When kids are little and adults ask them what they want to be when they grow up, they often say things like ‘fireman,’ ‘astronaut,’ and ‘dancer.’ But do you think any kid ever says ‘spy?’ I ask this because it seems like so many of the most famous spies start off in other professions. Or they are spies out of necessity because of a war. Or in the case of Cold War history, the lack of a war.
The Cold War was not a war in the traditional sense. It didn’t involve thousands of armed men fighting it out on battlefields, but instead was the name for the period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, after World War II. Because a war involving direct battle with nuclear weapons is called a hot war, this period of indirect conflict that had no actual large-scale battles was instead named the Cold War. It is generally considered to span from the 1947 Truman Doctrine to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
That’s a long time to not actually be fighting. And in those forty-something years, that is a heck of a lot of spying. Cold War spies account for some of the most audacious, long-lasting spy missions in history. You’ve probably seen The Americans, and maybe you thought it was fake, but it’s not that far from the truth. The real-life spies involved in the long history of the Cold War were in it to win it. Since the end of the Cold War, there have been a ton of incredible Cold War history books written about all aspects of that period in history. But I always find the ones about spies to be the coolest. Not that I could ever be a spy. For starters, I’m a terrible liar and I hate to travel. And spies need to have nerves of steel. I have nerves of Jell-O. So I’ll have to stick to reading spy books. And you can enjoy them too: here are 10 of the best spy stories from Cold War history.
by Marc Favreau
Favreau explores how billions of dollars were spent and thousands of men and women devoted their lives to spying, all in the name of staying on top of the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the world for the five decades of the Cold War. The author also expounds on the role that spying played in America's participation and its necessity.
This is the story of three of the most important key figures of the Cold War: William Fisher, a British born KGB agent arrested and jailed as a Soviet spy for trying to steal nuclear secrets; Gary Powers, the American U-2 pilot who was captured when his plane was shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission; and Frederic Pryor, a young American graduate student in Berlin mistakenly jailed as a spy by the East German secret police. You may already be familiar with their stories if you watched the Academy Award-winning adaptation with Tom Hanks. But it's worth it to read the book anyway and get even more details.
by Jonna Mendez
This real-life spy thriller was the inspiration for the movie Argo, and is told by the people who lived it. Antonio Mendez and his future wife Jonna were CIA operatives attempting to spy on Moscow in the late 1970s, but due to the extensive work by the Soviets, it was nearly impossible. But then the couple became part of the technological breakthroughs that allowed the CIA to gain the upper hand over the KGB and stage some of the most incredible operations.
by Gus Russo
CIA agent Jack Platt and KGB agent Gennady Vasilenko had careers in the Washington, DC intelligence scene, where they were part of some of the most landmark intelligence operations. This is the story of how two men, who by all accounts should have been mortal enemies, wound up the best of friends.
Bogdan Stashinsky was a KGB assassin who carried out assassinations abroad with various methods. When he defected to West Germany in 1961 and spilled all his secrets to the CIA, the resulting trial shook the intelligence world and really hurt the KBG and implicated many powerful figures in the Kremlin. Stashinsky's story was the real-life inspiration for Ian Fleming's Bond novel The Man with the Golden Gun.
And this is the story of one of the CIA's largest and most daring operations: “Operation Gold,” a plan to dig a secret tunnel into East Berlin to tap into critical KGB and Soviet military telecommunication lines. But little did they know as they worked to carry out their plan, there was a mole (ha) in the tunnel: George Blake, considered the most damaging mole of the Cold War.
Bruno Pontecorvo was one of the most promising nuclear physicists in the world, known for his work on the Manhattan Project and for his hunt for neutrinos. And then one day in 1950, the Russian scientist mysteriously disappeared. Was it of his own volition? Was he a spy? Close digs deep into the truth behind Pontecorvo's story and what role he played in the Cold War.
by Ravi Somaiya
This is one of the wildest spy stories and unsolved mysteries of the 20th century! Dag Hammarskjöld had been the head of the United Nations for nine years, known for his unwavering commitment to world peace, yet a man with great enemies. Then during a trip to the Congo in 1951, his plane crashed in the jungle. What first appeared to be an accident became a mystery when his body was recovered with an ace of spades placed on it. What country was responsible for his death?
Macintyre, who has a stable of books about spies and their daring escapades, turns his attentions this time around to Ursula Burton. Barton was a quiet, unassuming woman living in with her three children and her husband in an English village. Though she spoke English with a slight accent, her neighbors never suspected she was actually Agent Sonya, high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer. With the use of newly discovered information about her operations and access to Sonya's diaries, Macintyre has pieced together a full picture of a daring woman.
After the second world war ended, it was clear to the United States that the Soviet Union was making moves to expand around the world. The Quiet Americans tells the stories of four people during that time who worked with the newly formed CIA: Michael Burke, who organized parachute commandos from Italy; Frank Wisner, a master spy who organized operations worldwide; Peter Sichel, a German Jew who outsmarted the KGB; and Edward Lansdale, a mastermind of psychological warfare. Anderson discusses how the actions of these men and their failures, as well as the CIA and Americans abroad, damaged the United State's image around the world.