The overdrawn game of nuclear chicken between the USSR and the United States—now known as the Cold War—lasted about 45 years. While neither superpower ever deployed nukes on each others’ soil, high-altitude bomb testing caused a kerfuffle in Earth’s atmosphere. Though the conflict has (thankfully) long since ended, …
In August 1961, before General Dmitri Fedorovich Polyakov became one of the CIA's most valuable Cold War assets, he was a decorated Soviet diplomat meeting an American general in a quiet room next to a United Nations cocktail party. The hale, stoic Polyakov asked the American what would happen if the Soviet Union were to invade West Berlin, not knowing FBI agent Ed Moody was in the basement below them secretly recording the conversation. "It would mean an all-out war," General Edward O'Neill told Polyakov. Four days later, on August 13, East German guards began installing barbed wire along their border with West Berlin, the beginnings of what would soon become a wall.
"In the years to follow, Moody would often wonder if the interchange he heard between Polyakov and O'Neill might have played a role in persuading [Soviet leader] Nikita Khrushchev to build a barrier rather than attempt to take West Berlin by force," Eva Dillon describes in her intimate and chilling memoir, Spies in the Family: An American Spymaster, His Russian Crown Jewel, and the Friendship That Helped End the Cold War. Polyakov only used hypotheticals, hoping to maintain a delicate balance and avoid a superpower standoff, Dillon explains. "Building a wall," she writes, "would frustrate and anger the Americans, but they weren't likely to go to war over it."
Spies in the Family collects several of these secret interactions that shaped the course of the Cold War, contextualizing each with what was going on behind the scenes: the personal relationships, emotional grief, and, at times, ulterior motives of the individual spies involved.
Dillon is uniquely equipped to offer such intimate details of the key players in the Cold War: Her father, Paul Leo Dillon, was one of the many CIA operatives identified in Philip Agee's 1975 Inside the Company: CIA Diary. Although she was years away from learning that her father was tasked with handling Polyakov, America's highest-ranking, longest-serving Soviet double agent—"the jewel in the crown," according to former CIA director James Woolsey—Dillon's book reveals, through a combination of personal memories, meticulous research, and interviews with 18 of her father's CIA colleagues as well as the Soviet general's son Alexander, the friendship that emerged between her father and Polyakov and the geopolitical future they forged.
"In general, governments operate on this other plane from the reality that's going on underneath," Dillon, a former president of Reader's Digest, recently told me over the phone. And whereas most coverage of CIA strategy can only present recorded events, Dillon can provide motivations, offering a more intimate, humanizing look at both sides of the Iron Curtain. "I'd read so many of these books written by insiders and journalists and historians and they were wonderful, but I felt that they missed the human side of it, the side that affected the people that surrounded these incredible unsung heroes of the Cold War."
Dillon spent her childhood relocating with each of her father's international assignments. Throughout the book, she introduces each new setting with youthful curiosity (and limited perspective): seven children in a cramped apartment in Rome, making beaded necklaces on the Spanish Steps, jumping in the Trevi Fountain on a dare. Afterward, Dillon reveals what was really happening behind the scenes: Her father was supervising case officers in Italy, one of the largest hubs for Communist parties in the capitalist world, until the family had to abruptly return to the States without reason. Thanks to interviews with her father's colleagues, she later learned that her family's hasty departure was because they had been compromised, and, most likely, her father's cover was blown.
Through these conversations with ex-CIA members, Dillon also begins to understand why Polyakov (whose file still remains classified) secretly worked with American intelligence: not to turn his back on his comrades, but out of a sense of loyalty to Russian citizens. "[Polyakov was a] World War II hero, but he began to see the Soviet leaders as corrupt thugs mocking the sacrifices that the Russian people endured during the war," Dillon told me. "He wanted to help the Americans understand the Soviets' thinking and intentions, that they were also just as afraid of nuclear war as the Americans were. It helped the Americans realize that the Soviets weren't these crazy warmongers. He helped defuse tensions."
Dillon tracks the paranoia and emotional grief that guided the broader US-Soviet relationship through the Cold War. In her chapter about Operation REDSOX, which recruited Soviet refugees and parachuted them back into their homeland as informants, she traces her father's anguish after he trained spy teams in Berlin only to learn that all of his students were shot and killed upon entering Soviet territory. The traumatic experience caused her father to take the unusual step of self-assessing his own "considerable" "mental demands" in a job evaluation, though each specific item is redacted.
