The Magazine

Professors of Denial

Ignoring the truth about American Communists.

Mar 21, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 25 • By HARVEY KLEHR and JOHN EARL HAYNES
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SINCE THE END OF THE Cold War, documents released from American and Soviet archives have convinced most Americans that long-disputed spy charges against Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, Lauchlin Currie, and Harry Dexter White, among others, were accurate, and that hundreds of Americans worked for Soviet intelligence services during the 1930s and 1940s. What has gone largely unnoticed is the frantic rear-guard action by a handful of academics to discredit the new evidence and exonerate these onetime spies. While some who insisted that Hiss and the others were innocent have finally given up the ghost, others concede Hiss and company's guilt but urge us to see their espionage as an expression of true American patriotism. And a few holdouts have refused to admit that the evidence from Russian and American archives is, in fact, overwhelming. Meanwhile, a depressingly large number of high school and college history textbooks still present the Rosenberg and Hiss cases as unresolved or ambiguous and minimize the extent of Soviet spying.

Some of these battles about the extent of Soviet espionage are fought online at H-HOAC, an academic discussion list for those interested in the history of American communism, and H-DIPLO, which is devoted to diplomatic history. There one finds such figures as Grover Furr, professor of English at Montclair State University, ardent defender of Joseph Stalin and the Moscow Purge Trials; Roger Sandilands, an English academic who is the biographer and defender of Lauchlin Currie, a White House aide who assisted Soviet espionage; and David Lowenthal, an American-born British academic, who has taken up the lost cause of his late brother John, a Rutgers law professor who, until his death last year, stoutly maintained not only that Alger Hiss was innocent of espionage, but that Whittaker Chambers was a fantasist who had invented the tale of his own spying. These holdouts have been joined by a retired KGB general, Julius Kobyalev, who insists that Hiss was not a spy, while nostalgically applauding the greatness of the KGB and lamenting the fall of the USSR.

One piece of evidence recently cited on H-HOAC emerged during an unusual libel trial in Great Britain. John Lowenthal published an article in a British journal in 2000 attacking the methods used and conclusions reached in The Haunted Wood, a book by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the SVR, successor to the KGB, signed a lucrative contract with Crown Publishers to bring out a series of books. A retired KGB officer with security clearances would be allowed access to a selected segment of intelligence files and would coauthor a book with an American writer. Vassiliev and Weinstein produced this study of Soviet intelligence operations directed against the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. When the SVR regained much of its clout in 1995, it grew less cooperative, and the project ran into trouble. Vassiliev prudently left Russia before the book was published and settled in Britain. Angered by Lowenthal's charges, he sued for libel and lost the case in 2003.

One document introduced at the trial was a handwritten memo by Vassiliev, summarizing and quoting from a report written in December 1948 by Anatoly Gorsky, chief ("resident" in KGB jargon) of the KGB station in Washington at the time of Elizabeth Bentley's defection in 1945. This memo has been trumpeted by the diehards as proof of Hiss's innocence. In fact, it is another damning link in the long chain of evidence that establishes Hiss's guilt. The memo enriches our knowledge of Soviet espionage and provides further confirmation of stories told by such former spies as Chambers, Bentley, Hedda Massing, and Louis Budenz.

Vassiliev lost his libel suit, but this had less to do with the merits of his work and more to do with his foolish decision to represent himself without professional counsel as well as his poor judgment in treating criticism as libel in the first place. His notes are, of course, not the best evidence; it would be much preferable to have Gorsky's original report, but that is not likely to be soon released by the SVR, which deeply regrets allowing any access to its archives and has been trying to discredit what information is already out.

In a section of the memo titled "Failures in the U.S.A. (1938-1945)," Gorsky noted five groups of agents that had been compromised by defectors from Soviet espionage. The first was "Karl's Group." "Karl" is identified as Whittaker Chambers, and the group includes Alger Hiss (code-named "Leonard"), Donald Hiss (code-named "Junior"), Henry Wadleigh, Frank Reno, William Pigman, Joseph Peters, Harry Dexter White, Felix Inslerman, and a number of others whom Chambers himself identified. Indeed, of the 21 names listed in Karl's group, who are all identified by code name and real name, Chambers discussed 15 in his testimony and his autobiography, Witness. And, without providing names, he mentioned three minor participants whose jobs match the positions of three others on Gorsky's list.

Because the code name for Hiss given in the deciphered 1945 KGB cables (the Venona decryptions) was "Ales," and because earlier KGB memos discussed in The Haunted Wood referred to Hiss as "Lawyer," several diehards on H-HOAC and H-DIPLO astoundingly found the Gorsky memo exculpatory. But the KGB frequently changed cover names. That Hiss has a new one in this memo does not prove his innocence; his mere inclusion is yet additional proof that Chambers was telling the truth and that Hiss was a Soviet source.

Gorsky's memo also documents a number of agents compromised by the defection of Hedda Massing, who quietly dropped out of KGB service in the late 1930s but did not provide the FBI with an account of her activities until 1947. Among those Gorsky listed as compromised was Laurence Duggan, a senior State Department official who committed suicide when faced with inquiries from the FBI about his work for the Russians. Other Soviet sources Gorsky thought were at risk included those known to senior Communist party officer Louis Budenz, a Daily Worker editor whose conversion to Catholicism was dramatically reported in the New York Times in 1945. Budenz, whose account of his own connections to Soviet intelligence has been disparaged by many historians, knew a number of Communists selected to infiltrate and disrupt the American Trotskyist movement.

THE MEMO'S LARGEST GROUP of names--counting 44--come from two large networks of agents supervised by Elizabeth Bentley. Bentley began talking to the FBI in late 1945. In her statement to the FBI and later in congressional testimony, she discussed all but 6 of the 44 on Gorsky's list. Several agents she named who were not also identified in the deciphered Venona messages turn up in Gorsky's memo, including Joseph Gregg, Robert Miller, William Remington, and Bernard Redmont (former journalist and professor at Boston University).

Finally, Gorsky listed a group of Soviet sources compromised by Alexander Koral, a New York school district maintenance engineer and KGB courier who broke under FBI interrogation in 1947 and provided a partial account of his group. Among those potentially compromised by Koral, Gorksy noted, was Byron Darling, a physicist who had the KGB code name "Huron." Huron appears in the deciphered Venona cables as a KGB source involved in scientific espionage, including work on the atomic bomb project. The FBI was never able to identify Huron's real name. In 1953, Darling, then teaching physics at Ohio State University and working on a U.S. Air Force research contract, refused to answer questions about secret links to the American Communist party in testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Ohio State fired him. Darling left the country and taught physics for the rest of his career at Laval University in Canada. He has been lionized by some historians of the McCarthy era as an innocent man hounded by Neanderthals for his innocuous political beliefs. In fact, Darling was no martyr, he was a spy.

The Gorsky memo reminds us that historians who underestimate the extent of Soviet espionage in America fail to comprehend just how serious an issue the loyalty of government employees was. That this damning list of spies is cited by a handful of academics to clear the name of anyone on it shows that hope springs eternal among a dwindling band of espionage-deniers. Increasingly, these people resemble the pathetic remnants of the Imperial Japanese Army who refused to believe that the emperor had surrendered and continued to wander the jungles of Southeast Asia for years after 1945. They, at least, had the excuse that they were out of communication with the real world.

Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes's latest book, In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage will be released in paperback next month by Encounter Books.