To my nonscientist’s eye. Similar caveats — “we may never have incontrovertible proof,” “it’s remotely possible, though perhaps eternally unprovable,” “we may never know,” “it’s at least possible,” “will we ever know?,” “let me just blurt out what I think happened,” etc. — infest Baker’s narrative, usually preceded or followed by wild accusations (and, occasionally, by a sign of self-awareness: “I lay in bed some of today reading more of this book, hating it, excited by it, embarrassed by it”).
At times, the book is framed as a deliberate challenge to the intelligence community: “I could be completely wrong. The only way to prove me wrong is by declassifying the entire document.” But this is not how a historian proceeds. Again and again, Baker bristles with anger over actions that were “seriously contemplated” by the C.I.A., other intelligence agencies and the military — but never undertaken. “I felt trembly and disgusted at the same time,” he writes of Operation Sphinx, a proposal to gas millions of Japanese from the air during World War II. “It’s a horrible and disillusioning thing to know that your own country was passing around a paper like Sphinx in the Pentagon.” Really? To know that in a brutal war men thought brutal things?
At another point, he questions the “long, interesting, confusing letter” he got from Floyd O’Neal, one of some 30 captured American airmen and Marines who “confessed” to germ-warfare bombing in Korea. O’Neal’s confession is “surprising and moving, though, whether or not it’s true,” Baker tells us. O’Neal “recanted completely” after he was released, and writes in his letter of sustaining torture so awful he still won’t describe it to Baker more than 50 years later: “What they did for the next days I don’t care to discuss but I finally agreed to sign their confession.” There is nothing surprising or moving about a coerced confession, save for O’Neal’s ability to endure the price it exacted.
Baker concedes that “Americans individually have done good things,” a gesture followed by a banal list that includes “sunglasses,” “topiary,” “no-hitters” and “the midcentury New Yorker.” Yes, and also little baby ducks and old pickup trucks. This is another affectation of virtue, not a moral argument.
I share Baker’s disgust with all the crazy, wasteful, illegal, counterproductive and murderous things the C.I.A. has done, and no doubt continues to do. Hell, I even like dogs. Baker’s Olympian worldview, though, takes him to almost the same place he landed in “Human Smoke,” his paste-up 2008 history of the road to World War II: immobilized by purity and concluding that we should never have intervened, even to stop the Nazis. Americans are neither beasts nor angels, just human beings trying to forge our way through the murky moral choices this world poses. To pretend otherwise is perhaps the worst deception of all.