The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was established at the forefront of the Cold War in 1947 following the fall of Nazi Germany and Japan’s surrender in 1945. At the epicentre of a global geopolitical tug-of-war between the United States and Soviet Union, the CIA was created to serve the American people by gathering intelligence for the US government. With its headquarters located in Langley, Virginia, the CIA further strengthened the US in various areas including defence, science, and technology.
Before it was established as the CIA, the American government was already familiar with intelligence and espionage. During World War One and World War Two, The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operated semi-autonomously in providing espionage and military intelligence for the United States– albeit primarily for the duration of the two wars only. When the Cold War began the US had to take a different approach to foreign policy, which generated a need for a different type of intelligence service to gather data on potential threats of national security.
The National Security Act of 1947 created the CIA, along with the National Security Council and National Security Resources Board. This legislation greatly increased the US’ power in world affairs, due to the agency’s primary objective of gathering information regarding military and political tactics of potential adversaries. One of the CIA’s foremost principles was that it not interfere with US citizens’ domestic affairs, however, the public was not and still is not entirely aware of the agency´s activities.
The CIA during the Cold War was mainly engaged in intelligence gathering missions, investigative operations, counter intelligence and covert political action. In particular, it was tasked with figuring out the Soviet Union’s military and nuclear capabilities to avoid direct military confrontation. The CIA conducted operations in multiple locations, gathering information about the Soviet Union and its allies and frequently intervening in the internal politics of Communist countries such as Eastern Europe, Cuba, and China – all conflicting with the Soviet Union
The CIA created many of its iconic images, tactics, and methods during this era. Furthermore, the CIA developed powerful intelligence-gathering tools that are still used in the modern day, such as satellite imagery, encryption and infiltration. Their successes included the detection of Russian spies hiding in the United States, the prevention of nuclear proliferation and ultimately, the eventual fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries.
Not all of the CIA’s operations during the Cold War were so successful, and some arguably caused more harm than good. One of the most notorious and controversial operations was the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, and the subsequent installation of the authoritarian Shah of Iran in power. This was done to counter the influence of the Soviet Union, but ultimately resulted in further destabilizing the Middle East and the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The CIA was and is one of the most influential and powerful agencies of the US government. Even though it was initially created as a direct response to the ideological implications of the Cold War, the CIA continues to do its job of protecting the US from various threats, and as such remains one of the most visible and important instruments of US foreign policy.
Development of Technology
The CIA was largely responsible for the development of many novel technologies and advancements in US intelligence-gathering capabilities. As a result of the Cold War, there was a ‘space race’ between the US and Soviet Union and the CIA took the opportunity to develop powerful surveillance technologies – such as spy satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – as well as create powerful computing systems and numerous foreign intelligence networks.
One of the most relevant technological advancements was the development of satellite imagery. The invention of spy satellites that could be used to collect data on foreign countries allowed the CIA to better understand its respective adversaries and ultimately served to benefit the US in the Cold War. Without the advancements made in satellite imagery, the CIA would not have been able to monitor the movements and activities of their adversaries as effectively.
In addition, the CIA was also pioneer in the development of computer systems, particularly those that were used to process and understand large amounts of data. The agency was responsible for one of the first computer systems known as the TRADIC, a powerful computer system that was created in the 1950s for military intelligence purposes. This system allowed the CIA to process and compile the large amounts of intelligence information it collected– including the surveillance data gathered by its numerous satellites.
The CIA was heavily involved in foreign interference and espionage operations during the Cold War. Several well-known operations included the American sponsored coup in Iran and Operation PBSUCCESS in Guatemala. The CIA was tasked with covertly influencing the political events in foreign countries in order to further the interests of the US – which was often to counter the influence of the Soviet Union.
The CIA frequently engaged in infiltration operations, whereby operatives would use disguises, false identities and aliases to enter foreign countries and carry out their missions. The agency also developed effective methods of cover-up such as dead drops – a technique used to communicate without being detected – and coded messages to pass information in and out of foreign countries without arousing suspicion. These operations often involved bribery and threats to ensure the cooperation of foreign officials.
Though most of the CIA’s operations during the Cold War have been further shrouded in secrecy, it is clear that the agency played an integral role in US foreign policy and the conflicts between the US and Soviet Union at the time. Almost all of the agency’s operations were classified and conducted in secret, allowing the CIA to operate with little intervening oversight or accountability.
Morality and Entertaining the Public
The CIA was known for its recruitment of top scientists from around the world and its participation in numerous scientific and technological advancements – particularly during the Cold War. The Cold War also served as a powerful propaganda tool for both sides, with American celebrities often appearing in various TV, radio and film projects to promote pro-American messages. The CIA primarily sought to entertain the masses, but at times overlooked the moral implications of their actions in order to further the US agenda.
For example, during the height of the Cold War, the CIA initiated a campaign to popularize American literature, led by the literary critic and government agent Melvin Lasky. Named the ‘international literary underground’, the campaign sought to propagate the values of democracy, freedom and self-expression through literature. Authors such as John Le Carre and Graham Greene were among those who the CIA recruited to help bolster the campaign.
The CIA also worked to promote pro-American and anti-Communist messages through various forms of popular culture, including film and television. Through its involvement in the production of various Cold War era films, such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) and television shows, such as I Led Three Lives (1953), The Americans (1981) and The Americans (2013), the CIA was able to control the narrative and influence public opinion of the Soviet Union and the US.
CIA and Public Opinion
Throughout its history, the CIA has been shrouded in a veil of mystery and secrecy, and widely criticized by the public due to its clandestine activities. The Cold War naturally caused heightened public scrutiny of the agency, with many accusing it of unethical behaviour and meddling in domestic political affairs. Arguably, this anti-CIA sentiment was a part of the public discourse prior to the Cold War, but it substantially increased due to the global political implications of the Cold War.
The CIA’s reputation was further damaged by its involvement in numerous activities that were considered morally reprehensible. One of its most controversial operations during the Cold War was the protection and promotion of brutal right-wing Latin American regimes. The agency was also heavily involved in covert activity in Angola, Vietnam, and Nicaragua, and its numerous failed operations in the Middle East were heavily scrutinized by the public.
The public’s opinion of the CIA has continued to fluctuate over the years, and it continues to be a major point of debate in the US. With its involvement in numerous clandestine activities and its speculated misuse of power, it is not surprising that the CIA’s reputation has often been maligned. The public continues to question the ethical and moral implications of its operations, and many believe that the agency should be subject to more stringent oversight and regulation.
The Central Intelligence Agency was founded as a direct result of the Cold War, and it continues to be one of the most important instruments of US foreign policy. While the CIA had a hand in numerous successes, it has also been associated with several controversial and unethical activities – including the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh and protection of right-wing regimes. Its involvement in the Cold War and shadowy activities have resulted in a growing mistrust of the agency, and the public continues to question the moral implications of its actions.