Rolando and Juan Pedro slid through the glass doors of the Montmartre in the early hours of Sunday morning, pistols in their pockets. A balmy breeze blew in from the Malecon esplanade outside. It was October 28, 1956. La Rampa, the street passing the white neon sign of the Havana cabaret, was thronged as the two men plunged into the glittering, purring, tinkling confines of what the guidebooks called “America’s most luxurious nightclub,” where the “the golden hours go by more smoothly.” They were looking for a man in a white linen suit.
Rolando, twenty-three years old, not quite six feet tall, had a petulant mouth and intense brown eyes a little small for his face.1 Juan Pedro was taller, broad-shouldered, and fair-skinned with frame glasses and a dark blue sports coat. They edged their way into the lounge. Ladies in gowns, necklaces glittering around bare throats, were talking to men in silk suits who lit cigarettes amid faux French furnishings, the air thick with cigar smoke, Spanish and English, jazz and cha cha cha. The duo passed under the raised hoofs of a massive white marble statue of a vaulting stallion ridden by a bare-breasted Joan of Arc. They searched for the cold visage of Esteban Ventura, captain of the Fifth Precinct of the Havana police, a man known for issuing orders to kill and torture with the blank chill of a bureaucrat. Ventura often gambled at the Montmartre, flanked by bodyguards. He wore only the finest English cloth.2
Sidling into the bar, Rolando recognized another leader of the regime, Colonel Antonio Blanco Rico, the chief of the Servicio Inteligencia de Militaria, SIM.3 He was sitting, in uniform, with two other officers and their wives, laughing and smoking as they talked about a friend’s twentieth wedding anniversary. Just thirty-six years old, Colonel Blanco Rico was already trusted by dictator Fulgencio Batista as well as by the Americans. After Vice President Richard Nixon visited Havana in February 1955, he sent Colonel Blanco Rico a letter of thanks.4
If Ventura didn’t show up, Blanco Rico would suit their purposes just as well. He was said to be the rare commander in Batista’s regime who did not resort to torture during interrogation.5 Nonetheless, the SIM had a reputation as one of the bloodiest of the government’s repressive organs.6 In the den of corruption, any henchman would serve as an exemplary target for patriotic Cuban youth.
* * *
Rolando Cubela was the son of a tailor in the town of Placetas in central Cuba. His parents sent him to a well-regarded private secondary school in Cárdenas, the port city eighty miles east of Havana.7 With his friend and classmate José Antonio Echeverría, he went on to the University of Havana, where they joined the Federación de Estudiantil Universitaria, or FEU, in 1950.8 Echeverría, an architecture student, soon gained a reputation for passionate eloquence in denouncing President Fulgencio Batista, who had taken power in a bloodless coup in March 1952.9 Elected president of the FEU in 1955, Echeverría and friends secretly formed the Directorio Revolucionario, a group of like-minded young men and women pledged to take armed action against the dictatorship that controlled the island.
Echeverría conceived a strategy of tyrannicide.10 The Directorio would lead a national rebellion by assassinating prominent figures in the government and working their way up to Batista himself. Echeverría’s only rival, in terms of energy and eloquence, was Fidel Castro, a tall, rangy lawyer who graduated from the gangster politics of the university to found the 26th of July movement, a coalition of leftist and labor groups that had also taken up arms against Batista.11
Why did these boys from good families turn into pistoleros? The University of Havana had long been a rough place, where an election for law school or business school representative to the FEU might be settled by a gun battle, because those positions usually led to real jobs in the government or business. Now, the government was just another racket controlled by the dictator, his accomplices, and his paymasters who owned the casinos and hotels sprouting up in Vedado, near the university campus. Chief among them was Meyer Lansky, a five-foot-four accountant from Brooklyn, known as “The Little Man.”
Lansky had come to Havana in the thirties while handling the finances of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the boss of New York City who unified disparate Italian crime syndicates into the loose-knit federation known as the Mafia.12 Batista, the son of a cane cutter, had emerged from a 1933 student-led revolution to become president. Lansky cut his new friend in on the revenue from his casino the Nacional, the grandest hotel on the Malecon. When Batista returned himself to power in 1952 the Little Man persuaded him to implement a new law that made casino licenses available for $25,000 and exempted hotels from paying corporate taxes. In return, Lansky’s courier delivered a suitcase groaning with greenbacks to the side door of the Presidential Palace every month.13
Lansky imported the classiest and sexiest American and European musical acts to the Montmartre. With the spread of commercial jet travel, tourists from North America and Europe started to stream into La Habana for the legal gambling and uninhibited nightlife. Yet not far from the opulent pleasure dome swarming with white North Americans was Las Yaguas, a sprawling district of rundown houses and open sewers. Thousands of poor people, many of African descent, lived in the filth of the solares, densely packed neighborhoods that the tourists never saw. The rich thrived while the middle class was throttled and the poor forgotten. Cuba had a proud past, a decadent present, and a humiliating future.
