. But it was clear – to some – that the Soviet Union was already executing a plan to expand and foment revolution around the world. The American government’s strategy in response relied on the secret efforts of a newly-formed CIA.
The Quiet Americans chronicles the exploits of four spies – Michael Burke, a charming former football star fallen on hard times, Frank Wisner, the scion of a wealthy Southern family, Peter Sichel, a sophisticated German Jew who escaped the Nazis, and Edward Lansdale, a brilliant ad executive. The four ran covert operations across the globe, trying to outwit the ruthless KGB in Berlin, parachuting commandos into Eastern Europe, plotting coups, and directing wars against Communist insurgents in Asia.
But time and again their efforts went awry, thwarted by a combination of stupidity and ideological rigidity at the highest levels of the government – and more profoundly, the decision to abandon American ideals. By the mid-1950s, the Soviet Union had a stranglehold on Eastern Europe, the US had begun its disastrous intervention in Vietnam, and America, the beacon of democracy, was overthrowing democratically elected governments and earning the hatred of much of the world. All of this culminated in an act of betrayal and cowardice that would lock the Cold War into place for decades to come.
Anderson brings to the telling of this story all the narrative brio, deep research, sceptical eye, and lively prose that made Lawrence in Arabia a major international bestseller. The intertwined lives of these men began in a common purpose of defending freedom, but the ravages of the Cold War led them to different fates. Two would quit the CIA in despair, stricken by the moral compromises they had to make; one became the archetype of the duplicitous and destructive American spy; and one would be so heartbroken he would take his own life.
Scott Anderson’s The Quiet Americans is the story of these four men. It is also the story of how the United States, at the very pinnacle of its power, managed to permanently damage its moral standing in the world.
In the media
Enthralling . . . Lying and stealing and invading, it should be said, make for captivating reading, especially in the hands of a storyteller as skilled as Anderson . . . the climate of fear and intolerance that it describes in Washington also feels uncomfortably timely.
New York Times Book Review
Anderson’s look at four men who ran covert operations around the globe after World War II is as thrilling as it is tragic, as each man confronts the moral compromises he made in the name of democracy.
In this sweeping, vivid, beautifully observed book, Scott Anderson unearths the devastating secret history of how the United States lost the plot during the Cold War. By focusing on the twisty, colorful lives of four legendary spies, Anderson distills the larger geopolitical saga into an intimate story of flawed but talented men, of the 'disease of empires,' and of the inescapable moral hazard of American idealism and power. It's a hell of a book, with themes about the unintended consequences of espionage and interventionism that still resonate, powerfully, today.
Patrick Radden Keefe, author of The New York Times bestseller and Orwell Prize-winning Say Nothing
A probing history of the CIA’s evolving role from the outset of the Cold War into the 1960s, viewed through the exploits of four American spies . . . Anderson delivers a complex, massively scaled narrative, balancing prodigious research with riveting storytelling skills . . . An engrossing history of the early days of the CIA.