The Magazine

TWO GENTLEMEN OF VENONA

May 13, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 34 • By HARVEY KLEHR and JOHN EARL HAYNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.