Yale and the CIA in 1950

By the 1950s, Yale had a long association with U.S. government intelligence collection. After all, Nathan Hale (“I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”) was Yale’s first unsuccessful spy. Because of their high intelligence caliber and language abilities, Yale graduates were considered attractive candidates for intelligence work. Yale had played a part in the formation in 1942 of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was created to carry out intelligence gathering and paramilitary operations against Germany and Japan. From Yale’s class of 1943 alone, … at least forty-two young men had entered intelligence work, with most going to the OSS. Many of these men stayed on after the war and helped form the core of the new Central Intelligence Agency, which took over the duties of the OSS in 1947.

The connection between Yale and the new CIA started at the top. Yale’s president for most of the time I was there, Charles Seymour, was on close terms with Allen Dulles, a top OSS official in World War II and after 1953 the head of the CIA. Seymour’s daughter actually worked for the OSS in Europe during the war. During my time at Yale, recruiters on campus for the CIA included the varsity crew coach as well as eminent professors.

One of those professors invited me to see him on a fall day in 1950. He ushered me to sit down in his dark, wood-paneled study. It was late afternoon, and the room was in shadows. The walls of the study were lined with leather-backed volumes on Renaissance history, the Chinese classics, and English literature. The professor smoked a pipe. Between puffs, he made his pitch. Even though I barely knew who he was, he clearly knew of me and what I had been doing at Yale. “You were born in China. Your family saw the collapse of China,” he started out. “And here at Yale you are a Russian major?” he asked quizzically. He tried to dissuade me from a career in the diplomatic service or corporate world by mentioning that I hadn’t taken any business or accounting courses at Yale. The State Department, he told me, was stuck in cement. “Look at what you are interested in and consider intelligence. It’s a growth industry.” He then talked about the crucial role intelligence had played in past wars and the exciting nature of the work. He explained that people were needed who had been exposed to foreign environments. I was sold even before he got to my personal qualities. “Besides,” he added, “You are a leader. As captain, you turned the soccer team around.”

Like so many of my fellow students at Yale, including an English major and wrestler from Wallingford, Connecticut, named Jack Downey and a sophomore from South Bend, Indiana, named George Witwer, I was excited by the prospect of an adventurous career and by the idea that I could contribute to efforts to stem the tide of communism. It was a good cause, and I believed that the United States and its values were worth fighting for. In the foreword of that same 1951 classbook in which Peter Braestrup gave voice to ambivalence on campus was a chilling sentence: “We face the realization that the very civilization we have trained ourselves to foster has been placed on the verge of destruction. The challenge to each of us as individuals cannot be over- emphasized.” I quickly signed up for the CIA. So did about a hundred of my classmates.

SOURCE: China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia, by James Lilley with Jeffrey Lilley (PublicAffairs, 2004), pp. 69-71

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