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Spy Screeds: 8 Books About the History of Spies

* Spies have been used for centuries, but few of their true stories have been made public
* These eight books all address different eras in spy history
* Many include coded messages and never before seen photos

Due to the secretive nature of the profession it’s hard to tell exactly where the history of spies began. Sun Tzu, in his famous book Art of War, writes of using subversive tactics to gain military intelligence, all the way back in the fifth century BC. Famously, Mary, Queen of Scots was said to have used a network of “intelligencers” to help plot to take down Queen Elizabeth.

In more modern times, spies were utilized in both World Wars, as well as aggressively and creatively for decades during the Cold War, leading to some of the greatest-and most famous “spy tales” of all time, inspiring everyone from John Le Carre to Ian Fleming. These eight books below all cover a different, real-life aspect of espionage history, and recount it in brilliant, gripping detail.

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1. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War

When arguably the greatest spy novelist of all time, John Le Carre, calls your book “the best true spy story I have ever read,” you know you have something special. The book tells the fascinating Cold War tale of Oleg Gordievsky, the son of two KGB agents, who embarked on secret work for MI6. Filled with twists, turns and double-crosses, it embodies the creed that truth is stranger than fiction.

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Image Courtesy of Crown


2. The Secret History of World War II: Spies, Code Breakers and Covert Operations

From the trusted writers of National Geographic comes the little-known true story of the spies that operated behind the scenes during the second world war. Much of the source material for this book was only recently declassified, and contains never-before-seen photographs and coded messages. Covering everything from psychological warfare tactics to Enigma machines, get ready to dive into the world of war-time spies.

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Image Courtesy of National Geographic


3. The Secret History of KGB Spy Cameras: 1945–1995

Filled with over 350 photographs, this book offers a visual history of the KGB through the years from over ninety different cameras. It contains priceless details and fascinating, previously hidden, angles that both history buffs and novices will enjoy.

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Image Courtesy of Schiffer Military History


4. D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II

A story that few people are familiar with, Sarah Rose tells the tale of the D-Day Girls – spies who were recruited by Britain’s Special Operations Executive in France to work undetected in Nazi-occupied territory. Read about these fascinating women, from Lise de Baissac, a member of French colonial high society, to Odette Sansom, a suburban housewife turned super spy.

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Image Courtesy of Crown


5. The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English 

While we all may have had secret code words we used with our friends and siblings growing up, it’s time to graduate to the real thing. This comprehensive list compiled by Joseph C. Goulden incorporates words used by the CIA, MI6 and KGB, providing a comprehensive list of definitions, as well as unique observations and anecdotes.

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Image Courtesy of Dover Publications


6. Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America’s Surveillance Society

We all think of spies as being confined to CIA offices and back alleys, but America has a long history of recruiting everyday people to spy on each other. From its early beginnings during the Colonial era with “town criers,” to its modern role in the War on Terror, Joshua Reeves discusses America’s civilian spies, and the culture they create.

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Image Courtesy of NYU Press


7. George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution

You may know the story of George Washington and the American Revolution, but do you know the story of the Culper Spy Ring? Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger piece together this intricately researched tale of the men and women involved in this ring, from a tavern keeper to a grumpy Long Island-based bachelor, all of which makes for a gripping read.

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Image Courtesy of Sentinel


8. Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials That Shaped American Politics

From the famous Rosenberg and Bentley trials, to lesser-known cases, this book traverses America’s complicated relationship with Communism and those associated with it. In this detailed, engaging, often shocking historical account, you’ll learn things you’ll be sharing at many dinner parties to come.

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Image Courtesy of Cambridge University Press

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