December 2, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

1985 – thrilling year for Cold War spies!

4 min read
1985 saw two double agents exposed. KGB agent Oleg Gordievsky and US Navy officer John Walker were not what they seemed. Tony McMahon reports

1985 was a thrilling year for Cold War spies with two double agents dominating the headlines. One was a high ranking KGB spy who turned out to be working for the British. The other was a CIA agent who is still serving a life sentence today for handing information to the Russians. The 1980s was the last decade of the Cold War and for spies it was an era of intense and dangerous activity.

A KGB operative defects to Britain

In September 1985, a very dapper and thoroughly westernised Soviet diplomat defected to Britain. Oleg Gordievsky never fitted the bill of an uncouth, bullet-headed KGB operative. Smart and sophisticated, always dressed in finely tailored suits. In the 1970s and early 1980s, he rose effortlessly through the ranks of the KGB while unknown to his masters, passing Soviet secrets to the west.

Double agents like Gordievsky were crucial to the west. Not only because they shone a light on what was happening in the Kremlin but also by exposing Soviet spy rings in the United States and Europe. These people lived dangerously and their subterfuge drove them to alcohol abuse. Gordievsky had a fondness for Finnish vodka and threw lavish parties, though seems to have been very self-controlled.

As he defected, Gordievsky spilled the beans on those in London who were spying under cover of respectable jobs. Inevitably, this resulted in a wave of expulsions.

On September 12, 1985, the United Kingdom booted out twenty-five Soviet spies from top diplomats to chauffeurs. This included Russian embassy staff, a translator at the International Cocoa Organisation, and a director at the Moscow Narodny Bank in London. This web of espionage was being run out of the Soviet Trade Delegation in Highgate, a wealthy suburb in north London where Karl Marx is famously buried.

DISCOVER: 1980s advice on surviving a nuclear war

1985 – bumper year for Cold War spies!

In the United States, spying was revealed to be a family affair in 1985. US Navy Chief Warrant Officer John Walker was exposed as a long serving KGB agent handing over military secrets to the Soviets from 1967 until his arrest. His brother Arthur and son Michael were also involved in what was described by The New York Times as “the most damaging Soviet spy ring in history”. They were only brought to justice because John Walker’s ex-wife turned them in.

Their arrest, trial and conviction led to the CIA, Pentagon, and US Navy having to overhaul the underwater security system that protected American submarines globally. Up to that point, these nuclear submarines had been regarded as impervious to Soviet espionage. Now, the American authorities were faced with a situation not known since the trial and execution by electric chair of husband and wife spying team Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951.

The Rosenbergs handed over secrets about the US atomic bomb project to Moscow. The Walkers shared highly sensitive and useful information about the Poseidon and Trident submarine programs. Media reports in 1985 suggested this information was of critical importance to the Kremlin and severely undermined submarine security.

The Russians were being terribly rude – in the British view

The journalist Neal Ascherson was a keen watcher of all things Cold War related. In 1985, he sounded off about this bumper year of secret Soviet skullduggery. The British view of the KGB’s aggressive snooping was that a degree of spying was acceptable but the Russians were going way too far. It was all thoroughly ungentlemanly from London’s perspective. A breach of good behaviour between nations.

Moscow was taking unfair advantage of the UK’s open and democratic society. Or, as Ascherson sarcastically put it back then:

“The Foreign Office view is that the KGB should show some table manners when faced with this luscious buffet of easy information, and should not push their luck too hard.”

Ascherson was concerned in 1985 that the public now no longer regarded spying as equivalent to the use of poison gas in war. Far from being odious characters, spies on both sides were viewed with fascination. Worse, espionage was coming to be regarded as just another form of information gathering.

“Today, there are those who regard foreign intelligence as no more than a shady section of the mass media.”

The Cold War had become so embedded as an unchangeable reality in the mass consciousness that the act of spying was greeted with a stoic shrug. Nobody in 1985, except in the highest reaches of the Kremlin and CIA, seriously thought the Cold War would end in a few short years. In addition, many people – increasingly opposed to the secrecy of officialdom in the west – admired spying as a kind of libertarian pursuit freeing up knowledge from locked government cabinets. A view that still prevails in relation to hackers who are seen today (inaccurately) less as criminals and more as anti-establishment heroes.

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