Helms was born in Philadelphia in 1913. In 1936, a year after he graduated from Williams College, Massachusetts, he was sent by United Press to help cover the Berlin Olympic Games; he had spent two of his high school years at the prestigious Institute Le Rosey in Switzerland where he learned to speak German and French.
He joined the advertising department of the Indianapolis Times; within two years he was national advertising manager.
In the aftermath of the War he was transferred to the newly formed Office of Special Operations (OSO), where at the age of 33 he was in charge of intelligence and counter-intelligence operations in Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
The OSO became a division of the CIA when that organisation was created by the National Security Act of July 1947.
Helms became Director of the OSO after the CIA's disastrous role in the attempted invasion of Cuba in 1961. After falling out with the Kennedys he was sent off to Vietnam where he oversaw the coup to overthrow President Ngo Dinh Diem. Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Helms was made Deputy Director of the CIA under Admiral William Raborn. But because of Raborn's ineptitude Helms found himself in effective control of the organisation.
A year later, in 1966, he was appointed Director.
After the debacle of Watergate, from which Helms succeeded in distancing the CIA as far as possible, the Agency came under much tighter Congressional control.
Helms' ultimate undoing was the CIA role in the subversion of Chilean democracy and the overthrow, under Nixon's orders, of that country's president Salvador Allende in 1973. Helms had reportedly opposed this operation.
Helms' answers to Congress on the CIA's role in the Chilean affair were proved to be false and he was prosecuted and convicted in 1977. He received a suspended two-year sentence and a $2000 fine. He wore the conviction as a badge of honor; his fine was paid by friends from the CIA.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan awarded Helms the National Security Medal.