In tone and temperature, the current cultural moment clearly bears a resemblance to the Cold War’s undertow of suspicion, deceit, and peril. A killer is back in the Kremlin. There’s a new round of chilling Russian subversion, and FBI counterintelligence experts are back digging to assess the depth of the damage. A cloud of disinformation won’t clear. Once again, the Doomsday Clock is heading back toward midnight.
During the Cold War, Soviet defector Yuri Bezmenov confirmed that the KGB—the “Committee for State Security—was trying to make us question the very nature of truth: “Most of the work, 85 percent of it, is a slow process which we call ideological subversion, active measures, or psychological warfare. What it basically means is: to change the perception of reality of every American to such an extent that despite the abundance of information no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending themselves, their families, their community, and their country.”
During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Russia’s spy turned autocrat, Vladimir Putin, unleashed the kitchen sink of aktivni meropriyatiya—active measures—to damage Hillary Clinton, a perceived foe. Soviet military intelligence hacked into sites associated with the Clinton campaign and used a willing front organization, Wikileaks, to launder the stolen goods. The ubiquity and vulnerability of social media, Facebook in particular, was exploited by Russian- directed forgeries. In the Washington Post, a Russian troll explained how it worked: “You were in some kind of factory that turned lying, telling untruths, into an industrial assembly line. . . . There were huge numbers of people, 300 to 400, and they were all writing absolute untruths.”
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s most famous campaign commercial showed a young girl picking daisies before cutting to a blooming mushroom cloud. The scene, juxtaposing innocence with annihilation, was a coy warning of the dire threat presented by Johnson’s alleged trigger-happy opponent, Barry Goldwater.
In 2016, the Clinton campaign consistently warned voters that candidate Trump couldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes. “There’s always been a paranoid fringe in our politics,” said Clinton. “But it’s never had the nominee of a major party stoking it, encouraging it, and giving it a national megaphone.”
Mr. Trump opened his bid for the presidency by demonizing immigrants, encouraging Islamophobia, and suggesting it was our turn to build a wall. He also expressed nostalgia for the days of Richard Nixon’s Law and Order. Like Nixon, Trump has protested he is not a crook in spite of almost daily press bulletins indicating otherwise. In these times, we have become more mindful than ever that the tactics of Trump were taught to him by Roy Cohn, who powered Joe McCarthy’s shameless witch hunts.
Lies have become alternative facts, problematic journalism is now called fake news, conspiracies inform policies, the president has his own state TV, and, going back to the future of 1984, reality has to be seen through the eyes of the Party. “Just remember,” Trump told a gathering of veterans, “what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”
As many of us continue to obsess over the danger posed by suicidal jihadists, recent annual statistics show death by lightning, shark, or white supremacist as far more likely. The effects of climate change are indeed leading us toward extinction, but many insist that gay marriage, Planned Parenthood, and gun control are greater threats to our national welfare. Flying saucers, first “officially” sighted over America during the early days of the Cold War, are also back in the news. The Pentagon recently admitted it was still in the business of evaluating alien visitations. According to the New York Times, the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program was charged with investigating an increasing number of UFO reports from service members. The program spent $22 million of “black money” secretly authorized by Congress and was “run out of an office on the fifth floor of the [Pentagon’s] C Ring, deep within the building’s maze.”
A new documentary, Bob Lazar: Area 51 and Flying Saucers, profiles the man who told the world that captured alien technology was being reverse engineered “at a classified base known as S‑4 out in the Nevada desert near Area 51.” Lazar insists that the U.S. government is concealing the truth about extraterrestrial visitations and suppressing knowledge that has the power to shift “the entire world economy.”
Your author, born in 1958, experienced three-quarters of the Cold War—as a child left largely unattended on the streets of Queens; as a teenager engaged by the daily news he was dispensing on a paper route in a freshly built suburban development in New Jersey; as a college student at Columbia, where the antiwar ferment of the sixties still had a romantic appeal; and, finally, as a budding journalist working for the New York Times (publisher of the Pentagon Papers) and the San Diego Union (a publication headed by former members of the Nixon administration).
