The Blog

OUTED FROM THE COLD

12:00 AM, Apr 15, 1996 • By HARVEY KLEHR and JOHN EARL HAYNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THEODORE HALL WAS A PHYSICS PRODIGY at Harvard, graduating at age 19. The year was 1944. He was immediately scooped up by the Manhattan Project and sent to Los Alamos to work on the atomic bomb. But he was also a member of the Young Communist League and soon he was recruited by another organization: the Soviet intelligence service. While in New Mexico, he passed nuclear secrets to Stalin's government.

After the war ended, Hall left weapons-related research and eventually moved to Great Britain. His espionage was unknown to the public until February of this year, when the Washington Post reported the story on the front page. Hall, who is 76 and in poor health, told the press that he wanted no hubbub. He wanted only to finish out his life in peace.

While this may be understandable, peace should not come easily to Hall and others like him, who have been exposed at last by the American government's release of the "Venona files": deciphered World War II cables between Soviet intelligence officers in America and their superiors in Moscow. Although more than half of the 2,200 files will not be made available until later this year, the ones already public reveal a massive Soviet network devoted to spying on the United States, the Soviets' wartime ally.

Offcers of the NKVD -- predecessor to the KGB -- worked diligently to ferret out America's military, diplomatic, and technological secrets. Along with the names of NKVD professionals, the Venona messages contain cover-names for about 200 others who participated in espionage for the Soviet Union. Clues in the messages allowed American counterintelligence to identify about half of those spies. Most were American citizens (chiefly members of the Communist party), with a scattering of refugees from Europe.

The government in Washington decided early that Venona had to be kept secret, to prevent the Soviets from learning the extent of American success in cracking what Moscow believed to be an unbreakable cipher system. This meant that evidence from Venona could not be used in court. In a few cases, government authorities were able to develop enough independent evidence to bring criminal charges against spies found out through Venona. These spies include Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Harry Gold, David Greenglass, Morton Sobell, William Perl, Alger Hiss, Judith Coplon, Mark Zborowski, Jack Soble, Robert Soblen, and Klaus Fuchs. Another spy identified in Venona, Elizabeth Bentley, turned herself in and testified fully. Several others, such as Alfred Stern and Jane Foster, were indicted but fled the country, escaping trial. These, however, were the exceptions. Scores of other spies were never prosecuted, thanks to the judgment that the secrecy of Venona outweighed individual justice.

But the Cold War is over and Venona is no longer secret. It is time for an accounting.

Most of those identified as Soviet spies have died, paying no legal penalty. Some (a minority) were accused during the "McCarthy era" of having been spies, and they either indignantly denied the charges or refused to answer them, citing the Fifth Amendment. While they often lost government jobs and were criticized in the press, they had the satisfaction of seeing their accusers denounced as "red-baiters" and "McCarthyites." The historical consensus was -- and to a large extent remains -- that accusations concerning internal security were part of a climate of fear, when America abandoned its most precious values. In this view, many devoted, loyal government employees were hounded out by baseless charges. Venona, however, demonstrates that a number of these "martyrs" did, indeed, betray the United States.

Three of the spies convicted are still alive: Morton Sobell, Alger Hiss, and Judith Coplon. (Coplon was convicted twice, but both convictions were reversed on technicalities. Had prosecutors been able to use the Venona documents -- in which she is frequently and clearly identified as a Soviet agent -- she would have been imprisoned. She is now running a trendy restaurant in New York.) There are others who were never tried and whose guilt at this point is indisputable. Among these living and unpunished spies are Victor Perlo, Harry Magdoff, Donald Niven Wheeler, Joel Barr, and the aforementioned Theodore Hall.

Venona shows that Victor Perlo was not only a spy but the head of a network of concealed Communists. His group had informants in the War Production Board, the Treasury Department, the Senate Committee on War Mobilization, and the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA). One message from the Soviets" New York consulate to NKVD headquarters described how Perlo was to make periodic trips to New York to drop off documents collected by his network. He provided information on America's first operational jet fighter, plans for the production of military equipment, and internal government estimates of postwar U.S. economic prospects.

