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The World War II Missions of the CIA Directors Who Fought for Wild Bill Donovan

About The Book

“A fantastic book, one of the very finest accounts of wartime spookery” (The Wall Street Journal)—a spellbinding adventure story of four secret OSS agents who would all later lead the CIA and their daring espionage and sabotage in wartime Europe from the author of the bestselling Wild Bill Donavan.

They are the most famous and controversial directors the CIA has ever had—Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby, and William Casey. Before each of these four men became their country’s top spymaster, they fought in World War II as secret warriors for Wild Bill Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services.

Allen Dulles ran the OSS’s most successful spy operation against the Axis. Bill Casey organized dangerous missions to penetrate Nazi Germany. Bill Colby led OSS commando raids behind the lines in occupied France and Norway. Richard Helms mounted risky intelligence programs against the Russians in the ruins of Berlin. Later, they were the most controversial directors the CIA has ever had. Dulles launched the calamitous operation at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. Helms was convicted of lying to Congress over the CIA’s role in the ousting of President Salvador Allende in Chile. Colby would become a pariah for releasing a report on CIA misdeeds during the 1950s, sixties and early seventies. Casey would nearly bring down the CIA—and Ronald Reagan’s presidency—from a scheme that secretly supplied Nicaragua’s contras with money raked off from the sale of arms to Iran for American hostages in Beirut.

Mining thousands of once-secret World War II documents and interviewing scores, Waller has written a worthy successor to Wild Bill Donovan. “Entertaining and richly detailed” (The Washington Post), Disciples is the story of these four dynamic agents and their daring espionage and sabotage in wartime Europe.


He was born in Watertown, New York, on the morning of April 7, 1893, with congenital talipes equinovarus, commonly called a clubfoot. The medical profession since Hippocrates had treated the condition with slow mechanical pressure to bend the foot back out. With the advent of anesthesia doctors began surgically repairing the damage by the late 1860s. The parents found a Philadelphia orthopedist who successfully performed the operation on the baby. Even so, the family treated Allen Welsh Dulles’s deformity at birth as a dark secret not to be revealed to outsiders.

Edith Foster Dulles had worried about having a third child. The births of John Foster in 1888 and Margaret just fifteen months later had been difficult and doctors had warned her a third might kill her. Edith, however, found celibacy unbearable; she delivered two more daughters after Allen—Eleanor in 1895 and Natalie in 1898. Though the births did weaken her and she suffered migraines and bouts of depression, Edith remained a determined and domineering woman, active in social work and fluent in French and Spanish. “She was a person who said, ‘Now let’s stop fussing around, and let’s get this done,’?” recalled Eleanor.

Edith Foster had been born during the Civil War into what became diplomatic aristocracy. Her father, John Watson Foster, rose from major in the 25th Indiana Volunteers to a field commander for the Battle of Shiloh and to a Union general on retirement. After the war, the tall, erect officer, with his billowy white muttonchops and Harvard law degree, became President Ulysses S. Grant’s minister plenipotentiary to Mexico. More diplomatic postings followed—ambassador to the court of St. Petersburg under Tsar Alexander II in 1880, envoy to Spain in 1883. The family accompanied him overseas and Edith traveled throughout Latin America, Europe, and even Asia. In the waning months of Benjamin Harrison’s administration, Foster, who had become known as the “handyman of the State Department,” reached his pinnacle as secretary of state in 1892. He would not be the family’s only one. Edith’s sister Eleanor married Robert Lansing, a handsome lawyer-diplomat with a perpetually tanned face, who perfected an English accent, dressed like a dandy, and would become Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state in 1915.

The first time she met Allen Macy Dulles at a Paris soiree in 1881, Edith had not been terribly impressed by the slender young man, with his wide eyes and a soft boyish face, who had played on Princeton College’s football team and just graduated from its theological seminary. Dulles, then twenty-six, fell instantly in love with the eighteen-year-old girl and spent the next five years resolutely courting Edith until she agreed to marry him in 1886. He could claim distinguished lineage as well. His mother’s family had joined the Plymouth colony from the second voyage of the Mayflower in 1629. The ancestors of his father, Rev. John Welsh Dulles, fought in the Revolutionary War. One of seven children, Allen Macy had attended Philadelphia’s Hastings Academy, whose harsh discipline his brothers worried would kill him. Allen Macy survived and later thrived at Princeton, where in addition to playing what was then considered the brutal game of football he sang tenor in the glee club, excelled in philosophy, and became president of the Nassau Bible Society. After graduating in 1875, he taught briefly in Princeton’s prep school, then entered its seminary. He had been on a tour of Europe and the Middle East after graduation when he met Edith.

