William Colby
William Egan Colby spent a career in intelligence
Intelligence has been defined in different ways, including the abilities for abstract thought, understanding, communication, reasoning, learning, planning, emotional intelligence and problem solving....

 for the United States, culminating in holding the post of Director of Central Intelligence
Director of Central Intelligence
The Office of United States Director of Central Intelligence was the head of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, the principal intelligence advisor to the President and the National Security Council, and the coordinator of intelligence activities among and between the various United...

 (DCI) from September 1973, to January 1976.

During World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 Colby served with the Office of Strategic Services
Office of Strategic Services
The Office of Strategic Services was a United States intelligence agency formed during World War II. It was the wartime intelligence agency, and it was a predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency...

. After the war he joined the newly created Central Intelligence Agency
Central Intelligence Agency
The Central Intelligence Agency is a civilian intelligence agency of the United States government. It is an executive agency and reports directly to the Director of National Intelligence, responsible for providing national security intelligence assessment to senior United States policymakers...

. Before and during the Vietnam War
Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...

, Colby served as Chief of Station in Saigon, Chief of the CIA's Far East Division, and head of the Civil Operations and Rural Development effort, as well as overseeing the Phoenix Program
Phoenix Program
The Phoenix Program |phoenix]]) was a controversial counterinsurgency program designed, coordinated, and executed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency , United States special operations forces, and the Republic of Vietnam's security apparatus during the Vietnam War that operated...

. After Vietnam, Colby became Director of Central Intelligence and during his tenure, under intense pressure from the US Congress and the media, adopted a policy of relative openness about U.S. intelligence activities to the Senate Church Committee
Church Committee
The Church Committee is the common term referring to the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, a U.S. Senate committee chaired by Senator Frank Church in 1975. A precursor to the U.S...

 and House Pike Committee. Colby served as DCI under President
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

 Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon
Richard Milhous Nixon was the 37th President of the United States, serving from 1969 to 1974. The only president to resign the office, Nixon had previously served as a US representative and senator from California and as the 36th Vice President of the United States from 1953 to 1961 under...

 and President Gerald Ford
Gerald Ford
Gerald Rudolph "Jerry" Ford, Jr. was the 38th President of the United States, serving from 1974 to 1977, and the 40th Vice President of the United States serving from 1973 to 1974...

 and was replaced by future President George H. W. Bush
George H. W. Bush
George Herbert Walker Bush is an American politician who served as the 41st President of the United States . He had previously served as the 43rd Vice President of the United States , a congressman, an ambassador, and Director of Central Intelligence.Bush was born in Milton, Massachusetts, to...

 on January 30, 1976.

Early life and family

William Egan Colby was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Saint Paul is the capital and second-most populous city of the U.S. state of Minnesota. The city lies mostly on the east bank of the Mississippi River in the area surrounding its point of confluence with the Minnesota River, and adjoins Minneapolis, the state's largest city...

, in 1920. His father, Elbridge Colby, was a professor of English, author, and Army officer who served in Army and in university positions in Tientsin, China; Georgia; Vermont; and Washington, D.C. His grandfather, Charles Colby, had been a professor of chemistry at Columbia University but had died prematurely. His mother, Margaret Egan, was from a family in St. Paul active in Democratic politics. William Colby attended public high school in Burlington, Vermont and then Princeton University
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

, graduating in 1940 and entering Columbia Law School
Columbia Law School
Columbia Law School, founded in 1858, is one of the oldest and most prestigious law schools in the United States. A member of the Ivy League, Columbia Law School is one of the professional graduate schools of Columbia University in New York City. It offers the J.D., LL.M., and J.S.D. degrees in...

 the following year.

Colby was for most of his life a staunch Roman Catholic. He was often referred to as "the warrior-priest." He married Barbara Heinzen in 1945 and they had five children. The Catholic Church played a "central role" in the family's life, with Colby's two daughters receiving their first communion
First Communion
The First Communion, or First Holy Communion, is a Catholic Church ceremony. It is the colloquial name for a person's first reception of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Catholics believe this event to be very important, as the Eucharist is one of the central focuses of the Catholic Church...

 at St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter's Basilica
The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter , officially known in Italian as ' and commonly known as Saint Peter's Basilica, is a Late Renaissance church located within the Vatican City. Saint Peter's Basilica has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world...

. In 1984, he divorced Barbara and married Democratic diplomat Sally Shelton-Colby
Sally Shelton-Colby
Sally Shelton-Colby is a Democratic American diplomat. She was Ambassador of the United States to Barbados, Grenada and Dominica as well as Minister to St Lucia, and Special Representative to Antigua, St. Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla, and St. Vincent from 1979 to 1981, under Jimmy...


