James Angleton and Ezra Pound

For it is not the wolf or any of the other beasts that would join the contest in any noble danger, but rather a good man. — Aristotle,Politics, Book IIX.

Before James Angleton became an institution at the CIA as czar of the counterintelligence staff from 1954 to 1975, he was friends with the poet Ezra Pound. Both men sacrificed themselves in an attempt to save their country from plutocrats. Pound did this by speaking his mind, while Angleton sold his conscience for “the greater good.”

Angleton first met Pound in Rapallo, Italy in 1938.  Ezra was often visited by famous or aspiring artists. Then a young man, Angleton photographed Pound at the meeting. Mary Barnard reminisces that these portraits were among the poet’s favorites.

TIME Pound portrait, attributed to J. J. Augleton but likely to be by J. J. Angleton

What was a young American doing in Italy in the 1930s? Angleton was born in Boise, Idaho. His father Hugh was a self-made man working for the National Cash Register company. Hugh had married a Mexican lady in a small border town while serving as a cavalry officer under General Pershing. (Hence James’ middle name “Jesus”.) (See Tom Mangold, Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton — CIA’s Master Spy Hunter,)

Hugh Angleton made his fortune by developing NCR’s Italian branch during the 1930s. Italy had been transformed under Mussolini’s rule and Hugh seems to have had sympathies with the leader’s policies. Yet, during WWII he joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) presumably to supply information on Italy. By 1943 he had shifted to training recruits, and he distanced himself from espionage after 1945.

His father’s work meant James Angleton enjoyed a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Apart from exploring the expatriate scene in Italy, in 1933 he entered Malvern College (an elite British boarding school) and went on to Yale University in 1937. He developed a taste for poetry, which in the pre-war years was as glamorous as rock musicians are today.

Angleton maintained his relationship with Pound at Yale. He also tapped into some of his father’s contacts from the OSS. In the words of E. E. Cummings to Ezra: “Jim Angleton has been seemingly got hold of by an intelligent prof & apparently begins to begin to realize that comp mil ser [compulsory military service] might give the former a respite from personal responsibility. … maybe he’s developing.”

The “prof” was Norman Holmes Pearson. Later during WWII, Pearson would run the OSS’s X-2 counterintelligence division in London. But in 1937 the professor was already famous for his anthology of English literature which Pound recommended to his young daughter Mary. (See James J. Willhelm, Ezra Pound: The Tragic Years, 1925-1972.)

Pearson was a man at the heart of the pre-war literary world. Under the professor’s wing, Angleton would launch his most successful publication: Furioso. Angleton’s ebullient wife Cicely recalls that Pound described her husband as “one of the most important hopes of literary magazines in the United States.” This is high praise — Pound had left the US in 1908 because of the dearth of opportunity for writers.

1939 Letter to Jim Angleton from Pound, discussing content of proposed journal. Beinecke Library, Yale University.

First Copy of Furioso, Summer 1939

The first volume of Furioso (Summer 1939) is a nexus of history: Writers who would be promoted by the new establishment wrote alongside those old-fashioned enough to criticize the Washington regime. Archibald MacLeishwould be made the head of the Library of Congress by FDR and would help the CIA coordinate its fact-finding there. William Carlos Williams a college friend of Pound, would write for The New Republic and become a mentor to Charles Olson. Whereas,  E. E. Cummings would have a fecund career without obvious Washington patronage. The root of the political tension was described in Pound’s contribution Introductory Text-Book, which is among the most succinct explanations of Pound’s views: A free nation has control of its own currency and this is what the Founding Fathers intended for America.

The following is the text of Pound’s contribution to the first copy of Furioso, Summer 1939.

Introductory Text-Book [In Four Chapters]

  1. “All the perplexities, confusion and distress in America arise, not from defects in their constitution or confederation, not from want of honor and virtue, so much as from downright ignorance of the nature of coin, credit, and circulation.” – John Adams.
  2. “… and if the national bills issued, be bottomed (as is indispensable) on pledges of specific taxes for their redemption within certain and moderate epochs, and be of proper denominations for circulation, no interest on them would be necessary or just, because they would answer to every one of the purposes of the metallic money withdrawn and replaced by them.” – Thomas Jefferson (1816, letter to Crawford).
  3. “… and gave to the people of this Republic THE GREATEST BLESSING THEY EVER HAD — THEIR OWN PAPER TO PAY THEIR OWN DEBTS.” – Abraham Lincoln.
  4. “The Congress shall have power: To coin money, regulate the value thereof and of foreign coin, and to fix the standards of weights and measures.”

Constitution of the United States, Article I Legislative Department, Section 8, pp.5. Done in the convention by the unanimous consent of the States, 7th September, 1787, and of the Independence of the United States the twelfth. In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names. George Washington. President and Deputy from Virginia.


The abrogation of this last mentioned power derives from the ignorance mentioned in my first quotation. Of the three preceding citations, Lincoln’s has become the text of Willis Overholser’s recent “History of Money in the U.S.,” the first citation was taken as opening text by Jerry Voorhis in his speech in the House of Representatives, June 6, 1938, and the passage from Jefferson is the nucleus of my “Jefferson and/or Mussolini.”

Douglas’ proposals are a sub-head under the main idea in Lincoln’s sentence, Gesell’s [Silvio Gesell] “invention” is a special case under Jefferson’s general law. I have done my best to make simple summaries and clear definitions in various books and pamphlets, and recommend as introductory study, apart from C. H. Douglas’ “Economic Democracy” and Gesell’s “Natural Economic Order,” Chris. Hollis’ “Two Nations,” McNair Wilson’s “Promise to Pay,” Larranaga’s “Gold, Glut and Government” and M. Butchart’s compendium of three centuries thought, that is an anthology of what has been said, in “Money.” (Originally published by Nott).

