The Magazine

Spy vs. Spy

What Igor Gouzenko taught the West.

Dec 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 14 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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In retrospect, it is clear that the Canadian ring was hardly the Soviet Union's most valuable group of agents. By 1944, the GRU had been supplanted as the premier Soviet intelligence agency by the NKVD, which had its own network in Canada and the United States. Virtually all key atomic espionage work, for example, was turned over to the NKVD during World War II. May, who was arrested and convicted in Great Britain, was a far less important source on atomic research than Klaus Fuchs, Ted Hall, and even David Greenglass, all run by the NKVD and exposed several years later. Other Canadian spies provided useful but hardly groundbreaking information on weapons systems, diplomacy, and military issues. Nevertheless, the GRU spy ring had penetrated a variety of Canadian institutions, enlisted a disconcerting number of Canadian citizens, and broken the law to benefit a foreign dictatorship.

In addition to the shock of discovering that a significant number of its citizens were covertly aiding a foreign country, Canadian authorities were most startled by the involvement of two leaders of the Labour Progressive party, as the Communists were then styled. Fred Rose was a Communist representative in Parliament and Sam Carr was one of the party's leading functionaries. Their decision to cooperate with Soviet espionage was, Knight concludes, reckless and "catastrophic" for the party.

Why, then, did they take such a risk?

Knight displays extraordinary naiveté, imagining that Rose, a long-time party functionary, and Carr, a onetime student at the International Lenin School in Moscow, were somehow "duped by the Soviets into thinking their country was a glorious utopia." She never considers that Earl Browder and Eugene Dennis, leaders of the American Communist party, were also enmeshed in espionage, just as reckless. Why would leaders of Western Communist parties believe the welfare of the Soviet Union was more important than the fate of their own Communist parties, let alone the countries of which they were citizens? Were they just dupes, or was the Soviet code name in Venona for party members--"Fellowcountrymen"--indicative of the true loyalties of such hardened cadres?

What Venona and the Mitrokhin archives make absolutely clear is that hundreds of Western Communists willingly spied for the Soviet Union because their ultimate loyalties were not to the countries of which they were citizens, but to the country that enshrined the cause of communism.

Most Communists, of course, did not become spies, and most people who joined the Communist party in the 1930s eventually abandoned it. Knight notes that several of those implicated by Gouzenko were reluctant to spy and sometimes resisted entreaties to hand over information. She laments that Israel Halperin, a chemist, and Arthur Steinberg, a biologist, had their careers blighted even though they were never convicted (or, in Steinberg's case, even indicted) for espionage. But she is less concerned that they never bothered to inform authorities that they had been approached to spy and that they lied when confronted with Gouzenko's evidence.

No doubt many of those recruited to spy were idealists who wanted to help their gallant Soviet allies during World War II. Some may have thought the information they were asked to provide was innocuous. But Carr, Rose, and Browder had been involved with the Communist underground and conspiratorial networks for years before the war. The Canadian Communists had been interned during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact because their onetime antifascism had been superseded by an alliance with fascists with whom their government was at war. And while most Communists were not spies, most assuredly, virtually all the spies had emerged from the Communist movement.

That inconvenient fact escapes Knight. She agrees that the Soviets were doubtless infuriated that Western governments used the Gouzenko affair "to fight domestic communism," a struggle whose virtues she does not appreciate. She gives a backhanded compliment to the Canadian government, praising it for not outlawing the Communist party, unlike the United States. Her animus towards American anticommunism is not only inaccurate--the CPUSA was never outlawed--but also ironic, given that no American Communists were ever treated with such disregard for basic legal rights as the Canadians sequestered in the Gouzenko case, even though it seems a stretch to call the Mountie tactics "Gestapo-like." Likewise, she denounces the Loyalty-Security program instituted by the Truman administration, even though it was based on the rational premise that Communist loyalties were potentially in conflict with national security.