An ambassador and a station chief at odds in Laos

Here’s a breadcrumb on Henry Hecksher’s CIA career from the notebooks of aviation historian William M. Leary, which are available to the public by the Eugene McDermott Library at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Why is our protagonist mentioned in the notes of an aviation historian? Because Leary wrote on Civil Air Transport, the CIA-run airline that would later become known as Air America (which would in turn be the subject of the 1990 film of the same name starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr.).

Civil Air Transport, or CAT, was a CIA-controlled airline that would later be known as Air America. Photo: National Museum of the US Air Force

Leary wrote a book on the airline, and he was working on a second when he died in 2006.

In notes entitled 55 pages of notes entitled “Outline – Air America in Laos,” Leary wrote just a paragraph mentioning Hecksher.

The CIA officer became station chief in Vientiane in the summer of 1957, replacing Milton Clark and taking over the staff and intelligence network that his predecessor set up. Then on March 26, 1958, President Eisenhower appointed Horace Smith to take over Graham Parsons as ambassador.

Smith was a career foreign service officer from Ohio.

The chief of station would not get on well with the new ambassador.

“Hecksher was considered arrogant and resourceful,” said a source identified as Stevenson. I believe this is Charles A Stephenson, who is written on Laos. We’ll have to get this book.

For his part, Hecksher thought Smith was inexperienced, so he tried to run CIA operations in Laos without the ambassador getting involved, according to Leary’s notes. The two men thought the agency should support different factions, and they ended up working at “cross purposes”.

Hecksher’s superiors supported an active CIA involvement in Laos, and the result was a “virtual coup” in the capital.

But in these notes, there is no further mention of Hecksher in relation to CTM and Air America, though it was a CIA operation (whose name change was cemented while our protagonist was station chief).

In fact, it was seen as an valuable agency asset. In on November 16, 1957, CIA director Allen Dulles told the Air Force Secretary James Douglas that the airline was key to US interests in Asia.

“The airline … is important not only in the furtherance of US policy in ordinary times, but its usefulness under emergency conditions has been demonstrated repeatedly,” he said, according to Leahy’s notes.

While Leahy was silent as to Hecksher’s role in Air America, he did mention involvement of the ambassador.

According to the notes, pilot John Lee recalled that, after he landed in Vientiane, Smith asked to see him. The ambassador tasked him with a series of airdrops between March and April in 1957.

Smith left the post in June 21, 1960, and was replaced by Winthrop Brown. Hecksher handed over the CIA station to Gordon Jorgenson that same year.

Jorgenson and Brown apparently had a more positive relationship.


Sources

Leary, William M., “Outline – Air America in Laos,” Air America Notebooks From the William M. Leary Papers, https://library.utdallas.edu/specialcollections/hac/cataam/notebooks/aamlaos.pdf

“Horace Harrison Smith (1905–1976)”, Office of the Historian, US Department of State, https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/people/smith-horace-harrison

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