The decades-long battle between Western intelligence services and the Soviet Union offers important lessons for the ongoing national security threat posed by Russia under President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, and for the rapidly emerging threats from 21st-century China, according to a new book.
“Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West,” written by Calder Walton, assistant director of the Intelligence Project and the Applied History Project at Harvard Kennedy School, examines the Soviet intelligence program that was for decades more aggressive and often, more sophisticated than the West’s. As the just-released film “Oppenheimer” reminds us, even the top-secret U.S. effort to build the atomic bomb during World War II was compromised from the start by Soviet spies, who eventually delivered those plans to Josef Stalin.
Today, U.S. and U.K leaders agree that China represents the greatest intelligence threat to the West, according to Walton, a historian and specialist in national security issues who earned his Ph.D. from Trinity College. Chinese hackers are suspected of accessing email accounts of the U.S. State and Commerce departments in June (including that of U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, a former HKS faculty member), and U.S. officials also believe they planted malware in networks controlling power, water, and communication at military bases. Those incidents, along with the discovery of a Chinese spy balloon hovering over U.S. military sites earlier this year, provide an insight into what Walton calls an “epic intelligence war” beginning between China and the West. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: Almost at every juncture, Soviet intelligence seemed to be a few steps ahead of U.S. and British intelligence services in the 20th century. Why was the West often caught so flat-footed?
WALTON: You’re absolutely right. Western services, certainly the British and the Americans, were really flat-footed at key strategic moments, looking the wrong way or consumed by other threats. The Soviet Union last century, and Russia today, have viewed Western powers and these two countries in particular, as a continuous threat — even when relations ostensibly improved.
We saw this during the Second World War, when the Soviet Union was, at least ostensibly, allies with Britain and the United States. Stalin, of course, never viewed the Western allies in the same way we did him, never as a true ally. This was equally the case during détente, the thawing of relations in the 1970s; it was certainly the case in the 1990s, and then, the post-9/11 period, during the war on terror.
Why is this? Ideological animosity explains much of the Bolshevik Communist attitude toward the Western powers. The U.S., in the 1920s and ’30s, was standing outside of world politics. Britain’s intelligence services were at least aware of the pervasive threat posed by Soviet intelligence, but just had shockingly small resources. The U.S. didn’t have a peacetime intelligence service until 1947, when the CIA was created. Talk about being late to the intelligence game: All the other leading world powers, by that point, had dedicated foreign intelligence agencies, and the U.S. did not.
In 1929, Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson infamously closed down the U.S. government’s dedicated code-breaking “black chamber” on the grounds that, he said, this was an “impolite” thing to do and that “gentlemen do not read other’s mail.” That kind of attitude displayed a deeper sense of naiveté with successive White Houses when it came to intelligence generally, but Soviet intelligence, in particular.
GAZETTE: Theft of U.S. atomic bomb plans was a major triumph for Soviet intelligence. And while Robert Oppenheimer was not a Soviet spy, many key figures in the Manhattan Project were. What did you find in your research?
WALTON: The MI5 dossier on Oppenheimer is declassified, and I studied it while writing the book. Oppenheimer didn’t have a British connection — he studied in Cambridge briefly, as the movie shows, but there wasn’t much in the dossier in terms of British direct involvement. But what it does contain is liaison reports with the FBI, so it gives us a bird’s-eye look into what the FBI was saying about Oppenheimer at the time. I’m relying heavily on the research of two scholars, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. They’re the ones who have done the most forensic analysis of Soviet intelligence operations and the Manhattan Project.
Looking at British and FBI dossiers, what we find is just how heavily Soviet intelligence services penetrated the Manhattan Project. Klaus Fuchs, a German émigré scientist who did groundbreaking research on the theoretical side of the atomic weapons, was a Soviet spy from the outset when he joined the British atomic bomb project and then, when Roosevelt and Churchill decided to set up a joint atomic bomb project, Fuchs was transferred over to Los Alamos. He was a spy throughout. Other Soviet spies include  Harvard graduate Theodore Hall — he was a Communist true believer. Fuchs and Hall, at the end of the war, after the Trinity test, delivered the plans for the atomic bomb. They didn’t know about each other, of course, but separately disclosed the plans to their Soviet handlers. Ted Hall copied the plans of the atomic bomb onto a newspaper using milk. That gives you an insight into the level of espionage.
Another example that has recently come to light is George Koval. He was an American chemical engineer who gave valuable intelligence on the mechanism for initiating the atomic bomb from a laboratory within the Manhattan Project in Dayton, Ohio. His name has been known, but the true level of espionage was not revealed until he died at the age of 92. In 2007, Putin gave him a posthumous honor and praised him with a champagne toast saying the mechanism used in the Soviet Union’s first atomic test in 1949 was made according to a “recipe” delivered by Koval.
