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The CIA wanted the best and the brightest. They found them at Yale.

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The CIA wanted the best and the brightest. They found them at Yale.

The invitation down the rabbit hole came in the spring of 1957. “I’d like to talk to you about a job and your future,” said the man on the line. 

Henry “Sam” Chauncey Jr. was a soon-to-be graduating Yale history major and was used to calls from recruiters. In those days an Ivy League degree carried more weight even than today and several large companies were already courting him. There was an offer from Procter & Gamble and another from Chemical Bank, which later combined with Chase. But this was different. This offer came from the government and carried an air of adventure, maybe even danger.

The man on the phone (Chauncey says his name was Max but is not sure of the spelling of his last name) and Chauncey met twice, first in Yale’s career-placement office and then at George and Harry’s, a popular cocktail bar near campus. In these meetings, Max formalized an invitation into a world of shadows and hidden recordings, of coded messages and double meanings. The world behind the world where the rest of us live.

Max didn’t mention the name of the organization he represented. He didn’t have to.


At the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, there is a statue of Yale graduate and father of American espionage Nathan Hale. It is a copy of the Hale statue that stands in front of the Connecticut Hall dormitory on Yale’s Old Campus. The sculpture isn’t the only thing the agency has copied from Yale.

From the onset of World War II through the opening decades of the Cold War, Yale was a hotbed of espionage recruitment. First the Office of Strategic Services and later its successor, the CIA, bolstered their ranks with many Ivy League blue-blooded recruits from Princeton, Harvard and Yale, which did not allow for the full co-education of women until 1969.

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The bronze statue of Nathan Hale on Yale University's Old Campus.

“You can hire a second-story man and make him a better second-story man,” said Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the founder of the OSS, referring to the cat burglars sometimes hired by espionage agencies. “But if you hire a lawyer or an investment banker or a professor, you’ll have something else besides.”

This hiring philosophy carried over to the CIA. Frank Wisner, who was the CIA’s operations chief in its early days, was looking for “amateurs, not ex-FBI agents, former cops, bureaucrats,” writes Evan Thomas in The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the CIA. “They needed to be fluent in foreign languages, and they needed grace and confidence under pressure.”

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle, director of photo archives at the New Haven Museum, says that Yale during World War II and the early stages of the Cold War had close institutional ties with the government and that graduates were prized for their pedigree and character. The expectation was, “You go to Yale and you come out and you’re this type of person and you’re going to lead this type of life,” he says.

“From Yale’s class of 1943 alone, at least 42 young men entered intelligence work, largely in the OSS, many to remain on after the war to form the core of the new CIA,” writes historian Robin W. Winks in his 1987 book Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961. “Rightly or wrongly, a historian could, in assessing the link between the university and the agency, declare in 1984 that Yale had influenced the CIA more than any other university did.” Winks also noted that it was common for OSS spies at far-flung outposts throughout the world to “conclude a festive occasion by linking arms and singing the ‘Whiffenpoof Song.’ ”

Many of the agency’s most influential men — including three of its directors, George H.W. Bush, Porter Goss and R. James Woolsey — were Yale graduates.

“To a remarkable extent, the ethos first of the World War II Office of Strategic Services, and then of its offspring, the CIA, was influenced by Yale men,” wrote Godfrey Hodgson in The New York Times while reviewing Winks’ book in 1987.

The agency even had a code name for this avenue of recruits: They called it the “p source.” The p was for professor.

Had the Hale statue on Yale’s campus, dedicated in 1914, been able to see, it would have witnessed darting among the gothic architecture of the stately Old Campus some of the most powerful and influential men in CIA history. There through the arched entranceway of Phelps Gate went Richard Bissell, Class of 1932, who would help establish Area 51 as a top-secret testing facility and was involved in the planning of the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba (see page 58 for story on Bissell, “Spymaster”). Under the shadow of Harkness Tower walked Sherman Kent, class of 1926. He was a history teacher on campus before joining the OSS in 1942 and then the CIA, where he pioneered the art of intelligence analysis; he’s remembered as the father of the field and the CIA named its school for the subject after him in 2000.

Another history professor, Norman Holmes Pearson, helped expose German secret agents in wartime Britain and oversaw the OSS Art Looting Investigation Unit. He returned to teaching after the war, helping to establish American Studies as a serious subject at Yale and beyond, but he never cut ties with the clandestine world. He is believed to have kept an eye out for talent on campus and encouraged other professors with espionage connections to do the same.

Among those Pearson helped recruit was James Jesus Angleton, who was chief of CIA Counterintelligence from 1954 to 1975. A Yale English undergraduate and graduate student in the 1930s, he applied literary techniques to intelligence analysis and infamously became convinced there was a mole in the CIA for whom he searched with Ahabian zeal for years.

There are too many influential Yale CIA recruits to name here and many more whose names, deeds and misdeeds have not yet been publicly revealed.


