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William Colby
10th Director of Central Intelligence

In office
September 4, 1973 – January 30, 1976
President Richard Nixon
Gerald Ford
Preceded by James R. Schlesinger
Succeeded by George H. W. Bush
Personal details
Born William Egan Colby
(1920-01-04)January 4, 1920
St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.
Died April 27, 1996(1996-04-27) (aged 76)
Rock Point, Maryland, U.S.
Spouse(s) Barbara Heinzen (1945–div. 1984)
Sally Shelton-Colby (1984–death 1996)
Children 5 children w/ Heinzen
Alma mater Princeton University
Columbia Law School
Religion Roman Catholic

William Egan Colby (January 4, 1920 – April 27, 1996) spent a career in intelligence for the United States, culminating in holding the post of the director of central intelligence (DCI) from September 1973 to January 1976.

During World War II Colby served with the Office of Strategic Services. After the war he joined the newly created Central Intelligence Agency. Before and during the Vietnam War, Colby served as chief of station in Saigon, chief of the CIA's Far East Division, and head of the Civil Operations and Rural Development effort, as well as overseeing the Phoenix Program. After Vietnam, Colby became director of central intelligence and during his tenure, under intense pressure from the U.S. Congress and the media, adopted a policy of relative openness about U.S. intelligence activities to the Senate Church Committee and House Pike Committee. Colby served as DCI under President Richard Nixon and President Gerald Ford and was replaced by future president George H.W. Bush on January 30, 1976.

Early life and family

William Egan Colby was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1920. His father, Elbridge Colby, was a professor of English, author, and Army officer who served in the Army and in university positions in Tientsin, China; Georgia; Vermont; and Washington, D.C. His grandfather, Charles Colby, had been a professor of chemistry at Columbia University but had died prematurely. His mother, Margaret Egan, was from a family in St. Paul active in Democratic politics. William Colby attended public high school in Burlington, Vermont, and then Princeton University, graduating in 1940 and entering Columbia Law School the following year.

Colby was for most of his life a staunch Roman Catholic.[1] He was often referred to as "the warrior–priest". He married Barbara Heinzen in 1945 and they had five children. The Catholic Church played a "central role" in the family's life, with Colby's two daughters receiving their first communion at St. Peter's Basilica.[2] In 1984, he divorced Barbara and married Democratic diplomat Sally Shelton-Colby.


Office of Strategic Services

Following his first year at Columbia, in 1941 Colby volunteered for active duty with the U.S. Army and served with the Office of Strategic Services as a Jedburgh or special operator trained to work with resistance forces in occupied Europe to harass German and Axis forces. During World War II, he parachuted behind enemy lines twice and earned the Silver Star as well as commendations from Norway, France, and Great Britain. (His second flight was piloted by Robert H. Fesmire, uncle of Francis Fesmire, of the 801st/492nd Bombardment Group 8th Air Force). In his first mission he deployed to France as a Jedburgh commanding Team BRUCE, in mid-August 1944, and operated with the Maquis until he joined up with Allied forces later that fall. In April 1945, he led the NORSO Group into Norway on a sabotage mission to destroy railway lines, in an effort to tie down German forces in Norway from reinforcing the final defense of Germany.[3]

After the war, Colby graduated from Columbia Law School and then briefly practiced law in William Joseph Donovan's New York firm. Bored by the practice of law and inspired by his liberal beliefs, he moved to Washington to work for the National Labor Relations Board.

Central Intelligence Agency

Central Intelligence Agency Director William Colby discusses the situation in Vietnam with Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller and Deputy Assistant For National Security Affairs Brent Scowcroft during a break in a meeting of the National Security Council., 04/24/1975


William Colby, Director of Central Intelligence, briefs President Ford and his senior advisors on the deteriorating situation in Vietnam, April 28, 1975. (clockwise, left to right) Colby; Robert S. Ingersoll, Deputy Secretary of State; Henry Kissinger; President Ford;James Schlesinger, Defense Secretary; William Clements, Deputy Secretary of Defense; Vice President Rockefeller; and General George S. Brown, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

William Colby, outgoing Director of Central Intelligence, with President Ford and incoming DCI George Bush, 1975.

Shortly thereafter, an OSS friend offered him a job at the CIA, and Colby accepted. Colby spent the next 12 years in the field, first in Stockholm, Sweden. There, he helped set up the stay-behind networks of Gladio, a covert paramilitary organization organized by the CIA to make any Soviet occupation more difficult, as he later described in his memoirs.[4]

Colby then spent much of the 1950s based in Rome, under cover as a State Department officer,[3] where he led the Agency's covert political operations campaign to support anti-Communist parties in their electoral contests against left wing, Soviet Union–associated parties. The Christian Democrats and allied parties won several key elections in the 1950s, preventing a takeover by the Communist Party. Colby was a vocal advocate within the CIA and the U.S. Government for engaging the non-Communist left wing parties in order to create broader non-Communist coalitions capable of governing fractious Italy; this position first brought him into conflict with James Angleton.


