An Historical View

I have always been intrigued by stories of spies and espionage. The tensions, thrills, and heart-stopping activities of spying – both real and fictitious – will always send a tingle down my spine.

Throughout history, spies – both men and women – have played a role in creating or toppling Kingdoms, winning or losing Wars, disposing of leaders, or just providing intelligence enabling one country to exert its power over another.

These events have been well documented over the centuries. Ancient writings of Chinese and Indian military strategists focused on deception and subversion. The Egyptians had a thoroughly developed system for the acquisition of intelligence, and the Hebrews used spies throughout their long history. Feudal Japan had intricate methods of gathering intelligence, and spies played a significant part in Elizabethan England, and throughout English history.

Espionage played a major role in the American Revolution. Nathan Hale, an American Patriot, was captured with notes and drawings of British troop deployments, which he was trying to deliver to General George Washington. He was subsequently hanged by the British in 1776.

The American Civil War Generals on both sides heavily relied on spies, for their strategic battle plans. They often employed women who were successful because they were unsuspected.

World War I saw the Dutch nude dancer, Mata Hari, accused of being a double agent for the French and German armies. She was executed by the French in 1917, but to this day, her name evokes a female spy who uses her sexuality to access information from unsuspecting men.

World War II led to the introduction of modern espionage, using radios, electronic devices, codes, and code breakers. Men and women spies were used by both sides. Propaganda broadcasts played an important role for the first time. Iva D’aquino (Tokyo Rose) was convicted of treason for her radio broadcasts, aimed at undermining the morale of U.S. Troops

The Cold War from 1950 onwards involved intense espionage activity between the US and its allies, and the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China and their Allies. Each side was focused on obtaining Military secrets, particularly those about Nuclear Weapons. Spies were often caught and became bargaining chips, for exchanges of captured officials on both sides.

Espionage methods used in the modern world are often based on well-established procedures going back hundreds if not thousands of years.

Spying involves an individual obtaining information that is considered secret or confidential, without the permission of the holder of that information. This may lead to a change of plans or other counter measures if it is known that important information is in unauthorized hands. Espionage, another word for spying, usually involves accessing the place where the desired information may be held or creating access to the people who might divulge secret information.

There’s considerable risk in spying and espionage. A spy breaking the host country’s laws could be deported, imprisoned, or even executed. A spy working against his own country could also be imprisoned for espionage or treason or executed.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were arrested in 1950, convicted of treason, and executed in 1953, after a long trial, for passing US secrets to the Russians.

Hugh Redmond, a CIA officer in China, spent 19 years in a Chinese prison, after being arrested for espionage, and subsequently died there.

The “Cambridge Four” – Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Donald MacLean, and Kim Philby, met at Cambridge University in England in the 1930s and were recruited to work for the Soviet KGB. All four went on to hold high positions within the British government, including the British Secret Intelligence Services. They were active on behalf of the Soviet Union for thirty years, and even though they were subsequently exposed, they all escaped to the Soviet Union and were never caught.

The US defines espionage towards itself as “the act of obtaining, delivering, transmitting, communicating, or receiving information about the national defense with an intent or reason to believe that the information may be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation.”

The United States conducts espionage against other nations under the control of the National Clandestine Service (NCS). Britain’s espionage and spy activities are controlled by the Secret Intelligence Services (SIS).

Espionage is usually part of a government effort to spy on potential or actual enemies, primarily for Military purposes. Many nations routinely spy on both their enemies and allies, although they maintain a policy of not revealing these activities. A spy is the person employed to obtain such secrets.

While we often read about “spy satellites,” espionage is not a synonym for all types of intelligence functions. It is a specific form of human source intelligence gathering, and not always related to Military matters. Over the past twenty years, espionage agencies have been involved in targeting the illegal drug trade and more recently terrorist organizations.

Where there are large sophisticated networks of spies involved, the organization and control can often be complex. Many methods are used to avoid detection, including clandestine cell systems, where the participants may never have met, and sometimes are being used without their realizing they are participating in espionage efforts.

Case officers, as they are called within the US intelligence community, may have diplomatic status, and are stationed in foreign countries to recruit and supervise intelligence agents, who in turn spy on targets in their countries where they are assigned. A spy may or may not be an actual citizen of the target country.

While it is common to recruit a person already trusted with access to sensitive information, sometimes, a spy will be used to infiltrate a target organization, with a well-prepared false identity.

Throughout history, the image of the spy, his clandestine work, the excitement of obtaining secrets has always intrigued a large portion of the public. The interest in Spy fiction arose about the same time as the first modern intelligence agencies were created.

As a large amount of information became publicly known, particularly during the many 20th Century spy scandals, about national spy agencies and real life secret agents, public interest in a profession largely off limits to news reporting, soared.

The natural consequence of these revelations, and the secrecy and intrigue that surrounded the spies and their profession contributed to the creation of a popular concept of a secret agent. This image was built upon and enhanced by late 20th Century and 21st Century literature, and the cinema.

Time seems to have little impact on the reader’s interest in such stories. Could there be a better example than “Kim” by the English novelist, Rudyard Kipling? This wonderful example of espionage literature included a detailed description of the training of an intelligence agent in the Great Game between the UK and Russia in 19th Century Asia.

Graham Greene’s classic “The Third Man” exposed a decadent and corrupt post World War II, Vienna. The underlying battle between Russia and the West, for control of the City and all of Austria highlighted the espionage activities of both sides.

During the 1950s and 60s, spies such as Desmond Cory’s “Johnny Fedora” represented the popular fiction of the time. Ian Fleming’s “James Bond” exploded on the scene in the early 60s, becoming the most famous fictional secret agent of all, with book after book, successfully transferring to the Silver Screen.

In contrast to the glamorous James Bond, John Le Carre’s character, “George Smiley,” is often considered one of the more realistic fictional spies. And Tom Clancy’s character, “Jack Ryan,” epitomizes the intelligent agent working for the US government.

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Spies, spying, and espionage will always have a devoted following and will probably intrigue us forever.

Ellis Goodman


Ellis M. Goodman was born in England and moved to the United States in 1982. He was educated at Brighton College Sussex, and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, and is the former Chairman and CEO of a major US Beverage Alcohol producer, importer and distributor. Ellis M. Goodman is the author of a number of magazine articles on the US Beverage Alcohol Industry, and the business book, Corona: The Inside Story of America's #1 Imported Beer.He serves on a number of civil, educational, and cultural boards in Chicago; and, in 1996, was invested as a Commander of the British Empire by HM Majesty Queen Elizabeth for services to British exports. He and his wife, Gillian, live in Glencoe, Illinois.





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