JULY 19, 2022
ON DECEMBER 22, 1963, one month after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, former president Harry Truman published an op-ed in The Washington Post that ratted the Central Intelligence Agency.
“I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak-and-dagger operations,” Truman wrote. “[T]here are searching questions that need to be answered. I therefore would like to see the CIA restored to its original assignment […] and that its operational duties be terminated or properly used elsewhere.”
Truman had established the agency in 1947 after dissolving its predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, at the close of World War II for fear it might evolve, in his words, into an “American Gestapo.” Now it appeared that his worst fears had come to fruition. When former Central Intelligence Director Richard Helms appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee nine years later, Senator Stuart Symington invoked the words of the 33rd president: “There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position , and I feel we need to correct it.”
Author and political reporter Jefferson Morley captures these episodes in Scorpions’ Dance: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate, a consistently engaging and sometimes riveting history of President Richard Nixon’s dealings with Helms. (The book arrives on the 50th anniversary of the scandal that would end both men’s careers.) While Morley examines the relationship between two of the most consequential figures of modern American history, his true subject is the mechanics of power and the inherent frailty of our institutions — many of which are only as sturdy as the officials who occupy them. Indeed, the last half-century has affirmed that we’re living in a country and a world order that these two talented sociopaths helped birth.
If Scorpions’ Dance throws its spotlight on Nixon and Helms, it’s less of a waltz than it is a tarantella danced by arachnids of various shapes and sizes. This includes Watergate burglars Howard Hunt, James McCord, and Gordon Liddy but also comparatively less notorious United States operatives like Fidel Castro’s would-be assassin Rolando Cubela and a far-right Chilean general named Roberto Viaux. Each played an integral role in plots that would dispel the myth of Pax Americana and shatter the United States’s claim to the title of “leader of the free world,” if it ever had one. When President Lyndon Johnson tapped Helms to lead the CIA in 1966, the Agency had already backed coups in Guatemala and Iran and successfully plotted the assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Helms had previously served as the deputy director of plans in the CIA during a fraught period. With the communists gaining political power in Vietnam, President Kennedy had let restive elements in Saigon know that his government would be amenable to a coup against South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm, a Catholic and a staunch ally. Helms gave the order to assassinate him. Morley describes the ensuing uprising led by General Dương Văn Minh in gruesome detail:
One of Minh’s lieutenants, Captain Thung, took Diem and [Interior Minister Ngo Dinh] Nhu into custody, handcuffed them, and secured them in an army personnel carrier. En route to the American headquarters, the captain stopped the truck and flung open the doors to the vehicle in a rage. He started slashing the handcuffed Diem and Nhu with his bayonet. While they were still alive, he cut open their stomachs and extracted their gall bladders, considered trophies of war. With his bloody victory in hand, Thung pulled out his pistol and shot both men dead.
Kennedy, whose father had been a friend of Diệm’s, was horrified. Helms couldn’t understand what else the president expected. In the words of his biographer, Thomas Powers, the future director maintained that “[h]istory is not what happened but what the surviving evidence says happened. If you can hide the evidence and keep the secrets, then you can write the history.”
Write the history Helms did, or at least so long as he was able to suppress news of his government’s anti-democratic behavior at home and abroad. Although Morley never directly implicates the CIA in Kennedy’s assassination, he meticulously notes each of the ways that Helms obfuscated, misled, and disembled to the Warren Commission and to investigators within the House and Senate. Helms claimed that the Agency’s information on Lee Harvey Oswald was “minimal.” In truth, the CIA had assembled a comprehensive dossier on the former marine and defector to the USSR, tracking his every move in real time. Helms insisted that Cuban counterrevolutionary Rolando Cubela was not part of any plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. In fact, the Agency had supplied him with poison pills and a hypodermic syringe disguised as a fountain pen — all without the knowledge of Attorney General Robert Kennedy — to do exactly that.
The CIA director also declined to mention the Agency’s efforts to enlist prominent mafia figures like Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana in its anti-Castro plots. In one of the book’s more chilling passages, Morley cites an anecdote of Helms’s that can only be interpreted as a veiled threat to Kennedy about his Cuba policy. Referring to an arms cache that the CIA had purportedly seized from the Cuban government, Helms notes:
When the meeting ended, the president arose from his rocking chair and stood beside the coffee table looking toward the Rose Garden. […] I leaned over and took the submachine gun from the coffee table and slipped it back into the canvas airline travel bag in which we carried it — unchallenged — from the parking lot to the President’s office. As the President turned to shake hands, I said, “I’m sure glad the Secret Service didn’t catch us bringing this gun in here.”
