Foreign Friends

The Cocktail Party That Raised the Berlin Wall

What would happen, the Russian asked, if the Soviet Union were to invade West Berlin? General O’Neill responded instantly. “War,” he said. “It would mean all-out war.”

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Excerpted from Spies in the Family by Eva Dillon. Copyright © 2017. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Special Agent Moody’s job was to know everything he could about Colonel Dmitri Polyakov. One way of doing that was to use “access agents,” or informers, people Polyakov interacted with on a regular basis who would pass on to Moody what the Russian did and said.

One of Moody’s most valuable access agents was Polyakov’s American counterpart at the United Nations, Lt. Col. Paul Fahey, a military attaché to the American Mission. Fahey and Polyakov had gotten to know each other in the normal course of their UN activities. Each was an artillery officer, and this helped them develop something of a personal rapport. Fahey agreed to pass on details of his conversations with the Russian—he and Polyakov attended UN functions together and occasionally went out for dinner.

Fahey and Polyakov would sometimes discuss the state of relations between their two countries, and over time Polyakov began to trust Fahey enough to confide that he was not a fan of First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. Fahey was surprised. Even considering their developing friendship, it was rare for a Soviet representative to offer any kind of criticism of his top leader to his American counterpart. Yet Polyakov was downplaying his real feelings about the Soviet leader: in truth, he was disgusted by Khrushchev.

Khrushchev, Polyakov believed, was responsible for the USSR’s food crises, which were due, he thought, to unworkable agricultural planning and plain incompetence. In Polyakov’s opinion, Khrushchev was an uncouth boor, prone to emotional outbursts and loudmouthed statements that threatened diplomatic relations and even the uneasy peace between the two Cold War powers. “We will bury you,” Khrushchev had told a meeting of Western ambassadors. “We are turning out missiles like sausages,” he bragged after the launch of Sputnik. Polyakov had been mortified.

In late July 1961, Col. Dmitri Fedorovich Polyakov made an unexpected request to Paul Fahey, one that would prove fateful. Lt. Gen. Edward O’Neill was commander of the American First Army based in New York and also the senior American military representative to the United Nations. Protocol did not allow someone of Polyakov’s rank to approach such a person directly, so he discreetly asked Fahey if a private meeting could be arranged with O’Neill.

Fahey brought this intriguing information to Ed Moody, who in turn went to General O’Neill. At the United Nations, it was common for countries to host cocktail parties or dinners to interact socially with other countries’ delegations. As chance would have it, O’Neill was hosting just such a party a few days later, and he sent an invitation to Colonel Polyakov and his wife, Nina. All invitations to diplomatic occasions were scrutinized by Polyakov’s superiors, and a last-minute one like this would ordinarily have drawn suspicion. It wasn’t questioned.

On August 9, Dmitri and Nina arrived along with the other guests at General O’Neill’s official residence on Governors Island, off the southern tip of Manhattan. Hours earlier, two other guests had arrived: Ed Moody and an FBI technician, bringing boxes full of recording equipment and tools. Setting themselves up in the basement, the two FBI men ran a wire to the general’s study and installed a hidden microphone. It was there that O’Neill planned to meet privately with Polyakov.

With the party under way, Special Agent Moody and his colleague listened intently on their earphones from the basement. For a while there was only silence. Then people came into the study. The agents heard three voices: Paul Fahey’s, General O’Neill’s, and Dmitri Polyakov’s.

I was pleased that you would have enough confidence in me to talk with me,” said O’Neill, “as soldier to soldier. I was pleased, and I hope you will feel entirely free to talk with just the three of us here.”

Polyakov replied in his thick accented, limited English. The mike picked up only part of the conversation: “I talked to Paul [Fahey] . . . I would like to . . . confidentially . . . my support for the cause . . . you know what would happen to me if this talk were to be known.”

O’NEILL: Dmitri, this is just the three of us.

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POLYAKOV: We can talk . . . two of us. One to one.

PAUL FAHEY: Want me to go?

The FBI men in the basement heard the door close. Fahey was out of the room.

POLYAKOV: I want to talk to General . . .

O’NEILL: I’m pleased you think I’m the right man, Dmitri.

POLYAKOV: I have thought of it . . . much what I’ve come here about is to give information . . . like maybe you will talk to some officials. Maybe you organize it.

O’NEILL: What do you mean by officials, Dmitri?

POLYAKOV:  Men.

O’NEILL: I’m a little puzzled as to who? I’m puzzled as to who you want to talk to.

POLYAKOV:  CIA.

O’NEILL: What?

POLYAKOV: CIA. I talk to you in your office because I know that there are, maybe there’s some trouble for me if I talk . . .

O’NEILL: In other words, you would like for me to arrange for you to talk to a CIA man. Is that right? Where could it be done?

POLYAKOV: Maybe you have some party.

O’NEILL: Alright, alright . . . So suppose, in order to make it appear completely official I would ask the French secretary, how about that?

POLYAKOV: Fine.

O’NEILL: The English one doesn’t stay here all the time, he comes up from Washington. . . I could ask Paul, of course. Do you want the Chinese here?

POLYAKOV: Da, that would be okay.

O’NEILL: I will work up a party of our foreign friends.

POLYAKOV: Alright.

O’NEILL: Alright. Let me see what I can do.

Listening in the basement, Ed Moody fought to suppress his excitement. He had been following the Russian for years, knew his movements, and had intuited his thoughts, but he hadn’t had any idea what Polyakov wanted to talk to General O’Neill about, and he had been burning with curiosity to find out. Now it appeared that Polyakov had made a major decision. Meeting with a CIA officer would be a momentous move for Polyakov, a giant risk. If he followed through, such an action would be irrevocable.

As Moody strained to hear the conversation upstairs, Polyakov abruptly changed the subject. What would happen, he asked O’Neill, if the Soviet Union were to invade West Berlin and take it by force?

General O’Neill responded instantly. “War,” he said. “It would mean all-out war.”

Moody now had on tape something more momentous than the Russian’s request to meet with a CIA officer. It was obvious his superiors had ordered him to ask O’Neill about Berlin.

Three years earlier, Nikita Khrushchev had given the United States six months to evacuate its forces from West Berlin. President Eisenhower had rejected the ultimatum out of hand, and nothing had happened. Recently, Khrushchev had given John F. Kennedy the same message, at their summit in Vienna, trying to intimidate the young, newly elected president. Clearly the Russians wanted the Western nations out of Berlin and were planning something, and Polyakov’s question to O’Neill was in all likelihood one of many attempts to get an answer. It also explained, Moody thought, why Polyakov’s bosses had so readily approved the last-minute invitation to General O’Neill’s: the Soviets needed information quickly.

After Polyakov and the other guests left O’Neill’s party, Moody sent the tape to Washington, DC, where it first went to J. Edgar Hoover’s office, then to the White House. Four days later, on the night of August 13, 1961, East German guards and workers started installing barbed-wire entanglements all along the boundary line between East and West Berlin. A week after that, concrete emplacements went in, the beginning of what would soon be a twenty-seven-mile-long wall separating the city’s two sides.

In the years to follow, Moody would often wonder if the interchange he heard between Polyakov and O’Neill might have played a role in persuading Nikita Khrushchev to build a barrier rather than attempt to take West Berlin by force. Building a wall would solve the problem of the massive flight of East Germans to the West. It would frustrate and anger the Americans, but they weren’t likely to go to war over it.