Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History

Course No. 8922
Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D.
University of Tennessee
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Course No. 8922
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Course Overview

Hidden deep within the daily workings of governments and civilizations is a secret world of mystery, danger, and intrigue. A world where deception is a form of art. Where people are never who they say they are. Where the tiniest observation has the power to save an empire or spark a global war.

Welcome to the world of the spy—a world that most of us associate with popular fiction and film but the true story of which is more fascinating, surprising, and important than you could possibly imagine.

For thousands of years, espionage and covert operations have been powerful but shadowy forces. Much of world history has been shaped by the dramatic exploits of men, women, and organizations devoted to the perilous tasks and undercover missions that are part of a spy's life. Consider that covert operations have played critical roles in

  • epic conflicts such as the Trojan War, the Crusades, World War II, and the War on Terror;
  • political upheavals such as the American, French, and Russian revolutions; and even
  • cultural moments such as the quest to colonize the New World, the 19th-century expansion of empires, and
  • race to build the world's first atomic bomb.

Indeed, to truly comprehend the forces at work in international politics, whether at the dawn of civilization or among today's sophisticated world powers, one must understand the secret role of espionage and the shadowy world of covert operations.

Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History is your chance to take a detailed and unforgettable tour of the millennia-long history and enduring legacy of this top-secret subject. Delivered by master historian and popular Great Courses Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, these 24 thrilling lectures survey how world powers have attempted to work in the shadows to gain secret information or subvert enemies behind the scenes. Filled with stories that are both marvelous and mysterious, and insights that will change the way you think about some of world history's most defining events, this course lets you peer inside a subject whose truths most people are unaware of.

Survey the Dramatic History of Espionage

Espionage and intelligence have been around since human beings first began organizing themselves into distinct societies, cities, states, nations, and civilizations; for this reason, spying has often been referred to as the world's "second oldest profession." Beginning around 2000 B.C.E. with a clay Mesopotamian tablet that refers to mysterious fire signals between villages, Professor Liulevicius expertly guides you across time and around the world on an in-depth investigation of this intriguing topic.

After an introductory lecture that grounds you in the language and culture of spies, you delve into distinct periods of history that were shaped by espionage and that, in turn, shaped how spies and covert organizations executed their missions. Here are just three that you'll learn about:

  • Ancient and medieval traditions: You'll see espionage at work in a variety of early peoples, including the Hittites and Israelites (where spying was first tied to diplomacy and religion); the Greeks and Romans (in examples like the Trojan War and the wars to expand the Roman Empire), and the medieval Middle Easterners and Japanese (with their secret societies such as the Assassins and the Ninjas).
  • The rise of nations: Beginning in the 1500s, a wave of political, social, and religious changes wracked Europe and gave rise to the modern nation-state. It was during this period that intelligence gathering became an essential function of the modern state. You'll learn how espionage was integral to the rise and success of Elizabethan England, tsarist Russia, revolutionary France and Germany, and America's own Revolutionary and Civil wars.
  • Espionage on a global scale: During the global conflicts of the 20th century, the techniques and technologies of espionage exploded in ways earlier civilizations could never have predicted. In addition to learning about the growth of spy phobia in the United States, you'll find out how new technologies aided in cracking intricate codes during World Wars I and II, how espionage worked to repress societies in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, and more.

Explore Top-Secret Organizations, Meet History's Greatest Spies

Central to the world of espionage, you'll discover, are the covert organizations responsible for both acquiring information from the other side and protecting their information from being stolen. History is filled with such organizations; some successful, some corrupt, some more influential than others.