In 1959 Colby became the CIA's deputy chief and then chief of station in Saigon, Vietnam, where he served until 1962. Tasked by CIA with supporting the Diem government, Colby established a relationship with President Diem's family and with Ngo Dinh Nhu, the president's brother, with whom Colby's family became close.[3] While in Vietnam, Colby focused intensively on building up Vietnamese capabilities to combat the Viet Cong insurgency in the countryside. He argued that "the key to the war in Vietnam was the war in the villages."[5] In 1962 he returned to Washington to become the deputy and then chief of CIA's Far East Division. During these years he was deeply involved in Washington's policies in East Asia, particularly with respect to Vietnam, as well as Indonesia, Japan, Korea, and China. He was deeply critical of the decision to abandon support for Republic of Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem, and he believed this played a material part in the weakening of the South Vietnamese position in the years following.

In 1968, while preparing to take up the post of chief of the Soviet Bloc Division of the Agency, President Johnson instead sent Colby back to Vietnam as deputy to Robert Komer, who had been charged with streamlining the civilian side of the American efforts against the Communists. Shortly after arriving Colby succeeded Komer as head of the U.S./South Vietnamese rural pacification effort. This was an attempt to quell the Communist insurgency in South Vietnam. Part of the effort was the controversial Phoenix Program, an initiative designed to identify and attack the "Viet Cong Infrastructure." There is considerable debate about the merits of the program, which involved assassination and torture, though Colby consistently insisted that such tactics were not permitted in the program as a matter of policy.

More broadly, along with Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and MACV commander General Creighton Abrams, Colby was part of a leadership group that worked to apply a new approach to the war designed to focus more on pacification and securing the countryside as opposed to the "search and destroy" approach that had characterized General Westmoreland's tenure as COMUSMACV. Some, including Colby later in life, argue that this approach succeeded in quelling the Communist insurgency in South Vietnam, but that South Vietnam, abandoned by the United States after the 1973 peace accords, was ultimately overwhelmed by a conventional North Vietnamese assault.

CIA Director

Colby returned to Washington in 1971 and became executive director of CIA. After long-time DCI Richard Helms was dismissed by President Nixon in 1973, James Schlesinger assumed the helm at the Agency. A strong believer in reform of the CIA and the intelligence community more broadly, Schlesinger had written a 1971 Bureau of the Budget report outlining his views on the subject. Colby, who had had a somewhat unorthodox career in the CIA focused on political action and counterinsurgency, agreed with Schlesinger's reformist approach. Schlesinger appointed him head of the clandestine branch in early 1973. When Nixon reshuffled his agency heads and made Schlesinger secretary of defense, Colby emerged as a natural candidate for DCI—apparently on the basis of the recommendation that he was a professional who would not make waves.

Colby was known as a media-friendly CIA director.[2] His tenure as DCI, which lasted two and a half tumultuous years, was overshadowed by the Church and Pike congressional investigations into alleged U.S. intelligence malfeasance over the preceding 25 years, including 1975, the so-called Year of Intelligence. Colby cooperated, not out of a desire for a major overhaul, but in the belief that the actual scope of such misdeeds—encapsulated in the so-called Family Jewels—was not great enough to justify lasting damage to the CIA's reputation. Colby also believed that the CIA had a moral and legal obligation to cooperate with the Congress and demonstrate that the CIA was accountable to the Constitution. On a more practical level, he also believed that cooperating with Congress was the only way to save the Agency from dissolution during a period of great congressional strength. This openness policy caused a major rift within the CIA ranks, with many old-line officers such as former DCI Richard Helms believing that the CIA should have resisted congressional intrusion.

Colby's time as DCI was also eventful on the world stage. Shortly after he assumed leadership, the Yom Kippur War broke out, an event that surprised not only the American intelligence agencies but also the Israelis. This intelligence surprise reportedly affected Colby's credibility with the Nixon administration. Colby participated in the National Security Council meetings that responded to apparent Soviet intentions to intervene in the war by raising the alert level of U.S. forces to DEFCON 3 and defusing the crisis. In 1975, after many years of involvement, South Vietnam fell to Communist forces in April 1975, a particularly difficult blow for Colby, who had dedicated so much of his life and career to the American effort there. Events in the arms-control field, Angola, the Middle East, and elsewhere also demanded attention.

Colby also focused on internal reforms within the CIA and the intelligence community. He attempted to modernize what he believed to be some out-of-date structures and practices by disbanding the Board of National Estimates and replacing it with the National Intelligence Council.[6] In a speech from 1973 addressed to NSA employees he emphasised the role of free speech in USA and moral role of CIA as defender, not preventer of civil rights. He also mentioned a number of reforms intended to limit excessive classification of governmental information.[7]

President Ford, advised by Henry Kissinger and others concerned by Colby's controversial openness to Congress and distance from the White House, replaced Colby late in 1975 with George H.W. Bush during the so-called Halloween Massacre in which Secretary of Defense Schlesinger was also replaced (by Donald Rumsfeld). Colby was offered the position of U.S. permanent representative to NATO but turned it down.

