Commentary Magazine


We Now Know by John Lewis Gaddis; Man Without a Face by Markus Wolf

We now know: Rethinking Cold War History
by John Lewis Gaddis
Oxford. 425 pp. $30.00

Man Without a Face: The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster
by Markus Wolf with Anne McElvoy
Times Books. 367 pp. $25.00

Back when there was a USSR, Sovietologists would have traded tenure and their souls for a chance to eavesdrop on Communist titans privately chewing the fat. How differently things stand today, when musty archives have been opened, Communist officials have published candid memoirs, and the files of foreign ministries and intelligence agencies have been laid bare. If anything, we suffer now, more than a decade after the Soviet Union began to unravel, from a surfeit of revelations.

Here, for example, is an extract from a top-secret Russian transcript of a conversation between Anastas Mikoyan, a senior member of the Soviet politburo, and Fidel Castro, at the height of the missile crisis that in 1962 nearly incinerated the world:

Fidel Castro informed us that he had very little rest and had spent the last few days on a trip to experimental farms in the provinces. He also informed us that one farm had discovered an interesting new variety of beans, or more precisely four different species of beans, which he was greatly interested in. Castro told Mikoyan that these beans, which grow like grapes, are perennials. The peasants who grow these beans say the plants stay alive for four or five years. He took some of the beans home with him, Castro went on, and saw for himself that they were easy to cook and tasted good.

Mikoyan noted that this was the first time he had heard of perennial beans.

Castro said that he too had never heard of perennial beans before.

Not everything kept hidden during the cold war was significant, then. The larger and more important truth, however, is that few genuinely significant things were kept secret for long. Two recent books, one by an American historian, the other by a Communist intelligence chief, illustrate these propositions.

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John Lewis Gaddis, who has now taken up a history professorship at Yale, has gained a reputation through his many painstakingly researched books as the dean of American cold-war scholars. His latest work is a fresh trek across territory he has explored before. Surveying in close detail the key turning points of the Soviet-American conflict, from the division of the world at Yalta through the missile crisis in Cuba, Gaddis aims to bring our understanding into line with the masses of material that have lately come to light. What, precisely, have we learned? To judge by We Now Know, a great deal—and little or nothing at all.

Consider our “new” understanding of the outbreak of the Korean war. Ever since North Korean troops, in Soviet-manufactured tanks, came rolling over the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, a circle of American revisionist historians has blamed the ensuing war on the United States. The North Korean assault, according to this line of argument, was in some way invited by dark forces within the U.S. government as a way to overcome President Truman’s resistance to a proposed tripling of military expenditures. However unfounded, this version of events has been repeated and elaborated over the decades in ever more sophisticated forms. Mainstream American scholarship, too, having assimilated the revisionist interpretation and wrapped it in more subtle garb, has also failed, as Gaddis points out, to come to grips with the origins of the conflict. “Who started the Korean war?” asks Bruce Cumings, its leading historian, and answers, “No one and everyone.”

But, as Gaddis notes, the documentary record now definitively answers the question of “who started the Korean war”: Stalin, after much hesitation, gave an importuning Kim II Sung a pledge of assistance and a green light to assault the South. The Soviet military then carried out detailed war planning and transported immense quantities of arms to North Korea. When the attack came, it was, as the American people believed at the time, a naked act of aggression that caught Washington and Seoul completely by surprise. In short, the idea that “no one and everyone” was responsible for the Korean war is sheer applesauce.

As with the Korean war, so with the cold war as a whole: the aggressor was the Soviet Union. Not only that, but the “origins, escalation, and ultimate outcome” of the conflict, Gaddis writes, flowed from the single most salient difference between the two sides: the American sphere of influence in Europe arose “largely by consent [of the participating countries], but . . . its Soviet counterpart could sustain itself only by coercion.” This dissimilitude, in turn, eliminated the possibility of a European settlement agreeable to all the victorious powers. Nor, finally, can the Soviet Union’s reliance on coercion and its efforts to browbeat the West into retreat be separated from the character of the man at its helm:

It was Stalin’s disposition to wage cold wars: he had done so in one form or another throughout his life, against members of his own family, against his own advisers and their families, against old revolutionary comrades, against foreign Communists, even against returning Red Army war veterans.