* * *
Colonel Blanco Rico and his friends paid their check and strolled to the elevators. Marta Poli de Tabernilla was talking to Colonel Blanco Rico as she pushed the down button. Looking over his shoulder, she was astonished to see two men extract pistols from their jackets, raise them, and aim. An explosion jolted the colonel in the back, near his upper right shoulder. Another shot punctured his lower back, a third quivered in his chest, a fourth thudded into his thigh. Senora Tabernilla’s vision went blank as panicky ladies careened into mirrors, thinking they offered escape from the gunfire.14
Colonel Blanco Rico, now crumpled on the plush carpet, looked up at Rolando and smiled. Perhaps the dying man understood why a young patriot would raise a pistol. Rolando stared. The colonel’s smile froze.15 Juan Pedro pulled at Rolando’s elbow. They tucked away their guns, ducked down the service stairs, burst out onto the cobblestones of Humboldt Street, and joined the stragglers heading home into the night.
Even as the shock of Colonel Blanco Rico’s killing subsided, nothing much changed. Batista’s men went on a killing spree of their own, gunning down ten students who had taken refuge in the Haitian Embassy. With the leaders of the Directorio in hiding and Fidel Castro criticizing the attack from exile,16 Batista had never been more secure in his power. The American ambassador paid a sympathetic visit to the Presidential Palace. The Little Man’s suitcase arrived punctually. Nat King Cole crooned at the Tropicana. The good life in Havana rolled on. The bloodshed of the regime no longer shocked. After the assassination at the Montmartre, the joke went around, “Que era mejor ser un negro pobre, que un blanco rico.” Better to be a poor Black man than Blanco Rico (a rich white man).17
A revolution was coming.
The vice president extended a limp paw. The CIA man shook it firmly. Richard Nixon knew the type, another snobbish Georgetown liberal, no doubt. Dick Helms introduced himself as the assistant deputy director, standing in for his boss, Frank Wisner, who was traveling in Europe. The two men sat in Nixon’s quiet office in the Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods, a trim redhead, toiled at a typewriter outside the office door.
Nixon and Helms were the same age, though Helms, two months younger, wore his forty-three years rather less anxiously. As Nixon digressed on the tragedy of Hungary, Helms flicked a match to light a Chesterfield. His smile did not always include his eyes.18
The news of December 1956 was dispiriting. The front-page headline in the morning Post shouted, “General Strike Grips Rebellious Hungary; Police, Crowds Clash.” Both men knew the U.S. response would be muted. Two months before, Hungarian student demonstrators attracted enough popular support to force the replacement of the widely despised first secretary of the Communist Party. The antigovernment crowds burgeoned, and Hungarian military units began turning on their Soviet comrades. The Hungarian communists, previously deferential to Moscow, turned over the government to Imre Nagy, a reformer in their ranks.
The dream of “rolling back” the Soviets’ postwar empire in Eastern Europe had animated the Agency ever since its founding nine years before. In the dumpy buildings along the Reflecting Pool that housed the clandestine service, “rollback” was more than mere aspiration—it was a mission, a way of life. Suddenly it seemed possible.
As the Hungarian uprising gained strength, Britain, France, and Israel seized the moment to launch a surprise attack on Egypt designed to oust nationalist president Gamal Abdel Nasser and replace him with someone more compliant to their interests. The aggressors laid their plans well, neglecting only to inform the retired general who lived in the White House. President Dwight Eisenhower, recovering from a heart attack and cruising to reelection, didn’t care for this colonialist adventure and refused to support it. The gambit collapsed, and Nasser emerged a hero to the non-aligned nations of the world.
Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, fearing the appearance of weakness in the face of Western aggression, sent elite Red Army combat forces into Budapest. With the Soviet Union’s massive superiority of forces in Central Europe, Eisenhower knew when to do nothing. The fighting continued for weeks, but the rebels were doomed. Tens of thousands of Hungarians fled the country. The dream of “rollback” died under the treads of the Red Army tanks.19
Nixon asked for the briefing because he was going to Austria, a pilgrimage of penance. He had questions for the CIA. With Wisner frantically touring Europe, Helms was delegated to answer the vice president’s questions. How many refugees were there? Where were they staying? How many would other countries take? As Helms replied, Nixon took notes on a yellow legal pad.
* * *
The two men had little in common. Nixon, the son of an ineffectual grocer father and a Quaker mother, grew up attending public school in a small town in southern California. Helms, the son of a district manager for the Aluminum Company of America, grew up on Philadelphia’s Main Line and went to Le Rosey, a boarding school in Switzerland.20 They both felt the effects of the Great Depression, albeit in very different ways.
Helms’s father lost his job and Helms had to finish his secondary education at a public high school in Germany. Nixon went to hometown Whittier College, while Helms matriculated at Williams, a selective liberal arts college in western Massachusetts. Nixon, weighing all of 150 pounds, went out for the football team and rode the bench. Helms, standing six foot two, already fluent in French and German, was a big man on the Williams campus, as editor of the college newspaper. With his excellent grades, Nixon was admitted to Harvard Law School but didn’t have the money to pay for it. He settled for Duke.
Helms, on the strength of his father’s connections, landed a job straight out of college as a foreign correspondent for the United Press wire service in Germany. While Nixon was grinding through his law books, Helms was reporting on Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Helms returned to America and settled in Indianapolis, where he planned to pursue his ambition to become a newspaper publisher. He married Julia Shields, a wealthy divorcée with two children. Nixon settled in Whittier, married his college sweetheart Pat Ryan, and started practicing law.
The two men shared wartime service in the navy. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the lanky Helms signed up for the naval reserves and wound up plotting the position of Allied ships dodging German submarine attacks. In 1943 his language skills won him a transfer to the Office of Strategic Services, America’s newly created wartime intelligence service. He was sent to OSS training school, where he learned to handle a lockpick, tune a shortwave radio, and thrust a bayonet. In May 1945, he was assigned to Germany where his supervisor was Allen W. Dulles, an amoral, pipe-smoking Wall Street lawyer who had spent the war in Switzerland running agents in the business elite of Europe and plotting with “good Germans” to overthrow Hitler.
The pugnacious Nixon did a none-too-hazardous stint in the South Pacific where he played endless poker and lightened the wallets of his fellow servicemen. Duty in wartime made for a good talking point when he returned stateside and ran for U.S. Congress in Orange County, California, in 1946. Helms’s dull dream of becoming a publisher evaporated in the OSS. “Very early in my career,” he later wrote, “I realized that secret intelligence is not for the fainthearted. From the mortal peril of organizing resistance and stealing secrets in police states, to dealing with one’s own government, secret intelligence can be a lethal version of a rugged contact sport.”21 It was a game he loved.
When the war was over, both men had a calling. Southern California Republican voters liked Nixon’s earnest manner and slashing style, electing him to Congress twice and then the U.S. Senate in 1950. In 1952, Republican nominee Eisenhower heeded pressure from the party’s conservatives and named Nixon as his vice presidential running mate. By then Helms was running the foreign intelligence desk of the newly created CIA. Allen Dulles, now director of the Agency, appreciated his discretion and efficiency. No one doubted his ambition. During a CIA background check, a college classmate predicted Helms would one day become secretary of state, which wasn’t far wrong.22
Both knew the clandestine ways of powerful men. When Roger Hollis, chief of Britain’s MI5 domestic intelligence service, paid a visit to Washington in 1956, Helms took him around to his meetings. To make small talk, he asked, “Who’s this writer Ian Fleming?” The former British intelligence officer had recently published a novel, Live and Let Die, about a secret agent named James Bond. “Don’t know,” shrugged Hollis, a self-regarding intellectual. A few days later, Helms read that Prime Minister Anthony Eden had flown to Jamaica to spend some time at Fleming’s Goldeneye beach house. As chief of MI5, Hollis had to approve the security arrangements wherever the British prime minister went. “Hollis must have cleared the prime minister to stay with Fleming,” Helms deduced. “Hell,” he thought. “The man lied.”23
Nixon too was getting a taste for covert action. When President Eisenhower and executives of the Seven Sisters, the seven largest oil companies in America, grew concerned in 1954 that Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis was on the verge of gaining a monopoly on oil shipments from Saudi Arabia, Nixon led a CIA-organized initiative to block him. The Agency contracted with a former FBI agent turned public relations man named Robert Maheu to discredit Onassis in the press, antagonize his partners, and disrupt his incipient monopoly.
