Helms, Richard 1913-2002

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Helms, Richard 1913-2002
(Richard McGarrah Helms)


Born March 30, 1913, in St. Davids, PA; died of bone cancer, October 23, 2002, in Washington, DC; son of Herman and Marion Helms; married Julia Bretzman Shields, 1939 (divorced, 1968); married Cynthia McKelvie, 1968; children: (first marriage) Dennis. Education: Williams College, B.A., 1935.


Consultant. United Press International, Europe staff correspondent, 1935-37; Indianapolis Times, national advertising manager, 1937-42; Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Washington, DC, intelligence officer, 1947-1961, director of Office of Special Operations (OSO), 1962-1965, deputy director, 1965-66, director, 1966-73. Served as United States ambassador to Iran, 1973-77; international consultant, 1977-97. Military service: United States Navy, 1942-46, Office of Strategic Services (OSS), served in Europe.


Career Service award, National Civil Service League, 1965; Distinguished Intelligence medal, 1973; National Security medal, 1983.


(With William Hood) A Look over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.


Richard Helms began his post-college career as a journalist, but World War II changed his path. He joined the United States Navy to serve his country, but his intelligence, coupled with the language skills he had picked up in international boarding schools during his youth, resulted in a transfer to the Office of Strategic Services—more commonly known as the OSS—in 1943. The OSS was a forerunner to the present-day Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and dealt in the field of military intelligence. During his time with the OSS, Helms was responsible for getting spies placed behind enemy lines, and later helped to track down war criminals and stolen goods. In 1946 he was honorably discharged from the Navy but chose to stay in the field; he was one of the first to join the CIA when it was formed a year later. Helms worked his way quickly up the ranks of the plans division—the area of the organization involved with covert operations—and in 1952 became the deputy chief of the department. In this role, he conducted illegal surveillance on American citizens in addition to his international duties.

In 1962 Helms was named the director of the plans division, also known as Office of Special Operations (OSO). During his OSO tenure, he helped to plan assassination attempts on the lives of several foreign leaders, including Fidel Castro of Cuba. Helms was appointed deputy director of the CIA in 1965 and quickly became a favorite of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who promoted him to director in 1966. One of his main duties as director was heading up Operation Chaos, a project focused on how anti-Vietnam sentiment involved other countries. One of the scandals of Helms's career surrounded the infamous Watergate situation that ultimately led to President Richard Nixon's resignation. The men involved were former CIA employees, and Nixon additionally had the CIA block the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from digging into the details. Nixon fired Helms in 1972, due in part to Helms's ultimate refusal to provide written statements about Watergate containing false information. Nixon instead appointed Helms ambassador to Iran, though scandal touched the man again during his confirmation hearings. Details were beginning to come out about CIA activities during Helms's tenure with the Agency, and he was pressed about some of these illegal behaviors, though the Senate ultimately confirmed him. He was, however, frequently called back to testify with regards to the claims of domestic spying, and his repeated denials of wrongdoing were declared perjury. Helms attempted to talk his way out of the charges, but in 1976 he was forced to resign and in 1977 was indicted, eventually receiving a fine and a suspended prison sentence.

After his sentencing, Helms took on the role of consultant, occasionally even working with the government again, until his death in 2002. Helms's memoir, A Look over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency, written with William Hood, was published posthumously in 2003. Foreign Affairs contributor Zachary Karabell noted that Helms, whose memoir was written in a "matter-of-fact tone," truly "believed till his dying day that the CIA had made a vital contribution to the security of the United States and that whatever unsavory actions it may have taken were done at the behest of the president." In a New York Times review, Thomas Powers felt that this "account of the issues and arguments that agitated presidents makes for a book of unusual depth and richness with much to say, all between the lines, about the transformation of the presidency as we enter the second decade of the era of American global supremacy." In another instance of the praise widely found among critics, Joseph E. Persico of the New York Times Book Review concluded: "Whether one likes or loathes the furtive world in which Helms lived, whether one sees him as a patriot or compliant careerist, this surprise autobiography provides an unsurpassed insider look into how American intelligence actually operates. It's a view offering more than enough ammunition for admirers and antagonists alike."



Frankel, Benjamin, editor, The Cold War, 1945-1991, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Helms, Richard and William Hood, A Look over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.

Powers, Thomas, The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA, Knopf (New York, NY), 1979.


Book, May-June, 2003, Terry Teachout, review of A Look over My Shoulder, p. 80.

Booklist, March 1, 2003, Brad Hooper, review of A Look over My Shoulder, p. 1106.

Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2003, Zachary Karabell, review of A Look over My Shoulder, p. 182.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), May 3, 2003, Monika Jensen-Stevenson, review of A Look over My Shoulder, p. D6.

Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2003, review of A Look over My Shoulder, p. 442.

Library Journal, April 1, 2003, Daniel K. Blewett, review of A Look over My Shoulder, p. 112.

New York Times, May 14, 2003, Thomas Powers, "From the Grave, Helms Tells How, Not What," p. E10.

New York Times Book Review, May 4, 2003, Joseph E. Persico, review of A Look over My Shoulder, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly, March 24, 2003, review of A Look over My Shoulder, p. 68.


CIA Studies in Intelligence Web site,https://www.cia.gov/ (July 18, 2006), biography of Helms.



BBC News Web site, http://news.bbc.co.uk/ (October 23, 2002), "Former Spy Boss Richard Helms Dies."