Born to a Presbyterian engineer in the Belgian Congo, Stockwell attended school in Lubondai before going on to study in the elite Plan II Program at the University of Texas. As a Marine, Stockwell served a tour helping to quell Lumumba's uprising in the Congo.
Beginning his career in 1964, Stockwell spent six years in Africa before being transferred to Vietnam to oversee intelligence operations in the Tay Ninh province and was awarded the CIA Medal of Merit for keeping his post open until the last days of the fall of Saigon in 1975.
In December of 1976 he resigned from the Agency, citing deep concerns for the methods employed by the CIA in targeting the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. Two years later he wrote the expose In Search of Enemies, about that experience. He claimed that the CIA was counterproductive to national security, and that its "secret wars" served no benefit.
He was one of the first professionals to leave the CIA to go public by writing a bestselling book. His concerns were that, although many of his colleagues in the CIA were men and women of the highest integrity, the organization was counterproductive of United States national security and harming a lot of people in its "secret wars" overseas.
Stockwell was a founding member of the short-lived Association for Responsible Dissent, an organization of former CIA and Government officials who were critical of the CIA's Cold War activities.
"It is the function of the CIA to keep the world unstable, and to propagandize and teach the American people to hate, so we will let the Establishment spend any amount of money on arms." -John Stockwell
"Enemies are necessary for the wheels of the U.S. military machine to turn." -John Stockwell
"Short, successful military adventures are as effective as the Super Bowl in diverting people's attention from unpleasant truths." -John Stockwell