COUNTERFACTUALS TEND TO BE more intriguing when they bend sinister. They reassure us that our times aren’t as bad as they might have been, but warn us about where we could still end up. What if xenophobic Charles Lindbergh had been elected president in 1940, as in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, or if the Axis powers had prevailed in World War II, as in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle? Would it be worth, however, indulging a less theatrical alternative history: what if Vice President Henry A. Wallace had been re-nominated as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s running mate in 1944 rather than being replaced by Harry Truman?

Party bosses thought the eccentric New Dealer too friendly with labor and soft on the Soviets, and ultimately exploited procedural quirks at the 1944 Democratic convention to replace Wallace on the ticket with the relatively obscure senator from Missouri. Some 80 days into his vice presidency, Truman ascended to the Oval Office, from where he would drop atomic bombs on Japan and build the US national security state as we know it.

Wallace would continue as Secretary of Commerce, until forced to resign in 1946 after a speech calling on Washington to respect the legitimacy of the Soviet sphere of influence. Had he become president after FDR’s death from an intracerebral hemorrhage, he would likely have pushed for negotiations with Moscow toward military disengagement from Europe, and not arrived at so sweeping a global vision to confront communism as Truman did.

I tried again to imagine a Wallace presidency when reading Scott Anderson’s The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War — a Tragedy in Three Acts. The titular spies are Frank Wisner, Michael Burke, Peter Sichel, and the most famous of the lot, Edward Lansdale. Through their eyes we see the Truman Doctrine, and its corollary policy of containment, spread from Berlin to the Balkans to Southeast Asia.

Anderson’s preferred form of historiography “is that of people living at the ground zero of events, the stories of those with a direct and personal stake in a drama.” He employed this to excellent effect in his 2013 book Lawrence in Arabia, which I reviewed here and which followed not just T. E. Lawrence but also oilmen, agronomists, and spies from various corners of the world as they tried to reshape the Arab Middle East, during the Great War.

In the Cold War, Anderson calls spies the “first-line soldiers, its animating force.” Creating that front line would take time since the United States had a “historical lack of any potential adversaries on its frontiers who needed watching.” World War II and its aftermath subdued whatever isolationism remained in Washington policy circles. Anderson offers vivid on-the-ground accounts of the CIA’s infancy and growth, particularly in Berlin. He describes the city’s “Gold Rush atmosphere” of the mid-to-late ’40s, where economic collapse allowed American and Russian soldiers alike to enrich themselves through black market sales of cigarettes, liquor, and other goodies from diplomatic and military supplies. Building reliable intelligence networks in a place where “being an informant was just about the only steady work going,” and where loyalties were cheap, would be a game of trial and often-costly error.

Wisner had led the OSS secret intelligence unit in Berlin in the war’s closing days, and was an early and lonely proponent of repurposing the operation away from a defeated Germany to “the growing threat of an empire-building Soviet Union.” Like his colleague and future CIA chief Allen Dulles, he believed the Truman administration insufficiently alert to the Soviet threat, at least until early 1947 when Britain surrendered the job of rescuing Greece and Turkey from communist pressure to the United States.

Accepting the baton, the US government effectively inaugurated the Truman Doctrine and the containment policy whereby, as in Greece and Turkey, Washington “would come to the defense of imperiled democracies around the world.” The National Security Act of September 1947 created the National Security Council and the country’s first peacetime civilian intelligence agency, the CIA, which absorbed the defunct OSS and its successor SSU and Central Intelligence Group. Anderson draws our attention to the vague wording of a sub-clause empowering the CIA “to perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence gathering as the National Security Council may from time to time direct.” Unsurprisingly, this afforded a liberal interpretation of the agency’s mandate. An August 1948 National Security Council directive called for covert operations to counter “the vicious covert activities of the USSR, its satellite countries and Communist groups.” The CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination, headed by Wisner, would manage much of the unvouchered funds for these activities, and help maintain Washington’s plausible deniability — which meant a significant degree of unaccountability.

Another NSC directive, in April 1950, “portrayed the contest with the Soviets as nothing short of that between the forces of good and evil, of freedom and slavery,” Anderson writes. Thus, containment mutated into an eccentric form of liberation. The CIA would hence not only finance future leaders of the authoritarian junta that would eventually rule Greece, and interfere in Italy’s 1948 parliamentary elections to limit Communist Party gains; it would also participate in coups in Iran and Guatemala that replaced leftist democratic regimes, neither of which were joining the Soviet bloc, with authoritarian ones — costing, in the former case, hundreds of thousands of lives.

