The Magazine


Why Americans Make Bad Spies

Feb 22, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 22 • By LAUREN WEINER
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Left-wing historians used to say that their anti-Communist opponents greatly exaggerated the American Communist party's Cold War ties to Moscow -- and thereby impugned a political organization that did so much for progressive causes.

But nowadays, with evidence pouring in from Soviet archives, the Left has shifted into a mode that might be called "admit but minimize." As the historian Ellen Schrecker recently asked, "Were these activities so awful?" Were they "such a threat to the nation's security" that they justified intrusive investigations and loyalty oaths?

Admit-but-minimize is a weak strategy. As Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev's new study, The Haunted Wood, shows, the Americans who worked in Russian spy rings helped the Soviet Union inform itself about everything from U.S. war preparations and the Roosevelt administration's foreign-aid plans to how to build atomic bombs. Based on files from the Soviet secret police (the KGB, or NKVD, as it was called during the 1930s), The Haunted Wood pieces together the fascinating stories of well-known and not-so-well-known American who betrayed their country, together with the NKVD officers who managed the secret networks.

In fact, however, what Weinstein and Vassiliev have discovered should hearten anyone who still admires the independent spirit of American communism -- for it turns out that the Americans were quite a handful. Several of the Russian agents, not unlike the hapless abductors in the O. Henry story "The Ransom of Red Chief," were in over their heads. American spies Boris Morros and Congressman Samuel Dickstein -- who were in it for the money -- ran rings around their Soviet minders, bilking them of large amounts of cash. Morros, a Hollywood producer, was supposed to set up Soviet-controlled business ventures in Tinseltown. He played at doing this until, to the Russians' consternation, he became a double agent with the FBI and ended up getting his NKVD handler and the handler's wife convicted of espionage.

The Haunted Wood breaks new ground on Dickstein, a New York Democrat who was overpaid by the NKVD to deliver information on vast networks of American fascists that existed only in his imagination. (Ironically, Dickstein pioneered the smear tactics for which Senator McCarthy would become famous, and it was Dickstein's antifascist crusade in the House of Representatives that metamorphosed into the House Un-American Activities Committee.)

The NKVD documents, including cables sent back and forth between Moscow and stations in New York and Washington, attest to Soviet anxieties about the unruly Americans. Their gregariousness ("purely American anarchism," sniffed one Soviet agent who posed as a diplomat in New York) kept fouling up the compartmentalization of contacts so necessary to Soviet-style kon spiratsia. Two impudent underground go-betweens, Nathan Gregory Silver-master and Jacob Golos, fought their NKVD bosses for control of their delivery operations. The more intrepid underground members (Julius Rosenberg, Victor Perlo) could not be persuaded to observe security rules, while those who wavered in their devotion to the cause worried Soviet intelligence for another reason: They might defect and squeal to the FBI.

The waverers are the most interesting people in the book. Even a commitment to social justice -- which they associated entirely with communism -- could not keep a certain tortured patriotism from asserting itself. Duncan Lee of the Office of Strategic Services, atomic spy Klaus Fuchs, and the State Department's Michael Straight and Lawrence Duggan were among those who agonized about giving information to the Russians.

The same people who took seriously the fact that they were betraying their country also seem to be the ones who most hated the prospect of their secret activities' becoming known. The guilt seems marginally commendable and the worry rather craven, but the combination, in any case, was powerful enough to drive Lawrence Duggan to commit suicide as U.S. authorities closed in on him.

Many who appear in these pages, of course, were rock solid. The NKVD never had a moment's trouble with the physicist Theodore Hall. Likewise the GRU, or Soviet military intelligence, gave Alger Hiss high marks. The Russians yearned for more like them: The files show that loyalty obsessed the Kremlin every bit as much as it did the White House. Indeed it was defectors -- most prominently, the courier and group handler Elizabeth Bentley, who told U.S. law enforcement everything she knew in late 1945 -- who forced the Russians to dismantle much of their effort as the war drew to a close.