April 26, 2006


The spy who loved us - Oleg Penkovsky: KGB defector Oleg Penkovsky was dying to give America the Soviets' deepest secrets, So how did the CIA lose him?: The Spy Who Saved the World
by Jerrold L. Schecter, Peter S. Deriabin (Tim Weiner, May 1992 , Washington Monthly)

The Central Intelligence Agency knew little of value about the Soviet Union in the summer of T1960, when presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was terrifying voters with the fraudulent but powerful image of a missile gap. The fear of Soviet nuclear superiority was founded in ignorance. In 1960, there was no CIA station chief in Moscow and no station to speak of, no CIA officer who spoke Russian, no way to penetrate the steely Soviet shield -no one, in short, to listen when Oleg Penkovsky, a deeply disgruntled colonel in Soviet military intelligence who knew the truth about Soviet missilery, tried to deliver himself unto America. [...]

This book has something of the air of an official history, which should come as no surprise given that one author is a journalist and former White House spokesman and the other a KGB defector who served as a consultant to the CIA for 30 years. But the authors go beyond even the agency's glowing appraisal to anoint Penkovsky savior of the world, the spy whose intelligence kept the Berlin crisis of 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis from exploding into nuclear war.

The transcripts of Penkovsky's debriefings were generously bequeathed to the authors by the CIA under the Freedom of Information Act. (They were published in 1965, albeit in sanitized, souped-up, and somewhat fictionalized form, with the CIAs editorial assistance, as a purported spy's diary, The Penkovsky Papers. The current book's co-author, Peter Deriabin, translated the edited transcripts of the original CIA bestseller.) Lengthy excerpts of the conversations between Penkovsky and the CIA over the months in which they communed form the basic text of this book. They show-as The Penkovsky Papers did not -that this most valuable agent revealed that the Soviets were playing a game of liar's poker with their nuclear weapons.

U.S. strategic doctrine of the day called for the destruction of the Soviet Union and all its satellites with more than 5,000 nuclear weapons in the event of a Soviet invasion of Europe. Everything of strategic value from Poland to the Pacific would have been reduced, as a U.S. naval officer who saw the war plan of the late fifties observed, to "a smoking, radiating ruin" within two hours. The plan was developed after the U.S. Air Force invented the "missile gap" by creating and leaking estimates during the late fifties that the Soviets had hundreds of ICBMs and soon would have thousands.

Penkovsky divulged that the Soviets had a mere handful of ICBMs, whose electronics and fuel systems were dubious. Fans of Le Carre will see in Penkovsky the basis for Dante, the physicist in The Russia House who reveals Soviet rocketry to be as efficient as Soviet econometrics.

In their first meeting, Penkovsky told the CIA that "the Soviet Union is definitely not prepared at this time for war... Khrushchev is not going to fire any rockets." There was no Soviet ICBM force worth the name, though the Soviets were struggling furiously to catch up with the U.S.-a goal they would not achieve for nearly 20 years.

Not only was Khrushchev lying when he claimed Moscow was squeezing out intercontinental ballistic missiles "like sausages," but the Soviet Union's sausages were horsemeat. The economy was crumbling because "everything is subordinated to the armaments race." Penkovsky continued:

[In a land war in Europe] countless numbers of officers and soldiers would simply desert to the other side. This is because all of these ideals for which many of our fathers, brothers, and relatives died have turned out to be nothing but a bluff and a deceit. There is always the promise that things will be better, but actually nothing is better and things are only getting worse. I swear to you that only in Moscow and Leningrad can one even purchase decent food.... [Outside the cities] it is difficult to get bread. There are no roads, which results in unbelievable transportation delays and breakdowns; grain is rotting since it cannot be delivered.

The enemy was really nothing more than Upper Volta with rockets-and not many rockets at that.

