By Joseph Bodnar
Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for international influence through coercion and persuasion with the world’s most capable and committed spy agencies on the front lines.
Among other things, these covert operatives wrote books. They gathered intelligence, drafted manuscripts, stood up publishing firms, and passed on information about each other to media organisations, government officials, and the public. These hardcover campaigns were effective and escalatory. They also led the United States to exploit the reach and legitimacy of the free press in an attempt to defend it.
The United States’ reactive and undemocratic tactics throughout the book war of the 20th century underscore the importance of developing a proactive and values-based approach for the information contest of the 21st century.
Hardcover campaigns – Escalation and Deception
In May 1963, Oleg Penkovsky, a senior Soviet intelligence agent, was convicted of high treason, sentenced to death, and shot at a prison on KGB headquarters. For the previous sixteen months, Penkovsky had worked with the CIA and Britain’s MI6, passing along photographs of nearly 5,000 highly sensitive documents, including Soviet military manuals, missile sites, and war plans.
The CIA logged 10,000 pages of reports based on Penkovsky’s information before he was caught and executed. They then used the material to write a memoir. Twenty-nine newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic ran excerpts of the Penkovsky Papers ahead of its release, and the memoir eventually became a bestseller.
Despite the book’s success, neither journalists nor the Soviets bought the idea that Penkovsky had written it. The Washington Post later asked whether the CIA’s deception of the American public was a “by-product or part of the intent”. The Soviets decided to escalate.
In the following years, Czechoslovakian and East German intelligence services worked together to research, write, and release the book Who’s Who in the CIA in both German and English. In 1968, the book cost 10.50 East German Marks, but the subtitle gave away the ending. It read “a biographic encyclopedia of 3,000 members of staff of civilian and military intelligence agencies in the USA in 120 states”.
Who’s Who listed details on thousands of agents from across the U.S. intelligence community, mixing facts, subtle forgery, and blatant falsehoods. The book also included six charts that “exposed” open-source information on things like the intelligence structure of the Pentagon.
The CIA responded in kind, feeding intelligence to an investigative reporter for Reader’s Digest who published KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents in 1974, after it was proofread and fact checked by the US intelligence agency. The book contained a 35-page appendix listing information on 1,557 KGB and GRU officers – 942 of which were “identified by classified sources only”, according to a CIA memo.
The Soviets were rocked by the book, writing as many as 370 internal reports assessing its impact on ongoing and future operations.
However, public opinion and the credibility of the media also took a hit. Victor Zorza, a Polish-British journalist, noted at the time that democracies “suffer from the grave disadvantage that in attempting to damage the adversary they must also deceive their own public”.
This Century Can’t Be Like the Last
The book war did not start in 1963 with the Penkovsky Papers or end in 1974 with The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents. The CIA financed the publication of at least 250 books during the Cold War and employed journalists around the world.
But this incomplete chapter of history details the United States’ embrace of authoritarian methods to advance democratic ideals. It tracks a race to the bottom that the United States cannot afford to run in the 21st century, with democracy on its back foot and authoritarians increasingly adept at exploiting emerging technologies to distort information realities to their advantage.
The United States and its democratic allies must address the relentless information offensives being launched by Russia, China, Iran, and others. But that doesn’t require democracies to enter a competition of values on terms set by autocrats.
A successful strategy will leverage the appeal of open, transparent, and responsive systems. Rather than adopting the book war model of state-directed journalism, the United States should increase support for independent media and investigative reporting. This asymmetric approach will help expose the weaknesses, corruption, and brutality of authoritarian regimes around the world.
Defensive tactics should also be rooted in democratic principles, rather than in attempts to control and surveil. This will require the United States to set clear content moderation and data protection standards for the private tech companies that now dominate the information landscape. Identifying, exposing, and building resilience against authoritarian information operations also demands increased coordination between the government, private sector, and civil society groups.
The right answers to the information challenges faced today cannot be found in the history of the book war. But there are plenty of mistakes to recognise and avoid repeating. Democracies cannot protect or advance open information ecosystems by embracing the tools, tactics, and doctrines of authoritarian adversaries.
Joseph Bodnar is a graduate student at American University. His writings have been published by the National Interest, the Dallas Morning News, the Atlantic Council, and Charged Affairs.