Event Recap: Chat & Chowder with Calder Walton | Spies

    Josie Dent is a sophomore at Simmons University studying journalism. She is the Arts and Entertainment editor for The Simmons Voice. Views are the author's own.

    On May 2, WorldBoston hosted a Chat & Chowder program with Dr. Calder Walton, author of the book Spies: The Epic Intelligence War between East and West. Among his many titles, Dr. Walton is the Assistant Director of the Applied History Project and Intelligence Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center. 

    In his book talk, Walton first focused on the espionage of the 20th century before moving on to the patterns in intelligence work that are still seen today. Walton first argued that the Cold War began far before the late 1940s, but rather that it began in 1917, after the Bolsheviks gained power in Moscow.

    In the years following the Bolsheviks’ rise to power, Western states interfered in the ongoing Russian Civil War, and, as Walton explained, it was “At that moment, the Bolsheviks and the Western powers were effectively on a collision course.”

    Not only did the Cold War begin decades before most people would assume, it has, according to Walton, spilled over into a second Cold War. He referred to these two wars as “Cold War 1.0” and “Cold War 2.0,” respectively. Though there are notable differences between the first and second Cold War, both are marked by intelligence at the frontlines.

    Diving into the history of intelligence work, Dr. Walton explained how Russia’s spy network far outpaced that of the West, with ideology playing a huge role in expanding the Soviet intelligence networks. What Walton referred to as the “myth of the Soviet Union '' appealed to those in Britain and the U.S. who were worried about the rise of facism. Stalin’s Soviet Union, it seemed to them, was the solution for that problem. 

    Walton stated that during World War II the intelligence network the Soviet Union established in the West allowed Stalin to be “given a ringside seat during the Second World War in key strategic decisions being taken in London and Washington.” Intelligence in the West simply lagged behind. During World War II, when the Soviet Union was pulled into the war as part of the Allied powers, the British Foreign Office insisted there would be no more “offensive British intelligence collection on the Soviet threat.” 

    As Walton explained during his talk, the British pulled back on spying on the Soviet Union because, as Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office Alexander Cadogan would state, “allies don’t spy on allies.” Walton referred to this thinking as “totally naive,” and looking back at the aftermath of Cold War 1.0, it’s nearly impossible to disagree with him.

    Walton drew a parallel between the US’s failure to invest in espionage during WWII and the counter-terrorism operations of the 2000s. “The US government is very good about doing one thing at one time. We’re less good at doing several things at one time,” he said, referencing the priority given to defeating the Axis Powers during the Second World War and the war on terror after 9/11. The threat of Russia and China post-9/11 “melted into the background” as the U.S. chose to focus their attention elsewhere.

    After sketching the background of the development of spy networks in the East and West, Walton moved into discussing the differences between the Cold War of the 20th century and the one we currently face. The nuclear standoff that marked the first Cold War is seen in the current one. “Neither side would be able to go to a hot war if both sides of these super, super, monstrous states… were equipped with nuclear weapons… So the Cold War had to stay cold. It couldn’t stay hot. We’re in the same situation, it seems to me, today.”  

    Despite the history lessons from the first Cold War, the new era of technology that marks the 21st century leaves many unanswered questions. Walton referred to the technological advancement we have seen as a “revolution in intelligence and national security.” He further stated that “This century's Cold War, it seems to me, will be about three things. It will be about artificial intelligence, it will be about synthetic biology, and it will be about quantum computing.” He ended the talk with a prediction: “Whoever can master data and process it the best will be the masters of this century.”

    Walton’s talk left the audience, both in-person and on Zoom, with many questions. The Q&A session that followed Walton’s book talk allowed for him to expand on many of the ideas covered in his initial talk, including his previous mention of the ideology at play in both Cold War 1.0 and Cold War 2.0.

    The Chat & Chowder program ended with a chance for attendees to get refreshments, network, and to buy a copy of the book and have it signed by the author. 

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