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Review by Ted Wilkinson

Pot Shards: Fragments of a Life Lived in CIA, the White House and the Two Koreas by Donald Gregg, New Academia Publishing, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-0990447115, 332 pages, $38.00 (Hardcover), $26.00 (Paperback), $7.99 (Kindle).

Apart from its considerable historical significance, this memoir is also succinct and entertaining, and frames a remarkable government career. Don Gregg is one of a handful of CIA veterans to have served as ambassadors. (One thinks of Walter Bedell Smith, Dick Helms, Jim Lilley, and Freck Vreeland, possibly one or two others.) Gregg is unique in having also spent a decade in National Security Council assignments in the White House.

What’s most striking for the reader is how Donald Gregg managed to survive and advance as far as he did in government despite his many doubts about government policies and practices. Naturally his doubts weren’t always expressed as freely and vehemently as they are here in these pages. If they had been, he would probably have been pushed aside as a whistleblower, but the memoir serves as a valuable critique of many aspects of U.S. Asia policy over half a century.

Skepticism about the “wild and woolly” early days at the CIA infuses his early chapters. After Army service in the Signal Corps as a cryptographer, he was offered an opening at the NSA, but opted instead for the CIA. He found little to respect in his CIA trainers or the training, which seemed drawn from adventure novels. At one point he and a team of trainees were drilled in survival near a mountain lake in Idaho, where they were given axes, safety pins, and parachute cord. The axes were to chop holes in the ice and the safety pins to be fashioned into fishhooks; the cords to make nooses to trap arctic hares. If real survival had been at stake, Gregg’s conclusion was the group would have faced certain death.

Soon after, his first assignment was to join a group of young North Vietnamese exiles in Bangkok, to be parachuted into North Vietnam for a mission that he would only learn enroute to being dropped. Lacking French, Vietnamese or any area background, Gregg nevertheless accepted the assignment, lest he be considered spineless. In retrospect, he recognized that the mission was “utterly ridiculous,” and was happy to have his “life expectancy extended” when it was revealed to be based on fraudulent intelligence and canceled. Less lucky was his friend and CIA colleague Jack Downey, who was sent on an ill-considered rescue mission over Manchuria, which turned out to be a trap. The aircraft was shot down. Downey survived, but was imprisoned for 20 years in China.

If Gregg had any idyllic years in the CIA, they seem to have been at his first overseas post in Tokyo, 1954-61, and again 1966-69. The only inklings we can gather about his duties are is that “our main opponent was the Soviet Union {which} wanted desperately to pull Japan into its orbit,” and that his return in 1966 was occasioned by “a major operational embarrassment.” But he developed a talent for tennis at the Japan Lawn Tennis Club and seems to have used it to diplomatic advantage, making the acquaintance on the court of the crown prince and his fiancée Michiko, and on many occasions later in his career.

His experience with Vietnam is a different story. From early 1962 to mid-64 he was back in DC in charge of CIA’s Vietnam desk, and took part in a high-level interagency “Red Team — Blue Team” exercise on extending bombing raids into North Vietnam. He and the State Department representative were alone in opposing the raids, and were bulldozed into silence by agency chiefs, spearheaded by Gen. Curtis Lemay, who thought the raids would bring China to the war and give us a pretext to destroy China’s incipient nuclear war capabilities. His verdict on Lemay: “We are lucky to have survived that man.”

Gregg feels no constraints on discussing his duties when he returned to the field in 1970 to Vietnam, where he was the senior CIA officer for the ten provinces surrounding Saigon and was expected to help defend the capital and “penetrate the remaining Viet Cong structure.” From the beginning, he found rosy headquarters assessments of the course of the war to be unrealistic, and attempted to set them straight in his own reports, which the station chief in Saigon refused to disseminate. Gregg has high praise for some of the tough and valiant military and civilian colleagues he worked with, but chafed at being asked to pursue “chimerical operations, with neither substance nor validity” and couldn’t avoid “the inescapable fact… that we were still losing the war.”

Gregg pushed the limits of dissent further in his next job as station chief in Seoul. The Korean CIA dealt brutally with domestic dissent, and on one occasion Gregg helped Amb. Phil Habib stop a KCIA operation intended to do away with the liberal leader Kim Dae-jung. On another, Gregg asked for authorization to protest the torture and murder of an American-trained Korean professor by the KCIA in a meeting with another high official in the Korean government. When authorization was refused, he did it anyway, and was gratified when the KCIA director was fired ten days later and when DCI George Tenet in a later letter appeared to endorse his decision.

Back in DC after South Korea, Gregg faced his “most difficult and unpleasant job” in his CIA career — defending the Agency against allegations from the Pike investigative committee, “which produced a report so biased and inaccurate that the House of Representatives voted by a two-to-one margin not to publish it.” Morale in the CIA had reached a new low, and in the tumultuous mid-70’s the Agency went through five directors — Helms, James Schlesinger, Bill Colby, George H.W. Bush, and Stansfield Turner.

