Locust Hill Farm near Galena is a mid-18th century 2-story brick farmhouse typical of the Delaware Valley architecture of that era. Remote in the late 1940s, it became the vacation house and part-time residence of one of the most complex US intelligence chiefs this side of James Jesus Angleton.
It was here that Frank Wisner, former Deputy Director of the CIA’s Counter-Espionage Department spent many holidays and vacations away from the buzz of DC with his family. It was here also that in 1965, after recurring bouts of depression, the “father of covert activities” took his own life.
The melancholy history of Frank Wisner, like so many in the intelligence services whose lives are necessarily cloaked in secrecy, misinformation, along with myths and spy parables, is not easily constructed. But enough is known to describe a man who was driven tooth and nail to counter Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe at the end of WW2 and during the Cold War of the 1950s when he pled unsuccessfully with the US to recognize the impending formation of Soviet ruled eastern bloc countries.
The scion of a Mississippi industrialist, Wisner became a Wall Street lawyer who ditched the torte laws and equity contracts of Wall Street for the more “colorful” life of the US. Navy—six months before Pearl Harbor. Within months he found his way to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, and in 1944 was assigned to Romania to spy on Russian activities in the region. It was in Bucharest that Wisner witnessed key government people in Eastern European countries being replaced by communists and the point he raised the alarm of a coming confrontation with Moscow.
Wisner has been described by some as genteel, brilliant, and imaginative, while others claim he was an anti-communist zealot. Arthur Schlesinger, an OSS sergeant serving in Germany at the time, claimed Wisner, “was already mobilizing for the cold war. I myself was no great admirer of the Soviet Union, and I certainly had no expectation of harmonious relations after the war. But Frank was a little excessive, even for me.”
In 1947—the year he bought the Galena house—Wisner was back in Washington where he hob-knobbed with the political and publishing elite including George Kennan, Joseph Alsop, Clark Clifford, James Angleton, William Averell Harriman, James Reston, Allen W. Dulles, and Phil and Katharine Graham, to name a few. Dubbed “the Georgetown Set,” much US policy was concocted over Sunday night martinis in an intimate Washington long gone to a fractious and very public blizzard of policy arguments via social media. This coterie of blue-blooded, Ivy-educated publishers, lawyers, and spymasters would set the tone of the 1950s perception of the US-Soviet contest, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate era. Greg Herken in his 2014 book The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington, quoted Henry Kissinger as saying “The hand that mixes the Georgetown martini is time and again the hand that guides the destiny of the Western world.”
It was during this time that Wisner appealed to the Secretary of Defense James Forrestal to create a special branch of the CIA called the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC). This became the espionage and counterintelligence branch of the Central Intelligence Agency. He wanted nothing less than to shape the US and European perspectives on Soviet influences in the region.
One of the least documented and long repudiated programs initiated by Wisner’s office and overseen by CIA Director Allen Dulles, was the alleged “Operation Mockingbird,” an alliance between the CIA and major media outlets brought together to “course correct” the news by feeding CIA-vetted opinion to the public, embed agents in news organizations, pay news stringers to place or write stories around CIA messaging, and to recruit others to do the same.
A long piece about Mockingbird by Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein appeared in the 1977 Rolling Stone Magazine where he wrote about the Washington Post columnist Joseph Alsop by saying “Alsop is one of more than 400 American journalists who in the past twenty‑five years have secretly carried out assignments for the Central Intelligence Agency, according to documents on file at CIA headquarters. Some of these journalists’ relationships with the Agency were tacit; some were explicit. There were cooperation, accommodation, and overlap.” By some accounts, some 3,000 salaried and contract CIA employees were eventually engaged in propaganda efforts. Much of the relationship between the CIA and its relationship with the media was investigated after the Watergate scandal, most famously in the Church Committee which concluded in 1976 that “Approximately 50 of the [Agency] assets are individual American journalists or employees of U.S. media organizations. Of these, fewer than half are “accredited” by U.S. media organizations … The remaining individuals are non-accredited freelance contributors and media representatives abroad … More than a dozen United States news organizations and commercial publishing houses formerly provided cover for CIA agents abroad. A few of these organizations were unaware that they provided this cover.”
Wisner’s star rose and fell during the height of the Cold War. After his Romanian assignment which witnessed the US’s disregard for the imminent collapse of King Michael’s government, Wisner took a stronger role in advancing US policy with an active interest in toppling governments perceived as roadblocks to US interests, ideologically or otherwise. Later, in 1956, the failed Hungarian uprising and the US’s denial of support, except for Eisenhower’s “thoughts and prayers” sentiment, would add to Wisner’s growing depressive state and mounting mental anguish. Wisner thought the whole point was to support anti-communist rebellions. Otherwise, why bother?
The “otherwise” came into play with the CIA toppling of the Iranian and Guatemalan governments, both “framed” as threats to US policy. Wisner was the point man in both coups d’etats ending democratically elected presidents (Mossadegh in Iran (yes, it was about BP oil) in 1953 and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala,) In Guatemala, the multinational United Fruit Company, forced to end its exploitive labor practices appealed to the CIA for help. Easy enough. Both CIA Allen Dulles and his brother Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were on the UFC payroll for 38 years. Casting the democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz as Communist, he was replaced by the right-wing Carlos Armas and the beginning of four decades of military dictatorships, countless thousands of lives and the Maya genocide. It wouldn’t be far afield to note that many of the immigrants fleeing Guatemala today are responding to the US installation of Armas 63 years ago.
