... enthralling ... takes its title from Greene’s classic — and shares much of its disillusionment ... Lying and stealing and invading, it should be said, make for captivating reading, especially in the hands of a storyteller as skilled as Anderson. All the characters of The Quiet Americans could have stepped from a film set — and some of them actually had ... for all their ill-advised or bungled covert ops — which included coups from Tehran to Guatemala City — it is impossible not to be a little swept up in the spectacle of this bygone era when intrepid individuals actually shaped history, even if it was often for the worse ... Some of the people in this book will be familiar to students of C.I.A. and Cold War history. The story of Wisner, the head of the early intelligence apparatus’s covert action arm, has been well told many times before. Anderson is at his best, however, when he plows fresh ground ... Anderson’s book is a period piece, covering the years 1944 to 1956 — but the climate of fear and intolerance that it describes in Washington also feels uncomfortably timely ... Anderson’s critique raises the question: If not Eisenhower’s particular brand of containment, then what? Most of the time the book leaves this unanswered ... Greene liked to quote Chekhov’s aphorism that a writer is 'not a confectioner, not a cosmetician, not an entertainer.' Anderson’s narrative is certainly entertaining, but he is no confectioner, and the dark, poignant tale he tells is far the better for it.
The Quiet Americans focuses on the lives of four engaging and adventure-seeking men, using the techniques of collective biography to tell a story at once sweeping in its scope and fascinating in its particulars ... The four-character structure seems to be especially appealing to chroniclers of the early CIA ... Anderson enjoys his characters and brings the reader in on their jokes ... Anderson is sympathetic to...the perceived need for expanded intelligence capabilities and the worries about what they might mean for democratic values ... A skillful and engaging writer, he manages to provide efficient historical context for these local-but-global situations, each one hopelessly complex in its own right, with its own combination of factional and territorial and cultural disputes. What ties them all together is the problem at the heart of the book: how the United States came to see its national interest at stake nearly everywhere in the world.
...what situates his book in the wave of CIA revisionism is his contention that the agency’s operations branch was not full of cowboys and adventurers willing to throw any kind of spaghetti at the wall but was rather led by agents and administrators who were, for the most part, cautious and judicious, dubious about the cockamamie schemes proposed to them by people who would never have to get their own hands dirty ... this wave of scholarly and popular revisionism about the agency is welcome, particularly in dispelling simplistic or conspiratorial thinking. But it may run the risk of glossing over the magnitude of the political, economic, and human tragedies the CIA caused or exacerbated. More importantly, this makeover leaves us vulnerable to future adventurism and blunders from an agency with an appalling track record ... Anderson calls his book a tragedy in three acts, and it gets positively cinematic near the end, as the scenes get shorter, turning into jump cuts. It’s undeniably well-told and vivid, and the personal reflections of people like Sichel give it a granular, first-person quality lacking in other critical histories of the agency, without turning it into a pro-CIA screed.
... skillful and fascinating ... Reading The Quiet Americans often feels like listening to an old military or journalistic pal sharing war stories over drinks. But the book’s tone tilts toward moral fervor in its later chapters when Mr. Anderson excoriates some of the Cold War strategies and tactics of the Washington officials who gave his spooks their marching orders ... Mr. Anderson plays out [the CIA's] secret drama along with a deft narrative of the early Cold War—the Berlin blockade, Stalin’s death and Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of his crimes, the Korean War, the Hungarian Revolution and the introduction of American 'advisers' to Vietnam. The author’s protagonists are straight from Central Casting for a World War II movie ... grim history ... for all Mr. Anderson’s righteous indignation, his 'Quiet Americans' and their successors won the Cold War after all.
Not only does the book illuminate a twisting, terrifying narrative, but it also forces lovers of the spy genre to come to terms with how many countries the CIA has destabilized and how many lives were ruined as a result ... Following along can be difficult. Instead of focusing on each of his four spies individually for long periods, Anderson decides to splice their stories into short chapters for chronological effect ... These jumps have a drawback: the characters can be hard to trace inside the crowds. This isn’t to say that the large supporting cast isn’t worthy, but throughout The Quiet Americans you have to submit yourself to not fully understanding the four protagonists’ journeys. Similar epics, such as The Cold War: A World History, offer the same problem — too much happened in the Cold War to be easily contained in a linear form ... There’s a thrilling history of these programs throughout The Quiet Americans, but also a sadness. Between its covers, past all of the glitz, explosions, and sudden appearances of kooky characters and celebrities, there are four dedicated spies whose ability was squandered on international disasters ...
Anderson offers vivid on-the-ground accounts of the CIA’s infancy and growth, particularly in Berlin ... If the point is to illustrate the human architecture of the Cold War’s beginnings, however, the book doesn’t leave us with an indelible profile of these men. They may be the manifestations of the changing, more secretive nature of executive power in Washington, but not all of all these characters carry the weight of events over the course of the book ... notwithstanding some good insights and the author’s flair for storytelling, the book has few major revelations, either historic or psychological. Nor is it quite the reckoning with US decision-making that it purports to be. Even as he explores some of the political and financial incentives in Washington to keep conflicts burning, what Anderson doesn’t confront is the expansionism at the heart of US foreign policy, present long before the Iron Curtain came down in Europe ... This is not to say that Anderson should have aligned himself with those who reduce American motives to oil. But what is missing here is a candid acknowledgment that the United States, taking its cue from Britain and believing Mossadegh too unstable, took it upon itself to shape or dictate the political order of a much weaker state, in a region vital to US economic interests.
Anderson delivers a complex, massively scaled narrative, balancing prodigious research with riveting storytelling skills ... Though all four men began their careers with the strong desire to defend American freedom, the author engagingly demonstrates how their efforts were undermined by politically motivated power grabs within the U.S. government; poorly planned covert operations; and duplicitous scheming by the likes of J. Edgar Hoover and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who were espousing anti-communist rhetoric to advance their own careers ... Over the course of the narrative, the author amply shows how the CIA was increasingly pushed to function as an instrument of politically charged ambitions ... An engrossing history of the early days of the CIA.