Tag Archives: soviet union

My Father, the Cold War Spy

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.

Follow Mary von Aue on Twitter.

Spies in the Family will be published by Harper on May 9.

Russia’s New Missile Violates a Cold War Treaty But We’re Sure Trump Will Tell Putin What’s What

According to new reports, Russia has deployed a secret cruise missile system that violates a treaty between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Known as the SSC-X-8, the Obama administration previously warned Russia about developing the land-based system, but the country went ahead and built it anyway. Now…


How the CIA Infiltrated the World’s Literature

When the CIA's connections to the Paris Review and two dozen other magazines were revealed in 1966, the backlash was swift but uneven. Some publications crumbled, taking their editors down with them, while other publishers and writers emerged relatively unscathed, chalking it up to youthful indiscretion or else defending the CIA as a "nonviolent and honorable" force for good. But in an illuminating new book Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World's Best Writers, writer Joel Whitney debunks the myth of a once-moral intelligence agency, revealing an extensive list of writers involved in transforming America's image in countries we destabilized with coups, assassinations, and other all-American interventions.

The CIA developed several guises to throw money at young, burgeoning writers, creating a cultural propaganda strategy with literary outposts around the world, from Lebanon to Uganda, India to Latin America. The same agency that occasionally undermined democracies for the sake of fighting Communism also launched the Congress for Cultural Freedoms (CCF). The CCF built editorial strategies for each of these literary outposts, allowing them to control the conversation in countries where readers might otherwise resist the American perspective. The Paris Review, whose co-founder Peter Matthiessen was a CIA agent, would sell its commissioned interviews to the magazine's counterparts in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere. Mundo Nuevo was created to offer a moderate-left perspective to earn trust among Latin American readers, effectively muting more radical perspectives during the Cuban Revolution. Sometimes the agency would provide editors with funding and content; other times it would work directly with writers to shape the discourse. Through these acts, the CCF weaponized the era's most progressive intellectuals as the American answer to the Soviet spin machine.

While the CIA's involvement in anti-Communist propaganda has been long known, the extent of its influence—particularly in the early careers of the left's most beloved writers—is shocking. Whitney, the co-founder and editor at large of the literary magazine Guernica, spent four years digging through archives, yielding an exhaustive list—James Baldwin, Gabriel García Márquez, Richard Wright, and Ernest Hemingway all served varying levels of utility to Uncle Sam. (Not that the CIA's interest were only in letters: Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were also championed by arms of the agency.)

But don't let that ruin Love in the Time of Cholera. Whitney explains with methodical clarity how each writer became a tool for the CIA. This nuance not only salvages many of the classics from being junked as solely propaganda, but it serves as a cautionary tale for those trying to navigate today's "post-truth" media landscape. In an era where Facebook algorithms dictate the national discourse, even the most well-meaning journalist is prone to stories that distract on behalf of the US government. 

"It was often a way to change the subject from the civil rights fight at home," Whitney said of the CIA's content strategy during the Cold War. We can easily draw parallels to today, where the nation's most dire issues are rarely our viral subjects. With Donald Trump's presidency just weeks away, Finks arrives at a crucial time, exposing the political machinery that can affect which stories are shared and which are silenced.  

Photo courtesy of OR Books

VICE: So why did you have to ruin all my favorite authors?
Joel Whitney: You want to know the truth about the writers and publications you love and what their aims might have been, but that shouldn't mean they're ruined. For somebody like Richard Wright or James Baldwin or even Peter Matthiessen, I feel like there were a lot of people who joined through professors. They were in their early 20s, and when you're young and your professors have national reputations, you take their attention seriously. I was a little bit more interested in where people ended up once the truth was known.

And the excuses varied. You mentioned Gabriel Garcia Márquez's advice that "when you write, it's you who informs the publication." If that's true, why did the CIA work with so many left-leaning Latin American authors, whose writing would give voice and credibility to the idea of autonomy in the region? Can we measure how successful the CIA really was in working with these artists?
That's the thing about secrecy: Without any public discussion about what the actual goals were, there was no accountability, and you could keep moving the target. They found that with the early magazines of Latin America—the first one was Cuadernos [del Congreso por la Libertad de la Cultura]—they had their politics too much on their sleeve, and they weren't getting the readers they wanted. Cuadernos could speak to the hardliners who were already convinced that the US did some good stuff in Latin America. It helped prop up the rich, and it helped knock down purportedly Communist-influenced leftists who often turned out not to have much communism in their leftism. But during the Cuban Revolution, we see a shifting target. Rather than enabling hardliners, "soft-liners" could reach more people.

Basically, they enacted something that I had stumbled into as an idea behind Guernica's political coverage, which is somebody needs to referee, at all times it seems, a debate between the anti-war progressive left and the interventionist left. I was always curious why the interventionist left always was heard and the anti-war progressive left always seemed like it was marginalized.

"The CIA's influence in publishing was on the covert ops side, and it was done as propaganda. It was a control of how intellectuals thought about the US."

So the CCF published writers who were just left enough to win an audience's trust?
The way that they went about it was to use a cultural leftist like Garcia Márquez with their creative work and put their names on the cover in a sort of Trojan Horse style, so that they had a hand in the conversation during the Cuban Revolution. There was something democratic behind that, but there was also something unaccountable and not so democratic about it.

For example, the scholar Patrick Iber pointed out a moment where Emir Rodríguez Monegal admitted that he published an anti-Vietnam war op-ed just to reestablish the idea that it wasn't a CIA instrument. It gets super complicated, but that's where I got interested. Because once I got to that level of complexity I kind of had to throw out my maybe sweet naïve tendency to sort of morally judge all that stuff. After a while, I was just sort of more interested when people changed their mind or when people had a breakdown or when somebody was so instrumentalized and weaponized that they realized it and it crushed them for a moment.

