The defining characteristic of post-World War II American life was an irrational obsession with internal Communist subversion -- or so many academic historians say. The newly proposed National Standards for United States History suggest that public concern about Soviet espionage or covert Communist political influence in the late 1940s and 1950s was a sign of paranoid hysteria. Even those convicted as Soviet spies in this era, most notably Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, have fervent defenders, and scenarios depicting them as framed innocents have ever been given respectful, often favorable, hearings.

While the likes of the Rosenbergs and Hiss are lionized as moral exemplars, the standard historical treatment of Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley is rather different. These defectors from Soviet intelligence told both congressional panels and federal juries that the Communist Party of the USA ( CPUSA) had worked hand in glove with Soviet intelligence and that dozens of Communists inside the U.S. government had been spies. Their testimony provided a rational basis for public concern about Communist subversion, and for that, Chambers and Bentley have been ridiculed, denounced as psychopaths, accused of lying on a massive scale, and their testimony treated as unworthy of serious scholarly attention.

No longer. The end of the Cold War is providing new evidence on Soviet espionage and the clandestine activities of the CPUSA. Documents found in newly opened Russian archives, for example, have confirmed parts of their testimony. But even more startling than these Moscow documents are newly released documents from U.S. government files -- files code-named "Venona."

The Venona story is one of the most successful but frustrating in the history of intelligence. In the mid-1940s cryptological analysts of the U.S. Army Signa ls Intelligence Service, forerunner to the National Security Agency (NSA), brok e the codes used during World War II in cables between Soviet diplomatic office s in the U.S. and Moscow, but only partially. Thousands of messages were never broken, and even the 2,000 that were could be decrypted only in part. Th e Soviets changed the code altogether in 1946.

These Venona messages include communications between Soviet intelligence officers of the NKVD (later the KGB) in the U.S. and their Moscow headquarters. These messages show that from 1942 to 1945, at least 200 Americans covertly supplied Moscow with information on American weapons, technology, diplomacy, and war plans. In many messages, the identity of the Americans supplying the Soviets with information was obscured by the use of cover names. But even here, the information in the messages about what a cover-named agent was doing or where he was going allowed him to be identified. The NSA, with the assistance of the CIA and the FBI, thereby identified many of the 200 Americans who spied for the Soviet Union.

Venona remained a closely guarded secret until the end of the Cold War because U.S. authorities did not want the Soviets to learn how successfully America had penetrated Soviet message traffic. This decision precluded the use of the messages in legal actions against the spies uncovered in them. In a few cases, the FBI was able to develop sufficient information from other sources to convict those identified (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for example). In most cases, however, such evidence could not be developed, and most of the spies escaped prosecution.

Thus far only 300 of the 2,000 decrypted Venona messages have been made public. The first set, 49 messages dealing with atomic espionage, came out in mid-July. They were so clear about the extent of Julius Rosenberg's espionage that even his most fervent defenders have retreated. Perhaps at long last the Rosenberg martyrology will come to an ignominious end.

The Rosenberg documents received a flurry of press attention over the summer, but the newly released second batch of about 250 messages has received very little coverage. Yet they may be of greater historical import, because they unmask many of those named by the oft-ridiculed Bentley as spies, without any possibility of refutation by the anti-anti-Communists.

Take the case of the left-wing British journalist Cedric Belfrage. Belfrage worked for the British intelligence office that served as the liaison between Britain and the U.S. government during World War II. Afterward he was one of the founders of the American left-liberal magazine the National Guardian. After Bentley testified that Belfrage had been a Soviet spy, Belfrage refused to testify to congressional committees that questioned him. The U.S. tried to deport him, and he eventually left voluntarily. Later, Belfrage wrote several books and many articles denouncing the fearful mania about Communist espionage and subversion he said had taken hold in America. The Venona messages show that Belfrage was indeed a spy. He handed over to his Soviet masters documents that British intelligence had been given by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Bentley also claimed that Duncan Lee, legal adviser and assistant to OSS chief "Wild Bill" Donovan, had been a Soviet agent. Unlike most of those she accused, Lee denied under oath that he provided the Soviets with OSS material, but then left the U.S. and spent most of the rest of his life abroad. Venona makes it official: Lee committed perjury. The documents show that he reported to the NKVD on discussions between Roosevelt and Churchill over diplomatic conflicts with the Soviet Union. Lee discussed with his Soviet controllers the risks of bringing documents out of his office for photographing, and setting up recognition signals for a Soviet agent to contact him in Chunking, China, when he planned a trip there on OSS business.

