The Rise and Fall
of the KGB in America
by John Earl Haynes,
and Alexander Vassiliev
Yale, 704 pp., $35
Since the Cold War, two competing narratives about Soviet espionage in the United States have existed.
The left has argued that many who were accused by either Joseph McCarthy or the House Committee on Un-American Activities of being Soviet agents were simply political dissenters, falsely accused because of their opposition to the foreign policies of the United States since the Truman era. Their only crime was to be forthright and brave opponents of a get-tough anti-Soviet policy, and the scorn heaped upon them—and sometimes the actual prosecutions or blacklists—served only to scare others from speaking out.
Many on the right assumed, as a matter of course, that most of those named as Communists or as actual Soviet agents, sources, or spies were, in fact, guilty as charged. To those who assumed the worst, most Communists were likely spies in waiting, if not yet engaged. Therefore someone like McCarthy, who railed about the failure of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to do anything to protect America’s national security, was generally correct, and in retrospect, McCarthy’s campaign to stop treason in government was both brave and correct. Ann Coulter has called McCarthy a great hero whom history has proved correct, and M. Stanton Evans devoted a recent biography to the proposition that McCarthy was the man who should have been listened to, and whose advice, if taken, would have prevented some major Soviet attempts to destroy our government.
It is because of the power and strength of John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev (hereafter HKV) that this magisterial book transcends the old debates and paradigms, and provides the most complete and thorough account of what Soviet espionage agents actually did in the United States, as well as revealing—by sorting through the evidence in painstaking detail—who these agents were, and what harm they caused.
On McCarthy, they point out that his “charges were . . . wildly off the mark. Very few of the people he accused appeared in KGB documents (or the Venona decryptions), and by the time he made his charges, almost all Soviet agents had been forced out of the government and Soviet intelligence networks were largely defunct.” In February 1950, for example, McCarthy listed one Gerald Graze on a list of 81 cases he called major security risks. But by that time Graze had already left government service and neither McCarthy (nor anybody else) pursued the case. In fact, Graze had been a Soviet agent between 1937 and 1945. In other words, McCarthy used old cases to rail about a threat that no longer existed by exploiting the failure of the Roosevelt administration to act when it might have mattered. In a similar fashion, the German émigré and scholar Franz Neumann had been a source in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, giving valuable information to Moscow in 1944. Yet McCarthy included him in a list of State Department security risks in 1950! And in 1953 McCarthy’s subcommittee called Nathan Sussman to testify in its investigation of Communist infiltration of the Army Signal Corps. They suspected (correctly, it turns out) that he was an active member of the Soviet network put together by Julius Rosenberg. Yet Sussman acted as a “model of a cooperative witness,” verifying that Rosenberg was a party member when he knew him. Neither McCarthy nor Roy Cohn ever asked him about espionage, and he departed unharmed, successfully playing McCarthy and Cohn and escaping without their discovering any of the actual spy work he had carried out for the Soviets.
The great importance of this book, and what makes it definitive and different from all previous works on Soviet espionage, is that it is based on the actual voluminous KGB documents copied from the Soviet files by one of its former agents, Alexander Vassiliev. The notebooks are, as the authors write, “only a segment of the vast documentation of Soviet espionage in the United States,” but they are “a far richer and more extensive portion than we had before.” What Haynes and Klehr have done is combine this information with data from FBI files, Comintern and Communist Party USA records, and Venona decryptions, thus presenting “the most complete picture of KGB activities in the United States ever seen.”
Let us, then, turn to some of the important revelations. First, and perhaps most important, the authors succeed in closing the case on Alger Hiss. Because of Hiss’s stubborn insistence, to his dying day, that he had been falsely accused, and the persistence of his defenders on the left, he has become something of a focal point for those who continue to argue that the charges against Hiss were a smokescreen to allow Republicans to sully the reputation of the New Deal. Indeed, in 2007, the American Scholar featured an article accusing one Wilder Foote, a man who was in fact completely innocent, of being the actual spy others confused with Hiss. (In their attempt to exonerate Hiss the authors of that piece engaged in precisely the style of McCarthyism they deplore.) It is ironic that when coauthor Vassilieu started his work for an earlier book coauthored with Allen Weinstein, he had no idea who Hiss was and why he was so controversial in the United States: Before he could spell Hiss’s name, however, he found that he had been drawn into what he calls “the Alger Hiss cult,” discovering that Hiss “is a religion, and there is no point in arguing with people about their religious beliefs.”
“I don’t give a damn about Alger Hiss,” he concludes. “Never did.” Fortunately, others do—and HKV have finally settled the facts of the matter, no doubt to the consternation of Victor Navasky, the Nation, Kai Bird, the New York University center that runs a website devoted to Hiss’s innocence, and Hiss’s son, who has for years sought to exculpate his father. Documents presented here contain references not, as in the Venona decrypt, to an agent whose code name was “Ales” (and which some argue was not Hiss), but to KGB documents that identify Hiss by his actual name. A 1936 document, for example, contains Hede Massing’s report to the KGB on the attempt of Alger Hiss to recruit her agent Noel Field. (Unknown to Hiss, Field was already a Soviet agent.) As HKV write: “There is no parsing or convoluted argument that can be advanced to avoid the unambiguous identification of Alger Hiss in a 1936 KGB document by his real name as ‘a Communist, that . . . has ties to an organization working for the Sov. Union.’” It also established that he was to be known by the first code name assigned to him, “Jurist.” Moscow Center was furious that Massing herself met with Hiss, since she was KGB and Hiss was GRU (Soviet military intelligence). The KGB headquarters in Moscow cabled Boris Bazarov, head of the KGB’s U.S. station, stating, “We fail to see for what reason Redhead [Massing] met with ‘Jurist’ [Hiss] . . . after our directive stipulating that ‘Jurist’ is the neighbors’ [GRU’s] man and that it is necessary to stay away from him.”