For example, you'll be introduced to the inner workings of covert organizations from both yesterday and today, including

  • the Assassins, a religious sect of trained political murderers that operated out of a mountain fortress in northern Syria during the time of the Crusades;
  • the Oprichnina, a feared secret service established by tsar Ivan the Terrible in the 1500s in an effort to cleanse Russia of treasonous activities;
  • MI6, the popular name for Great Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, which was first established in an effort to defeat the Germans during World War I;
  • the CIA, established in 1947 by President Truman to replace the Office of Strategic Services to be in charge of all intelligence collection—and which had an embarrassing early history; and
  • Mossad, Israel's version of the CIA, which won a series of key intelligence victories during the cold war and over terror attacks and hostage crises in the second half of the 20th century.

But perhaps even more eye-opening than the organizations devoted to espionage are the individual men and women who served as spies. Throughout Espionage and Covert Operations, you'll meet famous—and infamous—figures, including

  • Sir Francis Walsingham, who built the institutional bases for intelligence services in Elizabethan England;
  • Belle Boyd, who spied for Confederates during the American Civil War and earned the nickname "the Siren of the South";
  • Mata Hari, the archetype of the "femme fatale" who secured information for French and German intelligence services before World War I through means of seduction; and
  • Kim Philby, a highly successful British secret service agent who from the first was determined to spy for the Soviet Union.

A Stirring Series of Lectures

With the same captivating lecturing style he's brought to his other Great Courses, Professor Liulevicius has created a stirring series of lectures that proves why he's deserving of his numerous awards and accolades. Among these: the University of Tennessee's Excellence in Teaching Award and a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship.

And, in the style of his other popular history courses, Espionage and Covert Operations never shies away from asking tough questions about espionage or probing intriguing issues and debates, including

  • the psychological motives behind spies—and why they sometimes betray their countries;
  • the relationship between literary spies and their real-life counterparts;
  • the growth (and ethics) of cyber warfare and corporate espionage; and
  • the question of whether we currently live in a surveillance society.