Rapallo, Italy.

Ezra Pound.

These are the ideas that brought Pound 12 years in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. Angleton deserves a lot of credit for publishing them in 1939.

Furioso has double significance. Pound returned to the US briefly in 1939 in order to dissuade influential Americans from letting us enter another war. He tried to get an audience with hawkish President Roosevelt, but ended up talking with senators, congressmen and literary personalities. Pound’s trip to visit Angleton at Yale allowed him to publish his ideas in the US —  a paper ambassador that could still speak once he had gone.

After Yale, life moved quickly for James Angleton. He married Cicely, tried a stint at Harvard Law and was eventually recruited for X-2 by Prof. Pearson in 1943.

Angleton ran X-2’s Italian desk, which meant he would scour local sources for information about enemy spies. Pound’s Italian broadcasts would have certainly come to his attention. These radio readings contained the same views that Angleton had published at Yale four years previously and were the immediate cause of Pound’s persecution.

What Pound said cut close to the bone for financiers and their minions like Franklin Delano. Biographer David Martin claims Angleton visited Pound while he was being held in Genoa. If this is true, it seems to be the last time they met. Pound would be imprisoned without trial for over a decade.

American Cages at Pisa

Angleton’s job in Italy involved ferreting out enemy informants and developing a spy network for the Americans. He worked with mafioso figures to do this and was part of re-instituting the corruption that Mussolini’s regime had got under control. Biographers of Angleton describe him as a polished anglophile who by day ran American mobsters over Italy looking for Fascists; and read Pound in the dark of night.  (See Ezio Costanzo, The Mafia and the Allies: Sicily 1943 and the Return of the Mafia.)

This must have been a tortured time for Angleton. The “liberation” of Italy had dubious results and the government he served was persecuting a poet he respected. Angleton must have rationalized the situation to himself: bad methods would serve America’s greater good.

Angleton had some sort of breakdown in 1947. He had abandoned pregnant Cicely to work in Italy in ’43, but returned to her parents’ home in January 1948 to recuperate for six months. In July James was called back to Washington to work in the newly-formed CIA’s counterintelligence division — despite deep depression. His 25-year career in DC would not be glamorous.

Tom Mangold, another of Angleton’s biographers, quotes a “Last Will and Testament” that Cicely Angleton says her husband wrote at this time:

“Life has been good to me and I have not been so good to my friends,” he [Angleton] confessed. He further requested that “a bottle of good spirits” be given to Ezra Pound, e e cummings, and other poet friends from Furioso days.”

One bottle wouldn’t have helped much. In 1947 Pound had been captive in St. Elizabeth’s for a year under the care of OSS contractor Dr. Winfred Overholser. But Angleton had not lost faith in “the greater good.”

Angleton’s new job with the Agency required him to root out communist spies inherited from the “Oh So Social” days of the OSS. CIA and MI6 intelligence on the Soviet Union was very poor after the war, while the Soviets seemed to be able to penetrate Western agencies easily: Kim Philby was the crowning example. (See David C. Martin, Wilderness of Mirrors: Intrigue, Deception, and the Secrets that Destroyed Two of the Cold War’s Most Important Agents.)

Angleton was less effective in his new role: His career relied on patronage from Allen Welsh Dulles and Richard Helms. James saw the potential for communist infiltration everywhere and this hindered the Agency’s ability to recruit Soviet defectors. Many historians have come to the conclusion that Angleton’s paranoia — and a total lack of oversight from his superiors — undermined the Agency’s ability to counter the Soviet threat.

Angleton’s obstructive behavior stemmed from his obsession with Soviet strategy. He focused on researching things like Bolshevik “black ops” which particularly irked some of his colleagues in the Soviet Department. His trust of Anatoliy Golitsyn, a very clever Soviet defector, sent CIA, MI6 and French counterintelligence services into tailspin. However Angleton wasn’t squeezed out until 1974, ostensibly because he was investigating people in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. (This operation was called MH-CHAOS.)

While Angleton struggled during his first decade at the Agency, Pound’s case became a cause célèbre  for American literati. Former Furioso contributors like William Carlos Williams and Reed Whittemore lambasted Pound in the pages of The New Republic — which seems to have been a premiere literary outlet for writers close to CIA leadership. Archibald MacLeish even had the gall to ask “What happened to American literature?” from its tony pages. [1]

Angleton was forced out of the Agency in 1974. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the CIA had been surreptitiously testing drugs on Army personnel and college students, funding the Frankfurt School’s re-emergence in Germany and the US, and pushing the anti-Stalin socialist scene around the world. [2] To borrow Ezra’s words — the Agency was “pseudo-pink.”

Angleton may not have appreciated what he was taking on when he joined the counterintelligence division of the CIA — though a peak at Dulles‘ business contacts would have summoned ghosts from Rapallo. Personal failings aside, James Angleton wanted to save his country from international socialism. Both he and Ezra tried.

Carolina Hartley (email her) is a student of aesthetics and social history, though not from the orthodox perspective.

[1] Books & Comment: Changes in the Weather, Archibald MacLeish. The New Republic, July 2, 1956.

[2] To read more about these programs, see: Search for the Manchurian Candidate: CIA and Mind Control, John Marks. The Dialectical Imagination, by Martin Jay and The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, Francis Stonor Saunders.

William Colby fired Angleton in 1974. Both protégés of Richard Helms, they had disagreements since the 1950s when Colby supported working with the non-Stalinist left in Italy. Angleton thought that such collaboration was dangerous. Colby probably leaked Angleton’s involvement in CHAOS to Seymour Hersh to facilitate Angleton’s removal. Angleton’s replacement, George Kalaris, wanted out of the role after only two years- but not before he had burned many of Angleton’s files.