Expository Essay on History of Soviet Espionage of America Before the Cold War

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Middlebury College
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The Soviet Union and the United States were the most involved parties in the development and the aftermath of the Cold War. This War drew an imaginary ideological axis across the globe, diving nations into two diverse groups based on their political stand. While the Soviet Union was principally pro-Communist, the United States was sternly anti-Communist. Before the beginning of the Cold War, the two nations engaged in numerous covert missions to understand the inner working of each other’s governments and device counter-strategies towards the plan. The Soviet Union, through the communist sympathizers in the United States, acquired valuable censored information that allowed it to mount considerable fear against its enemy. There are different books documenting the development of the Soviet espionage, the Soviet moles in the United States public service, the growth and popularity of Communist parties in the United States, and the government’s efforts to quash all alleged undercover activities. The wheels of military espionage were already rolling before the Cold War began. Espionage and counter-espionage developments began after the end of World War I, and these were significant hallmarks of post-war societies. One of the most remarkable political outfits dedicated to espionage was the Russians Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti (KGB) which implemented all of the Soviet Unions espionage plans, including the installation of its moles in the US State Department to provide crucial information that allowed the Union to strengthen its presence in the American Society.

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Espionage activities were in place before 1914, but the wake of the First World War intensified the international pursuit of rival intelligence to improve the stakes of victory in the battleground. After the war ended in 1918, the already established espionage protocols in the Western world did not metamorphose. Instead, the War opened a new phase for what Emmanuel Debruyne terms as the Secret War. The intelligence structures established in the War years persisted even after belligerents called for an armistice, although there were several changes made depending on the political environment. For instance, the Entente powers in Russia continued with their close observation of the national and international affairs even after the signing of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The reason behind this renewed commitment to espionage was the need for the countries to equip themselves and prepare for any other unprecedented incidence. The continued international espionage fuelled acrimony among nations and heightened disagreement until the Second World War broke up. Espionage outfits employed individuals to identify the sinister plans of the enemy, leading to the emergence of the master spies. These individuals were highly secretive and operated covertly to avoid detection. The master spies appeared to be the national heroes endowed with the responsibility of protecting the country from ambush by the enemy. Women spies grew in number and intelligence, rivaling their male counterparts who had emerged victorious in the War. As a feature of post-war societies, espionage became a part of the political process, and national agencies were formulated towards this course. Espionage continued to take the center stage in international relations, breeding renewed acrimony that augmented the development of the Second World War.

World War II was fueled by accumulating belligerence in Europe and Asia. Germany formed an alliance with Italy to attack Poland. This move attracted the attention of the Allied Powers to the War. Japan’s control over South-Eastern Asia made it a perfect associate of the German-Italian coalition fit for the war. All these alliances involved intelligence and counterintelligence in one way or the other. As mentioned earlier, there is a striking paucity of scholarly material to elaborate on the espionage activities at the beginning of the Second World War. However, Joseph Persico sheds considerable light on the espionage activities that featured in the course of this war. The United States exhibited protracted reluctance before getting involved with the war. The historic bombing of Pearl Harbor agitated the US, which retaliated with lethal force. Nazi Germany was apprehensive that the US’s entry into the war would be tantamount to its defeat. It, therefore, sent numerous spies on different occasions to read the mind of the US government and its opinion on the War. Persico does not explain the specific reason why Germany spied the US, but it is arguable that Hitler wanted to know if Franklin De Roosevelt (FDR) would take his side. Persico defends his opinion that neither Winston Churchill and nor FDR was aware of the attack on Pearl Harbor. However, his narration of events leading to this incident, and the diplomatic collapse that Edward Miller explains invalidate Persicos arguments. In response to the Nazis’ espionage of the US, FDR rounded scores of German, Italian, and Japanese Americans in a move to identify and isolate any moles. Before the US atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the USSR intelligence succeeded in penetrating into the secretive Manhattan Project that was organizing this bombing. The Soviet-made away it with 100000 pages of information on atomic bomb-making. This incident further tells of the USSR’s espionage of America in the pre-Cold War period. The Soviet was aware (through espionage) that the US was in the process of acquiring an atomic bomb, and the Manhattan incident was an attempt to frustrate this plan or pave way for the development of an atomic bomb for the Axis powers. Second World War espionage was a continuation of the activities by the mechanisms set in motion in the aftermath of the First World War.

