In this episode we look at the Leon Uris book and Alfred Hitchcock film Topaz as a possible example of CIA propaganda. I outline the story told in both the novel and the film, and how most of the characters are based on real spies involved in the Sapphire scandal about a Soviet spy ring inside the French SDECE intelligence agency. I focus in on the character of Andre Devereaux – a character based on Philippe Thyraud de Vosjoli, a probable double agent who defected from the SDECE to the CIA. I also look at author Leon Uris’ background with the DOD, and CIA records suggesting that at least the book part of the Topaz project was CIA weaponised fiction.
Today we’re going to look at the book and film Topaz, the book published in 1967 author Leon Uris, the film released 1969, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. We will start with a broad overview of the story before looking at the complex web of intelligence agencies, defectors and a whole heap load of spy-based shenanigoats that make up the background to this tale.
The story in both the book and the film takes place in the aftermath of the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961, and thus in the run up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It is a classic Cold War spy thriller. We follow our hero, French intelligence agent Andre Devereaux, as he jets around the world philandering his way across three continents and exposing not only the Russian nuclear missiles on their way to Cuba but also a Russian spy ring secreted inside NATO.
I have to admit, I did enjoy reading the book a couple of years ago and I will point you back to a conversation I had with James Corbett where I mentioned some thoughts about the book and the film but this will be a much more considered take on the story. I did see the film first, being a big fan of Hitchcock I first saw this movie maybe 10 years ago but since then I’ve watched it quite a number of times.
Even though it was a commercial and critical failure, I think it is an excellent film in a lot of ways, and in terms of 1960s spy films it sits somewhere between the lavish, ridiculous globetrotting of James Bond and the austere, intrigue centred The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. If you’re familiar with the films of that time but haven’t seen Topaz I do recommend it, it’s quite gorgeous movie. My favourite moment is when Juanita, Devereaux’s Cuban mistress, is killed, as all beautiful but treacherous women are killed in spy stories, and indeed as most beautiful women are in Hitchcock films. Juanita sinks to the floor, which has a chessboard, black and white checks pattern on it, and her dark red skirt billows out, foreshadowing the pool of blood that will inevitably form around her. It’s amazing cinema.
The book I found less enjoyable, it’s quite a good spy romp when it’s being a spy romp, but there’s this 100 page diversion about 2/3rds of the way through the book all about Jews in WW2 escaping from the Nazis. This is of course because Leon Uris is a Jewish Zionist author, this was quite openly his agenda, his view of history and the world, but it doesn’t make for great reading when someone interrupts a tale about Cuba in the early 60s with a lengthy lecture about WW2.
The film does not include this section, it simply focuses on the tale of the discovery that the Soviets were arming Cuba, and the Soviet spy ring inside NATO, mostly in French intelligence. And this is all based on real events – the Bay of Pigs invasion did happen, it did really fail, the Soviets were moving missiles into Cuba, there was really a Soviet spy ring inside French intelligence. Andre Devereax is based on a French intelligence agent.
So let’s break this down, the real events and their counterparts on the screen. I’m going to use the film version as a guide because more people will have seen it, or will see it. So, the film begins with a high ranking KGB official defecting to the CIA. Given what he eventually reveals, he is clearly based on Anatoliy Golitsyn, who defected in late 1961. Golitsyn is highly amusing, because he provided key information about Soviet infiltration of Western intelligence, some of which was very very real and a lot of which was absolute nonsense.
Among Golitsyn’s revelations was that a Soviet spy ring codenamed Sapphire had infiltrated the upper echelons of French SDECE intelligence. Sapphire then becomes Topaz in Uris’ novel and the Hitchcock film. Golitsyn also said that the Soviets were using false defectors and other double agents to try to distract and confuse western intelligence, and manipulate them so they wouldn’t understand the nature of the KGB’s real long term agenda.
Then we meet Andre Devereax, the French intelligence liaison with the CIA. He is based on the very real agent Philippe Thyraud de Vosjoli, who was the SDECE chief in Washington at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he apparently discovered that French intelligence was riddled with Soviet spies. He then defected to the US, or more likely had already been recruited by them, and went on to write an exposé called Lamai which was among the books found in the hotel room of the Watergate burglars. More on him shortly.
Devereax is asked by his CIA friend to get information from the papers of the President of Cuba, Rico Parra, who is obviously Fidel Castro. Even Devereax’s lover, Juanita, is based on Juanita Castro, the sister of Fidel Castro who defected to the US and the CIA. So you get the idea – this is a somewhat fictionalised story, but it’s all based on very real events and real people. Most of what you’re watching on screen actually happened, one way or another, much like in Argo, I suppose that would be an extremely inferior movie but quite similar in terms of its authenticity.
So where did this story come from? Well, Vosjoli worked for French intelligence until 1963 when he was recalled from his post in America. There were allegations that he was ‘too close’ to the CIA, and then hey presto he resigns and defects and writes a tell-all book about Soviet spies inside the SDECE. He moved to Florida – alright for some isn’t it? – and ends up selling his story to Leon Uris, who used it as the basis for the book version of Topaz. So this whole creative project originates with a guy who was SDECE French intelligence and then defected to the CIA at the height of the Cold War.
