Richard Helms, Director of Central Intelligence

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Richard McGarrah Helms

Birthplace: St. Davids, Radnor Township, Delaware, Pennsylvania, United States
Death: October 22, 2002 (89)
Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia, United States (Bone cancer)
Place of Burial: Arlington, Arlington, Virginia, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Herman Henry Helms and Marion Helms
Husband of Private and Cynthia McGarrah Helms
Ex-husband of Julia Bretzman Shields
Father of Private
Brother of Pearsall McGarrah Helms; Gates McGarrah Helms and Betty Hawn

Occupation: 1966 bis 1973 Direktor der CIA. 1973 bis 1977 Botschafter der USA im Iran.
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Richard Helms, Director of Central Intelligence

Richard McGarrah Helms (March 30, 1913 – October 22, 2002) was the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) from 1966 to 1973. He was the only director to have been convicted of lying to the United States Congress over Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) undercover activities. In 1977, he was sentenced to the maximum fine and received a suspended two-year prison sentence. Professionally he was described as a "good soldier", one who may protest a policy under discussion, but once made would support a decision loyally. Throughout his career he favored intelligence gathering and secrecy, but was often a critic of covert operations.

Life up to World War II

Helms was born in Philadelphia in 1913 to Marion Helms and Herman Helms, an executive for Alcoa. He grew up in South Orange, New Jersey and began high school there. He then spent two of his high school years at the prestigious Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland where he learned to speak French and later Realgymnasium in Freiburg, where he became fluent in German.

In 1935, after he graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, he got a job at the United Press (UP) in London. The depression in London, however forced Helms to find work in Germany, where he covered the Berlin Olympic Games. Following an annual NSDAP Parteitag, Helms with a small group of news reporters heard Adolf Hitler speak in the Nuremberg Castle. In 1937 he left the UP and returned home for a job on the business side of the Indianapolis Times. He had risen to be its national advertising manager by December, 1941, when America entered World War II.[2]

Early career in intelligence

During World War II Helms served in the United States Navy. In 1943, he was posted to the Secret Intelligence Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) because of his ability to speak German. From his wartime experiences, Helms formed the conviction that "secret intelligence matters, and that paramilitary dering-do doesn't."

In the aftermath of the war, he was transferred to the newly formed Office of Special Operations (OSO), where at the age of 33 he was put in charge of intelligence and counter-intelligence operations in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. The OSO became a division of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) when that organization was created by the National Security Act of 1947.

Eisenhower presidency

Iran and Guatemala

Generally Helms disliked the CIA's involvement in covert operations, thinking them ineffective in the long run. "But the 1950s were the CIA's great age of clandestine operations." Although failing at efforts to "roll-back" the Soviets from Eastern Europe, the CIA considered itself successful elsewhere. Mossadegh of Iran in August, 1953, and Arbenz of Guatemala in June, 1954, were both removed from office by CIA operations. Yet Helms thought the price had been too high, that "the CIA was more notorious than ever."

The U-2 and Bissell

A great triumph of the CIA in the late 1950s became the high-altitude U-2 photo-reconnaissance planes, which overflew the Soviet Union from May 1956 to May 1960, when the Russians shot one down. Thereafter, photo-reconnaissance was done by satellite. Richard Bissell of the CIA had taken the lead in developing both these technical systems. Allen Dulles, Director of Central Intelligence 1953-1961, appointed Bissell the new Deputy Director of Plans (DDP) in 1958. The position many thought should have gone to Richard Helms, who was a proven, accomplished administrator. Bissell and Helms did not get along. Yet Bissell turned out to be an "anarchic administrator" and his leading role in the Bay of Pigs fiasco led to his resignation in 1962. That then opened the way for Helms.

Kennedy presidency


The Kennedys strongly and persistently favored regime change for Fidel Castro in Cuba. Already under Eisenhower the CIA was given a prominent role in what became a plan to invade the island nation, with a landing force of exiled anti-Castro Cubans. It had the support of the CIA Director Allen Dulles. The project, however, became an "open secret". Helms, who highly valued secrecy and who was generally against covert actions, quickly distanced himself from the plan, remaining extremely sceptical of its chances, an opinion widely shared among CIA professionals not working on the project. Yet such internal CIA opposition was not made public. Just before the invasion, Castro detained in makeshift camps 100,000 suspects. In the event, the 1961 CIA-assisted invasion turned into a bitter failure.

In 1962 Helms became Deputy Director of Plans (Operations). Helms then served under John McCone, the new Director of Central Intelligence (1961–1965).


The Vietnam War had begun to draw increased participation by American forces. In August 1963 a proposed State Department cable advocated a coup to overthrow the Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem; by circumstance Helms, DDP at the CIA, was asked to approve the cable; he responded, "It's about time we bit this bullet." Yet quickly the CIA Director McCone strongly voiced his long opposition to such action. Later the controversial November coup resulted in the killing of President Diem.

