Thursday, August 24, 2017

Book Review: Two Spies and the Cold War

The volatility of the Korean Peninsula could make anyone long for a Paul Dillon and a Dmitri Polyakov, two men who likely prevented a nuclear war.

Hardly anyone knows them, of course, because they were secret agents – spies, if you will – for the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively. 

This is what Eva Dillon, Paul’s daughter, does so well in her new book, Spies in the Family:  She puts a human face on what’s done anonymously, enlightening us to the heavy burden carried by those working incognito and, sometimes, the fatal end that awaits them. 

Paul Dillon spent nearly 30 years in the U.S.’s Central Intelligence Agency, from the early 1950s, when he was undercover in Germany, to his untimely death due to disease in 1980.  He and his wife took their children around the globe – including to Mexico City, Rome and New Delhi – as he pursued numerous opportunities to turn Soviet spies into double agents. 

His biggest turncoat, Soviet Major General Dmitri Fedorovich Polyakov, provided a treasure trove of information that likely helped reduce East-West tensions and, possibly, prevented World War III.

Polyakov, a decorated World War II veteran, started giving information to the United States in 1960, while working at the Soviet Union’s United Nations mission in New York, identifying Soviet spies in what would become the “biggest penetration of Soviet intelligence the FBI ever made.”

Polyakov wasn’t a double agent for personal gain.  He had a noble mission, Dillon says, wanting “to lessen the inevitability of a disastrous clash” between his country and the United States.  Even when offered political asylum and U.S. citizenship, he turned them down, saying he would die a Russian.

Paul Dillon met Polyakov in 1966 in Rangoon, Burma.  Their relationship continued when they were both working in New Delhi, with Dillon undercover as the U.S. Embassy’s first secretary and Polyakov undercover as the Soviet Union’s military attaché.

The two became close – even going on weekend hunting trips together – and, in time, Polyakov provided Dillon with precious insight into Soviet thinking about a nuclear war, showing that Moscow didn’t think such a war was winnable. 

CIA Director (and future Secretary of Defense) Robert Gates later told Time magazine that Polyakov “may have prevented U.S. miscalculations that would have touched off a shooting war” between both countries.  James Woolsey, CIA Director under President Clinton, described Polyakov as a “crown jewel,” the one who “kept the Cold War from becoming hot.”  Polyakov was so valuable to the United States that even President Reagan, in one of his final meetings with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, asked about him.

A spy’s life can be fraught with terror and a grim end, sometimes by the hands of his own people, sometimes even after he's retired.  That would become Polyakov’s tragic fate after infamous CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames turned over his name, along with others, to his Soviet handlers.  Reagan’s request was two months too late, Gorbachev informed him.  Polyakov was already dead.  Video of his arrest by the KGB is available on YouTube at 

As the United States faces renewed tension with Russia, as China builds military bases in the South China Sea, and North Korea appears to make good on its threat to arm itself with nuclear missiles, even threatening to use them – and that’s before considering Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and terrorist threats – this book should be required reading.  It should prompt all of us to hope that somewhere, in diplomacy’s deep, dark underworld, there’s a Paul Dillon and a Dmitri Polyakov working diligently so that cooler heads will prevail. 

This is a very readable and well researched book, with a nice mix of primary and secondary sources.  The author was able to interview some of her dad’s former colleagues as well as Polyakov’s son, Alexander.  In addition, we learn that working at the CIA is hardly what’s depicted in movies or television shows and that the skill set of its agents is broader than many might expect.

If there’s a flaw in this book, it’s when Eva met Alexander.  Given their connection, I was hoping there would be a chapter discussing what it was like to meet the son of a man who took so many chances.  In many ways, Eva and Alexander should be almost like brother and sister.  But, similar to the silent service of their fathers, little is revealed about their time together.

Spies in the Family:  An American Spymaster, His Russian Crown Jewel, and the Friendship that Helped End the Cold War, Eva Dillon, HarperCollins Publishers, $28.99, 327 pages

Monday, April 03, 2017

Book Review: America and The Missing Moderate Voter

If ever an author missed a golden opportunity to explain Donald Trump and the American voter, it might be David Brown, a history professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, with his new book, Moderates:  The Vital Center of American Politics, from the Founding to Today.

The title alone makes you think he’s written about voters.  But you soon discover he focused on a few presidents, their moderate views and how that helped them win the White House.  

In a time when people are taking to the streets against Trump, yelling at Congressional representatives during town meetings, or venting anger on social media – in other words, in an era marked by high tension, distrust and vitriol as people attempt to figure out where the United States is headed – this book stands out as a total miss for these turbulent times.

Had he showed how Americans size up issues and candidates as they determine their voting preferences, this book would be a worthwhile read.  Comparing recent American voting habits to the most recent election, it’s hard to believe a candidate as disruptive as Trump will be seen again, from either major political party, and it’s unfortunate he didn’t explore this issue.

