Your father is a murderer
Was he? Or did William Colby act for what he saw as the highest good for America and the the world? Are the two mutually exclusive? Can we ever really know our families? These questions and more are at the center of The Man Nobody Knew, a portrait of William Colby, by his son and Emmy-award winning director, Carl Colby, our guest tonight.
William Colby oversaw some the United States most intense intelligence and counter insurgency efforts of the last century, including a secret collaboration with the Vatican to defeat the Communist Party in Italy in the late 50s, buildup to the Vietnam War, and the controversial Phoenix Program which sanctioned the killing of thousands of suspected Viet Cong. And as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1973 to 1975, he testified 56 times before Congress, most notably before the Church Committee about CIA actions which may have fallen outside the agency’s charter, a report called the Family Jewels.
William Colby was also a family man, a devout Catholic in the mold of Ignatius Loyola, father of five children. In his film The Man Nobody Knew, Carl Colby paints as intimate a picture as possible of his father, a man whom Carl saw cry only twice: When his daughter died of epilepsy and anorexia, and when Viet Nam fell.
Colby began his career in the Army serving with the Office of Strategic Services as a Jedburgh–a special operator trained to work with resistance forces in occupied Europe to harass German and Axis forces–and earned two silver stars. He was recruited into the CIA after a stint at the National Labor Relations Board, and eventually assigned to Rome where ostensibly he was a State Department employee. Family picnics were used as cover to meet with operatives; before going out for an evening, Mrs. Colby would ask her husband
Who are we tonight?
In 1959, Colby was made the CIA’s Deputy Chief, and then, Chief of Station in Saigon, moving his family with him. In Saigon they became close friends with President Diem’s family and with Ngo Dinh Nhu, the president’s brother, before returning to Washington in 1962 as Deputy, and then becoming Chief, of the CIA’s Far East Division. While in Viet Nam, Colby laid the groundwork for the counter insurgency, arguing that, “the key to the war in Vietnam was the war in the villages.” When sent back to Viet Nam by President Lyndon Johnson, Colby developed the controversial Phoenix Program which allegedly led to the torture and assassination of suspected Viet Cong sympathizers. Colby insisted those practices were not CIA program policy. Colby would later go on record saying the use of torture was ineffective.
Colby was appointed Executive Director of the CIA in 1971 under Richard Helms, who was dismissed by President Nixon in 1973 after the CIA refused to take the fall for Watergate; Colby assumed the leadership role as Director of Central Intelligence, spending much of his time testifying before Congress in what he saw as an attempt to save the agency through openness. President Ford saw differently and replaced Colby with George H.W. Bush.
Leaving the agency did not bring Colby closer to his family. Rather, after hanging up his trench coat, he divorced his wife and married a younger woman. He drowned in a boating accident in 1996.
In The Man Nobody Knew, Carl Colby traces his father’s life using never before seen photos and film clips as well as interviews with intelligence insiders, journalists and his mother, who emerges as the heroine of the film, a beautiful, bright woman who stood by her husband, creating a family life, raising five children, a woman who was called
the most loyal CIA wife ever
by CIA counter-intelligence officer, James Jesus Angleton. Her descriptions of their courtship and marriage reveal strength and grace.
The Man Nobody Knew shows the deep complex side of a man who loved his country and believed in its highest good, who revealed secrets in order to save it, and who put his duty to it before all else. Even his family. In his poignant narration, Carl asks
Were we just a cover?