John Hadden’s Conversations with a Masked Man: My Father, the CIA, and Me has just been published by Arcade. I have known John since before the book’s inception and have, over the years, followed its process with great interest – not least because I, like its author, am a child of the Cold War, an era that feels ever more like a fantastical literary creation.
Beyond our generational commonality, my nose told me early on that the book that became Conversations would be an important work, bridging epochs of political and cultural awareness, and also contributing to the stream of writing that seeks to unpack the relationship between an all-too “interesting” parent and an awestruck and often mystified son or daughter. Reading Conversations in print at last has confirmed my sense that something of nearly universal value inheres in its pages, a quality I can best describe as the dance between divergence, separation, implication and alienation, and the cat’s cradle of personal and political identity. I was delighted to have had a conversation with John recently.
ED: Your book is a real hybrid: biography, memoir, history, investigative journalism, spy thriller – the common aspect being that its particulars are folded into a work of literature. Tell us something of how the book evolved both formally and in relation to your own experience.
JH: The project began one day in 2002. I wrote to my father, whose professional career had been with the CIA in Israel and West Berlin among other places, to ask if he would let me interview him on tape for a possible book. He wrote back right away and said he would. It was by far the most straightforward transaction we ever conducted.
But my questions, hounding him for answers, go back as far as I can remember. Why did I think he had the answers? Why was I so full of questions?
ED: As a member of a very discrete and discreet tribe, would you say that, at bottom, your father was loyal to ideas, or to institutions? How did he navigate the demands of being at once a presumably selfless operative of an empire, and a person with very strong political sentiments of his own?
JH: I couldn’t figure out his loyalties. At times he was fiercely loyal to his country, or to his loved ones, but there were all these contradictions. He was unaccountably loyal to Richard Helms, his old boss at CIA. Helms’s own loyalties were also impossible to figure out. Helms refused to cover for Nixon’s Watergate burglary but he carried out some of the most heinous of the CIA operations, at Nixon’s behest – the 9/11 coup in Chile, for instance, and he stood up for my father’s arch-antagonist, James Jesus Angleton.
Angleton was head of counter-intelligence under a long line of directors. His longevity, my father said, was due to the fact that he had dirt on each of them, much as Hoover held onto his reign at FBI. Angleton’s biggest legacy was to tear the “company” apart looking for Soviet moles, when he himself was responsible for one of the great Cold War security breaches, passing on all operational secrets, year after year, to Kim Philby, a Soviet agent at the top of the British Secret Service, MI6 – and Angleton’s best friend and mentor. In any case, when push came to shove, as it did between Angleton and my father, my father was shoved.
So I think my father’s primary loyalty, since you use the word, was to his own idiosyncratic view of the world. It was perhaps the only thing he could trust. Is it weird, to be loyal to one’s own thoughts? But he was, and fanatically so. He would sacrifice his peace of mind, his family’s happiness, his career advancement, and even, sometimes, his own infallible logic, to his inner muse. It drove us all a little crazy. The worst part of it was that he was so often correct. Events were constantly proving him right. I suppose this pattern was worst of all for him. One, because his thoughts were so bleak, and two, because it was hard to break away. He was too often vindicated.
ED: For example?
JH: Well, he held that the Arab-Israeli conflict was one long, unremitting struggle whose roots are long forgotten in thousands of years of competing mythologies. No series of so-called wars – or negotiations – would enforce any kind of solution. He thought the best thing was to do nothing. Leave it alone and let them go on fighting at “a dull roar” from now till kingdom come. But no: we insisted, and continue to insist, on plunging our hands into the barrel of snakes, up to the elbows, arming one side to the teeth, then the other, to appease the first, and so on, to the point where the whole region has become a nuclear tinderbox waiting to go up in a conflagration of death and destruction. Those left behind would wish for the old Arab-Israeli problem back again. “The Sampson Option” is a phrase that has earned a kind of legitimacy. What option is that? Well, you know, Sampson, in the Bible, pushes apart the pillars of the city, toppling everything down upon his enemies and himself.
ED: So he was intimately involved, albeit covertly, in world events, but maintained his own kind of splendid isolation?
JH: I’d say so. A friend who read the book wrote that my father had “turned his back on the world.” It was a phrase that took me by surprise. It’s funny, I’ve been writing about this for more than ten years, and the story is something I’ve been telling all my life, and I’d never thought of him that way. But I think my friend was right. What would it be like to turn your back on the world? And still live in it? I can’t imagine.
There were things he believed in that seemed outdated to me. Marriage, Truman’s America, Virtue and Merit. There was a much longer list of things for which he felt contempt. Frank Sinatra and the Kennedy brothers’ strange entanglements with the Mafia and CIA assassination plots against Castro. Run by Helms, by the way. He disliked politicians even more than the “cowboys” running around in the CIA. He felt an overarching contempt for Commerce – but a slightly frightened respect for money.
How did he manage it? I think he had the luck to find out how dangerous his maverick impulses could be to his own survival. He pulled back behind a mask. He squeaked by, as he might have said. Having survived a couple of close calls, he became very careful.
ED: What has been your strategy for negotiating the overlaps and divergences between your father’s hermetic world within the CIA, and the fictional and not-so-fictional popular mythology of espionage?
JH: I’ve done a good deal of reading on spies of that period. The latest Kim Philby biography, Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends is told through the lens of a best friend he betrayed for many years. It feels more real than most of these exposées, which are a little predictable, decrying the deeds, but somehow worshipping the doers. My book is probably not much different in that regard, but at least my hero is utterly weird and unpredictable himself. And he speaks in the first person. Roughly half the book is in his voice. Or in my version of his voice. I’ve surely forgotten how much of it is verbatim.
