Anna Sale is the host and managing editor of Death, Sex & Money, WNYC’s interview show about the big questions and hard choices that are often left out of polite conversation.
Between WWII and His Suicide, de Blasio's Father a Cold Warrior
Monday, October 14, 2013
Between losing his leg in WWII and his tragic suicide in 1979, Bill de Blasio's father forged a career with think tanks and multinational corporations aimed at blocking the spread of communism. A decade after his death, his son was in Nicaragua, working in support of the kind of socialist government his father's old colleagues tried to prevent in Latin America.
Bill de Blasio never got to talk to his troubled father about his 1988 trip to aid Sandinista-led Nicaragua or his 1991 honeymoon in Castro's Cuba. Warren Wilhelm was already gone, having shot himself in 1979 while suffering from terminal cancer.
But a look into some of the family's back pages shows that father and son, had they gotten to discuss it, would have brought radically different perspectives to the subject.
“I do remember early on feeling that he had a naïve belief in the ability of the free enterprise system to address the poverty in Latin America," de Blasio said in an interview with WNYC. "He had a real naïve assumption about America's role, a real naïve assumption about the power of business investment to change societies from outside."
When he decided as a young adult to stop being called Warren Wilhelm Jr. and become one of the de Blasios on his mother's side of the family, the man who is now the leading candidate to be the next mayor of New York shed more than just the name of a man he knew largely as a troubled alcoholic who divorced his mother before he was 8 years old.
After his return from the Pacific in World War II, where he was badly wounded, Warren Wilhelm was an active partisan in the cold war, records show, working at one point as a researcher at a CIA-linked institute at Harvard looking for weak spots in the Soviet Union, and later as an oil executive seeking to boost the influence of multinational corporations in Latin America as a means to counter Castro-style communism.
De Blasio also never discussed his world views with his father's older brother, Donald Wilhelm Jr., a professor and former government official who died in 2001 in London. But nephew and uncle would likely have had even sharper debates.
Records show Donald Wilhelm Jr. was an even more active advocate of U.S. foreign policy, working as a U.S. government advisor in the Far East and writing a series of books prescribing ways the West could triumph over communism. While serving as a visiting professor at the University of Teheran in the mid-1950s, he helped the Shah of Iran, who had assumed the throne thanks to a CIA-sponsored coup just a couple of years earlier, write his memoir. The two men grew close. In his preface to "Mission for My Country," Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi thanked Wilhelm above all others.
"For assistance in the writing of this book I am happy to recognize Dr. Donald Wilhelm, Jr. Visiting Professor of Political Science in the University of Teheran. Dr. Wilhelm came to Iran early in 1956 and, as have other scholars before him, he developed an intense interest in our civilization," the Shah wrote right at the top of the preface to his book. "I am pleased to count Professor Wilhelm as a personal friend as well as a friend of my country."
There is much that remains unknown about the careers of both brothers. Both have been, at one time or another, the subject of rumors that they worked with American intelligence agencies. Asked directly "about the CIA -- both the family lore around your uncle Donald and your father, were there there ever jokes about the dinner table about the CIA, or any CIA connections in the family?" de Blasio answered "No. Not at all anything like that or specific like that , I think there was always the reference to my uncle and the relationship with the Shah, more from the perspective of what was wrong with the Shah."
He had known his uncle only as a child, he said, but he'd heard through "family lore" that he was "sort of a mouthpiece for the Shah." It was not something he was proud of.
"I think it was the wrong thing to do," said de Blasio. "It's just that simple. The overthrow of [Iran's democratically elected leader Mohammed] Mossadegh was one of the most profoundly negative, immoral, unfair acts of U.S. foreign policy in the last hundred years," he said.
Those who installed the Shah in power, he added, had fueled future conflicts. "Anyone who rightfully fears the current government in Iran should recognize that unfortunately we set the stage for it in terms of the actions of our country," he said.
De Blasio was less critical but equally skeptical about his father's work.
De Blasio said that after his father recovered from the loss of part of a leg while fighting as an Army lieutenant in the bloody battle of Okinawa in 1945, he studied at Harvard and then worked as an economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce. His work there ended abruptly, however, after he became the subject of a McCarthy-era loyalty investigation. The probe was due to questions raised by an ex-communist informant about de Blasio's mother, Maria, who had been active in the Newspaper Guild when she worked at Time Magazine.
