12/05/2012 06:28 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

Edward Wilson's The Midnight Swimmer

Can fiction enhance our understanding of the past? In his latest novel, Edward Wilson -- a U.S. Special Forces officer in the Vietnam War who subsequently became an expatriate, a British citizen and a teacher in the UK -- does help to illuminate the Cold War crisis of the early 1960s.

The Midnight Swimmer (Arcadia Books), a combination of spy novel and thriller, follows the activities of William Catesby, a fictional British intelligence operative, through some very real developments. These include the 1960 Soviet missile explosion that killed Marshall Mitrofin Nedelin, the election of John F. Kennedy, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the growing paranoia of James Angleton (the top CIA counterintelligence official), the mafia's keen interest in U.S. policy toward Cuba and, above all, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Like John le Carré, with whom he has sometimes been compared, Wilson provides a dark view of the Cold War. Here, to use Matthew Arnold's famous phrase, "ignorant armies clash by night" and, at the least, nothing is ever what it seems. For most Americans, steeped in comforting patriotic nostalgia, The Midnight Swimmer will be deeply disconcerting. Although Wilson never glorifies the Soviet Union, he does provide vignettes revealing a boyish, charming Ché Guevara, a remarkably polite Fidel Castro and a very sympathetic, peace-oriented KGB general. By contrast, the U.S. government is depicted as reckless and, thus, in a time of nuclear confrontation, very dangerous.

At one point, Wilson has Catesby ruminate on the idea that what "made the Cold War so dangerous was that the Russians were playing chess and the Americans poker. The Russians deployed an elaborate defense with layers of deceit to protect their vital squares. The Americans responded with upping antes, calling bluffs and flexing muscles."

Wilson's account is particularly striking because he portrays most British officials (including Prime Minister Harold MacMillan) as sharing Catesby's bleak view of U.S. officials. Many, in fact, seem not at all fond of their American "cousins." Nor are the Americans shown as fond of them. The "cousins," for example, twice try to assassinate Catesby. In turn, Catesby and his boss cold-bloodedly murder a CIA official.

Wilson has Catesby think: "The most interesting aspect of international relations wasn't the conflict between enemies, but the conflicts between allies. You only had to go to an embassy cocktail party to see these conflicts in the flesh. It was easier for Western diplos to talk to the Russians than to talk to each other."

Even more remarkable is the fact that Catesby, although loyal to the British government, develops a warm relationship with the KGB general and a hot one with that Soviet officer's Russian wife. But this is not at all contradictory, for the British and the Russians are shown as devoted to the survival of their countries. By contrast, when it comes to the Americans, there is some doubt. Only late in Kennedy's presidency -- and particularly with the maturing vision of Robert Kennedy -- are the Americans shown as turning toward peace. And, as a result, Wilson implies, more hawkish forces snuff them out.

Although Wilson states clearly that The Midnight Swimmer is a work of fiction, he has drawn upon a broad range of historical sources to ground it in reality. These sources are listed in the book's bibliography. Furthermore, the evidence gathered by historians since the 1960s bolsters key pillars of his account. The British government did worry that U.S. Cold War hawkishness would lead to Britain's nuclear annihilation. The U.S. government did go to extraordinary lengths to topple Cuba's revolutionary regime. The CIA did sometimes behave like a rogue state, whether on its own or because of orders from the top. The world did come much closer to nuclear war in October 1962 than leaders of the Cold War antagonists wanted or even recognized at the time. The Cuban missile crisis was not resolved by a tough U.S. stand but, rather, by U.S. concessions. The Kennedy brothers, with experience, did become more dovish and, at the end of their lives, considerably more willing to challenge Cold War constraints. Indeed, many historians have recognized that, particularly after Stalin's death, real possibilities emerged for a resolution of the U.S.-Soviet global confrontation. It is one of the great tragedies of modern history that -- in Vietnam and elsewhere during the Cold War -- so many lives were lost or otherwise destroyed through superfluous violence.

Even if one rejects the broad interpretive framework of The Midnight Swimmer, it stands on its own as an excellent spy novel -- one that is fast-paced and capable of keeping the reader guessing. It belongs on the bookshelf alongside similarly unsettling works by le Carré, Alan Furst and Eric Ambler.

Dr. Lawrence S. Wittner ( is Professor of History emeritus at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual (University of Tennessee Press).