Now We Know

  • Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America
    By John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev
    Yale University Press, 2009, 637 pp

If one were trying to define the lowest point in the long and venerable tradition of American anti-communism, surely it came in 2003, with the publication of Ann Coulter’s Treason. Coulter’s “thesis” in this work of cut-and-paste-from-the-Internet history was that a straight line could be drawn between Americans such as Alger Hiss, who spied for the Soviet Union in the 1940s, and Americans such as Barack Obama, who criticized the war in Iraq half a century later. Both of these groups–along with assorted socialists, liberals, trade unionists, and pretty much anyone whom she defined as “Left”–were guilty of nothing less than treason: “Whether they are defending the Soviet Union or bleating for Saddam Hussein, liberals are always against America. They are either traitors or idiots, and on the matter of America’s self-preservation, the difference is irrelevant. Fifty years of treason hasn’t slowed them down.”

To be fair, which in Ann Coulter’s case counts as an irony, she is not the only writer to have lost her sense of proportion, and maybe even her sanity, while contemplating the exceedingly complicated history of the American Left, and in particular its extended flirtation with the Soviet Union. Madness of a different sort–or perhaps of a deceptively similar sort–also characterizes the writings of Victor Navasky, the former editor and publisher of The Nation. Navasky has written many times on the subject of Hiss and other Soviet spies, with a sense of urgency that the passage of time never diminishes. An excellent example of his thinking on this subject can be found in an article in The Nation in 1997, describing the work of historians who were just then beginning to find evidence in the Soviet archives confirming that a number of Americans, including Hiss, had indeed collaborated with Soviet intelligence. “Like crazed lepidopterists with their butterfly nets,” Navasky wrote, “they wildly try to capture every fugitive document that flutters into view to pin on their post-Cold War specimen boards. Their manic goal: to prove that the forties and fifties red-hunters with whom they now identify were right all along … [and that] the wholesale suspension of liberties that characterized the Cold War years was justifiable after all.” It is a striking use of metaphor. Would Navasky use the phrase “crazed lepidopterists” to describe those who keep pursuing, say, the still-mysterious fate of Raoul Wallenberg? I don’t think so.

Somewhere between these two poles–between Navasky’s pathological inability to believe that there really were Soviet spies in America and Coulter’s pathological inability to make distinctions between liberal Democrats and paid foreign agents–lies the remarkable work of John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. If there is any reasonable middle ground to be found in this particularly fraught debate–and by middle I mean historically true–Haynes and Klehr have done their best to define it and to occupy it. Working for more than a decade, making the best possible use of newly released Soviet archival material, the two scholars have produced multiple books, including three learned and exceptionally sane works of history in Yale University Press’s splendid Annals of Communism series.

The first of their volumes, The Secret World of American Communism, used the newly opened archives of the Comintern, the organization that ran the international communist movement, to determine the extent of Soviet funding of the American Communist Party–which, it turns out, was quite substantial. The second, The Soviet World of American Communism, also used Soviet archives, but focused more directly on the Soviet Union’s ideological influence on the Communist Party of the United States, or CPUSA, which was–surprise!–even more substantial. The third, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, examined the National Security Agency’s declassified “Venona” files as well as Soviet archives relevant to it. Venona was a joint American and British cryptological project that deciphered Soviet wartime cables. Among other things, the cables provided direct evidence that the Soviet Union was running a large espionage network in the United States during the 1940s–and that Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg were among the Soviet Union’s most valued agents.

Haynes and Klehr have usually stuck to the documents, the evidence, the facts. At least in their historical works, they do not write polemically, and they have emphatically not endorsed Senator Joseph McCarthy and his analysis of American communism. In The Secret World of American Communism, they went out of their way to condemn McCarthy for having used anti-communism “as a partisan weapon.” His “excesses,” they note, continue to distort the debate about the history of American communism to this day. Of course, this has not prevented critics from attacking Haynes and Klehr for McCarthyism.

