Justin Jampol - Wende Museum Artifacts

Justin Jampol - Wende Museum Artifacts

To whom do retired spies turn after the collapse of their mission? Los Angeles’ Wende Museum holds one of the most impressive Cold War collections in the world and has become something of an amnesty box for old agents seeking to preserve a piece of their former lives. The Wende’s director Justin Jampol and host Alice Loxton explore highlights from the collection and peer into the history of tradecraft.
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A History of the World in Spy Objects, Episode 8: Justin Jampol - Wende Museum Artifacts

What ghosts lie hidden in the archives of espionage? What story might an unassuming item yield when placed under the right light? I’m Alice Loxton, and this is A History of the World in Spy Objects. Choosing just one object from the vaults of espionage history was always going to be a challenge for the man you’re about to meet. Justin Jampol is the director of the Wende Museum in Los Angeles. It is home to one of the world’s largest collections of Cold War paraphernalia.

JUSTIN JAMPOL: In some ways, museums are like a neutral zone - they can be, they’re not always - but they’re a place where things go where they’re waiting to be sorted out.

NARRATOR: The items that arrive for sorting at the Wende Museum often do so bereft of backstory and detail. It’s up to Justin and his colleagues to decipher their true meaning. The prize for their task? A lens through which they might glimpse the forgotten tradecraft of the Cold War. Let’s join Justin for a brisk tour of the museum, shall we? He has a few favorite items from the collection at the ready.

 The thing I’m looking at right now in my hand is a black pen with a little gold clip that would clip to your pocket. But the lower end of it is missing; there’s just a wire coming out of it. And it’s a wire because it’s not a pen. It’s a microphone. It’s only when you pull the whole thing out that you see that this is not a writing instrument, but in fact, it’s a piece of surveillance equipment that spies would have used.

NARRATOR: Like much of the Wende’s collection, this cunning little pen just turned up one day at the museum in an anonymous brown box. But the box’s postmark offered a clue.

 It came from Germany because I could see the little stamps on the outside of the box and it says Deutsche Post. I always race to open boxes from Russia, from Germany, from the Eastern Bloc because that’s where we, at the Wende Museum, get so much of our material from. I remember the day that I opened this because it’s not every day that you get a pen that’s actually a microphone. There was a note with it and I remember the note because it was from somebody who actually wanted to talk and that’s not always the case. I think when you’re a spy that is the formative experience in your life, that is part of your identity, and I think you’ve got to imagine that there’s a moment like the fall of the Berlin Wall when everything changes from one day to the next. The whole life that you knew, the government that you worked for, the state that you put your life on the line for has now gone. What does that do to your own sense of identity? And I think what happens to a lot of people is that they can’t bear to throw these things away. I have heard this said to me and, in fact, it was said to me by the person who gave me this microphone pen: “What would it mean if I threw this away?” On the one hand, it’s a liability to have been a spy for the Eastern Bloc in reunified Germany - so you don’t want this stuff around - but what does it say about you if you get rid of this stuff?

NARRATOR: That conflict of duty must have played out in the minds of countless former spies over the years, each one attempting to process the collapse of a nation to which they had once sworn their unwavering loyalty. The Wende offers a kind of amnesty for ex-agents who can’t stand to destroy the last evidence of their former lives.

JUSTIN JAMPOL: If you don’t quite know what to do with something… People have this instinct to put it in a museum. We are in Los Angeles. We’re halfway around the world where this microphone came from. And sometimes, I feel like people have this idea that L.A. might as well be on the moon. But I do think there’s a strong human instinct here to be understood.

NARRATOR: Put the microphone pen back in its case and follow Justin to another cabinet now.

JUSTIN JAMPOL: I’m staring at the ZNET photo sniper. It looks like a sniper gun, and it has a camera mounted on top. The job of the photo sniper was to take long-distance pictures. It literally has a gun handle and a trigger and that trigger took the picture. And you could actually - not unlike an automatic machine gun - you could actually lay your finger on that trigger and thing would go ‘Rat-a-tat-tat’, snap 100 pictures in a row. It looks like a weapon.

NARRATOR: If knowledge is power, then such a camera was a weapon of sorts. Something its designers appear to have recognized, implicitly.

JUSTIN JAMPOL: It comes in this metal case that looks like it could have held four grenades or something, but instead it’s a sniper gun on the inside. It’s the kind of thing where you would see two figures in trench coats exchanging a paper or something and it would be like a black-and-white photo, and they’d be looking around to see if anyone’s watching.

NARRATOR: Such ingenious objects challenge any stereotypes one might carry about inferior Soviet knock-offs. The truth is more complicated.