Post-CIA career

In 1977 Colby founded a D.C. law firm—Colby, Miller & Hanes, with Marshall Miller, David Hanes, and associated lawyers, and worked on public policy issues. In consonance with his long-held liberal views, Colby became a supporter of the nuclear freeze and of reductions in military spending. He practiced law and advised various bodies on intelligence matters. He also wrote two books, one of memoirs entitled Honorable Men, the other on Vietnam, called Lost Victory. In the latter, Colby argued that the U.S.–RVN counterinsurgency campaign in Vietnam had succeeded by the early 1970s and that South Vietnam could have survived had the U.S. continued to provide support after the Paris Accords. Though the topic remains open and controversial, some recent scholarship, including by Lewis "Bob" Sorley, supports Colby's arguments. Colby also lent his expertise and knowledge, along with Oleg Kalugin, to the Activision game Spycraft: The Great Game, which was released shortly before his death. Both Colby and Kalugin played themselves in the game.


On Saturday, April 27, 1996, Colby died in what appears to have been a boating accident near his home in Rock Point, Maryland. There was speculation that Colby's death was due to foul play or suicide. The Maryland state coroner, however, ruled that Colby had suffered either a heart attack or a stroke owing to a discernible plaque buildup in his arteries, and had fallen into the water and drowned.[8] Most of Colby's family and his biographer viewed a suicide as completely inconsistent with his character. However, in a biographical documentary developed by Colby's son Carl Colby, he speculated that Colby had simply, ". . . had enough of this life."[9][10]


Colby was the subject of a biography, Lost Crusader, by John Prados, published in 2003. His son Carl Colby released a documentary on his father's professional and personal life, The Man Nobody Knew, in 2011.[3][11] In May 2013, Randall B. Woods, Distinguished Professor of History at the William J. Fulbright School at the University of Arkansas, published his biography of Colby, titled Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA.[12] Norwich University hosts an annual writers symposium named in his honor.[13]


  • "We disbanded our intelligence [after both world wars] and then found we needed it. Let's not go through that again. Redirect it, reduce the amount of money spent, but let's not destroy it. Because you don't know 10 years out what you're going to face."[14]
  • "The more we know about each other the safer we all are."—Colby to Leonid Brezhnev


  • Colby, William (1975). Intelligence and the press: Address to the Associated Press annual meeting by William E. Colby on Monday, 7 April 1975. CIA. 
  • Colby, William (1975). Foreign intelligence for America: Address to the Commonwealth Club of California by William E. Colby on Wednesday, 7 May 1975 in San Francisco, California. CIA (1975). 
  • Colby, William (1975). Director of Central Intelligence press conference: CIA Headquarters auditorium, 19 November 1975. CIA. 
  • Colby, William (1978). Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA (first ed.). Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-22875-0. 
  • Colby, William (1986). The increased role of modern intelligence: A public speech on February 21, 1986 in Taipei. AWI lectures. Asia and World Institute. 
  • Colby, William (1989). Lost victory: a firsthand account of America's sixteen-year involvement in Vietnam. Chicago: Contemporary Books. ISBN 0809245094. OCLC 20014837. 

See also

  • The Man Nobody Knew


  1. "Obituary: William Colby". The Daily Telegraph. 1996-05-07. Retrieved 2007-09-07.  Archived on personal website.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Elliott, John (2011-11-11) Finding William Colby, The American Conservative
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby". New York City: Act 4 Entertainment. September 2011. Retrieved 2011. 
  4. Colby, William; Peter Forbath (1978) (extract concerning Gladio stay-behind operations in Scandinavia). Honourable Men: My Life in the CIA. London: Hutchinson. ISBN 0-09-134820-X. OCLC 16424505. Archived from the original on 2006-03-11. 
  5. “Interview with William Egan Colby, 1981.” 07/16/1981. WGBH Media Library & Archives. Retrieved 9 November 2010.
  6. For further information on Colby's leadership of the Intelligence Community, see
  7. William H. Colby (1973). "Security in an Open Society". NSA. 
  8. "Post Mortem Examination Report, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, State of Maryland, Report on Death of William E. Colby". Huffington Post. 
  9. Maraniss, David (2011-12-02). "The William Colby We Knew". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2011-12-08. 
  10. Wilkie, Christina (2011-12-05). "Former CIA Director's Death Raises Questions, Divides Family". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2011-12-08. 
  11. "The Man Nobody Knew". Retrieved 18 September 2011. 
  12. Thomas, Evan (May 5, 2013). "The Gray Man". New York Times. 
  13. The William E. Colby Military Writers Symposium, Accessed 8/29/2013.
  14. "A Spymaster Assessment". 1991-12-02. pp. 56. 

Additional sources

Further reading

  • Prados, John (2003). Lost Crusader: The Secret Wars of CIA Director William Colby. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512847-8. OCLC 49493468. 
  • Woods, Randall B. (2013). Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA. Basic Books. Scholarly biography.

External links

Government offices
Preceded by
James R. Schlesinger
Director of Central Intelligence
September 4, 1973 – January 30, 1976
Succeeded by
George H. W. Bush

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