Was the CIA secretly recruiting gay men in the 1950s?

Photo by David Sinclair on Unsplash

In the book Oblivion, which delves into the Richard Cox disappearance, the authors have suggested that (spoiler alert!) Richard Cox may have been gay or bisexual and that the CIA recruited him in 1950 for that reason. We’ve already discussed how Ronald Tammen’s 1953 disappearance draws a number of parallels to Cox’s disappearance, and I’ve also provided evidence that helps support the theory that Tammen may have been gay. So it begs the question: Was the CIA furtively recruiting gay men in the early 1950s, for whatever reason, and if so, were Tammen and Cox two of their more visible recruits representing the great state of Ohio?

Before I proceed with today’s post I need to state this caveat as clearly as possible: I can’t fathom the totality of the CIA’s operations back in the height of the Cold War. If the agency had an interest in hiring members of the gay or lesbian community for intelligence work, it has done an excellent job of keeping that detail a secret, in addition to its underlying reasons for doing so. What I’m presenting here is one scenario that has received a small amount of publicity. However, in no way do I intend to imply that, if Tammen or Cox were gay and recruited by the CIA, they would have been utilized in this way. I’m only asking if the CIA was hiring gay individuals when no one else in the federal government was doing so and presenting some supporting evidence.

With that caveat firmly in mind, let’s talk about spies and sex and the use of sex by spies for the sole purpose of sexy spying. Anyone who’s seen a James Bond film can understand how sex can be used as a tactical weapon in the world of espionage. Sexpionage, as some call it, works like this: someone on an organization’s payroll sets up a steamy little “honey trap” to entice an opposing target to swap his or her government’s secrets for sex. Or a late-night tryst might provide an opportunity for a spy to rifle through a high-level diplomat’s suitcase after drugging his daiquiri. Or there’s also the potential for blackmail. Sex makes a person vulnerable and if there’s one thing that people in the intelligence biz absolutely love 💕, it’s intelligence sources who are vulnerable. 

As you can imagine, the sex lives of spies is a subject that the CIA doesn’t care to talk about. As this December 9, 2010, article from Slate states, “The Central Intelligence Agency doesn’t comment on whether its agents use their sexuality to obtain information, but current and former intelligence officials say it does happen occasionally.” (That quoted sentence used to link to an article from the April 17, 2007, issue of Harper’s Magazine, called “Sex and the CIA,” to back up its latter claim. Alas, if you click on it, you’ll see that the link no longer works, and the article is also nowhere to be found on the Harper’s website. Welcome to the world of intelligence research! Here’s a link to a portion of the original article—for now, at least.)

“Few national secrets have been more carefully guarded, but the CIA has provided kings, presidents, potentates and magistrates with female companionship,” wrote famed journalist Jack Anderson in his syndicated column in June 1976. “On a lower level, girls have been made available to defectors and the CIA’s own agents.”

According to the Anderson article, the CIA’s “sex shop” was run by its Office of Security. Sometimes the diplomat was in the know about the CIA’s role in that evening’s fix-up, however, other times, the agency made its arrangements more clandestinely, for the purpose of spying.

Wrote Anderson, “…the agency has used prostitutes to lure foreign diplomats into love traps where their sexual antics were filmed through one-way mirrors. The film was later used to blackmail the foreigners into becoming informants.”

If the CIA was employing women to pursue intelligence sources who were straight, wouldn’t they also employ men to target those who happened to be gay? The CIA often claimed that the Soviets wouldn’t hesitate to use the latter tactic on us, particularly for its blackmail potential, and, as a result, they supposedly felt that people who were gay or lesbian would be a risk to national security. (By the way, this logic only seems to make sense if the person were closeted and afraid of being outed.) But, if the Soviets were doing it, wouldn’t we have used the tactic too? Doesn’t the CIA generally consider turnabout to be fair play? (Asking for a friend…)

On the other hand, as you may recall, Executive Order 10450 was signed by President Eisenhower on April 27, 1953, thus introducing a policy against hiring federal civil servants who were gay, lesbian, or bisexual. What’s more, the Lavender Scare began even earlier than that, in the late 1940s, and by 1950, the government’s zeal for discriminating against people who were gay or lesbian picked up steam courtesy of the despicable Senator Joseph McCarthy. But since when does the CIA follow what everyone else is doing? I would think that, if the cloak and dagger crowd believed it was in their best interest to recruit gay operatives, then that’s what they’d do.