My parents, as devout Irish Catholics, were virtually under papal obligation to vote for John Kennedy. Their fealty to the Democratic Party did not last much longer. Mom and Dad viewed communism as the presence of evil in the world and thought McCarthy had the right idea. My father often mentioned Bill Buckley’s book God and Man at Yale. It made me wonder if Ivy League schools were almost as godless and sinful as the Soviet Union. I remember J. Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit being one of the titles in the family bookcase. I assumed that it was a spy thriller. I never had an urge to read it. I don’t think my parents did, either.
One of my first memories is watching three-year-old John Kennedy Jr. saluting during his father’s funeral. When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, I was heading into sixth grade. The fuzzy live pictures from the moon had a dreamy, magical quality. I also understood, proudly, that by getting to the moon first, America had completely smoked the Russians. I saved copies of the “moon landing” editions of the New York Times and the Daily News. I had never seen bigger headlines.
One of my favorite board games was a Cold War creation. In 1957, Oscar-winning French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse introduced La Conquété du Monde (The Conquest of the World). When Parker Brothers bought the idea and brought it to America, it was renamed Risk. The game is played on a political map of the world. Participants take turns rolling dice and shuffling armies seeking to claim global dominion, continent by continent. Lamorisse’s deeper ironic intention was to lampoon the imperialist behavior of the superpowers. I did not get the joke.
My freshman Columbia dorm had coed showers. Having attended an all-male Catholic high school, I was suddenly thrust into an alternative universe, although I’d only crossed the George Washington Bridge. The dean advised that he would be largely hands- off unless we committed a horribly violent crime. Every recreational drug known to man was available on campus. We used them with impunity.
Columbia didn’t make me a liberal. I had already been radicalized by the Salesians of Don Bosco. I was the editor of the high school paper and the principal, Father Thomas Glackin, reviewed all the articles before publication. Stories he didn’t like—such as a review of an R‑rated film—were crumpled up and tossed into a wastebasket. When I first objected to this violation of my First Amendment rights, the normally humorless Fr. Glackin stunned me with a bellowing laugh.
One of my papers at Columbia was about FBI spying on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. My central source was the Church Committee report. I was floored by the litany of Hoover’s despicable— and outrageously unconstitutional—behavior, in particular the apparent attempt to push Dr. King to suicide by threatening to release recordings of his extramarital sex. I read recently that James Comey, while he was FBI director, kept a copy of the King wiretap request on his desk as a reminder of the bureau’s antidemocratic dark ages.
I was working on the foreign desk of the Times when Lech Wałe˛sa and his Solidarity labor movement rose to power. In response, Poland declared martial law. Communication was cut off into and out of the country. The Times correspondent in Warsaw, John Darnton, was among the Western press silenced. But Darnton figured out various work-arounds. One method was to photograph his stories and print the developed pages on easy‑to‑smuggle slides. He also found willing co-conspirators fleeing the country.
One of the couriers was a young American teacher who called the Times when I was answering the phones. After flying out of Poland, she had just arrived at Kennedy Airport and was waiting to make a domestic connection. She told me she had an envelope stuffed with Darnton’s reports. I immediately jumped into a taxi to retrieve them, doing my small part for a reporter chronicling important history. Darnton won a Pulitzer.
In 1985, traveling behind the Iron Curtain, I had a chilling confrontation with the East German police. I was on vacation, driving a rented compact car. I’d picked up two East German hitchhikers, a young couple, at the Czechoslovakian border. After my human cargo was discovered while we were getting gas (the police were waiting to pounce, their car parked in a shadowy corner of the station), there was yelling, cursing, negotiating, and bribery— all of it complicated by a language barrier. Apparently, and not surprisingly, the East Germans were not supposed to be fraternizing with me.
Early in the encounter, I confidently waved a U.S. passport at eye level of one of the cops. In response, he wagged a finger menacingly and instructed, “Not U.S.A.” Then, with the same finger, he pointed at the ground and added, slowly, “DDR.” I offered him all my East German money, which I was happy to surrender since it was going to be impossible to exchange the bills when I returned to the Western world. It might as well have been money from Mars. The officer didn’t want his country’s cash, either. What he demanded was West German deutschmarks—so‑called hard currency—and I enriched him by about $100.