"As she got investigated, he got investigated," said de Blasio. "He served his country in the most profound way, and the story in the family always was that he felt this extraordinary anger and frustration that he had served with distinction, he had given up his leg for his country, and that then his loyalty was being questioned."
But if his loyalty was in doubt, Warren Wilhelm seemed clearly aligned in the increasingly sharp divide of the cold war. In 1950, he was quoted extensively in a New York Times article concerning a research paper on industrial development in the Soviet Union that he wrote while associated with the Russian Research Center at Harvard.
De Blasio said he knew little about his father's work there, other than that he wanted to become a teacher: "I remember my mother telling me at one point he very much wanted to be a professor, he wanted to work at the Harvard Business school."
The Russian Research Center, according to a "Compromised Campus: The Collaboration of Universities With the Intelligence Community, 1945-1955," by Sigmund Diamond, was launched with the help of the CIA, which secretly funded some of its research. Recently unsealed CIA records show that among the projects the agency was backing at the time Wilhelm was associated with the center were the debriefing of Soviet-bloc defectors and a handbook on anti-Soviet propaganda.
At some point later-de Blasio isn’t certain exactly when-Warren Wilhelm worked as an executive at Texaco, the giant oil firm with vast interests in the Middle East and South America. The firm was a major beneficiary of the Shah who, promptly after taking power, denationalized his nation's oil and cut a deal to allow a consortium of major oil companies, including Texaco, to handle production and marketing. The company was also one of the big losers to Castro, who seized a Texaco oil refinery after he overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
Previously secret CIA records show that, months before the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Texaco representatives were among a group of American business executives urging top CIA officials to "get off of dead center and take some direction" against Castro.
What's known of Warren Wilhelm's own anti-Castro efforts is that they were decidedly softer. In 1963, Wilhelm helped spearhead a coalition of multinational corporations aimed at persuading Latin American countries to allow increased outside investment as a means of reducing Castro's influence.
The Atlantic Community Development Group for Latin America, known as ADELA, received strong backing from New York Senator Jacob Javits. Wilhelm, according to correspondence cited by SUNY Professor Salvador Rivera in a 2007 paper about the effort, was considered an important player in the group, thanks to his close links to the Ford Foundation, which was helping fund the group, and the U.S. State Department.
De Blasio said he was unaware of any ties between his father and the Ford Foundation, which acknowledged in the early 1970s that it had served as a secret back-channel conduit for CIA funds routed to nonprofit cultural and social groups. "And certainly nothing about the State Department," de Blasio said.
As for his father's efforts in Latin America, he said they were well-intentioned, but naive.
His father, he said, was "a kind of classic moderate-to-liberal Democrat," a child of the New Deal with "an inherent appreciation for the Roosevelt era."
As a teenager, he said he discussed the Vietnam war with his father, but came away from their talks wondering about what he was told. "I think there was an element of skepticism as I was listening to him, even when I was relatively young in my teens I could feel that something just didn’t add up.”
Vietnam was something of a watershed for his parents, de Blasio said, once his oldest brother, Steven, became of draft age.
"My mother, really like so many mothers in America, became increasingly anti-war, and sort of more and more objective about what was happening," he said. "And I always thought my father had this, you know he was an Army veteran, had this American-centric world view and talked about maybe we should be sending more troops. So he had that, a world view that I found a little out of step with what was happening on the ground."
WNYC asked De Blasio if he would authorize other family members to talk about his father and uncle. He said he would see if that was possible, adding: "I think you won't be surprised when I say people are a little saturated at this point."
A campaign aide later said that other relatives declined to be interviewed. Donald Wilhelm's son John, who has been a major campaign donor and supporter in his cousin's mayoral bid, refused to talk about his father's government work when reached by WNYC. "It's a family matter," he said before hanging up. "I'm not going to discuss it."
Tom Robbins is Investigative Journalist in Residence at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Twitter: @tommy_robb.
To hear Anna Sale's interview with Bill de Blasio, click the play button above.