Spies and their roles in history and war are the stuff of stories and legends, the breeding ground of traitors like Benedict Arnold and fictional characters like John LeCarré's George Smiley, Ian Fleming's "James Bond" or the Character played by Edward Woodward in the TV show "The Equalizer". For the most part, the work that spies do is heavily fictionalized. Real Spies are never James Bond-style people. They don't attract attention- they have to remain unseen and unremarked in a place that could be very deadly if or when they are discovered. And for the most part, their jobs are boring- they don't have gunfights with thugs of some bad guy- their job is to collect information and pass it on to their superiors. Sometimes by suborning enemy agents, sometimes by observation or through tapping phone lines, and sometimes by breaking and entering.
This book collects stories of spies and agents that have worked both for and against America , from the formation of the United States in the Colonial Era to the more modern day spy Stories. In addition to the straight-up stories of spies and what they did, the stories of double agents (and even sometimes triple agents) are discussed.
The book begins with the Colonial Era. America, despite not having anything like a standing army, or the manpower or materiel to outfight the British Empire, still did manage to overcome its parent country and win its freedom. How? The Americans outspied the British, that's how. The Culper Spy Ring managed to give Washington and the other Colonial generals the intelligence to win battles and know what the British were planning far enough in advance that the American troops could use that to the best effect. Even Ben Franklin got in on the act: using his dlplomatic position to "manage" the European perceptions of the war, and paint the British in a bad light, from manufacturing a newspaper that made it seem the British were paying Indians to scalp women and children of the colonists, to putting about a letter that purported that the British were trying to destroy as many Hessian troops as possible, to the point of abandoning those injured for dead. All lies, but it got the Europeans on the side of the Americans and made them turn against the British in popular opinion.
After a discussion of Benedict Arnold, and Invisible Ink, the book moves on to the Civil War, profiling top spies on both sides in the War and discussing some new wrinkles in the Spy business, from spies in Balloons to the way information was passed by both sides, and the role of African Americans in the war and in the Spy business. From there, we are swept on to World War I, and the problems America was having at the time. Because espionage was not considered important, America was far behind when it came to finding out about possible operations against it, and a great deal of industrial sabotage was conducted on America by Germany and its allies before America entered the war. But little do most people know that this was precipitated by Pancho Villa, who used arms given to him by the Americans against America, which incited President Wilson's ire.
From World War I, the action moves to World War II, and afterwards, showing how we spied on what became East Germany from under the wall. It wasn't long before the ruse was discovered, but the information gained was invaluable. Other innovations, like hidden microphones and the U2 Spy plane, along with miniature cameras, are covered, but the section on history ends with the section on the Cold War. After that, the actions of double agents are shown, along with how they accomplished their spying, and how they were caught
It's rather ironic that the greatest danger from spies can often come from spies who are supposed to be working for their own side. Benedict Arnold agreed to spy for the British because he felt wronged in his career by the Americans, and other double agents changed sides just for the money, or similar hurt feelings- in training your own agents, you can be setting yourself up for having them turn against you. And yet, if you ignore espionage, you will be taken apart by enemy spies you will never be able to see coming. Espionage can be a "Damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.
Nevertheless, this book provides a wonderful overview of spying through history. I wondered if they didn't cover modern spying because that was still supposed to be a secret, or just because they didn't want young readers to know that we (the USA) is still involved in that, despite making it clear that Spies and Spying are needed to protect the country from the spies and bad intentions of other nations.
This is a fascinating book, and can make anyone want to read more about spies and the work of espionage in various time periods and the modern day. The work of spies is generally boring, but there are moments of (I am sure) sheer terror when they might be found out at their work, and the makeup of a good spy is part actor, part office worker, a mimic who can go anywhere and not seem out of place and be anyone, fitting in wherever they may be. An excellent book that fascinates from the first page. Highly recommended.