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Unveiling the Espionage Chronicles: Intelligence in the Cold War

Intelligence refers to the actions taken by the state to obtain valuable information from another state deemed secret for political, economic or other benefits. Intelligence has been an essential part of international relations since ancient times. The years after World War II saw an outburst of intelligence activity, which was especially dense between the US and the USSR. Learning about the adversary’s plans made the two states lead a careful policy, but in fact, it could not prevent them from executing aggressive steps and fuelled the arms race until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Before the Second World War, the world was multipolar. Although by the beginning of the 20th century, the authority of the United States was one of if not the highest, Great Britain, France and Germany represented major powers, even more reinforced by their colonies. The two world wars laid the end to the old political system. Deprived of their colonies and having lost many lives, the former metropolises and their colonies and other countries had to lick their wounds. At that time, two undisputable powers arose the US and the USSR. Although not as harsh ideological opponents, they felt aversion toward each other as two powerful opponents always have. Still, having witnessed and, especially in the case of the Soviet Union, enormously experienced the atrocities of war, they did not hurry to create an open conflict. Thus, without waging a bloody war, the relations between them came to the phase of the so-called Cold War, where the main weapon was threatening actions and activity of intelligence.

The importance of intelligence for the US was indirectly recognized in George F. Kennan’s “Long Telegram”, which became the basis of the new policy of containment in 1946, later affirmed in the Truman Doctrine. Kennan admitted that the Soviet Union posed a threat to the USA and accentuated that in order to make its power decrease, the “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force” was needed. As a result, no rough force had to play its part but, supposedly, a set of diplomatic and other measures, including intelligence.

Intelligence hunts for information on the adversary’s intentions and military capabilities and tries to steal technologies from him. In the XX century, it was carried out by using, firstly, people who defected to the enemy’s side and agreed to reveal secret data. Secondly, it was implemented by machines such as planes and satellites that could take photos of the enemy’s territory. The third side might be called the special devices used by people (spies) who helped gather information, such as micro cameras, tiny weapons, and others.

Human intelligence is the most ancient type of surveillance, yet not the simplest. During the Cold War, the USSR used it more than the US, which relied mostly on technology. Firstly, it can be explained by the lower level of technology in the Soviet Union and the difficulties the Americans experienced recruiting human assets in Russia. Effective Russian agents in the West, such as Kim Philby, exposed many spies to the Soviet services. Ideologically convinced, most Soviet people shunned the ties with the capitalistic system and would not consent to work on it. Instead, the communist ideology, which valued frank labor and equality, was attractive to some people in the West, making recruiting agents easier in America.

There were several milestones in the history of the Cold War. It began right after the end of WWII with the nuclear race. In 1945, the USA demonstrated the power of nuclear bombs to the world. The USSR caught up with the rival in 1949 when it tried its first own device. During the 40s, it had its spies in the Manhattan Project that aimed at the design of American nuclear weapons. Klaus Fuchs, a German emigrant to Britain who worked in the Manhattan Project as part of the British delegation to Los Alamos, was the most prominent defector in this field. Due to his profound knowledge and deep involvement in the project, he was the most valuable Soviet asset here. However, there were several others, such as David Greenglass, the Rosenberg family, and George Koval. It is argued how much the Soviet scientists relied on the obtained information. According to some scholars, the heads of the Soviet nuclear program only used the stolen data as a check while guiding the project. It can be assumed to be true since the USSR possessed sufficient intellectual resources to develop the bomb; thus, sooner or later, it would have been invented even without any external documents.

Another method of gathering information is well illustrated by the US airborne activity of the time. Since 1956, the U-2 reconnaissance planes have made flights over the territory of the Soviet Union in order to photograph buildings, the objects of infrastructure and the Red Army facilities. The Soviet anti-aircraft batteries had not yet been able to detect and reach the iron spies, so the US missions proved fruitful. In general, it was discovered that the USSR had made an exaggerated image of its military might and that the “missile gap” in its favor did not exist.

However, the USSR quickly reconstructed after the war as early as 1957, astonished the world with its Sputnik satellite. Soon after, in 1960, it improved its aerial defense, which was proved by hitting the U-2 aircraft piloted by Gary Powers down. Regarded as obsolete since the incident, U-2 flights over the USSR were replaced with the satellite spying program CORONA. These were unreachable for the Russians and allowed taking photographs without obstacles.

