This essay first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Choice (volume 58 | issue 2).
For most readers, references to espionage will bring to mind spy novels by Alan Furst or John le Carré. Others may think back even earlier to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) or Jack London’s The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. (1963, completed by Robert Fish). Although those writers demonstrate a knowledge of the clandestine services, the subject is complex and worthy of more academic interest than it usually receives. Espionage is “like war,” according to William Hood, a former CIA agent, who notes in his 1982 book Mole that "spying is a dirty business.” If “a soldier’s job is to kill,” then “the spy’s job is [ultimately] to betray trust,” meaning “the only justification a soldier or spy can have is the moral worth of the cause he represents” (p. 11). Accordingly, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, intelligence agencies have collected information on enemies, and sometimes even on allies, through bribery, blackmail, and treason, involving secret inks, codes, and microdots. Over time these espionage methods have metastasized into disinformation spread through online bots, social media outlets, and the internet.
In some cases, covert operations aim to topple foreign governments or arrange for friendly politicians to ascend to power. For instance, in the 1950s both the Central Intelligence Agency and the British Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6, toppled the government of Iran, later fueling the 1979 Revolution in response, as detailed in Kermit Roosevelt’s firsthand account Countercoup. The legacy of these events continues to inform US-Iranian relations today. An emboldened Eisenhower administration later carried out a similar operation in Guatemala, and under Kennedy in 1961 the CIA sought to embark on a comparable covert venture in Cuba, which ended tragically at the Bay of Pigs (both operations sans MI6). But it does not end there. Intelligence services still seek to undo governments and sabotage long-term alliances that they oppose. During the last decade, the Kremlin worked to destabilize governments in the Baltic states and Ukraine, and even conducted a series of effective influence operations in the UK with Brexit and in the US through the 2016 presidential election. Espionage is more complex than many believe. How did it begin?
Christopher C. Lovett's PhD is in Russian military history. He is a professor of history at Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas.