The Magazine

Genteel Treachery

The spy who came in from the cold, and prospered

Aug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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There is a story, probably apocryphal, that Franklin Roosevelt, when informed that Whittaker Chambers had named Alger and Donald Hiss as Soviet agents, responded by derisively dismissing the possibility that two products of Harvard Law School and elite East Coast law firms could possibly betray their country. British spies like Donald MacLean similarly avoided suspicion because of their establishment bona fides.

The spy who came in from the cold, and prospered

The spy who came in from the cold, and prospered

One of the prime beneficiaries of such a blinkered view of what attracted men of privilege to communism was Duncan Chaplin Lee, a son of missionaries, descendant of one of the most storied families in America, Rhodes scholar, Army officer—and Soviet spy.  From the moment he began working in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, he cooperated with Soviet intelligence, even as he moved up the bureaucratic ladder and earned a promotion to lieutenant colonel in the Army. Had Lee not been exposed by Elizabeth Bentley in 1945, he likely would have been chosen for a high-ranking position in America’s postwar intelligence service. And even though his career never fully recovered, his influential friends, who were reluctant to believe the charges, enabled him to begin a second career as an anti-Communist cold warrior.  

Duncan Lee’s improbable story is well-told in this new biography by Mark A. Bradley, a former CIA officer, who has diligently mined the many new sources on Soviet espionage that have become available in the past two decades. Bradley was also able to persuade the Lee family to give him access to an extraordinary cache of letters demonstrating Duncan’s conversion to communism during his sojourn at Oxford. While some parts of Lee’s story remain a mystery (since he never acknowledged or explained his espionage), Bradley has provided a fascinating account of one man’s treachery and the toll it took.

Descended from Richard Henry Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and numbering Robert E. Lee among his collateral relatives, Duncan Lee could trace his maternal lineage to the Mayflower. His father was an Episcopal missionary who spent decades in China. Upon returning to America, Edmund Lee became headmaster of a failing girls’ school in Virginia and transformed Chatham Hall into one of the premier boarding schools in the country.

Duncan was born in China in 1913 and lived abroad, except for one year, until 1927. Imbued with his parents’ message that their family mission involved the performance of good works, he attended Yale on a scholarship during the Depression, amassed a distinguished academic and extracurricular record, and, in 1935, earned a Rhodes scholarship to read jurisprudence at Oxford.   

Lee was radicalized in England. A thriving Communist movement at Oxford and the onset of the Spanish Civil War provided the impetus; but Lee’s burgeoning romance with Isabella “Ishbel” Gibbs, a “strong-willed and intellectually confident” daughter of a Scottish civil servant in India who was a strident and passionate radical, completed the process. Not long after meeting her, Lee was writing to his parents about his disillusionment with God and capitalism. 

In the summer of 1937, at the height of Stalin’s purges, Duncan and Ishbel traveled to the Soviet Union and were besotted. Lee informed his frantic parents that there was no middle ground between Hitler and Stalin, and that he and Ishbel were planning to join the underground British Communist party. He finally agreed to wait until they were financially independent, but his romances with both communism and Ishbel precipitated his mother’s nervous breakdown.

While studying at Yale in preparation for a legal career, Lee and his wife threw themselves into Communist activity, prompting their landlady to report them to the local FBI office. They formally joined the Communist Party USA in 1939, just before Duncan began work on Wall Street at a firm headed by future OSS director William Donovan.

By the time Lee joined his boss at the OSS, in the spring of 1942, Mary Price had already recruited him for Soviet intelligence. (Lee had worked on a Communist front aiding Chinese war victims with Price’s sister.) He sailed through a perfunctory security check, and, once assigned to the OSS secretariat, he had access to virtually all reports coming to Donovan. A delighted Jacob Golos, who supervised more than a dozen Communist spies in government agencies, boasted to Moscow: “He wants to work with us and provide us with any information he can get.”