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Secret Front Lines


Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.

Secretary of State Henry Stimson, 1929


There is an urgent need to develop the highest possible quality of intelligence on the USSR in the shortest possible time.

Admiral Sidney Souer
Director, Central Intelligence Group, 1946


In a war that was more about ideas than territory, it is not surprising that the front lines were defined more by spies pursuing state secrets than by soldiers battling over terrain.  As World War II drew to a close, American spy operations diminished.  But the growing Soviet threat led to influential people building compelling cases for the need of a central office for gathering, assessing, and circulating intelligence information.  Slowly, there emerged a new agency whose responsibility would be to do these things, and more.


The Central Intelligence Agency was founded in 1947, the same year President Truman announced his policy of containment.  As revelations of Soviet spying against America grew, and as the Cold War heated up, the agency also grew, expanding from intelligence gathering to espionage activities, covert operations, and psychological warfare.  In time, other intelligence agencies would form in the departments of Defense, State, and within the FBI.

Soviet spies in America had attained success.  Even while allied with the United States against Nazi Germany, the Soviets stole atomic secrets from the American government.  Many feared that Soviet spies and sympathizers within Washington’s federal agencies had worked to undermine foreign policy, contributing to China’s fall into Communist hands in 1949.

In response, Congress ramped up investigations in the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), searching for spies in places as remote as Hollywood and as near as the State Department.  HUAC’s investigations soon would be overshadowed by Senate inquiries headed by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, who focused on ferreting out spies in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.  Buoyed early by popular support, McCarthy eventually would overreach and be  censured by his Senate colleagues.

By the 1970s Congress was investigating its own spy agencies rather than foreign spies.  Demoralized by key intelligence failures and charges of illegal activities, the CIA was reduced in scope and size.  The spy agencies would rebound in the 1980s under the Reagan administration and play important roles in the final decade of the Cold War.

    Photograph of President John F. Kennedy Signing the Proclamation for the Interdiction of the Delivery of Offensive Weapons to Cuba, 10/23/1962  

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