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.