5 Turncoats Who Changed the Tide of History
In the grand scale of things, not much changes when a single dude decides he'd rather be a Communist than an American, or vice versa. The balance of power is still basically the same, right?
But every balance has a tipping point, and sometimes all it takes is one turncoat to change the course of history. Like ...
Lee Harvey Oswald
The guy who killed President Kennedy, unless you believe the conspiracy theories.
Changed Everything By:
Not long before the Kennedy assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald defected from the Soviet Union to the United States (after first defecting from the USA to the Soviet Union).
If he'd decided to stay there, or not been allowed to leave, JFK would have lived and some alternate version of history would have played out.
Lee Harvey Oswald wasn't a crazed loner -- he didn't shoot JFK because he thought the White House was beaming mind control waves into his brain. He had an actual beef with the American government, and by that we mean he was kind of a communist sympathizer. So much so that, four years before he climbed to the sixth floor of a book depository and became one of the most hated men in American history, he flipped America the middle finger by defecting to the Soviet Union. And since he was just a random, whiny douche at that point, America didn't put up a big fight to keep him. Would you?
Unfortunately for the whole world, life in Soviet Russia wasn't as exciting as Cold War propaganda posters let on. By 1959, the USSR was more like the bleak, gray, impoverished, always-snowing suicide trap you see in photos like these:
Those aren't hats.
Oswald had hoped to study at Moscow University, but the Soviets had a job opening for a lathe operator in Minsk, and apparently, in Soviet Russia, the job chose you. (Sorry.) The idealistic Oswald must have been pretty disappointed by what he saw. So did he change his mind, having a revelation that maybe the American way was better? Eh, not exactly.
As Oswald himself wrote in his journal: "I am starting to reconsider my desire about staying. The work is drab, the money I get has nowhere to be spent. No nightclubs or bowling alleys, no places of recreation except the trade union dances. I have had enough."
"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome ... Lee Oswald and the Trade Union Dancers!"
Yep, it was the lack of bowling alleys and nightclubs that drove him back to the USA, and back onto the path that would lead him to killing a president.
By all rights, at that point the USA should have told Oswald to go fly a kite, trapping him in Russia where he could never hurt a pinko fly, much less the president. Instead, the United States let the wayward dipshit come home, presumably after a hearty round of "Told you so," and the USSR let him go, presumably because his lathe machine operating skills sucked.
So Oswald comes home and goes nuts, right? Not at first. First he tries to defect to Cuba, since everyone knows the second time is the charm. But this time the U.S. wasn't having it. A few weeks later, President Kennedy decided to visit the home town of a twice-jaded trigger-happy Communist newly enraged at being told he was trapped in America forever, and conspiracy theories notwithstanding, the rest is history.
"Ironically, I am actually three people."
A Soviet spy so shitty at spying that he wasn't allowed to spy any more.
Changed Everything By:
Raiding the Soviet's document archives and turning everything over to the West, giving them a huge advantage in the Cold War.
And having a mustache that redefined facial hair for fast food restaurant managers worldwide.
Vasili Mitrokhin began his promising career with the Soviet Motherland as a spy for the KGB. However, in a plot befitting a Steve Carell comedy, he bungled a mission and his employers gave him a new permanent assignment: head of the KGB archives. In other words, they punished him by making him a librarian.
It wasn't this humiliation that turned Mitrokhin against the USSR, but rather what he found when he got there. Access to the Soviet Union's most secret of secret documents revealed the terrifying extent of the nation's efforts to oppress and terrify its own people. And though he'd been losing faith in Stalin's brand of communism for some time, details of events like the crushing of the Prague uprising clinched the deal. The only question was, what kind of damage could one man do to the Soviet Union?
"Let's see how they like it when I steal their most beloved recipes!"
Quite a bit, if that man was left alone in a room full of top-secret Soviet government files and had a lot of free time.
