How Long Island became a hotbed of espionage in the Cold War

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The decades-long conflict between the United States and Soviet Union was called the Cold War, but on Long Island the battle ran hot. In 1960, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev stayed in a Glen Cove mansion during his visit to the UN, the locals seethed. 

Nearly 5,000 dissenters protested his presence in their hometown with signs calling the Moscow boss a “Pig Fat Murderer” and “Chubby Russian Hangman.” The local Lions Club flooded his motorcade route with US flags, while the American Legion hung effigies of the squat strongman off lampposts. 

When the Soviet leader’s caravan passed, mobs pelted his car with eggs, chanting: “Krush the fat red rat!” 

None of it bothered Khrushchev. The Soviet leader extended his visit from a weekend to two whole weeks and taunted the US during press conferences. “Everything is ready for a Soviet attempt to put a man into space, and I sympathize with America’s failed attempts,” he said. 

Killenworth, originally the George DuPont Pratt estate, was purchased by the Soviet Union in 1951 as a country retreat for its UN delegates.
Killenworth, originally the George DuPont Pratt estate, was purchased by the Soviet Union in 1951 as a country retreat for its UN delegates.

The locals were right to be paranoid about Russia. At the time, Long Island housed seven military bases equipped with nuclear arms, including Nike Hercules missiles aimed at the sky to fend off possible Soviet bombers, write Christopher Verga and Karl Grossman in their book “Cold War Long Island” (History Press), out now. The region was also home to a busy “Military Industrial Complex,” including Farmingdale’s Republic Aviation, which once built one-third of US Air Force combat jets, and Grumman Aerospace, the primary contractor of Apollo’s lunar modules. 

Long Islander Robert Glenn Thompson became a spy for Russia after he was dishonorably discharged from the US military.
Long Islander Robert Glenn Thompson became a spy for Russia after he was dishonorably discharged from the US military.
AP

Plus, there were the spies. 

Killenworth, the mansion where Khrushchev stayed, had been purchased by the Soviets in 1951 as a country retreat for their delegates to the US. American intelligence believed the third floor of the compound “contained the world’s most advanced electric surveillance equipment” to eavesdrop on nearby defense plants, while Soviet “diplomats” actively recruited Americans to switch allegiances. 

One who did was Robert Glenn Thompson of Bay Shore, a “not-too-smart chain-smoking bigot” who imagined himself something greater. Thompson regularly claimed he’d been a World War II hero, either training military dogs or with the “secret service in Berlin,” even though he would’ve been just 10 years old in 1945. 

Via the 50-foot-tall shortwave antenna in his backyard from 1957 to 1963, Thompson relayed documents to Moscow regarding Long Island’s “water reservoirs, gas line locations, local power plant locations, and gas tank storage information,” the authors write. Eventually, the FBI busted him for espionage. 

Thompson’s motivation? He wasn’t a communist — rather, he felt betrayed by America simply because he was dishonorably discharged from the US military. 

One Long Islander who rebuffed Soviet advances was Grumman engineer Bill Van Zwienen. Even though he was going through a costly divorce, he still refused cash to go turncoat. Instead, Van Zwienen told the FBI he’d been approached and worked with them for almost 18 months, meeting Soviet contacts at various Long Island restaurants to funnel them false information. By early 1972, Van Zwienen’s brave efforts ultimately led to the capture of five Soviet spies. 

Tensions eventually died as the Soviet Union broke up. But one remnant of Long Island’s Cold War, stemming from the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, off Orient Point, can still be found today. 

Cold War Long Island book
Christopher Verga and Karl Grossman co-authored the book “Cold War Long Island,” out now.
Plum Island Animal Disease Center was used to develop biological warfare fro 1949 to 1954.
AP

From 1949 until 1954, the facility was led by Dr. Erich Traub, a Nazi scientist recruited to the US after World War II. Under the guidance of Hitler’s second-in-command, Heinrich Himmler, Traub had run Germany’s biological warfare facility and figured out how to “weaponize foot-and-mouth disease.” The United States tasked Traub with applying this same germ warfare research against the Soviets, but eventually abandoned the idea and ended the program. 

In 1975, when Lyme disease first appeared on the coast of Connecticut, just across from Long Island Sound, investigative journalists floated a theory that sounded ominously like what may have happened in a Wuhan lab today. They blamed “years of experimentation with ticks on Plum Island and the likelihood of an accidental or purposeful release.” 

As for who on Plum Island might have weaponized ticks and unleashed Lyme disease upon the world, sources who worked at the facility were clear. 

“They called him the Nazi scientist.”

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