A Complicated Life Frank G. Wisner, Sr.

Frank G. Wisner, Sr. did not dabble in small matters.

Wisner, one of the early members of the Central Intelligence Agency, helped build, and was the original “orchestrator” of, the first state-sponsored propaganda network in the United States—nicknamed the “Mighty Wurlitzer Organ." Wisner ran that operation through a vast array of contacts in order to sway public opinion against communist encroachment world-wide, and later that campaign would be folded into the new CIA.

An American “father” in the covert world of espionage, Wisner suffered from manic-depressive disorder and eventually committed suicide in 1965, some say due to the weight of the decisions he had made and the repercussions felt by those drawn into his secret web.

Wisner’s relationship with the government began shortly before Pearl Harbor. A Navy enlistee, he gravitated towards the world of counter-intelligence, with the final portion of his tour of duty being spent conducting espionage against the Soviet Union as part of the Office of Special Services, a precursor to the CIA. Wisner’s warnings about Soviet intentions in eastern Europe went unheeded, but he earned respect in the intelligence community nonetheless. In 1947, Secretary of State Dean Acheson invited Wisner to become Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Occupied Areas, a position tasked with running information operations in Europe. Wisner accepted the position but also joined lobbying efforts at the time to establish the first American intelligence agency.

Wisner directed information operations designed to create a positive picture of capitalism versus the deprivation and want caused by communism in eastern Europe. According to the organization's secret charter, since declassified, Wisner’s responsibilities included "propaganda, economic warfare, preventive direct action as well as sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation proceedings, subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance groups, and support of indigenous anti-communist elements in the threatened countries of the free world." The new covert network was built by an elite cabal of men led by Wisner, and many were recruited from the OSS.

One of Wisner’s most effective plays on American public opinion was dubbed "Operation Mockingbird."

Operation Mockingbird aimed to infiltrate and manipulate America's media institutions. The operation was so successful that by 1950 Wisner "owned" numerous respected journalists, including Joseph Alsop, James Reston, Walter Pincus and Ben Bradley. Wisner also developed a vast network of contacts within front organizations located in Europe, the United States and parts of the developing world.

Wisner's layered network of contacts was modeled on the Communist Front. Engineered to take advantage of the American to form civic associations, the network allowed Wisner to influence people across the country. Wisner’s network entwined such diverse elements as labor unions, intellectual groups, feminist groups and others, many of which were bastions of liberal idealism. And most of the leaders of those groups knew the CIA was involved.

Gloriasteinm 300400“I was happy to find some liberals in government in those days who were farsighted and cared enough to get Americans of all political views to the festival,” said feminist icon Gloria Steinhem.

The CIA presented America’s elites with a paradox. The agency men, including Wisner, were “old school,” in the sense that they abhorred government secrecy; at the same time, they also abhorred communism and intended to resist it, even if that took them away from their values.

“Operations of that nature are not in the character of our country,” said George Kennan, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, when asked to describe Wisner’s and the early CIA’s efforts.

Possibly, Wisner would have agreed but justified his activities with the need to prevent communist subversion of the U.S. government—at the time, a genuine concern. Others, meanwhile, have described Wisner as acting out a James Bond-esque fantasy and grappling with the contradictions between the values held by his peers and the needs of his position.

41CbqM0uvfLIn his “The Mighty Wulitzer,” author Hugh Wilford noted that, “the CIA was never able to resolve the fundamental contradiction between Cold War anti-communism and (inclusive) domestic reform at the heart of its front program. In addition, the group never succeeded in resolving their claims to representativeness-at-home/internationalism abroad with their covert purpose as state-funded weapons of political warfare.”

Whether through the unresolved contradiction, or simply the enormity of the task, several operatives of the “Might Wurlitzer” underwent personal crises. These crises likely were exacerbated by the public crises that exploded in the media at the same time. As the 1960s spiraled into protest, resentment, and public anger, the institutions once seen as unassailable began to lose their image. Wisner’s network began to fall apart at this time as front groups pushed back or demanded to be free of agency interference.

At the same time, Wisner began to sink deeper and deeper into paranoia about communist infiltration.

Even Wisner’s good friend, the liberal-thinking Arthur Schlesinger, a buddy from their days together at the OSS, who had frequently discussed matters with Wisner on the Georgetown party circuit, now felt that he had to break off their friendship because he was concerned about Wisner’s obsessions. Wisner’s life was now being overrun by the conflicts which he had handled so adeptly in the past.

As the 1960s unfolded, Wisner was hospitalized during a nervous breakdown. After being released he did not do well. Wisner was not able to overcome his demons; finally, he killed him-self with his own son’s shotgun. Wisner’s suicide came only three years after his retirement from the CIA, possibly provoked by the weight of his career.

One of the “fathers” of espionage, Wisner Sr. took part in the early Cold War, realizing some success in eastern Europe and in the U.S. But, as the 1960s descended into what many believed to be chaos, so did Wisner.


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