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In 1946, Master Sergeant Donald Nichols was repairing jeeps on the sleepy island of Guam when he caught the eye of recruiters from the army's Counter Intelligence Corps. After just three months' training, he was sent to Korea, then a backwater beneath the radar of MacArthur's Pacific Command. Though he lacked the pedigree of most US spies - Nichols was a seventh-grade dropout - he quickly metamorphosed from army mechanic to black ops phenomenon. He insinuated himself into the affections of America's chosen puppet in South Korea, President Syngman Rhee, and became a pivotal player in the Korean War, warning months in advance about the North Korean invasion, breaking enemy codes, and identifying most of the targets destroyed by American bombs in North Korea.
But Nichols' triumphs had a dark side. Immersed in a world of torture and beheadings, he became a spymaster with his own secret base, his own covert army, and his own rules. He recruited agents from refugee camps and prisons, sending many to their deaths on reckless missions. His closeness to Rhee meant that he witnessed - and did nothing to stop or even report - the slaughter of tens of thousands of South Korean civilians in anticommunist purges. Nichols' clandestine reign lasted for an astounding 11 years.
In this riveting book, Blaine Harden traces Nichols' unlikely rise and tragic ruin, from his birth in an operatically dysfunctional family in New Jersey to his sordid postwar decline, which began when the US military sacked him in Korea, sent him to an air force psych ward in Florida, and subjected him - against his will - to months of electroshock therapy. But King of Spies is not just the story of one American spy: With napalmed villages and severed heads, high-level lies and long-running cover-ups, it reminds us that the darkest sins of the Vietnam War - and many other conflicts that followed - were first committed in Korea.
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Cody Bad on 02-11-18
Donald Nichols: War Hero, Pedophile, Thief
If you could sum up King of Spies in three words, what would they be?
The author, Blaine Harden, did a great job researching an obscure figure from the Korean War. I had never heard of him and it sounds like I was not alone in that. The Korean War was an absolutely brutal conflict where what most people would call war crimes were committed by both sides frequently throughout. Donald Nichols was quite a flawed character, although most important people throughout history have been.
Who was your favorite character and why?
The author gave an interview with Jeff Schechtman (on Dec 1, 2017) in which he said,
"One, he stole a lot of money. He came home from Korea actually with several hundred thousand dollars in cash bricks that he kept in his brother’s freezer in the late 1950s and ‘60s. And I talked to his nieces and nephews who would sneak looks at the cash in the freezer. So there is the money. And then Nichols was a closeted homosexual who used his authority in South Korea. He was a pedophile and he would have South Korean military officers bring him young South Korean air men for sexual encounters in his quarters.
And he continued to abuse young boys living as a civilian in Florida in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. So that could have also been a reason. But I think the principal reason and this is supported by officers who were serving with Nichols at the time and the preponderance of the evidence is that he’d become too close to Syngman Rhee. Syngman Rhee was no longer seen as serving America’s best interest. And getting Donald Nichols out of Korea was a way of protecting the interest of the United States. And why he was secretly given so much electroshock and thrown out of the Air Force and turned into a non- person is … Well, it was a secret operation and the government has not explained what it did to him."
Gives you a good idea of Donald Nichol's character. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
Which character – as performed by Mark Bramhall – was your favorite?
The narrator did a good job with this book. I enjoyed it.
Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?
All of the slaughtering of civilians. The extent of the sheer destruction of the North Korean countryside by napalm attacks was something I learned in greater detail from this book. Brutal.
Any additional comments?
I would recommend this book as a solid addition to anyone's Korean War section of their library.
By Anonymous User on 11-19-17
Reads like a Spy Novel!!
A brutal look into how Donald Nichols, an Air Force mechanic with a 7th grade education, became the most feared, controversial, reviled, and revered Spymaster in US military history! Not a feel-good story by far. Given an environment of unchecked power, and indiscretion, held an iron grip on subversion, and intelligence gathering before/during/after the Korean War. I enjoyed how the author toyed around with Nichols' proneness to hyperbole.
This book challenged my knowledge of the Korean War, and exactly how close the Soviet, and then Chinese backed North Korea pushed the US, and their many poor decisions to a crushing defeat. Thoroughly enjoyed this Audible book!