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Spying on Russia: how ungentlemanly

The Colossus computer at Bletchley Park. Jack Taylor/Getty

In the first half of the 20th century, says The Economist, Western governments were at times almost comically naive about espionage. In 1929, America’s secretary of state shut down his country’s codebreaking agency on the basis that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail”. Seven years later, Britain’s ambassador in Moscow refused to let MI6 open a station in the embassy because it might “cause embarrassment”. When the UK joined forces with the Soviets during World War Two, the Foreign Office “went so far as to ban espionage” against its new ally.

Stalin took the reverse approach, “placing a higher priority on espionage against his allies than against Nazi Germany”. He knew about both the codebreaking successes at Bletchley Park and the top-secret Manhattan Project “years before Harry Truman”, who was told of these “momentous secrets” only on becoming president. These and other revelations in Calder Walton’s “riveting” new history of the subject seem particularly relevant today, in light of the West’s insistence that it doesn’t want a cold war with China. As he puts it: “Western powers can be in a cold war irrespective of whether they seek one and before they recognise it.”

Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West by Calder Walton is available to buy here.