‘The Liar’ and other Cold War Complexities with Benjamin Cunningham

The Liar and other Cold War complexities with Benjamin CunninghamThough I am old enough to have lived through the latter years of the Cold War, many of my strongest impressions from this historical period come from books and films. My favorite Cold War stories, fiction and nonfiction alike, traffic in moral ambiguity. They are about human beings making their way in an imperfect world. Sometimes these characters have selfish motives, and other times it feels like systems or circumstances push them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t. I love a good spy tale, but remain wary of books that mythologize the Cold War. 

My book “The Liar” recounts the story of Karel and Hana Koecher, two so-called illegals who moved the United States as secret agents for their native Czechoslovakia in 1965. Karel eventually found employment inside the CIA, and used his position to funnel information back to his superiors in Prague.

I hesitate to spoil the twists and turns from the story, but let’s just say it helped to distill many of the central dilemmas confronting Cold War spies. I had a lot of questions I hoped to explore. What motivates somebody to become a spy? How does it feel to mislead people for a living? Is it possible to the right thing for the wrong reasons—and vice versa? Most of all, how does a real human being, not a caricature, cope with such unusual circumstances? 

I wanted to write a book that went beyond the lazy good versus evil narratives that shackle most Cold War storytelling. Readers can judge how successful I was, but some of the books below inspired me to think about the history, politics and personalities of the Cold War era in a more multi-faceted way. There sure are a lot of black and white movies about the Cold War, but the realities were shades of gray.


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