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NATO in Cold War spy thrillers

The popularity of the spy thriller during the Cold War led to a surfeit of cinema and television production that sensationalised the growing East-West tensions that were playing out on the world stage. Several of these productions made explicit reference to NATO as a means to internationalize both the scope of their projects and the stakes of their espionage narratives. At the level of plot and exposition, these filmic references to NATO also inform the manner that the Alliance was popularly depicted as a formidable (though often unseen) apparatus of nuclear and economic capability.

Cold War spy thrillers typically present NATO as the target of espionage activity rather than as an initiator of covert operations.

THUNDERBALL (1965), the fourth installment in the popular James Bond series of films, provides a useful example to illustrate the different ways that the NATO references were used. The publicity for THUNDERBALL emphasised the film’s escalated spectacle and scale, and the linkage of NATO (which had been absent from the previous films in the series) offered an increased global scope to the production as well as supplying the necessary Cold War gravitas to the narrative.   

The plot sees Britain and the United States blackmailed by the terrorist organization SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), whose ambitious “NATO project” consists of hijacking two nuclear bombs from a NATO training flight and threatening to destroy a major city unless a huge ransom is paid by the “North Atlantic Treaty powers”. By thwarting this global threat, James Bond implicitly functions as a hero of the NATO Alliance, exemplified by the spectacular climax of Allied collaboration that sees 007 leading the US Navy and the Royal Navy to defeat the forces of SPECTRE.

NATO would ultimately show its gratitude to Bond by including the opening sequence of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1962) as the introduction to the NATO security education film A PUZZLE FOR COLLECTORS (1971).

The idea of NATO as a transnational pool of financial capital ripe for plunder is exploited in LE CERVEAU (1969), a heist comedy that uses a topical event, the move of NATO headquarters from Paris to Brussels in 1967, to set its plot in motion.

LE CERVEAU revolves around two competing criminal teams (the first a pair of bumbling French thieves, the second a team headed by “Le Cerveau”, a British mastermind with ties to the Mafia) who plan to execute the same heist: the robbery of the train holding the “secret funds” of fourteen NATO nations as it travels from Paris to Brussels on 16 July 1967.  Both teams conduct espionage to gain information about the train, to the extent that “Le Cerveau” even goes undercover as a NATO colonel overseeing the transfer of the funds (stuffed in duffle bags identifiable by their country flags) at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris.

Again, the NATO reference helps to expand the international dimension of the film’s production. LE CERVEAU is a French-Italian co-production shot on locations in France, England, Italy and the United States.  An expository sequence in the film used to explain NATO between the French characters is even shot in front of the actual entrance of NATO Headquarters at Porte Dauphine in Paris.

NATO would appear on movie theatres again that same year though in a dramatically serious register. TOPAZ (1969) was Alfred Hitchcock’s late-career return to the espionage thriller, a genre that he helped shape and define in the British and American cinema.

A return to the traditional espionage business of defection, betrayal and the security of information, TOPAZ was an adaptation of the 1967 novel written by Leon Uris that itself was closely based on actual events known as the Sapphire Affair that exposed an international Soviet spy ring in France.

In 1962, a Soviet defector disclosed to French and American counter-intelligence agents that a Soviet spy organsation code-named “Topaz” had compromised the French Intelligence Services, and that NATO headquarters in Paris was so deeply penetrated that top secret NATO documents were deliverable to Moscow in 48 hours.

Classified NATO documents are not only considered the prize of espionage activity, they are also used as an authenticator of espionage itself.

In the film, the Topaz mole leaking documents to the KGB is revealed to be a senior NATO economist with direct access to Allied intelligence sharing. These same leaked documents are used in a scene to confirm the identity of a high-ranking Soviet defector who must prove himself by correctly distinguishing actual NATO documents against the forgeries placed to test him.

Almost twenty-five years later, the code name “Topaz” would return to haunt the Alliance under startlingly familiar terms in the film.  In 1993, an undercover agent (code-named “Topaz”) working in the Economics Directorate at NATO HQ was revealed to have been leaking classified NATO documents to the East German Intelligence Services since 1977. The full story of the activities and eventual exposure of Topaz is considered to be one of the most damaging espionage cases in the history of the Alliance.

The theme of stealing classified documents from within NATO headquarters itself was recently revisited in DEUTSCHLAND 83 (2014), a German television miniseries set in 1983 against the backdrop of the arrival of the US Pershing II ballistic missiles on European soil and the build-up of the classified NATO military exercise “Able Archer.”

The plot of DEUTSCHLAND 83 follows a young East German border guard who goes undercover as an aide to a West German general who sits on NATO’s Military Committee and is responsible for NATO’s nuclear deterrence strategy.  The series is seeped with the Cold War anxieties felt by the Soviet bloc about “Able Archer”, a NATO nuclear training exercise that was mistakenly interpreted by Moscow as an actual nuclear strike against the Warsaw Pact member states.

Though DEUTSCHLAND 83 pays great attention to period details, events and locations to present a semblance of historical accuracy, the series takes sufficient dramatic license with its NATO references to heighten reality. This is immediately evident in the show’s visual approximations of NATO HQ in Brussels, whose exaggerated exteriors and interiors share very little relation to their real-world counterparts.

This same dramatic license also extends to the details surrounding the Able Archer exercise from an Alliance perspective. While DEUTSCHLAND 83 posits a world on the brink of a nuclear Armageddon thanks to the faulty interpretation of Soviet intelligence, the official NATO line on Able Archer suggests that it was a routine exercise that yielded little dramatic reaction on either side of the East-West divide.

Indeed, it is this very tension between banal historical fact and sexy dramatic fiction within DEUTSCHLAND 83 that embodies the general relationship between NATO and the Cold War spy thriller. Espionage activity, which is by definition meant to be discreet and covert, is always spectacularly directed against an Alliance that possesses classified information linked to inexhaustible resources (real or imagined). These depictions implicitly serve an ideological function as they not only suggest the Alliance’s information and economic superiority over its adversaries, they ultimately reinforced NATO’s identity as a defensive organisation instead of a Cold War aggressor.