Life is a mystery when dad is 'classified top secret'

August 14, 2005|By Robert Little | Robert Little,Sun Staff



By John H. Richardson. HarperCollins. 336 pages.

A memoir written by a son intent on unraveling his father's mysteries is hardly the obvious formula for an engaging read, even if the son did spend much of his life despising the old man.

But then most people's fathers were not CIA spies, who mingled and whispered with striped-suited dignitaries in the world's hot spots and struggled to undermine communism throughout the Cold War.

And just as important, other family histories don't have the benefit of John H. Richardson, a writer-at-large for Esquire magazine, whose new book My Father the Spy explores the extraordinary and flawed life of his father with the obsessive honesty of a reporter, if not a son.

Part biography, My Father the Spy tells the story of John Richardson Sr., a tough-minded CIA career man with a fondness for quoting Marcus Aurelius. From his early days recruiting Soviet spies in Vienna, to later postings in places such as Greece, the Philippines and South Korea, Richardson the Spy dabbled in some of the nation's monumental struggles of ideology during the last half century.

His story has just enough secretive, sometimes dangerous spy-craft to keep it interesting, whether he's paying off Soviet informants or quietly underwriting or undermining a foreign election. But as the title makes clear, the book is about a father as well as a spy, and it portrays a life that also contends with details like moving to strange cities, raising unruly children, conforming to the changing politics in Washington and other less than glamorous particulars of life.

It is in these asides that the book becomes as much a biography of the father as an autobiography of the son, whose turbulent childhood abroad with an American "diplomat" gave root to a bitterness that made him despise his father through much of the 1960s.

The spectacular clashes of the two Richardsons -- the martini-drinking cold warrior vs. his defiant, pot-smoking hippie son -- often seem to speak as much to the era as the geopolitical clashes do. And they paint a refreshingly human portrait of a man whose life could easily have been overblown with a spy-novel flair.

"When you grow up in a house of secrets, you tend to find little glamour in mysteries. Se-crets are just the papers on your father's desk," the author writes. "And politics isn't a conspiracy, and history isn't something you can decode with the revelations from the vaults or theories about the episteme -- they are something personal and intimate, a family romance written in headlines."

The author spent more than two decades interviewing CIA colleagues, reading forgotten letters and sifting though government documents, and the reconstruction of his father that emerges is impressive. After all, as the author points out: "My own father was classified top secret."

Some may recognize the elder Richardson from his most notable posting, as Saigon's CIA station chief in 1962 and 1963, but the book is far from another history of the Vietnam War. The period is only a sub-theme of Richardson's life, and the book offers little by way of Sheehan- or Halberstam-like reflections on that war.

But the younger Richardson delves deeply, if cautiously, into his father's years in Vietnam, with a particular focus on his role in events preceding the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem at the hands of South Vietnamese rebels. It was in Saigon that the elder Richardson "stored up the raw material for a lifetime of regrets," his son writes, adding "his bitterness was the mystery of my childhood."

A biography written, in first person, by the subject's son could easily read like a simple tribute. But Rich-ardson is careful in his reporting and his perspective not to pass judgment, except on a personal level, when he is writing about his father and not a spy.

His indulgences can be too much at times, such as when he introduces himself into the timeline by recounting his earliest and most trivial of memories. There is little insight -- or interest -- gained by interrupting the coup in Vietnam to discuss his youthful fascination with Silly Putty, for instance.

But none of those small quibbles make My Father the Spy anything but an exceptional work of research and writing about a man -- two men, really -- whose family album is pasted into a book of American history.

Robert Little, national correspondent for The Sun, writes primarily about military and intelligence issues.

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