Their newest work, a history of Soviet espionage in America, continues their research in this same spirit, although it makes use of a different kind of source. Along with Soviet archives, FBI archives, and the Venona cables, Haynes and Klehr this time around had access also to a set of KGB operational files that have not yet been opened to Western researchers. (In what follows I use “KGB” to mean Soviet foreign espionage, even though it had other names in the 1930s.) The story of how they got access to these materials is a little involved. In a long introduction to Spies, their Russian co-author, Alexander Vassiliev, explains his complicated personal story. Vassiliev was a junior KGB officer, trained in the late 1980s. Fed up with service at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, he quit. Though he spent several fruitful years in journalism, Vassiliev’s past associations were strong enough to persuade the foreign department of the old KGB–now renamed the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR–to call on him when they needed a writer to sort through their operational files: it seems that a group of retired officers thought they could burnish their reputations and earn some money by publishing stories of their glorious exploits in the West. They hired Vassiliev to work on a book about Soviet espionage in the United States, together with the American historian Allen Weinstein. The book eventually appeared in 1999 under the title The Haunted Wood.

Though the book was successful, the project became an enormous burden for Vassiliev. Intimidated by the increasing politicization of history in Russia and then by the closing of the archives, he left the country. Angered by those who questioned his motives, he foolishly sued one of the book’s reviewers. Certain of winning, he acted as his own attorney and refused to settle out of court, forgetting that London juries do not warm to former KGB officers. He lost. Finally he approached Haynes and Klehr with a proposal to share with them the extensive notes that he had made on the KGB’s operational files, and to supply the real names of people whom he had concealed even from Weinstein. His notebooks–together with the Venona cables, FBI records, and other sources–form the basis of this new book. In addition, they have been made available, in their original handwritten form and in English translation, on the website of the Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project, where they can be read by all and sundry.

Perhaps this was not the best way to get hold of KGB operational files, but it is the only way there was. Naturally, questions have been raised about Vassiliev’s bona fides–but the notebooks are too detailed, and contain too many obscure references to people and places that Vassiliev could not possibly have known about in advance, to have been faked. In any case, the evidence that Vassiliev’s notes are both authentic and reliable lies in the text itself. Spies is not a literary work, or even a narrative history, in the ordinary sense. It is filled with facts, figures, names, and dates. Much of it consists of long point-by-point comparisons of Vassiliev’s files, the FBI’s files, the Venona documents, and the testimony of witnesses and defectors. Assertions are proven, and then proven again using different sources. Footnotes contain lists of multiple sources. A seven-paragraph description, for example, of the fate of Morris and Lona Cohen–a mysterious couple who worked as KGB couriers from the 1930s to the 1960s–is substantiated by eleven different books and documents. This, presumably, is the sort of work that Navasky scorns as lepidoptery, “capturing every fugitive document.” It is also very powerful to read.

Aside from the more familiar stories of atomic espionage and Alger Hiss, about which more in a moment, there is much in Spies that is absolutely new. Among other things, the KGB files enabled Haynes and Klehr to identify dozens of people previously known to the FBI only by their cover names. A scientist listed in the Venona cables as “Fogel” or “Persian,” who was long thought to be J. Robert Oppenheimer, turns out to be Russell McNutt, an obscure Manhattan Project engineer who at one point worked on structural designs for the uranium and plutonium processing facilities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. At one point the FBI conducted a superficial investigation of his relationship to Julius Rosenberg, who was in fact his recruiter. They found nothing. As a result, McNutt escaped the public notoriety that accrued to Rosenberg, not to mention the death penalty. He lived out the last part of his life as the chief engineer of Gulf Oil.

A similar story can be told about a very different character, a State Department mole code-named “Willy,” who can now be identified as David Salmon. At the time of his recruitment in 1934, Salmon was an aging, and underpaid, former protege of former secretary of state Elihu Root. As head of the Division of Communications and Records, Salmon was responsible for all of the State Department’s cables, the most interesting of which he seemed happy to sell for $15,000 a year (about $230,000 in contemporary dollars). Salmon kept this up for three years, but he seems to have panicked in 1937, when the American ambassador to the Soviet Union complained to the State Department that his Soviet counterparts seemed to know the contents of his “secret” reports to Washington. A cursory investigation was conducted, and then dropped. Never suspected of anything during his lifetime, Salmon was considered so trustworthy that several years after his retirement, the House Committee on Un-American Activities asked him to authenticate the State Department cables being used as evidence in the Alger Hiss investigation. Which he did.

