Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Seeing Reds

Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev, Yale University Press, 704 pages; and Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, Susan Jacoby, Yale University Press, 272 pages

Shortly after Lawrence Duggan, a top State Department official, was questioned by the FBI about his involvement in espionage against the U.S. on behalf of the Soviet Union, he jumped from the 16th floor of a New York City office building. The winter of 1948 was a particularly harsh one, as the first frigid blasts of the Cold War whipped across the political landscape, but not as harsh as the response of Sen. Karl Mundt. Asked if, in light of Duggan’s suicide, when the House Committee on Un-American Activities would name other suspected Soviet agents, the senator replied, “We’ll name them as they jump out of windows.”

The storm of self-righteousness that broke over the waspish Mundt’s head put the Furies to shame. With one voice, the liberal establishment—Eleanor Roosevelt; former undersecretary of state, Sumner Welles; Archibald MacLeish, poet-laureate of the New Deal; and liberal attack-dogs Drew Pearson and Edward R. Murrow—rose up and barked: Libel! Slander! Red-baiting!

As John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr point out in Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, no less a liberal icon than Arthur Schlesinger Jr. denounced a book for characterizing Duggan as a KGB source, accusing the author of “blackening the name of a man whom many knew as an able public servant.”

But the collapse of the Soviet empire has meant the implosion of the liberal delusion that McCarthyism was a mean-spirited campaign of lies and smears based entirely on the ambition and alcohol-fueled paranoia of one flawed human being, whose name has become synonymous with witch-hunting. Schlesinger and his ideological confrères have had the rug pulled out from under them by the gradual release of the KGB’s files, and the coup de grâce has been delivered by the publication of Spies, which cites definitive evidence from the Soviet archives that not only nails Duggan as a Soviet agent, but also closes the case of the most celebrated Soviet fifth columnist of all, Alger Hiss.

Hiss didn’t jump out of a window. Quite the contrary. He fought the accusation that he was a key cog in the Soviet espionage apparatus in Washington, maintaining his innocence until the end. He and his supporters built a cult around his alleged victimhood at the hands of the evil McCarthyites that dwindled in number, if not in fanatic devotion, as evidence of his guilt began to trickle in after the Soviet collapse. The trickle has turned into a torrent as the flow of released KGB and GRU (Soviet military intelligence) documents has overwhelmed the last wall of resistance put up by Hiss’s defenders. Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB officer who managed to get his hands on previously unavailable correspondence between Moscow and its agents in America, has pulled the plug on the Hiss sect. The head of Soviet espionage in this country, in a document that cites the KGB’s failures and lists agents imperiled by the “traitor” Whittaker Chambers, named names, not just code names.

Hiss is at the top of a long list, with Harry Dexter White, an assistant Treasury secretary; Laughlin Currie, a top aide to FDR and head of the Foreign Economic Administration in wartime Washington; and at least a dozen others with similar credentials, backgrounds, and political views: young, educated scions of WASPy Brahmin families. Schooled at Ivy League colleges and brought up in a world of privilege and “social concerns,” these types flocked to Washington in the wake of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s electoral victory, energized by their zeal to remake America. These members of some of America’s wealthiest families—such as Michael Straight of New York’s prominent Whitneys, owners of The New Republic—were part of the underground Communist Party group within the Roosevelt administration that did not hesitate to spy for the KGB or GRU simply because, as a reviewer in The Nation put it,

Very few of those described as ‘traitors’ by Haynes and Klehr saw their actions as in any way inimical to the interests of the United States. (Vassiliev made this point repeatedly during the 2003 trial.) They may, of course, have simply been ‘in denial,’ but it is striking how often, in the relatively small fraction of Vassiliev’s 1,115 pages of notes included in Spies, that even Americans like Julius Rosenberg, who engaged in the witting supply of classified information under the acknowledged direction of agents of a foreign power—a better definition of ‘spy’ than any you will find in this book—were nonetheless careful to make clear their primary loyalty to the United States.

How little things change. This is precisely what Larry Franklin, the Pentagon’s top Iran analyst, said in his own defense when he was caught turning over vital secrets to Israeli officials via AIPAC employees Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. Far from considering himself a traitor, he fancied himself a patriot for trying to advance the special relationship between the two countries. Convinced that American policymakers weren’t responding to the alleged threat from Iran decisively enough, he took it upon himself to supply the Israelis with closely held intelligence about al-Qaeda and U.S. troop movements in Iraq because he considered American and Israeli interests to be the same.

This also describes the mindset of Rosen and Weissman, who had the charges against them dropped after years of legal delaying tactics and an orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby. Of course, the accusation of McCarthyism was pinned on the Justice Department for daring to indict them along with Franklin, and yet, as we can see in the pages of Spies, “Tail-Gunner Joe” was right. The U.S. government, during the war years particularly, was inundated with Communists who were turning over our secrets to the Soviets as fast as they could glean them.

