harrington36_SAUL LOEBAFP via Getty Images_cia spies SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Spy vs. Spy

From the outset, Harvard historian Calder Walton argues in a new book, Western leaders only belatedly recognized the vulnerabilities of their open societies and the magnitude of the threat posed by Soviet intelligence. Are they making the same mistake with China?

GLOUCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS – Studies of the role of intelligence operations inevitably have a Rashomon-like quality, with the same events yielding various, sometimes contradictory, interpretations. The world of intelligence, after all, is one of secrets, special-access compartments, covert action, clandestine relationships, and occasionally off-the-books escapades. This makes it very difficult to assess successes and failures, and to chronicle the role of intelligence in political leaders’ decisions.

Harvard historian Calder Walton confronts this challenge head on in a new book, Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West, which recounts the rise and role of modern intelligence capabilities through the history of the West’s competition with the Russian security services. It is an ambitious and entertaining story, but one that is also firmly grounded in academic research. In fact, Walton’s account sheds new light on seemingly well-studied events, from the Bolshevik Revolution and World War II to the deployment of moles in the ranks of American, British, and Russian intelligence services at the end of the century.


Walton draws on newly opened archives, formerly classified in-house histories, memoirs, and interviews with policymakers and spies. He thus illuminates how intelligence contributed to episodes like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1983 Able Archer incident, when a NATO drill triggered Soviet fears of a Western first strike, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war.

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