Book review: First-person narratives recall days of Cold War
Stars and Stripes February 9, 2011
Stroll into any bookstore, and it’s almost a guarantee you will find both factual accounts and fictional thrillers about Cold War espionage.
What makes “Secrets of the Cold War: US Army Europe’s Intelligence and Counterintelligence Activities Against the Soviets,” by Leland C. McCaslin, stand out is its highlighting of unique missions by American and Allied forces in Europe to thwart Soviet espionage.
It is full of first-person narratives of real events that seem to be taken from the pages of a pop-fiction spy thriller.
With a succinct and comprehensive account of the political tensions of the time and the covert tactics used on both sides to prevent the silent war from escalating into a war with bullets, “Secrets of the Cold War” provides a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of those in the intelligence field in that era.
McCaslin, a former U.S. Army Europe senior security specialist, said his book had to receive approval from government and military officials to make sure he wasn’t divulging too much information.
“It was a little anxious for me. ... I was going up the wall toward classified, but not crossing it,” McCaslin said during a recent phone interview.
Many chapters of McCaslin’s book are written by guest writers — the American, British and French intelligence workers stationed in Europe during the Cold War. They offer unique perspectives on some dangerous situations as well as some pretty comical ones.
For example, an early chapter describes how a British agent risked his life to obtain crucial intelligence about the size of a Russian tank’s muzzle. The agent jumped on a train in East Germany that was transporting a Russian tank but soon realized he had no tools at his disposal, and the locomotive driver sensed something was amiss.
Reacting quickly, the agent jammed an apple he was carrying into the tank’s main armament to create an impression and was able to jump off the moving train with his apple before he was discovered.
One of the funnier excerpts from the book describes a group of bored American soldiers having a little fun while conducting surveillance at the Fulda Gap, a stretch of border that divided East and West Germany.
One soldier stuck globs of aluminum foil to his hat and uniform to make it appear as though he were a visiting general. His comrades made a big fuss over him, knowing the enemy would be watching from their tower. The soldiers chuckled as they saw the cameras come out on the other side of the border and knew that KGB headquarters members would be scratching their heads trying to figure out who had just visited.
Some of the more interesting pages in the book are devoted to the military liaison missions, which were established in 1947 as an agreement with the Allied forces and the Soviet Union.
Although the British and French also had similar agreements with the Soviets, the American-Soviet pact allowed for a Soviet Military Liaison Mission in Frankfurt, West Germany, and a U.S. compound in Potsdam, East Germany. Their primary mission was to act as a link to each other’s military commanders, but McCaslin writes that their secondary mission of collecting military information as “legal spies” soon became their priority, especially when the communist military began gathering forces near the West German border.
McCaslin and guest writers share memories of close calls and being shot at while observing Soviet military activity as they skirted the limits of established forbidden zones with high-tech monitoring gadgets and specially modified cars that would make James Bond blush with envy.
Overall, the book is an enjoyable read written by those at “ground zero” of the silent war. While the book has a tendency to repeat some things, that is to be expected with so many guest writers.
“Secrets of the Cold War” is recommended for those with an interest in covert operations, military and European history and the U.S. post-World War II presence. Many readers might not be aware of how much relatively recent espionage history transpired all around them.