When he returned to America, Allen Macy Dulles was ordained by the Presbytery of Detroit and installed as pastor of the city’s Trumbull Avenue church. A year after their marriage, he moved to Watertown, a fast-growing trade and industrial center near Lake Ontario in upstate New York, to be pastor of its more upscale First Presbyterian Church. He first installed his growing family into a white clapboard parsonage nearby on Clinton Street, and later built a roomier manse with long colonnades on Mullins Street, where the church was also located. Dulles was a contemplative, imaginative, and, for his times, a liberal minister. He spent hours in his third-floor study crafting tightly written sermons so they would last no more than twenty minutes. No souls were saved after that, he believed. Twice he was nearly expelled from the church, for officiating the marriage of a divorced woman and for publicly questioning the Virgin Birth. Though he never earned more than $3,500 a year to support a family of seven, he was generous to a fault, often letting the town drunk, when he was down on his luck, sleep in a room in the house.

His was a happy home. Children from other families in the congregation found it fun hanging out at the house of this warm-hearted religious man because it was so welcoming. His own children had contests to see who could sing the most hymns. Reverend Dulles required them to bring a pencil and pad to church every Sunday to take notes on his sermon. The kids did not find this an onerous chore. They took what they had scribbled to Sunday dinner to discuss the sermon; if what they had written was not clear, Allen Macy always blamed himself for delivering his message poorly.

The Dulles children were all “live wires,” as one family member described them. Among the girls, Eleanor, who wore wire-rimmed glasses and usually had her nose buried in a book, was the intellectual dynamo. The oldest, John Foster, whom the family called Foster, had the strongest personality and an imperious look to him even as a boy. He was the leader of the five. Allie, which is what the family called his younger brother, was devoted to Foster and followed him everywhere when they were children.

Allie, who had his father’s eyes and soft features, was obsessively curious about others around him. As a young boy he listened intently to adult conversations on domestic and foreign policy issues of the day and, when he could write, began jotting down notes on what he had heard. He also developed at an early age a fixation with making others like him—although his sister Eleanor noticed that the irresistible charm her brother displayed could be interrupted at times by overpowering rage.

John Watson Foster, who preferred to be addressed as “General” even as secretary of state, was always the dominating presence in the Dulles family. In 1894, he built a red clapboard cottage for the clan with a circular porch that reached over the shore of Lake Ontario at a cove called Henderson Harbor. “Underbluff,” his name for this simple house, had a large living room and kitchen with wood-burning stove, a tin bathtub for scrubbing the children, kerosene lamps for light, and a hand pump for water because it had no plumbing or electricity. Allie and the other kids loved this summer retreat, where they swam, sailed, and fished for smallmouth bass in the lake and crowded around John Watson along a long wooden bench at night to listen to his Civil War stories. The General doted on Allen Macy’s children and “borrowed” each one of them to enjoy a winter season with him in Washington, when he could give the child a more sophisticated education than he thought his son-in-law could provide. He brought in tutors and governesses and allowed each grandchild to eavesdrop on the salons he hosted with the capital’s powerful at his stately town house on 18th Street near other foreign embassies. Allen Macy came to resent these abductions, but Allie could not have been more excited when it was his turn. General Foster introduced him to foreign affairs.

At age eight, Allie made his grandfather a proud man. Listening to the debates in the General’s dining room, the youngster had become interested in what was then a hot foreign policy topic in Washington circles—the second Boer War. It had erupted two years earlier when the British Empire attempted to wrest control of the pastoral Orange Free State and gold-rich Transvaal, two Boer republics in South Africa held by rebellious Dutch settlers. Britain’s brutal tactics included a scorched-earth campaign to starve out guerrillas and the herding of civilians into concentration camps where thousands of women and children perished. The United States government remained neutral, but Americans became keenly interested in the far-off conflict with many joining each side to fight. Though his family backed the United Kingdom, Allie thought the British were taking unfair advantage of the Boers. Without telling the General he began clipping news articles, jotting down notes from what he heard at his grandfather’s dinner table, and finally wrote in his childish scrawl a short book titled The Boer War: A History. “It was not right for the british to come in and get the land because the Boers came first and they had the first right to the land,” Allie wrote, laying out his case for the settlers in seven chapters.