The public record doesn’t support this theory, however. Here’s what’s on record regarding the federal hiring policy of LGBT individuals, both in general and at the CIA specifically:

  • In the 1960s, gay rights organizations such as the Mattachine Society of Washington, cofounded by renowned activist Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols, began filing lawsuits to challenge the across-the-board firings of gay and lesbian federal employees simply because of their sexual orientation.

  • In 1969, the federal Civil Service Commission (CSC) lost a court case in which a NASA employee named Clifford Norton sued CSC chair John Macy for having been terminated after he was arrested for a gay liaison in D.C.’s Lafayette Square during non-working hours. The court ruled that “the Civil Service Commission has neither the expertise nor the requisite anointment to make or enforce absolute moral judgments …,” and, consequently, it had no right to fire someone for being gay or lesbian, though it took four more years before changes were fully implemented government-wide. While the ruling applied to some federal agencies, it didn’t apply to all of them. According to the 2015 book Hoover’s War on Gays, by Douglas M. Charles, “For agencies outside CSC coverage, political appointees, or those engaged in national security work, however—such as the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency (NSA), and military—antigay employment discrimination continued unabated.” 

To sum things up: the CIA had a policy against the hiring of members of the LGBT community until the mid-1990s; the culture began to evolve after that, albeit slowly; and then around 2011 or 2012, their doors were flung wide open and they were actively recruiting. This doesn’t exactly mesh with the running thesis I’m investigating, but that’s their story and they’re sticking with it.

Fact-checking Oblivion: Was Richard Cox gay?

In the spring of 2014, I drove to Mansfield, Ohio, Richard Cox’s hometown, in hopes of meeting with one of Cox’s sisters to discuss the similarities between his and Tammen’s cases. Although Cox’s sister wasn’t available for a sit-down, she put me in touch with a family friend, whose overriding objective was to shoot down the book’s premise. For an uncomfortable 20 minutes or so, the man insisted to me that the book was “garbage,” “trash,” and that there was no evidence to back up its claims that Cox was gay and was recruited by the CIA. “There isn’t a shred of truth to it,” he said.

I’m not going to say here whether or not I think Richard Cox was gay. I didn’t know Richard Cox. The family friend, who also didn’t know Cox, was adamant that he wasn’t. I’m just going to share several FBI documents that may have led some people to infer that Richard Cox might have been gay or bisexual or, at the very least, experimenting. A lot has been redacted, and I’ve been unsuccessful in getting the whited-out details released, but I think you can get the gist of things from the surrounding verbiage. 

The documents I’m about to share have to do with an incident that took place in April 1948 in New York City between Cox and a former soldier identified as Victor Wolf, from Detroit. The two met at Tony Pastor’s, a gay-friendly bar in Greenwich Village. Later that night, Cox visited Wolf’s room at the Hotel Dixie on 42nd Street and stayed the night. (Judging by this website, the hotel’s boasting of “700 rooms, each with bath and radio” leads me to think that we’re not talking spacious suites here.) 

The following passage was part of a report from the FBI’s New York office in a document dated May 26, 1950. This redaction-free synopsis (from this point on, referred to as “item A”) helps us validate key details in subsequent passages.

The next three passages were included in a document dated July 13, 1951 created by the Detroit office of the FBI.

