The secrets and lies of Cold War spies
They engaged in thrilling adventures in a shadowy world. But who were the spies who operated during the Cold War and what were they up to? Professor Michael Goodman steps into a realm of suspicion and sedition to explore why some people turned traitor
Cold War Moscow was a place like no other. The eyes and ears of the Soviet secret police, the KGB, were everywhere; the only place that was really safe, one political prisoner would later write, was in your dreams. It was a place where life and death existed side by side, as did opportunity and imprisonment. To betray the state was to risk everything, yet on one cold and snowy evening in February 1978 that was precisely the choice one individual made.
As Gus Hathaway drove from the US Embassy to his residence he stopped for petrol. He was coming out of the petrol station when there was a tap on his car window. A Russian.
Hathaway was one of the original breed of the CIA, recruited at the start of the Cold War, part of a cadre who spent their careers hidden in the shadows fighting cat-and-mouse battles with their Russian counterparts. Hathaway had been appointed as CIA Moscow station chief at a crucial time in the espionage confrontation between East and West: the CIA had lost a number of significant agents, and those back in Washington had decreed that no new agents were to be recruited until the losses could be explained.
But Hathaway knew better than to reject an overt gesture from the ‘main enemy’. This was neither the first nor the last approach the Russian made, but eventually he was able to make contact and Hathaway secured support to recruit him. The result was more than Hathaway could have hoped for. The Russian, Adolf Tolkachev, was a disgruntled engineer and over the next seven years he provided document after document, sharing a wealth of intelligence and saving the US defence establishment so much money that he earned the nickname the ‘Billion Dollar Spy’.
From his first interactions with the CIA, Tolkachev would have been made aware of the dangers he faced. He had to be tightly controlled by the CIA with his information very carefully concealed so that only select individuals knew anything about him. But even this was not enough. At some point in 1985, the KGB learnt of his identity, almost certainly via CIA officers secretly working for the Russians, and Tolkachev was arrested, interrogated and executed.
Tolkachev’s experiences and fate were not unique. The Cold War espionage game had begun before World War II came to an end, and although spy technology evolved over the decades, the core elements rarely changed. There were two broad types of human spies: those with an incentive to spy, and those who made the calculated decision themselves to spy and volunteered their services. Finding such people in a position of access – to documents and people – was tremendously difficult, and it took huge efforts over years to recruit them.
Encouraging someone to work for an opposing intelligence agency usually involved a certain level of psychological manipulation. What could be used as an incentive or, in the case of some of those recruited by the KGB, what form of blackmail might be employed? Some writers use the acronym MICE to explain these incentives: people spy for Money, Ideology, Coercion or Ego. For Tolkachev, the driving factor was ideology, but for the CIA officer who likely betrayed him, Aldrich ‘Rick’ Ames, the impetus was entirely financial.
More like this
Ames was probably the most destructive Soviet spy or ‘mole’ hidden in the CIA. He spent more than three decades in the agency, the vast majority in the Directorate of Operations with a focus on the Soviet Union. For various reasons, Ames got into debt and grew desperate until he could not find a way out. Then, suddenly in the mid-1980s, he had a brainwave: he would sell secrets of limited utility to the Russians.
In April 1985, Ames arranged to meet a KGB officer based in the US. When the latter failed to show, Ames brazenly walked to the Soviet Embassy, demanded to speak to the KGB officer in charge and deposited a letter asking for $50,000 in exchange for the identities of several supposed Soviet spies. (He later alleged that he suspected they were plants anyway – that is, not real spies, but agents intentionally dangled by the Russians to confuse the CIA.) Unsurprisingly, not only were the Russians keen, but they wanted more and Ames, increasingly, was happy to provide it.
Ames’ espionage career finally ended in 1994 when he was arrested: his extravagant lifestyle had finally given him away. In exchange for the millions of dollars that he had received, Ames had provided scores of names, a number of whom were subsequently executed. In contrast to these sorry individuals, Ames was convicted and imprisoned, where he remains to this day.
Ideologies at war
What caused the likes of Ames and Tolkachev to turn against their own nations? The Cold War was, above all, an ideological battle, one that in many ways began in 1917 with the Bolsheviks and the October Revolution. Once Lenin and his followers had taken power, they set about transforming Russia into the Soviet Union, a vast communist monolith with two primary focuses: maintaining a strict communist ideology and discipline, and exporting their ideology globally with the ultimate goal of inspiring a worldwide revolution. The natural enemy of communism was capitalism, so it was perhaps inevitable that the two main protagonists of these beliefs – communist Russia and capitalist America - would lock horns.
- Read more | Has Russia always played by its own rules?