Spies also offers a good deal of additional information and–let’s be frank–juicy details about some minor figures whose affiliations were already known. One of these is Michael Straight, a rather unserious person whom readers of this magazine may recognize as the son of the early owners of The New Republic and later the magazine’s publisher and editor. As a student in Britain in the 1930s, he met Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, two of the infamous Cambridge spies. Burgess recruited him despite the fact that Straight was “not quite ready to let go of certain romantic notions,” as he wrote to his KGB minder. Another KGB officer later described Straight–cover name “Nigel”–as a “dilettante.” A number of American officials seem to have taken a similar view, and Straight never progressed very far in his short government career. He fell out with both the Communist Party and the KGB after the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939. Haynes and Klehr point out, however, that he maintained a wobbly affiliation, recommending friends to the KGB as late as 1942, and keeping silent about Burgess and Blunt until 1963.

Then there is Martha Dodd–cover name “Liza”–who, while living with her father, Roosevelt’s ambassador to Berlin, fell in love with a Soviet diplomat named Boris Vinogradov. Like Straight, she later produced a carefully edited memoir. But Haynes and Klehr add new details to her story, including the report of an interview that a deeply shocked KGB operative conducted with Dodd in 1941:

Sometime during our conversation–I don’t recall exactly when–Martha made the remark that all men were vulnerable … somewhere. Does this mean, I asked her, that you feel that you could sleep with most any man if you so chose? “Yes, ” she said. And then: “It might be advantageous at times.” (This she meant in terms of political work.

So rattled was he by Dodd that the poor KGB man had to go to the bathroom and wash his face. But he returned, determined to see the interview through:

Externally presenting a cool and confident appearance, I lectured on middle class morals, proletarian morals, when sex is permissible in our kind of work, when not…. The above may sound silly but it had a good effect on Martha. She became very sober.

Some of the operational details in Spies are marvelous also, such as these “meeting instructions,” straight out of a Hollywood plot, handed to an agent: “The source will have a Life magazine in the right pocket of his overcoat, and if the weather is good, a hat in his left hand. You will say, in English, ‘Regards from Alice.’ He will reply, ‘Thanks, I would like to visit her.’ You will say, ‘She will be very glad to see you.’ After that, you can get down to business.”

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?

The historical context also matters because it enables us to make useful distinctions. The story of Hiss differs from the story of Oppenheimer, which differs from the story of Stone. Lumping them all together as “traitors,” in a coarse Coulter-like manner, makes it impossible to understand their motivations as well as the culture in which they lived. Refusing to discuss the uneven but fascinating evidence available, as Navasky would have us do, also does them a disservice. If one is writing a history of the Manhattan Project, it is important to know that no, the boss did not sell the secrets. If one is writing about the culture of Cold War America, it is important to know that yes, Hiss was a spy. Besides, the biographies of these men read like airport thrillers. Why shouldn’t we keep on investigating them?

The truth, of course, is that neither Coulter nor Navasky, nor any of the many others who have joined this particular battle, is really interested in history. They and their respective allies instead wish to score points about contemporary politics–points that bear only a tendentious relationship to the events of the 1930s and the 1940s. Coulter and her ilk want modern liberals to be identified with the CPUSA: Hiss = Obama. Navasky and his friends suspect that anyone who investigates Hiss is covertly promoting “the wholesale suspension of liberties”: historical research = Guantanamo. There is something dim and lifeless about this kind of apologetic argument, which is why wading though the writings of the Coulters and the Navaskys is a torment, like watching an endless episode of Crossfire.

Too many people have drained this particular chapter of history of interest by manipulating it for partisan purposes–as, once upon a time, Senator McCarthy did. Perhaps the best way to put McCarthy’s ghost to rest, and to breathe life back into one of the most turbulent moments in American intellectual history, is to follow the example of this genuinely important and darkly fascinating book. Follow the facts, and just the facts, because they might lead you to places stranger than fiction.

Anne Applebaum is a columnist for The Washington Post and Slate, and the author of Gulag: A History (Doubleday).