Cold War espionage


Sean Connery as James Bond, a fictional Cold War secret agent

One of the enduring motifs of the Cold War is stories of spies, agents and assassins, operating with great secrecy and living double lives so they can infiltrate enemy governments or agencies. While the extent of Cold War espionage is often exaggerated, the US and USSR certainly spent large amounts of money recruiting, training and outfitting spies and agents, then deploying them around the world. The primary purpose of espionage was to gather information and intelligence about the enemy, their military and technical capabilities, their actions and intentions. This information was gathered in a myriad of ways, including paying informers, using double-agents, stealing documents, intercepting communications, setting up ‘bugs’ (listening devices) or other means of surveillance. Agents also carried out disruptive missions, such as kidnapping or assassinating enemy agents or politicians, or conducting sabotage operations. Cold War spies were rarely the secretive, overcoated figures or flamboyant James Bond types portrayed in literature and film. The success of their missions – and indeed their very survival – often hinged on them looking and behaving like ordinary employees and members of society.


A manual for ‘trickery and deception’, for CIA field agents

All major Cold War powers maintained at least one government agency dedicated to intelligence-gathering and espionage. In the US, this was the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA began as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the military arm that conducted espionage and undercover operations during World War II. In 1947 the OSS was dissolved and transformed into the CIA. From the outset, the CIA’s structure, mission and methods were shaped by the Cold War. One early directive (1948) authorised the CIA to conduct secret operations “against hostile foreign states or groups or in support of friendly foreign states or groups” so that “US government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons”. The CIA was also supported by other US government agencies. The National Security Agency (NSA, formed 1952) obtained information by monitoring, intercepting and decoding signals and radio traffic. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI, formed 1908) was responsible for investigating domestic criminal activity, including espionage and treasonable activities.

The Agency


The Shah of Iran, one of several figures helped into power by the CIA

The CIA’s Cold War activities ranged from general surveillance of suspected foreign agents, to the deployment of agents abroad, to illicit operations like assassinations and human experimentation. The CIA also supported US foreign policy by providing support, funding and equipment to anti-communist leaders and groups abroad (one of its first major missions was to assist non-communist parties in Italy in 1948). Several Cold War coups and attempted coups, such as the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, were conducted with the backing or active involvement of the CIA. In 1959-61 CIA agents recruited and trained 1,500 Cuban exiles, who in April 1961 attempted to invade the island-state and overthrow Fidel Castro. CIA pilots flew U-2 flights over Soviet and Cuban territory, collecting data about military facilities, armaments and troop movements. The CIA also plotted assassination attempts on foreign leaders, like Castro. In 1974 the CIA spent more than $US800 million on Project Azorian, a mission to recover codebooks and nuclear technology from a sunken Soviet sub, laying under 16,000 feet of water in the Pacific Ocean.

The CIA, sometimes operating jointly with the Department of Defense, also funded extensive research into nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, the effects of these weapons on humans, as well as effective interrogation and mind control strategies. The largest of these research programs was Project MK-ULTRA, which ran from 1953 to the late 1960s and soaked up more than $US10 million in funding. MK-ULTRA was chiefly concerned with the effects of hypnosis and mind-altering drugs, and identifying whether these could be utilised for Cold War purposes. Many questions have since been raised about MK-ULTRA and the unethical nature of its research. Hundreds of Americans, military personnel chiefly, were subjected to drug trials and experimentation without their informed consent. MK-ULTRA experiments are believed to have contributed to several deaths, including Harold Blauer and Frank Olson, who died in 1953 after being injected with hallucinogenic drugs. Other secret programs conducted by the CIA included Operation Mockingbird (aimed at facilitating sympathetic media coverage), Project Resistance (information-gathering about radical student groups) and Operation Chaos (the disruption of American left-wing and anti-war groups). One CIA project, Stargate, even investigated psychic abilities and their possible use in intelligence applications.

Hoover and the Bureau


J. Edgar Hoover, the long-serving head of the FBI

US law prohibited the CIA from conducting domestic operations (a restriction it often breached during the Cold War). Within US borders, investigating and prosecuting suspected spies was the responsibility of the FBI. Between 1935 and 1972 the FBI was headed by J. Edgar Hoover, a fanatical anti-communist and a ruthless political operator. The FBI began investigating Soviet espionage in America in 1943, after receiving an anonymous letter. Within two years the FBI had more than doubled in size, to 13,000 agents. In late 1945 the FBI was provided with extensive information about Soviet espionage by Elizabeth Bentley, who herself had been passing information to Moscow. Bentley provided the FBI with a 112-page confession, naming 80 people as paid informers or agents working for Moscow. Bentley’s defection, along with accusations against State Department lawyer Alger Hiss, fuelled the anti-communist hysteria in America during the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1956 Hoover authorised COINTELPRO (short for Counter-Intelligence Program), a prolonged campaign targeting domestic political organisations. For 15 years, FBI agents infiltrated a range of organisations, including left-wing political parties, unions, civil rights groups, radical student associations, the anti-war movement, regional militias and race hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. These agents fed information back to the FBI and occasionally took action to disrupt these groups from within.


