Oh my God. We’ve got to do something.
That was the recurring thought in Tom Braden’s mind. It haunted him late into the nights and galvanized him in the mornings.
He was living in frightening times. It was the early years of the Cold War, and there was a real fear the West would lose. Soviet spies had stolen our atomic secrets. President Harry Truman announced the U.S. expected a Soviet attack—at any time. North Korean communists invaded South Korea. A headline in The New York Times revealed a Soviet plan to “rule all of Germany” and start “a civil war.”
More than most people, Braden was consumed by these events. He had a job that demanded he do something about them.
Braden would become a liberal newspaperman and launch the CNN political talk show Crossfire, which he co-hosted with Patrick Buchanan for almost a decade.
He was best known as the inspiration for the sweater-vest-clad father on TV’s Eight Is Enough. The series was adapted from Braden’s best-selling 1975 memoir about life as the father of eight children, and at one time it had more viewers than Monday Night Football and Charlie’s Angels.
But before he became any of these things, Tom Braden was a spy.
There is no shortage of rumors and legends about the Central Intelligence Agency. There was the MK-Ultra program, an experiment in which unsuspecting human subjects were kept hopped up on LSD so the agency would know how to use the drug on the enemy. There were the exploding cigars and a wet suit specially lined with bacteria to kill Fidel Castro; chemists even readied a thallium-salt delivery device to make his beard fall out. Some agency ventures were just wacky. The recently declassified Acoustic Kitty was the CIA’s plan to turn a cat into a secret agent by surgically implanting a microphone in her ear and a radio transmitter by her skull. This furry spy was sadly “squashed by a taxi” on her first mission, as reported in Popular Science.
Braden regarded these schemes as “college boy stuff.” Speaking of his former colleagues, he told author Evan Thomas, “They had a lot of screwy ideas.”
I met Tom Braden in 2001. About the CIA, he told me, “I left before the fall. By ‘fall’ I mean the Bay of Pigs.” Braden wondered how men who were so intelligent and bright could let the “covert plan for Cuba,” as he called it, happen. In 1961 agency leaders convinced President John F. Kennedy to sign off on a proposal to invade the tiny country and overthrow Castro’s communist regime. They recruited 1,400 “high-minded, young, able, patriotic Cubans,” in the words of director Allen Dulles, to take back their native country. In the dead of night the CIA landed the Cuban exiles on beaches at the Bay of Pigs. The mission was a disaster. More than a hundred exiles were killed by Castro’s forces. Afterward, Castro had a stronger hold on the country than ever before. Braden regarded it as an “unrealistic, silly, stupid adventure.”
But the Battle for Picasso’s Mind—as Braden would call his plan—was not the typical cloak-and-dagger operation. It was subtle. It was ingenious. Braden’s covert masterpiece invigorated the modern art movement and helped turn the tide against Soviet communism in a way that traditional clandestine tradecraft never could. It was the kind of outside-the-box thinking that suited Braden perfectly.
Unlike other CIA recruits, Braden didn’t have a pedigree that made a top government job a foregone conclusion. He hadn’t gone to an exclusive prep school. He hadn’t graduated from high school. He was born in 1917 on a bench in a train station in Greene, Iowa. “My mother was on her way to Dubuque to have me,” he said in a 1975 interview. “There was a snowstorm, and she didn’t make it to the hospital.” He grew up during the Great Depression, and his father told him he could look forward to a job in a tie store. “Hearing that, I was on the next Greyhound bus for New York,” he said. There he became a printer’s devil, working in a print shop and cleaning commodes. When his grandmother died and left him $1,000, he quit to go to college. He found out Dartmouth would consider students who didn’t have high school diplomas. He applied, was accepted and excelled, especially at journalism—he was elected editor of The Dartmouth, the daily campus newspaper. He made perhaps a fateful choice to invite the general secretary of the Communist Party USA, Earl Browder, to speak so students could hear the party line firsthand. This decision got him noticed by Nelson Rockefeller, a Dartmouth trustee and Republican powerhouse, whose family had built the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He asked to meet this young provocateur named Tom Braden. Impressed, he gave Braden a job working at Rockefeller Center, editing the building’s newsletter. As the world marched toward war, Braden volunteered for the British army. Eventually he was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services, America’s wartime spy agency, and became part of an elite corps that parachuted behind Nazi lines into Italy. But it was Braden’s efforts after the war, when he became Dulles’s first “bright young man” of the CIA, that would make the biggest impact.
