5 Cold War Stories That Reveal It Was A Total Clown Show

This whole Cold War thing was just a goofy game.
5 Cold War Stories That Reveal It Was A Total Clown Show

The Cold War was a very serious conflict that involved a bunch of nuclear weapons poised to wipe out millions. But reading about it, it often feels more like a cartoon where a couple of spies (identical, other than what color they wear) use practical jokes to win a game of Capture the Flag. Take how ...

The Head Of Britain's Anti-Soviet Unit Turned Out To Be A Soviet Spy All Along

In 1944, Britain and the USSR were working together to win the Second World War, so MI6 figured this was a good time to reopen their secret anti-Soviet unit, Section IX. Phrased like that, it sounds like a silly decision, but we know it was a good choice in hindsight. Not a good choice in retrospect, however, was their pick to run Section IX, Kim Philby. A counterintelligence officer and former war correspondent, Philby presided over a unit that experienced a series of mysterious screw-ups. Like the time he went to Istanbul to collect a defecting KGB spy, who then suddenly got yanked back to Moscow and was never seen again.

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Sergej Semenov
This is his grave.

Just kidding, they gave his corpse no grave. This one's Philby's.

By the end of the decade, Britain sent Philby as their top rep to Washington, D.C., where he roomed with fellow intelligence officer Guy Burgess. Burgess was a constant source of laughs, whether he was drinking so hard that he fell down and split his head open or was repeatedly stopped by traffic cops when he was trying to hook up with guys (the tickets meant nothing to him; he had diplomatic immunity). But then Burgess and another diplomat named Donald Maclean suddenly slipped away to Moscow. It turned out they'd been spies for the Soviets. Which didn't reflect well on Philby, especially since Burgess had been the one to recommend he lead Section IX.

MI6 interrogated Philby, who resigned. The question of whether he was connected to the other spies ("The Cambridge Five," as they'd be called once they were all known), remained open until 1955 when the British prime minister announced that investigations had concluded and they totally exonerated Philby.

Good for you, Philby! Except, info from defectors trickled in over the next years, and suspicions rose against Philby again. In 1963, he was stationed in Beirut as a journalist, and one night in January, he and his wife were expected at an embassy dinner party. He never showed. Instead, he boarded a Soviet cargo freighter to escape before he could be arrested.

5 Cold War Stories That Reveal It Was A Total Clown Show
He went on to a long retirement of hoping to one day be played by Gary Oldman.

Philby had been a Soviet spy after all, for 30 years. That Istanbul KGB defector? He'd planned to out Philby and Burgess, but Philby tipped Moscow off so they could vanish him. The USSR first approached Kim Philby back in his college days, when he was an activist with communist sympathies, and he fell upward from there, helped by nudges from other men the Soviets had already slipped into British intelligence. After moving to Moscow, he'd spend the rest of his life speaking openly about his surprise at how well his spy career had gone. When the KGB recruited him, he noted, he'd had no job and no prospects. But he was a Cambridge man, so the Soviets figured success would fall into his lap -- and they were right.

To Protect Joe McCarthy's Anti-Commie Legacy, The DEA Supplied Him With Drugs

Wow, so the British anti-KGB squad was helmed by a secret KGB spy. That's pretty crazy, almost as crazy if the US's famous House Committee on Un-American Activities was founded by a secret KGB spy ... which, as we've previously covered, it absolutely was. As yet that spy, Rep. Samuel Dickstein, never really had his name go down in popular history. Instead, we associate that committee with one man. Joseph McCarthy. Even though Joseph McCarthy actually never had anything to do with HCUA, since he was a senator, not a congressman. We're collectively not very good at remembering history correctly.

5 Cold War Stories That Reveal It Was A Total Clown Show
United Press 
At this point, we can barely even remember the McCarthy-inspired senator from X-Men.

Yeah, Joseph McCarthy was the leader of the fight against Communist infiltration. Before things eventually fell apart for him, with the Senate censuring him till his political career sputtered out, he was a committee leader and guided the entire national discourse. He was also an addict. He drank a quart of liquor a day, so when the Senate was in session in the afternoon, his speeches were the ravings of a drunk uncle. Less well-known, he was addicted to morphine. Some sources describe this as an addiction to heroin, but there isn't a huge difference between the two, so pick whichever you like more.

