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National Observer Home > No. 55 - Summer 2003 > Articles

Richard Helms and the C.I.A. Choices Amongst Conflicting Duties


Richard McGarrack Helms, who died on 22 October 2002, was perhaps the most controversial, and certainly one of the most important directors of the Central Intelligence Agency. He was the director of the C.I.A. from 1966 to 1973, during one of the most critical parts of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was most aggressive in its attempts to undermine non-communist countries and to instigate and support revolutionary activity in many parts of the world. Helms was above all notable for always placing the security of the United States above his own welfare and above the interests of his political masters.

Born in 1913, and graduated from Williams College, Massachusetts, in 1935, when the United States entered the Second World War Helms joined the U.S. Navy, and he spent some years with the Office of Strategic Services organizing intelligence operations against Germany. After Germany surrendered he assisted in the identification of Nazi war criminals to facilitate their prosecution.

The Central Intelligence Agency was created in July 1947, and Helms (who was then employed by the Office of Special Operations) became deputy director of its Directorate for Plans. The C.I.A. had conducted an extensive campaign to prevent the Italian Communist Party from winning elections there, and was charged with conducting anti-communist activities in other countries. He was soon made head of the Directorate, replacing Richard Bissell after the unfortunate defeat of the landing in the Bay of Pigs in 1961 that was intended to remove Fidel Castro.

President John Kennedy and his brother Robert, the Attorney-General, were strongly anti-communist and perceived clearly the threat that a communist Cuba posed to the United States by acting as a proxy to the Soviets and to other Central and South American countries. The C.I.A. properly encouraged attempts to have Castro assassinated, but through a succession of mischances these attempts unfortunately failed.

After the death of President Kennedy Helms became deputy head of the C.I.A., under Admiral William Raborn. Raborn allowed Helms to exercise considerable influence and control, and Helms took particular interest in the unfolding events in Vietnam. He is credited with sound decisions, such as the organizing of indigenous minorities to harass Northern Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces and the organizing of counter-terrorist groups.

The Vietnam War placed the C.I.A. in an impossible position. The North Vietnamese communists saw political pressure as the means to ultimate success. Whilst the United States maintained substantial forces in Vietnam the communists suffered constant defeats, leading in 1968 to their greatest defeat in the Tet offensive. During this offensive the element of surprise enabled them to make immediate gains, but they were soon driven out of all the positions that they had occupied and suffered crippling losses.

In the American press, however, the almost exclusively anti-war journalists gave an opposite impression, and their misleading accounts of the Tet offensive proved decisive in the communists’ long struggle to break the United States’ will through a combination of propaganda and tenacity in the field.

These were very difficult times for the C.I.A., and Helms was the subject of attack by American left-liberal opinion. Probably those who ought to have been regarded instead as responsible for the eventual fiasco and the cynical abandonment by the United States of the South Vietnamese were the successive American military commanders. The U.S. military believed that they could succeed through bombings and the application of overwhelming force whenever North Vietnamese forces emerged. What was not done was to build up the South Vietnamese army effectively, so that with its greater understanding of local conditions and greater local intelligence it could provide more complete and permanent restrictions on communist activity.

An equally unpopular cause was preventing Chile from becoming a communist dictatorship. Salvador Allende and his Marxist-Communist coalition party Unidad Popular obtained (with assistance and financial support from Cuban and Soviet resources) 36 per cent of the national vote in Chile's 1970 elections.

Allende's government set in motion plans to turn Chile into a communist regime modelled upon Cuba:1

"But Salvador Allende was no fuzzy ‘social reform’ Marxist. His Unidad Popular and his government were filled with hardcore Communist revolutionaries like Luis Fernandez Ona, Orlando Letelier, Luis Corvalan, Daniel Vergara, Pedro Vuskovic, Jacques Conchol, Carlos Altamirano, Pablo Neruda, Hernan del Canto, Volodia Teitelboim, Eduardo Paredes, Carlos Toro, Valenti Rossi, Clodimiro Almeyda Medina, and Alfredo Joignant (to name but a few).

Senor Ona is particularly noteworthy, inasmuch as he not only was the second in command of Cuba's military intelligence, ‘G-2’, but was married to the President's daughter, Beatriz Allende. Ona had been Castro's intelligence liaison to Che Guevara in Bolivia. It was Comrade Ona who organized Allende's personal Praetorian Guard, known as G.A.P., Grupo de Amigos del Presidente (Group of Friends of the President). Ona placed this group of armed thugs under the control of Max Joel Marambio, who was trained in Cuba.

Senator Luis Corvalan was Secretary-General of Chile's Communist Party and one of Allende's closes allies. Like Allende, he was no social reformer. As a disciplined, Moscow-controlled Red he counselled Allende against the rash actions advocated by some of the hothead revolutionaries with itchy trigger fingers. ‘We need time to prepare ourselves for the exigencies of a civil war’, he warned.

