If you drive up Foxhall Road in the northwest corner of Washington, you’ll find sections that wind up and down the hills of the district through a landscape that appears pretty much as it was in the 1950s, almost bucolic. At the intersection of Foxhall and W Street, just before the prestigious Field School comes into view, sits a two-story brick house painted white with green shutters and shaded by trees. Back then the house was just like every other house on the edge of D.C., except a spy with a code name—Homer D. Hoskins—lived there with his cyanide “death pill,” to be swallowed in case of capture. This was Braden’s home in 1952.
He looked exactly as a reporter once described him: “a wiry, sandy-haired man” with a “craggy handsome visage that could be a composite of John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Frank Sinatra.” Braden’s goddaughter Elizabeth Winthrop Alsop said, “He had that leathery face and those blue eyes and he was very charming—definitely a ladies’ man.” Braden wore a trench coat. He smoked Camels (unfiltered) and a pipe.
At the CIA one of Braden’s first objectives was to keep the labor unions in Europe from being sucked into Moscow’s black hole. Like most of Europe, they needed money. Braden became the bagman. Fifteen thousand dollars got unions in France to stop communist maritime workers from dumping U.S. supplies into the sea or burning them at ports. “We subsidized the unions to make sure it didn’t happen anymore,” he said. He also bribed communist dockworkers. “If we didn’t bribe them, we wouldn’t have gotten our supplies landed,” he recalled. “It was also my idea to give cash, along with advice, to other labor leaders, to students, professors and others who could help the United States in its battles with communist fronts. I personally went to Detroit and gave the leader of the auto workers’ union $50,000 in $50 bills to influence labor unions in Germany.” The union chief gave the cash to his brother, who “spent it with something less than perfect wisdom,” Braden said.
“I could hand over $50,000 and never account to anybody. The CIA could do exactly as it pleased. It could hire armies. It could buy bombs. It was one of the first multinationals,” he wrote in a letter to author Ted Morgan. In fighting the Soviets, it was the Wild West.
But Braden was most concerned about losing the battle among European sophisticates. “I was much more interested in the ideas which were under fire from the communists than I was in blowing up Guatemala,” he said. “I was more an intellectual than a gung-ho guy.
“We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, and all the people who follow those people—people like you and me who go to concerts or visit art galleries—to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement without any rigid barriers as to what you must write and what you must say and what you must do and what you must paint—which was what was going on in the Soviet Union,” Braden said in a 1994 interview with Frances Stonor Saunders, a British documentarian and author of a groundbreaking book on the CIA, Who Paid the Piper?
The Soviets had the bomb, and their military capabilities were immense—the CIA had those facts cold. But the consequences of a culture dictated by Stalin were beyond comprehension. “The idea that the world would succumb to a kind of fascist or Stalinist concept of art and literature and music—that this was to be the wave of the future—as you look back on it even now, it’s a horrifying prospect,” Braden said.
And so with that in mind, early one evening, after the secretaries had gone home, Braden marched over to Dulles’s office and proposed a new way to take on the Soviets.
“You know,” Dulles said, “I think you may have something there. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re losing the Cold War. Why don’t you take it up down below?”
“Down below” was Frank Wisner, a Southerner from Mississippi who had been a track star at the University of Virginia and was then head of covert operations at the agency. “In my view, he was a hero, an authentic American hero,” Braden wrote in the Saturday Evening Post. For three months he developed a plan to convince Wisner and his chiefs who represented various sections of the globe. At last the hour of the meeting arrived. “I began by assuring them that I proposed to do nothing in any area without the approval of the chief in that area,” Braden recalled. “I thought when I finished that I had made a good case.” But the chief of Western Europe objected.
“Frank, this is just another one of those goddamned proposals for getting into everybody’s hair.”
All the others fell into line, vetoing Braden’s plan. (The only chief who supported Braden was Richard Stilwell, who ran the CIA’s Far East division. He was a badass. He had crawled up the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and would later serve in Vietnam as deputy commanding general of the Marines.) Braden waited for Wisner’s decision. “Well, you heard the verdict,” Wisner said, acquiescing to the others.
Braden walked down the long hall at the CIA’s E Street headquarters. Now he had to face his men, defeated. The plan was a no-go.
“Then I went to Mr. Dulles’s office and resigned.”
Dulles was furious. “He raised hell,” Braden recalled. Dulles rang up Wisner, challenging him to defend his position. “Allen was all over Wisner. He took my side completely.” And he refused to accept Braden’s resignation.
“The International Organizations Division of the CIA was born,” recalled Braden, “and thus began the first centralized effort to combat communist fronts.” Tom Braden was finally in business. Now he could fight the Cold War his way.
“Braden was sharp,” says Michael Warner, the CIA’s historian. “He knew how to deal with people. He knew important people who could get things done. He knew whom to call and could get his phone calls returned. Braden knew whom to get buy-in from and how to build buy-in.” Warner has studied internal documentation and says Braden found perfect common cause with others who shared his view of a new, nonmilitary strategy. “And he showed how to make it work.”
“It was really a pretty simple device,” Braden said, recalling how the CIA funded its secret programs to promote modern art. “We would go up to somebody in New York who was a well-known rich person, and we would say, ‘We want to set up a foundation.’ And we would tell him what we were trying to do and pledge him to secrecy, and he would say, ‘Of course I’ll do it.’ And then you would publish a letterhead and his name would be on it and it would be a foundation.”