Some myths are too precious for even the Right to give up, like the notion that the USSR was a threat and nuclear war unwinnable.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 26, 2006 1:53 PM


Who on the 'right' wasn't willing to go to war with th soviets if push came to shove? The left was appeasing the soviets, the right wanted them gone from day one.Playing on the fear of war was the method employed by the left and the MSM. Those Americans who understood the soviets were portrayed as war mongers or tools of the military-indutrial complex and were forced to moderate their language and attitudes in order to maintain a place at the policy making table. Thank God, Reagan, the master politician, came along and closed the matter. Soviet subversion was always a threat regardless of the fact that they were an economic basket case. Kissinger's 'realpolitik' notwithstanding. Options were limited in light of the state of the Democratic party and the editorial boards of the New York Times and The Washington Post. Reagan wasn't elected by the left.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct. at April 26, 2006 2:45 PM

And let's not forget what happened to Goldwater and McCarthy. We forget how much power the press once had to set the stage.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at April 26, 2006 3:46 PM

The subversion from the left was the intellectual equivalent of late 18th century Paris, St. Petersburg during WW1, Hitler in the thirties and Moscow in the forties combined. That subversion provided the background that facilitated the Soviet subterfuge.

I grew into adulthood in the fifties and witnessed the pervasiveness of the propaganda.
The jetsam of that program remain with us in today's left-wing, merely actors playing roles written for them in the thirties and acted out today in their theater of the mind.

Posted by: Genecis at April 26, 2006 3:49 PM

The media hoodwinked us about the Soviets for 50 years which is why I refuse to take seriously their bleating about the threat from Iran and North Korea.

Posted by: erp at April 26, 2006 3:55 PM

"Kennedy lied, millions suffered under the Stalinist heel."

Lacks that certain something.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 26, 2006 4:03 PM

We have to give credit to the Left. They said the Soviet Union would wither away and they were right.

This happens so rarely.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at April 26, 2006 4:48 PM

While its failures are obvious, I find it difficult to believe that in 1960 the CIA had no officers (in Europe, the Soviet Union, or elsewhere) who didn't speak Russian. Perhaps the point is that they had no one who spoke Russian who could meet with Penkovsky. But even that seems a stretch.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 26, 2006 4:51 PM


No, they said it was a viable system and one we could learn to live with.

Posted by: oj at April 26, 2006 5:11 PM

David, How's this:

Because Kennedy was so very dumb,
Khrushchev could keep us under his thumb.

Posted by: erp at April 26, 2006 5:26 PM

Joseph: Even in the mid-to-late 1980s school textbooks (which are admittedly usually a decade or two old) were pointing out how great the Soviet system was, no unemployment, blah blah blah, and the people there were willing to give up free speech and elections in return for such wonders.

The notion that the left "knew" that communism was doomed, or even flawed, is pure revisionism and should not be allowed to stand.

Posted by: b at April 26, 2006 5:28 PM

No Democrat was President in 1960. Why don't you blame Eisenhower who did nothing in 1953 when the East Germans rioted or in 1956 when Hungary rebelled. Oh, but that would mean criticizing a Republican, which is impossible for some commenters here.

While there were always Leftists willing to apologize for Soviets, there were always Rightists who wanted to do nothing and abandon the world to the Communists or descend into sheer fantasy mumbling about precious bodily fluids (which did their best to discredit anti-communism.)

There were many "Cold War Liberals" who defied the Soviets (even after 1968 when some of the criticism here becomes valid), but I'm sure everyone knows that even if they don't mention it. Every President, even Reagan, basically only carried water for Harry Truman. Foreign and defense policy basically remained the same throughout the Cold War rgardless of party, it's only the mistakes that were different.

The CIA, unfortunately, has always been incompetent. Neither the public nor the government knew things they should have. if they did, the early history of the Cold War would have been far different.

I've asked OJ before if he ever reviewed Moynihan's last book, "Secrecy" which lambasts the Washington intelligence network, but I haven't noticed if he ever responded (sorry). It's an excellent book and I'd like to read OJ's opinion.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at April 26, 2006 5:49 PM


Ike doies deserve criticism for not taking out the Soviets, especially because he knew just how weak they were. As Michael Beschloss shows in Mayday, Ike had an implicit understanding with Khruschev that we'd pretend they were our peers so the Soviets wouldn't try and catch up. JFK blew that with the missile gap nonsense even though Ike told him to knock it off.

It's the failure to end the USSR and the New Deal that makes Ike only a good not a great president.

Posted by: oj at April 26, 2006 5:59 PM

A relative, now dead, worked for the "state department" back then. He spoke fluent Russian and was stationed in Finland.

Posted by: Dave W at April 27, 2006 1:13 AM


Hungary and East Germany were part of the soviet sphere as a result of the war. Our left considered it an internal matter for our former 'glorious ally'. Why they became part of the soviet sphere is the question you should consider.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at April 27, 2006 8:51 AM