The best history books about the CIA

Who am I?

I'm a British-born American historian, currently residing in Long Beach, California. I’ve published three books on the CIA, lectured about it for the Great Courses, and am now writing The CIA: An Imperial History for Basic Books, due to appear in 2023. Why spies? I’ve always loved spy novels and movies but my historical interest was piqued years ago when I stumbled across the weird story of how the CIA secretly funded various American artists and writers in the so-called Cultural Cold War. Decades on, I’m still fascinated by the subject: there’s so much human drama involved, and it’s a great lens through which to examine recent American and world history.

I wrote...

Book cover of America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East

What is my book about?

My book is about the foundational era of U.S.-Middle East relations: the year after World War II. It was then that the new American intelligence agency, the CIA, carried out a series of covert interventions in the region that have bedeviled America’s reputation there ever since. Why? Many of the intelligence officers involved had only the best of intentions. Kim Roosevelt, for example, Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson and chief of the CIA’s Middle East division, saw himself as a friend of the Arab people. Focusing on the lives and careers of this first generation of spy-Arabists, America’s Great Game shows how, in an echo of earlier western agents like Lawrence of Arabia, Roosevelt’s dreams of U.S.-Middle East friendship gradually succumbed to the hard realities of America’s emerging post-War empire.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Question of Standing: The History of the CIA

Why did I love this book?

There are several general histories of the CIA to choose from (including my own Great Courses video lectures) but this for my money is the best book available right now. Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones has been writing about the Agency for years, he’s scholarly yet highly readable, and he plots just the right course between recognizing the CIA’s successes and critiquing its errors. This book is concise but comprehensive, tracing the organization’s origins in the decades before its founding in 1947, and coming all the way down to 2022. A great place to start.

By Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Question of Standing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Question of Standing deals with recognizable events that have shaped the history of the first 75 years of the CIA. Unsparing in its accounts of dirty tricks and their consequences, it values the agency's intelligence and analysis work to offer balanced judgements that avoid both celebration and condemnation of the CIA.

The mission of the CIA, derived from U-1 in World War I more than from World War II's OSS, has always been intelligence. Seventy-five years ago, in the year of its creation, the National Security Act gave the agency, uniquely in world history up to that point, a…

Book cover of The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared- The Early Years Of The CIA

Why did I love this book?

The best book on the founding period of the CIA, the 1940s to the 1960s. Thomas is the only non-Agency employee to have been granted access to still-classified CIA historical studies, making this work an invaluable compendium of previously secret information. It’s also a wonderfully rich evocation of the rarified social world of the early CIA – East Coast, WASP, Ivy League – and a moving biographical portrait of a generation of intelligence officers whose early careers began in youthful idealism but all too often descended into disillusionment, disgrace, and even suicide. The gold standard of CIA history books.

By Evan Thomas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Very Best Men as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Evan Thomas recreates the personal drama of four figures who risked everything to keep America out of war. They were Frank Wisner, Richard Bissell, Tracy Barnes and Desmond FitzGerald. Within the inner circles of Washington, at the high point of American power in the world, they planned and acted to contain the Soviet threat - by stealth and "political action", and to do by cunning and sleight of hand what great armies could not be allowed to do. The fall of each man had momentous consequences for the CIA. Thomas draws on the CIA's own secret histories, as well as…

Book cover of The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

Why did I love this book?

This book, about the CIA’s secret funding of art and culture in the Cold War battle for hearts and minds, caused a big stir on its publication in 2000. Written by a young British researcher, it scathingly criticized the Agency’s cultural operations (a source of some pride among intelligence veterans), arguing that they compromised and undermined the very artistic values they were supposed to defend. Several writers on the same subject since, myself included, have argued with aspects of her work, but Saunders’ research and storytelling are second to none. A harsh but hugely informative and entertaining account of one of the most intriguing chapters in the history of the Cold War.

By Frances Stonor Saunders,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Cultural Cold War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During the Cold War, freedom of expression was vaunted as liberal democracy's most cherished possession-but such freedom was put in service of a hidden agenda. In The Cultural Cold War, Frances Stonor Saunders reveals the extraordinary efforts of a secret campaign in which some of the most vocal exponents of intellectual freedom in the West were working for or subsidized by the CIA-whether they knew it or not.

Called "the most comprehensive account yet of the [CIA's] activities between 1947 and 1967" by the New York Times, the book presents shocking evidence of the CIA's undercover program of cultural interventions…

Book cover of Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton - The CIA's Master Spy Hunter

Why did I love this book?

The history of the CIA features many fascinating personalities and there are several excellent spy biographies, Thomas Powers on Richard Helms, for example, or Randall Woods on William Colby. But the most complex and compelling of all figures in the Agency’s past must surely be the legendary head of counterintelligence, James Angleton. Again, there are numerous works on Angleton and his obsessive hunt for a top-level Soviet agent in the CIA, but I enjoyed and benefited most from Tom Mangold’s Cold Warrior, an astonishingly detailed and penetrating portrayal of America’s real-life George Smiley.

By Tom Mangold,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Cold Warrior as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A biography of the spymaster who ran the CIA's counterintelligence operation for twenty years until his downfall

Book cover of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

Why did I love this book?

Taking the story from the endgame of the Cold War to the dawn of the War on Terror is this extraordinary book on the rise of Islamist terrorism and the CIA’s efforts to defeat it prior to 9/11. Coll’s research, based on interviews with a vast range of senior officials, is dazzling, yet it never overwhelms a narrative that combines human interest and geopolitical sweep seamlessly. No less impressive is his accomplishment in documenting not just the U.S. and Afghan perspectives but the Saudi and Pakistani as well, all in the same painstaking detail. If this whets the appetite for more of the same, Coll’s Directorate S resumes his account of the intelligence wars in Afghanistan, providing necessary background to understanding the failure of the U.S. occupation there.

By Steve Coll,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Ghost Wars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize

The explosive, New York Times bestselling first-hand account of America's secret history in Afghanistan

Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll has spent years reporting from the Middle East, accessed previously classified government files and interviewed senior US officials and foreign spymasters. Here he gives the full inside story of the CIA's covert funding of an Islamic jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, explores how this sowed the seeds of bn Laden's rise, traces how he built his global network and brings to life the dramatic battles within the US government over national security. Above all, he…

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