Background: Sometime in late June or early July 1951, the FBI interviewed Wolf’s landlords, Mr. and Mrs. A. R. Keith, of Detroit. Despite the redactions, we know they’re talking about Wolf because the address (1798 Field) is the same as that included in item A. One wonders what the Keiths had discovered about Wolf and his roommate that led them to immediately ask them to move out of their home. In the second paragraph, two informants from Detroit said that both BLANK and BLANK are known BLANKETY BLANKS. I’m sure that the first two blanks are referring to Wolf and his roommate. As for what they were “known” to be, one can only wonder about that as well.

Background: Included below is a three-page statement dated July 7, 1951, and signed by Victor Wolf concerning his interactions with Richard Cox. Again, despite the redactions, we know that it’s Wolf’s statement, thanks to item A, which describes the timeframe and locations of their liaison in New York. The third paragraph of page one says that Cox, Wolf, and “another soldier” had met up at Tony Pastor’s bar, which Wolf describes as “having a reputation of being BLANK.” Later that night, Cox showed up at Wolf’s hotel room and Wolf told him he could spend the night with Wolf and BLANK. Wolf was later awakened by something—a whole paragraph’s worth of BLANKING—that, to this day, the FBI deems too confidential or of such a delicate nature that it needs to protect the public from such details, 70 years after-the-fact. 

As for next steps, the author of the FBI memo had suggested that the following lead needed to be checked out by the New York office regarding the “Subject,” Richard Cox. 

Evidence that the CIA was recruiting gay men

If you were to contact the CIA (and I have) and ask them if they used to recruit gay men in the 1950s (and I did), they would likely tell you that they wouldn’t be addressing that question (and they didn’t). However, I’ve found several small clues over the years that deem it at least plausible that the CIA was knowingly hiring gay men back then, for whatever reason, regardless of what the agency’s official stance was at the time.

Clue #1: The CIA was modeled after Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, which had been employing gay spies for decades.

If you’re remotely interested in the world of espionage, you’ll know that one of the most notorious spies during the Cold War was Kim Philby, a handsome and sophisticated Cambridge-educated man who charmed a lot of people, including the CIA’s James Jesus Angleton. Angleton had studied under Philby. He developed his intelligence chops under him in London when Philby was with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, and Angleton was with the fledgling CIA. The trouble was, Philby also happened to be spying for the Soviets for many years and Angleton had handed him a lot of state secrets and contacts when Philby was serving in Washington as a liaison between MI6 and the CIA and FBI. Philby eventually defected to the Soviet Union, as did fellow KGB spies Guy Burgess, who was openly gay, and Don Maclean, who was bisexual. Phillip Knightley, an esteemed journalist who had interviewed Philby at length for his definitive book, contends in this 1997 piece that Britain has had a long history of gay spies and, moreover, that spying is a natural fit for someone who is gay. In addition, Jefferson Morely, who wrote an acclaimed recent biography on Angleton, has hypothesized that the relationship between Angleton and Philby may have been a lot closer than just that of mentor and mentee.

Clue #2: Jack Anderson said so (sort of).

I’ve already cited the 1976 news article by Jack Anderson that brought to light several sex operations overseen by the CIA. An article that he’d published a year earlier had gone into greater detail concerning the CIA’s love nests that were being used for blackmail purposes on the East and West Coasts. In the last paragraph, Anderson said this:

“To stage the shows, both male and female prostitutes with a variety of sexual skills were used. The CIA possibly got the idea from the Russians, who have long used sex blackmail to entrap Westerners into spying for them.”

Although Anderson doesn’t mention anything about the entrapped being gay, the fact that male prostitutes were used tells me that that’s what he was referring to, since most foreign diplomats would have been male.

Clue #3: Former CIA employee Victor Marchetti said so.

Victor Marchetti, who passed away this past October, was a former Soviet-military specialist and executive assistant to the deputy director of the CIA. Over time, he had become disillusioned with the agency’s actions and one of its most outspoken critics. He’s most famous for coauthoring a 1974 nonfiction book with John D. Marks, formerly of the State Department, titled The C.I.A. and the Cult of Intelligence, which entangled him in a drawn-out legal battle with his former employer.

