This young man has only one eye, but he sees more with one eye than most people see with two.
—President Rufus Jones
(introducing Cord Meyer in 1947)
Fathers, go back to your children, who are in need of you. Husbands, go back to your young wives, who cry in the night and count the anxious days. Farmers, return to your fields, where the grain rots and the house slides into ruin. The only certain fruit of this insanity will be the rotting bodies upon which the sun will impartially shine tomorrow. Let us throw down these guns that we hate. With the morning we shall go together and in charity and hope build a new life and a new world.
—Cord Meyer Jr.
“Waves of Darkness” (1946)
There is a huge difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism at the expense of another nation is as wicked as racism at the expense of another race. Let us resolve to be patriots always, nationalists never. Let us love our country, but pledge allegiance to the earth and to the flora and fauna and human life that it supports—one planet indivisible, with clean air, soil and water; with liberty, justice and peace for all.
—William Sloane Coffin
Former Yale University chaplain
(Riverside Church, New York City, 2003)
IN AN ATTACK on a Japanese stronghold on the island of Guam during the morning of July 21, 1944, Lieutenant Cord Meyer Jr. climbed up the steep beaches leading a machine-gun platoon of forty-four men in the 22nd Marine Regiment. That evening, the thirty surviving Marines dug in for the night in their foxholes. For hours, bullets had been flying everywhere. One had sideswiped Cord and literally cut the tip off a cigar that had been in the breast pocket of his jacket. He lit the cigar later that day and “pretended a courage” he didn’t feel. That night, a heavy barrage of American firepower from ships offshore answered repeated Japanese assaults.1
Cord Meyer lay alongside his sergeant in a foxhole that was barely a foot deep. The two had agreed that one should keep guard while the other rested. Every two hours, they switched roles. To combat his fear as the night sky darkened with rain clouds, Cord tried to conjure lust by summoning pornographic images in his mind. “It proved a poor substitute,” he would write two years later. The power of terror was as overwhelming as it was debilitating. With each attack, the lieutenant and his sergeant fought back and then endured the deafening silences between rounds.
Cord wondered how he had arrived at the place he now found himself: every moment facing down his fear of death. In a state of mental detachment, he was able to see the entire spectacle of war that confronted him. On one side were his countrymen, “lying in their scooped out holes with their backs to the sea, each one shivering with fright yet determined to die bravely.” On the other side, “the poor peasantry from which the enemy recruited his soldiers were being herded into a position like cattle, to be driven in a headlong charge against the guns.” How could it be possible, Cord had wondered that night, that such a human tragedy as war was now taking place? After all, “adult human beings of the civilized world did not slaughter one another. There must be some mistake which could be corrected before it was too late.” Two years later, in 1946, Cord was awarded the O. Henry Prize for his short story “Waves of Darkness,” in which he articulated a passionate appeal for world peace that would, at least for a period of time, inform every aspect of his life and work:
What if he should get out of his [fox] hole and explain the matter reasonably to both sides? “Fellow human beings,” he would begin. “There are very few of us here who in private life would kill a man for any reason whatever. The fact that guns have been placed in our hands and some of us wear one uniform and some another is no excuse for the mass murder we are about to commit. There are differences between us, I know, but none of them worth the death of one man. Most of us are not here by our own choice. We were taken from our peaceful lives and told to fight for reasons we cannot understand. Surely we have more in common than that which temporarily separates us. Fathers, go back to your children, who are in need of you. Husbands, go back to your young wives, who cry in the night and count the anxious days. Farmers, return to your fields, where the grain rots and the house slides into ruin. The only certain fruit of this insanity will be the rotting bodies upon which the sun will impartially shine tomorrow. Let us throw down these guns that we hate. With the morning we shall go together and in charity and hope build a new life and a new world.”2
But during early the morning of July 22, Cord experienced anything but “charity and hope.” At 0300 hours, a Japanese grenade rolled into his foxhole, exploding in his face and killing his sergeant. Cord lay mortally wounded, contemplating death, bleeding everywhere, pieces of his teeth like half-eaten peanuts awash in his mouth of blood. The blast had shattered one eye completely and left the other so badly damaged it was swollen shut. With horror, Cord realized he was blind. Still conscious, he searched with one hand for his.45-caliber pistol to end his misery. Reviewing his short life, he realized that he had “no hatred in his heart against anyone, but rather pity.”3 Why had he not followed his conscience and refused military service, he bemoaned as he lay there dying, cursing nation-state savagery and war.
Cord’s father had feared the worst for his sensitive, artistic son. Meyer senior had reportedly looked his four boys over, having had his own combat experience in World War I. “Of all his sons, he decided Cord Jr. would be able to take it least of all,” wrote journalist Croswell Bowen in 1948. “If any of them crack up under it,” he told Bowen, “it will be Cord.” Cord’s mother was also convinced he would be killed.4
Found the next morning, Cord was immediately transported to a nearby hospital ship, where the doctor told those around him, “He’s got about 20 minutes to live,” and listed him as dead on the battalion roster, causing his parents terrible distress. Cord would, in fact, live—and thrive; but his mistaken death notice foreshadowed his twin brother Quentin’s loss a year later.
Cord Meyer Jr. was born in Washington D.C. on November 10, 1920. His twin brother Quentin was named for his father’s best friend, Quentin Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt. The twin brothers grew up in Bayside, Long Island, as well as New York City. Wealthy and socially prominent with strong political ties, the Meyer family was an influential one.
Like their father, the twins Cord and Quentin were educated at the elite St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. The school was a breeding ground for those who would one day assume positions of power in business and politics. While Quentin often stood out athletically, Cord was the academic star who also had intense feelings of social responsibility. Gerald Chittenden, a former teacher at St. Paul’s, recalled in 1948 that “Cord was fundamentally a poet,” yet he was imbued with a kind of temperament “that had a fixed habit of going off the deep end; he blew like a half gale. He may sometimes have been a little absurd in those days, but when he cooled down as he sometimes did, he amused himself as much as he did the rest of us. There was no vanity in him.”5
Yet, as Chittenden further observed, “the cold and faded oyster of cynicism drove him [Cord] to absolute fury.” In point of fact, Cord’s emotional intensity was a double-edged sword, and would remain so for the rest of his life. Channeled constructively, it might have compelled an entire country to seek out something yet unimagined. For as Chittenden astutely observed: “On questions of morals and morale, he [Cord] was always right.”6 But unfocused and without discipline, that same “absolute fury” could turn destructive and, like a cyclone, destroy everything in its path.
After graduating second in his class at St. Paul’s, Cord entered Yale in 1939, just after war had been declared in Europe. Despite the distant thunder of marching German armies, Cord immersed himself in the academic cornucopia that lay before him. He was dazzled by the brilliance of Yale’s legendary faculty. “I had great respect for Cord,” recalled his classmate and former journalist Charlie Bartlett. “He was always a dedicated student of anything he took on. He got the best marks in our class because he worked so damn hard.”7
During late-night dormitory arguments at Yale’s Davenport College, the war in Europe inevitably took center stage. For Cord, there were no merits to debate. His was the heart of a conscientious objector when it came to all things war. “Of one thing, he was certain: War was a violation of all the things, all the accumulated learning, all the teachings of the poets and philosophers who were increasingly commanding his respect.”8 Cord’s fundamental dilemma was this: If murder was against the law within a sovereign state, why, then, was it “a glorious achievement to be rewarded with appropriate honors and acclaim when committed on a member of a neighboring state?” The contradiction caused Cord to view war as nothing less than internationally sanctioned anarchy, and it would later become the chief organizing principle of his work for world peace.
Yet however “fundamentally a poet,” or philosophically a conscientious objector, Cord became bound by the conventions of his time. Circumstances being what they were, he ultimately took refuge in Plato: “A citizen could not accept the protection of the laws and the education provided by the state and then refuse to obey those laws when they required him to bear arms in the state’s justifiable defense.” With Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, “the only question left for debate was which branch of the service to join,” Cord recalled in 1980.9 Like almost everyone who went to war, Cord’s life would be permanently altered by it.