Today, Perlo is an open and prominent member of what is left of the U.S. Communist party. He was never indicted for his spying, though he was forced from his job in the Treasury Department. He portrays himself, and has been portrayed by others, as an innocent victim of anti-Communist paranoia. His accusers, on the other hand -- particularly Elizabeth Bentley -- have been portrayed as liars. A few years ago, the Left's leading journal, the Nation, published an article by its editor, Victor Navasky, referring to Perlo not as a Communist or a spy but as a "New Deal economist."

Harry Magdoff was a spy who worked with Perlo when the two were on the staff of the War Production Board. Magdoff, according to Venona, shared the duty of ferrying materials to New York. He was fingered by Bentley as a fellow spy. He pleaded the Fifth and was never indicted, but he did lose his job with the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee. Like Perlo, he had been a secret member of the Communist party. At some point, he quietly left and became an editor of Monthly Review, a Marxist journal that, while independent of the party, admired Soviet communism. Magdoff has never admitted involvement with Soviet intelligence. He, too, has been portrayed as a victim of an anti-Communist witch hunt. He remains an editor at Monthly Review.

Donald Niven Wheeler was another member of the Perlo network, burrowed in the Office of Strategic Services. Venona reveals that Wheeler supplied the Soviets with information on the British intelligence service. Moscow must have been pleased with his work, for it ordered Wheeler to prepare a report on the OSS's own counterintelligence branch. After he was named by Bentley, Wheeler refused to testify. He was never indicted. In the ensuing decades, he has ridiculed the notion that he had any links whatever to Soviet intelligence. The Venona documents prove that he was just what Bentley said he was. He lives in retirement after a career as an economics professor at American and Canadian colleges.

Joel Barr worked in the laboratories of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. In 1942, the army discovered his Communist connections and discharged him. But the wartime need for electrical engineers was great, and Barr quickly landed a job at Western Electric Company working on advanced military radar systems. After the war, he worked for Sperry Gyroscope, again on military radar. His background caught up with him, however, and he lost his security clearance, and his job, in 1947.

Barr was living in Paris in 1950 when the press announced that the FBI had arrested David Greenglass, the brother-in-law of Barr's old associate Julius Rosenberg. Bart promptly disappeared from his apartment. He left behind his clothing, his newly purchased motorcycle, and all of his other belongings. Decades later, he surfaced in the Soviet Union under a new name, working as a senior engineer on military electronics. He now maintains residences in New York and St. Petersburg and promotes the sale of electrical processes developed in Russia. He has steadfastly denied involvement in espionage and attributes his disappearance in 1950 to the poisonous atmosphere of the McCarthy era. Venona confirms that Barr was no victim.

And Theodore Hall, the Harvard physics whiz? When the government approached him about joining a secret project, he confided in his roommate, Saville Sax, a fellow Communist, who promptly contacted high officials in the party. Anatoly Yakovlev, an NKVD officer operating with diplomatic status, interviewed Sax, and then sent a covert agent, Sergei Kurnakov, to meet Hall. (Kurnakov was a Russian immigrant who wrote for the Communist Daily Worker.) Kurnakov secured Hall's cooperation and arranged for the young physicist to deliver reports to a courier.

That courier was Leontine Cohen, an American Communist who became a career Soviet spy. She and her husband Morris were later imprisoned in Britain as part of a Soviet network that penetrated the British admiralty. They served about five years before the KGB exchanged them for a British agent in Soviet hands. The Cohens retired on Soviet pensions in Moscow, where they both died.

To Hall, nothing ever happened. The FBI was unable to develop evidence against him independent of Venona. He lived unnoticed and undisturbed until the press showed up on his doorstep a couple of months ago and he made his request for peace.

But his crimes -- and those of Perlo, Wheeler, Barr, and Magdoff -- should not be forgotten. These men betrayed the United States and the rest of the Free World. They abetted a totalitarian and expansionist state ruled by Josef Stalin. They lied about what they did. They defamed those who spoke truthfully about what they did. They allowed others, too, to malign the truth- tellers. They contributed to the miseducation of millions by helping to perpetuate the illusion that it was hysteria, not real evidence of treachery, that prompted the hunt for spies in the early years of the "twilight struggle. "

Yet even if it were legally possibly, it would seem inappropriate to prosecute these spies now. They are old; they committed their crimes 50 years ago. Nevertheless, the passage of time should not relieve them of the responsibility to account for their acts. Nor should their countrymen -- journalists and historians in particular-ignore the dishonorable and villainous conduct of the spies still among us.