Cracking Open The Cold War Spy Novel

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Although scholars have hinted at the importance of espionage fiction to the Cold War, the history of intelligence and the spy novel remain poorly integrated not only into Cold War studies but also the broader history of the twentieth century. Some scholars have compared the intelligence community’s files to a nation’s unconscious. If you buy this argument, then the espionage genre emerges as a form of psychoanalysis, with novels as parables loaded with collective wishes, hopes, fears, and unarticulated anxieties. For historians, these works can yield rich veins of primary source material because in addition to being entertaining, spy novels also have documented their era by reflecting geopolitical realities and the evolution of national identities.

As America’s very brief post-Cold War unipolar moment reached its apex in the war on terror, politicized intelligence claims, public opinion formation, social mobilization, and fiction-making once again affected the fate of millions. China and Russia have gone even further in proactively molding public opinion. Where have we seen this before? In hundreds of spy novels and films from the Cold War era. Stereotyping in the sense in which Walter Lippmann first used it — as a convenient simplification of complex realities to allow human beings in modern societies to function — is an ingrained psychological survival tactic that evolved with industrialized societies. In other words, it is an inevitable attribute of modernity. Immune to complete eradication, it can nevertheless be managed through careful analysis and deconstruction, which is where espionage fiction becomes particularly useful.
I have been teaching “The Cold War and the Spy Novel” course every year since 2010, and it has proved to be wildly popular with students despite the heavy reading assignments — a book a week preceded by a lecture to set up the historical context of its publication. Using works from both sides of the Iron Curtain, we explore the

process of constructing stereotypes, the social role that espionage fiction played in the West and in the East, and the relationship between literary fiction and Cold War epistemology — politicized intelligence and public opinion formation.
Teaching about the Cold War in Washington, D.C., is particularly interesting, given that so much of it unfolded on this city’s streets littered with Cold War landmarks. To give just one example, American University’s student shuttle runs right past 4100 Nebraska Ave., where Soviet mole Kim Philby lived while he was stationed in Washington. I love to hear the gasps of surprise when I finish the story of the Cambridge Five and then show my students the house that every single one of them has passed hundreds of times.
A British phenomenon, espionage fiction branched off from the detective genre in the late 1890s when rising literacy, mass newspapers, and cheap books created a feedback loop affecting state policies. England’s first professional spy writer, William Le Queux, contributed to the spy mania that led to the establishment of the Secret Service Bureau (the predecessor of MI5 and MI6) in 1909. Some of the evidence heard by the government

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The Cold War's global espionage conflict corrupted even the most open societies by forcing them to compromise the civil liberties they championed.

committee that suggested its creation came from his books. But the first British spy novels were really about counterespionage because it was morally justifiable (British gentlemen were above spying but not above exposing foreign spies). Counterintelligence was also closest to standard detective work, which was already popular as the subject of fiction in Britain. The anxieties of imperial overreach contributed to the genre’s popularity, but the Great War made it a literary staple. The enemies would also evolve — the French in the 1890s, then the Germans, then the Bolsheviks and the Nazis — but the basic idea of defending home and hearth remained the same. With the Bolsheviks, however, a new relentless global struggle ensued without front lines, without rules, and with an enemy who infiltrated societies and undermined them from within.
The Soviets developed their own espionage genre in the 1920s with writers such as Marietta Shaginian, but the creativity came to an end during the 1930s, when depicting Soviet agents unmasking foreign plots settled into a predictable, formulaic pattern. One would think that the Soviets would have developed a vibrant espionage novel tradition, but writing about the NKVD and then the KGB was strictly controlled by the government, while probing a closed society’s secrets was discouraged

and sometimes punished. Although the Soviets published spy novels, they were chronologically stuck in the era of the Russian civil war, the 1920s, and then the Second World War. One exception to this rule was Yulian Semyonov, who wrote espionage fiction actually set in the time of his books’ publication. But too few of them have been translated into English, although they offer a fascinating flip side of the Cold War.
The Cold War reinvigorated the espionage genre and pulled American authors into it. American presidents have enjoyed a lengthy love affair with espionage fiction. FDR enjoyed British spy novels. John F. Kennedy included Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love (1957) in a list of his ten favorite books. And Ronald Reagan called Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October (1984) “unputdownable.”
Films are also integral to the course, and I always assign movies based on the spy novels to demonstrate how scripts politicized (and sometimes even reversed) the original material. For example, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) was critical of U.S. support for the French colonial war in Indochina. Together with William Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American (1958), it registered the dawning struggle of the superpowers to co-opt decolonization. But Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1958 film The Quiet American turned Greene’s plot on its head by making the novel’s protagonist, Thomas Fowler, a dupe of a Viet Minh disinformation campaign that unjustly accused the novel’s anti-hero Alden Pyle of being a U.S. government agent. It worked the other way, too. Alistair Maclean’s Ice Station Zebra (1963) was fiercely anti-Soviet, but the 1968 film reflected the dawn of détente and ended on a much more positive note.
Discussing the novels and the films based on them brings my students to the debate about the nature and extent of security states in a highly competitive international environment. Could it be that the moral and ethical compartmentalization between the tools of the Cold War and the freedoms they aimed to protect may have been illusory? The Cold War’s global espionage conflict corrupted even the most open societies by forcing them to compromise the civil liberties they championed. Fought with propaganda and fear, the Cold War empowered state-sponsored fictions to influence reality on an unprecedented scale. And as the Edward Snowden affair demonstrated, the end of the Cold War did not mean that espionage was over as a trade or a subject of popular fiction.
Moreover, the current debates about interference in the 2016 election as well as data mining point to an age where information is so abundant that commonly held standards of veracity have yielded to the “post-truth world” in which people read, listen, and watch what they agree with, not what challenges their preconceptions. It is ironic that the more informationally constrained world of



radio and television created a broader common socio-intellectual space that facilitated dialogue.
Some have predicted the demise of the traditional spy amidst the rise of digital intelligence collection. But as David Ignatius’ recent thriller The Quantum Spy (2018) demonstrates, people and cultural identities still matter in operations and intelligence gathering. Analyzing and deconstructing espionage fiction helps distinguish at least six different components that the mainstream media often roll into one “election meddling” narrative: cyberwarfare, hacking (a form of intelligence gathering that all governments that can afford it do), leaking, influencing, colluding, and spreading fake news. Distinguishing between these and then exploring their connections yields provides a fuller picture of today’s information competition in a world moving to a multipolar system of competing great powers.
History is entering an era when espionage fiction once again reflects and even contributes to narratives about national identities, geopolitical intentions, and even facts on the ground. The world is not entering a new Cold War; it is undergoing a tectonic geopolitical shift. Europe — and then America — have dominated the planet for at least five centuries. But now non-Western powers are emerging to claim their say in how the world is governed. Amidst this new cycle of great-power balancing and the emergence of new sovereignties, espionage fiction is roaring into business again.
Welcome back to the wilderness of mirrors.

Suggested reading Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955) Ian Fleming, From Russia with Love (1957) Robert Littell, The Defection of A. J. Lewinter (1973) Edward Topol, Red Square (1983) John Le Carre, The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
ANTON FEDYASHIN is associate professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C.

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Cracking Open The Cold War Spy Novel