Best of Enemies: The Last Great Spy Story of the Cold War
By Gus Russo and Eric Dezenhall, Twelve, 342 pages, $28
When Jack Platt, a maverick CIA agent, and Gennady Vasilenko, a KGB officer stationed in Washington, DC, met in 1978, each marked the other as a potential recruit. But neither betrayed his country. Instead they embarked on a deep friendship that crossed cultures, borders and ideologies, one for which Vasilenko would eventually pay a terrible price.
The two spies, as Gus Russo and Eric Dezenhall explain in Best of Enemies, had reputations as “cowboys”. In a world of staid agency bureaucrats, they were “spooks who played by their own rules, kindred spirits who validated each other’s quirky approach to their strait-laced profession.” Platt had run the CIA training programme for officers working under deep cover. Vasilenko, tall and gregarious, was “all open-faced charm,” a veteran womaniser who had perfected his ability to seduce while still a teenager.
Both men loved the tools of their trade, especially guns and drinking. And it was guns that would cement their friendship. One weekend in 1979, Platt picked up Vasilenko and the two drove deep into the Maryland woods. Once at the isolated site, Platt revealed the arsenal in his trunk, including a Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum revolver, popularised by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. The piece de resistance, however, was hidden in a violin case: a Thompson submachine gun. Platt and Vasilenko spent the next few hours happily obliterating tin cans, grapefruits and watermelons.
The next gambit went less well. Vasilenko and Platt met for drinks with an FBI agent, known as “Johnny Disco” for the white suit he wore when teaching disco dancing, and a CIA code clerk, known as “Captain Dougie,” at a waterside restaurant. Unfortunately, Johnny Disco couldn’t hold his liquor. “This here is real vodka, this here is a real KGB guy,” he loudly declared at one point, adding, “Those are real CIA guys and I’m FBI!” Platt threw $100 on the table and ordered everyone to leave. Unfortunately, two men at nearby tables were colonels in Air Force intelligence. After they reported the incident, Platt managed, just barely, to salvage his career.
Russo’s previous books include The Outfit: The Role of Chicago’s Underworld in the Making of Modern America, and Dezenhall is the co-author of Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management Is Wrong. The fact that neither is a historian brings a certain freshness to their narrative. Fast-paced and lively, Best of Enemies is suitable for the general reader with an interest in Cold War espionage, although its chatty tone and the authors’ evident admiration for their subjects can become tiresome.
Platt played a key role in the 2001 capture of the former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, one of the most notorious traitors in American history. Moscow wrongly blamed Vasilenko for the loss of their agent, since his friendship and business links with Platt made him a prime suspect. Vasilenko was arrested in August 2005, the start of a five-year nightmare odyssey through the brutal Russian penal system, until he was traded for several captured Russian spies, including the glamorous Anna Chapman. Platt died in 2017 and Vasilenko now lives in the United States.
Best of Enemies can be read as a lament for a world in which mutually assured destruction brought a strange kind of stability. The two nuclear superpowers may have fought proxy wars, but they always stepped back from the brink. The Cold War was a dangerous time, but it was a time with rules. It’s almost inconceivable to imagine a Soviet leader authorising the kind of slapdash operation that took place in Salisbury, England, when a deadly poison was used in an attempted assassination, then left in a perfume bottle to kill an innocent bystander. “It was a world of rowdy soldiers, jocks, lotharios, Machiavellians, venal cops, bitter bureaucrats wearing porno mustaches and aviator frames,” Russo and Dezenhall tell us. That world is long gone, leaving in its wake something much more perilous.
–New York Times News Service