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bullet  A childhood friend described one of the most damaging spies in American history as "intrinsically evil." There was no right or wrong, no morality or immorality, in his eyes. There were only his own wants, his own needs.... He betrayed his country, crippled his wife emotionally, corrupted his children, and manipulated his friends. Yet all the while, he didn't see himself as different from others, only a little smarter. In Walker's view, "Everyone is corrupt...everyone has a scam."

Walker Was "Intrinsically Evil"

This is a description of John Walker as a person, not a full account of the case. It illustrates character weaknesses that have been found in many American spies. This write-up tries to explain the kind of person who could do what Walker did -- and get away with it -- for 18 years.

John Walker was a Chief Petty Officer and cryptographic technician in the Navy when he volunteered his services to the KGB in 1967. After retiring from the Navy, he maintained his access by recruiting his brother, son, and friend. He was not caught until 1985, when his estranged wife and daughter informed the FBI. During his lengthy career as an aggressive Soviet agent, Walker was responsible for massive compromise of codes, code machines, and classified documents. He was sentenced to two life terms in prison, to be served concurrently.1

Walker grew up in a highly dysfunctional family. His father was a drunkard who beat his mother so badly that, at age 10, young John spent a week plotting to murder his father. Walker was not a good student, nor was he good at sports, but he had a driving need to succeed. He had to do better than his brothers.

Walker was arrested for attempted burglary at age 17. During questioning, he admitted to six other burglaries but was sentenced only to probation. His older brother, who was already in the Navy, persuaded the judge to lift the probation so that John could qualify for enlistment in the Navy in 1956. It was felt that getting away from home plus Navy discipline would help John get his life together.

Walker liked Navy life and studied and worked hard to better himself. He easily passed the high school GED test and two-year college equivalency test. The Navy taught him radio, electronics, and cryptography. His commanding officers called him "bright, energetic, and enthusiastic." He made every rank in the absolute minimum time. It appeared that he had, indeed, grown up and gotten his act together. Four years after joining the Navy, he was happily married, had three children, had received five promotions, and had embarked on a long-term program of financial savings.

Each time after he was promoted, Walker put the increased income into the savings account. That meant the family was living on the same income as when they were first married, even though they now had three children. Walker was saving for the purpose of eventually buying a small business, as he wanted to have something to show after 20 years of Navy service. Saving money was an obsession with both John and his wife. She bought powdered milk for the children even though they could afford fresh milk. He wore his shoes until they could no longer be resoled. They refused to tip waitresses. They were very careful about buying on credit. John even refrained from going ashore in foreign ports so that he could save money to buy furniture.

Walker advanced rapidly to Chief Petty Officer. In 1965, after nine years of service, he invested his savings and borrowed funds to purchase a house outside Charleston, SC and turn it into a bar. Shortly thereafter, Walker's marriage went sour and the bar failed to make money. His grandiose ego could not take the setback. Walker stole his first document for the Soviets in December 1967 after becoming depressed about financial and marital problems.

Antisocial Behavior

For nine years, Walker had been a model sailor and very successful in the Navy. Then he became as despicable a human being as one can imagine. An author who spent about 160 hours interviewing Walker after his conviction wrote: "He is totally without principle. There was no right or wrong, no morality or immorality, in his eyes. There were only his own wants, his own needs, whatever those might be at the moment." He betrayed his country, crippled his wife emotionally, corrupted his children, and manipulated his friends. Yet all the while, he didn't see himself as different from others, only a little smarter. In his view, "Everyone is corrupt...everyone has a scam."

The radical change in Walker's adult behavior may have been foreshadowed by a similar split personality in his behavior as a youth. He had few close friends, and the two good friends he did have as a youth he kept apart. His behavior depended upon which one he was with.

With one friend he was always polite, respectful and honest. With the other, he rolled used tires down hills at cars passing below, threw rocks through school windows, stole money from purses and coats left unattended at school functions, stole coins from church donation boxes for the poor, set fires, and shot at the headlights of cars. This childhood friend, who says he knew John Walker like a brother, described him many years later as "cunning, intelligent, clever, personable, and intrinsically evil."

Walker resented authority, developed an ability to mask his emotions, and established a life-long pattern of avoiding direct confrontation. At a very strict Catholic high school he developed an intense distaste for organized religion but concealed his feelings from the nuns. Instead, he resisted by doing as little homework as possible and showing no interest in any school function. He even refused to have his picture taken for the school yearbook.

Walker was a noted practical joker, but his jokes often had an element of cruelty. His profanity was so foul that even sailors were embarrassed. He was extraordinarily demeaning of women, constantly referring to them by the most demeaning possible terms. He called his estranged wife, daughter, and girl friends these terms to their face. He was totally promiscuous, including flaunting his girl friends in front of his children; he procured girls for his son. On several occasions when no regular girl friend was available, he depended on prostitutes not just for sex but for friendship and companionship. He boasted so often about his sexual conquests that many of the sailors began to doubt his sexual prowess. They "wondered why this strutting, garrulous little man tried so hard to project the image of a masculine womanizer."

Walker was expert at perceiving the weaknesses of other people and manipulating them. He didn't believe in confrontation. He retreated from fights and from stronger personalities who disapproved of his hedonistic behavior.


Walker is said to have lived in a movie dream world of heroic and daring accomplishments. He flaunted the money received from the Soviets. He bought a house and gave his wife carte blanche to furnish and decorate it as she pleased. He bought a boat where he spent much time partying with other women, and eventually he purchased an airplane. He claimed the income came from the bar and other astute investments. He had a flair for the theatrical. At parties, Walker usually wore a beret and ascot and liked being the center of attention. He devoted a lot of time thinking up ways to impress his fellow crewmen.

After his arrest and conviction, Walker had no remorse. He enjoyed the publicity. He told the author of one of the books about him, "I have lived every fantasy that I have ever had. I've done everything I wanted to do." He rationalized involving his brother, son and friend in espionage, and trying to recruit his daughter. In his mind, he was helping them be successful in life (i.e., earn lots of money), and he later criticized them for using him. He felt his only real mistake in life was allowing himself to be surrounded by weaker people who eventually brought him down. He concluded, "I am the real victim in this entire unpleasant episode."

Although he took pride in being described as the most damaging spy in the history of the United States, Walker claimed to be a patriotic American. He viewed the Cold War as an unimportant game. He "knew" there would be no hot war with the Soviet Union, and he "knew" the Soviets would not risk passing his information to the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam war, so he rationalized the compromise of military information was really doing little damage.

Other Characteristics

Walker was vindictive.  He once told a friend: "You never confront a person face to face. You get even. Maybe three years from now." He had books on revenge and on dirty tricks, such as putting epoxy glue into locks of cars and homes.

He liked taking risks and had a legendary reputation as a daredevil. For example, one night when returning to his submarine after some heavy drinking, he spotted a blimp tethered nearby. He led his colleagues in an effort to cut the blimp loose, but was scared off when a policeman shouted a warning and then fired a warning shot.

Although Walker was pleasant and well-liked throughout his life, he had few close friends. He drank often and used drugs but was not much different in this respect from many other sailors during that time period. As far as is known, it did not impair his work performance. He provided marijuana to his son but taught him to use it in moderation. He didn't smoke cigarettes, as he thought they were bad for his health. He was almost excessively neat and clean. He was not impulsive; on the contrary, he was very calculating.

Related Topics: Behavior Patterns Associated with Espionage, How Spies Are Caught.

1. Sources are J. Kneece, J., Family Treason: The Walker Spy Case. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein and Day Publishers, 1986. And P. Earley, Family of Spies: Inside the John Walker Spy Ring. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.