This secret vice was discovered by a friend of McCarthy's, Harry J. Anslinger. Anslinger led the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the 1950s predecessor to the DEA), so he might have felt some responsibility to arrest McCarthy for breaking the law, but he felt an even greater responsibility to cover this truth up. If the Soviets found out, they could use it to blackmail him and control the Senate. Or if the public found out, McCarthy's entire reputation would be forever destroyed, and in fact, the whole government would be disgraced.

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Martin Falbisoner
A scandal? In Washington? The nation would never recover.

So Anslinger arranged for McCarthy to receive a steady supply of morphine so that he could shoot up as discreetly as possible. Anslinger had the drugs delivered from a Capitol Hill pharmacy and paid for it with Federal Bureau of Narcotics money. To really understand the irony here, you've got to read up more on Anslinger, who pretty much founded the War on Drugs. He reserved particular hate for marijuana (for racist reasons), but he hated morphine addicts too yet made an exception for McCarthy. And so McCarthy's legacy was preserved ... his legacy for being a paranoid nut. "McCarthyism" is not a compliment. Similarly, Rep. Samuel Dickstein is remembered, even today; whenever someone acts selfish and cruel, we say they're being "dickish."

America Hired 1,000 Nazis As Cold War Spies

After World War II, the US recruited a bunch of German scientists, and we'd be surprised if you hadn't heard that much already. The story of America looting mad doctors from the Third Reich have appeared in pop culture from Dr. Strangelove to Archer, and the plot wasn't quite as evil as some made it out to be. Most of these scientists (though not all) weren't Nazis themselves, and we put them in research positions, not political ones. It's not like we recruited 1,000 actual Nazis and put them in, say, US intelligence roles. Or so we thought until 2014, when it came out that, yeah, that was exactly what we did.

We'd understand two or three Nazis, maybe even five, but 1,000 is a bit much.

The operation ran so secretly that the government repeatedly had to hide it from itself. In 1980, the Department of Justice asked the FBI for info on 16 fugitive Nazis they wanted to prosecute. Every one of them had been FBI informants (five still were), so the FBI played dumb and turned over nothing. In 1994, the Justice Department wanted to prosecute Aleksandras Lileikis, a Nazi collaborator from Lithuania. The CIA then told them to drop the case, and though they didn't disclose precisely why, it was because he'd climbed onto the CIA payroll 40 years earlier.

Lileikis had signed the death documents for Jews personally, so though the CIA tried to protect him, Lithuania ended up charging him with genocide. He died while still on trial. Another CIA spy, Otto von Bolschwing, worked under Adolf Eichmann and wrote early plans on how to purge Jews from Germany. The CIA first shielded him from Austrian investigators, then tried to get him Austrian citizenship. When that failed, they got him US citizenship, settled him in New York, and next took to protecting him from the Department of Justice and Israel.

5 Cold War Stories That Reveal It Was A Total Clown Show
via Wiki Commons
They brought him via luxury cruise, because Nazis like the finer things in life.

Those are the stories of two of the Nazi spies. The US hired over 1,000 of them -- at least, that's the confirmed count as of 2014; investigators expect the real number is much higher. And what sort of invaluable help did we get from the Nazis in exchange for covering for their war crimes? Let's just say that these guys, unlike the scientists, didn't take us to the Moon.

Some of them might have been useful in anti-Soviet operations, but many, according to records, turned out to be pretty terrible at spying. "Inept" was the nicest thing you could say about them -- von Bolschwing produced little intelligence and once lost a suitcase full of classified American material, mistakenly switching it with someone else's someone's bag of pajamas. Others turned out to be "habitual liars" determined to con the US. Oh, and some turned out to really be double agents working for the USSR. We should have foreseen that possibility. Maybe you can use a Nazi, as NASA did through Operation Paperclip, but why would you ever trust a Nazi?

Britain Got Rid Of Most Of Its KGB Spies After One Was Randomly Caught Driving Drunk

We've told you today about how Joseph McCarthy was a drunk, and Guy Burgess was a drunk, and Kim Philby was a drunk (oh, did we forget to mention that Kim Philby ended up a drunk?). There's a good reason all these men turned to drink: alcohol is amazing. Or maybe it was the stress. Those were both also perfectly good reasons for London resident, and supposed trade representative, Oleg Lyalin to be drinking on August 30, 1971. Those weren't very good reasons, though, for him to get behind the wheel that night, which was what led London bobby Charles Shearer to follow the swerving vehicle and get Lyalin to pull over.

