The Man Who Knew Too Much

By Lawrence Goodman / March / April 2007
March 20th, 2007

A cryptic note in Everette Howard Hunt Jr.’s alumni file at Brown marks the moment when his life would change forever. He “is leaving the middle of December to go to Mexico City, D.F. where he is to do hush-hush work for the State Department,” the memo dated December 12, 1950, states. “NOTE: This is not for publication!”

Hunt, who died of pneumonia in Miami January 23 at the age of 88, was going to work for the C.I.A., but the unidentified Brown official got it right when it came to the nature of his work. For roughly the next decade, Hunt hopscotched across Latin America on behalf of the Company. He became a clandestine Cold War warrior who played pivotal roles in the Guatemalan coup of 1954 and the Bay of Pigs fiasco. His life took another momentous turn in 1972 when he bungled the Watergate break-in on behalf of President Richard Nixon and wound up being sentenced to thirty-three months in prison. “This fellow Hunt,” Nixon said a few days after the break-in, “he knows too damn much.” As Hunt told the judge at his sentencing, the whole affair left him “disgraced as a man.”

After graduating from Brown, he signed up with the military, and following a stint as a midshipman, became a wartime intelligence officer stationed in China. “I’m writing from my quarters in a bombed-out mission ‘somewhere in China’ on the eve of my fifth reunion,” Hunt wrote in a June 1945 letter to former BAM editor Chet Worthington ’23.

Hunt and Worthington kept up their correspondence well into the 1960s. Hunt submitted updates on the many novels he was writing, most of them successful thrillers. Worthington usually wrote back, promising to put a note in the magazine about his friend “Howie’s” success.

The Guatemalan coup Hunt engineered brought about four decades of military rule and repression, and the Bay of Pigs operation ended in notorious disaster. As a result, by the mid-1960s, Hunt was on the outs at the C.I.A. and was assigned to a desk job churning out propaganda. “After more than twenty years of government service—fifteen abroad—I’m giving heavy thought to early retirement this summer in which case we will move to Spain and begin a new and more relaxed life,” Hunt wrote to Worthington in early 1965. “The temptations are powerful, and I interpret a recent and serious ulcer as a warning to slow down.”

But Hunt didn’t actually retire until 1970, and within a year was working for the White House as chief of Nixon’s dirty tricks department. That was also the year of his thirtieth reunion, after which Hunt complained in a letter to the University’s president about the “undergraduate militants propagandizing” at the event. He said the affair had been “both a disaster and nearly a final step in the direction of my complete alienation from Brown.”

The correspondence from Hunt drops off precipitously after this, though in 1974 Hunt wrote a letter to the BAM complaining about its coverage of him. “As a change from the crap you’ve been publishing about me,” Hunt wrote, “how about, in fairness, carrying something approximating the following.” He then went on to discuss a recent speech he gave in front of the Nebraska Press Association on penal reform and the “substantial six-figure guarantee” he’d received from a major publisher for his memoirs.

Two years ago, Hunt was asked in a media interview if he had any regrets. “No, none,” he told the online magazine Slate. “Well, it would have been nice to do Bay of Pigs differently.” He is survived by his wife, Laura, a son and daughter, and four adult children from an earlier marriage.

—Lawrence Goodman

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March / April 2007