Enlisting in the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia, Cord completed his Yale graduation requirements early. By the time he graduated in December 1942, he had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, played goalie for the Yale hockey team, and had been a publishing editor of the Yale Literary Magazine. His crowning achievement was receiving Yale’s highest honor at graduation, the Alpheus Henry Snow Prize for being “the senior adjudged by the faculty to have done most for Yale by inspiring his classmates.” Yale president Charles Seymour bestowed the honor on Cord, his voice quivering with emotion. Years later, journalist Merle Miller would recall that moment when Cord, in full Marine regalia, received the honor. “Tall and fair and handsome in his dress blues,” Miller wrote, Cord received “no doubt what was his first standing ovation,” and the applause and cheering seemed never to end. President Seymour told the departing graduates that it was up to them to “save our nation, indeed the whole world.” One acquaintance who was there that day recalled, “We all knew whom Seymour had in mind to lead that battle; the rest of us would willingly, you might say worshipfully, be Cord’s lieutenants in the fight.”10
The reality of war came soon enough. Like many soldiers in combat, Cord wrote letters home, chronicling his experiences and their effect on him. So eloquent and forthright were Cord’s letters that Edward Weeks, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, when shown the letters by Cord’s uncle, decided to publish them even before Cord returned from the Pacific. “His writing, I felt, had a timeless style,” Weeks told author Croswell Bowen in 1947. “Like Conrad, his prose gets you—so much so that you can’t read it aloud. There is a maturity and vividness about his phrasing. He seems to reach out and grab the exact word he needs.” Readers responded to Cord’s collection of missives, “On the Beaches,” with enormous enthusiasm, and the Atlantic received an unusually high number of requests for reprints.11 So began the opening of doors upon Cord’s return.
Cord spent the rest of the summer and fall of 1944 in convalescence. Returning to his family in New York in September, he made frequent trips to the Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital for the delicate removal of coral sand out of his one remaining eye. One piece of shrapnel was considered too dangerous to move. He also had to be fitted for a glass eye. He emerged as a hero from his convalescence, having earned the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Cord’s journal entry in September 1944 revealed a new sense of calling as he contemplated his future: “The general notion of what I have to do is clear. I owe it to those who fell beside me, and to those many others who will die before it’s done, the assurance that I will do all that is in my small power to make the future for which they died an improvement upon the past. The question is how? In what field or endeavor? Where to begin? Education? Politics? Writing? Continue my education or not?”12
That fall, Cord began “seeing a lot of Mary Pinchot.” He described her as “intensely concerned about the catastrophe of war which had beset their generation.”13 The two had met before Cord went to war, but no sparks had ignited. Their connection this time, however, fueled a passion that was as intellectual and spiritual as it was physical. For Cord, Mary was a “roman candle” who not only demanded and supported his vision of a world without war, but also shared an emerging focus on how to convince the masses of its rightness. It was to be a partnership of equals as their crusade began to take place on the world stage. Throughout the fall and into the winter of 1945, Mary and Cord deepened their union while forging and exploring the possibilities for action.
Still uncertain of a path for his vision, Cord entered Yale Law School in February 1945, commuting back and forth from New York. Not interested in entering his family’s well-established, highly profitable real estate business, he considered a legal career to be a sound stepping-stone to public life. But the drudgery of the law curriculum bored him; he longed to continue writing. In April 1945, Cord received word that former Minnesota governor Harold Stassen, soon to be a U.S. delegate to the San Francisco Conference that would establish the United Nations, had chosen him to be one of his aides for the conference. Cord leaped at the chance and immediately went to Washington to meet with Stassen. The following day, he returned to New York where he and Mary were quietly married at her mother’s apartment. The two would attend the conference together. Mary would report the event for UPI.
Stassen had chosen Cord on recommendations from a number of American colleges. He would not be disappointed. After the conference, asked about the quality of Cord’s work, Stassen said, “[H]e turned in the best reports of the day of the proceedings and got them to me twice as fast as anyone else.” Stassen would later say of Cord, “That young man has the best mind of any young man in America.”14
Increasingly persuasive and articulate about his emerging vision for the prospect of a world without war, Cord was critical of the first UN conference in San Francisco. Despite the extravagant press claims that the conference had been a major step forward in ensuring a peaceful future for the world, Cord already knew differently. The proposed UN Security Council veto power, as well as certain other provisions, made it virtually impossible for the new organization to protect against armed aggression. “This is a step in the right direction,” Cord told John Crider of the New York Times, “but there will have to be amendments to make it work. I don’t see how it can prevent war unless it grows into something more than seems to be contemplated here. It seems to be the only practical solution at the moment, but it remains to be seen if it is workable.” Cord concluded, “[T]he only real solution is a genuine federation of the nations so they would not be free to make war, but would be subordinate to a higher law.”15
Cord had just articulated twenty-three words that might open an entirely new era: “… a genuine federation of the nations so they would not be free to make war, but would be subordinate to a higher law.” It was May 2, 1945, barely a week after the UN charter conference in San Francisco had begun. The mission he and Mary would share for the next three years was coming into focus, and his presence at the conference wasn’t going unnoticed. “There was a lot of talk about Cord Meyer who was a young political hopeful at that time,” said Betty Coxe Spaulding, who attended the conference with her husband, Chuck Spaulding. “He was married to Mary Pinchot at that time, so Cord and Mary, Chuck and I, and Jack [Kennedy] and his girlfriend would spend time together.”16
As it happened, or perhaps as fate would have it, Jack Kennedy was covering the event as a newspaper correspondent for the Hearst newspaper Chicago Herald-American. Whatever social temptations beckoned, young Kennedy did manage to file seventeen three-hundred-word stories, mainly focusing on the emerging tensions between Russia and the West. His stories always included his picture, byline, and a short bio—”PT-boat hero of the South Pacific and son of former Ambassador, Joseph P. Kennedy”—as well his authorship of the best-selling Why England Slept. Yet Jack’s astute grasp of the unfolding post–World War II power grab was steadily drawing attention. Like Cord, he was being courted by the Atlantic Monthly’s editor, Edward Weeks. “I haven’t changed my views that disarmament is an essential part of any lasting peace,” Jack wrote back to the editor during the conference. In one Hearst dispatch, Kennedy wrote that “diplomacy might be said to be the art of who gets what and how, as applied to international affairs.”17 And like Cord, he would leave the conference with a sense of some inevitable showdown among world powers that the UN would, in the end, be completely powerless to stop.18
During the San Francisco UN conference, Jack and Cord had a legendary confrontation.19 Still dazzled by Mary’s allure, Jack was willing to try almost anything to stay connected with her. Sensing the intrusion, Cord would have none of it. Testosterone sparks of territorial infringement quickly flared amid whatever social discourse was taking place. Realizing Cord’s position as a principal liaison to U.S. delegate Harold Stassen, Jack wanted to interview him for one of his press filings, but Cord snubbed him, declining the invitation. Jack never forgot the dismissal; years later, when Cord wanted out of the CIA and solicited Kennedy for the ambassadorship to Guatemala, the president ignored him. Joseph W. Shimon, a close Kennedy White House aide who talked and walked with President Kennedy daily, noted in 1975 that the president never forgave anyone who crossed him. “Bobby would threaten you,” said Shimon, “he’d holler, scream, kick you, anything. Jack was a strong, deep, silent guy, really more so than people realize. Jack wouldn’t threaten you. Jack would do it to you. He’d just pull that string and you’re through.”20
Cord and Mary left the UN charter conference discouraged. Despite the many efforts to find some unifying supranational authority against “the death agony of nationalism” that forever propelled one nation against another, the United Nations was neutered even before its inception. Recalling one of his mentors at Yale, Cord mused: “[Professor Nicholas] Spykman showed us that the existence of sovereign states had always led to wars. He didn’t think anything could be done about it; he was quite cynical about the chances of peace.”21 The press had made extravagant claims about the conference as a major step toward ensuring peace throughout the world, but Cord felt differently. The proposed United Nations Security Council veto power, for example, made it virtually impossible for the new organization to protect against armed aggression. The Soviets, keen to protect their independence, had opposed all attempts to give the UN real power. So had the U.S. Senate, which prohibited the American delegation from proposing anything that would limit America’s hegemony.
