From the Inside the Cold War

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?


30 comments on “From the Inside the Cold War

  1. timqueeney says:


    Love this post. The Cold War is a fascinating subject. Have never heard the 382 figure before. I always thought that the KGB and MI6/CIA did not kill each other’s agents as a rule since that would have precipitated “mob”-style wars of hits and counterhits that would have been unproductive to the business of gathering intel. Is this a false idea on my part?

    Tim Queeney

    • J H says:

      “I always thought that the KGB and MI6/CIA did not kill each other’s agents as a rule”.

      The rule was more generally observed within the confines of the United States and Russia. In particular, operatives working under diplomatic cover were not normally targeted for violence by the USSR or by the US. It was a long war with lots of participants. As a general rule, operatives from the US and the Soviet Union did not usually target each other. If they had we would be talking about 38,000 instead of 382. The 382 figure might some day be revised to over 1,500 but I don’t believe it would go much further than that. Some folks in the DOD have formulated a figure of 1,800, and they include in those 1,800 US air crews that were shot down over or near Communist controlled areas.

      Remember that the Soviets were not the only communists in that war. The North Koreans, for example, were much less restrained in their violence. Noam Chomsky’s beloved forest fairy friends in Nicaragua, the “Sandanistas,” were happy to target Americans (along with everyone else in range) until they began to suffer unfortunate accidents. Central America and South America were violent places even before the Cubans arrived, and long before Daniel Ortega was a glimmer in Fidel Castro’s eye. In a few cases in Central America, we are left suspecting that “right wing” gangsters were responsible for the deaths of American operatives. Some of those “right wing” and “left wing” groups in South America and Central America were not “right” or “left” but were simply opportunistic low life gangsters taking advantage of whatever largesse Eastern or Western Santa Clauses might be willing to place under the mango tree.

      The more we attempt to review the question the more confusing it becomes. For example, in Europe, Soviet and Warsaw Pact-sponsored terrorists from Western European nations were far more willing to target US operatives, US military personnel in Europe, and American civilians in general than the Soviets or Warsaw Pact operatives were. Do we count as Cold War casualties American operatives who were killed while in Western Europe and the ones who were killed while on operations in the Mid-East and north Africa? Or do we only count the ones who didn’t return from operations beyond the iron curtain?

      As you can see the question is a complex one but what is clear is that life in the field was often stressful. The game was played for keeps.

    • J H says:

      Tim, I just checked out your page. You have a great page! I am going to ask our team’s Ubernovelist Piper Bayard to feature your link.

      Your transportation misadventure still has me laughing and it’s not easy to laugh at transportation these days.

      • timqueeney says:

        Thanks, J.H. Appreciate your comments on my site. Also thanks for the explanation about casualties in the Cold War. Fascinating. Your reply does a great job of indicating the complexity of the situation.

        Another fascinating aspect of the Cold War were the numbers stations broadcasting on HF. I’ve heard that the numbers were used with operatives’ one time pads for ciphering/deciphering messages. But there are still numbers stations broadcasting today.Is the one time pad technique still being used?

    • J H says:

      “Is the one time pad technique still being used?”

      I am by no means jealous of the NSA folks that get to do code work every day. I am and have never dreamed of being a code specialist. I will attempt to answer as a rank code amateur.

      One time pads are nearly gone but they may remain in use in situations where little time is available for training users, or in situations where the parties involved do not wish to risk expensive equipment. For example, if it were up to me I would not have trusted the legions of new Libyan operatives to take sensitive equipment with them into Tripoli when they were infiltrating Tripoli for the “build up.” One time pads would have been a workable temporary code solution. If one pad had been discovered other users would not have been compromised and messages already transmitted would not be at risk as long as the user had destroyed the old pages as instructed.

      In the digital age equipment capacity keeps rising and costs are declining but one time pads are cheap, easy to learn to use, and very secure as long as the user follows instructions. Given the ease with which one time pad systems can be adapted to cheap digital devices the pads may disappear from use but their cheap modern equivalents will likely be around for a long time.

      • timqueeney says:

        Thanks again! Your answer suggests you are more than a rank amateur at coding!

        The broadcasts of the numbers stations are easily one of the more eerie vestiges of the Cold War. Listening to them is a strange experience – especially the stations that use children’s voices. Somehow odd and unsettling.

  2. Texanne says:

    “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.” I’ve heard that souls in Paradise know everything. That should include the gratitude of a sleeping nation.

    Question: Considering the “Cambridge Forty”–what’s the probability of a “Harvard Forty”?

    • J H says:

      Hi Texanne. Your question is a good one. I don’t suspect that there has been a “Harvard Forty.” Harvard and Cambridge were very different places during the twentieth century. Nearly all of the Cambridge Forty were recruited prior to World War Two. Prior to that war, “Stalinism” was not widely understood in the West. The class distinctions in England were much sharper, and the liberal traditions were different in the the USA and England. Communism was much more popular in England than it was in the United States.