So join Professor Liulevicius for this penetrating look into a world that few of us truly understand—but one that is more important to everyday events than you ever imagined.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Introducing the Secret World
    Professor Liulevicius welcomes you to the world of spies by giving you essential background information for the lectures ahead. You'll decode the secret language of terms such as "covert operations," "HUMINT," "agent," and "disinformation"; explore the various motives of professional spies; and outline the broad themes of espionage's grand history. x
  • 2
    Ancient Espionage
    Travel to the ancient world and investigate the earliest stories of espionage. You'll see conflicting views of intelligence work on display in the Bible, examine Sun Tzu's views on espionage from The Art of War, learn how Greeks and Romans saw intelligence as vital to warfare, and more. x
  • 3
    Medieval and Renaissance Spying
    What was espionage like during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance? How was it linked to the growth of the state system? Why were Marco Polo and Niccolò Machiavelli so important to the evolution of espionage? How did secret societies such as the Ninjas of Japan and the Assassins of Syria practice their covert craft? x
  • 4
    Spies of the Elizabethan Age
    Discover why Sir Francis Walsingham, principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I, is considered the "father of intelligence" in England. Learn how he approached his role as a royal spymaster and how he crafted the Babington Plot of 1585. Then, witness English espionage stave off the notorious Gunpowder Plot of 1605. x
  • 5
    Spies in the Age of Discovery
    With the age of discovery and the Enlightenment came an increased need to compete for secrets and information. After spending time with the elaborate spy networks of Russia's Ivan the Terrible and France's Cardinal de Richelieu, meet two of the period's most intriguing spies: the libertine Casanova and the cross-dressing Chevalier d'Eon. x
  • 6
    Espionage in the American Revolution
    Continue on to the American Revolution. In this lecture, Professor Liulevicius reveals the critical roles played by spies and organizations, including the Sons of Liberty, the Knowlton Rangers (America's first military intelligence organization), the agent Anna Smith Strong, the infamous Benedict Arnold, and the ambitious Scottish volunteer James Aitken. x
  • 7
    Spying of the European Great Powers
    Go back to Europe and investigate the covert operations and spy networks of Europe's great powers during the 19th century. As you learn about the role of espionage in revolutionary and post-revolutionary France, Russia, and Germany, you'll see how it was used to help keep entire societies under tight surveillance. x
  • 8
    U.S. Civil War Spies in Blue and Gray
    The American Civil War spurred developments in the history of espionage. Among those you focus on here are the Pinkerton detectives, the Confederacy's Secret Service Bureau, female spies including Elizabeth "Crazy Bet" van Lew, the contributions of African Americans, and the impact of new technologies such as the telegraph and the railroad. x
  • 9
    The Great Game of Empires
    In the 19th century, as European powers scrambled to carve out overseas empires, espionage became increasingly more institutionalized. Revisit this tense and competitive period, where covert operations played a central role in everything from the British colonization of India and the rise of Russian Socialism to the Spanish-American and Russo-Japanese wars. x
  • 10
    Spy Phobia before World War I
    Sidney Reilly's career as the "Ace of Spies." The covert origins of the Boy Scouts. The infamous Dreyfus Affair. Spy novels such as Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. These are just a few of the topics you'll investigate in this intriguing lecture on society's spy phobia from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. x
  • 11
    Mata Hari and Company in World War I
    Investigate the new possibilities that World War I opened up for both female spies and for codebreakers. Topics include the lives and careers of the femme fatale Mata Hari and the British nurse Edith Cavell, as well as the increasing shift in espionage from human intelligence to communication interception. x
  • 12
    Subversion—Lawrence of Arabia and Lenin