Dillon maps out the "Great Mole Hunt" that turned aggression inward, debilitating American intelligence from within, thanks to the increasing paranoia of a few. But perhaps the most startling aspect of these portraits is how relevant they've become today. With concerns about Russia eclipsing most other headlines in the United States, the paranoia and aggression that Dillon captures in each story feels eerily familiar.
"Cold wars are often inflamed by unexplained incidents, where everybody suspects each other," she said. "The current day one is the hacking of the DNC." She compared the tensions that intensified over the 2016 election cycle to the summer of 1985, when the mysterious disappearance of dozens of Soviet assets, including Polyakov, catalyzed a desperate search for a mole, or foreign spy, and a subsequent blame-game across the ranks that cost several people their careers.
"I'd read so many of these books written by insiders and journalists and historians and they were wonderful, but I felt that they missed the human side of it, the side that affected the people that surrounded these incredible unsung heroes of the Cold War."
Dillon also sees a parallel in how turf wars within the intelligence agencies stifle results, comparing it to today's "paranoia surrounding today's congressional intelligence investigations into whether Russia colluded with the Trump administration." When Polyakov wanted to work with the CIA, a jealous FBI team instead gave him an FBI agent masquerading as a CIA spy, hoping that Polyakov would work exclusively with them. To Dillon, that competitiveness sounds similar to Democratic lawmakers accusing the FBI of withholding information during the congressional intelligence investigations over Trump's relationship with Russia.
"I think things happen in cycles, and I think we're very much back to a very similar cycle to the earlier Cold War compared to what some people are calling Cold War 2.0," Dillon explained, comparing what she learned writing this book to the current political situation. Just as quickly as the Soviets moved from allies to rivals following World War II, it seems as though the current presidency is bringing the Russian-American relationship into its next iteration, where Russian influence in elections and foreign policy has ushered in an era of speculation bordering on outright paranoia.
Yet, despite what Trump and Putin may want their citizens to think, they aren't the only actors in control. As Dillon reminded me, "There were bigger things that went on but there were also people, real people who were out there doing what they could to lessen something like the very real threat of nuclear war." Dillon's father and Polyakov shared attempts at avoiding a superpower standoff, though filled with personal tragedy, were ultimately successful. As Spies in the Family illustrates, the decrees of leadership only go so far. The friendships, conversations, and allegiances of the individual can shape a country's policies, even if done in secret.
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Spies in the Family will be published by Harper on May 9.
Welcome to Why the Fuck Is No One Talking About... our occasional series examining important but under-discussed issues.
If we talked about things in proportion to their danger, we'd talk a lot more about nuclear weapons. We'd be talking about them so much, in fact, it would be impossible to eat, sleep, or screw without feeling them tug at the back of our minds. We'd debate arms treaties over breakfast, suffer dream visitations by mushroom clouds, and invent new types of benzodiazepines just to manage our nuclear anxiety. We'd make nukes the routine objects of protest movements, nightly newscasts, Hollywood films, and national elections.
We would, in other words, be living in the United States of 1962 or 1983.
As veterans of those Cold War years can attest, it was exhausting. I was in third grade during the 1983 war scare and remember well the humming undercurrent of dread. At any moment—maybe at school, maybe during Saturday morning cartoons—air-raid sirens and TV test patterns could sound, followed by a blinding flash and, if you survived that, a thermonuclear mushroom big as the sky and hot as the sun. The unimaginable misery awaiting the burned and irradiated survivors—that was most terrifying of all.
Naturally, when the chance arrived later that decade to stop worrying about the bomb, we took it and ran, doing cartwheels and somersaults into the post–Cold War sunrise. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, brought a message of peace to foreign capitals in the final years of the USSR and was mobbed in the streets by a grateful public, newly liberated from a half-century on the verge of nervous breakdown. Gorbymania, it was called. But it wasn't really about Gorbachev. We were celebrating our own collective exhalation. Living on a Cold War footing was not a happy or healthy state of mind. A lot of people were deformed by it or just cracked.
Nuclear weapons, meanwhile, quietly waited out the demise of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and Gorbymania. Despite the stockpile reductions and arms treaties of the 1990s, more than 1,000 nuke-tipped missiles were kept on hair triggers in submarines and silos from Omaha to Omsk. On those vintage Cold War triggers the missiles remain, patiently awaiting orders or perhaps a monumental mistake.
In the late 1990s, things started getting scary again, and in familiar ways. NATO broke its promise to Russia not to expand the military alliance eastward. Then we bombed Russia's ally, Serbia, pouring accelerant on growing mistrust and hostility between the two nuclear powers. George W. Bush pulled out of the ABM Treaty and began deploying missile defenses near Russia's borders, undermining the cornerstone of strategic stability. Russia's early warning system, meanwhile, had degraded badly, to the point where nuclear command centers monitoring radar data could be sent into panic by a research rocket launched innocently from Scandinavia.