Johnson presidency

In 1966 Helms was appointed Director of Central Intelligence. He continued to hold this post until 1973, thus well into the Nixon administration. He followed the relatively short DCI tenure of Admiral Raborn (1965–1966), under whom Helms had served as Deputy Director.

Regarding Vietnam, in 1965 Johnson decided to send in large number of American troops and to bomb the North; yet the military put stiff pressure on him to escalate further. In the "paper wars" that followed, Helms at the CIA was regularly asked to report on the effectiveness of the military, e.g., the bombing of Hanoi, which the military resented. Under Helms, such CIA reports were usually moderate, but often questioned whether the tactics used would result in compelling Hanoi to negotiate. Helms himself was evidently sceptical, yet Johnson never asked for his personal opinion. The CIA also organized an armed force of minority Meo in Laos, and minority Montagnards in the Vietnam highlands, as well as rural counterinsurgency forces. Further, the CIA became very involved in South Vietnamese politics. "One of the CIA's jobs was to coax a genuine South Vietnamese government into being."

According to one source, CIA Director Richard Helms "used his influence with Lyndon Johnson to warn about the growing dangers of U.S. involvement in Vietnam." On the other hand, Stansfield Turner (DCI 1977-1981) describes Helms's relationship with Johnson as being overly loyal to the office of president, resulting in the CIA staff's honest opinions on Vietnam not reaching Johnson. When The Wise Men confronted Johnson about the difficulty of winning in Vietnam, he was unprepared to accept their negative findings, yet their advice contributed to his decision to withdraw from the 1968 presidential election.

However there were successes during this era, such as the CIA analysis of the Six-Day War, which predicted that "the Israelis would win a war within a week to ten days." Helms believed it had kept the U.S. (for the most part) out of the conflict.

Domestic intelligence

Under both Johnson and Nixon, the CIA was tasked with domestic surveillance of protest movements, particularly anti-war activities, which later became called Operation CHAOS. This involved investigations of various American groups on the theory that they were funded and/or influenced by the Soviet Union. The program investigated Ramparts magazine, anti-war groups, and others, eventually building thousands of files on American citizens. These activities were illegal, as the CIA was forbidden from domestic spying.

Nixon presidency

The relative ease of Helms's role under President Lyndon Johnson changed with the arrival of President Richard Nixon and Nixon's national security advisor Henry Kissinger. Turner describes Nixon as basically being hostile to the CIA and claiming it was full of "liberals". He quotes Brent Scowcroft saying that Nixon had an "inferiority complex" to all the Ivy League graduates at the agency. Nixon preferred to have intelligence come through Kissinger and his team, even excluding Helms from National Security Council meetings.

In 1972, Helms ordered the destruction of most records from the huge MKULTRA project, over 150 CIA-funded research projects, many illegal, designed to explore any possibilities of mind control. The project became public knowledge two years later, after a New York Times report.


Perhaps Helms's most controversial actions as CIA chief, Project FUBELT, concerned the subversion of the socialist government of Chile and was done at Nixon's behest. Subsequently the Chilean coup of 1973 overthrew that country's democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, on September 11, 1973. According to Helms, Nixon had ordered the CIA to support an army coup to prevent Allende from becoming president in 1970. However, following the assassination of Army Commander-in-Chief General René Schneider by elements of the military, public support swung behind Allende, and he took office in October 1970. The CIA funneled millions of dollars to opposition groups and striking truck drivers in a continuing effort to destabilize the Allende government. Here Helms, although in disagreement, had assumed the role of a "good soldier" per Nixon's instructions.

Nixon continued to work against the Allende regime, including disruptive economic measures. Yet Allende had been elected with only 36% of the vote in a three-way contest, and during his presidency he was said to ignore the constitution in his socialist projects, policies which proved to be very unpopular and polarizing. Of course, the military junta's 1973 coup was more unconstitutional yet.

During his ambassadorial confirmation hearings before the Senate in 1973, Helms was questioned concerning the CIA's role in the Chilean affair. Because the operations were still secret and the hearings were public events, Helms denied that the CIA had ever aided Allende's opposition. However, later information uncovered by the Church Committee hearings showed that Helms's statements were false, and he was prosecuted and convicted in 1977. He received a two-year suspended sentence and a $2,000 fine.


During Watergate, Nixon asked Helms to interfere with the FBI investigation of the Watergate burglaries. By claiming state secrets privilege, Helms could have stopped the FBI investigation cold. Helms refused, which Turner calls a "courageous" move. Nixon was extremely displeased with Helms because of his refusal, but Helms had succeeded in distancing the CIA as far as possible from the scandal.

Ambassador to Iran

After the debacle of Watergate, the Agency came under much tighter Congressional control. Nixon had never liked the CIA or Helms its Director. In January 1973, Nixon considered Helms to be better suited as the U.S. ambassador to Iran, due to his good relations with the ruling Shah, who was Helms' former schoolmate at Le Rosey). Helms was thought capable regarding scrutiny of the oil industry and issues relating to government stability. Evidently Helms was approached about this position in late 1972. Thus he left the office of Director of Central Intelligence to serve as U.S. ambassador to Iran, 1973–1977, in Tehran.