Helms seldom issued notice; he didn’t have to. As Scorpions’ Dance makes clear, the Central Intelligence director, along with the agency he oversaw, was among the United States’s most proficient executors of state violence. Seven years after Văn Minh’s forces eviscerated South Vietnamese President Diệm, Helms orchestrated a separate assassination, this time in Chile. In June 1970, the Nixon administration hoped to prevent the socialist Salvador Allende from winning the presidency, with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger infamously declaring, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
After Allende’s victory, the CIA implemented Track II — a terror campaign that culminated in General Viaux’s golpistas taking a sledgehammer to the rear window of René Schneider’s Mercedes-Benz and murdering the Chilean general. Allende assumed office on November 3, but Schneider’s assassination would create a power vacuum that enabled the far-right Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état three years later. Morley writes poignantly:
Such was the Dick Helms that friends and admirers did not care to think about too closely, the gentlemanly planner of assassinations who expressed his goodwill to the men who shot Schneider in the back because the general respected civilian rule. Nixon and Helms cast themselves as tough-minded defenders of the Free World, and they killed a defender of democracy to prove it.
Scorpions’ Dance takes its time getting to Watergate, and by then, the reader can’t help but feel that the burglary and its consequent cover-up are among the administration’s lesser abuses of the American democracy. These crimes included such programs as LINGUAL, which authorized counterintelligence officials to spy on the public by opening and reading its mail, and CHAOS, which saw the CIA conduct mind-control experiments and infiltrate the country’s antiwar movement, to say nothing of the bombing campaigns in Southeast Asia or efforts to conceal what Nixon coined “the whole Bay of Pigs thing.” The details of these programs would not come to light until years after their implementation.
By the time Helms accepted a plea deal in 1977 for making false statements to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the damage to the republic and broad swaths of the free world was done. Nixon resigned before facing impeachment charges for obstruction of justice and was later pardoned by President Gerald Ford; Helms received a two-year suspended sentence and a $2,000 fine. The conviction was, in the words of future Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, just enough for the Justice Department to uphold the “principle of the rule of law” rather than the rule of law itself.
Morley keenly observes that despite the formation of House and Senate intelligence committees (or perhaps under their cover), the CIA has operated with virtual impunity ever since, pursuing murderous campaigns in Central America, the Middle East, and beyond. When Helms died in 2002, a lawsuit against him from the family of René Schneider was still pending. Morley might also have mentioned that in 2018, President Donald Trump named as his Central Intelligence director Gina Haspel — the same official who earned the nickname “Bloody Gina” for her role in the CIA’s torture program. Not only do the crimes of American empire go unpunished, but its perpetrators are richly rewarded.
Although Scorpions’ Dance sheds new light on the depths of the CIA’s involvement in Watergate and other scandals, the book is perhaps most memorable for its portrait of the performers themselves. We learn that, like many of history’s greatest monsters, Howard Hunt was a frustrated artist — one who failed to excite readers or Hollywood studio executives with his hero Peter Ward the way Ian Fleming did with James Bond. (For his part, Helms seemed to prefer the heroic fantasies of Fleming and Hunt to the moral complexity of John le Carré, lending new meaning to the term “the banality of evil.”) Few sections are as hair-raising as the CIA director’s letters to Nixon, each of which he began with an unctuous “My dear Mr. President,” although it is his incredulity at the prospect of facing any kind of consequence for his actions that offers perhaps the clearest window into the ruling class psyche, then and now. Morley writes that in the wake of Watergate, Helms was “baffled by his legal predicament.” As his friend and former attorney Gregory Craig puts it, “It was inconceivable [to him] that the Establishment could turn against Dick Helms.”
Since Trump stumbled into the White House in 2016, we have been inundated with media dramatizing or critically reexamining some of the major events of the 1960s and ’70s, from Aaron Sorkin’s pedantic The Trial of the Chicago 7about the anti–Vietnam War protesters charged with conspiracy, to the brilliant Blowback podcast exploring the United States’s crusade against Fidel Castro, to Tom O’Neill’s harrowing book Chaos on the Manson Family and the possible complicity of federal authorities in its murders. More recently, the Starz series Gaslit explores the Nixon administration’s efforts to silence Martha Mitchell, wife of then–Attorney General John Mitchell.
Popular culture is constantly metabolizing the recent past. Still, these works seem to speak to a desire to understand how we got to this perilous moment in our country’s history, with civil rights being rolled back nationwide and the January 6 hearings laying bear the extent of the Trump administration’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. We may face a new set of threats to American democracy, but works like Scorpions’ Dance Remind us that this democracy has always been something of an illusion — “a story that we tell ourselves in order to live,” to borrow a phrase from one journalistic icon of that era. In reality, as Howard Hunt’s first wife, Dorothy Wetzel, advised him about ending one of his later novels, the villains often win.
Jacob Sugarman is a freelance writer based in Buenos Aires. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Jacobinand Salonamong other publications.