The primary villains of this story are J. Edgar Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower. Anderson thoroughly explains why Eisenhower, in his abandonment of Hungary during the 1956 uprising, sealed the fate of the US to be, in a sense, the permanent "opposition party" to the Soviets, one which thrived more on protest than meaningful action. While we like to think about the Cold War era as a time in which the lines between good and evil were clear, in truth it was during this period that the United States developed a reputation, domestically and abroad, that couldn't possibly mean what it said.
The essential problem was that, despite the numerous adventures the US pursued all over the globe, the issue was always the European countries trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Well-chosen anecdotes from the perspectives of both Frank Wisner and Peter Sichel about Romania and Germany, respectively, drive home the point that Stalin's USSR was absolutely monstrous, and the veterans of World War II in Europe who worked at the nascent CIA were genuinely driven to take down an enemy they (rightfully) perceived as evil.
But a decade of fighting in Europe -- plus many more years of purging in the USSR -- made it, in the end, impossible for the US to establish a foothold in these countries during the 40s and 50s, much less release the stranglehold on those governments. And when the US was able to engage any actors, they were frequently left with the worst of the worst, many of who had Nazi bona-fides. While many may feel those relationships themselves tainted the United States, Anderson points out that we had few options: after repeated sweeps by the Soviets and the Nazis, the vast majority of the "good guys" in many of these countries had been killed. If we were going to work with anyone, we had few choices.
To the CIA's credit, they did try to work with resistance movements in these countries. Unfortunately, the CIA's intelligence about these movements were spotty at best, and the missions they proposed based on that intelligence immediately raised the eyebrows of the people who were assigned to oversee them, personified here by Michael Burke. It took a few years for the leadership of the CIA to finally catch on to the fact that they were, in many cases, being baited by the governments of those countries, most notoriously in Poland. While they were being thwarted by shocking intelligence leaks -- particularly by MI6 agent Kim Philby -- one gets the sense that closing those leaks wouldn't have changed the facts on the ground.
Korea in 1950 caught Washington by surprise, and alerted them to the fact that communism could spread outside of the European theater. (It should be noted here that while the Truman administration was caught off-guard, the CIA had, in fact, alerted them to the likelihood of action by the North Koreans.) This was, indeed, part of the justification for bringing the anti-Communist fight to other parts of the world, particularly Guatemala, Iran, and Vietnam. Pity there wasn't much of a Communist movement in those places before that. But the real reason is clear: the US couldn't win in Europe, but we could win elsewhere.
We couldn't win until we could -- but we chose not to. Although Hungary gave us the resistance movement we had desperately sought in the 40s, by 1956 we were convinced that anything that looked like victory against the Communists was a convoluted trick. (Including genuine overtures by the Politburo and Kruschev after Stalin's death.) Cold feet might be forgiven but for our intentional machinations at the UN designed to stall any meaningful action. This is in part be explained by the paranoia Hoover sowed into American culture, but was also a result of the defense policy, which favored nuclear weapons and covert action, but not traditional combat. Unfortunately, this was not aligned with our statements, which Hungarians interpreted as a promise for aid.
A great story, but no easy solutions. Highly recommended.