Another problem with this book is the history presented about President Carter.  If all you knew about Carter was what you read from Professor Brown, you might think his downfall was due to two challengers from within his own party, Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and California Gov. Jerry Brown.  The U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran – which made him vulnerable to those challengers and destroyed his presidency – is never mentioned.

The next faux pas Brown makes is to repeat a tired criticism of the Republican Party – that unless it includes more minorities and women in its ranks, it’s likely to die off, a critique that circulated after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney failed to knock out Barack Obama from the White House in 2012, something that didn’t matter in 2016.

If there’s any take away from this book it might be that last November’s election was an aberration.  Over the last 40 years, Americans chose presidential candidates not too wedded to their political party.  Presidents Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Obama are cited as examples.

Indeed, a Gallup Poll, released in January 2016, about political affiliation suggests moderates should continue to win the White House because 42 percent of American voters identify as independents while 29 percent identify as Democrats and 26 percent identify as Republicans.  

If you're going to write about moderates, shouldn't this detail be in the book?  Perhaps the professor should take a class on research.  

“The rise in political independence is likely related to Americans’ frustration with party gridlock in the federal government,” Gallup reported.

But Gallup also pointed out a contradiction:  Sixteen percent of independents lean toward the Democrats and the same percentage leans Republican, giving each party more than 40 percent of all voters, meaning there are far fewer independents out there.  These numbers also provide a warning – politicians, at the national level, cannot stray too far left or too far right. 

They also say there’s not a shred of evidence the Republican Party will implode; that the Democrats will easily waltz back into the White House – because of the Electoral College just might stop them again in 2020 – or that they’ll dominate Congress after next year’s midterm elections because more voters find Democratic Party positions acceptable.  In other words, there are no guarantees about future elections.

The problem with this book is that the author was lazy.  He doesn’t offer a shred of new scholarship nor does he take a chance to explain why Americans tend to prefer moderates at the helm.  Instead, he parrots what others have written.  That said, his conclusion appears accurate:  A successful presidential candidate tends to be a centrist, someone independent voters and the party faithful find suitable.  

But had he done the work a book like this requires -- examining Americans’ tendency to skew a hue of purple instead of bright red or deep blue, checked his history, perhaps even accompanied reporters during last year’s primary and election seasons as they interviewed voters, it would stand out for offering great discovery about the American citizen.  As it stands, however, it isn’t worth the money.

Publishing Information:

Moderates:  The Vital Center of American Politics, From the Founding to Today, by David S. Brown.  Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.  Available at and for $34.95

Gallup Poll:

Monday, January 16, 2017

Book Review: Bulletins from Dallas: Reporting the JFK Assassination

Before he takes the oath of office, President-elect Donald Trump should read Bill Sanderson’s outstanding book, Bulletins from Dallas, about how the country’s two leading wire services covered President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  Silicon Valley titans Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Larry Page (no relation to this reviewer) and Sergey Brin could stand to read it, too. 

After calling CNN “fake news” last week, Trump could use a tutorial about how reporters go about their jobs.  It’s not always pleasant – it might even take down our most sacred institutions or a favorite person – but that’s how the business operates.  At its best, it covers events and people without fear or favor and always with accuracy, balance and fairness.  Silicon Valley’s leaders could also use the book so they can discern which news is fake and which is real.

In this day and age of fake news websites and, recently, a network news anchor gone rogue, I’m sure it’s difficult to believe that two news wire services, The Associated Press and United Press International, once competed ferociously to not only get the news first but to first get it right.

The physical beating UPI White House Correspondent Merriman Smith took at the hands of his competitor, an AP reporter, is UPI lore and is vividly recounted by Sanderson, a New York Post editor, detailing how President Kennedy’s assassination was reported by the two wire services shortly after shots were fired across Dallas’s Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963.

Sitting in the front seat of what was called the wire service car, with easy access to its radio phone, Smith quickly called UPI’s Dallas bureau once gunfire rang out, dictating details as the car followed the presidential limousine to Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy died. 

Realizing Smith was hogging the phone, the AP reporter, Jack Bell, punched Smith numerous times to get it back.  His pummeling didn’t work and a story about the shots crossed UPI’s wire before the car carrying the two reporters arrived at the hospital.  There’s even speculation Smith knocked the car’s phone out of order so UPI could maintain its increasing minute by minute lead in reporting the assassination’s details.

Nearly an hour before the White House announced Kennedy’s death, UPI did something out of the ordinary, quoting a Secret Service agent – the famous Clint Hill – that the president was dead by the time he arrived at the hospital.  UPI officially announced Kennedy’s death, based on a statement by White House Deputy Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff, at 1:35 p.m. CST, and the AP followed two minutes later.

In the arena of wire service journalism, where every second and minute mattered, that was similar to losing the Super Bowl 100 - 0.  In other words, the AP was resoundingly defeated. 

