June 12, 2009


Now We Know: a review of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America By John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev (Anne Applebaum, 6/17/09, The New Republic)

But amusing though the details may be, the most significant contribution of Klehr's and Haynes's book is its revelation of the sheer extent of Soviet espionage in America, and the numbers of people involved in it. Despite the length of this hefty volume, Haynes and Klehr discuss only a portion of some five hundred agents who at some point worked for the KGB, and about whom some details can be found in Vassiliev's notes or in the Venona files. Not all of these people were actually passing on information. Some worked as handlers, couriers, recruiters and talent spotters. The role of others may well have been exaggerated, as critics have pointed out, by the eager workers of the KGB--though certainly not all of them, given the specific details of information handed over.

If only a quarter of the people whose names appear in the files were truly agents, the numbers are still much larger than anyone previously suspected, and they represent a far deeper penetration into American society than we have hitherto known. As it turns out, the KGB in the 1930s had agents or contacts in the State Department, the Commerce Department, the Justice Department, and the OSS, the wartime intelligence agency. KGB associates were scattered throughout the Manhattan Project as well as in research institutions and private companies specializing in chemistry, aviation engineering, and physics. There were agents in the media and the literary world. The KGB even tried, not very successfully, to recruit Ernest Hemingway.

The remarkably wide range of education and experience of the KGB's agents was impressive, further proof of how deep into the culture their tentacles reached. Some of the KGB's American agents were, as one might expect, recent immigrants of Russian and East European origin. Others, such as Hiss, were Establishment WASPs. (I counted here graduates of Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and the Union Theological Seminary, among others.) Samuel Dickstein was a Congressman, then a New York Supreme Court Judge. Henry Ware was a consultant to the Boy Scouts. Harold Glasser, on the other hand, wound up working for the Liberty Brush Company.

Yet most of them did, in the end, have something in common. Aside from a very small number who handed over documents purely for the money--Dickstein, certainly, and probably Salmon--most of them were either open or secret members of the American Communist Party, a group that was at the time closely aligned with the Soviet Communist Party. They were, in other words, not "liberals" at all.

Though it was long a taboo subject on the Left, the extraordinarily close relationship between the American Communist Party and the KGB should nowadays surprise no one, given what we now know about the CPUSA, and about other communist parties in other countries, and about communist ideology, the power of which should never be underestimated. Generally speaking, those who believed in communism also believed in the desirability of world revolution. Generally speaking, those who believed in the desirability of world revolution thought that this revolution would be led, or at least inspired, by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its "sword and shield," the KGB. Those who made such assumptions may have been well-meaning people, even American patriots, as their defenders have often claimed. But that does not change the fundamental point. To the truly dedicated Marxist, the goals of the KGB and the CPUSA would have seemed very similar indeed.

And rightly so. From those organizations' own points of view, their goals were very close, not to say identical. Earl Browder, the General Secretary of the CPUSA from 1930 onward, recruited and recommended agents to the KGB. His sister was certainly an agent; so, quite possibly, was his wife, a former Soviet provincial justice commissar (and a woman who sat on the ad-hoc courts that condemned "counter-revolutionaries" to death in 1918 and 1919, during the Russian civil war). The top CPUSA officials knew their money was coming from Moscow, and did not object. On the contrary. At least in the years before the Cold War, the line between loyalty to the CPUSA and loyalty to the Soviet Union was very muddled.

For the KGB the close relationship between the Soviet Union and the CPUSA turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the sympathy that so many Americans felt in the 1930s for Soviet communism helped the KGB to create a large and varied espionage network. Collectively, these agents and contacts were of tremendous significance to the Soviet Union. Without question, the material they provided helped the Soviet Union to develop the atomic bomb more quickly than it otherwise would have done, and thus helped to reinforce the Soviet Union's occupation of Eastern Europe and entrench the Cold War. The background they supplied also helped Stalin to negotiate with Roosevelt at Yalta, and more generally helped the Soviet leadership to understand the motivations of the United States before and during World War II, at a time when the American government was focused on a different set of enemies.

