NAC THROUGH THE BEERS: Spies, or a 2012 column about the Cold War and a fine motion picture.


Seeing as we have time to waste today while awaiting the inevitable White Death (no, I mean the snow), an idle glance at my daily output from six years ago on this date at the blog reveals a digression on the Cold War, which ironically fits into the narrative of this recent travelogue summary.

30 years ago today: The aftermath of the 1987 European jaunt, and many changes on the road to 1989.

On January 12, 2012, it had been only a year since my local column in the pre-merger New Albany Tribune was “temporarily” revoked … never to return, the bastards.

One thing I noticed while lightly editing the column for today’s rerun was its length.

Back then, I remained in the quaint habit of writing somewhere around 900 words, which had been my newspaper column’s maximum length.

Yesterday’s column was almost double this yardstick, and so perhaps my recent fixation with “back to basics” (note the quotation mark usage, David) has another potential outlet in terms of self-editing.

Nah. I gotta be me, right?


A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

The Cold War ended … when?

Was it 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and the Warsaw Pact dominoes finally fell?

Or perhaps 1991, when the USSR belatedly went belly up?

Did it begin anew with Putin?

Irrespective of the precise ending date, the Cold War’s late-1940’s origins long predated my own, and until somewhere around the age of 30 — give or take a year – my perceptions of prevailing geopolitical reality on the planet duly revolved around the received wisdom of two heavily armed camps, with occasional hand-me-downs (guns, butter, trade agreements and news coverage) thrown to the non-aligned “Third” World to secure cooperation amid the attrition.

Naturally, few of the world’s more impoverished sectors actually enjoyed genuine neutrality amid the preeminence of the essential struggle between capitalism and communism. They played their required roles as toadies, and the wheels were greased. When necessary, there were assassinations and wars, and thousands of foreigners died in places Americans scarcely knew existed.

Then, seemingly overnight, this dualistic milieu was gone, and the global stage was cleared. Before we even had time to begin planning the end of history, the next holy crusade commenced, this time against Terrorism, Inc.

The new reality was replete with outrages, annoyances and enemies of various stripes, capable of being conveniently grouped as Muslim, a fact that proved convenient for those Christians in America feeling a need to lash out against persecution to prove their creationism, and to suggest with no discernible irony that homegrown fascism was necessary to combat the threat posed by fascism from afar.

This post-Cold War model of terrorism was different than its predecessor. It was scattered and decentralized, arguably centered on multi-cultural, resource-based petroleum politics rather than the previous ideologies of bearded white folks.

9-11 and smaller scale attacks in Europe showed they were capable of hitting us at home. Things had been so much cleaner and simpler before.

I’ve remained fascinated by the Cold War period, the more so after traveling in the East Bloc during the 1980’s. Given this, it is perhaps peculiar for me to make today’s confession: At no time when the war was still cold did I have the slightest interest in the genre of espionage/spy thriller, of which the British writer (and former real-life practitioner) John le Carré is the acknowledged master.

Consequently, I cannot comment on his twenty-plus novels. However, last weekend we attended a screening of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the most recent film adaptation of le Carré’s 1974 work of the same name, and found it quite brilliant.

You’ll be spared a lengthy review, apart from the observation that establishing a proper Cold War mood is critical to the movie’s success. Much of the action takes place in murky English interiors, and outdoors, the sun almost never shines amid clouds, rain and gloom. Accordingly, the cinematography is grainy and dated.

The pasty characters smoke and drink to excess. They generally appear to be exhausted, as befits those who, by their own contention, are bearing the weight of the free world’s future, and standing as bulwarks against the likelihood of World War Three.

As one, they recall WWII with affection as being the time when all of the UK stood together, as opposed to the uncertain present, when one of them has become a mole.

While the actual physical battlefields of the Cold War were located in those unfortunate Third World countries used as weapons testing grounds, the primary belligerents and their allies (sycophants?) fought a parallel war almost akin to what we’d now refer to as “virtual.” Certainly it was not bloodless, and the pieces (the players) were real, but much of the action was waged in and against human minds, in a game often likened to three-dimensional chess.

Literally and figuratively, the chess pieces are the central characters in le Carré’s novels and the new film.

In America, the Red Scare was vastly overstated during the 1950’s, exacerbated by the dipsomaniacal tendencies of Joe McCarthy and his Ponzi scheme of traitor production. The Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss aside, most of the targeted Americans remained loyal to the red, white and blue.

Concurrently, the British seemed to suffer the misfortune of harboring a higher per capita percentage of genuine turncoats, epitomized by the villainy of the so-called Cambridge Five.

In 1988, I’d just started my job abstracting periodicals at the long-defunct Data-Courier in Louisville when the British arch-defector Kim Philby died in Moscow.

I knew this because Philby’s demise was being fervently discussed in all the publications we received from the UK: The Economist, The Spectator, New Statesman and even Punch.

In turn, these were the magazines increasingly shunted onto my stack of work by fellow staffers after it became known that the new guy rather enjoyed reading them, and more importantly, wasn’t troubled by the English essayist’s habit of hiding the topic sentence somewhere other than the opening paragraph. We had quotas, you know.

Philby was the most infamous of the Cambridge Five, alongside Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross, although an argument can be made that Burgess was more fundamentally nasty. He’d had the good sense to die young, whereas Philby drank himself to death over a longer period of time, and seemed to absorb the remainder of the accumulated opprobrium.

An American might try to imagine some of David Halberstam’s best and brightest, those highly educated, hyper-patriotic young stalwarts standing in the front line of the far rear echelon during America’s war in Vietnam, eventually revealed as members of a spy ring under the spell of the enemy, and espousing Marxist rhetoric while exposing contacts and double agents to sure death.

There is no evidence to suggest that any of them turned. At the same time, their stewardship of the war in Southeast Asia was faulty, and the war was a failure – or was it?

Back in the good old days, pre-Osama, it would have been handled, right?