Late in this period Gregg was summoned to the NSC Staff to deal with East Asian and intelligence issues, and was one of the few appointees who survived the Reagan transition, when “the incoming Republican staff acted like the Visigoths at the sack of Rome.” A request for him to become Vice President Bush’s national security adviser followed in December 1982, and he retired from the CIA to take the job.

In the ensuing six-and-a-half years, Gregg accompanied the Vice President on 20 trips, some as long as two weeks, and covering 65 countries. A number had important consequences. On one trip (to Finland), they learned that Gorbachev was likely to succeed Chernenko as Soviet General Secretary, and gained some inkling of the fresh ideas he might bring with him.

Another trip (to El Salvador) led to difficulties for Gregg. After Ambassador Pickering’s briefing in San Salvador about indiscriminate military severity in suppressing in the counterinsurgency campaign, Gregg arranged for his CIA ex-colleague Felix Rodríguez (veteran of the Bay of Pigs, of collaboration with the Bolivians in the capture of Che Guevara, and of Vietnam operations) to go to Salvador in 1985 to help in training troops for more surgical helicopter operations. On a trip back to Washington in 1986, Rodríguez told Gregg that Colonel Oliver North had given him secret instructions, not to be shared with the CIA, to arrange for flights from Salvador to support the contras, but that the officials concerned were corrupt and the planes were in poor shape. The Iran-contra scandal erupted when one of the planes went down in Nicaragua.

Gregg was caught up in the scandal when it was alleged that he, and by association the Vice President, had been involved in the clandestine operation. In fact, Gregg’s only involvement had been to call a meeting in the White House to alert others to Rodríguez’ alarming report. Nevertheless, he offered several times to resign. The Vice President turned the offers down, but the allegations continued to dog him, leading Gregg to conclude: “I’ll never know what role I might have played in the Bush presidency but for Iran-contra.”

The role that he did play as Ambassador to South Korea was important enough. The confirmation process was bruising, not only because of the Iran-contra stories, but also because of his known CIA background. Once in Seoul, Gregg found the circumstances for his tenure promising, with South Korea having taken “a major turn toward democracy”, and “a policy of reconciliation with North Korea” being implemented under President Roh Tai-woo. Russian and Chinese Ambassadors were assigned to Seoul for the first time; U.S. and South Korean annual joint military exercises were put on hold, and North and South Korea signed a joint declaration on denuclearization of the peninsula on December 31, 1991. Regrettably, the exercises were reinstituted the following year, without consultations with State or the Embassy, and “bitter fruits” appeared soon in acts of hostility from Pyongyang. Gregg attributes the exercise decision to Secretary of Defense Cheney — “only the first of several destructive moves that Cheney later made as vice president to undercut any move toward reconciliation with North Korea.”

Leaving the Embassy and ending his government career in 1993 with the end of the George W. Bush administration, Gregg devoted much of the ensuing 16 years to Korean matters as president of the Asia Society in New York. During his tenure there, diplomacy of the late ’90s had offered renewed promise. A historic meeting took place in 2000 between President Kim Dae-jung and Chairman Kim Jong-il; Secretary Albright visited Pyongyang; and there was talk of a possible U.S. presidential visit. With the change of administrations, new Secretary of State Colin Powell had sounded positive about a continuation of high-level exchanges, but the White House soon scotched any such ideas. In Gregg’s view, President George W. Bush’s “misguided, ideological approach to North Korea brought to a tragic and totally unjustified end significant progress made … in developing new relations with North Korea by both Seoul and Washington.”

The final chapter “Six Trips to Pyongyang” covers one more effort by Donald Gregg to challenge prevailing policy. In his contacts with North Korean leaders in the period 2002—2008, he took pains to find responsiveness to a renewal of high-level dialogue. The mild indications of interest that he received were flatly rebuffed in Washington, and his later reports got “zero feedback.” Despite the bitter ending, Gregg’s memoir is a fine example of a career government officer who stood up for his principles and didn’t hesitate to dissent when policy seemed to be on the wrong track.End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

imageTed Wilkinson’s first Foreign Service assignment was to Caracas, Venezuela. Later assignments included Tegucigalpa, Mexico City, Brasilia, Stockholm, Brussels (USNATO), and Geneva. Since retirement after nearly 40 years of US Government service, he has lectured frequently at George Washington University, the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, and various civic organizations. He is a contributing author of “Terrorism and Peacekeeping: New Security Challenges,” published by Praeger in 2005. From 2005 to 2011 he served as chairman of the editorial board of the monthly Foreign Service Journal.

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