The Magazine


Nov 13, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 09 • By HARVEY KLEHR and JOHN EARL HAYNES
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The defining characteristic of post-World War II American life was an irrational obsession with internal Communist subversion -- or so many academic historians say. The newly proposed National Standards for United States History suggest that public concern about Soviet espionage or covert Communist political influence in the late 1940s and 1950s was a sign of paranoid hysteria. Even those convicted as Soviet spies in this era, most notably Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, have fervent defenders, and scenarios depicting them as framed innocents have ever been given respectful, often favorable, hearings.

While the likes of the Rosenbergs and Hiss are lionized as moral exemplars, the standard historical treatment of Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley is rather different. These defectors from Soviet intelligence told both congressional panels and federal juries that the Communist Party of the USA ( CPUSA) had worked hand in glove with Soviet intelligence and that dozens of Communists inside the U.S. government had been spies. Their testimony provided a rational basis for public concern about Communist subversion, and for that, Chambers and Bentley have been ridiculed, denounced as psychopaths, accused of lying on a massive scale, and their testimony treated as unworthy of serious scholarly attention.

No longer. The end of the Cold War is providing new evidence on Soviet espionage and the clandestine activities of the CPUSA. Documents found in newly opened Russian archives, for example, have confirmed parts of their testimony. But even more startling than these Moscow documents are newly released documents from U.S. government files -- files code-named "Venona."

The Venona story is one of the most successful but frustrating in the history of intelligence. In the mid-1940s cryptological analysts of the U.S. Army Signa ls Intelligence Service, forerunner to the National Security Agency (NSA), brok e the codes used during World War II in cables between Soviet diplomatic office s in the U.S. and Moscow, but only partially. Thousands of messages were never broken, and even the 2,000 that were could be decrypted only in part. Th e Soviets changed the code altogether in 1946.

These Venona messages include communications between Soviet intelligence officers of the NKVD (later the KGB) in the U.S. and their Moscow headquarters. These messages show that from 1942 to 1945, at least 200 Americans covertly supplied Moscow with information on American weapons, technology, diplomacy, and war plans. In many messages, the identity of the Americans supplying the Soviets with information was obscured by the use of cover names. But even here, the information in the messages about what a cover-named agent was doing or where he was going allowed him to be identified. The NSA, with the assistance of the CIA and the FBI, thereby identified many of the 200 Americans who spied for the Soviet Union.

Venona remained a closely guarded secret until the end of the Cold War because U.S. authorities did not want the Soviets to learn how successfully America had penetrated Soviet message traffic. This decision precluded the use of the messages in legal actions against the spies uncovered in them. In a few cases, the FBI was able to develop sufficient information from other sources to convict those identified (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for example). In most cases, however, such evidence could not be developed, and most of the spies escaped prosecution.

Thus far only 300 of the 2,000 decrypted Venona messages have been made public. The first set, 49 messages dealing with atomic espionage, came out in mid-July. They were so clear about the extent of Julius Rosenberg's espionage that even his most fervent defenders have retreated. Perhaps at long last the Rosenberg martyrology will come to an ignominious end.

The Rosenberg documents received a flurry of press attention over the summer, but the newly released second batch of about 250 messages has received very little coverage. Yet they may be of greater historical import, because they unmask many of those named by the oft-ridiculed Bentley as spies, without any possibility of refutation by the anti-anti-Communists.