- - Friday, October 18, 2019

When one thinks of the Cold War — the era when the two world superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, were adversaries from the end of World War II in 1945 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 — perhaps one thinks of Checkpoint Charlie at the Berlin Wall, spy vs. spy dramas, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the arms race or Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev stating, “We will bury you.”

But in addition to the conflict between spies, soldiers and statesmen, there was another conflict that took place during the Cold War: The fight over literature.

“Between February and May 1955, a group secretly funded by the Central Intelligence Agency launched a secret weapon into Communist territory. Gathering at launch sites in West Germany, operatives inflated 10-foot balloons, armed them their payload, waited for favorable winds and launched them into Poland.

“They then watched as the balloons were carried deep behind the Iron Curtain, where they would eventually disgorge their contents. These, though, were not explosives or incendiary weapons: they were books,” Duncan White writes in the opening of his book, “Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War.”

“At the height of the Cold War, the CIA made copies of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” rain down from the Communist sky.”

The Communists employed fighter jets and anti-aircraft guns to shoot down the balloons, and they warned their citizens that possession of the books and other material was a crime.

Mr. Duncan goes on to note that the scheme was a part of an effort to penetrate the Iron Curtain that the Soviet Union created to block outside information. The Soviets jammed Western radio broadcasts, letters were censored and only state-run newspapers carrying the Communist Party line were published. The CIA secretly channeled money through front organizations that produced millions of books, leaflets, pamphlets, posters and the balloons that flew over the Iron Curtain and dropped the materials.

“Cold Warriors is the story of the writers who dealt with the consequences of having literature become a Cold War battleground. In the United States, depending on your politics, you could find your voice silenced, or it could be amplified in publications all around the world,” Mr. White writes. 

“In the Soviet Union, if your work was considered ideologically orthodox, you could find yourself a national hero, published by the millions, with a dacha in the countryside and a cushy lifestyle. However, if you deviated, or dissented, you could find your books disappearing from libraries, your name excised from encyclopedias, and end up yourself in the labor camps or executed by the secret police in the basement of the Lubyanka prison.”

Authors around the world were involved in the Cold War conflict, Mr. White explains. “They led double lives as spies, volunteered in foreign wars, engaged in guerrilla insurgencies, churned out propaganda, exposed official hypocrisy, and risked their lives to write books that defied the Cold War consensus.”

Mr. White calls his book a group biography that traces the interconnected lives and works of writers on both sides of the Iron Curtain. And the cast of characters is impressive: Graham Greene, John le Carre, Stephen Spender, Ernest Hemingway and others. Some of the writers were leftists whom the Soviets called “useful idiots,” while others, like George Orwell, condemned the Soviet Union’s evil empire.

Mr. White also covers the courageous Russian writers, like Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who defied the all-powerful Soviet regime to write great literature that did not conform with Soviet ideas. The book also covers British spy and traitor Kim Philby, who didn’t write fiction, Mr. White says, he lived it.

I was surprised that the book did not cover thriller writer Ian Fleming more. As a young reporter for Reuters in 1933, he covered the Metro-Vickers espionage trial of British engineers in the Soviet Union. 

Later, after serving as a naval intelligence officer in World War II, he became the London Sunday Times’ foreign manager and several of his foreign correspondents also reported to British intelligence. And in addition to taking on international criminals, Ian Fleming’s James Bond character battled Soviet spies and assassins. For many readers, James Bond was the ultimate fictional Cold Warrior.

I was also surprised that William F. Buckley was not covered in the book. The influential conservative and anti-Communist columnist, editor and host of PBS’ “Firing Line,” briefly served as a CIA officer in Mexico in the 1950s (Howard Hunt was his boss), and he later penned a series of popular Cold War thrillers featuring a CIA officer named Blackford Oakes.

“Cold Warriors” is a well-researched and fascinating look back at how writers and literature played a significant role in the Cold War.

• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

• • •


By Duncan White

Custom House, $32.50, 800 pages

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