Cord’s frustration with bureaucratic roadblocks, however, paled next to the wrenching horror he experienced upon receiving an early morning phone call from his mother on May 31. His fraternal twin brother, Quentin, had been killed in action during an entrenched battle with the Japanese on Okinawa. One of his wiremen had been hit by sniper fire. Quentin had rushed to help him and was killed by fragments from a Japanese grenade. The war between nations had just become even more personal, taking from Cord someone whom he had loved deeply
Though comforted by Mary, Cord was shattered by the death of his brother, yet there was little show of grief. Without expression, “absolute fury” and the emotional pain that drove it would eventually extract the kind of toll that forever torments a soul. Those closest to Cord would repeatedly remark how big a blow the death of his twin brother had been. “Cord was always very closed off emotionally and protective of his private life,” recalled his former Yale classmate, newspaperman Charlie Bartlett. “I don’t think he ever got over the loss of his brother.”22
The letter Cord wrote to his parents after brother Quentin’s death was disciplined, stoic, and philosophical. He spoke of his brother’s bravery, of his lack of guile, and his belief that Quentin would go on living in the hearts and minds of those who loved him. Later attempting to make sense of the loss, he recalled a memory of Quentin where he “saw him in the moonlight with his head raised in a gesture of farewell, and though we were twins still young in his unconquerable grace, that I should have to answer how I spent my days since we parted, and that it was necessary that I should be able to give a simple, honest answer.” A month later, he recorded in his journal that he had “opened the front page of a book to meet an introductory quote that read: Thy brother’s blood cries from the ground. If I could only understand clearly what it said, then it should be done no matter what the obstacles or the dangers. We who survive are the debtors until we also die.”23
Jack Kennedy’s close friend Chuck Spaulding had known Cord well enough to be “fascinated by the difference between Meyer and Jack,” perhaps sensing that either one of them might rise to the greatest of political heights. “Cord Meyer did come back from the war with the loss of an eye and the loss of a brother in a similar respect to Jack and was so affected by it,” Spaulding reflected. “But Kennedy was never affected like that [regarding the war death of his older brother, Joe]. He was never pushed off this hard, sensible center of his being.”24 Such became the hardened character of these men, both of whom had looked up “the asshole of death” and survived war’s slaughter. But though he was imbued with the sensibility of a poet, the province of genuine human intimacy often challenged and eluded Cord. His deepest emotional expression seemed confined to his journal writing, in which he demonstrated an unusually complex understanding and vulnerability that he was rarely able to express in life. Jack Kennedy appeared content to avoid any intimacy in human relationships entirely. Emotionally crippled in his relations with women, he detested being embraced, and then compulsively showered, sometimes as often as five times a day, only then to crave the most intimate merging of all, sexual union.25
The impact of World War II on the men who returned was poignantly expressed by Mary Meyer’s dear friend Anne Truitt in 1982: “Confronted by the probability of their own deaths, it seems to me that many of the most percipient men of my generation killed off those parts of themselves that were most vulnerable to pain, and thus lost forever a delicacy of feeling on which intimacy depends. To a less tragic extent we women also had to harden ourselves and stood to lose with them the vulnerability that is one of the guardians of the human spirit.”26 Cord’s anesthetization to grief would eventually maim his capacity for sustaining intimacy in relationship, and not just with Mary.
After leaving the UN San Francisco Conference, Cord and Mary traveled by train to Montana to take a month-long honeymoon. Cord already had his next writing assignment for the Atlantic Monthly, entitled “A Serviceman Looks at the Peace.” The cross-country train trip provided many hours for the essential discussion and reflection between the husband-and-wife team. Cord found it difficult to write about the illusion that the proposed structure of the United Nations was going “to be all love and kisses among the nations of the world.”27 Mary’s editing attempts only provoked his ire, eventually exasperating her to tears. The finished article, nonetheless, was blunt. Pulling no punches, Cord sternly warned that “for those of us who have fought not for power but because we believe in the possibility of peace, the Charter is nothing more than a series of harmless platitudes. Weak and inadequate as it stands today, it is all that we shall have won from the war.”28
The article was due for publication in September 1945, and Cord submitted it at the very beginning of August. But a few days later, on August 6, and again on August 9, the entire world witnessed a global event of unprecedented magnitude: the detonation of the atomic bomb upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Atomic Age had begun. For Cord, the path was now illuminated ever more profoundly. “I knew then that the question of world government was no longer a matter to be talked about for the future,” he told journalist Croswell Bowen. “I knew then it must come about immediately or we will all be finished.”29
Edward Weeks, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, was so impressed with Cord’s latest essay that he advised his acolyte to give up law and go to graduate school at Harvard, a door that Weeks would help open. Weeks considered Cord to be the brightest intellectual star, and he wanted him to be surrounded by the best minds. He facilitated Cord and Mary’s transition to Cambridge that September by giving Mary a job on the Atlantic’s editorial staff. Cord began taking courses at Harvard. In less than one month, Harvard would prove to be his launching pad to the world stage.
In October 1945, Cord was invited to the Dublin Conference on World Peace in Dublin, New Hampshire. Presided over by Supreme Court justice Owen J. Roberts, the conference included such notables as New York lawyer Grenville Clark; former governor Thomas H. Mahony; UN conference consultant and future secretary of the Air Force Thomas K. Finletter; and Emery Reves, author of The Anatomy of Peace (1945). Reves’s book articulated the world federalist belief that the nation-state system was no longer viable. Given economic interdependence and capitalism’s need for a borderless world, the nation-state could no longer assure prosperity or stability, now that civilization had to contend with nuclear weapons. Only a supranational world government would create the possibility of protecting peace and promoting prosperity throughout the world, while hopefully promoting democracy as well.
Cord agreed with this assessment, and he was able to articulate the vision in a way that no one else could. At the Dublin Conference that fall, his star began to rise. Norman Cousins, then editor of the Saturday Review, recalled walking into a bedroom and finding Cord sitting quietly on the edge of the bed, “… holding at bay some of the best minds in the country. Cord spoke quietly and with great intellectual force,” Cousins recalled in 1947. “He was modest but not objectionably so. You lost all consciousness of his youth and were only conscious of his reason and logic.”30
The rising star was now shaping the policies of a number of post–World War II veterans groups, including the American Veterans Committee (AVC). Ideas for a new platform for world peace initiatives were gaining acceptance.
He was asked by the Nation to write a series of articles that would bring into sharper focus a new policy for shaping and keeping the peace in the nascent nuclear age. Cord published “Waves of Darkness” in the January 1946 Atlantic Monthly. It would prove to be his best writing and one of the most insightful, penetrating war stories ever produced. The O. Henry Prize story gave a lightly fictionalized account of Cord’s foxhole trauma, and the force of will it took for him to go on living. That fall, Harvard bestowed yet another distinction on Cord, designating him a Lowell Fellow, one of the university’s highest honors.
In February 1947, all of the U.S. organizations committed to the possibility of achieving world government convened in Asheville, North Carolina. Out of this conference, a new organization was formed: the United World Federalists (UWF). Cord’s presence at the conference won him further attention. His clarity of focus, entwined with his acumen for understanding, impressed the leaders of the various organizations represented at the conference. In spite of his youth—he was only twenty-six at the time—Cord was put forward as the person with the potential to lead the new movement for world government. When some in attendance protested Cord’s nomination on the grounds of his youth, New York attorney A. J. Priest stood up on Cord’s behalf.
“Too young!” Priest said. “May I point out that Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison did their best work before they reached their 30s. I know this young man well. Despite my age, I know that I and others here would all be honored to make Cord Meyer our leader and to follow him.”31
For the next two years, with Mary by his side, already mothering two young boys born within twenty-two months of each other, the charismatic war veteran would lead the charge for world government as the best hope to ensure world peace. Within two years, the UWF’s paid membership of seventeen thousand supporters swelled to forty thousand members. The UWF had fifteen state branches, several hundred local chapters, and a galvanized student movement. In addition, Cord’s new book, Peace or Anarchy, sold more than fifty thousand copies. Cord tirelessly traveled the country, attending conferences and giving speeches, one of which would be read into the Congressional Record on May 14, 1947, by Representative Chat Holifield of California.
