April 8, 2014–Tom Polgar is not a household name. He’s probably not as well known as his daughter Susan, an international Chess grandmaster whose involvement a few years back in maneuverings among the pooh bahs of the United States Chess Federation became somewhat controversial. But the father’s role was far more consequential. Polgar, a senior official of the CIA, passed away two weeks ago. To the extent people remember him at all, it will be because of Frank Snepp, a subordinate when Polgar served as the agency’s last station chief in Saigon, whose searing account of the collapse of South Vietnam and the U.S. withdrawal, Decent Interval, was not very kind to Mr. Polgar.
Born in southern Hungary, Tom Polgar’s family moved to the U.S. when he was sixteen. As Hungarian Jews they fled the anti-Semitism taking root there as well as in Germany. There were claims later that he had helped others fell as well. Polgar always retained his Hungarian accent. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, his languages (German, Spanish, Greek and some French) made him exceptional and Polgar was recruited into the OSS. Dropped behind German lines near the end of World War II, Polgar made his way to Berlin and ended up working in Germany for the OSS and its successors right through CIA, spending nearly a decade on this frontline of the Cold War. After that it was Vienna, another Cold War cockpit. Polgar’s detractors–Frank Snepp was never the only one–dubbed him “Rasputin.”
In the mid-60s he went into CIA’s Latin America Division, first at headquarters and then as station chief in Argentina. It was from there, in 1972, that Polgar was sent to Vietnam. He had no experience in Southeast Asia–but he was fluent in Hungarian and Hungary was among the member nations of the international commission that was supposed to supervise implementation of the Paris accords under which a ceasefire was instituted and the U.S. withdrew from South Vietnam. Polgar kept up his liaison with the Hungarians, and there are conflicting accounts of its impact once Saigon stood on the point of collapse in early 1975. Some maintain that myopic Hungarian optimism induced Polgar to delay the withdrawal of CIA agents and destruction of its files at Saigon station. Others argue Polgar was too close to Henry Kissinger at the White House. In any case the collapse of South Vietnam was a disaster for the agency.
Tom Polgar next went to Mexico City as station chief there, and eventually returned to CIA headquarters where he led the human resources office. He retired in 1981. When the Iran-Contra Affair began with the shootdown of a plane transporting supplies to Nicaraguan contra rebels on behalf of “private benefactors” working for the Reagan National Security Council (NSC), Tom Polgar came out of the shadows to comment in the Miami Herald, saying “I think the CIA is telling the truth that it was not involved in the flight.” Of course William J. Casey, the CIA director of that time, was involved–up to his ears–in what became the next great agency embarrassment, with some elements working directly to the Casey-NSC network, and others kept in the dark. Senator Warren Rudman of the joint committee of Congress that investigated Iran-Contra, believing they needed an insider to understand the agency, hired Tom Polgar as an investigator. Polgar was deeply troubled by the agency’s work in that affair, Rudman believed, and his work led directly to the discovery of irregularities and of a critical missing CIA cable.
The jury remains out on Tom Polgar’s exploits, but perhaps now we will hear more about them.