In 1948 the United States was losing intellectuals and artists to communist ideology, especially in Europe. Trying to crawl out from under the ashes of World War II, they were being swayed by Soviet propaganda promoting harmony. In Paris, 30,000 people gathered for a “world peace conference,” many unaware it was a Kremlin-backed rally to undermine American opposition to communism. Musicians, writers and artists were there to support peace. Pablo Picasso was among them.
Thousands of miles away in Manhattan, two of Picasso’s works hung on the walls of MoMA: Dog and Cock and Girl Before a Mirror. Starting in December 1948 Braden saw them almost every day for a year and a half—Rockefeller had made him secretary of the museum.
It was there that Braden first envisioned a program focused on “threats to creativity.” His immediate mission was to fight back against the forces that were “attacking everything new or original.” Those elements, he wrote in a 1948 letter, “seem to have found a particular target in modern art.” In the Soviet Union, modern artists were under attack by the state. Picasso was labeled as subversive. (Ironically, he was a communist.) Wassily Kandinsky, whose Several Circles painting was pathbreaking, fled as the Soviet regime was coming into power. Painting modern art was considered a vice—the regime saw such work as reflective of “Western decadence” and “petit bourgeois democracy.” Artists whose work failed to reflect socialist realism—a style that glorified the Red Army, Stalin, Lenin and the proletariat worker—were prevented from working in their chosen profession, and many were “liquidated.” Braden found this abhorrent. He wanted people to understand the connection between creativity and its “peculiar relationship to democratic government and to private enterprise.” This was Braden’s blueprint for what he would carry out at the CIA.
Braden was shocked when he received a call from William J. Donovan, founder of the Office of Strategic Services. To veterans such as Braden, Donovan was a living legend. He admired Donovan’s approach to battle: It was “like pouring molasses from a barrel onto the floor. It will ooze in every direction, but eventually he’ll make it into some sort of pattern,” Braden wrote. In time that pattern coalesced into resistance and intelligence.
Donovan wanted Braden to run his newly formed organization, the American Committee on United Europe, a group of leading Americans who promoted the idea of European federalism. But, as Donovan wrote in a letter, it was really about solving “the problems the country is up against,” meaning those created by Soviet communism. “My view is that we are in a war and I say let’s win that war,” Donovan declared. Braden signed up. From the committee’s offices on gleaming Fifth Avenue, Braden was surrounded by an array of cold warriors, including Dulles, the committee’s vice president and also the architect and future director of the CIA.
Although the organization existed mostly on paper, former statesmen and prominent figures attended meetings and raised money to promote European unity. There was bourbon and gin martinis. “It was exciting and fun,” said Braden. After a while, however, the committee ran out of money. Braden explained, “All of a sudden some guy named Thompson walks into my office with a huge sack. ‘My name is Pinky Thompson,’ he said. ‘This is for you,’ and plonked it down. It was $75,000. Donovan had arranged it. Well, it turns out Pinky Thompson was some kind of vice president of a Philadelphia bank, but he was working for the CIA. That was my initiation to the fact that we were not what we said we were.”
The revelation didn’t scare Braden away from the post, which amounted to a training ground for the CIA. In fact he did so well running the committee, he was soon offered a new job.
Within a year Tom Braden was packing his bags and leaving New York for Washington. He would be Allen Dulles’s assistant at the Central Intelligence Agency.