    Many covert operations during World War I aimed to subvert states from within through revolution. Focus on three of the most important: the Arab Revolt encouraged by Lawrence of Arabia, Lenin's Russian Revolution, and the Zimmerman telegram, the interception of which led to America's entry into this global conflict. x
  • 13
    Radical Challenge—The Interwar Years
    Professor Liulevicius takes you deep inside Bolshevik Russia as it defends itself against foreign spies and conducts a secret war with British intelligence (involving the super spy Sidney Reilly). Then, he shows you how America's own fear of Communist spies led to the birth of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. x
  • 14
    Soviets and Nazis—Surveillance and Terror
    Turn to a different form of espionage—one directed specifically at a nation's own population. The best examples of this can be found in Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Nazi Germany, both of which built unprecedented modern "surveillance societies" that took internal espionage to frightening new levels of intensity. x
  • 15
    Converts to Espionage
    Why do spies commit themselves to espionage? Is it about power? Prestige? Patriotism? Discover the diverse motives behind choosing the spy's life by looking at Kim Philby and the Cambridge spy ring of the 1930s, the Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers, the American spy Tyler G. Kent, and the German spy William Sebold. x
  • 16
    Launching World War II
    Learn the important role espionage played in the buildup to World War II. You'll travel to various fronts around the globe and explore the adventures and deceptive operations of Polish codebreakers in Europe, Japanese spies in Manchuria and Hawaii, and a range of Fascist and Communist spies operating during the Spanish Civil War. x
  • 17
    Covert Operations and Codes in World War II
    Follow along as Allied forces use a range of organizations—including Churchill's Special Operations Executive and the American Office of Strategic Services—to defeat the Axis powers. Then, take at look at Operation MAGIC's efforts to crack German and Japanese codes, assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler, and other covert operations. x
  • 18
    Atomic Spies and Spy Hunts
    Shed light on the cold war tensions between East and West by looking at espionage's role in the dramatic race to build an atomic bomb, the rise of America's Central Intelligence Agency, and spy hunts and spy trials on both sides of the Iron Curtain—including the infamous trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. x
  • 19
    Cold War Chill
    Continue your look at cold war espionage. You'll follow the drama of the U-2 spy plane incident, witness the CIA's role in international crises, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, discover how agents like Colonel Penkovsky and Kim Philby infiltrated the highest echelons of power, and more. x
  • 20
    World Crises
    Survey the new intelligence organizations that sprouted up around the world in the second half of the 20th century. How did China's intelligence agency cooperate, then break ties, with the Soviet Union? What was the relationship between the CIA and Iran's equivalent, the Savak? Why has Israel's Mossad acquired such legendary status? x
  • 21
    Spies in Fiction and Film
    Focus on spies who were the literary creations of men who had themselves been involved in intelligence work. After you explore the roots of espionage in literature, compare and contrast Ian Fleming's popular superspy, James Bond, with the disillusioned protagonists of novels by Graham Greene and John Le Carré. x
  • 22
    End of the Cold War
    Why could intelligence agencies not foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe's Communist bloc? What four events were significant in ending the cold war? Why was 1985 deemed "The Year of the Spy" in the United States? Learn the answers to these and other questions here. x
  • 23
    Post–Cold War Spying
    Take stock of the last two decades of global espionage. Survey the changing targets of American and Russian intelligence operations, delve into massive intelligence failures surrounding covert agents like Robert Hanssen and events such as 9/11, and observe the impact of transnational terror networks on the "secret world" of the spy. x
  • 24
    The Future of Espionage
    Are we sliding into a culture of surveillance? Is government secrecy rising? What role should espionage play in a democracy? In this final lecture—which covers everything from the assassination of Osama bin Laden to Wikileaks—take a provocative look at where espionage may be in the coming decades. x

