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Illustration by Security Management

Today in Security History: Marguerite Harrison’s Mission to Moscow

Sometime during the last week of January 1920, Marguerite Harrison, the first female foreign intelligence agent for the United States government, crossed into Russia on her first mission. Though the exact date is not known, her handlers in the United States knew of her arrival by February 6 of that year. Crossing the border from Poland on what would have been a bitter winter’s day with her translator and typewriter, Harrison took a large first step for women in intelligence. Harrison’s first mission focused on gathering information in Moscow and ended with a nine-month imprisonment in Lubyanka prison. Harrison’s return to the United States in August 1921 made her the first prisoner released from a Bolshevik prison as part of food-aid exchange. It also marked the end of the first chapter of her career in espionage.

Harrison’s career was complex. She used her established credentials as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, her connections in Baltimore society and politics, and a grasp of language and culture from childhood experiences in Europe to volunteer to collect intelligence overseas. Whether this was for service or adventure was unclear. However, Harrison’s decision made her the forerunner of female operatives. After being released from Lubyanka, she returned to life as a reporter before returning to the nascent Soviet state by way of Asia. Following a second imprisonment in Moscow, she traveled throughout the Middle East with film director Merian Cooper, of King Kong fame.

In addition to marking a mid-point in her espionage career, Harrison’s release highlighted the early days of the relationship between the U.S. government and the Soviet Union. Senator Joseph France, the first U.S. senator to visit Russia and the broker of Harrison’s release, pushed for the recognition of the Bolshevik government and expressed admiration for Lenin after his trip to Moscow.

This was at odds with the conventional opinion at the time, which viewed Communism as an existential threat to American democracy and that laid the groundwork for the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Harrison’s early intelligence oscillated between those two extremes, particularly as she engaged with the people of Moscow and with Cheka and the other inmates of Lubyanka. With her release came firsthand accounts that helped form the earliest impressions of a Soviet state that would rise to power and become the United States’ greatest adversary for the next 70 years.

To find out more about Marguerite Harrison, read The Liberation of Marguerite Harrison: America’s First Female Foreign Intelligence Agent by Elizabeth Atwood.

Laura J. Itle, PhD, is an ASIS member and a researcher at a federally funded research and development center, where she has worked for 15 years on subjects related to national security, security planning, emergency management, and technology development.