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"Nothing if Not Eventful" A Life's Journey in CIA

By Thomas L. Ahern, Jr.

Preface and Contents

Having published his rendering of Bill Lair's experience as a CIA officer stationed in Thailand for about twenty years, Thomas L. Ahern, Jr., has written his own memoir of nearly 70 years of service with CIA, as a staff officer and contract historian. 

Tom's Dedication and Preface  

To my nuclear family—my late wife and companion of 52 years Gisela, our daughter, Christine, and her two children, who have always stood with me through trying times—and my “company” family, which shaped this collection of memories. And in loving remembrance of my twin sister, Betty, who passed away just before this book was published.


It was not long after my retirement from the agency, but well into my second career, as an agency historian, that I began to hear suggestions—in a few cases, urging—that I write a memoir of my career as an operations officer. No two careers in operations are identical, of course, but that doesn’t mean that all of them merit being recorded for posterity.

Although mine was certainly more varied than the average, I wasn’t persuaded that it offered the variety, in perspective as well as substance, that a potential reader deserves. And then there was the problem of balancing an account intended for a varied readership of colleagues, family, and friends. Family and friends may have a limited appetite for ruminations about agency culture, while colleagues may find in them the main justification for the entire enterprise.

It is only now, after thirty-five years in the Directorate of Operations and a full thirty more doing history, that I presume to offer a summary of what I saw and what I think I learned. My conclusions are, of course, influenced by my idiosyncrasies as an observer. I want to make these as clear to the reader as I can, and that is part of the reason for attention to phases of my life unrelated to service with the agency. And just by itself, longevity offers opportunities for understanding, and I hope to have taken some advantage of them.

Download PDF of complete memoir (192 pages)

Those wishing to read the book selectively or in smaller parts—or simply preview the contents—may peruse the list below and download PDFs of three sections.

Part I: Foreword through Chapter Three


Initialisms and Acronyms


Chapter One: From Childhood to CIA Comes Calling in 1954

My upbringing in a Catholic household in the 1930s and 1940s had been entirely conventional. I had a devoted, loving mother and an intermittently affectionate, fiercely impatient, and always generous father. 

Chapter Two: Introduction to the Clandestine Service, 1956  

I still remember the thrilling sense of being part of a crusade as I began the mundane task of typing my first dispatch to Tokyo. It was only something to do with the bureaucratic mechanics of managing an agent but enough to make me feel part of a grand enterprise

Chapter Three: Apprenticeship in Post-Occupation Japan, 1957–59

The station’s covert programs were all “hearts and minds,” with no dirty tricks, even against the Japan Communist Party. Japan was now a firm ally against the communist monolith, and our mission was to help keep it that way. 

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Part II: Southeast Asia, Africa, Philippines, and War College

Chapter Four: Into Laos and the Paramilitary World, 1960–62

We were thus free to pursue the strategic concept behind the expansion of the Hmong resistance: Proceed to encircle the Plain of Jars with Hmong volunteers and the FAR units under Vang Pao’s territorial command with a view toward preventing Hanoi from driving the Hmong out of the northeast and threatening the Mekong Valley.

Chapter Five: “Saving” South Vietnam, 1963–65

I had gone to Vientiane at a time of growing demand for personnel, and my tour there was ending when similar, but even larger, needs were developing in South Vietnam. The Viet Cong insurgency was beginning to threaten the Government of Vietnam (GVN), and CIA officers with relevant experience were in short supply.

Chapter Six: A New Partnership—and Solo Tour in Africa, 1965

My father’s precarious health had kept the family from coming to Offenbach for the wedding, and I was happy to see what looked like his instant bonding with Gisela [in Wisconsin]. I wasn’t surprised, however, as I had already seen her gift for effortless empathy with people of varying origins, and it held true with my family as well. 

Chapter Seven: Respite in the Philippines, 1966–69

As I prepared to move to the Philippines, no one mentioned limitations on the potential of military civic action or the effectiveness of our participation in it. . . .  Given CIA’s practice of delegating the design of field work to its field operatives, I would be on my own to shape its development.

Chapter Eight: Back to Southeast Asia, 1970–72

Bill Nelson, chief of FE Division, was reported to have called Phnom Penh the best of all his stations. It was certainly the best I ever worked in; not even Laos, perhaps because of its much larger staff, matched its harmony and efficiency.

Chapter Nine: JOTP, West Africa, National War College, 1973–79 

Nothing, it seemed to me then, could have been further from the operationally oriented work so prized in the DO culture and by me personally [than involvement with JOTP].. . . To my considerable surprise, the job developed into a challenging and fruitful experience that kept me absorbed for the next two-and-a-half years.

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Part III: Iran to Reflections in Retrospect

Chapter Ten: Iran, A Protracted Stay, 1979–81

Iran had undergone major changes in the years since 1941. . . proceeding in a way that threatened the position of the one potentially competing power center, the Shia Muslim clergy.

Chapter Eleven: More Forays into Personnel Management, 1981–84 

John Stein, still ADDO, was generous with his attention to my future. While my next assignment was still open, he would often drop by the house on his way to work to give me a little pep talk and sound me out on my thinking about the future.

Chapter Twelve: Europe1985–88

We had originally expected a more tranquil life in this posting than we’d known in Indochina and Africa, but, as already noted, terrorist campaigns were in full swing well before we got there. 

Chapter Thirteen: A Look into the Rearview Mirror

My long exposure as an operations officer and experience with the evolution of DO management practices left me optimistic about CIA’s capacity to meet the complex challenges, ranging from terrorism to the digital revolution, of the 21st century.

Bibliography of Thomas L. Ahern, Jr. Unclassified Works

Download PDF of Part III (49 pages)

Download PDF of complete memoir (192 pages)