Through interviews with friends and family, including his mother, Barbara Colby, Carl Colby revealed the secrets of the life and career of his father William Colby, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1973 to 1976.


William ColbyCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                               William Colby - Wikimedia

Office of Strategic Services (OSS)

William Colby was an army officer and a paratrooper during World War II, serving with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the forerunner to the CIA.  He was assigned to Norway with the Special Forces unit.  He had not been an athlete but he could ski.  Norway was occupied by the Germans, so the Special Services were inside an occupied country, behind enemy lines.  Their mission was to blow up railroad bridges to prevent the movement of German trains.  It was a suicide mission.  William was looking for action.

Columbia Law School

After the war, Colby went to Columbia Law School and met his wife, Barbara, on a blind date.  He was bored with practicing law and he and Barbara moved to Washington where he took a job with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).    Barbara learned later that he was in another line of work; he had moved from there over to the CIA.  She noted that the CIA was considered a pretty good thing.  You were regarded with respect.


Seal of the CIACredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                            Seal of the CIA - Wikimedia

Catholic Family Life

Both William and Barbara were practicing Catholics.  Their son Carl remarked in his film that his mother held both William and the children to a very high standard.  William was able to follow his career with a clear conscience that did not interfere with his strict Catholic beliefs.

The Colbys had five children, Jonathan, Carl, Christine, Paul, and Catherine.  Catherine died when she was 23 of epilepsy and anorexia.  Her mother, Barbara, had the total responsibility for Catherine because William was in Southeast Asia at the time of her death.

Counter Intelligence Agency (CIA)

In 1953, William was sent to Italy undercover for the CIA, and his family accompanied him.  They were there for five years.  Their son Carl stated that he thought his father worked for the Embassy.  It was the largest operation the CIA had ever done.  The threat was that Italy might become Communist.  One of their children was born and baptized in Italy.

Barbara’s Role

Barbara related that one evening in Rome, they went to the theater where she recognized a couple they had dined with the night before and was about to speak to them.  William said to her “Be quiet.  We don’t know those people.”  That was their life.  One weekend, they took a picnic basket and went to a park with the children.  William had a conversation with a man and transferred some papers to him.  Carl often felt that the family was just window-dressing for William’s spy activities.


Aerial View of CIA HeadquartersCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                          Aerial View of CIA Headquarters, Langley, VA                                                                                                                           Wikimedia

The Christian Democracy Party

Alcide De Gasperi, founder of the Christian Democracy party, along with his family, lived next door to the Colbys in Rome.  William worked with the Christian Democrats to defeat the Communists in the elections.  Also, a Cardinal stationed in Rome worked very closely with William Colby.

Assignment in Vietnam

In 1959, their next assignment was Vietnam, where William was named CIA station chief in Saigon.  Colby had to oversee Project Tiger where pilots and paratroopers dropped spies in North Vietnam, behind enemy lines the way the OSS did in World War II.  Counter-insurgency procedures were carried out against the North Vietnamese.  The U. S. had to defend South Vietnam against the North.  Otherwise they would be taken over by China and the Communists.

President Ngo Dinh Diem

Colby established a relationship with President Ngo Dinh Diem's family and with Ngo Dinh Nhu, the president's brother, with whom Colby became close.  President Diem was a Catholic in a Buddhist country.  Colby taught the President a lot about insurgency and gave him a lot of books to read.  Diem then thought he was the expert on insurgency in Vietnam.

Colby instituted the Strategic Hamlet Program.  The citizens were taught to protect and defend themselves in their own little hamlets.  In 1962, William was promoted to oversee all CIA operations in the Far East.

The New Ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge

The President’s brother Nhu became an advisor to Diem.  Nhu was taking over the regime.  In 1963, Henry Cabot Lodge, the new American Ambassador showed up in Vietnam.  He decided that Diem had to go, that he did not have the leadership skills necessary to run the country, and that he should separate himself from his brother.  Diem would not be dictated to by the Americans.

The Diem Brothers are Murdered

Barbara Colby related that she was attending Mass in church on All Saints Day, November 1st, when she learned that President Diem and his brother were found murdered.  She felt sincerely that we bore some share in the tragedy.  Things went wrong somehow.  Three weeks later, President Kennedy was killed.

The job was turned over to the military.  Special Forces were being used to provide security to the population.  Vietnam was being destroyed.

The Phoenix Program

Colby held stewardship over the controversial Phoenix Program, which was a measure that sanctioned the killing of thousands of suspected Viet Cong.  There were many former Viet Cong who helped the Americans.  They helped to root out the infrastructure of the insurgents.  They took their supplies away.  The captured prisoners were not treated well.  Colby was criticized in the U. S. for the Phoenix Program.  It was responsible for the deaths of 30,000 people.  People were starting to turn against the war.

Colby Appointed as Director of the CIA

In 1973, President Nixon appointed Colby as Director of the CIA.  During Colby’s oversight, Congress turned against the CIA, accusing it of assassination plots, wire-tapping of Americans, and other clandestine activities which were called the agency’s “family jewels.”  As the Director, William Colby acknowledged that some such activity had been done, but that his job was to formulate new rules.  He was called to testify before congressional committees 32 times in one year.  He became a tortured soul during this very traumatic period.

              William Colby is Replaced

Swearing in of George H. W. Bush as CIA DirectorCredit: Wikimedia Commons

By this time, Gerald Ford had become President.  He wanted to get rid of William Colby.  On January 30, 1976, the President appointed George H. W. Bush to replace William Colby as Director of the CIA.

In 1978, Colby published his memoir entitled “Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA.”  Then, in 1984, he divorced Barbara Colby after 40 years of marriage.  He remarried and opened a profitable law firm.  His son Carl portrayed him as cold, withdrawn, circumspect, with a talent for taken and inflicting punishment.  He claimed that his father was not capable of loving anyone.

Death of William Colby

William Colby died of drowning in April 1996 while canoeing alone on a lake near his home in Maryland.  It was reported that he may have suffered a stroke or heart attack.  There was no indication of foul play.  However, in the documentary, Colby’s son Carl indicated that his father suffered from guilt due to his actions in the CIA and was just tired of living.  Carl’s take on it was that his father may have committed suicide.  Carl’s siblings and William Colby’s second wife were dissatisfied with the documentary of Colby’s life, and insisted that it would be against Colby’s nature to commit suicide.  The documentary served to increase the rift between the siblings.  William Colby was buried in Arlington Cemetery.



Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA
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