Yet whilst the theoretical origins of the Cold War can be traced to 1917, in practice it was not until the end of World War II that these differences emerged in tangible fashion. Until then, the US and Soviet Union had been bound together in a ‘marriage of convenience’, conceived to take on greater foes – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan.
As the war wound down and the Axis powers looked defeat in the face, questions emerged about who might be the next big enemy. For both the US and Soviet Union, there was a sense of inevitability that they might become rivals, and by 1947 – less than two years after the last shots of World War II had been fired – the Cold War had become a reality through the Truman Doctrine, a foreign policy declaration by US President Harry Truman that committed the US to fighting Soviet expansion in Europe and beyond.
Did you know?In the aftermath of World War II, the US spy agencies are estimated to have enlisted around 1,000 former Nazis or Nazi collaborators to act as spies and informants during the Cold War.
Lines had been drawn in the sand, and for the next 40-plus years the superpowers were engaged in a political, military and, above all, intelligence conflict. Neither trusted the other, and each undertook colossal efforts to extend their own influence, sometimes directly and often through puppet governments and proxy battles.
In 1949, the year of the first Soviet nuclear test, the atomic arms race began, with both nations spending vast amounts on improving and enlarging nuclear stockpiles, possessed by the notion of trying to one-up the other. It was against this backdrop – of trying to ascertain each other’s nuclear, military, diplomatic and economic plans while protecting their own – that spies became some of the most valuable assets in play.
The rules of spying
The decision to betray secrets was (and is) rarely an easy or quick one, and once started it was difficult to go back to a normal life, ever. Living with the worry and anxiety of exposure never left individuals. In the West, it could mean imprisonment or, in the case of some like the Rosenbergs, the electric chair; in the East, it invariably meant a bullet to the back of the head.
Trying to find out what your adversary is going to do before they do it; trying to understand what is happening around the globe; and trying to be in a position to influence and exert your national objectives are the ultimate goals of an intelligence organisation. This was a game of deception and paranoia, with dedicated counterintelligence staff trying to look out for both recruiters and those recruited. At its heart was a battle for information, to know what the other side was up to.
These rules were unwritten and ungoverned, but important nonetheless and number one amongst them was a certain sense of respect and etiquette
While this activity might appear to be morally, ethically or legally questionable, the intelligence agencies did adhere to certain ‘rules’. For example, what do you do when an enemy spy falls into your hands? Executing an agent that has betrayed your own side might be an idea, but that did not mean you acted in such a callous manner towards your opponents. Soviet and American intelligence officials did not attack their counterparts. Stealing information was fair game, but physical violence was rare.
These rules were unwritten and ungoverned, but important nonetheless and number one amongst them was a certain sense of respect and etiquette. If an American was caught spying in the Soviet Union, the routine was to declare them ‘persona non grata’ (person not appreciated) and send them back to the US. This was a practice mirrored around the world – the biggest expulsion by Britain was in 1971 when the UK kicked out 105 Russian officials.
This mutual respect not only extended to the individuals and organisations themselves, but in the ‘gentlemanly’ exchange of captured agents, many of which took place on Glienicke Bridge in Germany, which connects West Berlin and Potsdam. This was the perfect location for a spy exchange, literally spanning the Cold War divide. In the days of the Soviet Union, one side terminated in the Western bloc, one in the Eastern, so crossing over was both physically and metaphorically significant.
- On the podcast | The Berlin Wall: everything you need to know
Keeping the war cold
The biggest question is whether the lives, billions spent, and huge amount of time and effort made a difference. To put it another way, did spies stop the Cold War from boiling over into physical conflict? The closest we might get to an answer may be Major-General Dmitri Polyakov, a man whose actions – according to former CIA director James Woolsey – “didn’t just help [the West] win the Cold War, it kept the Cold War from becoming hot.”
Polyakov was a general in the Soviet military intelligence agency, GRU, codenamed Top Hat by the FBI, who became an agent in 1961. His trove of intelligence included the names of US military officers spying for the Soviets, missile specs and tangible evidence of a rift emerging between the Soviets and China, the latter prompting US President Richard Nixon to re-establish diplomatic relations with China in the early 1970s. But in the mid-1980s, Top Hat fell silent.
It would not be until 1990 that the communist state paper Pravda reported that Polyakov had been executed two years earlier. At first, it was thought that he had been betrayed by Ames, every bit as prolific a mole as Polyakov himself, but in 2001 the FBI unmasked one of its operatives, Robert Hanssen, as another Soviet mole.
It is one thing to look at individuals, operations and events to judge the role played by spies, but completely different to look at it across the evolution of the Cold War and throughout the world. At times the role of intelligence was absolutely crucial; at others it made no difference. What can be said is that leaders relied on their intelligence agencies: budgets rarely shrank, agencies rarely disappeared, and intelligence chiefs were rarely out of the leaders’ offices. As the world became more complex, the ability to gather information became ever more indispensable.