One of the German words the couple had taught me was arschloch—asshole. As I left them behind, the two were using the word quite a lot. A few hours later, when I reached the bright lights of a buzzing West Berlin, the instant change had the feel of the famous movie moment when Dorothy transitions from the stormy black and white of Kansas into the Technicolor wonderland of Oz.
Had I been privy to top-secret CIA reports, I would have read that the agency was somehow claiming that the East Germans were recording greater per capita production than the West Germans. This assessment was about as valid as the flimflam produced by Dorothy’s overhyped wizard. Like many who traveled in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, I had seen more than enough evidence that communism was a big, fat, stupid joke and, it appeared, about to croak.
The Cold War reengaged the purported rivalry between capitalism and communism that had been put in motion by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which claimed to have ignited the rise of the proletariat and begun the demise of the bourgeoisie, as envisioned by Karl Marx. The bourgeoisie in New York, London, and Paris thought the message out of Russia was: You’re next. It would not be the last time that the capitalist elite overreacted to the prospect of labor eating into profits.
The Western powers, plus the Japanese, responded to Bolshevism by sending troops to strangle the alarming ideology in its infancy What this did was make a large mess larger. After the Bolsheviks beat back enemies both domestic and foreign, they logically deduced that many people everywhere hated them and they put in place perhaps the most paranoid and secretive ruling establishment in the history of man, which they may have done anyway, since most of the revolution’s top players were damaged and abused people who’d spent half their lives exiled to Siberia as enemies of the czar. The United States responded to the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics by immediately ending diplomatic relations. The relationship got off to a horrible start.
Stalin, born in 1878, was among the essential figures in the founding story of the Soviet state. At the time of the 1917 revolution, he was in Petrograd, the center of Bolshevik power, and one of the chief aides to the leader of the gang, Vladimir Lenin, from whom he inhaled the prime directive of “no mercy.” (Martin Amis described Stalin as “Lenin’s industrious, underbred mascot, his shaggy dog.”)
Stalin never had any interest in exporting warm, fuzzy, unadulterated Marxism. Once in charge, his primary goal was eliminating anyone who could challenge his authority. To that end, he dispatched assassins near and far. In the Cold War, Americans were told they were in a fight against communism. This was not the case. The new order in Moscow was an organized crime family with a horrible sense of fashion.
In the seventy-four-year history of the Soviet Union, no one created as much bloodshed as Joseph Stalin— estimates range from twenty to sixty million dead—and no one was as afraid of the truth. As the Cold War dawned, and for as long as it continued, what the Soviet Union feared the most was not American weaponry, nor the economic strength of the West. What it feared the most was any amplification of the fundamental facts of its very nature, which is this: It was all one big lie. “The dictatorship of the proletariat was a lie,” Amis wrote of the USSR. “Union was a lie, and Soviet was a lie, and Socialist was a lie. The enemy of the people was the regime.”
Inside this perpetual fraud, the subjects of the Russian empire in the first half of the twentieth century lived through incessant turmoil and suffering on a scale no other society may have ever experienced. If what occurred in the USSR had instead happened in the United States, this is what you would have to imagine . . .
Imagine . . . if the United States had lost a war with Japan in 1904. Imagine if America had a revolution in 1905, instead of 1776. Imagine if after fighting— and losing—in World War I, the United States endured another Civil War, in 1917. Imagine if the Depression
had been even more horrific and resulted in the starvation of millions. Imagine if Franklin Roosevelt, at the start of his second term, in 1936, decided to eliminate his political opposition by ordering the FBI to arrest, torture, and kill every Republican senator and congressman. Imagine if Roosevelt also had the FBI shoot every top officer in the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
Imagine if after all those terrors—Civil War, starvation, the murder of the political and military elite— the United States next invaded Canada and Mexico.
Imagine if World War II had been fought on American soil with the same sweep and ferocity as occurred across Europe, North Africa, and Asia between 1939 and 1945. Imagine if New York had been bombed almost every night for months. Imagine if an enemy had marched to within twenty miles of the White House. Imagine every major factory in Detroit turned into scrap. Imagine Chicago surrounded by attackers for almost three years, with people dying at the rate of fifty thousand per month.
