As Americans celebrated victory in Europe in May 1945, Office of Strategic Services (OSS) officer Richard Helms wrote this touching and eloquent letter to his young son on a captured sheet of Adolf Hitler’s personal stationery. Helms’s words captured the meaning of the war, not only for OSS but for many others who had fought against Hitler. Helms would later become Director of Central Intelligence.
Richard Helms was a natural-born intelligence officer. Throughout his life he was the soul of professionalism and discretion. An Easterner with an impeccable resume, he worked as a journalist in Berlin in the 1930s, saw Jesse Owens win the 200-yard dash at the 1936 Olympics, and chatted with Hitler.
After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the Navy, served in New York, and got pitched by an OSS officer who said that he was “a natural” for “black propaganda.” Accepting the pitch meant starting on a long career in intelligence, mostly in the field of espionage rather than “black propaganda.” Helms received only two weeks of training before being assigned to coordinate intelligence on Germany, which mostly meant handling the stream of reporting from the OSS Station in Bern.
In early 1945, he found his way overseas to London, where he worked for (and shared an apartment with) another future Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), William J. Casey. One of his most memorable tasks was to prepare young men to parachute into Germany to gather intelligence. He ended his OSS service in Berlin, where he ultimately replaced yet another future DCI, Allen W. Dulles, as Base Chief. It was, he remembered, a chaotic time of working against former Nazis as well as keeping an eye on the emerging threat from the Soviets. Helms’s assignment in Berlin was the first of a series of senior management positions that would eventually propel him to the top of CIA in 1966.
His service as DCI was marked by controversy. It did not help that he worked for two Presidents who were suspicious of CIA. Many in the Johnson Administration considered CIA analysis on Viet Nam to be too pessimistic, and Helms walked a fine line between serving the President and defending analytic integrity. During the Nixon Administration, Helms became embroiled in countering the left-wing takeover of Chile and had to fend off White House pressure for CIA to help quash the Watergate investigation. By the end of 1973, President Nixon had had enough of Helms and asked him to resign. He refused, but eventually accepted the President’s proposal to appoint him Ambassador to Iran, his last senior Government post.