Harry S. Truman tried covert action in Albania, but failed. Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a series of secret wars in his own cautious way, but even his successes were small. John F. Kennedy adopted the idea enthusiastically but was burned in Cuba; by the end of his short term, McGeorge Bundy later wrote, Kennedy acquired "growing recognition that covert action simply did not work and was more trouble than it was worth."
Every American President since World War II, without exception, has approved CIA proposals for secret paramilitary action against other governments. Each in turn has embraced the seductive idea that covert action offers a workable "third option" between diplomacy and war.
Yet each Administration has also discovered, as John Prados shows in "Presidents' Secret Wars," that covert war fails more often than it succeeds. And each time a paramilitary adventure fails, Prados observes, "American national interest suffers."
Now it is Ronald Reagan's turn, but with a new twist. For the first time, a series of secret projects--in Iran and Nicaragua--has been revealed while they were still under way, with the President who approved them (or, perhaps worse, unwittingly condoned them) still sitting in the Oval Office. An earlier wave of revelations about the CIA, in the mid 1970s, buffeted the agency but left then-President Gerald R. Ford largely untouched. This time, though, Reagan is directly responsible, not only because his White House staff launched its own feckless secret operations but also because he has so enthusiastically promoted covert action as a central weapon in a renewed Cold War with the Soviet Union.
During the six years of Reagan's tenure, the United States has expanded an existing covert war in Afghanistan, returned to old theaters in Angola and Cambodia, and launched new campaigns in Libya and Nicaragua. Now some of those secret operations are being hauled into the light of day, with more to come in the new year. And revelation is never kind to covert operations, even when their goals are worthy and their management inspired; as Prados' history shows exhaustively, mistakes are always made and corners nearly always cut.
For all the strange novelty of Reagan's predicament, this workmanlike survey of covert wars since the days when William J. Casey was supplying anti-Nazi resistance units in Europe offers plenty of useful precedents. The "private" air force that sent Eugene Hasenfus crashing into the jungles of southern Nicaragua, for example, was not the first such enterprise promoted by the United States; in 1954, as France was losing its war in Vietnam, Eisenhower's National Security Council approved the formation of an International Volunteer Air Group to support the French campaign without officially using U.S. government funds. (The French lost the war before the squadron got into the air, but the idea was there.)
As a catalogue of past covert wars, some still hardly known, "Presidents' Secret Wars" is most valuable--and most dispiriting. In Albania (1949-54), team after team of anti-Communist guerrillas was captured, betrayed by British traitor Kim Philby. In China, the CIA armed a nationalist general who failed to dent Mao Tse-tung's control and so turned his guns against the pro-American government of Burma instead. In Tibet, the CIA organized an anti-Chinese insurgency that sputtered along for 16 years--from 1956 until 1972--before it finally collapsed. In the northern mountains of Iraq, the CIA and the Shah of Iran armed Kurdish tribesmen to rebel against the government in Baghdad, only to abandon them abruptly in 1975. (That was, incidentally, the same government to which the CIA has recently supplied intelligence for its war against Iran, while the White House was selling Iran arms for its side of the same war. As Henry Kissinger is reported to have said at the time, "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.")
This book is not a polemic--if anything, it is too jam-packed with dry historical detail--but it has a clear point. Prados opposes covert wars for all the available reasons, including because he believes the idea is always immoral (an issue on which reasonable people can disagree) and illegal (an assertion that he admits is undercut by Congress' consistent approval for most of the secret wars that come its way). But the core of his argument is the test of results: Covert paramilitary action, he says, simply doesn't work.
Unfortunately, Prados stretches that point to the limit, arguing even that the CIA's two great coups d'etat of the 1950s, toppling left-leaning regimes in Iran and Guatemala, count as failures because of the ill will they earned. On their own terms, those operations clearly "worked"; the debacles that followed were failures of long-term diplomacy, not covert action.
In his zeal to show almost all paramilitary adventures as doomed, Prados leaves unanswered the question why every President, including Jimmy Carter, has considered this kind of action a legitimate tool of American policy. (One reason, to which Prados hardly alludes, is that the Soviet Union uses covert action frequently, and American Presidents feel compelled, rightly or wrongly, to play by the same rules.)
In any case, a look at the record may dampen some "Reagan Doctrine" ardor, for winning guerrilla wars is not as easy as it sounds. In Nicaragua and elsewhere, the Reagan Administration may want to consider the conclusion of a CIA man who worked on the abortive uprisings in Albania, as long ago as 1951: "In the end, it was not possible to do without overt air and military support from England and the United States or somewhere. You couldn't do it just with the locals."