Later years and death

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan awarded Helms the National Security Medal.

After he died of bone cancer in 2002, Richard Helms was interred in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.


Historian Keith Melton describes Helms as a professional who was always impeccably dressed and had a "low tolerance for fools". Helms was an elusive man, laconic and reserved.

Helms was married to a sculptress, six years his senior. They had two children. Helms played tennis. He was, of course, very non-committal politically. His wife apparently favored the Democratic Party.

While serving as an OSS intelligence officer in Europe in May 1945, Helms wrote a letter to his son Dennis, then three years old, using stationery he had recovered from Adolf Hitler's office in the ruins of the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. He dated the letter "V-E Day" (May 8, 1945), the day Germany surrendered. Sixty-six years later, Dennis Helms delivered the letter to the CIA; it arrived on May 3, 2011, the day after the death of Osama bin Laden. It now resides at the private museum at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

In the media

The character William Martin, portrayed by Cliff Robertson in the 1977 television miniseries Washington Behind Closed Doors (based on John Ehrlichman's novel The Company), was loosely based on Helms.
Helms was portrayed by actor Sam Waterston in a memorable scene in the 1995 film Nixon, deleted from the original release but included in the director's cut DVD.
The character Richard Hayes, portrayed by actor Lee Pace in the 2006 film The Good Shepherd, was loosely based on Helms.

Richard McGarrah Helms (* 30. März 1913 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; † 23. Oktober 2002 in Washington, D.C.) war ein US-amerikanischer Geheimdienstfunktionär, dessen Karriere ihren Höhepunkt in einer siebenjährigen Amtsperiode als Director of Central Intelligence hatte. Unter seine Verantwortung fallen unter anderem die Zerstörung eines großen Teils der Aufzeichnungen zum MKULTRA-Projekt sowie die CIA-Aktivitäten in Chile Anfang der 1970er Jahre.

Helms wuchs in South Orange, New Jersey auf. Nachdem er seine Schullaufbahn am renommierten Williams College in Williamstown (Massachusetts) abgeschlossen hatte, wurde er von der Nachrichtenagentur United Press als Reporter nach Berlin geschickt, von wo er über die Olympischen Spiele berichtete. Als seinen größten journalistischen Scoop bezeichnete er später ein Interview mit Adolf Hitler. Während des Zweiten Weltkrieges war Helms bei der United States Navy beschäftigt, bis er 1943 auf Grund seiner Deutschkenntnisse, die er im Schweizer Internat Le Rosey erworben hatte, zum Office of Strategic Services kam. Nach weiteren Stationen in Unterorganisationen der CIA, die ihn unter anderem Anfang der 60er Jahre nach Vietnam führten, wurde er 1966 Direktor der CIA. Damit war er der erste Spion, der dieses Amt ausübte. 1973 ersetzt Präsident Nixon Helms durch James R. Schlesinger, angeblich weil [Helms] sich geweigert hatte, den Einbruch in das Watergate-Hotel, also in das Wahlhauptquartier der Demokraten, unter dem Deckmantel einer CIA-Operation laufen zu lassen . Er wird von Nixon als Botschafter in den Iran versetzt, wo er bis 1976 blieb. 1977 wird er wegen Falschaussage vor dem Kongress in der Befragung zur Rolle der CIA beim Putsch in Chile 1973 zu zwei Jahren Haft auf Bewährung verurteilt. Später arbeitete er als Berater für Unternehmen, die im Ausland investieren wollten.

Angehörige des chilenischen Generals René Schneider, der 1970 von Gegnern Salvador Allendes ermordet worden war, reichten 2001 eine Klage gegen Helms, Henry Kissinger und weitere angeblich in die Ermordung verwickelte Personen ein; die Klage wurde abgewiesen. Der an multiplem Myelom leidende Helms starb 2002 im Alter von 89 Jahren. Seine letzte Ruhestätte ist der Nationalfriedhof Arlington.

Er war zweimal verheiratet und hatte einen Sohn aus erster Ehe. Postum wurde 2003 das gemeinsam mit William Hood geschriebene Buch A Look Over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency von Random House veröffentlicht.


   Richard Helms, William Hood: A Look Over My Shoulder: A Life in the Central Intelligence Agency. Random House, New York 2003, ISBN 0-375-50012-X
   Thomas Powers: The man who kept the secrets: Richard Helms & the CIA. Knopf, New York 1979, ISBN 0-394-50777-0

  • Residence: 1920 - Manhattan Assembly District 15, New York, New York, United States
  • Residence: 1935 - South Orange, New Jersey
  • Residence: 1940 - Ward 20, Indianapolis, Washington Township, Marion, Indiana, United States
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Richard Helms, Director of Central Intelligence's Timeline

March 30, 1913
Radnor Township, Delaware, Pennsylvania, United States
October 22, 2002
Age 89
Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia, United States
November 20, 2002
Age 89
Arlington, Arlington, Virginia, United States