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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.