John Watson Foster sent the manuscript to a publisher, who corrected only a few of the misspelled words and printed seven hundred copies of the thirty-one-page book, which was sold for 50 cents a copy. (Allie donated the $1,000 he earned to the Boer Widows and Orphans Fund.) Newspapers around the country published stories on the eight-year-old author. “A most interesting little book,” noted The Washington Post. The speaker of the house, who had seen a review in a Chicago paper, bought a copy. Edith was ecstatic—“We are very proud of our dear little boy,” she wrote her son—and sold five copies to her friends. A more subdued Allen Macy, who considered the Boers “a noble, if perhaps mistaken, people,” ordered Foster, who also sympathized with the British, not to argue the subject with his younger brother. Foster dutifully congratulated Allie on his book—although he told other family members he thought the volume was “infantile.”

Two years after the publication of Allie’s book, Reverend Dulles moved his family eighty miles south in 1904 to assume the chair of Theism and Apologetics at Auburn Theological Seminary. He had no intention of leaving the education of his children up to the General or to Auburn High School, which Allie attended. He hired a live-in governess to tutor all of them properly in Greek and Latin. Rather than memorizing the rules of grammar he wanted their hours of homework spent reading fine literature to soak up its style. And if he had to go hungry he would scrape up the money to send them abroad for their finishing school. Allie, who enjoyed history the most, was sent to live with family friends in Lausanne, Switzerland, to learn French (he broke away briefly with his father and Foster to climb the Diablerets in the Bernese Alps) and later to the cutting-edge École Alsacienne on the Rue Notre-Dames-des-Champs in Paris. His report card for the 1908–09 trimester noted that he had an “excellent intellectual and moral disposition,” though he averaged no better than B– because of a low grade in French composition.

In the fall of 1910, Allie enrolled in his father’s alma mater, Princeton. Its deeply discouraged president, Woodrow Wilson, had just been forced by the trustees to resign as he ran for governor of New Jersey—despite the reforms he had instituted to make the New Jersey school nationally on par with Harvard and Yale. Because of Wilson’s energy, the Princeton Allie entered had seen its administration reorganized, the deadwood in its faculty replaced by academic stars, its curriculum revamped, admission standards hiked, and new Gothic-styled classroom buildings erected thanks to rejuvenated fund-raising. The seventeen-year-old at first showed no appreciation for the improved education he was receiving. Nearly six feet tall and beginning a mustache, Allie enjoyed playing tennis, chasing girls, shooting dice in the dorm, and spending weekends in New York enjoying musical comedies and champagne. His father grew furious with the mediocre report cards his son brought home. Allie finally buckled down his senior year, improving his grades enough to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduating ninth in a class of ninety-four.

Much later in life, Allen Welsh Dulles would look back on June 1914 as the beginning of the path he took that eventually led to a career in intelligence. His class would be the last to graduate for some years into a peaceful world. Allie was offered a fellowship to remain at Princeton through 1915 but he considered it “a useless thing to wait around here another year,” he wrote his father. He had also been offered a teaching job in India, which he decided to take, sailing east through Europe to see the world along the way. On June 20, he boarded the RMS Olympic, a grand-sized vessel with seven decks, four elevators, a squash court in the gym, an elegant restaurant called the Ritz, and plenty of college girls whom he quickly met. He arrived in Paris on June 28, checking into the Hôtel de l’Opéra. While sitting with Princeton friends at an outdoor café on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées his lazy Sunday afternoon was interrupted by newsboys hawking extras on the street with the headline that Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife had been assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist.

As Europe inched toward war, Allie took the train to Venice, then a boat to Trieste, where he boarded a steamer that carried him through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea and into the Arabian Sea. He reached Bombay on July 20 and checked into the elegant Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. (Young Dulles by then had acquired a taste for traveling in style, which he would not abandon for the rest of his life.) Three days later, after a comfortable ride in a first-class train car, Allie, dressed nattily in a cream-colored silk suit he bought in Bombay, finally arrived at his destination, dusty Allahabad in northeast India, to begin his job as an English teacher at Ewing Christian College.