Of course, the Cold War was also a cultural battle. The OPC’s “covert” operations in Europe, to win over leftists, went beyond sabotage. Its war of ideas had such channels as the Museum of Modern Art, Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra, the AFL-CIO, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, The Paris Review, and the Munich-based Radio Free Europe. Poets, playwrights, philosophers, and think tanks were enlisted into Wisner’s emporium, often without their knowledge. Anderson writes, “It would be little exaggeration to say that, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, one of the principal sources of funding for cultural and artistic projects in an economically prostrate Western Europe was the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination.”

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If the Soviet Union was militarily, financially, and psychologically exhausted by war’s end, it was still intent on securing a large East European periphery. An outward thrust of the terror tactics Stalin had used to consolidate power at home had similar effects in the satellite states. In his discussion of Romania, Anderson illustrates just how quickly a superpower could subsume a smaller neighbor’s political system, even where few hearts and minds were going to turn for a country against which citizens had over a century’s worth of grievances. The Marshall Plan, and Germany’s unresolved fate, prompted Stalin to tighten his grip over Eastern Europe’s communist parties, some of which otherwise seemed inclined to pursue their own socialist course.

The United States and Britain were tragically and sometimes embarrassingly mistaken to think they could subvert Eastern Europe’s young police states. They may also have underestimated the appeal within the West of a Russia that had absorbed the worst of Hitler’s blows. Albania is a classic example. When Tito’s Yugoslavia broke with Stalin in 1948, Albania was geographically cut off from the rest of the Soviet sphere. The West, therefore, saw an opportunity to pluck Enver Hoxha’s little Balkan state away from Moscow. One of the people involved was Michael Burke, based in Rome under the cover of a Hollywood producer (a “James Bond before James Bond”), who oversaw the movement of operatives to Albania “to gauge the potential for revolution, make contact with whatever local resistance groups might exist, and see to the recruitment of new fighters, all while being tracked by an internal security army intent on capturing or killing them.” Also involved in the operation was British spy Kim Philby, notoriously passing on information to his Russian handlers. It didn’t take long for Hoxha’s secret police to capture whichever saboteurs were sent over. Operation Valuable Fiend, as it was called, collapsed quickly.

Anderson makes an important observation here about the conceptual flaw of these sabotage missions. The United States and Britain seemed to want to replicate their success supporting resistance against the Nazis during the war, now against communist rule. But a crucial difference this time was that they weren’t going to commit their own militaries (rightly so). The covert operations were aimed at regimes that grew from “a grassroots infrastructure” of communist partisans that had fought the Axis powers, without Allied support. Anderson quotes from Burke’s memoir: “Even if underground movements had succeeded in gaining enough strength in numbers and arms to rise up, what armies of the West would intervene to ensure their success?” These were basically suicide missions.

The Western intelligence community also fell for con artists and tale spinners of the kind lampooned by Graham Greene and John le Carré in such books as Our Man in Havana and The Tailor of Panama, respectively. In Poland, for example, Burke would oversee airdrops of volunteer commandos, weapons, and radio equipment, all to aid an anticommunist resistance group that hadn’t existed for several years, and was a fantasy fed to the West by a Polish intelligence official posing as an insurgent commander.

The most significant threat to US soft power, meanwhile, came from within. Anderson goes into some detail about how Joe McCarthy, through his purges of the State Department on the basis of perceived political affiliation and sexuality, effectively did “the Soviet’s dirty work for them.” This provoked someone like Burke in West Berlin into questioning “just what sort of nation and society he was fighting to defend.”

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The author clearly believes his Quiet Americans to have been honorable men, let down by a government that failed to live up to the country’s ideals. Wisner, practically a founding member of the CIA, stepped down as deputy director of operations in 1958, had a breakdown, and committed suicide in 1965. Leaving failed special ops behind him, Burke joined his brother-in-law’s family circus company, and in the ’60s and ’70s would serve as president of the Yankees, Knicks, and Madison Square Garden. Sichel’s is a particularly fascinating journey: a German Jew who fled his country and was imprisoned in France, exiled to the United States where he joined the army and OSS, became a disgruntled CIA secret warrior in Europe and Hong Kong, and finally achieved renown as a wine merchant (also a family business).

If the point is to illustrate the human architecture of the Cold War’s beginnings, however, the book doesn’t leave us with an indelible profile of these men. They may be the manifestations of the changing, more secretive nature of executive power in Washington, but not all of all these characters carry the weight of events over the course of the book.

Lansdale is a notable exception. As US intelligence was tottering in Europe, an alternative was to be found in the Philippines, a former US colony. This was Lansdale’s domain. Anderson describes him as “a kind of cultural anthropologist in the field of human conflict.” In the search for useful information, “no angle was too obscure to pursue, no detail too trifling to note down.” His reading of the conflict in the Philippines, and his clout with President Ramon Magsaysay, enabled him to shape that government’s largely successful response to the leftist Huks rebellion in the countryside, with now classic counterinsurgency strategies to win hearts and minds. He was, famously, unable to achieve similar results in Vietnam.

