Biography and History

Born on January 4, 1920 in St. Paul, Minnesota, William Egan Colby was the son of an Army officer, and he grew up on various U.S. Army posts as well as spending a three-year stint in Asia (Tientsin, China and Japan). In 1936 he entered Princeton University with the Class of 1940; while a student there, his extracurricular activities included the Triangle Club, Theatre Intime, and Whig-Clio. After graduating cum laude from Princeton with an A.B. in Political Science (International Affairs), Colby entered Columbia University to pursue a law degree. However, military service soon beckoned, and in August 1941 he enlisted in the Army.

Colby's service in World War II primed him for his future work in the Foreign Service and CIA. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his service on behalf of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as an organizer and director of resistance forces in France from August 14, 1944 to September 26, 1944. Other awards garnered from the war include the Silver Star, St. Olaf's Medal (Norway), and the Croix de Guerre (France).

Colby married Barbara Heinzen on September 15, 1945; the couple had five children over the next fifteen years: Jonathan, Catherine, Paul, Carl, and Christine. In November 1945, Colby was discharged from the Army with the rank of major. He then returned to Columbia to complete his law degree, graduating in 1947. He was a member of the Columbia Law Review's Editorial Board.

Colby's first job out of law school was as an associate attorney for the New York City firm of Donovan, Leisure, Newton, & Irvine, headed by William J. Donovan, the OSS director during World War II. After about two years, Colby desired experience in government litigation, and accepted an associate position with the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C.

In early 1951 Colby ostensibly joined the Department of State's Foreign Service, and his first tour was as a political officer in Stockholm, Sweden where he was responsible for following and reporting on Swedish political affairs. In October 1953 he was transferred to Rome, Italy with a similar job description. This tour ended in 1958, when he came back to the United States for a few months as a desk officer in Washington, D.C. In January 1959 he was assigned to Saigon, Vietnam where he was a Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador. Four years later, in early 1963, he was named the CIA's Far East Division Chief and stationed in Washington, D.C.

Colby went back to Vietnam in March 1968 to work for the Agency for International Development as the Assistant Chief of Staff for Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS). He was then promoted to the rank of ambassador and served as the Deputy to Commanders United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV). In this position he was the principal U.S. advisor to the Government of Vietnam on pacification and local development matters.

In June 1971 Colby was reassigned to the Department of State in Washington, D.C. Six months later, however, he was appointed Executive Director-Comptroller of the CIA and then, in March 1973, was promoted to Deputy Director for Operations. He did not remain long in the latter position, for in early May of that year, President Nixon announced Colby's nomination as the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI).

After an intense summer of confirmation hearings, Colby became the tenth Director of the CIA in September 1973. However, his tenure came at a time of great controversy for the Agency, and he spent much of 1975 enmeshed in congressional hearings. Towards the end of that year, President Ford asked for Colby's resignation, which became official in January 1976.

In 1977 Colby went back to practicing law, as an attorney and partner with the Washington, D.C. firm of Colby, Miller, and Hanes. While working there, he devoted his spare time to writing his memoirs, Honorable Men, published in 1978. In 1979 Colby joined the law firm of Reid & Priest, where he stayed through 1984. During these years he branched out into international consulting, taking on the additional position of Senior Advisor at International Business-Government Counselors Inc. in 1981. It was at this corporation that he met his future second wife, Sally Shelton, a former ambassador to countries in Latin America. They married in November 1984.

Colby used his prior experience to help start a new international consulting firm called Colby, Bailey, Werner, and Associates. However, this partnership did not last long. Robert Werner was the first to leave, and Colby followed in mid-1987 to accept a position as counsel in the firm he started out in, Donovan, Leisure, Newton, & Irvine. He continued to be heavily involved in international business, especially in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand.

Colby remained active in the professional world up until his death. On April 27, 1996 he disappeared while canoeing on the Wicomico River near his home in Maryland, and his body was found several days later. His death was ruled an accident, and authorities presumed he had suffered a stroke or heart attack before falling into the water.

A timeline of Colby's career can be found at the end of this finding aid.

Source: From the finding aid for MC113

  • William E. Colby Papers. 1935-1996 (inclusive), 1975-1995 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC113

    William E. Colby, Princeton University Class of 1940, was a career agent in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Director of Central Intelligence from 1973-1976. However, the bulk of the collection documents his post-CIA career and contains correspondence, speeches, writings, newspaper clippings, and subject files that reflect Colby's professional and private interests.

  • William E. Colby Papers. 1935-1996 (inclusive), 1975-1995 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC113

    William E. Colby, Princeton University Class of 1940, was a career agent in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Director of Central Intelligence from 1973-1976. However, the bulk of the collection documents his post-CIA career and contains correspondence, speeches, writings, newspaper clippings, and subject files that reflect Colby's professional and private interests.