Cold War espionage

Sean Connery as James Bond, a fictional British secret agent from Cold War film and literature

Espionage is an enduring motif of the Cold War. The period is replete with stories of spies, agents and assassins, operating undercover and living double lives to infiltrate enemy governments or societies. While the extent of Cold War espionage is often exaggerated, both the United States and the Soviet Union undoubtedly invested heavily in recruiting, training and deploying spies and agents.


The purpose of Cold War espionage was to gather information and intelligence about the enemy, particularly about their military and technical capabilities.

This information could be harvested from a range of sources, including paid informers, double-agents, stolen documents, intercepted communications, ‘bugs’ (listening devices) or other means of surveillance. Agents sometimes carried out disruptive missions, such as carrying out sabotage operations and kidnapping or assassinating enemy agents or politicians.

Cold War spies were rarely the flamboyant James Bond types portrayed in literature and film. The success of their missions – and indeed, their survival – usually hinged on looking and behaving like ordinary members of society.

Spy agencies

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

All major Cold War powers maintained at least one government agency dedicated to intelligence-gathering and espionage. In the United States, this task fell to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The CIA began as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a military branch that conducted espionage and undercover operations during World War II. In 1947, the OSS was reorganised and rebranded as the CIA.

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 unauthorised persons”.

The CIA was also supported by other US government agencies. Formed in 1952, the National Security Agency (NSA) gathered 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, which included espionage, sedition and other treasonable activities.

CIA activities abroad

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 deploying its own agents abroad, to illicit operations like assassinations and human experimentation. The CIA also complemented US foreign policy by supporting, funding and equipping anti-communist leaders and groups abroad.

One of the CIA’s first major missions, for example, was to assist non-communist political 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. In April 1961, these Cubans landed the island-state with plans to overthrow Fidel Castro, an incident dubbed the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

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, such as 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.

Project MK-ULTRA

Sometimes operating jointly with the Department of Defence, the CIA also carried out research into nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the effects they had on humans. They also researched effective interrogation techniques and mind control strategies.

One 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, with a view to using them for Cold War purposes.

Many questions have been raised about MK-ULTRA and the unethical nature of its research. Hundreds of Americans, mostly military personnel, 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 FBI

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

United States law prohibited the CIA from carrying out domestic operations (a restriction that was often breached during the Cold War). Within US borders, the investigation and prosecution of suspected spies were the responsibilities 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 1943 after receiving an anonymous letter. Within two years, the Bureau had more than doubled in size, numbering around 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 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.

Soviet agencies

Current Russian leader Vladimir Putin began his career as a KGB officer

The Soviet Union had a much longer history of espionage and intelligence-gathering. Russian secret police organisations dated back to the tsarist 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 called Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye (GRU) gathered intelligence for the Soviet military.

Decades of experience in espionage, along with existing agents and contacts in Western countries, gave the Soviet Union a distinct ‘head start’ in this area. 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 devastating new weapon than most American politicians.

The Rosenbergs

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. As mentioned, FBI investigations in the late 1940s uncovered a chain of Soviet spies and paid informers operating inside America’s borders.

By 1950, the FBI was investigating Julius Rosenberg, a civilian engineer previously 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 Rosenberg refused to confess or provide investigators with more names, the FBI began targeting his wife, Ethel. Both were eventually charged under the Espionage Act. Put on trial, they denied the charges and refused to testify or name associates.

In April 1951, the Rosenbergs were found guilty and sentenced to death in the electric chair. This verdict caused outrage and disbelief both in America and internationally. Many thought the Rosenbergs were innocent; others believed they were nothing more than go-betweens and therefore undeserving of the death penalty. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted in New York in June 1953. They were the only Americans executed for espionage during the Cold War.

Espionage elsewhere

The United States was not the only Cold War nation to suffer infiltration by Soviet agents. Britain was also subject to Soviet espionage, most notably by the Cambridge Five spy ring.

In 1963, British journalist Kim Philby disappeared from Lebanon. Until his resignation in 1951, Philby had been a high-ranking member of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6). In reality, Philby was a double-agent and had been passing information to Moscow since the mid-1930s. Philby and two of his fellow agents, Donald Maclean 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 the 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.

A historian’s view:
“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

cold war

1. Espionage is the process of gathering intelligence and information about a rival or enemy, usually through secret operations. It was a significant feature of the Cold War.

2. All major Cold War powers had agencies that engaged in espionage. These agencies collected intel, assisted anti-communists, targeted enemies and researched new weapons and techniques.

3. The CIA, an American agency formed in 1947, was tasked with intelligence-gathering and, later, carrying out covert operations. It was supported by agencies like the NSA and FBI.

4. The Soviets had a much longer history of espionage in Western nations, dating back to before World War II. They recruited and used agents to 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 Gary Powers and his U2 spyplane and the Petrov affair in Australia.

cold war sources

The CIA is authorised to carry out covert operations (June 1948)
The Church Committee condemns domestic intelligence-gathering on US citizens (1976)

Citation information
Title: “Cold War espionage”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: September 22, 2020
Date accessed: May 22, 2023
Copyright: The content on this page may not be republished without our express permission. For more information on usage, please refer to our Terms of Use.