To ask whether a dictator with such a mental constitution really sought a cold war, Gaddis writes, is to ask whether a fish seeks water.

Gaddis’s severe judgment of Stalin is fair enough. But, along with all the other findings in We Now Know, it raises a question—not about the cold war, but about the track record of this distinguished historian himself. In 1972, Gaddis’s The United States and the Origins of the Cold War won the prestigious Bancroft prize. In that work, as in subsequent ones, Gaddis, though never at one with the revisionists, paid considerable deference to their “important” work. And even where he found reason to criticize their arguments, he tended in the end to split the difference between them and the traditional understanding they were trying to knock down. Neither the USSR nor the U.S., he wrote back then, “bear[s] sole responsibility for the onset of the cold war.” Rather, the conflict “grew out of a complicated interaction [in both countries] of external and internal developments.” Moreover, “leaders of both superpowers sought peace.”

Has it really required the prying open of vaults in the Kremlin to see what was wrong with such a tender assessment of the Soviet leader, let alone such an evenhanded assessment of blame? Gaddis, a scrupulous and probing historian, is to be commended for having the integrity to reverse gears and (implicitly) refute his own earlier work. Yet for all its merits as an updated account of the Soviet-American rivalry, We Now Know is rather disingenuously named. A more accurate title would be: I Now Know What Most People Knew All Along.

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The memoirs of Markus Wolf, the general who for more than 30 years was in charge of the foreign intelligence branch of East Germany’s ministry of state security—the so-called Stasi—offer a rather different kind of glimpse into what we have recently “learned” about the Communist world. The dust jacket of Wolf’s book heralds it as “revealing” (not to mention “gripping,” “honest,” “remarkable,” “fascinating,” and “vivid”). But to ask the question again: what does it reveal?

Much of Wolf’s memoir is devoted to recounting his efforts to place spies in high perches in Western governments. In this, he was very much a hands-on boss, supervising an army of clerks and operatives, and (uniquely among spy-agency chiefs) always running a dozen or so agents himself. For the most part, his espionage service did extraordinarily well—maneuvering hundreds of infiltrators into key positions everywhere that counted, including NATO headquarters, the West German Federal Intelligence Service (Bonn’s version of the CIA), and, in the most celebrated case of all, the office of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt.

The story of these sensational spy cases as told by the other side does, of course, have its allure; but East Germany’s achievements in the field of intelligence have hardly been a secret. Nor is the key to their success a mystery. Given their conspiratorial traditions, Communists have always enjoyed a natural edge in espionage; along with mass murder and the design of defective nuclear-power plants, spying is one of the few endeavors at which they have genuinely excelled.

The East Germans, moreover, enjoyed special advantages. Working in a country recently carved in two, they did not face barriers of language; they could exploit the twisted loyalties of a population defeated in war; and they could use the voluminous records of the Third Reich, which the Stasi had inherited from the Nazis, for blackmailing public servants in the West.

On this solid foundation, Markus Wolf built his networks, employing the usual tricks of the trade. “If I go down in espionage history,” he writes, “it may well be for perfecting the use of sex in spying.” This boast, and the semi-salacious details with which it is spelled out, have undoubtedly helped to market his memoir. But accounts of how lonely middle-aged secretaries were lured into “honey traps” and treason by “Romeo” agents hardly change one’s view of the world.

Neither do Wolf’s disclosures about Communist disinformation and “active measures.” The fact that some leaders of the European “peace movement” had close ties to Moscow was never much of a secret (though those in the West who spoke publicly of the movement’s links were routinely held up to ridicule for their pains). As Wolf confirms yet again, the KGB and its affiliates carefully cultivated Western peace activists and filled the coffers of their organizations with gold via channels of which even the recipients were sometimes unaware.

