As soon as Lenin took power in November 1917, the USSR began to think about its opportunities to spread communism inside other nations, although this would not begin until Soviets consolidated their power over Russia by eliminating resistance during the Russian Civil War, which lasted from November 1917 until October 1922.
(The communist takeover is cited as the ‘October Revolution’ because the Russian calendar in 1917 was not synchronized with western Europe and North America. Although the Russian Civil War ended in 1922, guerilla bands continued to offer resistance in the following years.)
By 1919, the Soviets had strengthened their hold on Russia enough that they could begin sponsoring subversive activities in other nations. After infiltrating various labor unions, they organized the Seattle General Strike of that year.
An entire major American city was held hostage for several days, with thousands of citizens being held captive in their houses when the strike leaders declared a curfew, and the freedom of movement eliminated when only strike leaders were allowed to drive on the city’s streets.
Decades before the traditional starting-point of the Cold War, Soviet agents were able to disrupt daily life for thousands of people in North America.
The USSR was patient in its quest to impose dictatorships on other countries. The planting of spies can take years. Once enlisted with one of the Soviet intelligence agencies, operatives often did no espionage for several years, and worked simply on gaining good reputations and access to sensitive information in their places of employment, as historian Stan Evans writes:
Communist penetration of the American government was a long-term process that ebbed and flowed but never ceased entirely. As with other infiltration targets, such as schools, media outlets, civic groups, or labor unions, the purposes were several: to influence policies and programs, make propaganda, disrupt or sabotage things from time to time, and — where chance presented — engage in “intelligence”-gathering operations, otherwise known as spying.
Until 1939, the Soviets enjoyed two decades in which they could plant spies inside the United States with relative ease. But then came a year-and-a-half long period in which the USSR accidentally showed its nature.
During the time when Hitler and Stalin were allies, it was clear that the Soviets and the Nazis were quite comfortable together. This alerted Americans to the dangers of Soviet Socialism.
As noted, such infiltration at the official level developed mostly in two phases — one in the depression years, the other during World War II. The net effect of these twin incursions was a sizable Communist presence on the federal payroll, far greater than most histories have suggested. However, in the trough between the rising waves (August 1939 – June 1941), the Hitler-Stalin pact exploded, shattering the Communist Party’s anti-Nazi image and setting back the penetration effort that prospered in the 1930s. Though these losses would later be recouped, events during the heyday of the pact would have profound effects long after it had ignominiously ended. ended. The seeds of conflict over U.S. security policies for years to come would be sown in the wild zigzags and contradictions of this era.
When the alliance between the Nazis and the Soviet Communists came to a sudden end in 1941, the Soviets worked to repair their image, and slowly convince the United States that the USSR would be a faithful ally.
Both the United States government and the public struggled with cognitive dissonance as they worked to harmonize the incompatible images of Soviet Socialism being both an ally to the genocidal Nazis and an ally to the free nations of western Europe and North America.
Inside the U.S. government, there would be a split between those who trusted the Soviets and were willing to work un-skeptically with them, and those who felt that Americans should keep an eye on the USSR’s underground spy operations in North America. This tension would continue during WW2, but was kept out of sight because of the wartime need to cooperate with the Soviets.
When the war ended, this tension became more visible, and the emergence of skepticism toward Soviet Socialism, along with the awareness of its espionage activities inside the United States, marks the traditional beginning of the Cold War.