Spycraft as Thespianage

Moral ambiguity is the none-too-subtle point of two new movies about the creation of Pax Americana after World War II. In "The Good German," an antihero war correspondent (played by George Clooney) is caught up in a tangle of lies as the Americans cover up the war crimes of a Nazi rocket scientist. In "The Good Shepherd," a once pure Yale boy loses his soul by becoming a spymaster for the CIA. Both movies aim to evoke the dark trade-offs of empire building. They seek to capture the existential gloom of true believers who must do wicked things in a righteous cause. They may even make you nostalgic for an era when U.S. intelligence officers seemed to know what they were doing.

But for all their faithful attention to period detail, the two films miss an essential point. The early days of the cold war--at least for those Ivy Leaguers who held top jobs at State and CIA--were not dire with dread and anguish. For many of those Ivy League spies, the time was heady, even giddy. The work was a little dangerous at times, but exciting. Fun. McGeorge Bundy, President John F. Kennedy's national-security adviser, once said of the Groton and Yale boys who ran the CIA's covert-operations arm, the Directorate of Plans (also known as the Department of Dirty Tricks), "They had a marvelous time." The high-society spooks were mischievous, cocky risk-takers with a cheeky sense of humor. Among the plans cooked up in the early 1950s was one (never carried out) to parachute large-size condoms marked medium into Soviet-bloc countries, to convince the local women of the virility of American males.

In the opening scenes of "The Good Shepherd," the hero (played by Matt Damon) is initiated into Skull and Bones, Yale's iconic secret society, by lowering himself naked into a coffin to confess his deepest secrets. This bizarre ceremony may indeed be the initiation ritual at Skull and Bones, but the real head of the CIA's covert-action arm, Richard Bissell, refused to join the group, which he ridiculed as too self-important and full of "mumbo jumbo." The climax of "The Good Shepherd" is the CIA's abortive invasion of Cuba in April 1961 at the Bay of Pigs. In the movie, the plot fails because of a betrayal. In reality, the invasion failed because it was a harebrained scheme. The sad truth is that the old CIA hands were charming and patriotic, but not very adept at the dark arts of sleuthing, blackmail and assassination. American hegemony was achieved in spite of the tricks and antics of the early cold-war spymasters.

"The Good German" is on firmer historical ground. It is true that the United States conveniently overlooked the war crimes of Nazis whom it needed to recruit as spies or scientists to fight the next enemy, the Soviet Union. And there were plenty of cynical war profiteers, like the loathsome black-marketeering corporal played by Tobey McGuire. But that film, too, misses an important, larger truth. What really worked to stop the Russians from swallowing up Western Europe was not the spy-vs.-spy games in the alleys of Berlin. Rather, it was the massive economic aid of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe in the late 1940s. American idealism and generosity, not cynical manipulations, thwarted Soviet communism. America won the cold war in part because it did not fight an all-out war; what succeeded in the long run was not skullduggery or military intervention but patience and diplomacy, backed by realism and strength. If only the Bush administration had remembered that history lesson before it plunged into Iraq.