The 10 Most Famous Spies of All Time

Within the annals of history, it’s hard to think of a subject more captivating to a wider variety of audiences than espionage. The ultimate test of daring for one’s country, spies often use their wits to change world events. And some even become double or even triple agents, using their cleverness to play on their opponents’ fears and concerns.

1. James Bond

The most famous spy of all time wasn’t even a real person, but is indelibly printed in popular culture as the great womanizer/secret agent James Bond. Developed by his author, Ian Fleming, as a hero for a post-war Britain that was mired in food shortages and power-outages, Bond offered a glamorous fantasy life that readers and viewers could let their mind drift into for a few hours of escapist fantasy. That tradition continues today with smash hits in the film’s franchise and spin-offs from the novel series. For a few hours at least, heros like Bond seem to offer a parallel world that few have access to.

What few realize is that among the glitz and glamor is an element of truth to the Bond stories. While most spies were not living a five-star existence like Bond, they were often risking life and limb for their countries in perplexingly sophisticated ways. Consider our next candidate, for example: A British spy who invented James Bond as a character.

2. Ian Fleming

The creator of James Bond was not just coming up with stories when he was writing about his hero; Fleming himself was a spy for England’s Navy. One of the titles of his stories, “Goldeneye,” was derived from a very real operation Fleming was a part of as a soldier.

  • 3.Graham Greene

As a writer, Graham Greene was Yin to Fleming’s Yang. Another alumnus of Britain’s spy service, Greene opted to frame his tales of spying in a much grittier reality than Fleming, famously showing the more mundane aspects of spying, where assassinations were planned in cheap office space and taken out by gray-faced men with deeply ambivalent feelings about their actions.

Sometimes Greene’s stories about spying became comic, with “Our Man in Havana” detailing the chaos resulting from the recruiting of a struggling vacuum salesman in pre-Castro Cuba into the ranks of the British Secret Service (hint: London HQ become very puzzled at diagrams of nuclear facilities that bear striking similarities to vacuum cleaners).

4.John le Carré

Another stellar British novelist who turned his experiences as a British spy into the stuff of legend, Le Carré (the nom de plume of David John Moore Cornwell) was more like Graham Greene than Ian Fleming in his depiction of the British Secret Service as a stilted bureaucracy rather than an efficient and glamorous system. His work “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” which was turned into a wonderful film with a standout performance with Richard Burton in the lead, is a lesson in the price paid by the individual soul in the cynical power struggles between states.

For many soldiers recruited into various spy agencies, the fantasy of Bond was a nightmare beyond their wildest imaginations. The British spy system that produced the character of Bond traditionally recruited students at Oxford and Cambridge Universities by “tapping” them, a system in which former spies working for the university would single out recruits for their cognitive abilities and cleverness.

Sometimes this backfired so badly that huge disasters occurred: our fifth and sixth most famous spies, 
Guy Burgess
Kim Philby are notorious agents for Russia centered around Cambridge University culture that passed on state secrets to Communist leaders. (Philby is still regarded as a great hero in Russia for his work infiltrating British high command.)

Russia’s gain was the bane of England, however, and Cambridge has never quite lived down its reputation for producing double-crossing espionage agents.

7.Christopher Marlowe

Although we tend to think of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan era as a time of relative peace in Britain, the reality is that Queen Elizabeth held one of the largest secret police agencies the world has ever seen. Fearing a religious revolution where Protestants were pitted against Catholics, Elizabeth was never shy of using the death penalty to punish fervent religious devotees who met her ire.

One of Shakespeare’s rivals as a playwright, having composed great works such as “Dr. Faustus,” Christopher Marlowe was also a notorious spy for Queen Elizabeth, and even met an early end when he was stabbed to death in a tavern, dying as he had lived: courting danger and trouble wherever he went. Had he lived, Marlowe may have produced works equal to Shakespeare’s. Having died at 29, however, Marlowe never got the chance to fully mature as a poet and playwright, much to the chagrin of theater-lovers everywhere.

8.Alexander Litvinenko

A contemporary case of a Russian spy turned against his homeland who met a gruesome end via poisoning, Alexander Litvinenko went to his deathbed criticizing his home country for their human rights abuses.

