A new documentary seeks to understand one of the Cold War’s greatest spymasters.

By John Elliott | November 11, 2011

The William Colby that the world knows best was the CIA director who steered the Agency through the storms of Watergate and the Church hearings of 1975. We also know him for his distinctive round, horn-rimmed glasses, which gave him an academic air. Moreover, Colby is known, or infamous for, directing Operation Phoenix, the controversial pacification program in South Vietnam. Now a film made by his son Carl Colby is doing the rounds in the cinema. “The Man Nobody Knew” is a documentary about another side of Colby: the man of action who also wanted to be a good husband, father, and Roman Catholic.

In the first part of his life, Colby fulfilled all these parts quite well. But Vietnam, and then Watergate, blew his life apart.

The primary narrators are his first wife Barbara and son Carl. Colleagues from his career are also interviewed. For example, retired General John Singlaub discusses the OSS years, different CIA operatives talk about his Agency time, and Donald Rumsfeld stands in for the Ford years. In addition, Carl Colby uses a treasure trove of family photos, home movies, and historical film footage.

It’s obvious that Colby’s wife and son loved and respected him. Barbara betrays no bitterness about the end of a forty-year marriage. Carl says that he had great parents. He is not using the documentary to work through any childhood traumas. Carl almost seems to want to tell his father’s critics that he turned out all right.

I met former CIA director William Colby in 1994, while working on a documentary about the World War II Swedish diplomat Raul Wallenberg. The most obvious person to ask about the Wallenberg file was Richard Helms, CIA director from 1965 to 1973. Helms had directed OSS operations in Scandinavia.  And given his reputation as keeper of the secrets, it is certain that he had to know something about Wallenberg. The imperious Helms, however, would not talk to me.

I knew that Colby had been in the OSS and was a media-friendly CIA director. So I called him. To my surprise, he agreed to an interview. I encountered a gracious and humble man who received us in his Georgetown home. He gave me a morning of his time, and made an unforgettable impression. When I saw that his son had made a documentary about his life, I knew I had to go see it.

William Colby was born into a family of academics.  He did his BA at Princeton and law degree at Columbia. But he was also a man of action. After Pearl Harbor, the newly married Colby joined the paratroopers. When an officer showed up at training camp asking for volunteers for “very dangerous missions behind enemy lines,” Colby raised his hand. This turned out to be the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, the forerunner of the CIA. Colby was part of operations in occupied France and Norway. Carl Colby makes clear that his father reveled in his role at OSS.

After the War, Colby moved to Washington and started work for the National Labor Relations Board.  But his wife gradually realized that he was not in fact a Labor lawyer.

Colby’s first major CIA mission was in Italy in the early 1950s. He played a key role in the CIA operation to counterbalance the Soviet support of the powerful Italian Communist Party. Washington feared that unless the U.S. backed the Christian Democrats with money and resources, the Communists would seize power. The Italian posting was also a very happy time for the Colby family. Barbara, now the mother of five children, was never happier. She learned Italian and had a busy social life. She and the children explored every part of Rome. The Catholic Church played a central role in their lives. The two girls celebrated their first communion at St Peter’s Basilica. Priests often visited the Colby home. Barbara grasped later that many were Colby’s agents. In Rome, William Colby could easily combine his calling, family, and faith.

The move to Saigon in 1959 represented a second chapter in which career and family had a harmonious coexistence. The Colby family became part of the tightly knit American community. The boys joined the Boy Scout troop and played little league. The girls attended a school run by French nuns.

But Carl sees coming to Vietnam as a turning point. Just prior to their return to the U.S., Colby told his son “a war is coming.” Carl says that his father sounded as if he were looking forward to it. Vietnam dominated the rest of Colby’s career, and the family’s life. He returned to DC as director of the Far East Bureau. The Agency then sent him back to Vietnam—without his family—to head up Operation Phoenix, the pacification program that involved killing thousands of Communist operatives. And that was public knowledge. Classmates told Carl that his father was a murderer.

After awhile the Agency brought Colby back to DC again as the CIA’s deputy director. When Richard Nixon finally got rid of director Richard Helms, Colby took over the job. Donald Rumsfeld commented that Colby, often a field operative, had little preparation for the political battles which lay ahead.

After assuming leadership of the CIA, Colby found out about the so-called “Family Jewels,” a catalogue of the misdeeds of the CIA. These included domestic spying, assassinations of foreign leaders, and mind control experiments. Colby realized that he had to reveal them. But he also knew that how he did this might determine whether the CIA survived or not. Colby went to the new president, Gerald Ford, who responded by setting up a commission. But this was post-Watergate and the Democratic-controlled Congress decided to run with it. Idaho Senator Frank Church saw a road to the White House. He started hearings. In 1975, Colby went no less than 32 times to Capitol Hill.

Colby’s approach to the hearings startled his allies at the CIA. He began to reveal much more than they thought was necessary. Carl is convinced that his father’s Roman Catholic faith played a crucial role in this decision.

Carl also makes clear that 1975 broke his father. In April Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, effectively ending the last 15 years of his life’s work. His oldest daughter, Catherine, died after a long struggle with epilepsy. After the Church hearings, President Ford replaced Colby with George H.W. Bush. A few years later, Colby asked Barbara for a divorce.

George Smiley, the central figure of John Le Carre’s spy novels, constantly reminds his colleagues to beware of old spies in a hurry. When your clandestine life is over, it’s over. Le Carre, however, offered his septuagenarian hero one last chance to finally take down his archrival, Karla.

Unlike Smiley, Colby did not get another shot. He became a “counselor” at a DC law firm. In 1984 he married a Democratic Party activist and lived comfortably in a Georgetown row house. I’ve come to think that Colby gave me so much of his time because it gave him a chance to be back in the game, if only for a morning.

Colby died in a boating accident in April 1996. The coroner ruled it a heart attack. But Carl Colby will have none of that. Two weeks prior to his death, the elder Colby called Carl to ask absolution for being an absent father in his sister’s difficult life. On the evening of his disappearance Colby had a good meal, a few drinks, and got into his canoe. He carried a picture of daughter Catherine. As Carl comments, he had had enough of this life.

John Elliott writes from Washington, D.C.