Imagine if millions of farm animals were slaughtered across Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. Imagine if millions and millions of acres of cropland had been poisoned.
Imagine Los Angeles stormed by amphibious invasion, or the Golden Gate Bridge blown apart.
Imagine airports, train stations, and bus depots clogged with thousands and thousands of homeless families, mothers and their children sleeping on floors, begging for help, too sick to move, on the verge of death.
Imagine towns and cities without electricity, without hospitals, without fuel, without a speck of food.
The people of the Soviet Union didn’t have to imagine such things.
Stalin accepted full credit for winning the Great Patriotic War. That notion, however, is a howling profanity. Victory was attained, at a shocking price, by a multitude of unknown and ill- equipped Red Army soldiers, along with the sheer grit of ordinary people on the home front who withstood Hitler’s Blitzkrieg. The D‑Day invasion was not the decisive blow; the bulk of Hitler’s army had already been dismantled by heroic Soviet sacrifice on the Eastern Front.
The Red Army suffered more combat deaths at Stalingrad alone than the U.S. armed forces accumulated in the entire war. During a single operation in 1944, Marshal Rokossovsky destroyed a collection of Wehrmacht divisions equivalent to the entire German deployment faced by the British and the Americans on the Western Front. And, as scholars now tell us, the war with Japan didn’t conclude only because of two U.S.- made atomic bombs. Although the USSR entered the fray at the eleventh hour—as Japanese forces decimated in a string of punishing battles were offering ever feebler resistance— it seems the Soviets can still take credit for delivering the coup de grace. In deciding how soon to surrender, Hirohito and his war cabinet appear to have been more frightened of the approaching Red Army— a notoriously rapacious whirlwind—than of Curtis LeMay’s attempt to bomb the country back to the Stone Age.
Of the fifteen Soviet republics, nine had been occupied by the Germans during World War II. Seventeen hundred cities and towns were either totally or partially destroyed, as were seventy thousand villages and approximately thirty- one thousand factories. In all, six million buildings were damaged in some fashion. Millions of acres of crops were gone. The slaughter of cattle, hogs, sheep, goats, and horses reached into the tens of millions. Of the approximately sixty million people killed in the war, twenty-five to thirty million were Soviets. An additional twenty- five million Soviet citizens were rendered homeless. By comparison, U.S. combat deaths in World War II totaled 407,000.
American schoolchildren, like me, were fed a one-sided view of that war, capped by the conclusion that our superlative industry and unsurpassed genius were the deciding factors in defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. What would the Cold War have been like if, during history class, American kids learned that the world forever owed a debt of gratitude to Soviet forces and Soviet citizens? Their remarkable resilience and triumphs saved democracy as much as did George Patton, Iwo Jima, and the atom bomb.
However, young American minds were presented with an all-consuming fairy tale that became America’s version of The Iliad and that played on a loop of almost numbing heraldry. The victory over Fascism was almost instantly converted into a mythological struggle of Homeric glory, which therefore, in its telling, emphasized the good parts and generally left out the nasty bits. A pernicious culture of secrecy emerged from what the federal government didn’t want to tell us about World War II, and by failing to learn the true costs of that experience, the United States continued to seek remedies through the practiced route of state violence and devoted far less attention to keeping the peace.
Mostly, Americans adopted the Reader’s Digest version of the USSR—literally.
When World II ended, the magazine told its sixteen million subscribers (in seventeen languages) that the Soviet state was the primary danger to America. “The Digest presented the U.S. and USSR as polar opposites,” wrote Joanne Sharp. “As well as running clearly political articles that explained international relations and threats to peace, the magazine’s ostensibly apolitical stories reinforced this image of two incompatible societies. Descriptions of everyday life in America and the Soviet Union detailed how different Americans were from Russians, how different Russians’ music was, their food, their sense of humor—even Russian sex lives were different. At the extreme, in 1981 a story about an American in Siberia seemed to suggest biological differences when it reported that the American’s body rejected a Russian blood transfusion.”
