Following the war, Colby returned to Columbia, earned his law degree in 1947, and practiced law in New York until 1950. Motivated by the 1949 communist victory in China and the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, he decided to join the CIA. During the 1950s he was attached to the U.S. embassies in Sweden (1951–1953) and Italy (1953–1958). A defining moment in his career occurred in 1959 when he was assigned to Saigon as head of CIA operations in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam).
Colby proved to be an aggressive Cold Warrior and was an early critic of RVN President Ngo Dinh Diem's corrupt and ineffectual leadership. Colby returned to the United States in 1962 and served as chief of the CIA's Far Eastern Division from 1962 to 1968. In 1968 he returned to Vietnam, first as deputy director and then director of the Accelerated Pacification Campaign (APC), initiated in November 1968. The APC focused on enhanced security and development within South Vietnam's villages and included such components as the Phoenix Program and the People's Self-Defense Force. The Phoenix Program was a CIA-inspired effort to eliminate the communist Viet Cong (VC) infrastructure within South Vietnam. Between 1968 and 1972 the program may have resulted in the capture of some 34,000 VC, of whom 22,000 rallied to the RVN government. The number of those Vietnamese killed may have reached 26,000.
Colby left South Vietnam in 1971 and was promoted to CIA director-controller in 1972 and deputy director of operations in 1973. He became director of the CIA in September 1973 and held that post until his retirement in January 1976. When Colby became director, the agency's reputation and morale had reached a low point. The CIA's failures and abuses abroad, such as those in Vietnam and Chile, combined with its illegal domestic activities associated with the Daniel Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers) case and the Watergate scandal undermined support for the agency. Although Colby struggled under reduced budgets and continuing political difficulties, he did succeed in making the CIA more open and responsive to Congress. Conversely, this openness earned the opposition of many Cold Warriors and helped end Colby's tenure as director. In January 1976, President Gerald R. Ford appointed George H. W. Bush to be the new director. Colby died on 27 April 1996 while on a canoe trip in Rock Point, Maryland.
William T. Walker
Colby, William Egan, with James McCargar. Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America's Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989.; Prados, John. Lost Crusader: The Secret Wars of CIA Director William Colby. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.