On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of Great Britain rose to give a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, a grim look on his face and an even grimmer message in his heart.
His speech began with praise for his staunch ally and friend, President Harry S. Truman and the United States, and as the speech progressed, the reason for his concern became clear. The focus of Churchill’s speech was the Soviet Union, formerly an ally against Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and according to the former British prime minister, the world’s newest and biggest threat. The words that he used to describe the perceived menace have become famous throughout history as he noted that “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
The opening volley of the Cold War had been fired, and the world’s intelligence services had gone into overdrive.
At the close of World War II, the Soviet Union, despite the victory over the Axis powers, had suffered the loss of an estimated 20 million-plus civilian and military casualties, allegedly not all of which were caused by the Germans. The Politburo, the Soviet governing body, had made plans to recover territories lost and territories hoped to gain, all the while maintaining a tight rein on its people. The Russians, and later the Soviets, had always yielded a formidable security and intelligence apparatus, but post-war, they expanded their capabilities abroad. Up to that time, the NKVD (Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, or the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) headed by the infamous Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria, (1941 -1943) was the Politburo’s go-to apparatus for all foreign and domestic intelligence/espionage operation, to include kidnappings, assassinations, domestic repression, and executions. Between 1946 and 1954, the NKVD was reborn as the MGB (Ministerstvo gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti SSSR, Ministry for State Security) before making its most infamous transformation of all.
When most think of pre-1989 Soviet intelligence, they envision the KGB. The Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (Committee for State Security) was established in 1954 and operated until its break up in 1991. It had many of the same functions as its predecessors, to include, per Wikipedia, foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, operative-investigatory activities, guarding the State Border of the USSR, guarding the leadership of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Soviet Government, organization and ensuring of government communications as well as combating nationalism, dissent, and anti-Soviet activities. The First Chief Directorate was tasked with foreign intelligence while the Chief Second Directorate handled internal security operations.
1947 saw the major overhaul of U.S. national defense and intelligence with the enactment of the National Security Act and with it – among other things, such as the establishment of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Agency came largely out of the successes of the World War II Office of Strategic Services, and to a lesser amount, the result of settling some internal bickering and backstabbing between the military and civilian intel chiefs. By the outbreak of the Korean War, the CIA still only had a few thousand employees, 1000 of which worked in analysis. Shockingly, intelligence gathered by CIA primarily came from the Office of Reports and Estimates, which drew its reports from a daily take of State Department telegrams, military dispatches, and other public documents. The CIA still lacked its own intelligence-gathering abilities. The outbreak of war in East Asia would quickly change that.
In 1950, both the KGB and the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency were closely keeping one eye on each, while the other was on happenings in Korea. In what would be called one of its early blunders, despite the fact that both South Korean and American intelligence officers predicted that an invasion from the north was coming and that analysts tracked and noted the southward movement of the communist Korean People’s Army, the notion of an invasion was dismissed as one of many predictions that had not come to fruition.
But now both had a stake in the now divided countries, (north and south) and neither hesitated to set up and run spy networks, set up stay behind partisan units in the north and run reconnaissance missions, along with keeping tabs on the governments that they had helped to prop up and back. Meanwhile, they continued to wage their clandestine war elsewhere around the globe, and they made full use of countries and governments looking for a change after the devastation of the last war. CIA and KGB were all too happy to help, and the “proxy wars” began.
The war-torn and weary governments of Europe were fertile grounds for testing out the new enemies. After the fall of Nazi Germany, the nation was divided between East and West Germany (formally the German Democratic Republic, GDR, and the Federal German Republic, or FGR) under the Russians (the Soviet Union, later the Warsaw Pact) and the West (the U.S. and her allies, later NATO) respectively. In the east, The Russians propped up and backed a communist government, and 1948 saw the birth of what has been called one of the most effective and repressive intelligence agencies to have ever existed, the Ministry for State Security (German: Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, MfS), commonly known as the Stasi (German abbreviation: Staatssicherheit, literally State Security.)
The Stasi motto was “Schild und Schwert der Partei” (Shield and Sword of the Party), and they lived that motto to the fullest – most often against its own people (ironically, after the collapse of communism and reunification of Germany in the 1990s, the Stasi’s millions of domestic surveillance files were opened to the public, and any citizen could view their personal record that the state maintained on them.) The agency maintained a massive network of citizens who were willing (or were forced) to inform on their neighbors and utilized an array of overt and covert means to battle internal and external forces that were deemed, enemies. The unit responsible for both espionage and covert operations against foreign nations was the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance (Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung) and under its long-time head Markus Wolf, became as proficient and ruthless as anything ever produced out of the former KGB’s headquarters at Lubyanka.
While the lines were being drawn in Europe, Africa was also dealing with the tug of war between the forces of communism and capitalism. In the once French colony of Guinea, 1958 saw the election of the nation’s first legitimate leader, Sekou Toure, and with him, a cat mouse game of international proportions. Toure was fiercely nationalistic and anti-imperialist, and he held a special disdain for the United States citing its alliances with colonial powers such as France and Great and its refusal to condemn the apartheid government of South Africa. Most troubling for U.S. intelligence and policymakers, however, was Guinea’s open courting of the Soviet’s for aid and money and the signing of a military assistance agreement with the Soviet Union. By 1960, nearly half of Guinea’s exports were going to eastern bloc nations and the Soviets had committed millions of dollars of aid to the African republic. Toure also seemed to take an interest in Mao’s communist experiments in China.
In the beginning, Toure’s relationship with the United States was shaky, which hampered CIA operations in the region. Things began to change, however, with the election of John F. Kennedy, and the Guinea government’s refusal to allow Soviet aircraft to refuel at its airfields on their way to Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Agency covert influence operations began to make headway, but once again, Toure would change his mind and turn back toward the Soviets. He would again change course in 1977 during the Angolan war, when he revoked landing privileges to Soviet aircraft and moved closer to western governments. The up-and-down, back-and-forth relationship with Toure and Guinea was a precursor of the chaos that intelligence agencies would face in Africa and around the globe.
During an April 1954 news conference, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, when asked about the conflict in Indochina that was slowly bleeding French colonial forces dry, had this to say:
“Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the “falling domino” principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”
An Iron Curtain had fallen across Eastern Europe, and as the world’s intelligence agencies geared up for what would come to be known as the “Cold War,” the United States and her allies would work feverishly – and sometimes brutally – to ensure that the next domino did not fall.