Her husband—shot down in a helicopter by North Vietnamese Army troops while on a CIA mission. She—a widow at just 27, devastated and forced to take stock of her own life.
Seeking his legacy and charting her own path, she would herself take the oath of secrecy for the CIA, and accept a dangerous and covert mission to Moscow during the Cold War, putting her directly in sight of the KGB.
You just can’t make this stuff up.
Indeed, author and former McLean resident Martha Peterson didn’t have to: Her debut book, “The Widow Spy: MY CIA Journey from the Jungles of Laos to Prison in Moscow,” details this harrowing and exhilarating time in her life.
She will recount her story to a McLean audience at 2 p.m June 30, at the Dolley Madison Library. She will read from her book. A book signing will follow.
Published in February by Red Canary Press, “The Widow Spy” has given Peterson a chance to tell both her story and her husband’s, a Green Beret named John.
“John died when he was 27, but he accomplished a lot,” she says from her home in Wilmington, N.C. “If I didn’t write our story, he wouldn’t have a voice.”
In the book, Peterson includes portions of John’s meticulous journals. “He was a journalist at heart,” she says. “He was accepted to Columbia [University], but chose to go into a war zone instead.”
“The Widow Spy” recounts how the second year of their marriage was spent in Laos, where John served as a CIA officer, helping to keep Communist troops out of South Vietnam. While he was out in the field, Peterson was behind a desk, working as a secretary in the local CIA office.
They had been there about a year when the helicopter carrying John rose high enough for a sniper to take aim and shoot. It was October of 1972, and Peterson was a widow after only two years of marriage.
“We were trying to live a normal life, but people were getting killed all around us,” Peterson remembers. “A friend died three weeks [before John]. It was an insight to the reality of our situation. It was an omen. It was a warning.”
After John’s funeral in Massachusetts, Peterson spent some restorative time in Florida with her family. “I started to think about where I was and where I wanted to go,” she says.
She was without a husband, but not without highly valuable life skills. She spoke several languages; she had lived in a combat zone; she had handled working in a CIA field office. All of these were qualifications for following her husband's career path.
She applied, and was accepted, to the CIA officer corps. On July 3, 1973, John’s birthday, Peterson took the oath of secrecy at Langley.
“I didn’t see the CIA as a huge organization,” she says. “It felt like I was joining a family. We are friends, we marry each other—it is easier to keep secrets that way. I felt like I was joining people who understood me.”
When her bosses offered her a position in Moscow, she was thrilled. “It was a huge challenge,” she says. “Maybe I was getting even for John’s death. He died at the hands of a North Vietnamese solider, who were known to carry AK-47 weapons supplied by the Soviets.”
Peterson arrived in what she calls the “forbidden city” in November 1975. She was the only female operations officer in Moscow at the time. This had distinct benefits.
“The KGB [the Soviet Union’s security, intelligence, and secret police organization] didn’t see me as a threat because I was a woman,” Peterson recalls. “They didn’t follow me like they followed the men.”
For close to two years, Peterson’s office was a dark street corner, a deserted park, or an abandoned bridge. She worked with a Soviet double agent with the codename TRIGON, who had a post at the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During late night dead drops, TRIGON would pass along sensitive and classified intelligence to Peterson.
In July of 1977, the KGB finally caught on to their spy game. The Soviet secret police identified TRIGON, and ambushed him and Peterson during a dead drop. Peterson was arrested and taken to the KGB’s infamous Lyubianka Prison in the heart of Moscow.
Readers must pick up Peterson’s book to find out the ending to that particular chapter, but may rest assured that it is a happy one.
“I am very proud of what I accomplished,” Peterson says. I always believed that John would have been very proud of me and how useful I was to my country.”
“The Widow Spy” has already received high praise from reviewers on Amazon, where it is available for purchase. Christopher Lynch, author of “The C.I. Desk: Counterintelligence As Seen From My Cubicle” (Dog Ear Publishing, 2010), writes, ”I couldn't have done what she did… Her personal take on her experiences will help all of us, both within and outside the CIA, to appreciate the work that is usually either "unsung" or overly-glamorized and stripped of its humanity.”
Peterson worked at the CIA for 38 years before retiring to North Carolina with her second husband and two children. From time to time she reads about CIA scandals in the newspaper, or hears former CIA officers publicly criticize the agency. She is quick to point out that she is does not have an axe to grind against her former employer.
“The true story of what goes on in the CIA is not even close to what comes out in the paper,” Peterson remarks. “People are out there doing heroic work in places more dangerous than Moscow or Laos. Their world is not countries but terrorists. It was more black and white in my time.”
She identifies a crucial difference between espionage activities then and now: “We knew who our enemies were.”
Her view of Langley, especially now that she sits 400 miles south, is one of trust. She understands that while she opened many doors for herself and female operatives following in her footsteps, those same doors, leading to dark, unmarked alleyways in distant countries, are closed to her now.
And she’s fine with that.
“I am a unique entity,” she says. “The ladies at church are amazed.”