The KGB came into existence after successive like-minded outfits were dissolved by different Soviet leaders. Before the KGB was constituted, the intelligence services in the USSR only focused on internal affairs. The KGB, however, extended its reach to become one of the most renowned intelligence outfits in the world. The history of KGB can be traced to the October Revolution of 1917 when Vladimir Lenin established The All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka). Cheka was formed to keep the revolutionaries of the newly formed USSR in check. One of the remarkable operations of this intelligence is the Red Terror event of 1920 where millions of revolutionaries were massacred. Cheka soon mutated into The Joint State Political Directorate under the Council of People's Commissars of the U.S.S.R (OGPU) that continued to undertake intelligence activities for the Soviet Union. Like Cheka, OGPU executed dissenters and quelled resistance to the Union’s governance. The OGPU also transfigured to form The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. After Stalin, Lavrenty Beria presided over the numerous Soviet Security organs that constituted the NKVD. After the death of Beria, NKVD mutated to The Peoples' Commissariat for State Security (NKGB), and later into Commissariat for State Security (KGB). The KGB became famous for affecting the Russian Golden years of Espionage that soon followed World War II. KGB stole vast information from the West by subverting scientists from these countries to advance its espionage agenda.

The KGB operations in America between 1930 and 1940 were very elaborate. KGB opened a consulate in New York believed to be located in East Sixty-First Street. The FBI spent so much of its resources trying to decipher the inner workings of the KGB operatives in America. In a narration by Robert Lamphere and Tom Shachtman, KGB was an intricately organized group whose reach not only covered America but also Canada and Mexico. Between 1930 and 1940, a group of Russian nationals posed in the streets of America as tourists, although they were secretly running an espionage campaign meant to relay crucial information about the US government to the Soviet Union. These operatives were allied to Russian companies in America like Soviet Government Purchasing Commission, Amtorg, and World Tourist Inc. Lamphere and Shachtman tell of two particular operatives that were remarkably elusive. These individuals-Vassili Zubilin and Gaik Ovakimian- helped to establish the biggest network of offshore KGB operations in America. They installed moles in different departments in the US administration to continuously relay intelligence to the Soviet government. Ovakimian, in particularly forged passports for his mercenaries, to allow them to live freely in America. Vassili Zubilin on the other hand, adopted many names, often dropping his Russian identity for Edward Josphat Herber to avoid detection. The KGB mercenaries assumed Soviet Residency in the US and worked as Gorge Orwell’s thought police. They had mastered the art of deciphering government strategies and passing the same through their headquarters in New York to Russia.

The Communist Party of America and the Communist Labor Party played a big role in implementing the Soviet’s espionage tactic in the US. The party members were sympathetic to the Russians Communism, and they were willing to sacrifice their resources in fulfilling the wish of Communist Russia in the world. The party emerged in 1920 after the splitting of the Socialist Party. Its top echelons were all closely vetted, approved, and, in many cases, hand-picked by Moscow. This decision to bestow the responsibility of the communist leadership in the USA to loyal members ensured that the required information was relayed on time without manipulation. One notable Communist Party member who secretly worked as KGB spies was Alger Hiss


In conclusion, the Soviet espionage of America was an extension of internal intelligence activities of the KGB which installed informants all over the world. KGB was a brainchild of veteran Soviet nationals including the infamous Joseph Stalin. It came into function in 1954 although the idea behind it dates as back as early as 1934. It was a result of successive metamorphosis of loosely constituted Russian security agencies that among other things persecuted the revolutionaries opposed to the USSR in its infancy. The history of Soviet espionage of America revolves around the KGB and the Communist Party of America. These two bodies sheltered and groomed Soviet spies that masqueraded as engineers and businessmen in America, although their activities have been documented so far. The history of Soviet espionage explains the genesis of long-standing acrimony between the two biggest world superpowers. Up to date, each nation alleges the other for continued espionage for political and economic purposes.


Debruyne, Emmanuel. "Espionage." Daniel, U., Gatrell P., Janz, O., Jones, H., Keene, J., Kramer, A. & Nasson B.(Eds.) (1914).

Jacobson, Julius, ed. Soviet Communism and the Socialist Vision. Vol. 1. Transaction Publishers, 1972.

John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. The Historiography of Soviet Espionage and American Communism: from Separate to Converging Paths. European Social Science History Conference (2006)

Lamphere, Robert J., and Tom Shachtman. The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent's Story. Mercer University Press, 1995.

Miller, Edward. War Plan Orange: The US Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945. Naval Institute Press, 2013.

Persico, Joseph E. Roosevelt's Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2002.

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