Note: Cross-posted on my professional blog at The Marshall Independent.
In my post on recommended reading for anyone whose interest in Cold War history has been piqued by the FX series, “The Americans” I provided a reading list of sources which have been authenticated to a reasonable degree.
But there’s something else I’d like to mention, but this is in the realm of pure speculation.
One of the sources I found when researching my review said there are estimates of “as many as 50 couples” like the couple portrayed in the series, in place in the U.S.
I have no idea how they got that figure or what it’s worth. But some years back I heard a very intriguing rumor.
According to this, the United States was never able to put agents in place within the Soviet Union. Among other reasons, their society isn’t as mobile as ours. They don’t habitually move around the country looking for work, or just because they think they might like someplace else better. Most people grow up among people they’ve known all their lives.
For another, functioning in their society required a lot of documentation, official permissions etc that presented an almost insurmountable barrier to passing as a native.
What U.S. intelligence did was to have American handlers recruit locals to pass information with the promise that they and their families would eventually be extracted and taken to live in the U.S., as Col. Kuklinski’s family was.
The Soviets on the other hand, had little trouble putting agents in place in our country. Constructing an identity is not terribly difficult. I understand it starts with touring cemeteries, looking for someone who died in childhood who would have been about your own age. You then write to the county records office and say, “I’m so-and-so and I’d like a copy of my birth certificate.”
With the birth certificate you generate all the other documents you need. It won’t pass a background check of the degree of thoroughness required to get a job with the FBI, but that’s not the point. You can settle in a part of the country that’s rich in information, and blend into society, hoping to cultivate the acquaintance of people who do have access to useful information.
No here’s the rumor I heard. The Soviets could do that – but they tended to lose people.
Agents in place, like the couple in the series, would realize, “Life is good here. Life is not good back home.”
If you’ve generated one identity, it’s no trick to generate another and move somewhere else in this vast and varied country of ours.
So why not just defect? Turn yourself in.
Well, there’s another rumor, and it’s an ugly one.
The U.S. government did not in fact welcome all potential defectors with open arms. The reasoning is that unless they came with valuable information or skills, it was better to leave malcontents in place within Soviet society where they were a potentially disruptive influence.
We know defectors have been turned away. Vasilli Mitrokhin was, that’s how the British got the KGB archives first.
There is a rumor that defectors who didn’t have sufficiently valuable information were sometimes traded back. (I was told this by an Air Force noncom with a hobby interest in political and military history.)
So, blend in, lie low, and never tell your children.
I wonder about this. Are there living among us people who appear like any other of our countrymen, who were born half a world away?
I wonder if we’ll ever know.