Lansdale provided a model for Homer Atkins in The Ugly American, and the General Y villain overseeing Operation Mongoose and, by extension, the Kennedy assassination in Oliver Stone’s JFK (Anderson repeats a common mistake of implying a connection to Greene’s Pyle character in The Quiet American, published in 1955). But in the period covered here, Asia was still peripheral to Cold War intrigues, with the exception of Korea, and the frequent jumps from Europe to the Philippines and Vietnam become awkward. Furthermore, the Lansdale turf is well trod, most recently by Max Boot in The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam. His inclusion here offers little that’s fresh.

This applies to the book more generally: notwithstanding some good insights and the author’s flair for storytelling, the book has few major revelations, either historic or psychological. Nor is it quite the reckoning with US decision-making that it purports to be. Even as he explores some of the political and financial incentives in Washington to keep conflicts burning, what Anderson doesn’t confront is the expansionism at the heart of US foreign policy, present long before the Iron Curtain came down in Europe.

For example, about the Philippines, he writes, “the idea of an overt American imperium never sat particularly well with the American public,” leading Congress to set a date for Philippines independence less than 50 years after wresting control of the islands from Spain, in 1898. Yet, as he says, “the price for independence and reconstruction aid was to be economic bondage,” with American corporations guaranteed a virtual monopoly over the development of mineral lands, agriculture, energy, and other natural resources. The debates around the colonization of the Philippines at the end of the 19th century suggest that the United States could reconcile itself to the eventual divestiture of an “overt imperium” precisely because it would find new means to ensure that “America’s preponderant economic power would extend the American system throughout the world without the embarrassment and inefficiency of traditional colonialism,” as William Appleman Williams wrote in his classic, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. A more economical imperium, but an imperium nonetheless.

In Iran, Anderson implicitly endorses the view that the Eisenhower administration’s motives to overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh, while misguided, were ultimately defensive in nature, aimed at blocking the onward communist march. Wisner was right to perceive Mossadegh as a nationalist and not a Soviet puppet, and be an (unfortunately ineffective) opponent of the CIA’s Near East and Africa chief Kermit Roosevelt — who Wisner had recruited, and who orchestrated the coup through bribes to clerics, agitators on both sides, and elements in the military. Anderson’s discussion here centers entirely on whether communism posed a serious threat in Iran. Yet it’s no more believable that the United States instigated a coup there in 1953 because it actually feared the spread of communism, than that it invaded Iraq 50 years later because of fears of WMDs.

The Persian Gulf and its oil were already recognized as a major postwar US concern by the time Franklin Roosevelt met Stalin in Yalta in February 1945. Increasingly dependent on oil as a source of energy (it would overtake coal by the early 1950s), the United States became a net oil importer in 1947. American preponderance in the Middle East/West Asia was going to be key. An oft-quoted Time magazine cover story said about the Truman Doctrine, “The loud talk was all of Greece and Turkey, but the whispers behind the talk were of the ocean of oil to the south.”

This is not to say that Anderson should have aligned himself with those who reduce American motives to oil. But what is missing here is a candid acknowledgment that the United States, taking its cue from Britain and believing Mossadegh too unstable, took it upon itself to shape or dictate the political order of a much weaker state, in a region vital to US economic interests. And the Shah would provide deceitful calm in that ocean to the south, as well as major concessions to US oil companies. The red scare was more fig leaf than cause.

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For Anderson, the betrayal of the American promise comes not with intervention in Iran or Guatemala, but nonintervention in Hungary in 1956. Warming us up for the discussion of the Hungarian Revolution, in a final chapter entitled “Collapse,” Anderson writes about “the fall of the United States’ moral standing in the world, the extinguishing of whatever claim to a higher degree of honor or altruism it still enjoyed,” and a “final laying bare of the myth of America as a herald of freedom.” Another contention: “Most shameful of all […] America may have lost the best chance she ever had to bring the Cold War to an early close.” This is a tenuous claim. What were Washington’s options, and to what ends? What would the likely costs have been? And why is this the moment of moral collapse?

In October 1956, responding to huge demonstrations for a more open political system and independence from Moscow, Hungary’s Communist Party reinstalled former premier Imre Nagy, a critic of Stalinist policies, as head of government. Nikita Khrushchev, who had initiated de-Stalinization upon assuming office earlier that year, was at first willing to accommodate this change that could have led to an end of one-party rule in Budapest, though I think Anderson overstates how unanimous this decision was (Politburo notes released in the 1990s suggest more controversy). Khrushchev withdrew Soviet tanks deployed to crush the protests. But subsequent events disrupted the flow of his week: the Suez Crisis raised the prospect of losing his ally Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, and a workers’ uprising in Poland provoked fears of a domino effect in the satellite states. After a sleepless night on October 30, the Soviet leader decided too much was at stake in Budapest. Soviet tanks went back in, the revolution was over, and Nagy was caught and, two years later, executed.