U.S. citizens knew more about craters on the moon than about any physical feature of the USSR, and we apparently met far more aliens than communists during the Cold War. A poll released in 1991 indicated that several million Americans believed they were regularly affected by alien abductions. For comparison, it was estimated that by 1956, membership in the U.S. Communist Party had dropped to five thousand, of which about fifteen hundred were FBI informants
During the Cold War, the inflated menace of communism was intermingled in the public consciousness with the latent terror of Nazism, and, viewing the ideologies as two sides of the same coin, America’s leading hawks saw defeating the Russians as unfinished business from World War II. At the same time, the Pentagon’s propaganda machine ignored the general peace, warned about another Pearl Harbor, and lobbied for overpreparation. We were made to think more work was necessary in order to cleanse the world. The final warning from The Thing from Another World (1951) encapsulated our paranoia as a mantra: Keep watching the skies!
Facts were no match for a waterfall of fabricated frights. At the close of World War II, the United States of America had all but silenced its external threats and was about to embark on a stunning era of prosperity. It wasn’t hyperbole to say that Americans were in position to rule the world. Nonetheless, from 1946 to 1989, from the conclusion of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall, we feared fear itself, even though this condition was counterfactual. Our forty-plus-year Cold War with the Soviet Union, a second-rate foe, was quickly entrenched and often defied logic, saddling what was the world’s richest and most secure nation with a costly fortress mentality. Millions chased shadows. Millions lived scared to death. With the gift of hindsight, we can now say that the Cold War appears to have been a mind- boggling waste of money and lives to wage an inherently lopsided contest with a preordained outcome.
The Soviet Union and the United States were the chief combatants in what was never a fair fight. As America entered a period of unchallenged economic dominance, unleashing the biggest boom in personal consumption the world had ever seen, a stagnant Soviet society was unable even to feed its own people. Moreover, the Soviets tried playing catch‑up in an arms race they couldn’t afford while simultaneously attempting to tame a vast, restive conglomeration of republics and satellites that regularly required invasion—if not occupation—to subdue.
Yet in spite of living in a country that had a clear superiority by every metric, American citizens remained at high alert for an imminent invasion no Kremlin figure ever seriously contemplated. If anything, Soviet citizens had more to fear from dangerously insubordinate American generals who didn’t see the point of having nuclear weapons if you couldn’t use them. As we fought an enemy of our own making, we failed to understand that the real enemy was looking at us in the mirror.
“As a post-Soviet flood of archives has revealed,” wrote national security expert Roger Morris, “Moscow’s foreign policy was waged more often in caution than aggressiveness, more out of weakness than strength, and with an abiding parochial fear and ignorance of the U.S., a hostility that Washington’s acts in kind only reinforced, justified, and prolonged. So much of the great ‘superpower’ rivalry was what John le Carr. would aptly call a grotesque ‘looking-glass war.’ ”
Consequently, some degree of distortion affected every important story told about the Cold War during the Cold War. It wasn’t just the Soviets who were sitting on a mountain of secrets. The U.S. government was just as capable of classifying minutiae and criminalizing transparency. Both sides vomited disinformation as they flayed speech. Deviousness, dishonesty, and collateral damage were rationalized as acts of patriotism. As a result, the authors who have been writing the second draft of this history have learned— as did I—that there’s a seemingly bottomless pit of buried truths.
Therefore, a tour of Cold War paranoia is a cautionary tale pointing to a misguided and troubling legacy of humiliation and hubris— Vladimir Putin hasn’t gotten over losing it and the United States took too much credit for winning it. The period was a compendium of misconceptions, fallacies, frauds, comedies, tragedies, lies, and deceits. Some of our delusions linger even now, others securely tucked away as we try to forget how historically embarrassed we should be. We were more ready than ever to join a cult and call it a social movement, to conflate innuendo with truth, to assume the presence of unseen machines of oppression. We invented lethal invaders—terrestrial and extraterrestrial—and attacked spectral contagions. The era produced a nihilistic and potentially suicidal national defense posture called mutually assured destruction and gave us primal scream therapy, which posited that anger and frustration could be relieved by unrestrained yelling and hysteria. Or, put another way, an assertion that the most logical remedy for an age of self- induced anxiety was, paradoxically, self-induced madness.