The Bloodless War

Battleground Berlin: CIA vs. KGB in the Cold War

by David E. Murphy and Sergei A. Kondrashev and George Bailey
Yale University Press, 530 pp., $30.00

For those who like their history built on dates it may be said that the cold war began sometime during the eight weeks between the formal surrender of the German armies on May 8, 1945, which ended the Second World War in Europe, and July 4, 1945, when the Soviet military authorities first allowed American organizations to set up shop in Berlin. For an exact date we might choose May 17, on which day, according to Battleground Berlin, a fascinating and important new account of the opening campaigns of the secret cold war waged by the CIA and the KGB, the OSS officer Frank Wisner passed on to Washington the report of three men he had unofficially slipped into the occupied city in the hope of “establishing contacts in an area which will shortly be denied to us”—that is, to commence spying on the Russians.

Berlin by agreement was to be divided into four zones of occupation but the devastation of war had obliterated landmarks, leaving a maze of erratically marked streets blocked with rubble. The first thing American commanders wanted to know was where their writ ended and that of the Russians began, but this required precisely the sort of information—details of military units and strength designated in military intelligence documents by the term “order of battle” (OB)—which the Russians by precept and temperament kept secret. By summer’s end the central question of the cold war may be said to have been posed—when, if ever, would the Soviet army go home? Within a year the initial OSS efforts to establish a working map of occupied Berlin had escalated into a full-scale intelligence war—nets of half-trained agents hastily recruited by the OSS and its successor organization, the Strategic Services Unit (SSU), to gather the raw data for a Soviet OB were being arrested wholesale by Soviet counterintelligence officers whose efficiency began the long American education in how to run a secret intelligence service.

For nearly fifty years the intelligence war to gather and to deny information centered on the military strength of opposing armies, initially in Germany, later across the world—where stationed, how much, of what sort, for what purpose? Around these central questions proliferated a host of secondary questions about intentions in Washington and Moscow, political alliances, the control of territories, the development of weapons, and the operations of clandestine organizations struggling to learn the secrets of opponents and protect their own. All the subsequent accretions of layered operational minutiae in the conduct of the secret cold war may be traced back to these basic questions surrounding the planting of Soviet armies in the heart of Eastern Europe, a fact much like the grain of sand at the heart of a pearl.

The cold war lasted so long (from, let us say, May 17, 1945, until November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down), was so expensive, and at moments threatened catastrophe on so vast a scale, that it pleads for some overarching explanation matching in magnitude…

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