Even before his meeting with Max, Chauncey got a small glimpse into the secret world. In addition to Max, who focused on recruiting, Chauncey says there was another local CIA officer named Ed Barnard who gathered information (a CIA spokesperson was “not able to confirm employment for either man”). Earlier in Chauncey’s academic career, he was approached by Barnard and asked to secretly record a series of guest lectures organized by a Yale instructor named Robert Barry Farrell with visiting officials from Soviet bloc countries.

“I wore a wire underneath my shirt and sat in the front row,” Chauncey says. Afterward he would give the recordings to Barnard.

 “You could go work in a bank in New York, but if you wanted excitement, working for the CIA was it.”

Of course, no one would give away major information in these lectures, but perhaps there would be an aside, a morsel of important information, something that slipped through that shouldn’t have.

Chauncey liked the work and was intrigued by the CIA’s offer of a permanent job. It was certainly an escape from the ordinary. “The mid-1950s was kind of a dull time for an undergraduate,” says Chauncey, a native of Boston who attended the private Groton School in Massachusetts, another breeding ground of Ivy League and CIA talent. “You could go work in a in New York, but if you wanted excitement, working for the CIA was it.”

But the prospect of becoming a spook worried him. A few years earlier, a Connecticut native and Yale graduate named John T. Downey had been recruited into the CIA only to get captured on a covert mission during the Korean War and sentenced to life imprisonment in China. (He was released after 20 years and became a New Haven judge before dying in 2014.) Downey’s imprisonment weighed heavily on Chauncey.

Then Chauncey got an offer from the dean’s office at Yale, and the decision became easy. Working in education had always been Chauncey’s first choice. He declined the CIA offer.

He never suspected that he wasn’t the only person in his social circle to get an offer from the agency. Years later, he learned that his roommate and friend (Chauncey declined to share his name) joined the CIA after his time at Yale, though the friend told everyone he was working for his family’s business. Chauncey only learned the truth after his death.

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Henry Chauncey, who graduated from Yale in 1957, stands in front of the university’s Davenport College, where he lived as a student when he was approached by the CIA.


From 1946 to 1950, Yale crew coach Skip Walz received $10,000 a year from the CIA to seek out recruits at Yale. Every three weeks, Walz met his agency contact at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C., and passed along his names. Walz “did not know, and did not wish to know, who received or accepted an offer,” Winks writes in Cloak & Gown. “For he had learned that the first two men he had pointed towards the CIA had been lost in the field.”

Walz also recruited NFL players, keeping an eye out for those who were just cut from teams in September and were looking for the next chapter of their lives. In 1950, when he left Yale for a manufacturing company, he shifted his recruitment activities, Winks says, to the “club car between Greenwich and New York City.”

But there were other agency sources on campus, both at the same time and after Walz.

A Russian major named James R. Lilley was invited into an “eminent” professor’s office in 1950. “He ushered me to sit down in his dark, wood-paneled study,” Lilley would write in his memoir. “It was late afternoon, and the room was in shadows. The walls of the study were lined with leather-backed volumes on Renaissance history, the Chinese classics, and English literature. The professor smoked a pipe. Between puffs, he made his pitch.”

He told Lilley that he shouldn’t waste his time becoming a diplomat as Lilley hoped to. “The state department is stuck in cement,” he said. “Consider intelligence. It’s a growth industry.”

Lilley took the advice and joined the CIA. He worked in Asia for three decades before becoming a diplomat, including ambassador to China during the Tiananmen Square crackdown.


In the early 1960s another Yale student, a Waterbury native named Porter Goss, was coming back from an ROTC drill when he stopped by the campus placement office. He met with a man there who asked him what his interests were. “I’m an Ancient Greek major. I’m not sure how I translate that into money,” Goss said. The man replied, “I don’t think you ever will, but here’s a number. Call me some day.”

Eight months later Goss got a call from someone in Washington telling him he was supposed to be there for an interview. “It was the CIA doing its thing,” Goss said while speaking to an audience at the Hudson Union Society in the 2000s (clips of the talk are posted to YouTube).

Goss, a U.S. Army Intelligence officer from 1960 to 1962, served as a clandestine service officer with the CIA, drawing assignments in the Caribbean, other parts of Latin America and Europe. He left the agency due to a mysterious case of blood poisoning in 1972 that is rumored to have been a botched assassination attempt.

He moved to Florida where he served as a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1989 until 2004 when he became director of the CIA. He resigned from the position in 2006.

“It was a very different CIA in those days,” Goss told the Hudson Union audience of his early days at the agency. “It was a great organization in my view because it was so mission oriented and everybody was so aware of the uniqueness of their responsibility. Those were the hot Cold War days — we had Cuba, we had a lot of stuff going on. It was a time where you would not have ever thought of being a whistleblower or talking to a newspaper. You took a secrecy oath — you meant it for life. Our cover was so complete that I didn’t even tell my father-in-law when I married my wife. My wife was brought in [to the CIA].”