Meanwhile, Uris himself is quite well connected, not just through Vosjoli. His first book Battle Cry was published in 1953, tells the story of Uris’ own experience in the Marines during WW2. It was turned into a film in 1955, with assistance from the DOD, and was directed by Raoul Walsh, who made a lot of DOD productions, and produced by Jack Warner of Warner brothers, who worked for the US Army Air Force’s First Motion Picture Unit during WW2. Uris wrote the screenplay for Battle Cry and was the initial screenwriter on Hitchcock’s adaptation of Topaz.
After the film version, Vosjoli and Uris had a falling out over royalties, leading to a lawsuit which Vosjoli won, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is strange because as mentioned above, the film of Topaz was, unlike the novel, a bit of a flop, only making a couple of million dollars profit on its 4 million budget. For the guy who wrote the book it was based on to get nearly half the overall profit for the movie (and thus for Vosjoli to be awarded half of that) doesn’t strike me as being true.
For more on Topaz and the Sapphire spy ring scandal and Vosjoli’s story I suggest, strongly, you visit the Harold Weisberg archive on the Hood College website. Weisberg was a former OSS man who became a strong critic of the Warren Commission report on the JFK assassination, and became something of an expert, publishing a lot of books. His archive contains a lot of open source mediatrail sources on all manner of subjects relating to JFK, Cuba, the CIA and so on, and it’s worth exploring.
However, it is in the CIA’s records on Topaz that we find the most interesting material, and the claim that the whole project was a CIA psychological warfare exercise. Almost all of the CIA’s records are more open source mediatrail stuff recording the story of the original novel, the film adaptation and the lawsuit between Uris and Vosjoli. This shows that the CIA were at least monitoring the Topaz story.
However, aside from copies of newspaper stories there is also a document from the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, the CIA’s own foreign media monitoring department. They are the equivalent of BBC Monitoring, and there were reciprocal agreements in place after WW2 whereby the two worked together. This document records a story published in Zagreb in September 1967 titled ‘CIA Writes Novels, Attempts to Discredit De Gaulle and his Foreign Policy in Leon Uris novel Topaz’. The article says that the novel was a CIA project, an attack on De Gaulle, saying, ‘there is no doubt that the work was inspired by a ‘force’, the author certainly performed a service for someone’.
So this is an allegation that Topaz was weaponised fiction. It wasn’t the only one. In January 1968, a few months later, a memo was sent to the Director of Central Intelligence about an article in the French magazine Planete, a satirical political publication, titled ‘America declares psychological warfare on France. Her new bomb: the espionage novel’. The memo goes on to say that ‘in the beginning of the article the anonymous authors note a pronouncement by John Le Carre’.
I have been unable to find the original article but I’ll include all the CIA’s documents on Topaz in a handy little .rar file so you can read this for yourselves. I will also include in the file a newspaper story I found while looking into all this, from the Watertown Daily Times in April 1968, a few months after the CIA memo. It records another allegation about Topaz in another French magazine called Le Canard EnChaine which translates as The Chained Duck, and says that the novel was a reprisal attack on the French by the CIA.
It notes how French president Charles De Gaulle had carried out a purge of American agents working closely with French intelligence, because he felt the relationship was one-sided. Thus, the CIA arranged for Vosjoli to sell his story to Uris to discredit De Gaulle with the allegation that his intelligence service was full of Soviet spies.
So, is there any great reason to take these claims seriously and to suspect that Topaz is CIA propaganda? Well, obviously I think so otherwise I wouldn’t have devoted a whole episode to exploring this. There are a few reasons:
1) Vosjoli was almost certainly recruited by the CIA as a double agent before he defected in 1963. The ludicrous success of his lawsuit, granting him vast sums of supposed royalties from a largely unsuccessful film, suggest this was his payoff. The fact that the CIA were monitoring this court case all but confirms this view of what Vosjoli was.
2) Uris’s career was launched through co-operation with the DOD. Despite giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to Vosjoli, he was still a rich and highly successful author, and Topaz was a bestseller.
3) When searching the CIA’s FOIA database I can find references to Uris and Topaz and Hitchcock, but when you put in Vosjoli’s name nothing comes up. Even more suspiciously, nothing comes up when you type in ‘Sapphire’, the name of the real spy ring inside French intelligence. Why would the CIA have not released any records about either the Soviet spy ring or the Vosjoli defection?
4) The story told in Topaz, while being broadly true, misses out a key factor, namely Operation Mongoose. After the failure at the Bay of Pigs the CIA didn’t just give up, they continued trying to assassinate or overthrow Castro for years. Mongoose was the initial name given to these operations, and this is what provoked the Soviets to start moving missiles into Cuba. But there is no mention of this in the book or the film. The CIA are effectively the good guys, fighting in a noble and peaceful way.
Thus, from all this, we can conclude that the novel, at least, is probably CIA propaganda. The film I am less sure about, but I will leave it you to judge on that score.