My Father, the Cold War Spy
Eva Dillon's memoir, 'Spies in the Family,' reveals the untold personal side to the American and Soviet spies who helped avert nuclear war.
Photo of Anne and Paul Leo Dillon in Kempten, Germany, November 1951. Courtesy of Eva Dillon
In August 1961, before General Dmitri Fedorovich Polyakov became one of the CIA's most valuable Cold War assets, he was a decorated Soviet diplomat meeting an American general in a quiet room next to a United Nations cocktail party. The hale, stoic Polyakov asked the American what would happen if the Soviet Union were to invade West Berlin, not knowing FBI agent Ed Moody was in the basement below them secretly recording the conversation. "It would mean an all-out war," General Edward O'Neill told Polyakov. Four days later, on August 13, East German guards began installing barbed wire along their border with West Berlin, the beginnings of what would soon become a wall.
"In the years to follow, Moody would often wonder if the interchange he heard between Polyakov and O'Neill might have played a role in persuading [Soviet leader] Nikita Khrushchev to build a barrier rather than attempt to take West Berlin by force," Eva Dillon describes in her intimate and chilling memoir, Spies in the Family: An American Spymaster, His Russian Crown Jewel, and the Friendship That Helped End the Cold War. Polyakov only used hypotheticals, hoping to maintain a delicate balance and avoid a superpower standoff, Dillon explains. "Building a wall," she writes, "would frustrate and anger the Americans, but they weren't likely to go to war over it."
Spies in the Family collects several of these secret interactions that shaped the course of the Cold War, contextualizing each with what was going on behind the scenes: the personal relationships, emotional grief, and, at times, ulterior motives of the individual spies involved.
Dillon is uniquely equipped to offer such intimate details of the key players in the Cold War: Her father, Paul Leo Dillon, was one of the many CIA operatives identified in Philip Agee's 1975 Inside the Company: CIA Diary. Although she was years away from learning that her father was tasked with handling Polyakov, America's highest-ranking, longest-serving Soviet double agent—"the jewel in the crown," according to former CIA director James Woolsey—Dillon's book reveals, through a combination of personal memories, meticulous research, and interviews with 18 of her father's CIA colleagues as well as the Soviet general's son Alexander, the friendship that emerged between her father and Polyakov and the geopolitical future they forged.
"In general, governments operate on this other plane from the reality that's going on underneath," Dillon, a former president of Reader's Digest, recently told me over the phone. And whereas most coverage of CIA strategy can only present recorded events, Dillon can provide motivations, offering a more intimate, humanizing look at both sides of the Iron Curtain. "I'd read so many of these books written by insiders and journalists and historians and they were wonderful, but I felt that they missed the human side of it, the side that affected the people that surrounded these incredible unsung heroes of the Cold War."
Dillon spent her childhood relocating with each of her father's international assignments. Throughout the book, she introduces each new setting with youthful curiosity (and limited perspective): seven children in a cramped apartment in Rome, making beaded necklaces on the Spanish Steps, jumping in the Trevi Fountain on a dare. Afterward, Dillon reveals what was really happening behind the scenes: Her father was supervising case officers in Italy, one of the largest hubs for Communist parties in the capitalist world, until the family had to abruptly return to the States without reason. Thanks to interviews with her father's colleagues, she later learned that her family's hasty departure was because they had been compromised, and, most likely, her father's cover was blown.
Through these conversations with ex-CIA members, Dillon also begins to understand why Polyakov (whose file still remains classified) secretly worked with American intelligence: not to turn his back on his comrades, but out of a sense of loyalty to Russian citizens. "[Polyakov was a] World War II hero, but he began to see the Soviet leaders as corrupt thugs mocking the sacrifices that the Russian people endured during the war," Dillon told me. "He wanted to help the Americans understand the Soviets' thinking and intentions, that they were also just as afraid of nuclear war as the Americans were. It helped the Americans realize that the Soviets weren't these crazy warmongers. He helped defuse tensions."
Dillon tracks the paranoia and emotional grief that guided the broader US-Soviet relationship through the Cold War. In her chapter about Operation REDSOX, which recruited Soviet refugees and parachuted them back into their homeland as informants, she traces her father's anguish after he trained spy teams in Berlin only to learn that all of his students were shot and killed upon entering Soviet territory. The traumatic experience caused her father to take the unusual step of self-assessing his own "considerable" "mental demands" in a job evaluation, though each specific item is redacted.
Dillon maps out the "Great Mole Hunt" that turned aggression inward, debilitating American intelligence from within, thanks to the increasing paranoia of a few. But perhaps the most startling aspect of these portraits is how relevant they've become today. With concerns about Russia eclipsing most other headlines in the United States, the paranoia and aggression that Dillon captures in each story feels eerily familiar.
"Cold wars are often inflamed by unexplained incidents, where everybody suspects each other," she said. "The current day one is the hacking of the DNC." She compared the tensions that intensified over the 2016 election cycle to the summer of 1985, when the mysterious disappearance of dozens of Soviet assets, including Polyakov, catalyzed a desperate search for a mole, or foreign spy, and a subsequent blame-game across the ranks that cost several people their careers.
"I'd read so many of these books written by insiders and journalists and historians and they were wonderful, but I felt that they missed the human side of it, the side that affected the people that surrounded these incredible unsung heroes of the Cold War."
Dillon also sees a parallel in how turf wars within the intelligence agencies stifle results, comparing it to today's "paranoia surrounding today's congressional intelligence investigations into whether Russia colluded with the Trump administration." When Polyakov wanted to work with the CIA, a jealous FBI team instead gave him an FBI agent masquerading as a CIA spy, hoping that Polyakov would work exclusively with them. To Dillon, that competitiveness sounds similar to Democratic lawmakers accusing the FBI of withholding information during the congressional intelligence investigations over Trump's relationship with Russia.
"I think things happen in cycles, and I think we're very much back to a very similar cycle to the earlier Cold War compared to what some people are calling Cold War 2.0," Dillon explained, comparing what she learned writing this book to the current political situation. Just as quickly as the Soviets moved from allies to rivals following World War II, it seems as though the current presidency is bringing the Russian-American relationship into its next iteration, where Russian influence in elections and foreign policy has ushered in an era of speculation bordering on outright paranoia.
Yet, despite what Trump and Putin may want their citizens to think, they aren't the only actors in control. As Dillon reminded me, "There were bigger things that went on but there were also people, real people who were out there doing what they could to lessen something like the very real threat of nuclear war." Dillon's father and Polyakov shared attempts at avoiding a superpower standoff, though filled with personal tragedy, were ultimately successful. As Spies in the Family illustrates, the decrees of leadership only go so far. The friendships, conversations, and allegiances of the individual can shape a country's policies, even if done in secret.
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Spies in the Family will be published by Harper on May 9.