How the Cold War Began
The Igor Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies
by Amy Knight
Carroll & Graf, 384 pp., $27.95
Igor Gouzenko was a code clerk in the Russian embassy in Ottawa whose decision to defect in September 1945 set off a political earthquake. Because he took with him a few hundred pages of documents that implicated a number of Canadian civil servants and scientists as Soviet spies, his case generated headlines, roiled diplomatic waters, and reverberated in both American and Canadian politics for years afterwards. Amy Knight, a freelance Russian expert, is only slightly exaggerating when she titles her account of the case, How the Cold War Began.
While she has thoroughly canvassed recently opened archives about Gouzenko and the firestorm he created, Knight is not a terribly reliable guide to what the case revealed about Soviet espionage in North America or the Western response to it. She misstates key pieces of evidence and labors to exonerate individuals now confirmed to have been Soviet agents. Despite all her research, she misunderstands both the institutional loyalties of domestic Communist parties and the nature of the threat faced by counter intelligence agencies.
Gouzenko was about to be recalled to Russia when, enamored of life in the West and fearful of being disciplined for security lapses, he secreted evidence of a large GRU (Soviet military intelligence) spy ring directed by his superior, Colonel Nikolai Zabotin, and sought political asylum along with his pregnant wife and young daughter. His initial efforts were a comedy of errors, as various civil servants, newspaper reporters, and police officials shuffled him from one office to another, either confused by his rambling and broken English or, like subordinates of Prime Minister Mackenzie King, worried that they might offend Russian allies.
Eventually taken into protective custody by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Gou zenko eagerly provided additional information, including the news that an assistant to the U.S. secretary of state was a Soviet agent, thus launching an FBI investigation of Alger Hiss, and implicating a British physicist, Allan Nunn May, as part of an effort to steal atomic bomb secrets. His documents also identified two important leaders of the Canadian Communist party, including a member of Parliament, as key figures in the espionage ring.
Although the Canadians, British, and Americans kept mum the news that Gouzenko was in custody (hoping to persuade the Soviets that he was on the run), Kim Philby, one of the KGB's moles within the British intelligence services, kept them informed on the progress of the investigation. As a result, they were able to withdraw key personnel, including Zabotin, from Canada, and warn their agents, including May, that they were under suspicion and to avoid any incriminating behavior. In February 1946, J. Edgar Hoover leaked the news that Gouzenko was supplying dramatic information to columnist Drew Pearson. The Canadian government quickly convened a Royal Commission, detained 13 people under a special war powers order that enabled them to be held incommunicado, questioned without benefit of lawyers, and threatened with severe penalties for refusing to testify before this fact-finding body.
The material gathered by the commission was later used in court, most notably the confessions of several of the defendants. In general, anyone who confessed to the commission was convicted, while those who remained silent or denied guilt were more likely to escape punishment.
Knight is critical of the Canadian government for its violations of civil liberties and even its decision to publicize the case. She consistently minimizes the seriousness of the spying and the damage it did. But she is even more irritated by the uses made of the case by American counterintelligence agencies, decrying the impetus it gave to investigations of such Americans as Alger Hiss, the ways in which J. Edgar Hoover used it to buttress allegations by American defectors from Soviet intelligence, like Elizabeth Bentley, and the extent to which it contributed to a "spy scare" that decimated the American left.
In retrospect, it is clear that the Canadian ring was hardly the Soviet Union's most valuable group of agents. By 1944, the GRU had been supplanted as the premier Soviet intelligence agency by the NKVD, which had its own network in Canada and the United States. Virtually all key atomic espionage work, for example, was turned over to the NKVD during World War II. May, who was arrested and convicted in Great Britain, was a far less important source on atomic research than Klaus Fuchs, Ted Hall, and even David Greenglass, all run by the NKVD and exposed several years later. Other Canadian spies provided useful but hardly groundbreaking information on weapons systems, diplomacy, and military issues. Nevertheless, the GRU spy ring had penetrated a variety of Canadian institutions, enlisted a disconcerting number of Canadian citizens, and broken the law to benefit a foreign dictatorship.
In addition to the shock of discovering that a significant number of its citizens were covertly aiding a foreign country, Canadian authorities were most startled by the involvement of two leaders of the Labour Progressive party, as the Communists were then styled. Fred Rose was a Communist representative in Parliament and Sam Carr was one of the party's leading functionaries. Their decision to cooperate with Soviet espionage was, Knight concludes, reckless and "catastrophic" for the party.
Why, then, did they take such a risk?
Knight displays extraordinary naiveté, imagining that Rose, a long-time party functionary, and Carr, a onetime student at the International Lenin School in Moscow, were somehow "duped by the Soviets into thinking their country was a glorious utopia." She never considers that Earl Browder and Eugene Dennis, leaders of the American Communist party, were also enmeshed in espionage, just as reckless. Why would leaders of Western Communist parties believe the welfare of the Soviet Union was more important than the fate of their own Communist parties, let alone the countries of which they were citizens? Were they just dupes, or was the Soviet code name in Venona for party members--"Fellowcountrymen"--indicative of the true loyalties of such hardened cadres?
What Venona and the Mitrokhin archives make absolutely clear is that hundreds of Western Communists willingly spied for the Soviet Union because their ultimate loyalties were not to the countries of which they were citizens, but to the country that enshrined the cause of communism.
Most Communists, of course, did not become spies, and most people who joined the Communist party in the 1930s eventually abandoned it. Knight notes that several of those implicated by Gouzenko were reluctant to spy and sometimes resisted entreaties to hand over information. She laments that Israel Halperin, a chemist, and Arthur Steinberg, a biologist, had their careers blighted even though they were never convicted (or, in Steinberg's case, even indicted) for espionage. But she is less concerned that they never bothered to inform authorities that they had been approached to spy and that they lied when confronted with Gouzenko's evidence.
