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.
The Debrief: Behind the Artifact - Helms Letter
The CIA museum has never taken an official poll to find out our workforce’s favorite artifact. But if we did, this letter written by future director Helms would probably be high on the list. It speaks to our mission ridding the world of evil and the sacrifices our officers make every day in that endeavor.
Richard Helms was in the Office of Strategic Services, and during the war, his missions took him all over Europe. While fighting the war, he found this piece of Hitler’s personal stationery. He stopped and wrote this eloquent note to his young son, commemorating Victory in Europe Day and explaining why he had been gone so long.
He wrote: Dear Dennis, the man who might have written on this card once controlled Europe three short years ago when you were born. Today he is dead. His memory despised, his country in ruins. He had a thirst for power, a low opinion of man as an individual, and a fear of intellectual honesty. He was a force of evil in the world, his passing, his defeat a boon to mankind. But thousands died that it might be so. The price of ridding society of bad is always high. Love, Daddy.
The price of ridding the world of evil or bad is always high. And here at CIA, there’s no more poignant reminder of that price than the stars on our memorial wall. Each of those officers was a part of ridding the world of evil and making this country safer. And just like Director Helms, they often would go out on dangerous missions, leaving behind their families, sometimes young children, with the hopes of making their lives safer and their future brighter.
The CIA Museum received this letter as a donation from the Helms family on the day this organization helped bring Osama Bin Ladin to justice, ridding the world of another great evil.
Richard M. Helms: Building the Tradecraft