World Federalism became part of the American political landscape, attracting wide interest by such notables as atomic scientists Albert Einstein and Edward Teller, political figures Chester Bowles, General Douglas MacArthur, and finally President Truman himself. In 1949, Cord delivered an impassioned statement before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. It was inserted into the appendix of the Congressional Record by Senator Hubert Humphrey, a staunch supporter of the effort.32 As political scientist Frederick Schulman reflected in the early 1950s, “World government had become for this generation the central symbol of Man’s will to survive, and of his moral abhorrence of collective murder and suicide.”33
As his renown took center stage that first year, Cord appeared to be one of the young men in the Western world who would forge the post–World War II trajectory of geopolitics. Certainly he was well positioned, but what if he should falter? Who else was capable of climbing similar heights? The July 1947 issue of Glamour featured an article entitled “Wise American Leadership Is the Hope of World,” by Vera Michaels Dean. Written and published in three languages (English, French, and Russian), it outlined six basic requirements for the preservation of world peace. Immediately following the article was a portrait gallery of ten men, entitled “Young Men Who Care,” ranked in order of importance. The first two, ironically pictured side by side, were none other than Cord Meyer Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
The caption under Cord’s picture read, “26 years old and a writer. He cares deeply about world government. Brilliantly articulate, he argues its case with lucid, patient logic. Ex-Yale and ex-Marine Corps, he gives back for the eye he lost in combat. His urgent vision of one world…. or none.”
Under Jack’s picture, the caption read, “at 29, a Congressman. He believes good government begins at home. In a democracy which needs the best of its young men, here’s one son of an influential father who didn’t settle for a soft life. A veteran, he represents the Boston wharf district.”
The remaining eight were positioned with four on each page.34
In the end, Cord’s heroic effort to bring world government to the national political stage would be stymied by international events, as well as by his organization’s inability to connect with the average American. Soviet Russia entered the nuclear world stage, testing its first successful atomic bomb in 1949. Relations with the Russians were already rapidly deteriorating in the aftermath of the Czechoslovakian coup, the Berlin crisis, a Communist victory in China, and, most dramatically, the Korean War. Such fear-laden World Federalist slogans as “one world or none” lost their appeal as the Federalist cause became enmeshed in its own complexity, internal politics, and inability to be more easily understood by the general public.
A new kind of fear was emerging. The growing paranoia over “Communism,” coupled with Russia’s elevation to superpower status, engendered a new mind-set, the era known as the Cold War. No longer persuasive concerning the darkening storms from every direction, the World Federalist movement receded. “Our attempts to transform the United Nations had been overtaken by events that could no longer be ignored or explained away,” Cord wrote years later in his memoir Facing Reality.35
That was only one aspect of Cord’s own downfall, however. During the years he tirelessly devoted himself to finding a solution for world peace, Cord had a companion other than Mary. A dark melancholy had descended upon the World Federalist hero, intermingled with bouts of nervous exhaustion. Whether driven by his “absolute fury,” or his unresolved grief over the loss of his brother Quentin, Cord turned inward, despairing that the new world order was headed for nuclear Armageddon. Increasingly despondent, Cord took refuge in alcohol and nonstop chain-smoking, often finishing the first of several daily packs by midmorning. The World Federalist movement had, for Cord, run its course and failed in its mission; he returned to Harvard to resume his Lowell Fellowship, and to reflect on his defeat: “Two years spent in exhorting, pleading, warning, until my own reserves of confidence and hope had been so heavily overdrawn that it is hard for me to urge others on to action, when I now doubt the efficacy of any kind of action. Who am I to put myself against the dark and titanic forces that now mass themselves on the horizon of this new half-century? “Slowly, sadly, irreversibly, the tall world turns toward death like a flower for the Sun.”36
Rudderless and morose, unable to envision his next move, the strain was taking a huge toll, and not just on Cord. Mary was now eight months pregnant with their third child. Having traveled constantly for more than two years, Cord barely knew his first two sons: Quentin, born in 1946, and Michael, born in 1947. Not only had Mary been the stalwart figure behind Cord’s career—bearing his children, keeping house, editing his speeches and articles, and most important, aligning herself in complete support of the mission he had undertaken—she had exhausted her own reserves in the process. Incessantly preoccupied, Cord wanted only to know what the future might hold for him as his fellowship came to an end. The marriage began to show signs of trouble. Mary’s impatience became even more apparent. Saddled with mothering two young boys, and a third son born in February 1950, she carried all the family burdens and daily chores.
Taking refuge in his journal, Cord wrote of how tired he was of his own career dilemma, “wrestling with terms of personal decision and action” as to where he should focus. Unable to reach him directly, Mary pursued Cord in his journal, leaving comments for him to ponder. “You are a romantic!” She scribbled next to one entry. “We’re all in the same bed, Honey—pooped!”37 As Cord brooded over the Korean War (“This is in all probability the rehearsal for larger and more decisive battles”), he ultimately reflected: “I am without hope. And yet I live from day to day as before.” Here, Mary wrote in the margin: “When you say you are without hope, you imply that you thought humans were not what they are—humans.”38
Their banter soon reached a bitter crescendo. In June 1951, Cord wrote a four-stanza poem entitled “Proper Tribute.” The verse appeared as a thinly disguised expression of his feelings about Mary, and he surely meant her to take it as such when she discovered it.
Beauty, she wears carelessly like a bright gown,
Lent for a night by some indulgent guest
And is dismissed to find that no man loves
Only herself in that brief garment dressed.
She lacks the arrogance that lovely women
Habitually show. In genuine surprise
She smiles at praise that would-be lovers bring
As proper tribute to her transient eyes.
And in a way she’s right. She never earned
With work or special talent her tall grace,
Her full breasts or her abundant hair.
By luck with genes she won her dreaming face.
But now that beauty’s hers by nature’s gift,
She must its burden bear and growing learn
What damage in poor hearts her passing wrecks.
And how for her desire sleepless burns.
Mary took the bait. She added a closing stanza of mocking self-criticism that was also a warning to her husband: If he considered her passive or dormant, she would prove him wrong.
She bites her fingernails,
Fails to shave under her arms,
Has no sense of humor,
And is a totally mundane soul.
But silence fires the imagination of the spiritually timid.39
Cord’s decision in 1951 to work for the CIA was not about following a calling or answering destiny. He had wanted to continue writing, and he had hoped that his tenure as a Lowell Fellow at Harvard might lead to an academic post. But postwar economics being what they were, academia was not recruiting. Not even his contacts at Yale or Columbia panned out. He consulted Secretary of State Dean Acheson for a job in the State Department, but there was none for him.
It is not known exactly when Cord’s first contact with Allen Dulles took place. Possibly contacted by Cord’s father, Dulles had already been apprised of Cord’s “splendid qualifications” as early as February 1951. By March of that year, the two had met in Washington, and Cord obviously went away intrigued by what Dulles had offered him, which remained top secret and classified. On March 31 that year, Cord acknowledged in his journal that he was busy filling out the required paperwork to work for the CIA.40
Following his interview with Dulles, he met with another Dulles protégé already at the CIA, Gerald E. Miller. Writing to Miller and Dulles in late May, Cord made it clear that he was “very much interested in the job we discussed,” but asked if he could “accept on the condition that I might be free to consider one other possibility that might materialize during the first two weeks of July.” He added, “In the remote event that this other thing developed, you would then still have more than two months to find someone else.” It isn’t clear from Cord’s personal papers and letters what the “other possibility” was, though it may have been an academic appointment. Clearly, Cord’s sights at the time included something more appealing than the CIA, and he wasn’t hesitant about stalling Allen Dulles until July before committing to an Agency job that would begin the following September (1951).41
“If I had more faith in my creative talent,” he recorded in his journal in December 1945, “I should write.” The O. Henry Prize winner and best-selling author was so brilliant and talented, he could have excelled at anything he attempted. But his real passion was writing. With a leap of faith, he might have become a major literary figure during his lifetime. Free of the financial obligation to work, what then held him back from taking a chance to pursue a literary life? The same journal entry revealed perhaps a deeper reason that the literary life alone might not satisfy him—his ambition: “My peculiar temptation is not money, but notoriety and fame. This must be put aside. If it comes in the end, well and good. But it cannot be sought directly, for it corrupts all that we do and takes the mind from the object.”42
And so Cord Meyer allowed himself to be seduced by Allen Dulles, a man bent on filling the Agency’s ranks with East Coast, patrician Ivy Leaguers, whose arrogance would become evident in their disdain for anything in their way, including the rule of law. In making this decision, Cord turned away from his soul call, and also from Mary, abandoning the prospect of world peace for the waging of a new kind of war. He joined what would later be called the Directorate of Plans, the CIA’s most secretive division dedicated to the manipulation of world order. Cord easily established himself as a rising star whose acuity often surpassed that of his peers, his well-born brethren—people like Richard Bissell, Tracy Barnes, Desmond FitzGerald, Richard Helms, even Jim Angleton—many of whom had come out of the Office of Strategic Services (OS) after the war. It was a cozy arrangement of socially connected men from prominent families.
