To what extent were Soviet spies and subversion of the West a real worry during the Cold War?


The question above carries an implication that the Soviet challenge to the West could in some way have been unreal, at least in terms of espionage. There has been, certainly since the 1947 Red Scare and the subsequent rise from 1951 of Joseph McCarthy, a tendency in the West to view the Cold War effort to find and to stop Soviet subversion as ‘paranoid.’ Books and articles have embedded in the public consciousness the idea that Allen and John Dulles, James Jesus Angleton, Howard Hunt, Cord Meyer, Curtis LeMay, Lyman Lemnitzer, Edward Teller, J.Edgar Hoover, and dozens of other strange, multi-level figures were in some way delusional in the pursuit of their undeniable anticommunist obsessions, and also that they were representative of the anti-communist effort.

A parallel perspective has also arisen which holds that the security structure created between 1947 and 1961, covering the emergence in 1946 of the Strategic Air Command, the CIA, Department of Defense, and National Security Council in 1947, NATO in 1949, and NORAD in 1956, somehow self-generated a Soviet threat to justify its institutional existence. More sophisticated challenges to the view that there was any importance to the idea that the East was systematically attempting to spy upon and also to subvert the West have emphasised the difference between overt technological and military competition, which definitely existed, and the putative and often somewhat fevered sensationalism that constitutes what many think they know about the ‘shadow world.’ The effect of this viewpoint is to discount or to dismiss on evidential lines any attempt at informed historical evaluation of Soviet espionage operations during the Cold War, often relegating it to the coded and heavily discounted level of ‘conspiracy theory.’

It is undeniable that there were within the West pre-existing anti-Bolshevists, some of whom were more open to Italian or Spanish fascists than the Soviet form of totalitarianism in the 1930s. Both the 1919 ‘red scare ‘and the systematic opening of mail and telegrams by corporate providers in the 1920s, exposed by William Bamford show that. In addition, the ‘Venona’ decrypts and Soviet archives briefly opened between 1990 and 1994 have illustrated the extent of pro-communist penetration of American life and the structures of power and influence that make up the society.  In Britain, the 1926 general Strike, as well as attitudes towards those who went to Spain to aid the communists (or for that matter who supported appeasement since Hitler was nominally anticommunist) exposed a rich vein of ferocious anti-communism which stretched across the Labour movement, ex-Liberals, and the Conservative Party.

Nevertheless, even a short rehearsal of the names and activities of communist spies and traitors in the Anglo-American world of the 1940s through to the eighties illustrates that there was a real, often exposed danger. Igor Gourzenko’s defection from the Soviet Embassy in Ottowa in 1945, and his revelations of Soviet spying and sleeper agents was highly publicised as evidence of the ‘Red Threat’ in North America. In 1950, the confession of Klaus Fuchs seemingly confirmed the extent of these clandestine relationships. This in turn exposed the network of which Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the most prominent. By any standards, the clandestine attempts of a totalitarian power to obtain nuclear secrets by means of subversion and treason represented a ‘real’ threat. However, the Soviet impulse was not simply confined to the nuclear issue. In the 1930s, the Soviet GRU ( a forerunner of the KGB) had built an extensive political network that reached into the White House via Alger Hiss, and possibly later into the offices of vice-president Wallace and the First Lady, if not certainly into political organisations such as the progressive party that were sympathetic to them.  The State Department seems to have been particularly badly hit (as Joseph Macarthy later alleged) with identifiable connections being drawn between Alger Hiss, Julian Wadleigh, Laurence Duggan and Noel Field that led to extensive Soviet knowledge of American policy in the western hemisphere, trade and military secrets, and administration attitudes. As Elizabeth Bentley later revealed, the Treasury and Board of Economic Warfare had already been seriously compromised. Dozens of influential figures in Hollywood, as revealed by the Mitrokhin Archive which reached the West in the 1990s, and by the Venona decrypts in the 1940s, were in contact with Soviet spy rings or communist agents. Knowledge of the extent of these relationships was kept to a few, to the point where Harry Truman himself was not briefed, as we now know, on Venona, but nevertheless given enough of a general gist that he signed an Executive Order requiring loyalty oaths and defining subversive organisations to which members of the government could not belong. Others in Congress were so sensitive to the issue that they supported the 1950 Mccarran Internal Security Act.