      While Harvard today may have liberal leanings, there seems to be far less of an “activist” spirit. Harvard has always had a liberal voice but in the 1920s and 1930s its students and faculty were less disaffected than many at Cambridge had been.

      If there was a “forty” in the United states it was at Columbia University in new York City. I have never attempted to discover what the number of active Soviet agents from Columbia might have been, but I am aware that there were at least a dozen. They are less famous because it seems that most of them more quickly recovered from their communist idealism and few of them ever achieved anything meaningful on behalf of the Soviets.

      The Cambridge traitors are more infamous because of what they achieved for Stalin and for the post Stalin Soviets.

      • Texanne says:

        Funny, a little bit. So spying is an upper-class or elite business while personal violence (Lee Harvey Oswald, Timothy McVeigh, The Unabomber) is more likely to be perpetrated by the working class? Am I reading this incorrectly?

        No, I’m right. Before the age of computers, grunts like Oswald and McVeigh would not have access to sensitive information. It would take a large network of say, enlisted men, to provide enough bits and pieces of info to be valuable. It would then take a team of analysts to put the bits & pieces together. Better and easier to line up someone in the upper echelons of government–and those upper echelons generally come from top-tier universities, maybe even top-tier families. This seems logical to me, but I haven’t spent much time thinking about spies. The PTA is Byzantine enough for me.

        The articles you write on these topics are like hash brownies to me–can’t get enough. Thanks!

    • J H says:

      The “Ivy League” aspect that you describe was truer in 1950 than it is today. The CIA, like the British Secret Service, relied on an “old boy” recruiting methodology. Unlike modern corporate America, the CIA and other intelligence agencies in the US are far less reliant on frat boy and sorority girl roots for recruitment today.

      By the way, Oswald had access to sensitive information about US U-2 operations in Russia. He had spent time at a radar base in Japan when he was in the Marine Corps.

      You know the difference between the PTA and the Sandinistas? You can’t hardly get in trouble for killing a Sandinista. The PTA requires more patience than I have.

  3. educlaytion says:

    I love this topic Holmes. Cold War was the first college course I ever taught, and I’ve enjoyed it ever since. The students today who never experienced fear of Soviets or communism struggle to connect with the urgency of the times. A post like this will help me explain things better, especially as I start teaching 20th century world next week. Espionage is a favorite aspect for me to study, and I’ve been fortunate to have some talks with a couple of the actors from both sides. Maybe someday you and I will get to meet up in a quiet spot where you can regale me with your memories.

    • J H says:

      Hi Clay. I hope you enjoy the series. As for my personal memories I might be more likely to depress you rather than regale you.

  4. kerrymeacham says:

    I was a young boy living in northern Florida during the Cuban missile crisis. Nothing like seeing hundreds, if not thousands, of planes for days at a time headed south and not knowing what was going on. Scary stuff back then. It’s pretty amazing there wasn’t an event that spiraled out of control. Thanks for your insights on this Holmes.

    • J H says:

      Thanks Kerry,

      One thing that was not known to the public at the time was that the United States had excellent intelligence on Soviet missile capabilities from multiple sources. President Kennedy and the Joint Chiefs knew that the Soviets were playing with a very weak hand. Their vaunted SS 3 Missile was a very white elephant. The Soviets estimated that of the few SS-3 missiles that would reach North America none would be likely to land within forty miles of their targets and that they might not even detonate. The Soviets were certain that US missiles would function as planned.

      The Soviets had no intention of letting a nuclear exchange start, but they couldn’t be seen to back down too easily. Fidel Castro had no idea what was going on and couldn’t understand the Soviet’s restraint.

      Kennedy and the Joint Chiefs appeared to make some odd decisions during the crisis, but their concern was for west Berlin. Had West Berlin not been on the table, the crisis would have been resolved sooner.

      Unfortunately, the public had no idea how desperate the Soviets were to avoid a nuclear exchange. It appeared to any reasonable observer that we were on the brink of Armageddon.

  5. kerrymeacham says:

    I’m sure things are not always as they appear..probably more the norm than not in this realm. Thanks for the insights Holmes.

  6. Texanne says:

    A few days ago you joked about my possible involvement in the Kennedy assassination. (Mrs. O’Halleran could alibi me if I hadn’t ticked her off so badly that one time.) At the time, my thoughts were for the children, and I thought about how awful it would be to have my father murdered that way. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking that the JFK assassination might be one of the worst events in American history. Bad for us as a nation, I mean, with repercussions that keep booming all around and for a long, long time. But that probably has nothing to do with spies.

    • J H says:

      “But that probably has nothing to do with spies.

