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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Although Knight is aware of the Venona transcripts, she does not have much confidence in what they reveal. At times she suggests that Soviet intelligence officers routinely exaggerated their accomplishments and claimed sources they didn't have in cables back to Moscow, but she provides no evidence to support that claim. In other places she argues that most of the names mentioned in Venona are simply discussions of potential targets for recruitment, even though most of the messages discuss real sources turning over real material. Elsewhere she brushes off most of the spying that went on as harmless or insignificant. Although she acknowledges that Klaus Fuchs was an atomic spy, she absurdly sniffs that there were "no real atomic secrets to be lost."

Knight dismisses Elizabeth Bentley's allegations of widespread espionage as unsupported and unconvincing. She trumpets the fact that there were no indictments stemming from Bentley's charges, even though the Venona documents demonstrate that Bentley told the truth. What Knight does not seem to understand is why the government was unable to prosecute the dozens of spies Bentley named: Kim Philby had tipped off the Soviets that she was talking, they had cut off ties to their agents, and the United States government had determined not to use the only hard evidence it had--the Venona documents--in open court.

Because Bentley retained no documents from her espionage career, Knight is not inclined to credit her story. And even though Whittaker Chambers did produce documents typed on the Hiss family typewriter and others in Alger Hiss's handwriting, she doesn't believe him, either. At one point Knight inaccurately suggests that Chambers provided no evidence to support his allegations against Hiss; at another she implies, again with no evidence, that Chambers fabricated the documents he did produce. She also ignores all the other evidence against Hiss, including testimony from Hede Massing, another spy who testified about his activities, and the detailed information uncovered by Allen Weinstein and Sam Tanenhaus in their splendid books.

Instead, she accepts at face value the statements of spokesmen for the Russian foreign intelligence service (SVR) that Alger Hiss's name does not appear in their archives. (Knight does not bother to inform readers that the SVR's official policy is not to identify as an agent anyone who has not admitted it himself, including Hiss.) Even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that Harry Dexter White consciously provided information to the KGB, Knight balks at acknowledging his espionage. She allows that "White was at least an unwitting informant to the Soviets," ignoring a Venona document in which a KGB agent reported White's commitment to providing information at periodic meetings while driving around Washington in his automobile, or another where he revealed the American negotiating strategy at the first United Nations Conference to the Soviets. She defends him by insisting that "there is no evidence that he was doing this with the intention of subverting American policies."

Knight reserves her indignation for those responsible for ferreting out spies. It was unsporting and reckless of J. Edgar Hoover to initiate investigations of Hiss and White based on mere snippets of information from sources like Gouzenko and Bentley, who had never met them. At one point she criticizes the Canadian government for going public with spy allegations rather than pursuing quiet diplomacy to resolve the issue. She is far angrier at investigators who suspected that the Canadian diplomat E. Herbert Norman was a spy based on his secret Communist party membership while at Cambridge in the 1930s than she is at Norman for lying about his past to those investigators and to Canadian officials. Norman committed suicide and his guilt or innocence remains an open question, but Knight is livid that his lies led to investigations that led to his suicide.

In Knight's legalistic world, no one can be a spy unless they are convicted in a court of law. Most Soviet spies, however, were never prosecuted because the evidence of their guilt was not admissible in court, either because it was derived from decrypted cables or obtained by illegal wiretaps or break-ins. That may represent one of the glories of the Western system of law, but it hardly exonerates those who betrayed their country. While Knight believes the key question to be asked is "why so many innocent people were accused of spying," she is remarkably incurious about why so many American and Canadian Communists were willing to spy. Igor Gouzenko set in motion a hunt for Communist spies, but it was no wild goose chase.

Given her despair about the consequences of his actions, Knight is actually quite balanced in her discussion of Gouzenko himself. Like many defectors, he proved to be a difficult person, headstrong, inflexible, obsessed with money, and convinced that everyone he dealt with was either a simpleton or obtuse. He wrote one surprisingly gifted novel, but otherwise seemed to enjoy only suing critics for libel, griping about his relationship with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and, together with his wife, raising his eight children, none of whom learned his true identity until they turned 16.

After years of ill health, Gouzenko died in 1982. The events he set in motion guarantee that students of the Cold War will long remember him. His legacy is far more positive than Amy Knight is willing to grant.

Harvey Klehr is the Andrew Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory. His latest book is In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage.