Winter is Coming: What Do Spies Know?
As the specter of a new World War rises in the Middle East, the West must urgently address the threat posed by our domestic Fifth Column
Talking about World War Three can be profitable, so long as you don’t excessively terrify your audience. In the early 1980s, when what historians now term the Second Cold War was in full swing, and the new American President Ronald Reagan sought to challenge Soviet power, there was an unlikely best-selling book titled The Third World War that shaped public opinion.
Its author, Sir John Hackett, was a retired British general, a military man with a distinguished career, who published the first edition in 1978, then amplified it with a revised and extended version in 1982. The book sold unexpectedly well; it went viral as we would say these days. Hackett offered the right book at the right moment, since it posited an alarming but ultimately somewhat upbeat message.
As a “future history,” it told the story of how the Soviet Union, facing insurmountable economic and political woes at home, opted for war against NATO in the mid-1980s, launching massive offensives against Western Europe. Befitting the former commander of the British Army in West Germany, Hackett’s book had a realistic feel to it. In The Third World War, outnumbered NATO forces took a beating but ultimately stopped surging Warsaw Pact armies before they completely overran Western Europe. Above all, a full nuclear exchange between East and West was avoided. In perhaps its most unrealistic assertion, the book posited a very limited nuclear release, with the Soviets losing Minsk and Britain losing Birmingham to mushroom clouds.
However, in Hackett’s telling, cooler heads ultimately prevailed in Moscow and Washington, with an avoidance of strategic nuclear strikes and ultimately a peace agreement that birthed a new, better world. In the early 1980s, when popular culture was brimming with depictions of a full nuclear exchange and Armageddon – the United States had its nuclear holocaust TV movie The Day After become a sensation in 1983, while Britain’s even more downbeat Threads told a similar story the next year – Hackett’s take that all of humanity was not about be obliterated imminently was considered a sunny view.
Such atomic disaster porn fell out of favor with the Cold War’s end and the quickly following Soviet collapse of late 1991. History had ended on a happy note, or so it seemed, and historians got access to the Soviet side of things. It turned out that the East-West crisis of the early 1980s was considerably more dire than the public had realized. The Kremlin had worked itself into a frightening lather, believing that an unprovoked NATO attack, probably nuclear, on the USSR was imminent, and here Reagan’s public taunts of the Soviets played a role. Subsequent intelligence revealed that the Soviet “war scare” of the 1980s was real and the world came as close to Armageddon in the fall of 1983 as during the Cuban Missile Crisis 21 years before, if not closer. The Kremlin convinced itself that a NATO command post exercise termed ABLE ARCHER was merely a cover for a Western nuclear first-strike against the Warsaw Pact, and the end of the world was narrowly averted.
Two key aspects of intelligence matter here. First, in the early 1980s, the KGB was dispatched on a worldwide wild goose chase by the Kremlin, called Operation RYAN, to find evidence for the Politburo’s belief that the West was itching to nuke the USSR out of existence, without warning. KGB officers in the field, collecting intelligence, soon realized that there was no such evidence, Reagan simply wasn’t planning any sort of nuclear first strike on the Soviets (which he wasn’t), but that reliable intelligence made less impact in Moscow than it should have. KGB leadership played along with the Kremlin’s wishes. When leaderships convince themselves of things, even wildly untrue things, all the intelligence in the world sometimes doesn’t matter.
Second, more alarmingly, Western intelligence had no clue about the war paranoia that gripped the Kremlin in the early 1980s. The vast array of Western spy services collecting every possible form of intelligence against the Warsaw Pact developed no information, or at least nothing that was recognized at the time, indicating that the Politburo was going out of its collective mind thinking that World War Three was imminent.
Indeed, Western intelligence only learned the terrifying truth in 1985 with the defection of KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievskiy to Britain. Codenamed SUNBEAM, Gordievskiy had been a mole for the Secret Intelligence Service, popularly called MI6, for nine years before he asked for SIS help to get him out of the USSR (what spies term an exfiltration or EXFIL for short) before the KGB caught him. Once in Britain, Gordievskiy told SIS the details of Operation RYAN, which was shared with British leadership and the White House. Shocked, Reagan dialed down his anti-Soviet rhetoric immediately. Gordievskiy’s revelations helped tamp down hostilities between Moscow and the West and helped pave the way for the Cold War’s peaceful end just a few years later.