Richard Helms

Richard Helms
Richard Helms
United States Ambassador to Iran
In office
April 5, 1973 – January 1, 1977
President Richard Nixon
Gerald Ford
Preceded by Joseph S. Farland
Succeeded by William H. Sullivan
8th Director of Central Intelligence
In office
June 30, 1966 – February 2, 1973
President Lyndon B. Johnson
Richard Nixon
Deputy Rufus Taylor
Robert E. Cushman, Jr.
Vernon A. Walters
Preceded by William Raborn
Succeeded by James R. Schlesinger
Deputy Director of Central Intelligence
In office
April 28, 1965 – June 30, 1966
President Lyndon Johnson
Director William Raborn
Preceded by Marshall Carter
Succeeded by Rufus Taylor
Personal details
Born March 30, 1913(1913-03-30)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died October 22, 2002(2002-10-22) (aged 89)

Richard McGarrah Helms (March 30, 1913 – October 22, 2002) was the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) from 1966 to 1973. He was the only director to have been convicted of lying to the United States Congress over Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) undercover activities. In 1977, he was sentenced to the maximum fine and received a suspended two-year prison sentence. Professionally he was described as a "good soldier", one who may protest a policy under discussion, but once made would support a decision loyally. Throughout his career he favored intelligence gathering and secrecy, but was often a critic of covert operations.[1]


Life up to World War II

Helms was born in Philadelphia in 1913 to Marion Helms and Herman Helms, an executive for Alcoa. He grew up in South Orange, New Jersey and began high school there. He then spent two of his high school years at the prestigious Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland where he learned to speak French and later Realgymnasium in Freiburg, where he became fluent in German.

In 1935, after he graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, he got a job at the United Press (UP) in London. The depression in London, however forced Helms to find work in Germany, where he covered the Berlin Olympic Games. Following an annual NSDAP Parteitag, Helms with a small group of news reporters heard Adolf Hitler speak in the Nuremberg Castle. In 1937 he left the UP and returned home for a job on the business side of the Indianapolis Times. He had risen to be its national advertising manager by December, 1941, when America entered World War II.[2]

Early career in intelligence

During World War II Helms served in the United States Navy. In 1943, he was posted to the Secret Intelligence Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) because of his ability to speak German. From his wartime experiences, Helms formed the conviction that "secret intelligence matters, and that paramilitary dering-do doesn't."[3]

In the aftermath of the war, he was transferred to the newly formed Office of Special Operations (OSO), where at the age of 33 he was put in charge of intelligence and counter-intelligence operations in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. The OSO became a division of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) when that organization was created by the National Security Act of 1947.[4]

Eisenhower presidency

Iran and Guatemala

Generally Helms disliked the CIA's involvement in covert operations, thinking them ineffective in the long run. "But the 1950s were the CIA's great age of clandestine operations." Although failing at efforts to "roll-back" the Soviets from Eastern Europe, the CIA considered itself successful elsewhere. Mossadegh of Iran in August, 1953, and Arbenz of Guatemala in June, 1954, were both removed from office by CIA operations. Yet Helms thought the price had been too high, that "the CIA was more notorious than ever."[5]

The U-2 and Bissell

A great triumph of the CIA in the late 1950s became the high-altitude U-2 photo-reconnaissance planes, which overflew the Soviet Union from May 1956 to May 1960, when the Russians shot one down. Thereafter, photo-reconnaissance was done by satellite. Richard Bissell of the CIA had taken the lead in developing both these technical systems. Allen Dulles, Director of Central Intelligence 1953-1961, appointed Bissell the new Deputy Director of Plans (DDP) in 1958. The position many thought should have gone to Richard Helms, who was a proven, accomplished administrator. Bissell and Helms did not get along. Yet Bissell turned out to be an "anarchic administrator" and his leading role in the Bay of Pigs fiasco led to his resignation in 1962.[6] That then opened the way for Helms.

Kennedy presidency


The Kennedys strongly and persistently favored regime change for Fidel Castro in Cuba. Already under Eisenhower the CIA was given a prominent role in what became a plan to invade the island nation, with a landing force of exiled anti-Castro Cubans. It had the support of the CIA Director Allen Dulles. The project, however, became an "open secret". Helms, who highly valued secrecy and who was generally against covert actions, quickly distanced himself from the plan, remaining extremely sceptical of its chances, an opinion widely shared among CIA professionals not working on the project. Yet such internal CIA opposition was not made public. Just before the invasion, Castro detained in makeshift camps 100,000 suspects. In the event, the 1961 CIA-assisted invasion turned into a bitter failure.[7]

In 1962 Helms became Deputy Director of Plans (Operations). Helms then served under John McCone, the new Director of Central Intelligence (1961-1965).


The Vietnam War had begun to draw increased participation by American forces. In August of 1963 a proposed State Department cable advocated a coup to overthrow the Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem; by circumstance Helms, DDP at the CIA, was asked to approve the cable; he responded, "It's about time we bit this bullet." Yet quickly the CIA Director McCone strongly voiced his long opposition to such action. Later the controversial November coup resulted in the killing of President Diem.[8]

Johnson presidency

Richard Helms, in the White House Cabinet Room, March 27, 1968.