In the long term, however, these ideologically motivated agents turned out to be inherently unstable. Had they been motivated solely by money--or, like so many Soviet citizens, by fear--the KGB's American operatives might have remained faithful. But because they were inspired by ideas, their loyalties tended to evolve along with their political views. When they decided that they disliked some aspect of the Party's policies, or the Soviet Union's diplomacy, they could drop out of contact, or, even worse, defect.

Thus the KGB lost a good number of its agents--not only Michael Straight, but also Whittaker Chambers--owing to widespread disgust at the Soviet show trials of 1937-1938 and the pact with Hitler in 1939. It lost even more when another one of its agents, Elizabeth Bentley, came to distrust her Soviet minders and to question their motives. She spilled the beans in 1945. Bentley's testimony was devastating, since she knew the identities of more than a dozen paid agents. Also, she made her decision to talk to the FBI at a time when American counter-intelligence was turning away from the question of German and Japanese agents, and finally had time to focus its attention on the KGB.

The result was rapid and dramatic. Within weeks of Bentley's defection, the KGB's extraordinary American network--a network that had delivered crucial insights into the workings of the American government and American industry, not to mention critical secrets of the atomic bomb--fell apart. It never really recovered. With the rise of anti-communism in the late 1940s, more people understood that loyalty to the Soviet Union was a betrayal of American values. The CPUSA shrank in size and influence and, along with it, the pool of potential KGB recruits as well.

I realize that much of this will sound like little more than background noise to a certain kind of reader. Invariably, when the subject of the KGB in America comes up, many people want to know only the answer to three questions: Was Alger Hiss a spy? Was J. Robert Oppenheimer a spy? And what about the beloved radical journalist I.F. Stone? The good news, I mean for the cause of historical veracity, is that Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev deal with all of them.

They devote their entire first chapter to Hiss, dispensing with the most notorious controversy right off the bat. I am not going to rehearse here the whole history of this infamous case or discuss at length the various pseudonyms that might or might not have belonged to Hiss, let alone the various typewriters. Suffice it to say that Vassiliev's documentation adds to the crazed lepidopterists' mountain of "fugitive documents" already in existence. Aside from the evidence produced by Whittaker Chambers, aside from the evidence gathered by the FBI, aside from the evidence in the Venona files, aside from the evidence in the Hungarian archives and aside from the testimony of multiple witnesses, Vassiliev also found a number of archival documents clearly listing Hiss, by his real name, as a Soviet intelligence source--or, more correctly, as a source of the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, in the 1930s.

The fact that Hiss was originally working for the organization that the KGB called "the neighbors" has been a source of difficulties for researchers, as it was in Hiss's lifetime. (His attempt in 1936 to recruit a colleague, Noel Field, to the GRU ended awkwardly when it emerged that Field was already working for the KGB; records of this incident are by now recorded in both Soviet and Hungarian archives as well as in the testimony of several witnesses.) Since Hiss was a GRU contact during his most active period of service, more extensive archival information about his espionage--what documents he turned over, for example--is still unavailable, since no one has yet had access to that archive. If and when they emerge, the files in those archives will no doubt add layers of nuance and color to the Hiss story, enabling someone, eventually, to write his complete biography, and to provide a better explanation of his complicated psychology. That will be a fascinating book. In the meantime, the evidence of his collaboration is overwhelming. Haynes, Klehr and Vassiliev are well within their rights to title their chapter "Alger Hiss: Case Closed."

The tale of Oppenheimer, the mercurial physicist who led the Manhattan Project, comes out rather differently. After examining an equally vast pile of fugitive documents, the authors conclude that Oppenheimer was a secret Communist Party member, at least through 1941. Knowing this, the KGB made multiple attempts to persuade him to cooperate. Traces of those attempts appear in Vassiliev's files, as they have in other places. But, at least according to all of the evidence available in those same files, the attempts failed.