Soviet penetration of every aspect of American political and social life was the KGB’s goal, and during what Eugene Lyons called the “red decade” of the 1930s, this was incredibly easy: the ideological zeitgeist was not only conducive but welcoming. The supposed identity of U.S. and Soviet interests was even easier to justify during the war years, when “Uncle Joe” Stalin was America’s best friend (and Britain’s), and Lend-Lease Act dollars were pouring into the effort to save the “workers’ fatherland.”

The so-called Popular Front strategy of the Communist Party was very successful, involving as it did a grand coaltion with New Deal liberals and fellow traveling intellectuals—such as the crews at The New Republic and The Nation—of which the Communists were the spearhead. In the run up to World War II and during the conflict, the Communists made up the left wing of the Rooseveltian revolutionaries, who sought, as Archibald MacLeish put it, to “remake America,” a task quite suited to the Communists’ taste. Yet there was no sense that this was an alien conspiracy, or at least a great effort was made to make it seem “patriotic” to be under the discipline of the Communist Party. Communism, enunciated CP leaders, is “20th century Americanism.” Little did anyone of consequence then suspect that these 20th-century “Americanists” were rifling through our secrets and sending them off to Moscow.

The sheer scope of Soviet covert operations in the U.S. and their undoubted success is chronicled in painstaking detail by Haynes and Klehr. From the collection of scientific and technical data—including the making of the nuclear bomb—to vital political and inside information about the internal deliberations of the U.S. government on matters of interest to Moscow, the Red fifth column infiltrated.

Journalism was a prime target. There were, of course, plenty of party-liners, but in Spies we are presented with evidence that a substantial Communist cadre in the Fourth Estate reported to their KGB handlers and, in certain cases, acted as sources and conduits for sensitive material.

George Seldes and Bruce Minton, co-publishers of the left-wing newsletter In Fact—who delighted in smearing antiwar conservatives—were both Soviet agents, the latter “deeply embedded in the Communist underground and one of its links to the KGB.” Another journalist crusader was John Spivak, who made a career out of linking America First to the Nazis after receiving orders directly from the KGB’s chief officer in the U.S., Jacob Golos. After the invasion of the Soviet Union by Hitler’s troops, hacks like Seldes and Spivak, along with John Roy Carlson, were used to smear the antiwar movement as the “Nazi transmission belt,” as one anti-isolationist tract put it.

The case of Walter Lippmann, the socialist turned consummate insider, is more complex: the KGB approached him through his secretary, Mary Price, who went through his papers and sent photocopies of his correspondence to her KGB handler. Ernest Hemingway is characterized by the authors as the “dilettante spy,” whose contacts with Soviet agent Harry Dexter White and other brushes with the Communist apparatus in the U.S. and abroad—he went to Spain during the civil war and was close to the International Brigades—made the Soviets think he could be useful. Yet Hemingway, although vaguely sympathetic and apparently enamoured of the whole idea of espionage, never did anything for the KGB, and his contacts with them were sporadic.

The Soviets also penetrated the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, to an “astounding degree,” with several top agents reporting directly to Moscow. Newly documented cases of KGB collaboration number about a dozen. Grouped around these conscious agents were the sources who, unknowingly or otherwise, fed them vital information that was then piped to Moscow. Strongholds were apparently the Russian, Spanish, Balkan, Hungarian, and Latin American sections of the Research and Analysis department. In terms of operational units, the Reds were also a significant factor in the Japanese, Spanish, Hungarian, Korean, Italian, Indonesian, and German sections. Thrown together haphazardly and with great speed during the war, the OSS was particularly prone to Soviet infiltration. Its first chief, William Donovan, once remarked, “I’d put Stalin on the OSS payroll if I thought it would help us defeat Hitler.” Donovan felt he was making use of the Communists in his ranks, but in the long run they made better use of him.

The Soviets further succeeded in placing a number of agents as congressional staff members, and in Rep. Sam Dickstein (D-N.Y.), who according to Allen Weinstein’s The Haunted Wood was paid $1,250 a month by the Soviets, they had an actual member of Congress. It was Dickstein who lorded it over the House’s Special Committee on Un-American Activities, the precursor to HUAC, and embarked on a witchhunt against any organization or individual who dared speak out against U.S. intervention abroad, labeling them Nazis, fascists, and saboteurs. Long before McCarthy, there was Dickstein, who “exaggerated the extremist threat far beyond its small size, claiming that the German American Bund had two hundred thousand armed men who were ready to don their brown uniforms and overthrow the government.” He coerced and abused witnesses dragged before his inquisition and “lectured them about their moral shortcomings.”

