American master spy Donald Nichols will probably never get the Hollywood treatment. Devastatingly effective in the years leading up to, during and just after the Korean War, Nichols is in many ways a more troubling protagonist than any of the literary inventions of John le Carré or Ian Fleming.
Lacking the sophistication of a George Smiley or the dash of a James Bond, Nichols overcame unpromising origins to become a key player in early Cold War-era Korean espionage. But there was to be no happy ending for the one-time cold warrior. His deadly career ended in psychological ruin; his life ended in moral disgrace.
Unlike similar characters from different wars in different times – Charles Gordon in Khartoum, TE Lawrence in Arabia or Edward Lansdale in Southeast Asia – Nichols was, until recently, virtually unknown outside of US intelligence circles.
His full story was only told, ably, last year, in King of Spies (Pan MacMillan, 2017). The book’s author, Washington-based Blaine Harden, is a specialist in Korea: he had previously penned biographies of North Korean defectors Shin Dong-hyuk (Escape from Camp 14) and No Kum-sok (The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot).
In this writer’s opinion, King of Spies is the best of the bunch: the narrative races along, and covers lesser-known stories than Harden’s previous works.
Harden first heard of Nichols from No. Upon landing in South Korea in his MiG aircraft in 1953, No was astonished to be debriefed by a US officer with encyclopedic knowledge of the inner workings of the North Korean Air Force and Kim Il-sung’s regime. That de-briefer was Nichols, a brilliant spy Harden discovered to be practically unknown. Fascinated, he began digging. A book resulted.
The tale Harden spins is more Conrad than Fleming: a heart of darkness set in a brutally primitive 1940s-50s South Korea that is light years away from the high-tech powerhouse, youthful democracy and exporter of bubble-gum pop culture of today.
After World War II, Korea was bisected by the great powers, but South Korea was also riven by deadly internal ideological divisions. A US military government was succeeded by the right-wing regime of President Rhee Syngman. Left-wingers rose. Insurgencies in the southwest and Jeju Island were suppressed with colossal brutality.
Thriving amid the maelstrom
To this day, the period is murky. It is unclear how complicit Americans were in these events – but there is no question of involvement. The savagery of South Korean counter-insurgency and espionage efforts – aided and abetted by the US in the persons of men like Nichols – came as news to the author.
“I was surprised by the cruelty and ferocity of the civil war in South Korea that preceded the so-called actual war that began in 1950,” admits Harden in an email interview with Asia Times. Mass executions and torture composed the milieu Nichols thrived in: “He was up to his neck in it,” Harden said.
Introducing Nichols, the author tips his hat to Le Carré, dubbing his own protagonist “The spy who came in from the Motor Pool.” Growing up shoeless in Depression-era Florida, the middle-school dropout stole food to feed this family; during World War II, as a rear-echelon NCO, he fiddled paperwork in Karachi.
“He learned that skullduggery could win him promotion and power,” Harden says. The personality thus forged suited him for espionage, in Harden’s opinion: “Nichols was a gutsy, tireless, amoral, tight-lipped hustler… the ideal personality for a spy.”
He was dispatched to Korea in 1946 and stayed for 11 years – a long deployment for the US military, which prefers to rotate personnel through different tasks and stations. Nichols mastered Korean – a rare feat – and insinuated himself with senior officers of the nascent South Korean armed forces, and even President Rhee.
His rank, and his star, rose. A unit was created especially for him. Initially called Special Activities Unit #1, it later became Detachment 2 of the 6004th Air Intelligence Service Squadron, before being renamed 6006th Intelligence Squadron after the war.
With Nichols’ line of command running directly to the general in charge of the 5th US Air Force, minimal oversight played a central role in his success, Harden reckons. “He had little or no supervision, either in the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps or later in Air Force intelligence,” the author says. “He was free to invent himself as a black ops spymaster.”
Nichols’ wartime coups were spectacular. He accurately predicted the North Korean invasion. His personnel were Koreans, many defectors from the North. He managed a cryptology unit which broke North Korean codes in the early days of desperate fighting around the ‘Pusan Perimeter.’ In a daring mission, he worked out how to knock out North Korean tanks from the air with napalm. In an operation into the North, his men recovered fragments of crashed MiGs. And he built up detailed intelligence pictures of the enemy regime.
But espionage was underwritten with brutality. The book is replete with tales of North Korean POWs being hurled to their deaths out of helicopters and of cunning, and deadly, ruses used to smoke out double agents; its photo section includes an image of Nichols and co examining a severed head in a bucket.
Nichols’ ruthlessness extended to his own assets. South Korean agents suffered such hideous casualty rates on missions into the North that several mutinied, attacking Nichols one night in his barrack. He shot them dead.
Derangement and disgrace
Despite his credentials as a superspook, his career ended in ruin. With Korea at an uneasy peace in 1953, Nichols, then a major, ran afoul of peacetime regulations and practices. Although Rhee personally vouched for him, Nichols departed in 1957 in a straitjacket, psychologically fractured. Committed to a military mental hospital in the US he endured – there may be an irony here, for Nichols had witnessed torture sessions – brutal electric shock therapies. He left the hospital, and the Air Force, a broken man.
Subsequently, he wrote a self-published memoir while apparently living off ill-gotten gains smuggled from Korea: bags of cash. He died in a veterans’ hospital in Alabama in 1992.
It was from Nichols’ twilight years that Harden uncovered some shocking material. In Korea, several testimonials indicated that Nichols was a discreet but practicing homosexual. Harden discovered that, back home, Nichols faced convictions for sexually abusing young boys. “Effective spies are often creeps,” Harden says. “I was quite shocked by the records that I found – but I also found that Nichols was a crafty spy, an expert at covering his sex-offender tracks and inventing cover stories for his life.”
A cruel conundrum
The author believes Americans need to acquire a more nuanced view of the Korean War than the black-and-white narrative of virtuous democrats fighting villainous communists: “Understanding this history, I think, can help bring humility and patience to finding solutions for what is now a monstrously complex problem,” he says, in reference to the ongoing division of Korea.
While Nichols was largely unknown to Americans prior to the publication of Harden’s work, he was known in US Air Force intelligence circles. And he is kindly remembered among South Korea’s dwindling population of wartime spooks. “Among South Korean intelligence officers, Nichols was a demi-god,” Harden said. “One South Korean intelligence colonel told me that there were two famous Americans in the early days of the war: MacArthur and Nichols.”
King of Spies is set in the 1940s and 50s, but the conundrum at its center is timeless: do the ends of effective espionage justify the actions of dangerous men employing dubious means? With 21st century America globally engaged in black operations, under questionable oversight, that question remains as pertinent today as ever.