There was a gradual Western shift in the 1950s and 60s away from Human Intelligence to electronic intelligence. This was prefigured in the attempt to tap into Soviet communications in Berlin via a secret tunnel shortly after the Berlin Airlift. However, the revelations of the Mitrokhin Archive, as well as the evidence from the defectors of the sixties and seventies, and the exposures in Britain and Canada of spy rings in the 1950s, suggest that the Soviets never moved in such a fashion. They kept the emphasis on spies, spycraft, and subversion as well as surveillance. This was in part because the West was an open society and government actions and debates were often in the open, but also because the Soviets were and remained totalitarians dedicated to world revolution.

In turn, the existence of Soviet sleeper agents and subversion, or rather the suspicion thereof, had a significant impact on Western politics. The West invested in counter-intelligence and subversion operations as early as the Italian and French elections and referenda of the late 1940s and 50s. Western intelligence regimes withheld knowledge of information, such as venona, from elected officials, and in the Congo, Vietnam, and with regard to Cuba, we now know incontrovertibly that the CIA and defence intelligence groups acted in ways that directly contradicted executive orders. This was often with the blessing of those who were socially or politically able to provide political cover, such as Henry Cabot Lodge in Vietnam. Such behaviour was originally legitimised in the eyes of people like Richard Bissell, who helped Allen Dulles found the proactive clandestine Technical Services Division of the CIA, or Cord Meyer, who worked closely with James Jesus Angleton having been a globalist liberal in the 1940s, because of their knowledge of the Soviet spy network. In turn, their somewhat reckless behaviour encouraged the likes of Robert Kennedy, Walter and Victor Reuther, and William Fulbright in the early sixties to view anticommunism as in part a radical and fevered search for ‘reds under the bed’ that impeded civil rights and d├ętente. Simply by having been found or by defecting, Communist spies had therefore had a catalysing effect on the rise of the radical right and what became the ‘radical centre’, which along with the New Left helped destroy the old coalition of farmers, laborers, catholics and intellectuals that made up FDR’s Democratic party.

After the 1960s, it is difficult to argue (given that archives in many cases are still closed) for any ‘spy’ scandal or discovery that affected American politics or the Cold War as decisively as those of the late nineteen forties and early fifties. The American defeat in Vietnam brought with it a tendency to discredit anticommunism and the security services in general, and the revelation of and suspicions about clandestine activities in Cuba and elsewhere on the part of the Pike and Church committees seemed to relegate ‘spy’ issues to the movie theatre and popular bookshops. There seems also to have been something of a falling-off in the quality of America’s spy-hunters. Aldrich Ames, for instance began his campaign of betrayal (for what appear to have been purely financial reasons) in 1985, and gave away at least a hundred US agents in Eastern Europe before being caught in 1994. Although Ronald Pelton and Edward Lee Howard were convicted in the mid-1980s, partly in Ames’ stead, their activities did not occasion the uproar or administrative disruption that had previously characterised US spy scandals. Perhaps their energies were confused and diverted by the existence of the second, and much more effective Spy-mole of the period, Robert Hanssen of the FBI.

 Although spies continued to be identified across the Western Alliance, the USSR seemed to have moved on by the mid-to-late 1960s, if one follows the post-Soviet revelations from Dmitri Volkogonov amongst others, from subversion and an expansionist strategy to data collection and the accumulation of western secrets and spy lists, which were much less aggressive and eye-catching activities than the ‘glory days’ of the OGPU, NKVD and KGB might lead one to expect. This left them vulnerable to exposes, such as that in the UK in 1971 in which the British identified 120 Soviet spies, or the destruction of Michael Bettany’s network in 1984, partly on the basis of information provided by Oleg Gordievsky’s defection.

By the eighties communist parties were in severe decline across Western Europe, anticommunism was again popular, and West Germany and Britain had directly rejected pro-communist unilateralism and pacifism in favour of NATO commitments and renewed globalism. The communist tide had been beached, and western politicians and opinion formers had begun to deepen a renewed anti-Communist outlook in part driven from Russia and Poland by the examples of Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Lech Walesa, amongst others. The Catholic church had also been won ‘back’ from Marxist friendly liberation theology and a detachment from anticommunism long sought by the KGB  by the unexpected elevation of a Pope so antagonistic that the Bulgarian CSS, acting on the nod from Moscow, attempted to arrange his death in 1981. Everywhere, the Soviet spy effort was countered, on fire, or only passively functioning.


Though there is therefore little doubt that the USSR placed emphasis on spycraft until the end, the answer to the question of how important their spies were, in the context of political sensitivity, administration policy, or public opinion, is ‘very great—until the mid-sixties.’

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