The next milestone event during the Cold War was the Caribbean crisis. The USSR’s intention to deploy middle-range ballistic missiles so close to the USA provoked great concern for the latter. In order to contain its rival, intelligence activity was of the utmost importance to America. In this period, they launched reconnaissance U-2 flights over Cuba, taking photos of the newly deployed missile facilities. A Russian defector, Oleg Penkovsky, proved extremely useful for the US, revealing important information on the Russian ballistic weapon and helping to recognize it in photos.

To deter the Soviet Union from successfully placing nuclear weapons in Cuba, the US attempted the overthrow of Cuba’s communist government but witnessed failure during the Bay of Pigs Invasion of riot troops. This is deemed one of the major failures of American intelligence agencies that had to prepare the operation considering all possible obstacles.

Both superpowers were engaged in a confrontation on the same field and acted separately in various parts of the world, spreading their influence on more or less independent countries. Intelligence played a great role in their endeavors to influence foreign governments. Despite the failure in Cuba, the USA successfully changed authority in Iran and Guatemala, while the Soviet Union helped communist movements in the farthest corners of the world to acquire power.

Operations held after the Cuban crisis included Operation Neptune, carried out by the Czechoslovak secret service and involved the imitation discovery and exposure of Nazi-time documents, naming the former Nazis who worked as spies and their ties with Western politicians. Since the confrontation with Cuba, no such acute crises and intelligence missions acquired a more routine character. They included the military liaison missions in West Germany that were officially open from the side of all four nations, controlling the post-war country and gathering intelligence data. The intrusion into the political affairs of the third countries also lasted with, for example, the CIA’s backing of a Chilean coup to overthrow President Salvador Allende.

To better understand the role of intelligence during the Cold War, one might question what it would have been if intelligence had been impossible to use for some reason. First, such a state of affairs could not have existed. As rivalry is an undivided part of human society, intelligence is an undivided part of open or concealed warfare. Still, if it had been banned by some treaty, for example, countries would not have stopped their competition. The inability to know what successes one’s rival had would have led to more fierce competition. However, countries would have found ways to demonstrate their capabilities, as the US and the USSR did by testing nuclear weapons. It is also said that intelligence during the Cold War made it difficult for a sudden attack. Knowing what their adversary was prepared to do, both countries reacted with the same measures. Thus, their opposition in different parts of the world was more of a regular, equivalent and expected character. As Johnson points out, the primary aim of intelligence is to inform politicians’ decision-making. However, knowing the rival’s intentions did not guarantee peace between countries. What it did was that the nations did not wage war.

In conclusion, intelligence played a significant part in the Cold War. Fast-advancing technologies and their use in weapon design and the globalized world were the challenges that the superpowers of the time aimed to control and dominate. Determined not to begin another worldwide conflict, the USSR and the US were engaged in a formally peaceful rivalry where the arena of their fight meant other countries, and the desired assets were influence and technologies. Thus, to impact on political systems of different countries, obtain scientific knowledge of the rival, and know its state of affairs and intentions were the main aims of intelligence. Despite not preventing open war, it made the race of the two ideologies more or less equal and helped them conquer the world.

📎 References:

1. Llewellyn, J., Southey, J., & Thompson, S. (2018). Cold War espionage. Alpha History. Retrieved from https://alphahistory.com/coldwar/espionage/
2. Klaus Fuchs: Soviet spy, Los Alamos, NM. (n.d.). In Atomic Heritage Foundation. Retrieved from https://ahf.nuclearmuseum.org/ahf/profile/klaus-fuchs/
3. Kim Philby: British intelligence officer and Soviet spy. (n.d.). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Kim-Philby
4. Gresham, J. D. (2016). Cold War intelligence. Warfare History Network.
5. Jervis, R. (2001). Was the Cold War a security dilemma? Journal of Cold War Studies, 3(1), 36–60. https://doi.org/10.1162/15203970151032146
6. Kennan and Containment, 1947. (2001). In the US Department of State. Retrieved from https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/cwr/17601.htm
7. Kinzer, S. (2003, Nov. 30). Ideas & trends: Iran and Guatemala, 1953-54; Revisiting Cold War coups and finding them costly. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/30/weekinreview/ideas-trends-iran-guatemala-1953-54-revisiting-cold-war-coups-finding-them.html
8. Schmemann, S. (1993, Jan. 14). Soviet a-bomb built from US data, Russian says. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1993/01/14/world/soviet-a-bomb-built-from-us-data-russian-says.html

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