Day by day, Mitrokhin made copies by hand of top-secret Soviet reports and smuggled them back to his summer cabin. Of course, the problem of what to do with them remained. His life-endangering efforts to contact the CIA fell on deaf ears, so he instead attempted to defect to the British. Once the value of the Mitrokhin archive fully came to light, the Brits politely invited Mitrokhin and his family to come stay with them for tea and crumpets and any paperwork he wanted to share. What he brought with him turned out to be "the most complete and extensive intelligence ever received from any source."
Mitrokhin's treasure trove of top-secret intelligence identified scores of Russian spies in frighteningly high-rank government and media positions. It also exposed unknown political alliances the USSR had with other countries and details of secret military operations (including the plot to assassinate Yugoslavian leader Josip Tito). It even included information on Soviet propaganda campaigns within the USA to perpetuate various conspiracy theories (i.e. the JFK assassination, J. Edgar Hoover being gay, the CIA killing Martin Luther King Jr.) and to foster the rise of the KKK. They were like the Gossip Girls of international espionage.
But, man, could they ever dance.
Though the Soviet Union was already beginning to implode by the time Mitrokhin got his information out, it nevertheless destroyed any leverage the USSR might have had over the West by effectively ending their entire spy program. Who ever said librarians had dead-end careers?
An Iraqi Air Force pilot flying the most advanced aircraft in their arsenal.
Changed Everything By:
Giving Israel intel that may have saved it.
His high school yearbook voted him Most Likely to Steal a Jet.
In the 1960s, relations between Israel and the surrounding Arab states were even worse than they are now. Israel was worried because its enemies had a brand new toy that they didn't know anything about -- the Soviet-made warplane called the MiG-21. If tensions in the region were going to escalate into conflict, they wanted to know as much about the jet's capabilities as possible, but they couldn't exactly steal one. The only way they'd get one would be if one of the pilots just flew one into an Israeli hangar. Luckily for Israel, that's exactly what happened.
Munir Redfa was a MiG pilot in the Iraqi Air Force, but unlike most Iraqis, he was a Christian. The Israelis figured this might afford them some leverage, since anyone lucky enough to get promoted to fly the top-secret jets tended to be ultra-patriotic, as the Israelis learned when a previous effort to bribe a pilot got the conspirators put to death. But Christians had a hard time in the Iraqi military (Redfa was even often forced to fly without a full fuel tank, to conserve fuel for his valuable Muslim colleagues), so Redfa was understandably jaded.
"I shave my mustache in defiance!"
It was just enough to pique his interest when Israeli agents came to him with an offer of one million dollars, as well as protection for his family and guaranteed citizenship and employment in Israel. All he had to do was give them his plane.
So one day, Redfa boarded his plane as usual and took off for a planned flight, but this time he deviated from course and shot off in the general direction of Israel. When radar picked up his unusual detour, the authorities threatened to shoot him down. Redfa acknowledged by turning off his radio and diving below effective radar coverage. Presumably with an extended middle finger, Redfa said goodbye to Iraq as the Soviet-made jet streaked toward its rendezvous with an escort of Israeli Mirage IIIs.
The Israelis studied the hell out of Redfa's MiG, and he helped them by teaching some of their pilots how to fly the thing. They even loaned the jet to the USA once they were done with it, just to stick it to the Russians even more. When the shit finally hit the fan in Israel in the form of the Six-Day War, Israel's mastery of its enemies' secret weapon earned them victory in just, well, six days. So they have one disgruntled Iraqi pilot to thank for being alive to argue with the rest of the Middle East for another half a century.
A Russian spy stationed in Canada.
Changed Everything By:
Starting the freaking Cold War.
Not the jolliest-looking chap, is he?
Igor Gouzenko was a Soviet secret message decoder stationed in Canada, of all places. And he was stationed there immediately following WWII, before anyone actually figured out that the wartime friendship between the West and the Soviets wasn't exactly rock solid.
