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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0-1ogBb6kg.
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