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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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.