Yet for Cord, putting his talents to work for the CIA must have been bittersweet. There would be no more “quiet work—the labor of the mind and the heart, pure in the sense that it is done for its own sake and not for some ulterior end of wealth or power,” as he once wrote.43 And whether he acknowledged it or not, the dream that he and Mary had shared for world peace gave way to the realities of Cold War manipulation and the fearsome prospect of mutually assured destruction. The Cold War was, in fact, not cold, but hot, and it promised anything but world peace.
Somewhere in the bowels of the Washington E Street offices of the newly formed CIA, Cord Meyer transformed all his poetic, insightful visionary wisdom into perfecting schemes and strategies for America’s greater power and control, the often subtle but effective attempts at world domination—no matter what the cost. Cold Warrior by day, increasingly frustrated and intoxicated at night, like many of his colleagues, the man who one journalist had once believed was destined to be “the first president of the parliament of man” was now weathering in corrosion. Yet still brilliant and talented, he achieved success quickly and often. Nicknamed “Cyclops” by his colleagues, his ubiquitous cigarette dangling from the right side of his mouth, its smoke forever wafting up through the corridor of his glass eye, Cord became known for arrogantly chiding anyone who had overlooked some important detail that only he himself could have grasped. Easily, he outflanked his colleagues and bosses.
“Cord Meyer always pissed off Dick Helms,” recalled Victor Marchetti, the disaffected former CIA insider and noted author who had worked for Cord’s boss, Richard Helms. “Helms was a traditionalist. He believed we should be spying, not the crazy things Cord had concocted. While the FI [Foreign Intelligence] section—the spies—couldn’t do diddly squat against prime targets like the Soviets and Communist China, Cord was running all these crazy things like Radio Free Europe and Operation Mockingbird and having great success. He was very, very good at it, and his operations lasted a long time. He became the Agency’s glamour boy.”44 In fact, during the course of his CIA career, Cord would be awarded the Agency’s highest distinction, the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, on three different occasions, a feat only achieved by one other person: Robert Gates.
During the summer of 1951, Cord and Mary moved their family to the Washington suburb of McLean, Virginia, in advance of Cord’s September start at the CIA. For Mary, the move was a relief. The boys were still very young—Quentin was five, Michael was four, and Mark was almost two. Mary looked forward to establishing a new family routine. They bought a grand old southern-style house on nearly three acres of land, just a few miles from Chain Bridge on the Potomac River. Known as Langley Commons, the house was built before the Civil War. It had a spacious, window-lined living room, a library, and a dining room with French doors that opened onto a landscaped terrace. The kitchen had been completely remodeled and updated. Upstairs, there were six well-spaced bedrooms and two renovated full bathrooms. Outside, there were large oak trees, rolling hills, and gardens, as well as a white-fenced riding stable, complete with a small barn. Mary, for her part, would be reunited with her sister, Tony, now married to Washington attorney Steuart Pittman and living nearby. Many of Mary’s former Vassar classmates were also raising families in the area. Coupled with family life, the gaiety of the Washington social scene—dinner and cocktail parties, dances at the Waltz Group, Sunday-morning touch football games at Palisades Park—now took command as the Cold Warriors and the rest of the “Greatest Generation” ascended in their careers.
But if indeed silence sometimes “fired the imagination of the spiritually timid,” Mary wasn’t content to sit still where the life and future of her children were concerned. The fact that she was no longer crusading for world peace didn’t mean that the future peace and happiness of her progeny could be neglected. She wanted something different from what she had experienced as a young girl. A new era of progressive education was unfolding in the early 1950s as Mary embarked on the search for a school in which to enroll her children. She came upon an educational experiment that embodied something she thought important.
Georgetown Day School (GDS) had first opened its doors in 1945. It was the first private, coeducational, multicultural, and racially integrated school in Washington, a city that was still mostly segregated. The school had been founded by seven families who wanted to create not only a learning environment committed to academic excellence and educational innovation, but also an overall educational experience that emphasized children of all races learning together. The school’s educational philosophy grew out of such bold educational experiments as Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Goddard College in Vermont, and the work of German philosopher Rudolf Steiner, father of Waldorf education. Many of the teachers in the first racially mixed schools of the 1950s had been educated at Goddard and Black Mountain.
Led by the adventurous headmistress Agnes (“Aggie”) O’Neill, herself a dear friend of Eleanor Roosevelt’s, and her assistant, Bernard Wanderman, the school was first located just off Ward Circle adjacent to American University in Northwest Washington, behind what was then the location of a television station. The racially mixed, multicultural children who attended GDS were not just from wealthy, progressive, well-educated families from the “good sections of town.” Many students took public transportation when their parents had little means of transporting them. The pupils were grouped together mostly by age, ability, and social development, not necessarily by grade level. A great emphasis was placed on each child’s unique learning style. with “slower learners” often tutored by more advanced students under supervision. With a solid emphasis on both the performing and fine arts, the school required its students to participate in artistic endeavors such as class plays, ceramics, and painting.
Mary thought the school was attempting something unique and highly necessary. Much to Cord’s dismay, she enrolled both Quentin and Michael, who would be placed in different groups. Later, their youngest son, Mark would also attend GDS for a while. Cord felt the school “too soft,” not rigorously academic enough. How, after all, would this kind of environment prepare his progeny for St. Paul’s and Yale? For Mary, however, the children’s academic journey with its emphasis on the arts paralleled her own five-year artistic turning inward. Now seriously focusing her attention on painting, having transformed a former garden shed into a studio adjacent to the bricked terrace of the McLean house, she found herself teaching part-time in the GDS art studio, as well as taking courses with emerging Washington Color School icon Kenneth Noland.
Settling into the social life of Washington, Mary had another daunting role to fill: CIA wife. In the 1950s, the wives of upper-echelon CIA men were appendages to their husbands, like virtually all wives in America during that era. CIA operatives, however, were not allowed to discuss their work with their spouses. For Mary, this meant that the days of being Cord’s partner, his chief sounding board and literary editor, were behind them—a dispiriting shift and a demoralizing change for a woman who had, in times gone by, thrived in a partnership of equals. Mortified, she witnessed the transformation taking place in the once-promising poetic visionary, as Cord became one of the men he had always disparaged and warned about—men who were “like rabbits staring with fascination at the oncoming headlights of the car that will crush them.”45
Mary fought against being relegated to a role characterized by subservience, deference, and compliance. She confronted and argued with Cord over the CIA’s mission, and, in particular, his work for the Agency. She began to discern what lay ahead and wanted no part of it. Her disdain manifested itself at parties and social gatherings, where she was alone among CIA wives in her critical views. Mary was, in the recollection of one of them, “always making wisecracks” about what the Agency was really up to. Some considered Mary’s wisecracking disrespectful. Others suspected that her joking was a sign she knew more than she would admit. One insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Mary was well acquainted with the CIA’s drug program, MKULTRA, and that Cord, in trying to appease his wife, had told her much more than he should have about many CIA undertakings. That source added, “Mary absolutely detested Allen Dulles and everything he stood for. She compared him to Machiavelli, only worse.”46
Cord, for his part, knew he was alienating Mary. Just a few years earlier, she had been his most steadfast, trusted partner in their mission for world peace. Now, he kept her at arm’s length. Emotionally adrift, alone, drinking too much, traveling on CIA business in Lisbon, Portugal, in February 1953, Cord found himself contemplating the city’s harbor “for a moment in the precious sunshine.”