Decades later, Goss still takes that secrecy seriously. A letter mailed to a P.O. box associated with Goss at a Florida marina, asking him to talk for this story, received a handwritten reply that said only, “Though there has been some public mention, I am constrained from confirming or denying any details of any relationship I might have with CIA.” It was signed with a “P” and the date.

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A letter sent to former director of the CIA Porter Goss was returned with a note declining comment for the article.


As a Yale administrator in the 1960s, Chauncey still dealt with former spies and current CIA officers. He grew closer with Ed Barnard, the CIA officer who had hired him to record lectures. “Ed would come to see me periodically,” Chauncey remembers. “He might just ‘visit,’ ask what was going on and he might have a specific question or questions about someone who had visited Yale or a professor, etc. I had discussed with Yale’s lawyer what was appropriate for me to say and what was not. Ed was never offended if I said I could not respond to his questions. He was a very nice guy who knew how to schmooze and pick up bits and pieces of information where he could.”

Chauncey says there is a difference between this type of information gathering and spying. The CIA has limited authority on U.S. soil, with most internal intelligence matters being handled by the FBI. If, for instance, Barnard was interested in the former Yugoslavia, he might ask economists at Yale if “they felt the Yugoslavia economy was stable or that Tito, who led the country, was honest.”

Chauncey also hired Yale graduate Tracy Barnes after Barnes was fired from the CIA in 1966. A colorful figure in the history of American espionage, Barnes parachuted behind enemy lines in World War II while serving with the OSS. At the CIA he helped organize the successful U.S.-orchestrated 1954 Guatemalan coup and served as station chief for the CIA in Germany and the United Kingdom. He was also a senior official involved in the planning of the Bay of Pigs.

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The Phelps Gate entrance to Yale University's Old Campus,

The 6-foot-plus former star athlete was a child of high society and had a Harvard law degree in addition to his undergraduate degree from Yale. Chauncey became close with him and remains impressed by his gregarious personality. “He was very outgoing. If you walked in the room, he’d come over and say, ‘Hi, I’m Tracy Barnes, tell me about yourself.’ ”

Because of his background, Chauncey would have Barnes handle difficult community-relations situations for the university. In the late 1960s, Black radicals in New Haven were protesting Yale, hoping to disburse its endowment among the community. Chauncey assigned Barnes to meet with them, thinking “this is a tough guy who has had a lot of tough experiences.” During the meeting, Chauncey heard a commotion coming from Barnes’ office. When he walked by the office he saw Barnes calmly “sitting there at his desk, sort of leaning back in his chair like you would be if you were thinking great thoughts,” while the group members he was meeting with yelled and threw ashtrays at him. “He was just sitting there smiling, letting them throw,” Chauncey says. “They calmed down and then he got to talking to them. He was imperturbable. You can tell he had seen a lot worse than this in his life.” 


The warm relationship between the CIA and Yale was not destined to last. During the 1960s, U.S. involvement in the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War eroded trust in the government. CIA missteps like the Bay of Pigs also played a role.

“By the time you get to the late ’60s, no Yale student would even think of joining the CIA,” Chauncey says.

Over the years the CIA also broadened its recruitment beyond places like Yale.

The warm relationship between the CIA and Yale was not destined to last. During the 1960s, U.S. involvement in the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War eroded trust in the government. CIA missteps like the Bay of Pigs also played a role.

“Our mission demands that we employ a workforce that is as diverse as the global environment in which we operate,” says Sara Lichterman, media spokesperson and entertainment industry liaison for the CIA. “We recruit from a wide array of schools nationwide to ensure we have officers who bring a variety of life experiences and viewpoints to the job.”

Though active recruitment stopped, Yale graduates still find their way to the agency. After graduating in 1987, Joseph Weisberg served as a CIA officer for three years. He’d later go on to become a TV writer and creator of the Cold War spy thriller The Americans.

Espionage also continues at elite educational institutions across the globe, though engineering and science departments are seeing more action than the liberal arts these days. Charles Lieber, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard, was arrested earlier this year. Prosecutors allege he established a lab in China in exchange for thousands of dollars in payments from the Chinese government.

Chauncey, now in his mid-80s, went on to work at Yale for decades, helping to guide the institution to become a fully coeducational facility in 1969 and navigating the turbulent protests on college campuses during the Vietnam War era. He also founded the health management program at the Yale School of Public Health. Asked if he ever regrets not taking Max’s offer and joining the agency, he doesn’t hesitate in his answer: “No.” He adds, “I have loved working in the academic and health care worlds and would not change that if I could.”

Like most of us, he’s perfectly happy on this side of the intelligence rabbit hole.

This article appears in the October 2020 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.