The Magazine

The Origins of McCarthyism

What did Harry Truman know, and when did he know it?

Jun 30, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 41 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN, during his long and illustrious public career, did not flinch from controversy. I doubt, therefore, that he would object to my having inserted him posthumously into an intriguing debate over recent history: Who was responsible a half-century ago for opening the door to McCarthyism and imposing a burden on the Democratic party from which it never has fully recovered?

In a column following Sen. Moynihan's death, in which I praised his uniqueness as a political figure, I concluded with this paragraph:

A few years ago when I was recuperating at home from a broken hip, the Senator dropped by and brought a copy of "Secrecy," one of 19 books he wrote. He pointed out the book's disclosure that Gen. Omar Bradley had dogmatically kept secret from President Harry Truman the result of communications intercepts revealing Soviet espionage in the United States. "How that would have kept the Democrats from the embarrassment of defending Alger Hiss and saved us from McCarthyism," said Moynihan. I can't imagine another U.S. Senator exploring this, but there was only one Moynihan.

As I entered my office the morning my column appeared, historian and journalist Jerrold Schecter telephoned me with a complaint. A former Time diplomatic editor and National Security Council spokesman during the Carter administration, Schecter contended that "Moynihan was dead wrong." He said that six weeks after he became president in 1945, Harry Truman "was told about the secret decoding of Soviet messages," adding: "It was not the bureaucracy that held back the secrets, but the president himself."

That dispute is not trivial, addressing as it does a serious political omission by a president who has become admired and indeed beloved across the ideological spectrum. Was Harry Truman victimized, or did he victimize his own party?

When Pat Moynihan paid his sick call on me in February 1999, he had more than small talk on his mind. He had brought me an autographed copy of "Secrecy," published the previous year, not just to give me a little light reading, but to send me a message.

The book was an outgrowth of Moynihan's service in 1995 and 1996 as chairman of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, created by act of Congress in 1994. It is an eloquent essay on how bureaucracy breeds secrecy, poisoning government and a free society. Moynihan opened the book for me to pages revealing a specific problem.

As the Moynihan commission acquired the first Venona decryptions revealing Soviet espionage, the senator engaged in speculation. Was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who had been sending Truman unsubstantiated claims of Communists throughout the government, now holding out on the president "when real evidence became available"? When Moynihan asked the FBI that question, he related, "agents came round one morning and professed not to know much about the matter, but promised to look into it. They were never heard from again." Such bureaucratic secrecy infuriated Moynihan, who complained to then FBI director Louis J. Freeh. Ordered by Freeh "to sweep the basement," the director's personal staff "produced a loose-leaf binder of Top Secret files: some thirty-six documents, now at last available."

MOYNIHAN'S smoking gun was an October 18, 1949, memorandum from FBI agent Howard Fletcher to Hoover assistant D. Milton (Mickey) Ladd describing a conversation with Brig. Gen. Carter Clarke, chief of the code-breaking Army Security Agency (ASA). Clarke was a career officer who worked behind the scenes in communications intelligence for almost his entire career. He was no ordinary staff officer. As a colonel in 1944, he was entrusted by Gen. George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff, to put on a civilian suit in wartime to visit New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican nominee for president, in a Tulsa, Oklahoma, hotel room on a confidential mission. Dewey had learned that decrypted Japanese communications should have alerted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Pearl Harbor attack and was about to make this a campaign issue. Clarke pleaded that the disclosure would reveal to the Japanese U.S. code-breaking progress. Dewey reluctantly agreed to keep silent, and FDR was elected to a fourth term.

Japanese and German codes were not the only targets of American cryptanalysts during World War II. When Stalin and Hitler signed their infamous "nonaggression" treaty in 1939 that led to their joint invasion and partition of Poland, U.S. Army intelligence secretly ordered American telegraph companies to turn over Soviet diplomatic messages to and from the United States. They were placed in canvas bags and ignored for over three years. In early 1943, the White House approved a decision by Gen. Marshall, recommended by Col. Clarke, for the ASA to start attempting to decode the messages to and from Moscow. The reason was Stalin's obsessive secrecy. Although the United States and the Soviet Union now were allied in fighting Germany, Washington was kept in the dark about the Kremlin's war plans and operations. The Americans hoped the diplomatic traffic (which continued to accumulate through the war years) would shed some light on what the Russians were up to militarily and whether Stalin was seeking a rumored separate peace with Hitler. As the traffic was decoded, by what became known as the Venona project, the U.S. military learned something it had not expected: Soviet intelligence agencies had penetrated deep into the U.S. government for purposes of espionage.

Not for another half-century would this widespread treason in high places be revealed to the American public. The question is whether Harry Truman as president knew about it. The 1949 "smoking gun" memo by FBI agent Fletcher said Adm. Earl E. Stone first learned about Venona in 1949 when he took over the new Armed Forces Security Agency (later the National Security Agency), created as part of U.S. defense unification. Stone was described as "very much disturbed" to learn about the ASA's progress in decoding the Soviet traffic. He "took the attitude" that President Truman and Adm. Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, the first director of the Central Intelligence Agency, "should be advised as to the contents of all these messages."