No doubt many of those recruited to spy were idealists who wanted to help their gallant Soviet allies during World War II. Some may have thought the information they were asked to provide was innocuous. But Carr, Rose, and Browder had been involved with the Communist underground and conspiratorial networks for years before the war. The Canadian Communists had been interned during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact because their onetime antifascism had been superseded by an alliance with fascists with whom their government was at war. And while most Communists were not spies, most assuredly, virtually all the spies had emerged from the Communist movement.
That inconvenient fact escapes Knight. She agrees that the Soviets were doubtless infuriated that Western governments used the Gouzenko affair "to fight domestic communism," a struggle whose virtues she does not appreciate. She gives a backhanded compliment to the Canadian government, praising it for not outlawing the Communist party, unlike the United States. Her animus towards American anticommunism is not only inaccurate--the CPUSA was never outlawed--but also ironic, given that no American Communists were ever treated with such disregard for basic legal rights as the Canadians sequestered in the Gouzenko case, even though it seems a stretch to call the Mountie tactics "Gestapo-like." Likewise, she denounces the Loyalty-Security program instituted by the Truman administration, even though it was based on the rational premise that Communist loyalties were potentially in conflict with national security.
Although Knight is aware of the Venona transcripts, she does not have much confidence in what they reveal. At times she suggests that Soviet intelligence officers routinely exaggerated their accomplishments and claimed sources they didn't have in cables back to Moscow, but she provides no evidence to support that claim. In other places she argues that most of the names mentioned in Venona are simply discussions of potential targets for recruitment, even though most of the messages discuss real sources turning over real material. Elsewhere she brushes off most of the spying that went on as harmless or insignificant. Although she acknowledges that Klaus Fuchs was an atomic spy, she absurdly sniffs that there were "no real atomic secrets to be lost."
Knight dismisses Elizabeth Bentley's allegations of widespread espionage as unsupported and unconvincing. She trumpets the fact that there were no indictments stemming from Bentley's charges, even though the Venona documents demonstrate that Bentley told the truth. What Knight does not seem to understand is why the government was unable to prosecute the dozens of spies Bentley named: Kim Philby had tipped off the Soviets that she was talking, they had cut off ties to their agents, and the United States government had determined not to use the only hard evidence it had--the Venona documents--in open court.
Because Bentley retained no documents from her espionage career, Knight is not inclined to credit her story. And even though Whittaker Chambers did produce documents typed on the Hiss family typewriter and others in Alger Hiss's handwriting, she doesn't believe him, either. At one point Knight inaccurately suggests that Chambers provided no evidence to support his allegations against Hiss; at another she implies, again with no evidence, that Chambers fabricated the documents he did produce. She also ignores all the other evidence against Hiss, including testimony from Hede Massing, another spy who testified about his activities, and the detailed information uncovered by Allen Weinstein and Sam Tanenhaus in their splendid books.
Instead, she accepts at face value the statements of spokesmen for the Russian foreign intelligence service (SVR) that Alger Hiss's name does not appear in their archives. (Knight does not bother to inform readers that the SVR's official policy is not to identify as an agent anyone who has not admitted it himself, including Hiss.) Even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that Harry Dexter White consciously provided information to the KGB, Knight balks at acknowledging his espionage. She allows that "White was at least an unwitting informant to the Soviets," ignoring a Venona document in which a KGB agent reported White's commitment to providing information at periodic meetings while driving around Washington in his automobile, or another where he revealed the American negotiating strategy at the first United Nations Conference to the Soviets. She defends him by insisting that "there is no evidence that he was doing this with the intention of subverting American policies."
Knight reserves her indignation for those responsible for ferreting out spies. It was unsporting and reckless of J. Edgar Hoover to initiate investigations of Hiss and White based on mere snippets of information from sources like Gouzenko and Bentley, who had never met them. At one point she criticizes the Canadian government for going public with spy allegations rather than pursuing quiet diplomacy to resolve the issue. She is far angrier at investigators who suspected that the Canadian diplomat E. Herbert Norman was a spy based on his secret Communist party membership while at Cambridge in the 1930s than she is at Norman for lying about his past to those investigators and to Canadian officials. Norman committed suicide and his guilt or innocence remains an open question, but Knight is livid that his lies led to investigations that led to his suicide.
In Knight's legalistic world, no one can be a spy unless they are convicted in a court of law. Most Soviet spies, however, were never prosecuted because the evidence of their guilt was not admissible in court, either because it was derived from decrypted cables or obtained by illegal wiretaps or break-ins. That may represent one of the glories of the Western system of law, but it hardly exonerates those who betrayed their country. While Knight believes the key question to be asked is "why so many innocent people were accused of spying," she is remarkably incurious about why so many American and Canadian Communists were willing to spy. Igor Gouzenko set in motion a hunt for Communist spies, but it was no wild goose chase.
Given her despair about the consequences of his actions, Knight is actually quite balanced in her discussion of Gouzenko himself. Like many defectors, he proved to be a difficult person, headstrong, inflexible, obsessed with money, and convinced that everyone he dealt with was either a simpleton or obtuse. He wrote one surprisingly gifted novel, but otherwise seemed to enjoy only suing critics for libel, griping about his relationship with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and, together with his wife, raising his eight children, none of whom learned his true identity until they turned 16.
After years of ill health, Gouzenko died in 1982. The events he set in motion guarantee that students of the Cold War will long remember him. His legacy is far more positive than Amy Knight is willing to grant.
Harvey Klehr is the Andrew Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory. His latest book is In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage.