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.

In 1948 Chambers told the FBI that, in the 1930s, network of Soviet sources had tabbed Duggan as a Communist sympathizer. When approached to spy, however, Duggan told the recruiter that he was already working for another Soviet espionage network. Hede Massing, another defector from Soviet intelligence, confirmed Chambers's story -- she had, she said, personally recruited Duggan and he was working for her network when approached by Chambers's emissary.

When the FBI interviewed Duggan in December 1948, he denied having spied for the Soviet Union, but his account was not a complete refutation of what Chambers and Massing had said. Duggan told the FBI that on two occasions in the mid-1930s friends had attempted to recruit him for Communist intelligence operations. He insisted that he had rejected the approaches but admitted that he had not reported the attempts either to his superiors at the State Department or to the FBI. Ten days after the interview, he either jumped or fell to his death from his 16th-fioor office window.

A few days later, a tasteless remark by Rep. Karl Mundt (asked when HUAC would name suspected Soviet spies, he responded, "We'll name them as they jump out of windows") incurred the wrath of the liberal establishment. Duggan's many prominent friends (Sumner Welles, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the journalist Drew Pearson, among others) fervently defended his reputation. President Truman's attorney general, Tom Clark, called Duggan "a loyal employee of the United States Government." And Henry Wallace, who apparently loved to think about how he would have staffed his administration, said he would have considered Duggan for the post of secretary of state had he been elected president.

The image of Duggan as a loyal public servant driven to suicide by baseless accusations has been commonly accepted. His story is often presented as evidence that anti-communism itself constituted a form of psychological terror. So nightmarish were the times, we are told in history after history, that an innocent man chose suicide rather than try to save his reputation. This view was expressed as recently as last year by the unimpeachably anti- Communist Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. In an otherwise generous review of our book, The Secret World of American Communism, Schlesinger took harsh exception to a reference to Duggan: "Without supporting evidence, the Yale University Press should not have permitted this book to blacken the name of a man whom many knew as an able public servant."

Yale University Press can breathe a sigh of relief, for eight of the recently released Venona decryptions mention Laurence Duggan, code-named " Frank." These 1943 and 1944 cables show Duggan reporting to Soviet intelligence officers about Anglo-American plans for the invasion of Italy, consideration of an Anglo-American invasion of Nazi-occupied Norway, U.S. diplomatic approaches to Argentina's military government, and secret Anglo- American discussions regarding a common policy toward Middle Eastern oil resources.

In a July 22, 1944, cable, Soviet intelligence officers reported the resignation of their source "Frank" from the State Department. Duggan had officially resigned on July 18, possibly because of an internecine battle between Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Undersecretary Sumner Welles. The cable glossed over the loss of so valuable an asset by assuring Moscow that " prospects for the future are being looked into." In a November 1944 cable, Moscow was told that Hull's imminent departure from the State Department could lead to Duggan's reinstatement in "a leading post." The hope was based on the rumor, reported in this same cable, that President Roosevelt might make Henry Wallace secretary of state as consolation for having been dropped as vice president in favor of Harry Truman. And even if Wallace did not get the State Department, the cable continued, Duggan could still be useful to the Soviets by "using his friendship" with Wallace for "extracting . . . interesting information" that would inevitably come to someone of Wallace's standing. (Hull resigned at the end of November, but FDR appointed Wallace secretary of commerce, not state.)

The Venona documents suggest a few simple explanations for Duggan's suicide: remorse; despair that the jig was up; or the prospect that his betrayal of the United States and deception of his friends was about to be revealed.

It is true that overzealous or irresponsible anti- Communists did unjustly accuse innocent public servants of Communist links in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But the claim that the congressional committees investigating Communist infiltration into the U.S. government were engaging in witch hunts can no longer be sustained. Witches don't exist; Communist spies did. What these long-secret government archives now make manifest is that most of those accused by Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers and pilloried by HUAC were Soviet agents. Harry Dexter White and Laurence Duggan were not martyrs. They were among the most important American officials ever to betray their country.