One of the preparations involved obtaining funding from foreign Communist Parties. After the coup, a ‘Dear Comrade’ letter of 21 March 1973 from Communist Party official Antonio Benedicto in Spain to Senator Corvalan was found. Bendedicto was reporting on the progress of his negotiations for Allende for loans from the Communist Parties of France and Spain. He informed Corvalan that the best prospects for major loans might be through Interagra, the cash-rich export organization of the French Union of Agricultural Co-operatives, ‘chaired by Comrade Jean Doumeng’. Benedicto noted that ‘Integra is known as "The Party Cashbox" because it is controlled by the French Communist Party’. Comrade Benedicto opined to Corvalan that ‘it would be possible to obtain loans in the course of this year for about $150 million, in France and Spain alone’.

Cuban-trained Eduardo Paredes was the first to head the Investigations Department, Chile's analogue to the F.B.I., under Allende. Photos show Paredes instructing Allende in guerrilla warfare and the firing of automatic weapons. On 11 April 1972, Paredes returned to Chile from one of his frequent trips to Cuba. He brought with him 13 large crates that he refused to open for Chilean Customs officials. He insisted they contained only art objects, cigars, and mango-flavoured ice-cream - all gifts from the Cuban people. After Allende was deposed, a huge arsenal of weapons was discovered in Allende's residence - along with a bill of lading for the Cuban crates. The ice-cream and cigars turned out to be rifles and machine guns."

Within a year of Allende's election Soviet / Cuban directed cadres acquired de facto control over large areas. Planned assassinations were carried out on an increasing scale, and on 23 August 1973 the Chamber of Deputies of the Chilean Parliament resolved:

"It is a fact that the present government of the Republic [the Allende administration], from its inception has been bent on acquiring total power, with the evident purpose of submitting all individuals to the strictest economic and political control by the State, thus achieving the establishment of a totalitarian system, absolutely contrary to the representative democratic system prescribed by the Constitution."

Further, the purpose of Castro and Allende, as subsequently corroborated from documents seized after he was ousted, was not merely to Cubanise Chile, but to use Chile as a stepping-stone for the Cubanisation of other South or Central American countries.

In these circumstances the C.I.A. under Helms had taken the obvious course of supporting the opposition to Allende. Indeed, to do otherwise would have been irresponsible. The only criticism that may, in retrospect, be made in this regard is that greater resources should have been devoted by the United States to supporting Helms and the C.I.A. in the objective of forestalling an Allende-led Marxist regime.

Fortunately Augusto Pinochet thwarted Allende's proposed coup, which was to have taken place several days later, when on 11 September 1973 Pinochet's forces surrounded the Ministry of Defence and Allende committed suicide with a machine gun that had been given to him as a present by Fidel Castro. This happy result, and the forestalling of another repressive communist regime, has caused a persistent, deep-rooted grievance amongst left-liberals, and has led to persistent attempts to demonise and persecute Pinochet.

Helms was justifiably critical of Senate committees, the members of which were habitually more concerned with favourable publicity to themselves or political advantage to their parties than with the national interest. When Senator Stuart Symington and other senators questioned him about the role of the C.I.A. in relation to Chile Helms deliberately chose to thwart them. He denied that the C.I.A. had tried to overthrow Allende's government or that it had assisted financially his opponents. He defended his refusal to assist Senate committees by maintaining that his duty was to protect intelligence secrets and that he was not obliged to provide intelligence information to Senators who held no power of C.I.A. oversight. By reason of his stand he was prosecuted for perjury. He was fined $2, 000 and received a suspended two-year prison sentence. He subsequently stated that he regarded his conviction as a "badge of honour", and his sense of duty was later recognized by President Ronald Reagan, who presented him with the National Security Medal for "exceptionally meritorious service".

The quandary that was faced by Helms is one that may arise on many occasions in democratic countries. As a matter of national security it is sometimes necessary that covert operations should take place, that friendly states should be supported and hostile governments should be destabilized. Those who take part in those operations should, in the absence of very special circumstances, be supported and not abandoned to those who seek political or personal gains. This was the view taken by Helms: first, that preventing further Cuban-type regimes in Central and South America was an important policy objective; and secondly, that political opportunists on the left of the Democrat Party should not succeed in victimizing those who had acted in the United States’ interests.

In taking this position of principle Helms showed very considerable courage. He acted in accordance with his conscience, despite the prospect of being prosecuted. And after his retirement he continued to assist C.I.A. officers who were subject to political criticism, such as in regard to the Iran-Contra affair.

These matters are of interest in Australia also. Unfortunately in Australia during the most dangerous period of the Cold War there were important and influential members of the Labor Party, such as Eddie Ward and James Cairns and many others, who were prepared to disregard their moderate colleagues in order to assist communist causes in Australia and abroad. A lack of patriotism has been evident even recently when a Labor-Party-Democrat controlled Senate committee was clearly intent on finding and exaggerating any evidence that might show that the Australian government or members of the Defence Force had acted improperly in attempting to exclude illegal immigrants. There is a significant element of Australian society, represented by such groups as the Australian Democrats and vociferous parts of the Australian Labor Party, whose primary loyalty is to overseas objects rather than to their own country. One may comment generally that in a democracy treason is always just below the surface.

1. "Patriot Enchained", 1999, Codex, Issue 9, page 1 at page 4.

National Observer No. 55 - Summer 2003