In a September 1982 Reuters article, Marchetti is quoted in the following snippet:

“Soviet intelligence agents routinely cruise gay bars seeking candidates for blackmail who could be coopted as spies, a spokesman for the CIA, another agency which is concerned about possible espionage, said.

“Former CIA official Victor Marchetti said in a separate interview that the United States employed similar techniques not only against Communists but in order to extract information from officials of allied governments who were ‘closet’ homosexuals.

“The CIA declined to comment on Mr. Marchetti’s statement.”

Clue #4: Allen Dulles was told by his mistress of OSS’s need to penetrate an underground gay network during WWII.

In her book, Autobiography of a Spyauthor Mary Bancroft shared an experience she had while she was the mistress of spy master and future CIA Director Allen Dulles during WWII. Dulles was with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner to the CIA, in Zurich, and had been using Bancroft to obtain information from various sources. While in this role, she felt it her duty to inform Dulles, who was ten years older than she and utterly naïve about the subject, about an underground gay network among the “Foreign Offices of England, Switzerland, Greece, and our own State Department and through which information traveled even more rapidly than by the channels of the Catholic Church and various Jewish organizations.” She recalled how “a colleague of my generation had told me how essential it was for us to tap this homosexual underground by having, as he put it, ‘Washington send us a guy with a pretty behind.’” Bancroft doesn’t say if Washington responded after she conveyed this request to Dulles, however, if people in intelligence were aware of the benefits of gay operatives in the 1940s, I can’t imagine what would have changed their minds by the 1950s.

Clue #5: Former CIA Director Roscoe Hillenkoetter admitted as much to Congress.

On July 14, 1950, Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, then-director of Central Intelligence, testified before Congress regarding his views of whether a person who was gay was considered to be a risk to national security. His answer was a resounding yes, and he emphasized that a gay employee needed to be “weeded out of government employment wherever he is found.” His final sentence is a doozy: “The failure to do this can only result in placing a dagger in the hands of our enemies and their intelligence services, and the point of that dagger would lie at the heart of our national security.” 

However strong that statement was, and however homophobic his views are throughout the rest of his statement, he actually does a 180 in a couple places and shares that it wouldn’t be so bad after all, and may actually be beneficial, to have a gay person on his intelligence squad. On page 25 of his typed comments, he says this: “…while this agency will never employ a homosexual on its rolls, it might conceivably be necessary, and in the past has actually been valuable, to use known homosexuals as agents in the field.” (bold added)

In addition, on pages 35 and 36, he says: “In one case in which were were [sic] interested abroad in the early months of this year, we found what I believe to represent a Soviet intelligence operation, and we believe that our task will be made considerably easier by the appearance in the area of a known homosexual who we think will be extremely helpful in this particular case.” (bold added)

[You can read his full statement here. But be prepared: it’s, um, a wee bit vile.] 

Granted, the above evidence isn’t much to go on, but, at the very least, it doesn’t rule out the argument that the CIA may have recruited gay men back in Tammen’s and Cox’s day for some purpose that it deemed useful to our country’s service, despite its official policy. I’ll close with these two thoughts:

Executive Order 10450 was signed eight days after Tammen disappeared, at which time, it would have likely been extremely difficult for a person who was gay to obtain a security clearance. Could the CIA have recruited Ron the week prior to get his name on the books before the E.O. went into effect?

Also, some have wondered why the CIA would have had any interest in recruiting a student from quaint little Miami University in rural southwest Ohio, be he gay or straight. Didn’t they have a hefty supply of Ivy Leaguers to choose from on the East Coast? But those doubters probably aren’t aware that the first director of Central Intelligence was a Miami graduate. His name was Sidney W. Souers, and he was born in Dayton. Just saying.

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