"Gen. Clarke stated that he vehemently disagreed with Adm. Stone," the memo continued, telling Stone that "the only people entitled to know anything about the source were [name deleted] and the FBI." Clarke is quoted as saying that Gen. of the Army Omar Bradley, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, agreed with him. Clarke quoted Bradley as saying "he would personally assume the responsibility of advising the president or anyone else in authority if the contents of any of this material so demanded." According to the memo, Bradley wanted to make sure the FBI did not "handle the material in such a way that Adm. Hillenkoetter or anyone else outside the Army Security Agency, [name deleted] and the Bureau [FBI] are aware of the contents of these messages and the activity being conducted at Arlington Hall [ASA headquarters]." Senator Moynihan's conclusion (as described in "Secrecy"): "President Truman was never told of the Venona decryptions. It gives one pause now that all Truman ever 'learned' about Communist espionage came from the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the speeches of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, and the like." For this, Moynihan blamed the fetish for government secrecy in general and Omar Bradley in particular.

IN 2002, four years after "Secrecy" appeared, Jerrold and Leona Schecter published a fascinating book called "Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History." The Schecters, who have become leading Cold War historians, totally reject Moynihan's thesis. They contend that the senator misinterpreted the Howard Fletcher memo. The account by the Schecters:

When the ASA experienced its first success in decoding the Soviet messages in 1945, "Marshall urged Clarke to advise President Truman of the project." On June 5, 1945, Truman--in office for only six weeks--met with Gen. Clarke in the Oval Office for 15 minutes. The general told the president that the code-breakers were decrypting messages that revealed massive Soviet intelligence operations in the United States, though it was too early to identify operatives or operations. Clarke described this meeting as "NDG" (no damn good). The president told the general that his account of code-breaking sounded "like a fairy story." Truman obviously did not understand the brief explanation of how Soviet messages were decoded.

In February 1948, Bradley met with Clarke and other ASA officers as the American cryptanalysts made progress. It was agreed that Bradley would control Venona's secrets and keep President Truman informed. At this meeting, Bradley said he understood Truman's failure to comprehend cryptanalysis. The five-star also expressed his opinion that wild rumors about Communists in government passed to the president by Hoover had made Truman skeptical of Venona.

Bradley did keep Truman informed of new material coming out of Venona. Bradley and ASA officers met with the president's aides at places selected by the White House. As Truman told Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, there were "too many unknowns" in the partially decoded Soviet messages. "Even if part of this is true, it would open up the whole red panic again." Truman told Forrestal he could not believe that President Roosevelt could have been taken in by traitors in his midst. At any rate, Truman said he did not believe that Russian penetration of the government could be as widespread as Venona indicated.

In 1950, Bradley informed Truman that Venona had identified two senior U.S. government officials--Alger Hiss at the State Department and Harry Dexter White at the Treasury--as Soviet agents. "The president was most upset and agitated by this," said Bradley. According to Bradley, Truman said: "That goddamn stuff. Every time it bumps into us it gets bigger and bigger. It's likely to take us down." "In the coming decade," the Schecters write, "the nation would pay heavily for Truman's failure to expose Soviet intelligence networks within the United States. By treating the successes of Venona as a 'fairy story,' the president ceded control of the issue of Communist influence in the U.S. government to the political enemies from whom he had hoped to keep it secret. The result turned America inward against itself, creating a paroxysm of name-calling, finger-pointing, and informing on former party members or suspected Communists."

No notes of the conversations reported by the Schecters are available. Truman, Bradley, Forrestal, and Clarke are all long dead. So, how did the authors learn these details? From a man named Oliver Kirby, who was a bit player in the great drama of more than half a century ago but has outlived his superiors. Kirby first became engaged in cryptanalysis as an ROTC student at the University of Illinois in 1939. That began a career in communications intelligence extending through his World War II service as an army captain and his postwar civilian service with the ASA specializing in the Soviet traffic. Trace all of the above assertions by the Schecters to the footnotes, and Kirby is the source in each instance. Considering the absence of other sources, notably documentary material, Kirby's assertions cannot be verified--with one exception. The Schecters found White House records confirming that Gen. Clarke did meet with President Truman on June 4, 1945, in the Oval Office, exactly as Kirby reported.

I telephoned Kirby in Greenville, Texas, where he lives in retirement. What he told me was just as the Schecters reported. Kirby said he never talked with Truman himself, but he did discuss the revelations about Soviet intelligence with the president's senior aides. Was Truman specifically informed of the identity of Hiss, White, and other Soviet agents in the U.S. government? "I am absolutely sure of it," he told me.

If the Schecters are right and Pat Moynihan was wrong, a question is raised that goes to the duality of Harry Truman's political personality. The statesman who made the decisions ending World War II and fighting the Cold War is also the Kansas City machine politician preoccupied by partisan considerations. The same President Truman who was so decisive in authorizing the atom bombing of Japan, military intervention in Korea, the Marshall plan, Greek-Turkish aid, and NATO could not come to grips with Soviet espionage at home. Truman despised Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers as informants, even though their allegations of Soviet spying were confirmed by Venona. The Truman White House was more interested in bringing perjury charges against Chambers than in probing espionage by Hiss.

As a Truman admirer, Pat Moynihan wanted to believe that bureaucratic secrecy had blinded the president to the reality of Soviet espionage. Unfortunately, the failing may have been in Harry Truman himself.

Robert D. Novak is a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and a CNN commentator.