UPI and AP clients, at the time, included hundreds of newspapers around the world, along with numerous television and radio stations.  They demanded accurate and fast reporting.  If they took both wire services, they often compared their reports for accuracy, speed, even writing style.

On that fateful day, most Americans didn’t realize what Smith, Bell and their cohorts were enduring to provide an accurate account of Kennedy’s death.  Instead, they saw the news delivered by the man considered the country’s most trusted news source, CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite, who spent his early years working for UPI’s predecessor, The United Press.

Like his fellow Unipresser, a term used to describe those who worked or were previously employed at UP or UPI, Cronkite was ahead of his television news competitors.  He was a man of great integrity and feared reporting Kennedy’s death until it was confirmed, knowing an erroneous report of such magnitude would ruin if not end his career.

That value is lost today.  NBC News Anchor Brian Williams was caught fudging the truth about his time covering the early days of the Iraq War in 2003.  The New York Times had its own issues with Jayson Blair, a reporter caught making up stories.  More recently, Rolling Stone magazine in 2014 reported a rape at the University of Virginia that never happened.

And while the news industry might want to be smug over Trump’s callouts of what’s fake news, it would be better served to remember that some of this problem starts with us.

Sanderson’s book traces Smith’s life from his youth in Georgia up through covering six presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon.  He was a media star in his own right, writing stories for leading magazines and even appearing on television’s “The Tonight Show.”  Sanderson also shows that Smith was a Washington insider, perhaps too friendly with the presidents he covered, especially Lyndon Johnson.

The problem with today’s technology is that anyone can be a “reporter”.  But instead of having an editor review, correct and ask questions about stories before they’re published or broadcast, anyone can write a blog, publish a video, or post on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram and rarely be corrected or stopped, unless, perhaps, they say something libelous or they’re publishing an act of terrorism.  In other words, we’re in the era of fake news, deliberately or not.

As Sanderson opines, “The Internet made news faster (but) we ... gained four minutes (and) lost a lot more.”  (page 212) 

The changed habits of today’s news consumers – taking in more information online – hasn’t helped the newspaper business.  It resulted in fewer advertising dollars and fewer reporters, Sanderson writes.  In 2000, newspaper newsrooms employed 56,200 editors, reporters, photographers and support staff.  It’s down to 32,900 as of 2016. 

This decrease isn’t just compromising the news business.  It’s also harming the country.  It’s hard to believe the nation’s depleted newsrooms didn’t contribute to some of the reporting prior to the November 8th election predicting Hillary Clinton winning the presidency.  An election involving 50 states cannot be covered from the newsroom.  Reporters need to be on the ground, finding out what the citizenry is thinking about those who would lead them.

Only now are the editors at The Times and The Boston Globe discovering states like Iowa and Wisconsin and sending reporters there.  From reading the stories, you might think they were covering foreign countries.

The news business and the United States were fortunate to have Merriman Smith and certainly a UPI which covered politicians and events across the globe as the world’s largest, independently owned news wire service. 

The wire services have suffered many setbacks since the early 1960s.  UPI is much smaller, nothing like it was twenty or thirty years ago, having been sold a few times.  It’s owned by News World Communications, a media entity founded by the Unification Church.  The AP suffers the same woes as the media industry it serves, seeing its revenues decline nearly 25 percent from their peak in 2008.

Sanderson’s book is very well sourced, and he told me both AP and UPI cooperated with him on the book.  He also said AP’s archivists worry about how UPI is maintaining its archives.  Maybe there’s a deal to be done there, with UPI allowing AP to manage and store their archives.

Smith’s life ended in tragedy in 1970 with a self-inflicted pistol shot.  He’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  It’s a fitting tribute to him.  The man who stood for everything journalism holds near and dear – getting the story right – lays with America’s heroes, including his son, Albert, killed in 1966 while serving in the Army in Vietnam.

(Publishing details:  Bulletins from Dallas:  Reporting the JFK Assassination, Bill Sanderson.  New York:  Skyhorse Publishing, November 1, 2016)


About me, the reviewer:  I’m a freelance reporter in Massachusetts and worked for UPI between 1984 and 1987, in Washington, Dallas, and Philadelphia.  I’m also the co-author, with Philip L. Kilbride, of Plural Marriage for Our Times:  A Reinvented Option? 2nd Edition, Santa Barbara, CA:  Praeger Publishers, 2012.  My dad, Bob Page, was UPI’s general manager between 1975 and 1980.  He spent 20 years at UPI, from 1960 to 1980.

Link to my book:

AP staff cuts: 

AP 2015 annual revenues: on a fake “mommy” blog:

Cisco on fake blogs:

Pew report on the U.S. newspaper industry:

Arlington National Cemetery obituary of Merriman Smith’s son:

The New York Times story about Rolling Stone magazine’s fake rape story at the University of Virginia:

The New York Times story about Jayson Blair:

The New York Times story about early voting leading to a Hillary Clinton presidential victory: