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Tips for Students: The History of Spies with August Thomas

Highlights from Expert Series

The following article expands on highlights and insights from one of our Expert Series events, which are exclusive for Young Scholars and their parents. 

Authored by: August Thomas

Summary

The mission of this seminar was to explore the history of espionage, meeting daring, dangerous and eccentric characters from the ancient world through the Cold War. We discussed what spies actually do, the complex reasons why societies have spies, and how spying has been used to keep people safe and free– or do the opposite.

Starting in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, we uncovered some of the western world’s earliest known spies.  From the very beginning, we saw how people overlooked by their societies often made highly effective spies, and how powerful pharaohs, emperors and generals – including Tutankhamon’s dad and Julius Caesar–used espionage to their advantage.  In ancient China and India, strategists like Sun Tzu and Kautilya wrote sophisticated and influential texts about how to collect intelligence.

The Renaissance saw a flourishing of spycraft, notably in England, where Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, employed a wide network of spies and codebreakers, enabling him to foil the Babbington plot to assassinate the queen – though his devious methods included forging incriminating evidence.  In the United States, spies including the Culper Spy Ring helped win the Revolutionary War, using methods like codes and invisible ink.  In the Civil War, the Union army used balloons to conduct surveillance, while on the ground heroic spies including Harriet Tubman risked their lives to free enslaved people and gather the intelligence needed for victory.

The Second World War brought tales of breathtaking heroism, including the tale of American spy Virginia Hall, known as the ‘Limping Lady’, who lost her leg in an accident, but didn’t let that stop her secretly organizing resistance networks in Nazi-occupied France. WWII was also the scene of stranger-than-fiction spy exploits like Operation Mincemeat, in which British intelligence planted elaborate fake documents on a real dead body to trick the Nazis.

The Cold War sparked a new era of spy fever, in real life and on the screen.  We explored the complex ethics of Cold War spying, the dark story of Stasi surveillance – and the sometimes hilarious creativity of Cold War spy gadgets, including a ‘dead-drop’ dead rat for hiding documents. Finally, we discussed how in 21st-century intelligence, some of the most valuable secrets aren’t locked in a vault or written in unbreakable code but hidden in plain sight.

Highlights

  • Not only is spying mentioned in many ancient religious texts and Homer’s Iliad, we have evidence of spying in ancient Egypt as far back as 3500 years ago.
  • We learned that spies (or ‘intelligence officers’) often recruit sources (or ‘agents’) using M.I.C.E.: Money, Ideology, Coercion/Compromise and Ego/Excitement.
  • Real-life Cold War spy tools included a pigeon wearing a camera, a radio disguised as a pipe, and an poisoned umbrella.
  • In the mid-20th century, the CIA operated an airline, CAT, which sometimes carried unwitting passengers…and on one occasion, a baby elephant.

Things students can do to explore this topic further

Two of the best ways to explore specific topics in intelligence history are books and documentaries.  The quality of documentaries about spies can vary, so I recommend sticking to reputable sources like the BBC or PBS.   While the CIA’s own museum isn’t open to the public, the International Spy Museum in Washington DC features many free, fun and interesting resources about spy history on its website and YouTube channel.  Another spy museum based in New York City, Spyscape, offers some spy-themed articles and podcasts, including one about spy gadgets through history.

Local museum websites are another great resource, like Mount Vernon to learn more about the Culper Spy Ring (with primary source links).  The British Library hosts many of the original documents from the Babington plot against Queen Elizabeth: https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/elizabeth-mary-exhibition/.

Parental discretion advised: Older students curious about open source intelligence may be interested in founder Eliot Higgins’ memoir, We Are Bellingcat.

Resources

For high-school/college-level students seeking an academic look at intelligence history, The Secret World: A History of Intelligence by Christopher Andrew, is a broad (very long!) overview.

There are also lots of popular nonfiction books about of some of the spies we discussed, including:

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell (about Virginia Hall, the ‘Limping Lady’)

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre, who has also written about Cold War spies, including Oleg Gordievsky in The Spy and the Traitor.  Operation Mincemeat was made into a PG-13 movie in 2021.

The PBS series Rogue History features some great spy stories, including the How Spy Balloons Changed the Civil War – YouTube and The Misunderstood Legacy of Ninjas (youtube.com).

In response to student questions:

James Lafayette: A student mentioned the fascinating Revolutionary War spy James Lafayette.  Those curious to learn more may enjoy this lecture about him https://www.c-span.org/video/?415962-1/slave-revolutionary-war-spy-james-lafayette or this article from the National Museum of the U.S. Army https://www.thenmusa.org/biographies/james-armistead-lafayette/

Bellingcat: This article in the New Yorker explains how the nonprofit Bellingcat helped unravel Vladimir Putin’s attempt to have a Russian activist assassinated (parental discretion advised): How Bellingcat Unmasked Putin’s Assassins | The New Yorker

Speaker Bio:
August Thomas is the author of the spy novel Liar’s Candle. A former Fulbright Scholar to Turkey, she has Master’s degrees from the University of Edinburgh and Bogazici University in Istanbul, where she studied history. She worked as an associate producer and senior fellow for the Foreign Policy Association. Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, she was a YS and Davidson Fellow.

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