Another task I’ve taken on is to watch the spy movies. My father loved the James Bond movies, and often took me to see them. He laughed uproariously, as I do now when I see spy action trailers. I went to the movies [Bridge of Spies] the other night to see Tom Hanks play an insurance broker who gets hired by Allen Dulles to settle the Cold War. There was some great footage invented by Spielberg, showing 1957 Berlin, just as the wall was going up. It seemed like something I recognized from my own memories, since I was there as a toddler more or less at that time. The spies running around in the cold were dressed just like my father, and had the same wry, existential grasp on the situation, with the full understanding that their survival was more a matter of luck than anything else.
My father also took me to Closely Watched Trains, a sex comedy about life under tyranny in Czechoslovakia, and to Yellow Submarine, both of which he adored. He thought both movies would help me see the dark light about the Soviet Union. Totalitarian bureaucrats and Blue Meanies, in his mind I suppose, were symbols of what we were fighting against, and I was supposed to get this obvious message since it came from the Beatles, and from a cool underground Czech. But I saw them both as counter-cultural and anti-establishment. Whether the establishment was capitalist or communist seemed less relevant to me.
But it seems quite possible to me now, looking back on the trail of breadcrumbs he left behind in his meanderings, that he was as anti-establishment as I am. I still wonder if he had some secret life as a double agent. He openly preferred spending time with his “opposite numbers” to hobnobbing with Americans. In fact, in all our time abroad, I can remember foreigners at our house at all odd times, but not a single American, unless for one of the perfunctory cocktail parties they threw in order to pass as diplomats. I remember an article in a Playboy he gave me, when I was about ten, that said that the only difference between members of capitalist and communist societies was that one was a willing slave of the state and the other was not. Willing, that is.
ED: Did your sense of the project change from inception to completion? And if so, how?
JH: At first my goal was to get all the answers, but somewhere along the way, I knew I wouldn’t get them. If I did, they would be suspect. I began to have a different perspective on answers per se. Since I couldn’t get them, maybe they weren’t all they were cracked up to be, maybe I didn’t need them. I’m like the fox and the grapes. They’re sour and not good for you. They’re not real anyway. No one has them. There’s no such thing.
But I did get something just as good, and I think this is where the story crests: that I didn’t need the answers in order to think of myself as real. And I began to enjoy the cadence of the things he said, as the character he’d built, combination fool/spy/tall-tale-teller. So that’s one arc I would describe: my own shift from wanting real answers I could revere, to enjoying the spectacle of his baroque variations on their own terms. In a way, he was an absurdist. Why he disliked the Absurdist movement, which he did intensely, begins to make sense. He was a natural absurdist, in an absurd framework, and spurned the easy, art world formulations.
ED: What, for you, constitute the other arcs, or themes in the book?
JH: Certainly the thickening of the corruption in the system is one. The Israeli atom bomb is another, and with it, all the other bombs, representing to me the nature of American masculinity. One of the principal qualities of American masculinity is its lack of subtlety. As is the bomb: phallic in the most blatant way. Capable of mindless destruction. Capable of pretending capability, when in fact, the American male in charge is in no way in charge of the events he has set in motion. Make ISIL. Now try to unmake it.
I think there’s a kind of joke that begins to rise to the surface. But don’t ask me what the joke is. I’m not sure it would still be funny to me if I could explain it.
ED: It’s an obvious question, but one that needs to be asked: how did the process of this book, the interviews and the writing, change your relationship with your father? Put another way, to what has writing this book given you access that might otherwise have gone unexamined, unthought or unknown?
JH: My father died a couple of years ago. That changed our relationship quite a lot, as it does. It freed me to publish, for one thing, which meant I had to rewrite the book he had asked me to keep undercover until he died. That process started our conversation all over again, but now the voices were in my head. It also forced me to look up all kinds of obscure historical references that peopled his imagination. Names that he casually dropped into his conversation by the dozen: Sherman, Clausewitz, Philby, Orwell, Dzerzhinski – an ant farm of characters, half of whom I didn’t recognize, and the other half I made assumptions about that were faulty.
For example, I knew Sherman was responsible for the scorched-earth march to Savannah during the Civil War – he was a kind of monster. But when I researched him more, he turned into a far more complex character. Orwell was a hero of the working class – but also contradictory – disillusioned, for instance, with leftists that he fought alongside of during the Spanish Civil War. Kim Philby, who grew up overseas, got a bad taste of the British Empire, and I sympathized with him on that basis, but looking into it, I found his treachery so perfect and complete, especially towards the women in his life, as to be almost inhuman. Clausewitz? Prussian philosopher of war, product of the Enlightenment. Dzerzhinski? Founder of the Soviet Red Terror, builder of orphanages.
ED: What are you thinking right now?
JH: I’m wondering if by being so absorbed in this project I have put off mourning for my father, and have put off difficult feelings about him in general.
He’s still here, it seems, as are the corrupt banks, the Israel lobby AIPAC, and the sellers of weaponry and of our principles. As are the monsters we have created. The empire is still going down, and he seems to be watching as keenly as ever. Maybe his beloved Gibbon, the chronicler of the decline of the Roman Empire, is with him, watching from two ringside seats. Since global malady was so much a part of my father’s thinking, and since it’s more present than ever, my father seems to be present himself.
ED: Give us some of his language, John.
JH: Life’s like that. Never trust anybody. Goddamn bastards. Bongo, bongo, bongo.