A story told briefly at death

Our central character, Henry D. Hecksher, died on March 28, 1990, in a hospital in Princeton, New Jersey, as a result of complications from Parkinson’s disease.

The New York Times covered his death in a three-paragraph obituary the next day, giving us a very brief sketch of his life that nonetheless hints at a peripatetic journey that gave him at least a front-row seat in key moments of Cold War and intelligence history.

He was born in Hamburg in 1910. What we learn of his life in Germany from this obit is that he worked as a lawyer before becoming a judge, but he entered the US in 1938, as Adolf Hitler reigned and a year before World War II was about to start. (We’ll have to investigate later a reference in the Wikipedia article that he may have immigrated to the US four years earlier.)

Julius Streicher was one of the senior Nazi officials interrogated by Hecksher. Photo: Heinrich Hoffman/Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

While in the US, Hecksher joined the US Army, where he would rise to captain. That meant that he would be sent back to Europe as a combatant for his new country in a war fought against his native country. He took part in the June 1944 Normandy invasion that saw Allied troops land on the beaches of France and begin their advance toward Germany.

Hecksher was wounded in Antwerp. The obituary does not specify whether he was injured in combat,

He later became an intelligence officer with the Army and interrogated some of the top Nazi leaders. The Times reported that among those he interrogated was including Julius Streicher, a key figure in the Nazi propaganda machine.

Hecksher later joined the Office of Strategic Services, the US intelligence agency that would eventually morph into the Central Intelligence Agency.

In 1946, he was named head of counterintelligence in Berlin for the OSS, before staying on with the CIA.

The Times reports that Hecksher served with the State Department in Laos, Indonesia, Japan and Chile, but I’m sure we’ll later learn that at least some of these postings were diplomatic cover for his CIA work.

“He was the CIA station chief in Santiago, Chile, during the time the CIA spent more than $8 million in an unsuccessful effort to prevent the election of Salvador Allende Gossens and later sought to make it impossible for him to govern once he was elected,” the Times reported.

Hecksher retired in 1971, a year after Allende took power.

The obituary, after his death at 79, lists only one survivor: “a brother, William S. Heckscher of Princeton.”

It doesn’t take long to figure out who this is. William Heckscher, who spelled his last name differently than his brother did, was a well-respected art historian.


Sources

  • Narvaez, Alfonso A., “Henry Hecksher, 79; Served O.S.S. in War And Later the C.I.A.,” New York Times, March 29, 1990.
  • Pace, Eric, “William S. Heckscher, Historian Of Art and Museum Director, 94,” New York Times, February 7, 2000.

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