As noted, plenty of other people did in fact pass atomic and other technical material to the Soviet Union. Most famous among them was the physicist Klaus Fuchs, long ago identified as a Soviet agent. But although there were others, including McNutt, no one, as far as we now know, ever persuaded Oppenheimer himself to pass information to the KGB. We do not know exactly why: Haynes and Klehr think that by the time the Manhattan Project started--this was after the Hitler-Stalin pact--he had lost his earlier faith. Their conclusion is that Oppenheimer was not honest about his Party affiliations, but did not sell atomic secrets. Once again, case closed.

As for I.F. Stone, the story is a little blurrier, since Stone, unlike Hiss or Oppenheimer, never had any proper secrets to pass on. More to the point, his assistance to the KGB, such as it was, took a subtler form. Although he is mentioned in Vassiliev's files, unambiguously, as a KGB source between 1936 and 1938, it is not clear from the material cited here what that meant. Stone was undoubtedly exchanging information with people whom he knew to be Soviet agents. He undoubtedly gave them the names of other people whom he thought they might find useful. He may have acted as a courier as well as a recruiter, and he probably had more than a few lunches with shifty characters. The KGB also tried to re-activate him after the war, but failed. Haynes and Klehr conclude that, between 1936 and 1938, the KGB believed that Stone was their agent, and Haynes and Klehr also think that Stone knew this. But whether he was getting paid for his little chats with the local handlers, and whether he himself would have considered his activities "espionage," is still unclear. The Stone case is not yet closed.

There is an explanation for the lack of clarity. In fact, Stone's cooperation with Soviet intelligence seems to me a perfect example of the pattern described above. Stone, at least at that time, still had faith in the essential goodness of communism. Mistakes had been made, but between 1936 and 1938 he still believed that only Stalin could save Europe from fascism. He would hardly object if the agents of Stalin asked him to pass on some messages or to recommend a few friends. In fact, it is hard to think of a good reason why he would not do so, given what he was writing and saying at the time. I am speculating here, but the speculation is plausible.

To understand Stone, it helps to read the rest of Spies. Anyone who focuses on the details of his case alone will find it hard to see his story for what it was. The same is even more true of Hiss. Though treatises have been written about Hiss's typewriter fonts and bird-watching habits, his life story is rarely compared to those of his contemporaries. Reading through these three accounts, I found it refreshing to see them all placed in historical context, together with less famous figures as well as the Soviet station chiefs who reported back on them. Without that context, none of these stories makes sense. Why would a shining young member of the Establishment like Hiss collaborate with the KGB? Why would a star scientist like Oppenheimer have been so heavily recruited, and why did so many of his colleagues succumb? Why would Stone, an independent curmudgeon, even consider talking to such people? Why would Hemingway, for that matter? The answers lie in the larger context: the nature of the international communist movement in the 1930s, and the extraordinary power of its ideology.

For all of their prosaic insistence on names, dates, and extensive footnotes, some of the appeal of that ideology does come through in the works of Haynes and Klehr. They conjure into existence a whole vanished world of code words and dead letter drops, of Marxist jargon and Party slang. The secret meetings, the study groups, the sense of belonging to an avant-garde that would make history--all this is here. So, too, is the blindness to reality. By all accounts, Hiss was a convincing witness at his hearing, far more so than Chambers; almost everyone agreed that his declarations of innocence sounded a lot more believable than the allegations of his accuser. But Hiss had once believed that Soviet-style communism would create utopia in America. Why wouldn't he believe in the fantasy of his own innocence, too?

Are we really still stuck at the point where we're required to forgive them all for their romantic idyll with the USSR? Bad enough how many on the Left actively collaborated with the enemy, but the venom with which even non-communist liberals attacked anyone who dared to speak honestly about their complicity ought not be excused away quite so quickly. Aren't we entitled to some mea culpa's first?

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 12, 2009 5:44 AM
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