Paul Beaver: Cold War Double Agents

posted 18 Jan 2022 3 mins

On 18th January we were delighted to welcome back military historian Paul Beaver for our latest Winter Talk: Cold War Double Agents.

Paul has written extensively on military and aviation history, specialising in the 1930s and 1940s), alongside running his own vintage aeroplane company, working as a freelance war correspondent and broadcaster, and serving in the Army Reserve (he retired in 2013 with the rank of Colonel). Following on from his excellent 2021 talk on Second World War double agents, he began with the observation that ‘spies have always been with us, and they always will be.’ The Cold War, espionage in general, and particularly the world of the double agent, he explained, were ‘more about people than kit, or technology… the analysis of people has always been and will always be the bedrock of intelligence.’

Paul was keen to emphasise that spies are motivated by any number of things – ‘money, ideology, compromise, excitement’ – and was equally admiring and analytical in regard to Soviet and Western agents. He examined the 1962 case of Oleg Penkovsky, a proud anti-Soviet Russian working for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in Moscow, and his handler Greville Wynne, a British businessman, who were respectively executed and imprisoned for the efforts to uncover the intentions of the Soviet state in Cuba – an heroic mission that ‘probably stopped us from going to war in the Cuban Missile Crisis.’ In Paul’s view, the most famous of all double agents, the Cambridge Four, believed that ‘fascism was on the rise, and that the democratic governments of the West wouldn’t do anything about it.’, while the astonishing 25-year careers of actors such as Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt ‘made us completely re-evaluate how you look at security’. Cases of ‘deep cover’, we learned, continue to surface today: 10 ‘Russian Deep Cover Illegals’ who were ‘trained to be Americans or Canadians from an early age’ were exposed in 2010. American-raised and educated, often rising to ‘really interesting positions’ such as senior lectureships at universities, the US State Department or the Canadian Foreign Ministry, they were busy ‘hoovering up everything that came along.’

A post-talk Q&A chaired by Bella Hoare teased out further fascinating nuggets from Paul. ‘There is lots still to be revealed,’ he confirmed – ‘SIS does not release information…but in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, the Cold War was an industry. There are people in government who made their name by uncovering doubles and interrogating them, but we’ll never know about this, probably, until they die, and we read their obits in The Times.