Every great hero needs a great antagonist—a dragon to slay, an evil to defeat. The Cold War makes a perfect moral universe for thrillers because the stakes are so terrifyingly high, the anxiety over nuclear war was so pervasive, and the morality of the thing so fascinatingly convoluted. On the one side, a Communist society founded on the noblest human principles of defeating inequality—but which grew into a society that terrorized its own citizens and has imperial ambitions to take over the world, slice by slice. On the other, a Western order which notionally also stood for freedom—but in practice was ready to fight dirty wars, support the nastiest of dictators and to use fear of Communism for local political ends. That ambiguous moral texture, as well as the fact that the Cold War was a war fought largely in the shadows by men and women living secret double lives, gives a writer the richest possible background through which to weave a story.
Different thriller writers have taken radically different approaches—at one end of the spectrum are Graham Greene and John le Carré with their exquisitely ironic and equivocal explorations of the morality of both sides. On the other, rest the straightforwardly patriotic, swashbuckling adventures of Ian Fleming and Tom Clancy’s heroes, who never doubt that they are on the right side.
Which came first, the anxiety over nuclear war that hovered over the lives of two post-war generations or the thrillers which fed (or maybe fed on) and explored that anxiety? I believe that while the public’s thirst for Cold War thrillers may have been born of a desire to rationalize and storify the terrifying jeopardy that hung over the world for nearly half a century, the real interest in these tales had deeper roots. The simplest proof is that the genre survived the end of the Cold War. Many of the greatest Cold War thrillers were written in the dying days of the Soviet Empire, or even after the period had passed safely into history. The fact is that the Cold War is just too good a setting for great stories to ever die. Since its end other bogeymen have certainly appeared—terrorists, evil corporations, big data, to name just three that John le Carré has explored. But none have the heft and neatness of the Cold War clash of the West versus the USSR, two European civilizations fighting an existential struggle that grips because the two sides are mirrors of the other. When we look across the Iron curtain we see shadows of ourselves, people almost like us who live in an inverted world. And of course like a mirror, the of the Cold War helped us see ourselves.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1955)
The quintessential exploration of how the path to hell is paved with good intentions. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn later put it, “in order to do evil, a man must first convince himself that he is doing good.” In The Quiet American the inoffensive, apparently naive and highly moral hero Pyle arrives in war-torn Saigon intending to go good, but ends up unleashing death and havoc. ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it’ is the classic (though apparently apocryphal) quote of the Vietnam war—but Greene’s judgment that “innocence is a kind of insanity” nails it much more precisely. “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it,” writes Greene. “Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.” That cloak of innocence—or at least of putting the world to rights—is the basic fallacy of both sides in the Cold War, both launching vicious wars to assert their right to save humanity.
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (1981)
Many Cold War thrillers were set in the borderlands between the two warring superpowers. Martin Cruz Smith in his groundbreaking Gorky Park set the action firmly in the heart of the evil Empire. Arkady Renko is a classic good man in a bad place, a decimated police investigator passionate about pursuing the truth while working for a system that has every interest in burying it. The brilliance of Gorky Park is to uncover the cynicism which underlay so much of the Cold War’s moral posturing. Under their uniforms and medals, Renko’s bosses are greedy, ruthless and unashamedly capitalist. Likewise the American character—the fur trader Osborne—claims self-righteously to be bringing prosperity to the Soviet Union while murdering those who stand in his way. Cruz Smith brilliantly conjured the tiniest details of contemporary Soviet life—“There are two kinds of vodka, good and very good”; “There are not many road signs in Russia …If you don’t know where the road goes, you shouldn’t be on it”. But he also saw to the heart of the rottenness of the Soviet system. “In an unjust society a man may violate laws for valid social or economic reasons,” says Renko. “In a just society there are no valid reasons except mental illness.”
From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming (1957)
James Bond is the classic Cold War spy hero—effortless seducer, expert marksman, suave English gentleman who always gets the girl and defeats the baddie. From Russia With Love is a silly, though very enjoyable, romp. A plot is hatched by SMERSH, the Soviet counter-intelligence agency, to assassinate Bond. SMERSH deploys a beautiful Russian cipher clerk to honeytrap our hero with the promise of her body and of access to the Spektor, a Soviet decoding machine. You know how it’s going to end even as you read it. Childish it may be, but Fleming’s Bond series is very revealing of British attitudes to the Cold War. Bond embodies an winning British glamour and officer-class sophistication that was very much absent in the drab, rationed world of real-life post war Britain which had, as US Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it, lost an Empire but failed to find a role in the world. And it also caricatured the West’s fear of the Soviet Empire as thoroughly evil, ready to fight dirty (remember Rosa Klebb’s poisoned blade in her shoe) and also comically inept at penetrating the social codes of Bond’s world (“red wine with fish?”).
The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy (1984)
One of the great high concepts of any thriller, on any topic—the officers of a new Soviet nuclear missile submarine decide to defect with their ship to the US and are hunted all the way by the vengeful Red Banner Northern Fleet. The Hunt for Red October is a brilliant reflection of the technical fascination of the Cold War, with its detailed (and throughly researched) descriptions of the mechanics of nuclear submarines, of launch codes and caterpillar drives, as well as of the various helicopters, aircraft carriers and rescue subs that carry the hero to his fateful meeting with Marko Ramius, the rebel sub’s commander. Clancy doesn’t do moral ambiguity—Ramius rebels against the corruption and inefficiency of the Soviet system, and his few officers are all naively and unambiguously enamored with the freedom and prosperity of America. The book is not just a brilliantly structured thriller—its also a document of a moment in the early Reagan years that the West finally began to believe in its final victory over Communism. “The Good of the People was a laudable enough goal,” writes Clancy. “But in denying a man’s soul, an enduring part of his being, Marxism stripped away the foundation of human dignity and individual value.” Hunt for Red October also has one weird echo for our times. The political officer of the submarine is a dogmatic Party man named Putin—an extremely rare Russian surname, picked at random by Clancy in an uncannily prescient prediction of Russia’s future.
The Innocent by Ian McEwan (1990)
Based on the true story of Soviet spy George Blake who betrayed a secret tunnel bored under the Berlin Wall by the CIA to intercept Soviet telephone cables, the Innocent is an exquisitely written portrait of a young man caught in a moral maze. Leonard Marnham is a young British Post Office telephone engineer who is employed by the Americans to install monitoring equipment in the secret tunnel. Post-war Berlin, still half-ruined, represents the wreck of the old world. Bob Glass, a CIA officer who befriends Marnham, represents the new world of the Cold War—paranoid, self-righteous, obsessed with security for its own sake. The innocent Leonard discovers love, sex, and death, but never finds any kind of righteousness in his own side’s cause beyond his own unthinking childish patriotism. The superb plot winds the life and fate of ordinary, frightened, loving humans through the politics and subterfuge of the Cold War—and in the end Leonard finds a way to save himself and his lover by using the pervasive culture of secrecy to his own, intensely personal ends.