Russian leader Vladimir Putin began his career in the KGB

Soviet Russia had a much longer history of intelligence-gathering and espionage. Russian secret police organisations dated back to the Okhrana in the late 1800s, the communist CHEKA (1917-22), the OGPU (1922-34) and Stalin’s NKVD (1934-54). All used covert methods to gather information about political dissidents and potential ‘enemies of the state’. After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, the NKVD was replaced by the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or ‘Committee for National Security’). The KGB assumed responsibility for both domestic security and foreign intelligence. Another department, Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye (GRU) gathered intelligence for the Soviet military. Decades of experience, along with a greater preparedness to employ devious tactics, gave the Soviet Union a distinct ‘head start’ when it came to espionage. The Soviets began mobilising agents and recruiting informers in Western countries during the 1930s. During World War II, Moscow prioritised the infiltration of the Manhattan Project, America’s nuclear weapons research program. Soviet agents were able to obtain and pass on technical information about this program, including blueprints, with remarkable ease. By the time the US dropped its first atomic bomb on Japan in August 1945, Stalin knew more about this new weapon than many American politicians.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

“The issue of Soviet espionage became a US obsession, and domestic security dominated public discourse. Legislative committees vied with one another to expose communists. The executive branch laboured to root out disloyal government employees. The courts wrestled with the balance between constitutional rights and societal self-protection… There was a widespread consensus that Soviet espionage was a serious problem, that American communists assisted the Soviets, and some high officials had betrayed the United States.”
John Earl Haynes, historian

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for passing nuclear secrets to the USSR

The passing of American nuclear secrets led to probably the best-known spy case of the Cold War. FBI investigations in the late 1940s uncovered a chain of Soviet spies and paid informers within the US. By 1950 the FBI was investigating Julius Rosenberg, a civilian engineer formerly employed by the US Army. Rosenberg, who had ties with an American communist group, was arrested in 1950 and accused of passing information to a Russian agent. When he refused to confess or provide investigators with more names, the FBI began targeting his wife, Ethel. Both were eventually charged under the Espionage Act and sent for trial, where they denied the charges and refused to testify or name associates. In April 1951 they were sentenced to death in the electric chair. This generated outrage and disbelief both in America and internationally. Many thought the Rosenbergs were innocent, while others believed they were little more than go-betweens, undeserving of the death penalty. They were electrocuted in New York in June 1953 – the only Americans to be executed for espionage during the Cold War.

The US was not the only Cold War nation to suffer infiltration by Soviet spies. In 1963, British journalist ‘Kim’ Philby disappeared from Lebanon. Philby had earlier been a high-ranking member of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6) before his resignation in 1951. In reality Philby was a double-agent: he had been passing information to Moscow since the mid-1930s. Philby and two of his fellow agents, Donald McLean and Guy Burgess, defected to the USSR and lived there until their deaths. The British government was further damaged in 1963 when it was revealed that Donald Profumo, a member of cabinet, was sharing a mistress with a known Soviet spy. In 1954 Vladimir Petrov, a Soviet diplomat and KGB colonel, defected to Australia. Petrov provided the government there with information about Soviet spies operating in Australia. The Petrov affair led to the USSR and Australia severing diplomatic ties for five years.



1. Espionage is the process of gathering information about a rival or enemy, usually through secret operations.
2. Major Cold War powers had agencies that engaged in espionage, like the CIA (US), KGB (USSR) and MI5 (UK).
3. The CIA, for example, collected info, assisted anti-communist leaders and researched new weapons and techniques.
4. The Soviets had a much longer history of espionage and employed it to successfully obtain American nuclear secrets.
5. Espionage and spies became an enduring motif of the Cold War. There were many incidents and accusations involving espionage, including the execution of the Rosenbergs, the capture of Gary Powers and his U2 spyplane, and the Petrov affair in Australia.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Glenn Kucha. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Cold War espionage”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],