The Magazine

Redhanded

Venona comes to PBS.

Feb 4, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 20 • By RONALD RADOSH
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Viewers are also shown a large portion of the interview NOVA conducted with Hall's wife, Joan, who makes it clear that as far as she is concerned, Hall did nothing wrong, since he thought that the Soviet Union was a good society and "he was afraid the United States might become a very reactionary power." Her husband, she insists, "wasn't a spy...wasn't an agent." He was simply a "scientist with a conscience who shared knowledge with the Soviets."

"Secrets, Lies and Atomic Spies" suggests that the information passed to the Soviets by Ethel and Julius Rosenberg was of limited importance compared to what they obtained from Hall and later from Klaus Fuchs. The program includes a short portion of an interview in which Michael Meeropol says that if Venona is accurate--something he still cannot acknowledge--then the United States arrested only "a small-fry spy."

A more accurate way to put it would be, as Harvey Klehr points out, that Julius Rosenberg gave the Soviets major military information. Nevertheless, that information was nowhere near what Hall and Fuchs turned over to the KGB. If Venona had been known at the time, the prosecution at the Rosenbergs' trial would not have been able falsely to accuse them of having given key atomic secrets to the Soviets--nor would Judge Irving Kaufman have been as likely to hand down the dual death sentence that made them major Communist martyrs.

"Secrets, Lies and Atomic Spies" concludes with the words of the NSA's Lou Benson, who says that the Venona project and its eventual compromising by the Soviets was an "intelligence failure never equaled or surpassed in the history of U.S. intelligence." But during the window of opportunity that existed before the Soviets changed their codes, the United States was able to gain access to top-secret communications, which proved conclusively that the Soviet Union had targeted the United States and infiltrated our government's top ranks. It also was able to identify a good many of its agents.

Writing in the 1960s, Rebecca West pleaded that if treason was to be ended, public opinion had to make it clear that "treachery is a sordid and undignified form of crime." We must, she argued, "abandon all sentimentality in our views of the traitor, and recognize him as a thief and a liar." That's what the revelation of the Venona decrypts ought to have done in recent years--and what the new PBS special will help further.

Ronald Radosh is the author of Commies: A Journey through the "Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left" and, with Joyce Milton, of "The Rosenberg File."