A book by a noted historian seeks to debunk several of the stories told by celebrated Cold War spies and their biographers.
In Nigel West’s 1998 book, Counterfeit Spies, the author digs into more than twenty books about World War II-era secret agents and judges many of them to be hoaxes and fakes. His new book seems a logical follow-up and provides an intriguing addition to his catalog of over two dozen books on intelligence and espionage issues.
In Cold War Counterfeit Spies, released earlier this year, West takes an in-depth look at spy books covering the Cold War era. Again, he argues that, though many achieved much popularity, these books are less-than-accurate pictures of the clandestine war.
As an historian, West has concentrated on security and intelligence issues, and his controversial books have frequently made headlines. He was voted “The Experts’ Expert” by a panel of other spy writers. He is the European editor of the World Intelligence Review, published in Washington, D.C., and the editorial director of St. Ermin’s Press. With his expertise and this new era of accessibility to now declassified documents, the author puts some well-known stories under the microscope.
Professional Fabulists Who Can’t Break the Habit?
If you believe West’s assertions, you might get the impression that even ex-spies simply do not have the truth in them. In his previous work, West pointed to numerous instances of invention, fabrication, and embroidery. In this new offering, he suggests that the fallacies of Cold War era spy tell-alls were even more egregious.
“The scale of difficulties presented by the [new set of] fantasists is greater than I had anticipated,” he writes, in his signature style of high-flown understatement.
Many of the autobiographical and biographical works that West questions are British based, a given since he’s a Brit. However, several of the books dissected are by American writers. The venues covered are of actions executed in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, to mention a few.
I must confess that I have not read any of the works West deals with, though the events and people involved are, for the most part, fairly well known. There are, however, a few forays which are less understood by the American reader who has not ventured into the history of the event. One of these is the Northern Ireland Conflict.
“The Troubles,” or as the Irish called it, Na Trioblóidí, was the ethno-nationalist conflict that ran from the late 1960s until about 1998, taking the lives of over 3,500 people. Though intriguing, it can be a difficult chapter to read, especially for the uninformed. One needs a flowchart to identify all the players.
Fortunately, West covered this shortcoming by providing an excellent list of abbreviations at the beginning of the text. The main players were the unionists/loyalists who wanted to remain with the UK and the nationalists/republicans who wished to join Ireland. The frontline players were the paramilitary units of each side, the RUC and the SAS. There are three literary works that West challenges for their charges of “freelancing” and collusion.
Shaun Clarke’s 1994 book, Soldier E: SAS, Sniper Fire in Belfast, Paul Bruce’s 1995 work, The Nemesis File, and Sean McPhilemy’s 1998 book, The Committee: Political Assassination in Northern Ireland, were all exposés on the nefarious activities of British military units (primarily the SAS), and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Special Air Service, primarily a counter-terrorist and intelligence unit, was alleged to have been conducting extralegal abductions and murders, while the RUC Special Branch were accused of colluding with loyalist paramilitary groups to assassinate nationalists and establishing an unlawful “shoot-to-kill” policy.
West takes the reader through several incidents used as evidence to support the writer’s charges against the SAS and the RUC, noting discrepancies and challenging sources of the authors. He also offers some interesting background on the writers.
From Russia with … Lies?
In another noteworthy chapter, West takes an in-depth look at the writings of Greville Wynne, a British spy famous for his involvement with (and imprisonment as a result of) the espionage activities of Oleg Penkovsky, a GRU agent-in-place around which controversy swirls, even today. Wynne’s books, The Man from Moscow and The Man from Odessa, both cover his interaction with Penkovsky and another enigmatic GRU defector, Sergei Kuznov, about which there is absolutely no information. West provides a most plausible exposé of the two works.
Let the Record Show:
He also offers his view on a couple of biographical works, most notably that of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lucinda Franks. In Franks’ 2007 book, My Father’s Secret War, she writes about finding a German SS officer’s cap among her aging father’s things. Such a find, especially for a Jewish family, would understandably demand more explanation about her father — one Tom Franks, U.S. Navy veteran of the war in the Pacific.
However, West compares the Franks memoir to Tom Franks’ official military record and points out some discrepancies. Lucinda Franks wrote that her father had spoken of being sent on spy missions to Sweden in the spring of 1943. However, West noted that Tom Franks’ “abbreviated military file” listed other assignments during that period—including duties in the Bronx, Norfolk, Charleston, and Pontiac, Michigan. Records also indicated that he attended an eight-week anti-aircraft artillery course before being sent to Port Hueneme, California, for deployment to the Pacific.
According to West, “Missing from the file was any mention of deployment to Europe, but Cindy’s explanation for the omission is simply that the details had been deliberately excised to preserve secrecy.”
Of course, one might imagine that a journalist of Franks’ stature would do the requisite fact checking. But of course, in the murky world of espionage, facts can often prove elusive. Readers will have to consider the evidence available and judge for themselves which version of “history” they find most credible.
West’s book is replete with such convoluted, often difficult-to-follow stories, full of contradictions and murky with missing facts. Still, I found this book to be an excellent read, most detailed and thoroughly researched. It contains an excellent list of sources that will prove useful for enthusiasts of the genre who want to read more.
Cold War Counterfeit Spies: Tales of Espionage – Genuine or Bogus? is available at Amazon.com.
About the author:
Dave Green is a retired professor of computer languages, a retired Army major, and an occasional surveillance operative. He has soloed in a Cessna 172 and appeared in several iconic 1970s films, to include the vital role of “man in brown leisure suit” in the Altman film, “Nashville.”