My Father the Spy: An Investigative Memoir

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9780060510367: My Father the Spy: An Investigative Memoir

As his father nears death in his retirement home in Mexico, John H. Richardson begins to unravel a life filled with drama and secrecy. John Sr. was a CIA "chief of station" on some of the hottest assignments of the Cold War, from the back alleys of occupied Vienna to the jungles of the Philippines—and especially Saigon, where he became a pivotal player in the turning point of the Vietnam War: the overthrow of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. As John Jr. and his sister came of age in exotic postings across the world, they struggled to accommodate themselves to their driven, distant father, and their conflict opens a window on the tumult of the sixties and Vietnam.

Through the daily happenings at home and his father's actions, reconstructed from declassified documents as well as extensive interviews with former spies and government officials, Richardson reveals the innermost workings of a family enmeshed in the Cold War—and the deeper war that turns the world of the fathers into the world of the sons.

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About the Author:

John H. Richardson is a writer-at-large for Esquire and the author of In the Little World and The Viper's Club. His fiction has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and the O. Henry Prize Stories collection. He lives in Katonah, New York.

From The Washington Post:

In the 1950s and '60s, the so-called golden age of spying, CIA station chiefs were not so much spies or spy runners as proconsuls. In the "third world," on the front line against communist insurgencies, they often had more influence than the American ambassador and sometimes more real power than the local strongman. With their bags of cash and imperial writ from Washington, their diplomatic covers and ties to the local secret police, they could prop up or bring down governments. They were moral authorities, though sometimes Machiavellian ones, in the long twilight search for benevolent despots who would stand up to the communists and -- one day, it was hoped -- usher in free-market democracy.

John H. Richardson was one of the best of the breed -- or, depending on one's point of view, one of the worst. As Vienna station chief in the early '50s, he ran the CIA's first Soviet "mole," Col. Pyotr Semyonovich Popov of the GRU, or Soviet military intelligence. In Athens in the mid-'50s, he helped support the Greek monarchy against communist insurgents. In Manila, when Philippine President Diosdado Macapagal was inaugurated in 1961, Richardson was the shadowy man standing by the president's side on the reviewing stand. His reward for services rendered was the toughest job in the CIA portfolio: Saigon station chief in 1962.

Richardson looked and acted the part. While other officials in Vietnam dressed in fatigues or short sleeves, he always wore a black business suit. Scholarly, a little ponderous in his manner and speech, he kept a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, his favorite Stoic emperor, by his side. "I do my duty," wrote Aurelius. "Other things do not trouble me."

But in Richardson's case, they did. He developed a fear of heights; he drank 20 cups of coffee a day, as well as too much alcohol, and required large doses of pills to sleep at night; he was secretive and distant with his family and prone to towering rages.

Richardson was not a success in Saigon. He was recalled to Washington in October 1963, ostensibly because he could not work with the ambassador, the headstrong Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge, and because his cover had been blown by the press. At the time, journalists wrote that he had grown too close to President Ngo Dinh Diem's nefarious brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. Richardson was muddling up a Washington-backed coup by some South Vietnamese generals against Diem, it was said, so he was yanked back to Washington.

After training spies on the CIA's "Farm" in southern Virginia, he was given a last post as station chief in South Korea. But he spent his last 30 years living in self-imposed exile in Mexico, brooding and drinking too much tequila. He regretted not having done more to stop the coup against Diem, who was flawed but better than all the hapless and corrupt generals who followed.

Richardson should be the hero, or anti-hero, of a great spy novel. Instead, he is the slightly too elusive subject of a search-for-my-father memoir by his son, also named John H. Richardson (he doesn't use "Jr."). Now a writer at large for Esquire magazine, the author was a rebellious teenager in the '60s. His father "was the kind of guy who worked for the CIA," he writes in My Father the Spy. "I was the kind of guy who wanted to drop acid and listen to the White Album over and over." The two Richardsons fight, reconcile and fight some more over the course of several decades, but the son never really gets inside the father, who remains behind a veil of stoicism and drink.

Written carefully, with historical detachment, Richardson senior's biography might be interesting. But while Richardson junior has done a lot of research, he writes in a maddeningly breezy style ill-suited to describing such complex events as the coup machinations in Saigon in the fall of 1963. The book becomes more engaging -- and at times moving -- when the father, in his cups, lets down his guard for a moment or two late in life. But the portrait of his death from lung cancer is painfully drawn out and more clinical than revealing.

Richardson does have an insider's eye, and the book includes some wonderful snapshots, like the CIA's super-spooky counterespionage chief James J. Angleton going fishing -- and taking along a pair of "secret spy glasses that helped him see the trout." The account of Ambassador Lodge's unconsciously arrogant attempts to ingratiate himself with the author's mother and a Time magazine correspondent at a Saigon dinner party would make a scene in a play. "Everybody says that Cabots talk only to the Lodges and the Lodges talk only to God," says the ambassador, "and here I am talking to all you nice people." Even so, this reader found himself longing to read John Richardson rendered by John le Carré, not John Richardson Jr.

Reviewed by Evan Thomas
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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Book Description HarperCollins Publishers Inc, United States, 2006. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. As his father nears death in his retirement home in Mexico, John H. Richardson begins to unravel a life filled with drama and secrecy. John Sr. was a CIA chief of station on some of the hottest assignments of the Cold War, from the back alleys of occupied Vienna to the jungles of the Philippines--and especially Saigon, where he became a pivotal player in the turning point of the Vietnam War: the overthrow of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. As John Jr. and his sister came of age in exotic postings across the world, they struggled to accommodate themselves to their driven, distant father, and their conflict opens a window on the tumult of the sixties and Vietnam. Through the daily happenings at home and his father s actions, reconstructed from declassified documents as well as extensive interviews with former spies and government officials, Richardson reveals the innermost workings of a family enmeshed in the Cold War--and the deeper war that turns the world of the fathers into the world of the sons. Bookseller Inventory # AAC9780060510367

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Book Description HarperCollins Publishers Inc, United States, 2006. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. As his father nears death in his retirement home in Mexico, John H. Richardson begins to unravel a life filled with drama and secrecy. John Sr. was a CIA chief of station on some of the hottest assignments of the Cold War, from the back alleys of occupied Vienna to the jungles of the Philippines--and especially Saigon, where he became a pivotal player in the turning point of the Vietnam War: the overthrow of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. As John Jr. and his sister came of age in exotic postings across the world, they struggled to accommodate themselves to their driven, distant father, and their conflict opens a window on the tumult of the sixties and Vietnam. Through the daily happenings at home and his father s actions, reconstructed from declassified documents as well as extensive interviews with former spies and government officials, Richardson reveals the innermost workings of a family enmeshed in the Cold War--and the deeper war that turns the world of the fathers into the world of the sons. Bookseller Inventory # AAC9780060510367

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