In 1966 Helms was appointed Director of Central Intelligence. He continued to hold this post until 1973, thus well into the Nixon administration. He followed the relatively short DCI tenure of Admiral Raborn (1965-1966), under whom Helms had served as Deputy Director.

Regarding Vietnam, in 1965 Johnson decided to send in large number of American troops and to bomb the North; yet the military put stiff pressure on him to escalate further. In the "paper wars" that followed, Helms at the CIA was regularly asked to report on the effectiveness of the military, e.g., the bombing of Hanoi, which the military resented. Under Helms, such CIA reports were usually moderate, but often questioned whether the tactics used would result in compelling Hanoi to negotiate. Helms himself was evidently sceptical, yet Johnson never asked for his personal opinion. The CIA also organized an armed force of minority Meo in Laos, and minority Montagnards in the Vietnam highlands, as well as rural counterinsurgency forces. Further, the CIA became very involved in South Vietnamese politics. "One of the CIA's jobs was to coax a genuine South Vietnamese government into being."[9]

According to one source, CIA Director Richard Helms "used his influence with Lyndon Johnson to warn about the growing dangers of U.S. involvement in Vietnam."[10] On the other hand, Stansfield Turner (DCI 1977-1981) describes Helms's relationship with Johnson as being overly loyal to the office of president, resulting in the CIA staff's honest opinions on Vietnam not reaching Johnson.[11][12] When The Wise Men confronted Johnson about the difficulty of winning in Vietnam, he was unprepared to accept their negative findings, yet their advice contributed to his decision to withdraw from the 1968 presidential election.

However there were successes during this era, such as the CIA analysis of the Six-Day War, which predicted that "the Israelis would win a war within a week to ten days."[13] Helms believed it had kept the U.S. (for the most part[14]) out of the conflict.[11]

Domestic intelligence

Under both Johnson and Nixon, the CIA was tasked with dosmestic surveillance of protest movements, particularly anti-war activities, which later became called Operation CHAOS. This involved investigations of various American groups on the theory that they were funded and/or influenced by the Soviet Union. The program investigated Ramparts magazine, anti-war groups, and others, eventually building thousands of files on American citizens. These activities were illegal, as the CIA was forbidden from domestic spying.[11]

Nixon presidency

The relative ease of Helms's role under President Lyndon Johnson changed with the arrival of President Richard Nixon and Nixon's national security advisor Henry Kissinger. Turner describes Nixon as basically being hostile to the CIA and claiming it was full of "liberals". He quotes Brent Scowcroft saying that Nixon had an "inferiority complex" to all the Ivy League graduates at the agency. Nixon preferred to have intelligence come through Kissinger and his team, even excluding Helms from National Security Council meetings.[11]

In 1972, Helms ordered the destruction of most records from the huge MKULTRA project, over 150 CIA-funded research projects, many illegal, designed to explore any possibilities of mind control.[15] The project became public knowledge two years later, after a New York Times report.[citation needed]


Perhaps Helms's most controversial actions as CIA chief, Project FUBELT, concerned the subversion of the socialist government of Chile and was done at Nixon's behest. Subsequently the Chilean coup of 1973 overthrew that country's democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, on September 11, 1973.[11] According to Helms, Nixon had ordered the CIA to support an army coup to prevent Allende from becoming president in 1970. However, following the assassination of Army Commander-in-Chief General René Schneider by elements of the military, public support swung behind Allende, and he took office in October 1970. The CIA funneled millions of dollars to opposition groups and striking truck drivers in a continuing effort to destabilize the Allende government. Here Helms, although in disagreement, had assumed the role of a "good soldier" per Nixon's instructions.[16]

Nixon continued to work against the Allende regime, including disruptive economic measures. Yet Allende had been elected with only 36% of the vote in a three-way contest, and during his presidency he was said to ignore the constitution in his socialist projects, policies which proved to be very unpopular and polarizing. Of course, the military junta's 1973 coup was more unconstitutional yet.[17]

During his ambassadorial confirmation hearings before the Senate in 1973, Helms was questioned concerning the CIA's role in the Chilean affair. Because the operations were still secret and the hearings were public events, Helms denied that the CIA had ever aided Allende's opposition. However, later information uncovered by the Church Committee hearings showed that Helms's statements were false, and he was prosecuted and convicted in 1977. He received a two-year suspended sentence and a $2,000 fine.[18]


During Watergate, Nixon asked Helms to interfere with the FBI investigation of the Watergate burglaries. By claiming state secrets privilege, Helms could have stopped the FBI investigation cold. Helms refused, which Turner calls a "courageous" move. Nixon was extremely displeased with Helms because of his refusal,[11] but Helms had succeeded in distancing the CIA as far as possible from the scandal.