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Your professor

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

About Your Professor

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D.
University of Tennessee
Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius is Lindsay Young Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He earned his B.A. from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. After receiving his doctorate, Dr. Liulevicius served as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford...
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Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 52.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Cloak and Dagger, Camera and Keyboard Professor Liulevicius is an excellent lecturer who has put together a very good course, one of my favorites on audio. In the first lecture, he lays down four themes: whether espionage is really the secret history behind history; the professionalization of espionage with training, centralized control and standardized methods; the role of spying and secrecy in an open society; and the myth of the spy in popular culture. To my mind, two other themes are more important. First is the diversity of biographies among spies. Some come from the elite of society, others from lower down. Some work for their own government against a rival government, others the opposite. Some turn to espionage out of patriotism, others for ideological reasons, still others out of greed, and yet others from vanity. Some remain consistent in their loyalty while others turn into double agents. There are a lot of great stories here. You’ve heard of George Washington the general and president, but perhaps not of Washington the spymaster, known to associates as Agent 711. There was Sidney Reilly, born in Russia and arrested by the Tsarist secret police, who relocated to South America, and then to Great Britain, for which he spied in Russia, Persia, China and Germany before World War I. After the war, the Bolsheviks lured him into a trap and almost certainly killed him. There are two notable male spies who often passed as women, France’s Chevalier d’Éon and Communist China’s Shi Pei Pu. The one was a master fencer and the other an opera singer who became the “girlfriend” of a French foreign service account. There was the Cambridge spy ring, a small cluster of upper-class students who converted to Communism at university and worked their way up into British government and society as Soviet moles, Kim Philby the most notorious today. Did you know that TV chef Julia Child was also a researcher for the OSS in World War II? The second theme is the importance of good “tradecraft,” something Liulevicius returns to again and again. Spy agencies should have multiple, independent sources of information so they don’t depend entirely on one person who may be compromised. Good spies should not draw attention to themselves. If they work in a spy-ring they should ideally not know of each other’s existence so that the arrest and interrogation of one won’t endanger the rest. Code names should never in any way describe the person or operation they designate. Again and again spies have fallen victim to tradecraft mistakes, either their own or their associates’. Espionage isn’t the only subject of this course. There are also covert operations and signals intelligence. The Obama administration’s assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 was a masterpiece, but many covert ops have been disastrous, including CIA infiltration into Albania (betrayed by Kim Philby), the CIA’s Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra debacle in the 1980s. One of the CIA’s most successful coups, the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in favor of reigning Shah Reza Pahlavi, became a catastrophe with the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, the ensuing hostage crisis, and the decades of hostility between the two countries since then. Signals intelligence and decryption have been much, much more useful. Breaking Japanese naval codes in 1942 made possible the victory at Midway. The Venona Project--decryptions of Soviet embassy traffic in Washington DC--helped uncover Soviet intentions and espionage until Kim Philby revealed it to the USSR. Fictional espionage looms larger in our culture than the real thing, a point Liulevicius discusses at length in Chapter 21, but also elsewhere in the course. The oldest spy novel is apparently James Fennimore Cooper’s 1821 The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground. Many portrayals (especially British) have tended to be positive, as in Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 Kim, Erskine Childers’ 1903 Riddle of the Sands, and of course all of Ian Flemings’ James Bond novels. Others depict espionage as an amoral, dirty or even useless enterprise, like Graham Greene’s 1958 Our Man in Havana and John LeCarré’s 1963 The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. There is a lot to like about this course and nothing to dislike. I wish the professor had found a way to squeeze in more information about non-Western and non-Soviet espionage, since this course is billed as “A Global History.” But as it is these lectures are highly entertaining and informative. You will learn a lot. Anyone contemplating a career in espionage should absolutely buy the course. Don’t be the next hapless Mata Hari!
Date published: 2020-01-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Marvelous I haven't quite finished this yet (I'm listening in my car while traveling) but the first 2/3 is excellent. Lots of history going back to the Greeks, and tradecraft techniques.
Date published: 2019-04-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good course I am still listening to this and enjoying it quite a lot. I didn't give it a 5 because of the presentation. The professor is pleasant and interesting but he goes through things too quickly and speaks at rapid pace.
Date published: 2019-01-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from An engaging look at the history of espionage I started this course knowing very little about the history of espionage. I took the course in audio only format, and the professor's lecturing style kept me engaged to the point where I looked forward to listening to the next lecture during my daily walks. Stories are told about people whose names that I had heard before (Kim Philby, Mata Hari, and the Chevalier d'Eon) but the course adds so many colorful and dark details to these mysterious creatures. Let the buyer beware, as the title states, this is a course about history of espionage rather than the tradecraft of espionage. That said, there are some interesting discussions of tradecraft that enhance the course. As other reviews have said, the course would be even better if more time were spent on recent espionage events, but the course does a pretty good job of covering recent events given that a great deal of information about recent events may still be classified. I am happy that I took this course and would strongly recommend it to other people who are interested in the history of espionage.
Date published: 2018-07-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Content! I waited a long time to finally treat myself to this lecture series and it was a great decision to buy it. I've been loving listening and learning to this series. The lecturer is extremely knowledgeable, has an easy voice to listen to and explains things in a smooth way. I'm learning a lot and fully grasping the new information. Highly recommend!
Date published: 2018-03-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent; one great story after another I'm on Lecture 19, and I wish this course would go on forever. I've taken a half dozen Great Courses, and this is one of the most engaging. I like the guy's style, and I love the stories. It all gives a rich history of spying.
Date published: 2017-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unique and Valuable History Prof. Liulevicius does an exceptional job in this course of tracing the role of espionage and covert operations from ancient times to the modern day. As he lays out example after example over the centuries, Prof. Liulevicius illuminates the critical role that espionage has played throughout history, both in peacetime and in war, and makes clear the often determinative role that covert operations have had in many of our most well-known historical events. This course has caused me to rethink and reappraise much of what I already knew to more fully appreciate the centrality of the role of espionage in the outcome of those historic events. In short, the course takes a unique and valuable perspective on well-known history and delivers a very interesting and thought-provoking result. Highly recommended! I listened to the audio version, which I think is entirely adequate for this subject matter.
Date published: 2017-01-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting Although I found this course to be more a series of interesting anecdotes rather than an actual course, I did thoroughly enjoy the content and the professor's presentation was engaging and enthusiastic.
Date published: 2016-08-19
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