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Marguerite Harrison: She served in silence and brought home strategic intelligence that shaped policy for decades

Like many other great spies, she was fearless

Marguerite Elton Harrison (1879–1967) was a reporter, spy, film maker, and translator who was one of the four founding members of the Society of Woman Geographers. In 1918, with the U.S. still involved in the war and Europe really just one large battlefield, she became overwhelmed with a desire to help. At first she thought her contributions would come as a war correspondent (she had been a journalist with the Baltimore Sun), but no firm would recognize a woman for that role. She decided to become a spy.

She volunteered to work for the U.S. Army and was introduced to the chief of the military intelligence division, General Marlborough Churchill. On her application she described herself as: five feet six inches tall, weighing 125 pounds; using no stimulants, tobacco or drugs; and without physical defects. Answering the question “With what foreign countries and localities are you familiar?” she replied:

“The British Isles, France, Holland, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Northern Italy, Rome, Naples, Tyrol. I have an absolute command of French and German, am very fluent and have a good accent in Italian and speak a little Spanish. Without any trouble I could pass as a French woman and after a little practice, as German-Swiss . . . I have been to Europe fourteen times . . . I have been much on steamers and am familiar in a general way with ships of the merchant marine.”

She was accepted into army intelligence and spied in Russia and Japan and China for years. He contributions included providing deep insights into Bolshevik economic strengths and weaknesses and direct assistance to American political prisoners in Russia. She herself was made a prisoner in the infamous Lubyanka prison, but was released after political pressure from the US.

She later published a gripping autobiography that the New York Times called “the most interesting and valuable book on contemporary Russia.” Find it at Marooned in Moscow.

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