JUSTIN JAMPOL: What’s also sad is how well made it is. It’s sad because this is a time, especially in the former East Bloc, where consumer products were not well made. A lot of them were plastic or fell apart, so when you see a Soviet-made object like this one, it’s made for spies. And it’s heavy, and made from top-grade materials, and metal. It’s like… you see where the resources were going, where their money was being spent.

NARRATOR: Okay. One last item, before closing time.

JUSTIN JAMPOL: This particular briefcase the museum got from a former agent. He was told to destroy it in the waning days of the Cold War and, of course, if you’ve got a briefcase like this, you keep it. And he did and gave it to the museum.

NARRATOR: And it’s just as well he did because contained within that briefcase is a window to an entire forgotten industry.

JUSTIN JAMPOL: And this was a case that was used all throughout the 1980s by a spy that would cross back and forth from the former East Bloc and Austria and Western Germany. And he would just create these little passes. He would know how to put together a Visa with a new name and he said he could get it down to about 15 minutes.

NARRATOR: To be in the business of espionage or counterespionage, at that time in history, meant constantly staying ahead of your opponent’s technological advances.

JUSTIN JAMPOL: As soon as the East Bloc spy agencies like the Stasi in East Germany would start to think - or believe - that the West was onto them, they created new equipment, so they would keep trying to stay one step ahead of the other.

NARRATOR: To think the thousands of hours of toil, the endless end-to-end game of innovation - all in the name of secrecy and deception.

JUSTIN JAMPOL: But this is sort of to me a relic. I mean it’s a relic not only of spying but when the world was so divided that these passports and Visas, were the keys to the kingdom. You didn’t get out without these things. And it’s amazing to me what people were willing to die for. This would have been treason or state crime. This is the 1980s. That’s not long ago, in the grand scheme of human history. It’s like yesterday. It’s a blink of an eye. This briefcase was used by some spy picking up one of these pencils and putting together his Visa to try and sneak across a border. That is a super Cold War spy story. So to have this in the collection is a reminder of how history is in the process of being made. There’s always a time when the past becomes history and this is really recent. If we lived only 30, or 40 years ago, this kind of thing would be fought over by the CIA. People would be in prison, even killed to get their hands on a briefcase like this one.

NARRATOR: That’s it. It’s time for the Wende to shut its doors for the day. But that doesn’t always mean an end to the day’s business. Not in this line of work.

JUSTIN JAMPOL: So a crazy thing happened to me. One day I’m at the Wende Museum here in L.A. and I get a knock at the door and it’s off museum hours, so it’s strange. It’s like 6 pm or 7 pm. Everyone’s about to go home. And I open up the door and there are three CIA agents who came and they’re like, “Can we talk to you for a moment?” They show me their little CIA cards and their badges. I’m like “Yes.” Why are these CIA here? And they say, “We’ve heard you have a lot of spy stuff.” And we don’t want to try and hide that. The Cold War is over, right? We are a museum. We have spy stuff. “We’d like to take a look at it.” So my main response was, “Why is the CIA interested in what happened in the Cold War at this point, 20 to 25-plus years ago?” And they’re like, “We wanted to make sure we didn’t miss anything… We wanted to keep tabs on everything and have a full understanding of what their spy capacity was.”

NARRATOR: An exercise in nostalgic inventory, then? An opportunity to put the past well and truly in its place? The thing about this world is the past is never truly over and done with.

JUSTIN JAMPOL: The second reason is something that really struck me - and still stays with me when I look at spy gear - he said to me, “It was state of the art when it was made by the Soviet Union. When they were done with it, they gave it to Eastern Europe. When they were done the Eastern Europeans gave it to their allies in the Middle East. When they were done, they gave it to their allies in Sub-Saharan Africa or South America. And he’s like, “These things are still being used.” I think that’s one of the craziest things of all.

The encounter with the CIA reinforced something Justin Jampol, as a Cold War historian, understood implicitly. It’s why he got into this business in the first place.

I sometimes think about, as we all do in life, why do we do what we do? Why am I here? Why this museum? And I think I have to say, part of the ‘why’ is that because it’s not yet in the past, and if there’s something that we can glean and understand from these things about the world we live in now, as a historian, what more rewarding end is there? What if the past is still with us?

NARRATOR: I’m Alice Loxton. More secrets from the archives of espionage await in A History of the World in Spy Objects. Explore them at your leisure.

Guest Bio

Justin Jampol is the founder and executive director of The Wende Museum of the Cold War in Los Angeles, an art museum, historical archive, and educational institution.

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