Through Igor's hands passed thousands of secret messages that showed the Soviets were spying on Western governments to steal nuclear secrets -- poor form for a best friend who tag-teamed Hitler out of Europe. And when the Soviets got ready to bring their comrade back home, presumably so his mind wouldn't be clouded by the evils of hockey and maple syrup, Gouzenko freaked out. He turned himself in to Canadian authorities, hoping for a chance to give his family a good life sans communism.
Unfortunately for him, nobody believed his story.
But he looks so trustworthy and sane.
The government and the press all figured he was nuts. Nobody dreamed that the friendly Soviet "Nazi-Whooping" Union would dog a bro like that. This understandably scared Gouzenko, because by now the USSR knew what he was up to, and his life quickly turned into the plot of a Jason Bourne movie.
Luckily, he managed to convince the authorities before he could become the victim of an unfortunate "accident." The Canadian Mounties took him into protection while they tried to figure out how to best break it to the government that quiet, polite Canada was about to become embroiled in a major, possibly nuclear international incident. When the news finally made its way to Prime Minister Mackenzie King, the PM had a really bad morning.
King's first reaction was to sweep the whole thing under the carpet, slap Stalin on the back and say no harm done. But the media got hold of the story and ran with it, exposing to the world that the Soviets had an elaborate espionage program in Canada, America and Britain. Even amid the growing media pressure and the outrage coming out of the United States, King was in a hurry to pussy out, and wrote to Uncle Joe begging the USSR to forgive him for busting the spy ring, saying, "The measures taken against spies in Canada were not and are not directed against the Soviet Union and Generalissimo Stalin."
"Are we still cool, bro?"
The whole debacle became known to history as the "Gouzenko Affair" and is generally seen as the start of the Cold War. Gouzenko himself had to wear a disguise for the rest of his life to protect himself, not only from Soviet agents, but from regular people who were quite happy not having the threat of nuclear apocalypse hanging over their heads for the most part of a century.
Interestingly, the beginning of the end of the Cold War would come decades later, thanks to yet another defector ...
A Soviet spy tasked with collecting intel from the British and sending it back to Mother Russia.
Changed Everything By:
Preventing a goddamned nuclear war.
He did it by winning a good old-fashioned arm wrestling match with Reagan.
Oleg Gordievsky was a KGB agent who lost faith in the Soviet experiment sometime in the '60s, and he contacted British intelligence agency MI6 to find out if they might be interested in making friends. So while Oleg was stationed at the British Soviet embassy with the task of smuggling secrets back to the motherland, he was spending his free time filtering secrets in the other direction. It seems only fair.
Then in 1983, NATO started a routine war game called Able Archer 83. War games, if you remember your '80s movies, were that thing where nuclear powers test out what they would do if the other nuclear powers got frisky. The only problem was that relations between the powers were so icy that the U.S. couldn't exactly give the USSR a quick text letting them know it was all a game. And it didn't help matters that by 1983, the Soviets were as paranoid as shit, specifically believing that a nuclear attack from the West would come under the guise of one of these war exercises.
Dude, Monopoly is not a war game.
The only person who knew both that Able Archer was a harmless drill and that the Soviets were about to kill everyone because of it was Oleg Gordievsky. His role as a double agent put him in a unique position to know what was going on with both sides. He thus managed to let the West know that the Soviets had their hands on the big red button. Until then, NATO didn't have a clue that the exercises were even making Russia nervous, let alone bringing the world as close to nuclear war as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It's almost entirely because of Gordievsky's arbitration that the U.S. finally understood that the USSR was genuinely afraid of a nuclear strike, and their trash-talking wasn't just a case of one-dimensional supervillainy. That revelation is what pushed the Americans toward peace talks -- as former President Ronald Reagan said in his autobiography, "...I was even more anxious to get a top Soviet leader in a room alone and try to convince him we had no designs on the Soviet Union and Russians had nothing to fear from us." Yep, sometimes the only thing standing between the world and utter destruction is one guy willing to sell out his comrades.
Not a hat. Those are his eyebrows.