The Magazine

TWO GENTLEMEN OF VENONA

May 13, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 34 • By HARVEY KLEHR and JOHN EARL HAYNES
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THE LIST OF 20TH-CENTURY AMERICAN political martyrs usually includes the names of Harry Dexter White and Laurence Duggan. Did paranoid anti-Communists drive these two supposedly loyal and dedicated public servants to their deaths? The newly released cache of Soviet intelligence documents known by the code-name "Venona" demonstrates yet again that the anti-Communists were right all along -- and that the indefatigable efforts of the Left to discredit the idea that Soviet spies were working in high-ranking positions in the U.S. government have now been thoroughly discredited by the testimony of Soviet intelligence itself.

Harry Dexter White was one of the most influential offcials in New Deal Washington. He rose to the position of assistant secretary of the treasury and, in 1946, became director of the International Monetary Fund. He has been credited as the chief architect of the Bretton Woods monetary agreement, and the World Bank. It was, then, a shock when admitted Communist spy Elizabeth Bentley publicly accused White of espionage in 1948, finding support for her accusation in the testimony of fellow one-time Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers.

Bentley and Chambers made their claims to the House Un-American Activities Committee. White came before the committee on August 13, 1948, and emphatically denied ever having any contact with Soviet intelligence. Given White's prominence, the impact of these charges could easily have been greater than in the Alger Hiss case.

But three days after testifying he died of a heart attack -- a victim of HUAC, according to then-presidential candidate Henry Wallace, who said that he had planned to make White secretary of the treasury in a Wallace administration.

The controversy turned highly partisan when Herbert Brownell, President Eisenhower's attorney general, charged in 1953 that President Truman had appointed White to head the IMF despite FBI concerns about a possible Soviet link. A furious Truman replied that he had never seen an FBI report about its suspicions regarding White before the IMF appointment.

When the FBI produced copies of its warnings, Truman changed his story. He had appointed White to the IMF, he said, to get him out of the Treasury Department and allow the FBI the opportunity to gather more conclusive evidence. A HUAC threat to subpoena Truman died down only when Eisenhower said he thought it inappropriate to force a former president to testify.

The Venona papers -- cables between Soviet intelligence officers that were intercepted and decoded during World War II -- establish conclusively that Harry Dexter White lied and that Bentley and Chambers told the truth. White betrayed the United States. Eleven separate Venona cables confirm White's cooperation with Soviet intelligence.

White's code-name was "Jurist" (Alger Hiss's, also revealed in the Venona papers, was "Ales"). In an August 1944 cable, Soviet intelligence officers reported on a meeting with White: "As regards the technique of further work with us Jurist said that his wife was ready for any self-sacrifice; he himself did not think about his personal security, but a compromise would lead to a political scandal and the discredit of all supporters of the new course, therefore he would have to be very cautious."

The phrase "supporters of the new course" referred to those Americans who advocated a postwar alliance with the Soviet Union. Other cables show White reporting to the Soviets about discussions within the U.S. government about a number of sensitive matters: a postwar loan to the Soviet Union, reparations policy toward Germany, the dispute with the U.S.S.R. over who would rule postwar Poland, and the U.S. stand toward Stalin's annexation of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. In a November 1944 cable, Moscow learned that White faced the monetary strain of financing a daughter's college expenses on a civil servant's salary. In order to ensure he was not tempted to leave government service for a more lucrative private-sector job, a Soviet intelligence officer assured White that the Soviet intelligence service would take care of his daughter's educational expenses. The cable noted that White had previously declined a regular subsidy from the Soviets but seemed amenable to a gift for these special expenses.

And what of Laurence Duggan? He is yet another "martyr," whose life was supposedly dashed on the shoals of anti-Communist paranoia. A professional diplomat, Duggan in 1935 became head of the State Department's Latin America division, resigning in 1944 for unspecified personal reasons. He became diplomatic adviser to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and, later, president of the Institute for International Education.