9. Vladimir Putin
A Russian leader seemingly straight out of a Bond villain role, Vladimir Putin entered politics straight from the upper ranks of the notoriously dangerous KGB. His controversial role as head of Russia has seen numerous scandals, including the crushing of dissidents and the inciting of violence against homosexuals or even punk musicians. Putin seems to take his leadership style equally from his time in the KGB and from that great employer of secret police to centralize political power, Jozef Stalin. Like Stalin, Putin has used his position with an iron fist.

10.Donald Maclean

Another member of the Cambridge Five, Donald Maclean was recruited directly to Russian secret services by Anthony Blunt. Defecting to Russia, Maclean died there having achieved the rank of Colonel in the KGB, much to Britain’s humiliation.

Whatever their motivation, history has been shaped by a handful of agents who for better or worse decided to use their minds in service of a cause they thought either good or politically expedient. Depending on the results, it is difficult to say who came out worse: The spies or the victims of their policies.

  1 comment for “The 10 Most Famous Spies of All Time

  1. March 18, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    On May 18, 1965, the Government of Syria executed Eli Cohen, despite protests from world leaders and Israel.

    •He was never allowed a defense at his trial.

    •He was brutally tortured during interrogation in defiance of international humanitarian law

    •His body was never returned to his family.

    One of the most memorable and daring attempts to infiltrate Syria, which at the time controlled the Golan Heights and frequently shelled the Israeli settlers down below is that of Eliahu ben Shaoul Cohen an Egyptian born Jew.

    Eliahu ben Shaoul Cohen, worked as a Mossad agent in Damascus, Syria under the alias of Kamal Amin Ta’abet from 1962 until his exposure and execution on May 18, 1965. Cohen was able to supply considerable details on Syrian political and military matters because of his strong interpersonal skills and abilities to build close ties with business, military, and Ba’ath Party leaders, and Syrian President Amin el Hafiz. He was hanged in Martyr’s Square with the television cameras rolling for the entire world to see.

    Eli was privy to secrets of the Syrian elite including those of national security. Eli was considered to be named the Syrian Deputy Minister of Defense. He was the only civilian to receive private tours of military installations, even being photographed in the then Syrian controlled Golan Heights with high ranking Syrian officials looking over into Israel.

    As a result Eli sent highly informative reports back to Israel detailing the Syrian water deviation project and each and every one of the outposts on the Golan, including tank traps designed to impede any Israeli attack.

    Eli’s influence on Syrian officials helped Israel beyond measure. Eli suggested that the Syrians plant trees on the Golan near each of their fortifications. Based on the eucalyptus trees, Israel knew exactly where the Syrian fortifications were.

    Two years after his death, in June 1967, the intelligence Eli Cohen provided enabled Israel to capture the Golan Heights in two days as part of Israel’s victory in the Six Days War.

    Eli Cohen was the greatest Mossad agent Israel has ever known. He was greatly admired by all, including the Syrians. His deeds fed and are still feeding the imagination and fantasy of many. He is a hero who sacrificed his life for the sake of Israel, his fellow Jews, his children and his family.

    It is 38 years since he was hanged. The Syrian government still has not returned his remains to his family for a proper Jewish burial in Israel where ‘Kaddish’ can be said at his gravesite. It is Time; the Time Is Now, to demand that his remains be returned. Therefore, we call upon everyone to sign our Petition to Dr. Bashar el Assad, President of Syrian.

    Through this web site, we pay tribute to Eli Cohen, Our Man in Damascus, Israel’s greatest Mossad Agent. We remember his deeds through the words of his brother, Maurice Cohen, who was in the same unit that activated Eli, revealing up-to-date facts which were not told surrounding the story of Mossad’s campaign in Syria. This is an international educational site to increase people’s knowledge of the contribution Eli Cohen made to the survival of the State of Israel and the Jewish people; and the history of the Middle East at the time.

    We hope to reunite his remains with the land and the family he loved so much.

    ACT NOW!
    | Sign the Petition |
    | Home | Eli’s Last Words | Chronology | Internet Play |
    | A Brother’s Story | In the News | Links | Q&A |

    This Web site is sponsored by Eli Cohen’s family


    Maurice, Eli’s brother, passed away on Saturday Dec. 2, 2006.
    Maurice founded this site and was the co-author of A Brother’s Story
    May His Memory Be A Blessing

    We are redeveloping this site due to Maurice’s passing.

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