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Of Smoke 'n Mirrors (Lost in the Wilderness) -- Part Two

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James Jesus Angleton, CIA Counter-intelligence, 1953-1975
James Jesus Angleton, CIA Counter-intelligence, 1953-1975
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'And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.'


Inscription etched into the foyer wall of the original CIA building, presumably a mission statement of sorts.

Special Dedication:

To all those CIA agents who died in the line of duty believing in the righteousness of the cause, and for whom the truth arrived too late to set them free.


-- Trilbies, Trenchcoats and Winklepickers --

Before embarking on more revelations of the adventures and exploits of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and some of its better known personalities--along with examining further that quintessential of agency phenomenons called "blowback" which we looked at in Part One--it is perhaps timely we briefly revisit Mad Magazine's iconic Spy v Spy cartoon strip, not only as an exercise in nostalgia but also one of light relief from the more serious aspects of our subject.

As the strip's name suggests, both sides in the simple character construct were represented by either a Black Spy or White Spy alternately trying to get the drop on each other by whatever means possible --usually engaging in highly ludicrous, surreal, bizarre, physically impossible and/or logically challenged machinations to achieve this.

The 'writer'/cartoonist generally left it up to readers to choose which one was the good guy/spy and the bad guy/spy, and also left it to readers to choose which spy they were rooting for. It didn't really matter, because neither spy ever really got the upper hand, at least not for long. Indeed, in Spy v Spy world, the divide between "good" and "bad" was always hopelessly blurred from the off. Which one suspects was the point of the exercise.

Playing a zero-sum game, each day they kind of lived their version of Spy Groundhog Day, except that in this case whilst each spy relived his day in authentic Groundhog tradition, only every second one was a good one.

In any event, apart from the distinctive 'colour' of their respective uniforms --each featuring dark Matrix-like shades, a large trench coat, winklepickers and distinctive trilby hat --they were more or less interchangeable, which one guesses again was another point of the exercise.

Written by Cuban pre-Revolution exile Antonio Prohias and first appearing in 1961, the wordless strip was so popular the phrase 'spy v spy' entered the vernacular and became shorthand for anyone referencing well, the "highly ludicrous, surreal, bizarre, physically impossible and/or logically challenged machinations" of the Cold Warriors on both sides of the ideological fence.

Yet it is perhaps now with some distance from the end of the Cold War era that we might appreciate even more the absurdity of it all, as very few satires that said so little also said so much.

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Greg Maybury is a Perth (Australia) based freelance writer. His main areas of interest are American history and politics in general, with a special focus on economic, national security, military and geopolitical affairs, and both US domestic and (more...)

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