He found a cobra curled up one time in the bathroom of his apartment, a large monkey hiding under his dining table, and the heat so oppressive he often slept outside under a mosquito net instead of in his bedroom. But the work at the missionary school, located on the banks of the Yamuna River near where it joined the Ganges, was easy. He awoke each day at 6 a.m. for toast and tea, studied Hindi until 10 a.m. when he had brunch, taught English classes to Indian teenagers from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. using the works of Plato and Shakespeare as his texts, then after tea time he headed to the tennis courts for a couple of sets with the missionaries, and had his dinner dished out by his servant promptly at 8:30 p.m. He paid the servant $2.50 a month.

Allie found Allahabad’s English newspaper to be one of the best he had ever read and by fall the paper was printing two editions a day with stories on Europe spinning out of control. A week after he had arrived in India, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Germany declared war on Russia on August 1 and on France two days later. After Germany invaded Belgium, the United Kingdom became a belligerent on August 4. Woodrow Wilson, who had assumed the presidency in 1913, announced that the United States would remain neutral. With the first Battle of the Marne in early September the two sides began grinding trench warfare that would see the slaughter of millions to gain what ultimately amounted to little territory over the next four years. Allie interviewed a wounded Sikh soldier returned to Allahabad from the Western Front who told him “the Germans couldn’t shoot very well but were up to date with every mechanical device,” he wrote his mother. In another letter to her, he worried that if the British began diverting too many of their colonial troops from India to the European theater “there might be trouble” in this colony from nationalists agitating for a break from the empire. Otherwise, the only impact the war had on him at this point was the discovery soon that his letters from America were being opened and read by British censors in Calcutta. It did not particularly bother him, except for the fact that the censors seemed to be slow readers, which meant the arrival of his mail was delayed for another week.

By December 1914, Allie planned to cut short his tenure at Ewing and return home early the next year. Although he admired the missionary college’s noble work, he had decided he was not particularly good at teaching English, a subject that interested him little. He was never sure how much of his lectures on Plato’s Apology his students actually understood, “and I don’t know much more about English syntax and parsing than they do,” he admitted in a letter to his mother. With $160 in American and British gold coins, $300 in American Express checks, and a bank draft for 200 Chinese taels in his valise, Dulles set sail from India in mid-March 1915. He decided to travel east to complete his circumnavigation, stopping in Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Nanking, Peking, Seoul, Kobe, Kyoto, Yokohama, and Tokyo for sightseeing. He mailed home to his mother long travelogues with an eye for detail that an intelligence officer would appreciate. He also had his grandfather cable letters of introduction to the U.S. embassies along the way so he could meet their ambassadors. Sailing the Pacific on the SS Manchuria, he finally touched American soil in San Francisco toward the end of July.

Allie returned to Princeton for a year of postgraduate studies in international affairs, using the time more for agonizing over what he wanted to do with his life than preparing for academia. He tried out for a job at J. P. Morgan & Co. and after a day realized the investment bank wanted to make him a glorified clerk translating French contracts. When it was also clear to Morgan at the end of the day that this applicant could not type beyond hunting and pecking, a supervisor told him not to return. He toyed with a career in law “yet I have always rather fought against the idea as I don’t like the technicalities and evasions which seem to be inevitably connected with it,” he wrote his father. Allen Macy made no secret that he hoped his son would follow his footsteps and enter the ministry. General Foster and “Uncle Bert” (Allie’s name for Robert Lansing, who had just become Wilson’s secretary of state) had succeeded in talking him out of the clergy and nudging him toward the State Department. His father huffed that the diplomatic service was more an avocation than a respectable career.

Allie, who was not completely sold on the idea, told his father he saw no harm in taking the foreign service exam. If he passed, then he could decide whether he wanted to work in the State Department for a year or so. Allie took the test in April 1916 and had no trouble passing. His decision about what to do next was made easier by the alternative that would be forced on him if he did not join the diplomatic service. While at Princeton he had enlisted in the New Jersey National Guard. Simultaneously with the arrival of the letter telling him he had passed the foreign service exam came the notice that his Guard company was being deployed to the Mexican border to join General John “Black Jack” Pershing’s Punitive Expedition hunting Pancho Villa, whose revolutionary band had been attacking Americans. Allie convinced his local draft board that he would be more valuable to the country as a diplomat than a ground soldier. He joined the State Department on May 22.