Who were the super spies on both sides of the Cold War?Information was a vital weapon in the Cold War, and these men and women – whether motivated by ideological beliefs or money – were on the front line
Igor GouzenkoRussian spying for Canada
Fate: Survived the Cold War
Gouzenko was a cipher clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa. He became disillusioned with the Soviet system and the fact that his family was being recalled back to Moscow. A few days after the end of World War II, he offered his services to Canadian intelligence and would subsequently defect to the West.
His most important information was on the continued Soviet efforts to penetrate the American and British nuclear weapons programme.
Daphne ParkBritish spy in Moscow and elsewhere
Fate: Survived the Cold War
Park worked in British intelligence during World War II, going on to join MI6 in 1948. She spent her whole career there, serving overseas in a number of different embassies, including those in Moscow and Hanoi, Vietnam, acting as a diplomat.
Earning the nickname, the ‘Queen of Spies’, her remarkable espionage career was all the more important as she was the first female ‘controller’ – one of the top directors – in MI6, at a time when gender imbalance was strong within the organisation. Following her retirement, Park was made a baroness.
Oleg PenkovskyRussian spying for the UK and the US
Fate: Quietly executed after a public trial
Penkovsky was a colonel in the Soviet military intelligence organisation, the GRU. He became upset at not being promoted – feeling that he should be a general – so offered his services to the West. Quite uniquely, he was jointly ‘run’ by both MI6 and the CIA.
His espionage career only lasted a few years before he was caught and executed, but in that time he played a pivotal role in the way that US President John F Kennedy dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, providing reams of data on the technical aspects of the missiles that had been placed on Cuba, as well as describing how the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, based his aggression on bluff.
Oleg GordievskyRussian spying for the UK
Fate: Fled into hiding
Gordievsky was probably Britain’s most important spy. Recruited by MI6 in the mid-1970s when stationed in Denmark, he was a patriotic Russian who despised the Soviet system. He became KGB resident (top officer) at the London embassy and provided masses of intelligence on Britons spying for the Soviets, as well as on increasing paranoia in the Kremlin about a nuclear attack.
In 1985, he was summoned to Moscow, where he was drugged and interrogated. He was rescued in dramatic fashion two months later, hidden in the boot of a specially modified car and smuggled to Finland.
The RosenbergsAmericans spying for the Soviet Union
Fate: Executed by electric chair
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were an American husband-and-wife team involved in passing on information regarding the Manhattan Project, the codename given to the construction of the atomic bomb during World War II. They oversaw an espionage network that included Ethel’s brother and their main source was Klaus Fuchs, the German-born British scientist who handed over large amounts of scientific and technical intelligence on the atom bomb to the Russians.
Quite how important the Rosenbergs themselves were in this network is a matter of debate, particularly Ethel. They were identified following a joint Anglo-American codebreaking effort into Soviet transmissions, were arrested and convicted in the early 1950s. They were both executed by electric chair on the same day.
Robert HanssenAmerican spying for the Soviet Union
Fate: Imprisoned for life
Hanssen decided to offer his services to Soviet intelligence just a few years after joining the FBI. He was motivated entirely by financial gain – he would end up being paid millions of US dollars by the Russians – and passed across thousands upon thousands of pages of highly classified documents. Included in these was not only information on military and technical subjects, but details of Russians who had volunteered to work for the US.
Hanssen faithfully passed these all to his Soviet handlers without regard to what might happen to them. Even the fall of communism did little to quell his activities and he continued to work for the post-Soviet Russian intelligence agencies. He was finally caught in 2001 and by pleading guilty managed to avoid the death penalty. He’s currently in prison in the US without the possibility of parole.
The Cambridge FiveBritons spying for the Soviet Union
Fate: All unmasked, none prosecuted
The quintet of (clockwise from top left) Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, John Cairncross, Kim Philby and Guy Burgess were devastatingly effective. All recruited by Soviet intelligence while at the University of Cambridge in the 1930s, they ideologically believed in the communist cause. Each went on to a successful career in government: taken together they had access to intelligence secrets, the atomic bomb, diplomatic affairs and propaganda efforts.
Maclean and Burgess defected to Moscow in the early 1950s, Cairncross was only publicly unmasked in retirement, Blunt was discovered but remained out of prison, and Philby escaped to Russia. Philby was probably the most destructive, having served in the late 1940s as the MI6 liaison officer to the CIA.
Michael Goodman is Professor of Intelligence and International Affairs, Head of the Department of War Studies and Dean of Research Impact, King's College London
This article first appeared in the April 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed