By Jay Holmes
From the end of World War II in 1945 until the fall of the Soviet government in Russia in 1991, Western nations faced off with the Soviet Union and its allies and captive satellite states in what became known as the “Cold War.” Basically, the Soviet Union, led by the ruthless Joseph Stalin, felt that it was its duty to spread communism throughout the world, and Western nations governed by democracies felt it was their responsibility to keep the entire world from falling under Soviet domination.
In the term “Cold War,” the word “cold” comes from the notion that neither side wanted the war to escalate, and the “war” reference accurately describes the basic intentions of each side toward the other. It was first coined by George Orwell in his 1945 essay, You and the Atom Bomb.
From 1945 until August of 1949, the United States and Great Britain had a monopoly on atomic weapons and could have easily pushed the Soviet Union out of Eastern Europe. For a variety of reasons, the allies declined to do so. Once the Soviet Union acquired atomic weapons in 1949, avoiding war with the Soviet Union became a priority for Western Nations.
Both East and West sought to harm each other and defend themselves with methods short of all out war. One method employed in the conflict was the constant attempt by both sides to bring neutral or not-yet-aligned nations into each camp by diplomacy, bribery, economic incentive, armed coup d’état, or coercion. Another method employed was aggressive espionage, and at times armed covert action.
Great Britain and France had been active in espionage against the Soviet Union since the birth of the Soviet State in 1918. The Soviets, under the auspices of international communism, had been actively spying on Great Britain, France, and all European nations since before World War I.
Although the United States would become the preeminent contestant in the Cold War, prior to World War II the US felt comfortable relying on an isolationist strategy and didn’t see a need for an intelligence service beyond whatever minimal activities the State Department might be involved in. Even during the First World War, the US efforts in espionage were minimal. Long before the United States bothered to conduct espionage against the Soviet Union, the Soviets had hundreds of agents in the United States, but prior to 1946, the Soviet Union viewed Great Britain as “the main enemy,” and as such, until World War II, Great Britain remained the priority target for Soviet espionage efforts.
Most Western citizens think of the Cold War as being without casualties, except during the proxy wars in Korea and Viet Nam. Few Westerners will even remember that the allied nations fought a war against Soviet-backed communists in Greece from 1946 -1949, or that the United Kingdom struggled with a communist guerrilla war in Malaysia until 1960. Beyond the publicly acknowledged battle fields in Korea, South East Asia, Lebanon, Grenada, and Panama, the United States thus far acknowledges 382 American servicemen killed in combat against communist forces between 1945 and 1991. This figure does not include the officially acknowledged civilian losses of the CIA and other civilian personnel, nor does it include the deaths of “denied” personnel working under “deep cover.”
I believe the figure of 382 to be wildly low and a long, smoldering debate is currently underway in DOD and CIA circles concerning casualty figures during the Cold War. It is unclear how they should be counted and how much information should be released. After a lifetime of living in a necessary state of denial, “old hands” have well-founded fears about releasing too much information. For one thing, releasing dates and locations of deaths will assist belligerent parties in identifying and killing those who assisted US efforts. Our word was given that our friends would never be exposed, and they never should be.
For nearly four decades, the deaths of American Cold War combatants were explained away as accidents and sudden acute illnesses. Wives and mothers buried their husbands and sons without ever knowing what happened. The battlefield deaths of most of America’s Cold War combatants will likely remain unrecognized for years to come in order to protect the living. Some day, if a future generation gets around to dealing with the information, it will likely seem too distant for anyone to pay much attention to it. This is a natural consequence of the type of battles fought.
If it seems sad, we should remember that it is far less sad than the alternatives would have been. Armageddon was avoided. Freedom was not lost. That matters, at least to me and to those who have gone before me. My brothers paid a price. I knew none who were unwilling to pay that price quietly. None can now regain their lives by being identified.
When we review espionage activities from the Cold War, it is easy to take an academic view. If the seriousness of some of the participants seems almost comical from our current perspective, they seemed far less humorous at the time that they occurred. The events seem distant now, and the causes may have been forgotten by many, and never understood by some. I point out the issue of casualties in an attempt to describe an important aspect of clandestine activities during the Cold War. The contestants on all sides played for keeps.
Between the bright lights of international diplomacy and the dark cloud of the threat of nuclear war, life in the shadows in between was a bit different. Some of us feel as though we have lived in a parallel world far away from this one. We walked through this world every day, careful not to leave too many footprints here on our way to somewhere else. That other world became our home. This world where we trust our neighbors and love our children, is the world that we desperately wanted to see remain intact. But in a sense, we will always be visitors here in this world that we hold so dear. For some of us, our home remains somewhere else, far away.
Most of the participants of the Cold War conflict will remain forever unknown, but there are notable exceptions, and they are worth examining. One of the most infamous (to Westerners) groups of spies that became known to the West is now called “The Cambridge Five.” When they were first exposed in 1951, they were two, and a long struggle ensued to expose the “third man.” Eventually, British MI-6 agent Kim Philby was discovered, and they became the “Unholy Trinity.” But British MI-5 and the US CIA remained convinced that a piece was missing, and, eventually, the fourth and fifth men were exposed. They had all been recruited from Cambridge University in England, hence the term “The Cambridge Five.”
When documents from within the Kremlin were sold to the West after the fall of the Soviet Union, it became evident that the term “The Cambridge Forty” would have been closer to accurate. But let us treat first with the Unholy Trinity.
In our next episode, we will look at the lives of Soviet agents Guy Burgess, Donald McLean, and Kim Philby, and at the tremendous impact that they had on the Cold War.
Any questions for me?