Ambassador to Iran

After the debacle of Watergate, the Agency came under much tighter Congressional control. Nixon had never liked the CIA or Helms its Director. In January 1973, Nixon considered Helms to be better suited as the U.S. ambassador to Iran, due to his good relations with the ruling Shah, who was Helms' former schoolmate at Le Rosey). Helms was thought capable regarding scrutiny of the oil industry and issues relating to government stability.[19] Evidently Helms was approached about this position in late 1972. Thus he left the office of Director of Central Intelligence to serve as U.S. ambassador to Iran, 1973-1977, in Tehran.

Later years and death

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan awarded Helms the National Security Medal.

After he died of bone cancer in 2002, Richard Helms was interred in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.


Historian Keith Melton describes Helms as a professional who was always impeccably dressed and had a "low tolerance for fools". Helms was an elusive man, laconic and reserved.

Helms was married to a sculptress, six years his senior. They had two children. Helms played tennis. He was, of course, very non-committal politically. His wife apparently favored the Democratic Party.[20]

While serving as an OSS intelligence officer in Europe in May 1945, Helms wrote a letter to his son Dennis, then three years old, using stationery he had recovered from Adolf Hitler's office in the ruins of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. He dated the letter "V-E Day" (May 8, 1945), the day Germany surrendered. Sixty-six years later, Dennis Helms delivered the letter to the CIA; it arrived on May 3, 2011, the day after the death of Osama bin Laden. It now resides at the private museum at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.[21]

In the media

  • The character William Martin, portrayed by Cliff Robertson in the 1977 television miniseries Washington Behind Closed Doors (based on John Ehrlichman's novel The Company), was loosely based on Helms.
  • Helms was portrayed by actor Sam Waterston in a memorable scene in the 1995 film Nixon, deleted from the original release but included in the director's cut DVD.
  • The character Richard Hayes, portrayed by actor Lee Pace in the 2006 film The Good Shepherd, was loosely based on Helms.

Reference notes

  1. ^ Thomas Powers, The Man who kept the Secrets. Richard Helms and the CIA (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1979) at 124 (good soldier), 39 (intelligence), 100, 121 (operations).
  2. ^ Thomas Powers, The Man who kept the Secrets. Richard Helms and the CIA (New York: Knopf 1979) at 20-22.
  3. ^ Thomas Powers, The Man who kept the Secrets (New York: Knopf 1979) at 24.
  4. ^ Cf., John Ranelagh, "Central Intelligence Agency" at 122, in Oxford Companion to Politics of the World (2d ed., 2001), edited by Krieger.
  5. ^ In Latin America the CIA became more resented than the Marines. Powers, The Man who kept the Secrets (1979) at 93, 97, 99, 100.
  6. ^ Powers, The Man who kept the Secrets (1979) at 107-109 (U-2); 110 (DDP); 111, 112-113; 134 (resignation).
  7. ^ Powers, The Man who kept the Secrets (1979) at 121-126.
  8. ^ Powers, The Man who kept the Secrets (1979) at 187-188.
  9. ^ Powers, The Man who kept the Secrets (1979) at 198-200 (CIA reports), 203 (Helm's own views); 204-206 (Meo, Montagnard, and other forces); 209-212 (politics).
  10. ^ John Ranelagh, "Central Intelligence Agency" at 122, in The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World (2d ed., 2001).
  11. ^ a b c d e f Stansfield Turner, Burn Before Reading (New York: Hyperion 2005).
  12. ^ Powers writes that the CIA at one point estimated enemy strength at 500,000, while the military insisted it was only 270,000. No amount of discussion could resolve the difference. Eventually, in September 1967, the CIA under Helms went along with the military's lower number for the Vietnamese Communist combat strength. Powers, The Man who kept the Secrets (1979) at 213-216.
  13. ^ Powers, The Man who kept the Secrets (1979) at 202.
  14. ^ See USS Liberty (AGTR-5), the National Security Agency ship destroyed by Israel during the conflict.
  15. ^ "CIA OKs MK-ULTRA Mind-Control Tests". Wired. April 13, 1953.
  16. ^ Powers, The Man who kept the Secrets (1979) at 124.
  17. ^ Cf., Paul W. Drake, "Chile" at 126-128, in The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World (2d ed., 2001), edited by Joel Krieger.
  18. ^ Powers, The Man who kept the Secrets (1979) at 347-353.
  19. ^ Nixon White House Tapes January 1973, Nixon Presidential Library & Museum, released on 23 Jun 2009.
  20. ^ Powers, The Man who kept the Secrets (1979) at 18-20.
  21. ^ How a letter on Hitler's stationery, written to a boy in Jersey, reached the CIA - The Washington Post

Further reading

  • Richard Helms with William Hood. A Look over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency. New York: Random House, 2003.
  • Thomas Powers, The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.
  • Richard Helms as Director of the CIA (PDF)—Created by the CIA's History Staff, this 230 page book was released by the CIA in 2006. It offers an in-depth and detailed look into the life and operations of Richard Helms.

See also

External links

Government offices
Preceded by
Vice Adm. William Raborn
Director of Central Intelligence
June 30, 1966 – February 02, 1973
Succeeded by
James R. Schlesinger

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