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Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies

Program Overview


NOVA explores the story of the VENONA project, a 37-year American codebreaking effort challenged with deciphering theoretically impenetrable codes used by an extensive Soviet spy network throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.

The program:

  • reviews the history of codebreaking in the United States, from the time of Pearl Harbor through the Cold War.

  • reveals that from the 1930s to early 1950s, the Soviets had nearly 300 spies in the United States infiltrating every branch of the government, including the White House and the Manhattan Project.

  • explains that knowledge gained by these spies allowed Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union to build nuclear weapons years earlier than expected.

  • profiles the skills and methods used by VENONA project personnel who eventually broke the Soviet cipher.

  • examines the effect of the government's decision to keep the VENONA project secret—even among some government agencies—until 1995 and how that decision reshaped thinking about the origins of the Cold War.

Teacher's Guide
Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies
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