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WASHINGTON -- KGB archives detail how the Soviets picked up on a suggestion by Fidel Castro and embarked on a remarkable 30-year effort to win the Cold War by fomenting communist insurgencies in South and Central America starting in the 1960s.
A new book, based on documents smuggled out of the Soviet Union to England by KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin, also tells how the Cold War reached its zenith in the years 1981-84, as the Soviets became paranoid that Ronald Reagan's election and a vacuum in Soviet leadership with the declining health of Leonid Brezhnev meant a war with the United States.
At one point in 1981, Castro urged the Soviets to bring back cruise missiles to Cuba as a response to NATO's decision to upgrade ground-based missiles stationed in Europe -- a suggestion the Kremlin nixed.
The book also details how KGB "special actions" groups trained Wadi Haddad's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine on terrorist tactics, resulting in a spate of aircraft hijackings and attacks on oil tankers.
According to the book, the Soviet-era security agency also orchestrated several kidnapping attempts on CIA agents in the Middle East, one of which was approved specifically by Brezhnev, and turned Syria into the Kremlin's most reliable ally in the Middle East.
Christopher Andrew, a history professor at Cambridge University in England, who worked with Mitrokhin and his archives, said KGB efforts weren't costly to the Kremlin and did enjoy some short-term successes in Salvador Allende's Chile and Juan Peron's Argentina.
But he said it's remarkable that in the longer term, the effort couldn't be sustained in spite of all the energy the KGB put into the plan. The only ally and constant friend the KGB won, he noted, was Castro, who devised the strategy to confront the United States in its own backyard.
"It wasn't a wholly stupid idea," Andrew said. "With the global unpopularity of the United States after Vietnam, they had a great deal to work with. The problem was in the end they had nothing to sell. The Soviet Union did not have a future."
The book, "The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World," is the second Andrew wrote with Mitrokhin, who died in England last year at age 82.
Andrew's first volume on the Mitrokhin archive, "The Sword and the Shield," was a sensation that disclosed the names of several KGB "legends" or spies who were paid by the Kremlin who were working in several Western governments.
Andrew said he's moving on to other historical studies after spending nine years with Mitrokhin and his archives. The British government arranged for Andrew to work with Mitrokhin, who brought his archives to the West when he defected from the Soviet Union.
Andrew said Mitrokhin was once a committed KGB agent who became disenchanted with Soviet life after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and he realized the Kremlin wasn't going to permit any reform of the communist system it operated or accept the concept of "socialism with a human face" that Czech reformers wanted.
"From Mitrokhin's point of view, his archive was a true record of what was going on -- the collapse of the Soviet Union," he said.
Andrew said he believes the successes the KGB made would not have been possible if the United States were not preoccupied with so much self-criticism after the failure of the Vietnam War.
"For 25 years, they had a wonderful assist from the global unpopularity of America because of the Vietnam War," he said. "It was as easy as shelling peas."
Among the cases Andrew details:
The KGB began mapping plans to turn Nicaragua into a communist country in 1961. But the Nicaraguan government in 1963 and 1964 crushed the poorly armed Sandinistas, and the rebels went underground in 1967 after suffering more defeats. By the time of the Sandinistas' successes in 1979, the KGB was still assisting the rebels but had given up hope they would succeed.
Chile's Salvador Allende was one of the most important KGB contacts in South America. The agency started grooming him in the early 1950s, 20 years before he became the first communist elected by ballot in 1970. After Allende was killed in a coup in 1973, the Soviets embarked on a campaign to make him into a left-wing cult icon, using forged documents detailing CIA links to army Chief of Staff Augusto Pinochet's secret police. The KGB disinformation campaign was so successful that stories based on the false documents appeared in American newspapers.
Although Jews were excluded from joining the KGB, Soviet agents successfully penetrated several levels of Israel's government, including the Mossad, and got intelligence on that country's program of chemical and biological weapons.
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