Price on Macintyre, 'The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War'

Ben Macintyre
Cole Price

Ben Macintyre. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War. New York: Crown, 2018. Illustrations. viii + 358 pp. $28.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-101-90419-0.

Reviewed by Cole Price (Air University) Published on H-War (November, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

The Spy and the Traitor tells the story of two men connected by fate. Colonel Oleg Anonyevich Gordievsky (the spy) is the son of a career KGB officer. Superficially, he was born to become a spy in the service of the USSR at the height of the cold war. His education and position within the Communist Party set him up for long-term success. However, upon a deeper dive, his family and surroundings helped change his outlook on his place within the East versus West framework of international relations. Ben Macintyre expertly weaves stories of spycraft with the human yearning of freedom and paints Gordievsky as not only a double agent but also a defender of democracy. Gordievsky and his assistance to the British intelligence service MI6 proved invaluable during the later stages of the cold war.

Meanwhile, Aldrich Ames (the traitor) was the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer whom the United States ordered to track down the Soviet double agent (Gordievsky) providing the British with intelligence. Unbeknownst to the CIA, Ames was a double agent for the Soviets. Showing all the tell-tale signs of an individual ripe for treason, Ames broke from the fog of his middling career and found his true calling. His wife frivolously spent money they did not have, and he felt the United States owed him a debt it did not pay. Initially, he intended to spy for the Soviets once, but after he realized how easy it was and how much money they would pay him, his thirst was unquenchable. Additionally, Ames’s secret agenda was to unmask the double agent providing critical intelligence to the West and expose him to the KGB. The cat and mouse race between Ames and Gordievsky plays out in a concise and eloquent manner.

The dance of spying and statecraft reaches its climax during Able Archer 83, a command post exercise carried out in 1983 by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Soviet paranoia about a NATO first strike against the USSR had risen in the previous two years. As head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov initiated Operation Ryan in 1981. Ryan was a far-reaching covert mission aimed at gathering intelligence on NATO and the United States in the hopes of alerting Moscow of imminent nuclear attack. In 1982, when Andropov succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as head of the Soviet Union, Ryan’s scope and resources magnified. Once again Macintyre brilliantly weaves fact with suspense in his retelling of how close the West and East came to nuclear war. During Able Archer 83, the Soviets mistook NATO’s heightened training exercise as a pretext for a nuclear first strike. Unbeknownst at the time, the Soviets truly believed NATO was preparing for a first strike in a nuclear war and increased their own readiness posture to respond. Soviet bombers and missiles were fueled, armed, and placed on alert to retaliate against a NATO first strike. Once the exercise ended, the Soviets lowered their readiness posture. Only through the intelligence gathered by Gordievsky, which was passed by MI6 to the CIA, did US president Ronald Reagan know how close both sides came to unintended nuclear war.

Lastly, Macintyre meticulously recounts Gordievsky’s 1985 exfiltration from the USSR to the United Kingdom. The plan, codenamed PIMLICO, showcased MI6’s expertise as it evaded Soviet capture. Gordievsky was transported in the trunk of a UK diplomatic vehicle while passing through the USSR and Finland. Throughout the journey, military officials and KGB officers looked for their lost intelligence officer but came up empty. The British agents and Gordievsky narrowly evaded capture at multiple points throughout the journey and arrived safely in the UK.

The coup de grâce occured once MI6 informed the Soviets that the rezident of London defected. The KGB was shocked and could not believe that was the case. MI6 informed the KGB in order to strike a bargain for the safe return of Gordievsky’s family. He gave up the names of every Soviet spy in the UK to MI6. The British informed the Soviets of the situation and struck a bargain. The spies slowly left the country in exchange for Gordievsky’s wife and daughters’ safe passage to the UK. In 1990 Gordievsky was awarded for his decades-long service to Her Majesty.

The Spy and the Traitor is a nonstop thriller where the information is almost too good to be true. Macintyre expertly writes in a way that makes reading the book effortless. While Ames and Gordievsky both betrayed their countries, they did it for different reasons. Gordievsky’s was ideological while Ames’s was purely for money. Macintyre points out that the unmasked spies on both sides were treated differently. Those given up by Ames were most likely rounded up, interrogated, and killed. Meanwhile, those fingered by Gordievsky were given due process and tried.

Overall, the book is a must read for anyone who wishes to know more about the Soviet spy who secretly passed intelligence to MI6 and eventually defected to the UK as well as the CIA double agent who hunted him down for the Soviets.

Citation: Cole Price. Review of Macintyre, Ben, The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL:

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