Bentley said that Maurice Halperin, head of the Latin American research branch of the OSS, was a major source for her network. Halperin denied it but, like Lee, left the United States. Decoded Venona messages show that Halperin turned over numerous secret OSS reports and American diplomatic cables to the NKVD.

The Venona messages also confirm that the following persons named by Bentley were Soviet agents: J. Joseph Julius (OSS Far Eastern section), Jane Foster ( OSS Indonesian section), Thomas Bisson (Board of Economic Warfare), Harold Glasser (Treasury Department), William Ullman (Treasury Department and U.S. Army Air Force headquarters), George Silverman (U.S. Army Air Force headquarters), and Nathan Silvermaster (Board of Economic Warfare). The Soviets even had an spook in pundit-land: Mary Price, Walter Lippmann's secretary, was a Communist spy.

One of Bentley's most controversial claims was that Lauchlin Currie, a Roosevelt White House aide, was a Soviet source. Currie denied it but, like Halperin and Lee, left the U.S. after Bentley's charges surfaced. Venona proves that Curtie did turn over U.S. diplomatic reports to the NKVD and warned them that the FBI was investigating Nathan Silvermaster as a possible security risk.

In addition to those named by Bentley, Venona also confirms previously denied charge s of Soviet spying by Laurence Duggan (State Department official), John Scott ( OSS Russian section), Ilya Wolston (U.S. Army Military Intelligence), Joel Barr, and Alfred Sarant. The last two were engineers and associates of Julius Rosenberg who worked on high-technology American weaponry in the 1940s. Both vanished at the time of Rosenberg's arrest and surfaced decades later in the Soviet Union working on Soviet military electronics.

The Venona decryptions hammer home another point. The consensus among historians has been that while some individual Communists may have worked with the NKVD, the Communist party as an institution was not involved. If there had been no link between Soviet intelligence and the CPUSA, then the obsession with security inside the Truman and Eisenhower administrations -- forcing officials to sign loyalty oaths, laborious efforts to classify and restrict documents -- was simply irrational. Worse yet, congressional inquiries about government employees with Communist links would have been grotesque at best and undemocratic at worst.

These objections crumble in the face of the Venona decryptions. The 300 messages released thus far deeply and profoundly implicate the American Communist movement in Soviet espionage. In these messages, NKVD officers repeatedly acknowledge that U.S. Communist party officials and members were assisting their activities. Jacob Golos, a senior American party official, relayed messages from Belfrage, Ullman, Silvermaster, and Currie.

Earl Browder, the chief of the Communist party, discussed Elizabeth Bentley's espionage role with Moscow. Bernard Shuster, an official of the party's New York organization, assisted Julius Rosenberg in his espionage and was asked to vet several persons that the NKVD regarded as potential agents for penetrating the U.S. atomic bomb project. One message, sent from Moscow headquarters to regional NKVD offices, instructed Soviet intelligence officers to be more careful about contacts with the American party.

Venona is so clear on the organic relationship between Soviet intelligence and the CPUSA that even Walter and Miriam Schneir, who have devoted much of their lives to defending the Rosenbergs, have given up on this point. In an article in the Nation, the Schneirs admit that the Venona messages " implicate the American Communist Party in recruitment of party members for espionage."

That may be a turning point in the discussion of these matters. For once the link between the American Communist party and Soviet intelligence is accepted; once the extent of the American party's role in Soviet espionage is admitted; then the left can no longer make the case that the anti-Communists were engaged in a witch-hunt.

Time for the revisionists to revise their own histories of the Cold War.

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