The controversy in the United States was over Radio Free Europe’s role in encouraging armed revolution under the false promise of Western support. Distracted by Suez, the Eisenhower administration kicked the Hungary can down to the United Nations, where ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge would stall a Security Council vote so as to focus attention on Egypt. Anderson condemns the tendency “to spout easy shibboleths about ‘rollback’ and ‘liberation’ but then shirk all responsibility for its consequences.” In portraying US equivocation as the main prompt for Khrushchev’s change of heart, Anderson overlooks other motives, including one that the Hungarian scholar Charles Gati (who fled in country during the Soviet crackdown) identified: the lynching of Communist Party and police officials by demonstrators in Republic Square, in the presence of Western media. According to Gati, it was these killings that gave Khrushchev his sleepless night. He also wrote that “the proper question, then or now, is not why the United States refused to fight for Hungary in what could have become World War III; the proper question is why the United States refused to press through its propaganda outlets and diplomatic channels for realistic if small gains.” In other words, a moderate Hungarian communist regime, more independent from Moscow but not aligned with the West.

As much as he criticizes Radio Free Europe’s uncompromising liberation rhetoric (broadcast by Hungarian exiles), Anderson still suggests that these incitements committed the United States to decisive action. He offers no detail on what the intervention should have been. As we’ve seen recently in Crimea, UN resolutions and sanctions do little to deter Moscow, or any state for that matter, where it sees national security imperatives. In 1956, Russia cared much more about Hungary than did the United States, which by then had understood the limits of interventionism in the Soviet sphere.

Anderson gives us a sympathetic portrait of a distraught Wisner who, prompted by his government’s inaction in Hungary, seems in the early stages of the depression that would conquer him. That distress was understandable for someone who’d been convinced that Stalin’s “gobbling up of Eastern Europe” was “but a jumping off point before he went farther west,” as his son Frank Jr.’s describes it to Anderson. A sensible interpreter of George Kennan’s containment idea would, however, have seen two things: that the Soviet Union wasn’t ever planning to go farther west, and that its aggression in Hungary was exactly the sprouting of the “seeds of its own decay” that Kennan foresaw. For as Anderson notes, this event provoked a backlash against communist parties in Western Europe, including in Italy and France. Writing about Hungary in his brilliant book Postwar, Tony Judt said, “For forty years the Western Left had looked to Russia[.] […] Moscow was the flattering mirror of their political illusions. In November 1956, the mirror shattered.”

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The mirror Anderson holds up is ultimately flattering, too, reflecting American good intent in the world even if many of Washington’s choices were poor. But US imperial ambition did not emerge to contain the spread of communism. It was there from at least the 19th century. In the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 and the Open Door policy of 1899 (the year after it took control of the Philippines), the United States tried to set the terms of global competition in Latin America and China, respectively. The postwar context was obviously different, given the declining British and French empires, the advent of nuclear weapons, and so-called Third World revolution with its Marxist bent. There’s nevertheless a continuity in pre- and postwar US foreign policy. The interventions in Guatemala, Iran, the Philippines, Vietnam, and elsewhere, were part of a maturation of the American empire, the aim the same as in the 19th century: prosperity at home. Because the idea of American expansion was so established in the political discourse (see Teddy Roosevelt), those interventions were accepted by policy and opinion makers as consistent with, and not repugnant to, the American project.

There were nevertheless important dissenters from the consensus, and Henry Wallace was one. If conjuring the results of a Wallace presidency may be best suited to a novel, my point here is to cast Truman’s and then Eisenhower’s response to Soviet consolidation in Eastern Europe, predicated on the idea that US and Russian goals were irreconcilable and therefore non-negotiable, as just one of the available options — and an unnecessarily militaristic one. The implications of Wallace’s strong anti-segregationist views, too, would be worth considering, especially as he argued that the United States could have no moral standing to intrude on the affairs of other countries if its own were in such poor shape.

Naturally, any nation will pursue its security, economic, and political interests abroad regardless of the quality of its domestic affairs. But framed as the Cold War was, a battle between two fundamentally different sets of human values, the United States had demanded of itself to “measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation,” in Kennan’s words. America’s spies should not have been the Cold War’s animating force. Its diplomats abroad and progressive reformers at home should have.

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Shehryar Fazli is an author, political analyst, and essayist who divides his time between Pakistan and Canada.