August 7, 2005
The Spy Left Out in the Cold

IT was a national scandal, the first of its kind. A senior C.I.A. officer was exposed in the United States press by a "high official source." The story shot from newspaper to newspaper. The officer lost his job and went into hiding.

Six days later, with a conservative Republican leading the charge, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee grilled the secretary of defense, demanding a point-by-point refutation of the anonymous charges against the officer in the news media. The senators were also upset about the war that was starting. Why was the United States "going it alone, getting only token assistance from other countries"?

Soon a Democratic senator named Thomas Dodd made the fight bipartisan, demanding action against the "official source" behind the leak. "The official who was guilty of giving out this story to the press was himself guilty of violating the rules of security as well as the ethics that should govern relations between government departments," Dodd said. The official, the senator said, "should be identified and dismissed."

The year was 1963. The exposed C.I.A. officer was my father, John H. Richardson.

Behind the leak was a policy dispute. Should the United States support a coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of Vietnam? He was so unpopular that Buddhists were burning themselves in the streets, and he seemed to be bungling the war effort. Nonetheless, he'd been our ally for almost a decade, and there was no guarantee that the generals who wanted to overthrow him would be any better.

With President John F. Kennedy on the fence, Averell Harriman and other powerful figures in the State Department pushed for the coup. The C.I.A. and the military opposed it. Kennedy put off making a decision and tried to insulate himself politically by appointing a new ambassador with blueblood Republican credentials, Henry Cabot Lodge.

Just days after he arrived in Saigon, Lodge called for a "drastic change" in policy. But my father, the C.I.A. station chief, was one of Diem's strongest supporters. In his cables to Washington, he argued for patience, saying, "Our impression is that there are few points of no return in Asia."

By then, he had been a spy for nearly 20 years. He had joined the C.I.A. back when it was called the Strategic Services Unit, headed his first station in postwar Vienna, and later manipulated elections in Greece and the Philippines. He was so committed to the cold war that he once asked to be demoted from a job that could have taken him to the top of the agency in order to return to the field.

Lodge tried to get my father fired, writing back-channel letters to the president that he sent by personal courier. But the C.I.A. chief, John McCone, vetoed the idea, warning Kennedy that Lodge was so eager for a coup that he might act unilaterally. Immediately, Secretary of State Dean Rusk sent Lodge instructions not to stimulate any coup plots, "pending final decisions which are being formulated here." Lodge took the rebuff personally, writing bitter notes about the C.I.A. in his private papers.

That's when a reporter named my father. Richard Starnes, an obscure writer for The Washington Daily News, reported that the C.I.A.'s station chief in Saigon was a man named John H. Richardson who had twice refused to carry out Lodge's explicit orders. "One high official here, a man who has spent much of his life in the service of democracy, likened the C.I.A.'s growth to a malignancy, and added he was not sure even the White House could control it," Starnes reported.

Soon the story was everywhere. The San Francisco Chronicle accused my father of "attempting to run American policy." The New York Times called him a "kingmaker." The Washington Post practically called him a traitor, saying, "The real reason for C.I.A. Chief John Richardson's recall from South Vietnam was the discovery that he had been reporting to President Diem's ruthless brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, what opponents were saying about the government."

When the news hit Saigon, my father was stunned. Exposed by name in the papers, accused of insubordination - it was about the worst thing that could have happened. He flew back to Washington and went into hiding. All over the world, headlines saying "C.I.A. Chief Recalled" ran side by side with pictures of a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Huong burning himself to death.

Less than a month later, rebel soldiers dragged President Diem and his brother out of church and pushed them into a truck, stopping at a railroad crossing to shoot them in the backs of their heads. The murder was almost certainly committed on the orders of our new ally, a general known as Big Minh.

Back in the United States, my father read the newspapers and brooded over his lost cause. The C.I.A. gave him a medal and kicked him upstairs, but declassified agency documents show him nagging his supervisors for a new posting. "Matt says that deep down, Jocko really wants to go back overseas," says one. In another, "Jocko has talked with Dick Helms about a possible overseas assignment. Dick held out some hope but did not wish Matt to postpone his retirement."

He never really regained his momentum. But in a horrible way, time proved him right. We never did pull off the magic trick of finding a foreign proxy who was both strong and obedient, and that meant that we owned what we had broken. Fifty-eight thousand dead Americans later, it seemed safe to conclude one thing: When "high official sources" start exposing C.I.A. officers to force their agenda, watch out.

John H. Richardson, a writer at large for Esquire, is the author of "My Father the Spy: An Investigative Memoir."