Wolf likewise confirms that the East Germans did not limit their covert activities to propaganda. In its effort to “color the globe our shade of red,” the Stasi financed, trained, equipped, and furnished intelligence to despotic regimes and terrorist groups around the world. To provide just one example: shortly after the Israeli Olympic team was massacred in Munich in 1972, in an operation carried out by Palestinian terrorists, the East Germans decided to offer diplomatic privileges to Yasir Arafat’s PLO and to provide its guerrilla fighters “routine training” in the use of explosives and guns.

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One cannot say that Wolf’s account of all this organized mayhem is without interest—it offers more than its share of enticing details. But as with Gaddis, the general picture is rather well known. What is less familiar, and what constitutes the only genuine revelation in the book, is its portrait of Wolf himself, the man who prides himself on having kept his photograph out of the Western press for three decades, the man without a face.

In light of the biography he unfolds, one can hardly fault Wolf for having become an ardent Communist. He spent the 30′s and then the war years in the USSR as an adolescent refugee. His parents had fled from Hitler on two counts: his father was Jewish, and both mother and father were unswerving believers in the credo of Karl Marx. As victory over the Nazis drew close, Wolf was inducted into a Comintern school set up by Moscow to train future leaders of “liberated” Eastern Europe. There he was thoroughly instructed in the rigors and catechism of the Stalinist church: “They said, ‘jump,’ we said, ‘how high?’ ”

At war’s end, Wolf returned to a divided, conquered Germany as one of Moscow’s stalwarts. He rapidly rose through the ranks, though, by his own telling, he did not remain blind to Communism’s polyps and warts. At the beginning of his career, in the very “cellar of the residential house where I lived,” Wolf tells us, “people were being interrogated and tortured by a police section known as K-5.” And this was not, as Wolf came to see, an isolated event or an aberration. From the USSR’s brutal behavior toward the defeated population—“like all Germans, we were horrified”—through the 1953 East German workers’ uprising—“we were stunned by the violence and hatred”—through the bloody denouement of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the crushing of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968, Wolf received ample lessons in the nature of the regime he served.

Touched as his conscience may have been by what he saw, however, and notwithstanding the fact that his “Jewish roots” gave him what he calls “a certain sensitivity . . . which others lacked,” Wolf remained assiduously obedient and loyal. This he now explains on ideological grounds:

I was incapable of seeing our socialist system as a tyranny. . . . There was perhaps a rough streak in its methods, but we always felt it was essentially a force for good.

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Still, as he admits, ideology was not the whole story behind his devotion. There were the material benefits of membership in the Communist nomenklatura—“I was too weak to say no to these privileges.” And there was also simple fear—not for his freedom or his life, but for his career. Only when the Berlin Wall was being knocked down in 1989, that is, when it was perfectly safe to do so, did Wolf summon the nerve to register any criticism of Communism in public, and then only as a voice in a chorus.

Even today, as many pages of this book testify, Wolf lacks the courage to own up to the wrongs done while he was at the summit of the Stasi. Accepting responsibility for the regime’s “excesses” in one breath, in the next twenty he explains away his own culpability for deed after ruthless deed: “refusal would have been impossible”; “I was excluded from important operational details”; “my influence was limited”; “I opposed it”; “it was not under my control”; “I was not engaged in this, others were”; “I was never personally involved”; it “was not my responsibility”; “I did not give orders.”

This medley of excuses—variations on a refrain heard at the Nuremberg trials after World War II—tells us a good deal about the inner traits of at least one specimen of Communist man. Scratch the daring spymaster and underneath you find a servile bureaucrat with an unshakable desire to be subsumed in the machinery of a powerful system and cause. To fill a void in his character, Wolf worked sedulously to ruin the lives of innocent people while aspiring, at every moment, to be nothing more than a flawless cog in the wheel. A “sense of unquestioning discipline,” he writes with evident sincerity, “is the hardest thing for Western observers of our system to understand.”

Wolf’s book may not, like Gaddis’s, be misnamed. But given the masked weakness that is the only secret truly worth knowing about its author (and how many others like him?), Man Without a Face might more aptly be titled Man Without a Spine.

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About the Author

Gabriel Schoenfeld is senior editor of COMMENTARY.




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