Dickstein wasn’t just a traitor and a Communist: he was also a crook. Indeed, “Crook” was the KGB’s cover name for him. In the winter of 1936, the New York congressman approached Soviet Ambassador Alexandr Troyanovsky with the bright idea of paying him as much as $6,000 for the Un-American Committee’s files on White Russian exiles in the United States. At a series of meetings detailed in the KGB archives, Dickstein dickered until he got the Soviets to agree to a fee that, in 2008 dollars, amounted to more than $200,000 annually. In return, he promised to launch an investigation into White Russians, Trotskyists, and other opponents of the Soviet regime. When Walter Krivitsky, a KGB official, defected to the West and denounced Stalin, Dickstein interceded, unsuccessfully, with the immigration authorities to deny him a visa extension. Dickstein was eager to make himself useful. His Soviet handlers, however, were less than satisfied with his efforts and several times cut off his stipend. He resigned from Congress in 1945 to become a judge of the New York Supreme Court. He died in 1956, with no one the wiser as to his KGB affiliation.

Spies is not exactly bedtime reading—unless, that is, you’re an insomniac. It is filled with confusing code names, long stretches of argumentation linking those names with real persons, and interminable minutiae detailing every known movement of the dramatis personae. The book reads more like an encyclopedia than a narrative. It fails as entertainment, but succeeds as an indictment of an entire era in which some of the nation’s best and brightest sold their souls to a foreign master—and as a stinging, definitive rebuttal to those who have defended Alger Hiss all of these years.

Which brings us to Susan Jacoby’s Alger Hiss and the Battle for History—a battle, she avers, that has largely been lost, at least by the last-ditch defenders of an infamous traitor. In her book, that’s not a good thing. In Jacoby’s evaluation, it is a “98%” certainty that Hiss is guilty as charged, but her reaction is, essentially, so what?

“As a liberal,” she writes, “I must ask how Hiss’s guilt or innocence changes anything of fundamental importance about American history, from the New Deal through the present era of transnational terrorism.” Well, it certainly changes our understanding of that history to note that a large and influential contingent of the American elite—diplomats, scientists, journalists, politicians, and prominent academics—not only pledged fealty to a foreign power, but worked to penetrate America’s defenses on their paymaster’s behalf.

Why did they do so? The answer is precisely what Jacoby fears. She admits that the authors of Spies, in their previous work, The Secret World of American Communism,

[M]ake a careful distinction between McCarthyism and what they describe as legitimate efforts to protect government secrets from Communist espionage. Yet that distinction has almost never been maintained in real American political life. McCarthyism was an attack on New Deal liberalism as well as communism, and the fact that Hiss was a New Dealer—he came to Washington to work for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration in 1933—was tailor-made for those who wished to besmirch the memory of Roosevelt.

Precisely. The fresh evidence unearthed in the KGB archives underscores the validity of this analysis. In spite of Dickstein’s crookery, the congressman’s views were, as the KGB chief in America wrote to Moscow, “close to ours,” and indeed the other more important agents, such as Hiss, White, Duggan, and Currie, never received more than their expenses for the secrets. Ideology, not money, motivated the Communists in America, and certainly the radicalism of the early New Deal afforded the Communist cell in Washington a certain amount of camouflage. During the war, this ideological affinity was reinforced by the necessity of interaction with our wartime allies, allowing Soviet intelligence an opportunity to penetrate ever deeper into the very highest government councils, including the White House.

“There are few more revealing indicators of any American’s overall politics than his or her assessment of McCarthyism,” avers Jacoby, who then proceeds to link support for McCarthy with support for the Patriot Act, the Iraq War, and an interventionist foreign policy during the Cold War years. Yet she fails to understand the real history and nature of McCarthyism, which pointed to an internal enemy, rather than the alleged external military threat from the Soviet Union, as the main danger to America. This is why liberal anti-Communists, and the intellectual predecessors of today’s neoconservatives, recoiled at the sight of the populist McCarthy rallying millions of Americans against their own government and the elites who controlled it. This is why the postwar remnants of the old “isolationist” America First movement were such ardent McCarthyites—aside from the sheer joy of getting back at the leftists, like Dickstein, who had conducted an anti-rightist inquisition during the war years.

If the main danger was at home, then we need not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Such an ardent McCarthyite and Taft Republican as the novelist Louis Bromfield, in his forgotten classic A New Pattern for a Tired World (1954), referred to the Soviets’ “ramshackle empire,” and characterized the Marxist movement as an “international psychopathic cult,” which could not long survive without infusions of technology and aid from the West. The alleged “threat” posed by the Soviet Union was minor, he declared, compared to the threat to our old Republic represented by militarism, the arms race, and the distortion of our economic and political life by the rise of an American empire.

At the end of that road lies Washington, D.C., the Imperial City, a battlefield where foreign factions vie for influence and intelligence agencies, friend and foe alike, trawl for secrets. As we saw in the case of the AIPAC espionage scandal—and its outcome, the dismissal of all charges—the line between lobbying and espionage is now so blurred that it no longer seems to exist. And so, even as we absorb the lessons of this chronicle of treason, a new chapter in the history of ideologically motivated espionage is being written.

Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com and author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement. 

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