All of this espionage guaranteed that when the Soviet Union detonated its first weapon in 1949, it was a replica of that developed at Los Alamos and dropped on Nagasaki.
From my perspective, Los Alamos represents the greatest security breach in modern U.S. history. And, by implication, constitutes the greatest Soviet intelligence success, probably the greatest espionage success in history. The delivery of plans to the Soviet Union accelerated the Soviet atomic bomb project.
“One of the big takeaways I have from the book is the West thought the Cold War, in 1990-1991, was over. But for the Kremlin, particularly its intelligence services, that was just not the case.”
GAZETTE: Russia has had numerous cyberattack successes — the SolarWinds breach in 2019, power grid disruptions in the U.S. and around the world — and has used disinformation online to effectively shape public opinion and shift politics. But many analysts say Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was the result of a historic intelligence failure. How do today’s Russian intelligence services compare to the Soviet intelligence services of old?
WALTON: After 2016, a narrative crept up in the West of Putin as a master puppeteer able to influence world events. He, more than anyone, has helped to peddle that narrative. But if you look at it coldly, Putin is far from the spymaster he wishes to portray himself as. He’s actually presided over a succession of intelligence failures. In 2010, a network of Russian deep-cover illegals were arrested in the United States. This was a staggering CIA-FBI success achieved by recruiting a Russian intelligence officer in charge of the deep-cover illegals program — something straight out of the Cold War. A striking U.S. success and a humiliation for Putin.
There have been other failures: the botched assassination of Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018; with the 2016 election, the active measures campaign by Putin, it was uncovered for the world to see. But the biggest blunder history will record Putin being responsible for is his decision to invade Ukraine, a huge strategic failure stemming from an intelligence failure.
There’s a direct parallel and echo here with Stalin’s total mismanagement of intelligence before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Like Stalin’s, Putin’s regime doesn’t allow truth-telling. His intelligence services are very literally scared for their lives about presenting him with intelligence that challenges his views. This is straight out of the Soviet Union’s experience. Autocracies or dictatorships have a tendency to be crippled by sycophantic intelligence reporting.
How does Russia compare to the Soviets? What I found is that some of the huge successes of Soviet intelligence history, the five Cambridge spies, for example, even the atomic spies that we just mentioned, they were successful due to the dedication of the agents themselves, their belief in Communism. Those spies achieved their successes frequently in spite of, not because of, Soviet intelligence. The narrative of Putin’s Kremlin is to portray Soviet intelligence as masters of tradecraft, better than anyone else in the world. That’s just not the case if you look at the history.
GAZETTE: Looking over 100 years of intelligence history, did you find any threads running throughout?
WALTON: For the Kremlin, the Cold War never finished. One of the big takeaways I have from the book is the West thought the Cold War, in 1990-1991, was over. But for the Kremlin, particularly its intelligence services, that was just not the case. They were driven by a kind of revenge and humiliation on the world stage. And it’s exactly from that bitter, revanchist humiliation of Russia that Putin emerges in the 1990s and takes power. In my view, we are seeing that play out with Ukraine today.
China, as well, in their agreement with “no limits” between Putin and [President Jinping] Xi, is trying to do everything it can to overturn the post-Cold War settlement of U.S. dominance on the international world stage. The two are coming at it from very different directions: China wants to offer a positive image as an alternative to the U.S. and Putin’s Russia is doing everything it can to undermine and discredit the U.S. But the end results are the same.
GAZETTE: Soviet and Russian intelligence dominated last century, but you say we’re now in the opening stages of an intelligence war between China and the U.S. What’s the aim and scale of China’s program?
WALTON: China’s use of intelligence is unprecedented in the challenge it poses for the West, the U.S. in particular. China’s intelligence services, and the Chinese Communist Party, use a whole-of-society, fusion approach to collecting intelligence. All branches of the state and society are used to collect intelligence. It fuses ostensibly independent business ventures with the Ministry of State Security, its principal intelligence service; it recruits and blackmails Chinese nationals living overseas and Chinese diaspora communities who may have relatives living in China, forces them to cooperate with Chinese intelligence. It is prolific.
The fundamental difference between what we’ve seen in the past with the Soviet Union is China’s massive economic weight and its integration with the international economy. The Soviet Union was basically an economic pariah. That’s obviously not the case with China today. But there are similarities between Cold War 1.0 and 2.0. Both sides of this unfolding geopolitical conflict have nuclear weapons and so that makes it very similar to the Cold War 1.0.
Where we’re going? The race is on for technologies that will change all of our lives this century — biological engineering, biopharma, artificial intelligence, quantum computing. China is using every resource it has to steal as many of those secrets as possible from Western research institutes, including those based in and around Cambridge. How that will play out we just don’t know. It seems to me those technologies will be as important to this century as nuclear weapons were last century. The question is: Have those secrets already been stolen by a hostile intelligence service via Russia or China? We don’t know. But we will find out in the coming years.