About The Author

Steve Wilson

Douglas Waller is a former correspondent for Newsweek and Time, where he covered the CIA, Pentagon, State Department, White House, and Congress. He is the author of the bestsellers Wild Bill DonovanBig Red, and The Commandos, as well as critically acclaimed works such as Disciples, the story of four CIA directors who fought for Donovan in World War II, and A Question of Loyalty, a biography of General Billy Mitchell. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 25, 2016)
  • Length: 592 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451693744

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Raves and Reviews

"Disciples is a fantastic book, one of the very finest accounts of wartime spookery I’ve seen. . . . it’s a hell of a good tale, aided immeasurably by Mr. Waller’s skill at disentangling the knotted story lines of his protagonists and his dexterous straightening of the often contradictory accounts of the shadow war’s dauntingly complex machinations. . . . his eye for journalistic color (honed by his stints as a correspondent for Time and Newsweek) turns his solid research into taut narrative. . . . Disciples is a remarkable work of synthesis."

– The Wall Street Journal

“Entertaining and richly detailed . . . a textured adventure story that emerges from Waller’s command of the archival material and his fluid writing style. That latter gift helps Waller overcome what could have been the cumbersome task of weaving together four distinct war experiences . . . Waller moves among these biographies with ease.”

– The Washington Post

“Entertaining and enlightening . . . absorbing . . . [Waller’s] story of Dulles’ tortuous dance with a German informant while running the OSS activities in Switzerland is worthy of John le Carré. His tales of Colby’s paramilitary operations in France and Norway include riveting episodes of heroism (and a possible war crime that got lost in the Allied victory) that would fit in the best war novels. . . . [Waller] makes the case that these four men’s wartime actions deeply colored what they did as CIA directors. Their zeal in fighting the Nazis, and their acquired love of intrigue, escalated during the battle against communism. Ardor became audacity. And each fell from grace. It’s a messy business.”

– The Charlotte Observer

“Waller has clearly mastered the material and tells each man’s story with verve and energy. Based on extensive research in original sources, which he lays out in endnotes, the chapters are literal page-turners.”

– Studies in Intelligence

“Eye-opening . . . Waller keeps the interest high and the pages turning in one of the more interesting spy books this year.”

– Kirkus Reviews

“Meticulously researched...Waller’s easygoing writing style and extensive use of primary sources make this work worthwhile for those interested in espionage history.”

– Publishers Weekly

“Douglas Waller knows the world of spies and he knows how to tell a story. The World War II adventures of these future spymasters are fascinating and instructive about the moral ambiguities of espionage and covert action. A gripping read from the pen of a master.”

– Evan Thomas author of "Being Nixon" and "Ike’s Bluff"

“Waller reintroduces us to the legendary spymasters who fought in World War II. In his gripping book, Waller gives us the little known backstories of the future intelligence chiefs and their cunning use of espionage and sabotage. Decades later, accused of bungled operations, crimes, and abuse of power, they would all go to war again, but this time just across the river in Washington.”

– James Bamford, author of The Shadow Factory

“Allen Dulles, Bill Casey, Bill Colby and Richard Helms became symbols of the CIA’s worst Cold War failures and scandals. Waller vividly chronicles their accomplishments as young OSS operatives who put their lives at risk during World War II. This is an enthralling story of patriotism, courage, dedication, and at times reckless panache. Given the trajectory of their postwar lives, it is also a tragedy—a true American tragedy.”

– Andrew Nagorski, author of Hitlerland and the forthcoming The Nazi Hunters

“Meticulously researched . . . Waller’s easygoing writing style and extensive use of primary sources make this work worthwhile for those interested in espionage history.”

– Publishers Weekly

“Douglas Waller follows up his best-seller Wild Bill Donovan . . . with a ripping WWII sequel, Disciples . . . . Waller . . . drops a discerning dime on a series of backstories of espionage and sabotage provoked by Donovan’s ‘disciples’. . . Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby and William Casey, [who] later became CIA directors.”

– The Buffalo News

“This book will make a dandy holiday gift for the spy story buff who eats up yarns about the dark side of the world of intelligence and those masters of intrigue who exist inside the web. This is an authoritatively researched and smoothly written tale. . . Disciples will make good reading for your favorite spy buff.”

– The Washington Times

"Waller’s Disciples offers the reader a thoroughly researched and highly detailed history of these influential spies who ignited the covert action industry of the late twentieth century."

– Military Review

“Disciples is a lengthy but marvelous work—assiduously researched and richly written—that actually delivers on its subtitle.”

– International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence

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