Maheu swaggered with American style. He dressed like a French banker and consorted with crime bosses. As a brash young FBI agent, he impressd J. Edgar Hoover until he went into business for himself. With a monthly retainer from the CIA, his firm of Robert A. Maheu and Associates offered “private investigations,” meaning a host of shadowy services ranging from procuring women to wiretapping to, as some alleged, murder.
Two years before Nixon had summoned Maheu to the same office where he and Helms now sat. “I know you’ll be careful,” Nixon said, “but you have to understand that while this is a national security mission of terrific importance, we can’t acknowledge you in any way if anything should go wrong.” Maheu knew the realities of his trade and went to work. Onassis soon found himself plagued with lawsuits, negative newspaper stories and charges of bribery, which led the Saudis to cancel his contract.24 A spook with solid gold cuff links, Bob Maheu had a knack for blackmail that would bedevil Nixon and Helms for a decade.25
Both Nixon and Helms had absorbed the lesson that the path to the top begins with serving the needs of the boss. As Nixon served President Eisenhower and the White House, so Helms served Director Allen Dulles and the Agency. Helms left the meeting in December 1956 thinking the vice president did his homework but lacked charm.26 Nixon forgot about Helms altogether.
Havana beckoned. “It was a rip-roaring city—a Mafia-riddled, spy-infested, booze-addled, women-crazy city with the world’s best night-life,” said Everette Howard Hunt, a brash OSS veteran who worked in the CIA’s Directorate of Plans. Hunt sauntered into the Cuban capital over New Year’s 1957 for the annual conference of Western Hemisphere station chiefs. It was there in fervid Havana that his enduring friendship with Dick Helms began.
Like Helms, Hunt had the erudition of an Ivy League education but lacked the ineffable gloss of old money that elevated the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton men who dominated the Agency. Hunt came from the town of Hamburg in upstate New York with a chip on his shoulder. He graduated from Brown, went into the navy and then OSS training camp, where he received training in martial arts, knives, lockpicks, and cryptology. He was deployed to Yenan province in China, where he boasted of “dynamiting convoys and bridges, infiltrating agents into coastal cities and recovering and returning Allied pilots shot down on the mainland.”27 Action was his instinct.
Yet his ambition was literary. When the war ended, Hunt shunned intelligence work for the writing life. In 1948 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship, much to the envy of two young novelists named Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, whose applications were turned down.28 When he couldn’t make a living as a screenwriter in Hollywood, Hunt took a job in the Economic Cooperation Administration, which administered Secretary of State George Marshall’s plan for rebuilding Europe. In the office, he noticed an attractive woman with dark hair and high cheekbones. He asked her out on a date. Dorothy Wetzel de Goutiere was in the process of divorcing her dissolute husband. Hunt found her witty, sexy, intelligent and conservative in her politics. They were proud to call themselves the only non-leftists in the Marshall Plan office. They made plans to meet again in Paris where he was assigned to work. When Dorothy’s divorce came through, they married.
In 1950, Hunt jumped to the Central Intelligence Agency. He volunteered to open the Agency’s first station in Mexico City, where he hired young William F. Buckley, a recent Yale graduate and the author of a best-selling polemic about his alma mater. Buckley was precocious, frightfully articulate, and often oblivious to the dandruff on his shoulders. Buckley absorbed the basics of espionage, while Hunt ran the station. He funded anticommunist front organizations, recruited local journalists, burglarized the Guatemalan Embassy, and infiltrated the Communist Party of Mexico. Hunt and Buckley bonded over secret intelligence work and became friends (and correspondents) for the rest of their lives.
Hunt proved an imaginative Cold Warrior. He surreptitiously obtained the film rights to Animal Farm, George Orwell’s parable about the dangers of totalitarian government, and produced an animated version “carefully tweaked to heighten the anti-Communist message,” he said.29 Four years later, the film was a critical and box office success, and virtually no one knew it was a CIA production. Dick Helms, now serving as Frank Wisner’s chief of operations for the Directorate of Plans, took note of Hunt’s creativity.
Copyright © 2022 by Jefferson Morley