Office of Strategic Services

Following his first year at Columbia, in 1941 Colby volunteered for active duty with the Army and served with the Office of Strategic Services
Office of Strategic Services
The Office of Strategic Services was a United States intelligence agency formed during World War II. It was the wartime intelligence agency, and it was a predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency...

 as a Jedburgh or special operator trained to work with resistance forces in occupied Europe to harass German and Axis forces. During World War II, he parachuted behind enemy lines twice and earned the Silver Star as well as commendations from Norway, France, and Great Britain. In his first mission he deployed to France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 as a Jedburgh commanding Team BRUCE, in mid-August 1944, and operated with the Maquis until he joined up with Allied forces later that fall. In April 1945, he led the NORSO Group into Norway on a sabotage mission to destroy railway lines, in an effort to tie down German forces in Norway from reinforcing the final defense of Germany. After the war, Colby graduated from Columbia Law School and then briefly practiced law in William Joseph Donovan
William Joseph Donovan
William Joseph Donovan was a United States soldier, lawyer and intelligence officer, best remembered as the wartime head of the Office of Strategic Services...

's New York firm. Bored by the practice of law and inspired by his liberal beliefs, he moved to Washington to work for the National Labor Relations Board
National Labor Relations Board
The National Labor Relations Board is an independent agency of the United States government charged with conducting elections for labor union representation and with investigating and remedying unfair labor practices. Unfair labor practices may involve union-related situations or instances of...


Central Intelligence Agency

Shortly thereafter, an OSS friend offered him a job at the CIA, and Colby accepted. Colby spent the next twelve years in the field, first in Stockholm
Stockholm is the capital and the largest city of Sweden and constitutes the most populated urban area in Scandinavia. Stockholm is the most populous city in Sweden, with a population of 851,155 in the municipality , 1.37 million in the urban area , and around 2.1 million in the metropolitan area...

, Sweden
Sweden , officially the Kingdom of Sweden , is a Nordic country on the Scandinavian Peninsula in Northern Europe. Sweden borders with Norway and Finland and is connected to Denmark by a bridge-tunnel across the Öresund....

. There, he helped set up the stay-behind
In a stay-behind operation, a country places secret operatives or organisations in its own territory, for use in the event that the territory is overrun by an enemy. If this occurs, the operatives would then form the basis of a resistance movement, or would act as spies from behind enemy lines...

 networks of Gladio, a covert paramilitary organization organized by the CIA to make any Soviet occupation more difficult, as he later described in his memoirs.

Colby then spent much of the 1950s based in Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

, under cover as a State Department
United States Department of State
The United States Department of State , is the United States federal executive department responsible for international relations of the United States, equivalent to the foreign ministries of other countries...

 officer, where he led the Agency's covert political operations campaign to support anti-Communist parties in their electoral contests against left wing, Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

-associated parties. The Christian Democrat and allied parties won several key elections in the 1950s, preventing a takeover by the Communist Party
Italian Communist Party
The Italian Communist Party was a communist political party in Italy.The PCI was founded as Communist Party of Italy on 21 January 1921 in Livorno, by seceding from the Italian Socialist Party . Amadeo Bordiga and Antonio Gramsci led the split. Outlawed during the Fascist regime, the party played...

. Colby was a vocal advocate within the CIA and the U.S. Government for engaging the non-Communist left wing parties in order to create broader non-Communist coalitions capable of governing fractious Italy; this position first brought him into conflict with James Angleton.


In 1959, Colby became the CIA's Deputy Chief and then Chief of Station in Saigon, Vietnam
Vietnam – sometimes spelled Viet Nam , officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest, and the South China Sea –...

, where he served until 1962. Tasked by CIA with supporting the Diem government, Colby established a relationship with President Diem's family and with Ngo Dinh Nhu, the president's brother, with whom Colby's family became close. While in Vietnam, Colby focused intensively on building up Vietnamese capabilities to combat the Viet Cong insurgency in the countryside. He argued that "the key to the war in Vietnam was the war in the villages." In 1962 he returned to Washington to become the Deputy and then Chief of CIA's Far East Division. During these years he was deeply involved in Washington's policies in East Asia, particularly with respect to Vietnam, as well as Indonesia, Japan, Korea, and China. He was deeply critical of the decision to abandon support for Republic of Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem
Ngo Dinh Diem
Ngô Đình Diệm was the first president of South Vietnam . In the wake of the French withdrawal from Indochina as a result of the 1954 Geneva Accords, Diệm led the effort to create the Republic of Vietnam. Accruing considerable U.S. support due to his staunch anti-Communism, he achieved victory in a...

, and believed this played a material part in the weakening of the South Vietnamese position in the years following.

