Throughout history there have been spies at all levels of government working to dismantle a given power structure either for profit or a conflict of ideologies. But who were these mysterious figures in history? Modern interpretations of spies are often depicted in film as suave deadly individuals, but some of the most incredible spy operations have been undertaken by people who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Of course one of the most famous spies in history was Judas Iscariot who turned Jesus over to the Romans. But the ancient world had its own share of spies as well. Though they are often seen in popular culture as master assassins who wear all black, our interpretation of ninjas often comes from Kabuki theater where the actors wear black in front of a black background to show they are hidden. In reality feudal Japan’s ninjas were often people who were in a family’s house to gather intelligence and many never fought or did anything more than keep an eye on potentially troublesome families. The Egyptians used spying extensively in their dealings with the Roman empire and of course the reverse was true as well. Priests, priestesses, courtesans, and servants were often employed to gather intelligence of the visiting Roman invaders.
And of course the effectiveness of the technique often depended on the stakes of the time. In ancient Egypt spies were in far more high demand during times of conflict, but it wasn’t until the first World War that spies found themselves holding the lives of millions in their hands. And spying needed newer techniques. Even then, however, the majority of spies were not actually James Bond-esque trained super soldiers but rather people who held positions where they traveled frequently or were close to the upper echelons of the chain of command.
But then the Cold War began. With the Berlin Wall and atomic power also came a new era of spying. At its height in 1971 British Intelligence announced the discovery of 120 Soviet spies. Given the fury of the McCarthy era and cold war paranoia, this number was unquestionably low according to the CIA – which had to contend with the possibility of spies even within their own ranks. But this may have been partially because the stakes of nuclear technology were so high. Both sides of the war knew that nuclear weapons held with them an unprecedented power – one that could shape the globe forever.
Of course one of the most notorious stories of Cold War Era spying and sentiment came about when Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for heading a spy network intending to give nuclear secrets at the height of the Korean war to the Soviet Union. After the incident, Eisenhower was haunted by the event and knew the world would change forever. Some have argued, however, that the efforts of these spies were one of the things that actually ended the Cold War as they resulted in both sides no longer having anything to keep from one another.