The failure of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 may have been the last straw for Wisner’s emotional investment in his war against communism. Surprised by US, British, and Russian intelligence services alike, the uprising against the communist Hungarian People’s Republic collapsed under the weight of the Soviet army. Wisner felt responsible. He had been encouraging rebellions against Communism throughout eastern Europe through Radio Free Europe and other propaganda networks, leading the people to believe the US would lend a hand. “All these people are getting killed and we weren’t doing anything, we were ignoring it,” he told Clare Boothe Luce, then the Ambassador to Italy.
Suffering gravely from manic depression, the spymaster suffered a breakdown many said was triggered by the ill-fated uprising in Hungary. After treatment, he served several more years in the Agency where he resigned in 1962. Three years later 1965 his illness finally led him back to the familiarity of his brick farmhouse in Galena where he took his own life.
Wisner’s work with the CIA was prodigious, and much of it can be found in public records and even the CIA website (mostly through reviews of books about the Agency, by the Agency). Most records, of course, are under wraps in the Agency archives.
Except for Pete Seviss, who spent most of his adult life on the Eastern Shore, most of the those mentioned above are linked by temporary residence; vacation homes and debriefings.
But one spy stands out as a true child of the Shore: Harriet Tubman.
Despite differing accounts of her life, embellishments and conjecture, disputes over quotes attributed to her, and debates about the interpretive bent of Tubman’s first biographer Sarah Elizabeth Hopkins, enough of her life shines through to bolster her legacy as one the world’s leading political activists who dedicated her life to freeing the oppressed.
Her flight to freedom from Dorchester County to Philadelphia in 1849; her 11-19 dangerous trips (varies by biography) back to Dorchester county to free family members and up to 300 slaves and lead them north via the Underground Railroad; her nursing the sick and wounded in Union camps during the Civil War; she was a protegee of John Brown and Frederick Douglass; and her work as a suffragette later in life finds her working alongside Susan B. Anthony.
But her life as a Union Spy is no less valorous.
Despite a life-long impairment resulting from a head wound received during an altercation between an angry slave-master and a runaway, Tubman developed through hardship and innate intelligence a perfect acumen for espionage. She was canny, had an astounding memory for detail, and could employ disguises and acting to gather intelligence for the Union. Bound together by raw courage, she was a force to be reckoned with.
In 1862, a year into the Civil War, Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew asked Tubman to help work with slaves fleeing from plantations to already overburdened Union camps. There, Maj. Gen. David Hunter provided her a written “pass” that ordered Union troops to provide her with transportation whenever needed. According to accounts of her life, she gave her rations away to those in need and started a washing house where she employed escaped slaves, slowly building a network of nine trusted spies—mostly river pilots— to gather information on Confederate troop movement and ordinance. Tubman’s scouts provided intelligence helpful in raids as far-reaching as Jacksonville, Florida.
But Tubman’s most extraordinary moment as a spy occurred along the marshes of South Carolina’s Combahee River where she learned a large group of fugitive slaves was being held. Under the command of Col. James Montgomery, who had just formed the African American 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Regiment with Tubman’s help—famously depicted in the movie “Glory”— Tubman and her team sailed up the river on a reconnaissance mission and mapped out mine locations while gathering information from slaves, offering them freedom and sometimes cash in return. Later, two gunboats with Tubman, her spies, and Union raiders made its way up the river to free 700 slaves. It was a devastating affront to South Carolina slaveholders. 100 of the freed slaves would join the Union army. By any measure, the raid was a success. But it was also distinctive in more ways than one.
Paul Donnelly wrote in the June 7, 2013, NYT, “…the Combahee raid was planned and executed primarily as a liberation raid, to find and free those who were unable or unwilling to take the enormous risks to reach Union lines on their own. That’s how Tubman conceived of it. That, too, is unique, because for the first and only time in the Civil War, or for that matter any American conflict before this century, a woman (and a civilian at that) played a decisive role in planning and carrying out a military operation.”
In an 1868 letter to Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass wrote, “Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night.”
There are other stories of intrigue and spymasters related to the Eastern Shore Some are wrapped in accusations like the Alger Hiss case (see article in Chestertown Spy) and many articles have been written about Pioneer Point, the Russian compound that for decades operated in Centreville and was closed by President Obama in 2016. After all, we are just one tinted window Chevy Suburban drive from some of the largest intelligence agencies in the world. (I’m sure someone the NSA is reading this, having a coffee while watching the sunset over the Tred Avon River.)
These profiles are but truncated highlights of “spies” who have intersected with the Eastern Shore and are incomplete at best. By its own definition, clandestine intelligence work leaves behind scare histories. One can only think that the few spies mentioned here are only the ones we know about.
Spies and spy rings are as old as the hills and as old as our republic. During the American Revolution, Agent 711 and his Culper Ring created a sophisticated and large network of military and civilian spies whose information was instrumental in the war’s success, including the unmasking of Benedict Arnold, Agent 711 was George Washington. “Washington did not really outfight the British. He simply out-spied us,” wrote a British intelligence officer after the war.