In 1968, while preparing to take up the post of Chief of the Soviet Bloc Division of the Agency, President Johnson instead sent Colby back to Vietnam as Deputy to Robert Komer, who had been charged with streamlining the civilian side of the American efforts against the Communists. Shortly after arriving Colby succeeded Komer as head of the U.S./South Vietnamese rural pacification effort. This was an attempt to quell the Communist insurgency in South Vietnam. Part of the effort was the controversial Phoenix Program
Phoenix Program
The Phoenix Program |phoenix]]) was a controversial counterinsurgency program designed, coordinated, and executed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency , United States special operations forces, and the Republic of Vietnam's security apparatus during the Vietnam War that operated...

, an initiative designed to identify and attack the "Viet Cong Infrastructure". There is considerable debate about the merits of the program, which involved assassination
To carry out an assassination is "to murder by a sudden and/or secret attack, often for political reasons." Alternatively, assassination may be defined as "the act of deliberately killing someone, especially a public figure, usually for hire or for political reasons."An assassination may be...

 and torture
Torture is the act of inflicting severe pain as a means of punishment, revenge, forcing information or a confession, or simply as an act of cruelty. Throughout history, torture has often been used as a method of political re-education, interrogation, punishment, and coercion...

, though Colby consistently insisted that such tactics were not permitted in the program as a matter of policy.

More broadly, along with Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and MACV Commander General Creighton Abrams, Colby was part of a leadership group that worked to apply a new approach to the war designed to focus more on pacification and securing the countryside as opposed to the "search and destroy" approach that had characterized General Westmoreland's tenure as COMUSMACV. Some, including Colby later in life, argue that this approach succeeded in quelling the Communist insurgency in South Vietnam, but that South Vietnam, abandoned by the United States after the 1973 peace accords, was ultimately overwhelmed by a conventional North Vietnamese assault.

CIA Director

Colby returned to Washington in 1971 and became Executive Director of CIA. After long-time DCI Richard Helms
Richard Helms
Richard McGarrah Helms was the Director of Central Intelligence from 1966 to 1973. He was the only director to have been convicted of lying to the United States Congress over Central Intelligence Agency undercover activities. In 1977, he was sentenced to the maximum fine and received a suspended...

 was dismissed by President Nixon in 1973, James Schlesinger assumed the helm at the Agency. A strong believer in reform of the CIA and the Intelligence Community more broadly, Schlesinger had written a 1971 Bureau of the Budget report outlining his views on the subject. Colby, who had had a somewhat unorthodox career in the CIA focused on political action and counterinsurgency, agreed with Schlesinger's reformist approach. Schlesinger appointed him head of the clandestine branch in early 1973. When Nixon reshuffled his agency heads and made Schlesinger Secretary of Defense, Colby emerged as a natural candidate for DCI—apparently based on the recommendation that he was a professional who would not make waves.

Colby was known as a "media-friendly CIA director." His tenure as DCI, which lasted two and a half tumultuous years, was overshadowed by the Church and Pike congressional investigations into alleged U.S. intelligence malfeasance over the preceding twenty-five years, including 1975, the so-called "Year of Intelligence." Colby cooperated, not out of a desire for a major overhaul, but in the belief that the actual scope of such misdeeds — encapsulated in the so-called "Family Jewels
Family Jewels (Central Intelligence Agency)
The Family Jewels is the informal name used to refer to a set of reports that detail activities conducted by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. Considered illegal or inappropriate, these actions were conducted over the span of decades, from the 1950s to the mid-1970s...

" — was not great enough to justify lasting damage to the CIA's reputation. Colby also believed that the CIA had a moral and legal obligation to cooperate with the Congress and demonstrate that the CIA was accountable to the Constitution. On a more practical level, he also believed that cooperating with Congress was the only way to save the Agency from dissolution during a period of great congressional strength. This openness policy caused a major rift within the CIA ranks, with many old-line officers such as former DCI Richard Helms believing that the CIA should have resisted congressional intrusion.

Colby's time as DCI was also eventful on the world stage. Shortly after he assumed leadership, the Yom Kippur War
Yom Kippur War
The Yom Kippur War, Ramadan War or October War , also known as the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the Fourth Arab-Israeli War, was fought from October 6 to 25, 1973, between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria...

 broke out, an event that surprised not only the American intelligence agencies but also the Israelis. This intelligence surprise reportedly affected Colby's credibility with the Nixon Administration. Colby participated in the National Security Council meetings that responded to apparent Soviet intentions to intervene in the War by raising the alert level of U.S. forces to DEFCON
A defense readiness condition is an alert posture used by the United States Armed Forces. The DEFCON system was developed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and unified and specified combatant commands. It prescribes five graduated levels of readiness for the U.S...

 3 and defusing the crisis. In 1975, after many years of involvement, South Vietnam fell to Communist forces in April 1975, a particularly difficult blow for Colby, who had dedicated so much of his life and career to the American effort there. Events in the arms control field, Angola, the Middle East, and elsewhere also demanded attention.

Colby also focused on internal reforms within the CIA and the Intelligence Community. He attempted to modernize what he believed to be some out-of-date structures and practices by disbanding the Board of National Estimates and replacing it with the National Intelligence Council.