I haven’t seen the ocean in a long time, and though I love it, it often brings with it for me a vague sadness. Perhaps because it’s so old and unchanging, it makes me think that I’m not young anymore and that unlike the sea, I’m changing, not necessarily for the better. I stood there with the wind blowing keenly enough for me to turn up my jacket collar and I was aware then, perhaps more clearly than anyone else, of all my faults and past mistakes.
I counted the more than ten years since the war and could think of very few acts of spontaneous generosity toward individuals, of many once bright talents rusting in disuse. And most of all, I thought of how through rude indifference and selfish carelessness I had so alienated Mary and of how all my days would be as lonely and melancholy as this one if she left me.47
Cord’s reflections in moments of solitude demonstrated the kind of awareness that could have been a precursor to change, had he the will and commitment to act on his insights. Six months later, another event soon took place that might have helped Cord right his course, had he again been willing to take the first step.
During the Senate McCarthy hearings in the early 1950s, Cold War tensions fueled the public’s fear that “Communist subversives” had infiltrated various arenas of the American government. Senator Joseph McCarthy launched a campaign of reckless and widespread character assassinations, fueled by unsubstantiated accusations against his political opponents, or anyone he considered a threat, or a “Communist sympathizer.” Over the course of three years, McCarthy’s attacks on the patriotism and the integrity of anyone he deemed suspect destroyed many reputations and lives. Two years into Cord’s work at the CIA, McCarthy came calling for him.
“At 4 pm August 31 ,” Cord recorded in his journal, “I was in my office discussing with a branch chief certain lines of action we planned to follow against the Communists in Japan, when the phone rang and I was requested to go to the office of Dick Helms.” Cord was told that he had become a target of the McCarthy Hearings. Accused of collaborating with Communists during his dealings with the American Veterans Committee in 1946, he learned that his loyalty had been called into question. Authors Cass Canfield, Theodore White, and James Aldridge, along with poet Richard Wilbur, were also implicated. “Well, they’ve apparently found something in your past,” Helms said to Cord. “It looks serious.” Cord was relieved of duty and sent home.
It might have been his chance to leave the CIA for good—an opportunity for redemption—but he wouldn’t seize the opportunity. Instead, he spent the next couple of months writing a 130-page defense for what he called his “political trial.”48 Mary, too, was under suspicion. The indictment against her alleged that she had registered as a member of the American Labor Party of New York in 1944.49 During his suspension, Cord used his time off to complete a play that he felt particularly proud of. He sent it to playwright Robert Anderson, who he hoped might assist him with the rewriting of certain scenes. The time away from the Agency rekindled Cord’s literary fire. It also proved beneficial—however fleetingly—to his marriage.
Nearly three months later, on Thanksgiving Day, Allen Dulles personally let Cord know that the charges had been dropped, that he had been cleared of any wrongdoing. But the time off had already whetted Cord’s appetite for something else. In early January 1954, he and Mary went to New York on a brief trip, during which Cord talked to a number of people about a job in publishing. “But I quickly learned that my friends in the established firms are going to find it very difficult to give me the kind of job and responsibility I’d like,” he noted in his journal several days later.50Again, ambition and a need for fame and notoriety would squelch his recent renewed stirring of inspiration and interest in writing.
Clearly, Cord wanted out of the CIA and all government service, but was too insecure to cut his ties and strike out on his own. While McCarthy’s witchhunt had offended him, it seems that it hadn’t been enough to cause him to walk away. When Cord returned to work, Allen Dulles sensed his discontent and, to assuage him, promoted him to chief of the International Organizations Division. As one of the major operating divisions within the CIA’s Directorate of Plans, the division would merge with the Covert Action Staff in 1962. By November 1954, Cord noted in his journal that his resolve “to leave the government has been delayed by a promotion that keeps me so busy that I am so weary at night, I fall into bed after a quick glance at the newspaper.” Then, in a reference to Kenneth Fearing’s poem “Dirge,” Cord wrote, “Bam he lived as wow he died [as wow he lived].” His next sentence read: “It’s no good really.”51
For Mary, too, it was “no good really.” Cord’s brush with McCarthyism had distressed them both. It had also opened a door to the possibility—and to Mary’s hope—that Cord might choose another path, but he hadn’t. His unwillingness or inability to disentangle himself from the CIA, which Mary openly despised, caused her to move further away toward independence. Increasingly, the stakes became higher—not only the stability of her family, but the integrity of her soul. Beyond her roles as mother, CIA wife, and homemaker, Mary still identified with something deeper within and longed to experience a fulfillment more profound. A tragedy would yank her out of her reverie: the accidental death of the beloved family dog, a rambunctious golden retriever. Struck and killed by a car on busy Route 123, which ran adjacent to their house, the dog had been the special favorite of Mary and Cord’s middle son, Michael. His death veiled a Cassandra-like warning. Two years later, an even bigger horror would occur at almost the exact spot.
With Cord’s return and new promotion within the Agency, the year of 1954 would become a defining moment in the Meyer family. Mary’s mother, Ruth Pinchot, worried that both her daughters were being stifled in their married lives. She gave them each a round-trip ticket to Europe and a thousand dollars spending money. That summer, Mary and Tony went on what the two later referred to as “a husband dumping trip” to Europe. The trip proved the sisters’ emancipation. Tony Pittman met her second-husband-to-be, Ben Bradlee, in Paris. The two ended up “exploring hungers that weren’t there just days ago and satisfying them with gentle passion, new to me,” Bradlee would recall years later.52 Upon her return, Tony separated from Steuart Pittman. She would marry Bradlee in Paris the following summer in 1955.
For her part, Mary met “an Italian noble,” as Jim Truitt described him in 1979, when she and Tony were in Positano. “I recall the name Jean Pierre (hardly Italian), and that Mary saw him on a yacht and swam out to meet him,” Truitt noted.53 Mary and Jean Pierre reportedly sailed the Mediterranean for a few days, before she rejoined Tony in Paris. On returning home, Mary didn’t mention a word of it to Cord. But during the following summer of 1955, after attending Tony and Ben’s Paris wedding, she and Cord traveled, of all places, to Positano. Again, she spotted Jean Pierre on his sailboat, in the company of a young American woman college student. Mary introduced Cord to Jean Pierre and suggested that the four of them go cruising on Jean Pierre’s boat. The foursome sailed the Tyrrhenian Sea to Capri and then to Naples. If Cord suspected, he didn’t let on. He returned to work in Washington, while Mary stayed on in Paris, allegedly to assist Tony in her new life. Both Tony and Ben Bradlee knew, however, exactly what Mary was really up to. She secretly returned to Italy and to Jean Pierre, where the pair went on an extended cruise and made plans for a life together.
Upon her return from Europe the second time around, Mary told Cord the truth. An entry in Cord’s journal from the fall of 1955 reads: “About Mary—I have heard just two nights ago much more of that Truth I was trying to understand. Am still trying to digest it, but it makes me sick. Will put it down later.” In another journal entry from that period, Cord wrote, “Mary has finally explained the motive that was so obviously lacking in all that she had said before, since her return from Europe.”54
The motive, as Mary finally explained, was love. While she told Cord that her first encounter with Jean Pierre had been “sexually satisfying, but involving no deep emotion,” she made it clear that she was now “in love with him and he with her,” and that Jean Pierre intended to “emigrate to Canada to be able to obtain a divorce, and that he and Mary were to be married and live on a ranch in the West.” Cord recalled the nagging suspicion he felt when Mary returned from Europe the first time, in 1954: “I remember half suspecting this when she first came back, but put it out of my conscious mind. I remember also her showing me a short story she had written about a brief affair. It was sophomoric in emotion and badly written. I remember criticizing its undeniable faults, and the reason I did so with so little respect for her feelings was undoubtedly because I again suspected that it was autobiographical.”55
The revelation of Mary’s affair only compounded Cord’s alcoholism. At dinner parties, Cord’s strident, argumentative disposition tended to dominate, even disrupt, all discourse. Sadly for Cord, his poetic sensibility had given way to bullying when alcohol took over. (In fact, alcoholism claimed many in the top echelon at the CIA throughout the 1950s and 1960s.) Once, years after he and Mary had divorced, he became so irked by something Ben Bradlee said that he reportedly lunged across the dinner table for Bradlee’s throat.56 Former U.S. Attorney David Acheson, Cord’s Yale classmate, recalled in 2008 that “Cord had threatened to [physically] fight somebody at a dinner party at my house. We had to tell him to calm down. Cord could be downright mean.”57
His son Michael sometimes feared him. As a father, Cord had little patience for three exuberant boys and their attendant noise, commotion, and disobedience. Michael had once confided his terror of his father’s temper. It was something we shared—I of my own father, and he of his. We both had witnessed the reckless and explosive alcohol-fueled wrath of our fathers; the shared fear had been one of the things that had cemented our boyhood friendship.