      ” Some folks think it had everything to do with “spies”. I don’t think it did. Oswald actually visited the Soviet embassy in Mexico City and was interviewed by two KGB agents. The two KGB agents were taken aback. They assumed he was a harmless nut but they filed a routine report. After the assassination their boss’ bosses at Moscow Central nearly had a stroke and were worried that they would be blamed for the assassination. Even shortly after the assassination the US didn’t think that the visit meant anything. The Soviet Union would not likely use an assassin that was connected to a Soviet Embassy to kill a well known target. The Soviets assumed that we were watching their embassies as vigilantly as they were watching ours.

      Because of Oswald’s time in Russia after he defected to the USSR, some people will always believe that the USSR was behind the assassination of President Kennedy.

  7. Texanne says:

    Where did Oswald get the money to do all that traveling?

    • J H says:

      Nice question. James Jesus Angleton , the head of CIA counter-intelligence at the time probably posed that question to his staff after the assassination.

      Oswald lived a low budget life after returning to the United States with his Russian wife. Without digging out Oswald books from my boxes of books I am going to guess that the United States Department of State provided airline tickets for he and his wife. That would be standard procedure for an ex-pat with an outstanding warrant. In Russia Oswald worked in an electronics factory. In the US Oswald worked odd jobs and his wife worked. His travels were not extensive and he traveled in low budget fashion.

  8. Texanne says:

    And what kind of damage did the Cambridge Five accomplish?

    • J H says:

      I am working on articles about that. They are not yet in the hands of Ubernovelist Piper.

      They caused the loss of many lives.

  9. EllieAnn says:

    “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.”
    Wow, that’s a really great sentence. And thanks for the awesome article.

  10. J H says:

    Thank you Ellie. By the way did you push the owner of the offending derriere into the pool? Our readers are dying to know.

  11. Texanne says:

    Psst. Ellie, just so you’ll know–an iced soda with a good straw in it can become a nice instrument of torment. A strawful of chocolate milk is even better. 🙂

  12. Dave says:

    Excellent post with great follow-up, Mr. Holmes. Keep ’em coming. It’s an excellent substitute for the world history class I never took

  13. I was too young to remember anything during the Cold War. I was three when they took down the Berlin Wall. However, I know that it influences who James Bond’s enemy is considered because of it. I think people are overreacting when they point out who their enemy was back then (kinda like how they’re reacting with the “terrorists” now). What do you think?

    • J H says:

      Hi Marilag, Some people might stay locked in the cold war but I think that most Americans are willing to move toward something better. For example, some of the United States’ most reliable friends in Europe now are Poland and the Czech Republic. Both of these countries were puppet states of the old Soviet regime but now neither of them wants anything to do with Russia. Both of these countries operate a fairly blunt foreign policy and both have treated more honestly with the USA than some of our traditional allies.

      As for me, I never considered the enslaved peoples of the old Soviet Republics or the Warsaw pact nations to be my enemy or my nation’s enemy. The fact that some of them wanted a communist economic system was of no great importance to me. I always viewed them as victims of the Stalinist and post Stalinist police state.

      The power brokers of nations that operate by police state control have no desire to move beyond the cold war. Vladimir Putin has made a great career of exploiting nostalgia for the Stalinist era. Freedom and progress seem like natural goals to me but not everyone’s agenda is served by freedom. Some people prefer being an insider in a police state and are threatened by freedom.

      As for overreaction to terrorism I see sleazy exploitation by a few people. I think the majority of Westerners seek a balanced view on the subject. In any situation there will always be a few that overreact either innocently or with devious intent.

      One of the most revolting “buzz phrases” bandied about by power garbing sleaz bags is “In the post 9-11 world…”. This is often a preamble to some rationalization for abusing authority and restricting freedom. School districts mumble this crap whenever they are questioned for something like calling a swat team because some kid draws a crude picture of what might be a gun. Let’s have the FBI crime lab study the picture to see if we can discover a serial number on that drawing that the five year old produced. Is that kid connected to a white supremacist group? Let’s check for D N A. As soon as the hysteria festival dies down and sentient beings start asking questions the administrators counter with nonsense like “it’s our policy to respect our students privacy”, Translation: “we will never admit what hysteria mongering morons we are”.

      Another favorite is “It’s a new world after 9-11”. This simple minded notion fails to take into account that it was also a new world on 9-12, 9-13, every day since and guess what…tomorrow will be a new world as well.In fact I’m going to bed in a while and my wife is still awake so I am expecting a new and improved world any moment now.

      9-11 was real but we need not be blind to a better future. We can create one.

      Here’s to best wishes for everyone to have a new world tonight and or first thing in the morning.

  14. […] following is an excerpt from “From Inside the Cold War,” written by my writing partner, “Jay Holmes,” who is a veteran of that conflict. A […]

  15. […] following is an excerpt from “From Inside the Cold War,” written by my writing partner, “Jay Holmes,” who is a veteran of that conflict. A […]

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