Fast-forward to 2017, and we're back to Cold War levels of nuclear danger. Arms reduction on the US side has slowed, Russia is violating an important missile treaty, and tensions continue to wind apace with US pursuit of an ever-evolving missile defense system. (Like any weapons system, it is defensive or offensive depending on which side of the barrel you're looking down.)
And it's not just the Cold War superpowers that possess these weapons anymore. North Korea now has a handful of atom (and possibly hydrogen) bombs, bringing the number of nuclear states to nine. India and Pakistan remain in a staring contest armed with enough mega-tonnage to trigger a planetary nuclear winter. Then there is the growing risk of nuclear terrorism, a threat compounded by the chill in US-Russian relations. Recent years have seen the icing and abandonment of hard-won cooperative efforts to monitor the production and traffic of nuclear materials around the world. And securing this material should be every nation's top anti-terrorism priority: It takes only a grapefruit-sized slab of enriched uranium, shot into a slab of conventional explosive, to trigger a Hiroshima-sized bomb.
All of this is reflected in the hands of the Doomsday Clock, now sitting two and a half minutes from midnight. This is closer than it's been since November 1983. Only this time, we're not talking about it. It's not even clear we'd know how.
In the decades since millions of Americans gathered for community screenings of The Day After, the widely seen apocalypse film, two generations have come of age whose knowledge of nuclear weapons is derived mostly from video games. At the apex of the nuclear command chain sits a man who last year revealed his ignorance of the nuclear triad, which is roughly the equivalent of a sixth-grader being unable to explain a triangle. Former nuclear grandees have been stirred and are speaking out to shake the public from its nuclear stupor. But it's not happening.
Why is it so hard to talk about nuclear weapons the way we did 30 years ago?
For starters, nuclear weapons have always been synonyms for death, and people don't like thinking about death. (This goes triple for "megadeath," the unit-measure for every million people killed in a nuclear war.) Nuclear weapons also involve, not one, but two apparent paradoxes. The first cuts through morality and human nature: How can we be so smart and yet so dumb? How can we barrel down a highway lined with flashing neon signs reading, "Horrific Mass Suicide, 1 mile"? The second paradox is just the physics mindfuck of it all: An atom can flatten a city. Like the vastness of our expanding universe, it doesn't seem real. It can't be.
Even during the Cold War, nobody wanted to think about nukes. It took Hiroshima, Nagasaki, a series of major crises, a superpower standoff, and a media focused on the gruesome details of nuclear war to spark even a modest global disarmament movement. The world of 2017 is a different place. There is no binary Cold War frame. The shared culture that could focus a conversation with something like The Day After is no more. The attention span required for sorting through our nuclear dilemma—also pretty close to gone. Nothing embodies this better than the devolution of the "peace" symbol: Born as the logo of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a group that organized mass sit-ins in downtown London, it is now hippie marketing shorthand used to sell hazy nostalgia for a nonpolitical counterculture.
Climate change is another factor. Humans have bandwidth for confronting, maybe, one apocalyptic threat at a time. When the Cold War ended, climate change took over the slot. But climate change doesn't supersede the nuclear threat; it only adds to its urgency. Climate change is leading us back to a world of scarcity, of resource wars for water and arable land. Resource war is the most brutal kind of war, and you don't have to be a Pentagon planner to see that climate and nukes are on glide paths to intersect, barring radical intervention, sometime mid-century. Climate pressures are already aggravating the situation in South Asia, where glacial shrinking has reduced water flow to contested rivers supporting 90 percent of Pakistani food production.
So, it isn't a pretty picture. But what else is new? Apathy is an option, but one best suited to rich assholes with luxury bomb shelters. The more difficult and urgent thing to do is to integrate nuclear weapons into the growing movement for systemic change. There are blips of hope. At the UN, most of the world is working to produce a legally binding nuke-ban treaty (though the US is leading a boycott of those talks).
A 21st-century nuclear-disarmament movement won't look like the one in 1980, when British historian E.P. Thompson inspired an anti-nuclear revival (and a Discharge song) with his pamphlet Protest and Survive. No document could land with that kind of impact in 2017, even if the public was primed for it. But it is possible to imagine such a movement, thanks to the recent emergence of grassroots causes possessed of vitality and drive, from Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock. This is something to build on, above ground, and without being paralyzed by fear.
Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist living in New Orleans.
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