Looking toward the small riding stable from the Meyer’s terrace, the next house over was the six-acre compound known as Hickory Hill. Years later it would become the legendary “Kennedy Compound,” occupied by the family of Robert F. Kennedy. But in the spring of 1955, its new inhabitants, Jack and Jackie Kennedy, became next-door neighbors of the Meyer family.
That May, Jackie suffered a miscarriage; a year later, she gave birth to a stillborn daughter, while Jack was cavorting about Europe with Senator George Smathers. By the end of 1956, both marriages, the Meyer’s and the Kennedy’s, had been in turmoil for some time. It appeared that some force was still at work, keeping Mary and Jack aware of one another. Jack and Jackie left Hickory Hill for Georgetown in the fall of 1956. Mary would follow them a year later, but not before a trauma of unimaginable proportion.
During the fall of 1956, on her thirty-sixth birthday in October, Mary told Cord their marriage was over. She wanted a divorce. They had become strangers under one roof. Whatever grief she may have felt, Mary embraced the prospect of independence and all that it might promise—exploration as a painter, and the possibility of rekindling the flame with Jean Pierre. Convention would not enslave her, just as the quiet life of the CIA wife and homemaker had not satisfied her. Her children would have to adjust. Perhaps in time, she might have thought, they would come to recognize and understand the courage it had taken to save her own life, though initially they might blame her for such a cataclysmic disruption to the family. Whatever her disposition, it was about to be horrifically tested. Life’s vicissitudes would make an unscheduled appearance early one December evening, a week before Christmas.
As the winter solstice light waned fast into dusk, the two older Meyer boys, Quentin and Michael, hurried toward home across the well-trafficked Route 123, already having been chastised for previous dinnertime tardiness due to their hypnotic television attraction at a neighbor’s house. Some of the fast-moving cars already had their headlights on; some didn’t. The faster, more-agile Quenty raced to the other side without incident. Perhaps he assumed that his younger brother was right behind him. He wasn’t. Michael couldn’t keep up with his older brother, and in the dark of the busy thoroughfare, he likely relied on the headlights of oncoming cars to tell him when it was safe to dash. Just nine years old, Michael Pinchot Meyer would not see the car that would take his life. His death was nearly instantaneous, and it took place where another auto had claimed the life of his beloved golden retriever just two years earlier. If the dog’s sacrifice had forewarned the danger, it had gone unheeded.
Mary heard the screech of tires and the screams of her oldest son. She raced down the hill toward the awful scene. The driver who had struck Michael had become hysterical. An ambulance arrived, but it was too late. Mary would, for the last time, hold and accompany Michael to the hospital, but not before she paused to comfort the driver who had struck her son, her rare compassion anchored in some deeper dimension. The ever-delicate young Mikey would leave those who loved him in an interminable river of grief.
Laid to rest just before Christmas on a sloping hill near his grandfather Amos Pinchot in the Milford cemetery, Michael rested just a stone’s throw from Grey Towers, where he had loved to fish and roam. Quenty, who would be eleven in January, could not bring himself to attend the burial; it was a decision that would later haunt him. Cord recorded in his journal that his youngest son, Mark, who was just six years old at the time, couldn’t believe that “his brother lay in that narrow hole in the ground and neither could I.” 58 The loss burrowed deep into Mary’s psyche. The future seemed impossible to fathom. Within a decade, her own grave would be dug next to Michael’s. A month after their son’s death, Cord confided in his journal his hope that shared grief might yield reconciliation with Mary. His wish was that “our shared sorrow would be a bridge to a better life between us.”59 It was not to be.
Shortly thereafter, Cord wrote two pages that he titled “Notes.”60 The entry followed a sobering, truth-telling—and hope-dashing—confrontation with Mary about the state of their marriage. The first heading, “Her worries about him,” enumerated the concerns that Mary had voiced about him during this encounter: “That he [Cord] is incapable of any commitment of heart and trust, too self-reliant, disillusioned and experienced to gamble again on the hope of a shared happiness.” Cord then quoted Mary as saying, “Don’t become an old fuddy-duddy. I’ve found you out just in time—almost too late.” The woman who had once gushed to her friend Anne Truitt that Cord “rose on his toes as he walked”—a characteristic that she considered the hallmark of an interesting man61—now voiced her criticism in direct and devastating language.
The second entry in Cord’s “Notes” reads: “That he drinks too much and will drink more.” Mary had told him, “Sometimes I’ve known what you were [going] to say but you can’t because of the wine. That’s sad and shouldn’t be.” Mary had already sensed where Cord was headed. She wanted no further part of it. She feared that Cord “might prove irrelevant because of his short temper and excessive emotionalism,” and told him “they don’t take you seriously with your outbursts.” She added that she did not think that Cord was “polite enough to survive.” Finally, Cord noted that Mary had made it clear she felt that “her children might be a burden that he might come to increasingly resent. I’ve thought there was no reason why you should take care of my children.”62
Cord next noted Mary’s expectation “that he [Cord] would be cruel and thoughtless in his treatment of her,” followed by Mary’s next statement to him: “You weren’t cruel to M., were you? They say you were but I’ll make up my own mind for myself.” “M.” was clearly a reference to their deceased son, Michael, and further confirmed Michael’s own terror of his father.
Mary attacked Cord’s fidelity, calling him “incurably promiscuous,” and remarking on his good fortune not to have been a philandering husband at a time when he might have been challenged to a duel. “You’d have had to be pretty good to survive all the ones you have had to fight,” she said. On this point, at least, Mary offered a mea culpa. She admitted to Cord that she had not always “acted her age,” that she herself might be “incurably promiscuous.” After all, she added, “there are so many beautiful men.”63 And she wondered whether Cord, as he grew older, “might cease to be able to satisfy her [sexually].”
Cord’s “Notes” were a kind of last will and testament of what his life and marriage had become. No longer able to hide in his journal alone, he’d been offered, in this final confrontation with Mary, a mirror, albeit her mirror, of who he had become and why she was leaving. Gone was the committed, evolving conscientious objector who, in a moment of illumination as he lay dying on the beach-battlefield of Guam, realized he had betrayed his deepest conviction—that war was just “the finished product of universal ignorance, avarice, and brutality,” and decided, if he were to live through the night, he would do something about it. In that moment, he understood that “a little out of adolescent vanity, but more because he had failed to become a conscientious objector, as he ought to have done,” he now fully grasped “the consistent series of decisions that led inevitably to where he lay [dying].” His courage in that moment—to live and accept the fate of whatever mistaken path his life had wandered—had prevailed, and won the duel over the “final ignominious act” of taking his own life in self-pity.64 Gone, too, was the man who some had thought was destined not only to become not only the president of the United States, but also “the first president of the parliament of man. And if he becomes a writer, he’s sure to win the Nobel Prize. At least.”65
In 1967, Mary’s prescience—and fear—about where Cord had been headed would be revealed. Mercifully, she would not be alive to read the article in Ramparts magazine that would expose Cord as the director of the CIA’s notorious Operation Mockingbird, as well as head of the Agency’s secret incursion into the National Student Association. Having infiltrated more than twenty-five newspapers and wire agencies, Operation Mockingbird had successfully manipulated the American media to promote the CIA viewpoint. It had been designed by Dulles protégé Frank Wisner in the late 1940s. Through it, the CIA bought influence at major media outlets by putting reporters on the CIA payroll, and vice versa. During the 1950s, an estimated three thousand salaried and contract CIA employees were engaged in propaganda efforts. One of the biggest initial supporters was Philip L. Graham, publisher and owner of the Washington Post. Under Cord’s tutelage, Mockingbird became a stunning success. Whenever the CIA wanted a news story slanted in a particular direction, it got it.66 This amounted to a subversion of democracy’s most precious cornerstone, the free press. Secretly controlling the media had proven to be one the CIA’s most powerful tools. The Agency didn’t take kindly to being found out.