President Ford, advised by Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger
Heinz Alfred "Henry" Kissinger is a German-born American academic, political scientist, diplomat, and businessman. He is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He served as National Security Advisor and later concurrently as Secretary of State in the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and...

 and others concerned by Colby's controversial openness to Congress and distance from the White House, replaced Colby late in 1975 with George H. W. Bush
George H. W. Bush
George Herbert Walker Bush is an American politician who served as the 41st President of the United States . He had previously served as the 43rd Vice President of the United States , a congressman, an ambassador, and Director of Central Intelligence.Bush was born in Milton, Massachusetts, to...

 during the so called "Halloween Massacre
Halloween Massacre
The "Halloween Massacre" is the term associated with the major reorganization of U.S. President Gerald R. Ford's Cabinet on November 4, 1975. Several prominent moderate Republicans in the administration were replaced by more conservative figures...

" in which Secretary of Defense Schlesinger was also replaced (by Donald Rumsfeld
Donald Rumsfeld
Donald Henry Rumsfeld is an American politician and businessman. Rumsfeld served as the 13th Secretary of Defense from 1975 to 1977 under President Gerald Ford, and as the 21st Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2006 under President George W. Bush. He is both the youngest and the oldest person to...

). Colby was offered the position of U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO but turned it down.

Post-CIA career

In 1977, Colby founded a D.C. law firm—Colby, Miller & Hanes, with Marshall Miller, David Hanes, and associated lawyers, and worked on public policy issues. In consonance with his long-held liberal views, Colby became a supporter of the nuclear freeze and of reductions in military spending. He practiced law and advised various bodies on intelligence matters. He also wrote two books, one of memoirs entitled Honorable Men, the other on Vietnam
Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...

, called Lost Victory. In the latter, Colby argued that the U.S.-RVN counterinsurgency campaign in Vietnam had succeeded by the early 1970s and that South Vietnam could have survived had the U.S. continued to provide support after the Paris Accords. Though the topic remains open and controversial, some recent scholarship, including by Lewis "Bob" Sorley, supports Colby's arguments. Colby also lent his expertise and knowledge, along with Oleg Kalugin
Oleg Kalugin
Oleg Danilovich Kalugin , is a former KGB general. He was a longtime head of KGB operations in the United States and later a critic of the agency.-Early life and the KGB career:...

, to the Activision
Activision is an American publisher, majority owned by French conglomerate Vivendi SA. Its current CEO is Robert Kotick. It was founded on October 1, 1979 and was the world's first independent developer and distributor of video games for gaming consoles...

 game Spycraft: The Great Game
Spycraft: The Great Game
Spycraft is an adventure CD-ROM game published by Activision in 1996. It details the attempted assassination of the President of the United States and the CIA and SVR attempts to save him...

, which was released shortly before his death. Both Colby and Kalugin played themselves in the game.


On Saturday, April 27, 1996, Colby died in an apparent boating accident near his home in Rock Point
Rock Point, Maryland
Rock Point is an unincorporated community located near Cobb Island at the mouth of the Wicomico River in Charles County, Maryland, United States.Rock Point was named for the rockfish, or striped bass...

, Maryland
Maryland is a U.S. state located in the Mid Atlantic region of the United States, bordering Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia to its south and west; Pennsylvania to its north; and Delaware to its east...

. His body was found underwater on Monday, May 6, 1996. The coroner ruled Colby's death a heart attack. Some, including his son Carl, allege that Colby was murdered or committed suicide, noting that: "Two weeks prior to his death, the elder Colby called Carl to ask absolution for being an absent father in his sister’s difficult life. On the evening of his disappearance Colby had a good meal, a few drinks, and got into his canoe. He carried a picture of daughter Catherine. As Carl comments, he had had enough of this life."


Colby was the subject of a biography, Lost Crusader, by John Prados published in 2003. His son Carl Colby released a documentary on his father's professional and personal life, The Man Nobody Knew
The Man Nobody Knew
The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby is a 2011 American documentary film exploring the life and career of former CIA director William Egan Colby. It is narrated and directed by Carl Colby and produced by David Johnson....

, in 2011. Randall B. Woods, Distinguished Professor of History at the William J. Fulbright School at the University of Arkansas, is also working on a biography of Colby.


  • "We disbanded our intelligence and then found we needed it. Let's not go through that again. Redirect it, reduce the amount of money spent, but let's not destroy it. Because you don't know 10 years out what you're going to face."
  • "The more we know about each other the safer we all are." - Colby to Leonid Brezhnev

Additional sources

Evaluation of his tenure by CIA historian/official. Talk on Colby's legacy by University of Arkansas Cold War historian Randall Woods. Declassified CIA History Staff history of Colby's tenure as DCI.

External links

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