When the CIA's connections to the Paris Review and other publications were revealed, the backlash was starkly uneven. The Beirut-based Hiwar—as well as the life and career of its editor Tawfiq Sayigh— were destroyed. Why was the Paris Review left unscathed? 
Your question just points to a central aim of the book. I think a lot of the writing that deals with this issue never looks at it next to all the coups and assassinations and interventions that made Americans so unpopular. Once Hiwar and other magazines were exposed, they were folded into all the interventions that people hate in the postcolonial world.

The CIA's influence in publishing was on the covert ops side and it was done as propaganda. It might have been conceived by some of the participants as an altruistic funding of culture, but it was actually a control of journalism, a control of the fourth estate. It was a control of how intellectuals thought about the US. But once it was exposed, it was completely useless.

But not only did the Paris Review solicit this kind of propaganda literature, a lot of their editors were also monitoring writers and expats and the going-ons in France. How did they casually just replace their editors and move on?
This "joint employ" is important because it shows a sort of soft collusion. Peter Matthiessen admitted that we were spying but he resigned when he saw how ugly it was. I think there are some conspiracies out there that he didn't but I've tried to stick with what I could find. Were Nelson Aldrich and Frances Fitzgerald spying on their friends while they were working for the Congress for Cultural Freedom? I don't think so. They were basically doing magazine work and PR work, disguising it as innocent cultural work while doing sort of PR for the American Way. It's not totally inconceivable that you could imagine yourself in the way that García Márquez did, taking that money and sort of affecting its outcome more than the paymasters would. That's the conundrum, I think, and the problem with patronage in secret: It lets you tell yourself, "I don't think I was tainted" and justifying your own behavior. But as soon as you say that, you're talking against the basic journalistic principle of transparency.

The CIA turned writers into cultural weapons even when they weren't saying anything explicitly pro-America, by simply advertising for the "American alternative." How is that different today? American writers still have a monopoly in the literature scene—are they not conveying the same narrative? 
That's a huge question, and a good question. It reminds me of the mission for Guernica during the Bush Administration. The US was committing an ugly war, and I was horrified, ashamed, but I was a lit guy who did an MFA, so what could I do to help? I feel like a lot of writers feel that way now—what can we do? I needed to be instrumentalized. There is a shame in being represented by Bush or Donald Trump and the assholes only who often cheat their way into government. I will say, I don't think positive propaganda is quite as nasty as disinformation and negative propaganda, which are almost always the same thing.

Once you start doing negative propaganda, I think it quickly turns into disinformation. You're willing to entertain any argument that makes your enemy look bad. In one of Boris Pasternak's interviews, he says something like, "We need the American writers to be known overseas." I can almost agree with that as long as we're willing to say, "We need Americans to know about work in translation." The Paris Review tried to do that when they introduced readers to new writers but they tended to be European and tended to be white. They weren't introducing writers from the developing world to the Americans. 

And Pasternak is in many ways a native informant, in that he was a foreign writer who gave testimony to a narrative that the US wanted, and so became a CIA darling.
That's what the Pasternak story is. He wrote Doctor Zhivago as an independent dissident, but the CIA wanted to control that, and so Pasternak became a symbol of why Western democracies "were better than that" culturally. 

You have to hear his criticism not as a one-way thing that only criticizes his system. You have to listen to these dissidents and think about your own dissidence. Who is your Pasternak, and how are you treating him while you're propping up Pasternak? That was one impetus behind the book: the question of whether we have a Pasternak now. What is Snowden compared to Pasternak? I don't know that you can make huge comparisons to one creative writer making critique versus a leaker and whistleblower. But I wanted people to see in Pasternak not just the symbol that we try to make him into as Cold Warriors. These people are now symbols, but before that, they were independent thinkers. In some cases, they were just trying to tell their stories.

Where can we draw the line today? If writers want to avoid the blurred lines between honest expression and propaganda, should we simply swear off any sort of government funding or is it possible to be more nuanced?
No. It's way more nuanced. We should have a wall of separation, and we have the principle in government in the separation of powers. It's not that we don't want government funding, it just can't be secret. Some principles that point back to some of our finest big principles need to be re-articulated and restated. We're in a messy, impure world, and as journalists, we'll take whatever funding we can get. [But] we have be smart about it, like what García Márquez was trying to do.

Social media has dethroned editors as the gatekeepers of information. Do you think that makes it easier for the CIA to control the conversation?
I feel like some of these platforms withstood the government pressure better than others. I know that Facebook constantly is changing its algorithm for ad-related purposes, but they withstood some of the pressure a little differently than Twitter, who faced pressure to reveal identities in the wake of Arab Spring and other movements. 

But there are other ways to leverage these cultural markets. If you look at the film industry— Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, etc.—we're paying billions of dollars to lie to ourselves. I feel like at some point in the early war on terror, the Bush administration met with filmmakers, and they said, "We need to enlist you in this mission." That's not a new thing, but it felt new at the time, if you didn't know how often that kind of thing happened during the cultural Cold War.

Follow Mary von Aue on Twitter.

Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World's Best Writers by Joel Whitney is available in bookstores and online from OR Books.

The First Time NASA Docked with a Soviet Spacecraft in Orbit

Two spacecraft drifted closer to one another far above planet Earth, as they prepared to dock. It was July 17th, 1975, and they were about to make history. For the first time, a United States Apollo and Soviet Union Soyuz spacecraft would dock with one another, an enormously symbolic mission that served as a small step towards international cooperation between the two superpowers.