IN THE 2011 FILM version of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a double agent offers an eloquent reasoning for why he defected to the Soviet Union. “It was an aesthetic choice as much as anything else,” he says. “The West has become so terribly ugly.”

The film shows this ugliness in mustard-tinted ways: the undercurrent of homosexual repression, the lonely characters, and the dilapidated buildings of the United Kingdom. But these undercurrents were just that — undercurrents — never seeming as bold as I was sure the double agent saw them. “Show me more ugliness!” I wanted to shout at the film screen.

For Scott Anderson (no relation), the moral ugliness of the West appeared outside his El Salvador hotel one morning when he saw a death squad throw a woman’s body out of their van onto the curb, an image that haunts him to this day and made him ask: “How had it come to this? How, in the name of fighting communism […] had the American government come to tacitly sanction death squads, to support governments that would so brazenly murder its own people as to toss their bodies out on sidewalks in broad daylight?”

The United States was backing the right-wing Salvadoran government that was allied with death squads, a horrifying relationship that the United States repeated in countries in previous decades and would perpetuate for decades more. The Quiet Americans starts at this central image of the curbside corpse and question of “How had it come to this” before starting a three-act story to show us the ugliness of American espionage infrastructure.

Anderson takes us from World War II into the 1960s to deftly recount the murders, foreign policy failures, and moral bankruptcy in the early years of the CIA. Not only does the book illuminate a twisting, terrifying narrative, but it also forces lovers of the spy genre to come to terms with how many countries the CIA has destabilized and how many lives were ruined as a result.

The Quiet Americans is structured as a biography of four OSS and CIA spies at the start of the Cold War, when arguments were flying over “containment” versus “rollback” of communism. There’s Michael Burke, a former football hunk; Peter Sichel, a German Jew who escaped from Nazi Germany; Edward Lansdale, a charismatic ad executive; and Frank Wisner, a brilliant spymaster who coordinated missions. These figures trained anticommunist commandos, took on cover identities, and argued with CIA higher-ups over strategy. Following along can be difficult. Instead of focusing on each of his four spies individually for long periods, Anderson decides to splice their stories into short chapters for chronological effect.

These jumps have a drawback: the characters can be hard to trace inside the crowds. This isn’t to say that the large supporting cast isn’t worthy — there’s a talented Filipino journalist who became a spy’s mistress, and a Pennsylvania autodidact who could write two memos at the same time with either hand — but throughout The Quiet Americans you have to submit yourself to not fully understanding the four protagonists’ journeys. Similar epics, such as The Cold War: A World History, offer the same problem — too much happened in the Cold War to be easily contained in a linear form.

The book spans continents and cultures, placing the reader into such locations as abandoned Romanian record-keeping offices, a Filipino grammar school, rural Maryland duck blinds, a West German champagne bottling plant, and even Hitler’s bunker still wet from the blood of his suicide. Each environment is inscribed with insights that emerged from four years of research. One example: The CIA decided to work with roughly a dozen European anticommunist spies — Nazi war criminals — who had spent years developing networks against the Soviet Union. Anderson postulates that “perhaps the greatest damage the Nazi connection inflicted on the CIA rests more in the psychological realm, as the ‘gateway sin’ that paved the way for other sins to follow,” such as the propping up of dictatorships or the feigning ignorance during massacres. However, instead of stopping there, Anderson goes further in the research by visiting the German Jewish spy, Peter Sichel, now 97, and asking him how he could justify working with Nazis. Anderson slows the narrative and lets Sichel speak for himself:

“It was a war,” he started again. “We all believed that and, like all wars, that one was dirty. And I was young. I was young and I still believed things that, even a few years later, I no longer believed.” Sichel gazed thoughtfully about his living room, as if searching for something more to say. Then he shrugged. “That’s all.”

At the end of the day, these spies were young men with awful superiors (spymasters, cabinet members, and presidents) who constantly chose the brutish and stupid route at nearly every crossroad. As Edward Lansdale is quoted twice in the book as saying, “It’s not enough to be against communism; you have to be for something.” That’s a good saying, but by the end of The Quiet Americans, I cannot think of what the United States’s espionage missions stood for, besides attempted American dominance. Certainly, such abstract matters as democracy or decency played no role.

We see the United States destabilize the liberal government of Guatemala, for example, because of their modest anticolonial policies, leading to a horrific civil war. In the Middle East, we see the CIA plan a destabilization campaign in Egypt code-named “Operation Fat Fucker,” and then a similar propaganda campaign in Iran that would eventually lead to the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and future CIA missions to counter decades of mistakes. We follow ghost planes drop CIA-trained commandos into Albania, where they will be killed and surely fuel the dictator Enver Hoxha’s anti-American paranoia, leading him to construct at least 170,000 mushroom bunkers that dot the country to this day. Frank Wisner’s “Mighty Wurlitzer” program funded a bewildering assortment of cultural and physical institutions, from guerilla armies to symphony orchestras and jazz musicians, and even helped found The Paris Review in 1953. The founding of the MFA creative writing programs that are so prevalent in American universities — beginning with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — can also be traced to CIA efforts to win a cultural war against Stalin’s collectivists.

Why were there hundreds of millions of earmarked dollars for these operations with little oversight? What purpose did this all serve? As Anderson writes about one mission, “[T]here was no master protocol, there was no synchronicity. The whole venture was just as slapdash and speculative as it appeared on the ground, a seat-of-the-pants scheme to see what worked and what didn’t, and at the cost of men’s lives.”

There’s a thrilling history of these programs throughout The Quiet Americans, but also a sadness. Between its covers, past all of the glitz, explosions, and sudden appearances of kooky characters and celebrities, there are four dedicated spies whose ability was squandered on international disasters. They were fantastic at advocating for socially liberal policies, using nonviolence to achieve their goals, and bringing coalitions together of varied interests. What a loss it was to use these men to destabilize countries and knowingly send commandos to their deaths, instead of fighting for actual human rights, preferably inside the United States. Instead, the Eisenhower administration purposefully sat out the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, letting thousands of Hungarians be killed or disappeared as they awaited American support. At the peak of the Revolution, Frank Wisner sat in his friend’s home in Frankfurt, watching a toy train go round and round, never departing from the track or altering anything. He killed himself years later.

It’s uncommon for spy books to end with a train set, a suicide, and a rigorous interrogation of anticommunism, which is why The Quiet Americans works. It brings to light the rank-and-file lives of this self-described “crusade” and the cost of an upwardly failing crusade. If you (or, more likely, your dad) gulped down the CIA-propaganda-vehicle Jack Ryan in the last few months, make The Quiet Americans the chaser.

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Pearse Anderson is a freelance journalist and speculative fiction author living in Chicago. His work has previously appeared in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and Garage Magazine.