West Midlands Police
*cue Russian folk cover of Yakety Sax*

Some blonde woman got out of the passenger side and took off, and Shearer let her go as he put the cuffs on Lyalin. The guy was aggressive, couldn't walk straight, and he had so much liquid courage that when Shearer put him in the back of the squad car, he stretched his legs to the (non-partitioned) front of the car and laid them on the cop's shoulders. "You cannot talk to me," he said when Shearer objected. "You cannot beat me. I am a KGB officer." This wasn't too strange a claim by the standards of lies offered up arrested London drunks.

But Lyalin wasn't lying, And when he refused to cooperate with police at the station, MI5 showed up to take him into custody. The truth was, they'd already been in contact with him -- they'd been trying to recruit him by blackmailing him for having an affair with his secretary, who was possibly the blonde beside him in the car. Thanks to the arrest, they hustled him to one of their safe houses, and so Oleg Lyalin defected to Britain.

He offered up the names of 105 Soviet spies, whom the UK promptly kicked out of the country. The truth was, British intelligence hadn't been all that great at routing out spies in the years before this. Part of this probably had something to do with the men running the whole show secretly being spies themselves. Still, whatever the reason, this Lyalin operation was a huge coup, the biggest in memory. The only problem was, it wiped out the KGB's presence from Britain so hard that MI5 soon had nothing to do. As a result, a disillusioned Sean Connery had no choice but to retire from the role of James Bond.

The KGB's Attempt To Blackmail A Gay Reporter ... Completely Failed

We just described Britain's approach to Oleg Lyalin as blackmail, but that situation was more of a carrot than a stick. They dangled in front of him the chance to live openly with his secretary Irina, something the Soviets forbade. Other kinds of blackmail are more sinister. In February 1957, D.C. journalist Joe Alsop was visiting Moscow, and he met an attractive man named Boris at a formal dinner. The two spent the night together at a hotel. The next day, the KGB contacted Alsop, revealed that Boris was a Soviet operative, and showed that spies had secretly photographed the two in bed together.

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via Wiki Commons
It was like the pee tape, but without the pee.

This was a classic Soviet move -- using kompromat (compromising material) to turn opponents into assets. Alsop wrote about foreign policy, and he staunchly opposed communism. But the KGB told him that from then on, he'd become their mouthpiece. What's more, he'd use his Washington contacts to collect American intel and report his results directly to the Kremlin. Disobey, and the KGB would release the photos. Alsop, after hours of drilling, told his interrogators: yeah, screw you, he didn't care what they did. In fact, could they give him a copy of the photos right away? He looked pretty hot in them.

An awesome response, but it was bluster. Alsop stood a lot to lose. Sure, wacky diplomats like Guy Burgess could get caught cruising without consequence -- three of the Cambridge Five were gay or bi -- but in general, getting outed in the '50s would end your Washington career. Along with the Red Scare against communists, people like Joe McCarthy were waging an anti-gay "Lavender Scare," and in the years to come, whispers about Alsop's orientation would almost cost him his White House press pass.

5 Cold War Stories That Reveal It Was A Total Clown Show
Cecil Stoughton
The last thing they needed was another person Jack could fuck.

To guard himself against the blackmail, Alsop contacted the CIA and told them what was going on. They made him write out his whole sexual history, kept it on file, and let him go. And so Alsop went right on writing against communism. The Soviets made good on their threat and posted the photos to some of Alsop's rivals in the field of journalism. They figured the press would jump on the chance to break a scandal and ruin an opponent from across the political aisle. Instead, these rival columnists ... destroyed the photos, refusing to report on them.

At this point, Alsop returned to the CIA and suggested maybe he should just come out after all and put an end to this, in case the KGB planned next to stick the photos on a billboard in Times Square or something. So CIA Director Richard Helms had an agent contact the KGB and tell them to drop this blackmail campaign, else the CIA would respond by releasing enough secret compromising data of their own to ruin a whole platoon of KGB officers. Wait, that was an option all along? Why does it sometimes seem like this whole Cold War thing was just a goofy game?

Top Image: Daniel Tahar/Wiki Commons, US Congress


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