Upon getting wind of their exposure in Ramparts, the CIA immediately went to work to undermine and destroy the magazine. CIA operative Edgar Applewhite was ordered to organize a campaign to smear the publication and then render it financially bankrupt.
“I had all sorts of dirty tricks to hurt their circulation and financing,” Applewhite told author Evan Thomas. “The people running Ramparts were vulnerable to blackmail. We had awful things in mind, some of which we carried off.” In violation of the CIA charter, as well as the U.S. Constitution, Applewhite and his colleagues, including Cord, nevertheless acted with unabashed impunity. “We were not the least inhibited,” Applewhite continued, “by the fact that the CIA had no internal security role in the United States.”67
By then, Cord’s unique brand of narcissistic pomposity had already become legend in Washington—so much so that he was brilliantly caricatured by Scottie Fitzgerald Lanahan’s 2 1967 Washington Post column, “NEWS to Me….” In a parody entitled “Are You Playing the Games by the Rules in Washington?,” Scottie, always imbued with an effervescent, even hilarious perspective, brought to life the very quintessence of Cord’s personality:
The most artistic practitioner of this game is Cord Meyer, the walking library who was recently revealed to have been running student activities all these years for the CIA.
Let us suppose that some innocent creature, coming upon Cord on a Georgetown terrace at the cocktail hour, remarks that the Manchester Guardian has been somewhat unflattering about the handling of the Flamingo Republic crisis by the CIA.
“My dear fellow,” Cord will say with a significant puff on his pipe, “I assume you have seen Yevtuchenko’s masterwork on this subject in the Trans-crimean Review. ‘Phenomenism versus Pantheism.’ Otherwise, there is no use addressing yourself to this topic, don’t you agree?”
One stroke, and he’s won. The victim admits defeat by inquiring how his children are, and whether he’s played any tennis lately.68
In January 1968, the Vietcong’s Tet Offensive revealed just how tenuous (and misguided) America’s incursion into Southeast Asia had become; the Vietnam War raged on amid increasing controversy. Throughout the world, student uprisings flared on university campuses as well as in the streets, from the United States to Mexico and France. Back home, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, Robert F. Kennedy in June. Antiwar protestors picketed the Democratic Party’s national convention in Chicago in August; television would broadcast the brutal police response for nearly twenty minutes. Meanwhile, the Black Power salutes of American Olympic medal winners were a provocative nod to the ongoing fight for civil rights. Apollo 8’s successful orbit of the moon struck the only uplifting chord in an otherwise deeply polarized, traumatic year.
Amid the tumult of 1968, Mark Meyer, Cord and Mary’s youngest son, entered Yale as a member of the class of 1972. That summer, Mark received a form letter from William Sloane Coffin, the chaplain at Yale. Coffin had served in World War II and gone to work for the CIA for three years in the early 1950s because, he said, he felt that “Stalin made Hitler look like a boy scout.” Later, he reexamined that outlook and choice, abandoned the CIA, and entered Yale Divinity School. By 1967, Coffin was an established antiwar icon and a prominent civil rights “freedom fighter.” The U.S. government had indicted him during the Benjamin Spock conspiracy trial for his role in counseling students to resist the military draft.
Coffin’s letter to incoming Yale freshmen introduced the many options of religious faith available at the university, but it also made a political case for ending the war in Vietnam. “College students more than any other group have perceived the war in Vietnam to be politically inept and morally a catastrophe,” Coffin wrote. “More than any other group they have resisted the tribalistic chauvinism that passes for patriotism and have recognized that the hopes so long and cruelly deferred of the poor and colored must be realized in our time and the world around.” The good chaplain was opening the door for students “to resist the temptation to ‘cop out,’” as he wrote, “by failing to connect thoughtful inquiry with effective action; by matching courageous deeds with only shallow ideas; or by believing you can drug yourself to self and to God.”
Coffin’s letter further enraged an already apoplectic Cord Meyer. Once a world-renowned peace advocate, the man who had declared all war to be “international anarchy” now likened Coffin’s letter to brainwashing. Indignant, Cord wrote letters to former Yale classmates, including Bishop Paul Moore, Cyrus Vance, Dean Acheson, and William Bundy. He urged Coffin’s reprimand. While Bishop Moore found Coffin’s letter somewhat “inappropriate,” he did not think it was grounds for dismissal. Dean Acheson, however, did. Telling Cord that his language was far too moderate, Acheson thought Coffin’s letter lacked “taste, judgment, knowledge, and maturity. He shows himself to be far less mature than the incoming freshmen, of whom my grandson is one.” Acheson’s letter to Cord concluded: “Bill is a gay and charming fool; but he is a fool.”69
But William Sloane Coffin had done what Cord Meyer had never dared to do, and perhaps that was the true source of Cord’s outrage—the reminder of all that he had once stood for, but that he had not had the courage to uphold. Three years into his career at the CIA, Coffin had left the Agency, disillusioned by many of the unsuccessful covert activities in which he had taken part. “It didn’t work,” Coffin later recalled. “Soviet intelligence detected nearly all of our efforts. Our operations ended in disaster. It was fundamentally a bad idea. We were quite naive about the use of American power.”70
Instead, Coffin had forged a calling in the ministry, becoming a passionate advocate for human and civil rights. He won international recognition as a peace activist. He was a prolific writer and public speaker, and he published six highly acclaimed books and many articles. He became a champion for sanity in an insane world. Had Cord Meyer for one moment caught a glimpse of someone he once knew—a sight no doubt too painful to bear—he would have seen the apparition of his former self, walking hand in hand with Mary Pinchot Meyer at his side.
An even darker disclosure of CIA skulduggery came in 1972 when it was revealed that Cord Meyer had prevailed upon New York publisher Harper & Row to give the Agency the right to examine the galleys of a forthcoming book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. The author was a Yale graduate student named Alfred McCoy. The book relied on McCoy’s harrowing tours through the war zones of Vietnam and Laos, as well as visits to Europe’s wellarmed drug lords, documenting astonishing accounts of CIA dealings within the drug trade. The book’s findings were as dangerous as McCoy’s travels: Key figures in the heroin trade told McCoy on the record that American intelligence had collaborated with the drug trade dating back as far as World War II, and that CIA advisers were financing weapons to support the Hmong Highlanders by using CIA helicopters to transport Laotian opium to Vietnam markets. McCoy also revealed that, beginning in Guatemala in 1954, the CIA had been involved in widespread terrorism throughout Central America, including the training of death squads. The Agency had needed untraceable money to finance its clandestine operations. They had found what they desired with narco-traffickers such as Panamanian resident Manuel Noriega, who would eventually be outed as having long been on the CIA payroll.
Cass Canfield, the head of Harper & Row, found himself caving in to CIA pressure. He forced the young author McCoy to acquiesce to the Agency’s demand for prior review, but the book was published largely intact, in part because the major news media had exposed the CIA’s attempt to influence its content. But the fact remained that McCoy’s research was particularly unwelcome in Washington in 1972. President Nixon was leading his “war on drugs” crusade. The U.S. military was still trying to recover from publicity around the massacre at My Lai and other atrocities in Vietnam. Revelations about the CIA-led assassination campaign throughout Southeast Asia, Operation Phoenix, made matters even worse.
Most astounding of all had been the news that the “golden boy” of the post–World War II peace movement—Cord Meyer himself—was leading an assault on the First Amendment at the New York office of publishing giant Harper & Row. The man whose debut short story “Waves of Darkness” had decried the futility and horror of war was now a complicit architect of secret wars and violations of democracy the world over, as well as within the United States. As one observer told journalist Merle Miller in 1972, “the man who wrote ‘Waves of Darkness’ must have died a little the day he walked into Harper & Row, assuming there was any of that man still left in Cord.”71
There wasn’t. He had been gone for more than twenty years. Mary had left just in time.
2 In April 1967, Scottie Fitzgerald Lanahan, daughter of F. Scott Fitzgerald, was still married to Samuel J. (“Jack”) Lanahan.