The authors also use the secret testimony of Field, who told the Hungarian secret police of his espionage work and association with Hiss in 1954, as well as with Whitaker Chambers, when he was a Soviet agent. Field told the Hungarians that he knew Hiss “was working for the Soviet secret service” and that “Chambers was Hiss’s upper contact in the secret service.” He also confirmed that Hiss had tried to persuade him to become an agent as well, and that in 1935, realizing they both were secret party members, they had become friends. Many have contested Field’s confession, which was released some years ago; but as HKV note, the memories of Massing, Field, and Chambers from the 1930s to the ’50s are all confirmed by the notebooks, which “offer contemporaneous KGB documentation that corroborates all of the main
elements of the story the three provided.” Spies continues with similar evidence, adding up to a barrage of documentation that, as they write, provides “massive weight of . . . accumulated evidence” that closes the case. While that will not convince diehard apologists, “to serious students of history continued claims for Hiss’s innocence are akin to a terminal case of ideological blindness.”
The second area of investigation concerns Soviet atomic espionage at the Manhattan Project, and includes new material on the work carried out by the Soviet network established by Julius Rosenberg. Despite much new material published in the years since the first Venona release in 1995—which has led even the Meeropol brothers, the Rosenbergs’ sons, to acknowledge that their father was an obvious Soviet spy—defenders of the Rosenbergs have developed a new fallback position. They argue (as do the Meeropols) that Ethel Rosenberg was innocent, and that although her husband served in a Soviet network, he produced nothing harmful and only passed on insignificant industrial espionage. Principally, they assert that Julius Rosenberg was not an atom spy, and that he and his wife were framed in order for the U.S. government to provide a scapegoat for actual spies like Klaus Fuchs, who could not be prosecuted in America.
HKV reveal that Rosenberg had recruited another atomic spy besides his brother-in-law David Greenglass, a hitherto unknown engineer named Russell McNutt who was not only brought into espionage by Rosenberg but instructed by him to seek work in the area of atomic energy and the bomb. While Greenglass was, by chance, assigned by the Army to work on the bomb assembly, McNutt was recruited on Rosenberg’s “initative . . . to cultivate ‘Enormous’ ” (the Manhattan Project). McNutt worked at the Kellex design office in New York, which had the contract for building the massive atomic facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. An agent who lived undetected, he later became a vice president of Gulf-Reston and helped develop the planned community of Reston,Virginia, ending his career as chief engineer at Gulf Oil.
The files also reveal that Ethel Rosenberg was fully involved in the recruitment of her sister-in-law and brother, and was no innocent figure. As for David Greenglass, it has long been claimed that whatever information he gave the Soviets was primitive and inconsequential. But new evidence proves this to be false. While not as important as the information given to the Soviets by the physicists Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall, the chief of the KGB in Moscow noted that the information provided by all three “mutually overlap[ped].” A report from the New York KGB station revealed that Greenglass had given them a floor plan and sketches of buildings, material on preparation of a uranium bomb, calculations on a structure solution for obtaining U 235, which they called “highly valuable,” and a description of the bomb. As HKV write, “It was an impressive list of materials from an Army sergeant with only a limited technical education.”
Moreover, citing the report of Anatoly Yatskov, they reveal for the first time that Greenglass gave Rosenberg in September 1945 the actual “model of . . . a detonator” for the fuse of the bomb’s explosive substance built in his workshop—not, as previously thought, a primitive sketch of the mechanism. So Julius Rosenberg was an atomic spy, contrary to those who minimize his network’s importance; and his brother-in-law David Greenglass gave the Soviets valuable and important material.
Once Greenglass was arrested and became a cooperative witness, the KGB developed a defense strategy that would be employed to the letter by the Rosenberg defense group. The KGB instructed that “it would be preferable to publish articles about the trial first and foremost in the non-Communist press,” and to emphasize the trial as an exercise in “coarse anti-Soviet propaganda” and an attempt to shift blame for the Korean war away from the United States and “onto Jews and Communists,” as well as an attempt to turn America into a fascist country. They also suggested emphasizing the horror of the execution of Ethel Rosenberg, a mother of two young boys, “because of some villainous brother’s slanderous denunciation” and the argument that, in fact, there are no real atomic “secrets.”
The Rosenberg network was a key part of the Soviet “XY line,” the KGB’s name for networks seeking scientific, technical, and industrial data. It was in this area that Morton Sobell, who recently confessed that he was a spy, and others previously unknown such as Nathan Sussman, worked. This group gave the Soviets data on radar, radio, aerodynamics, sonar, and jet fighters. The American physicist William Perl gave the KGB documents on long-distance jet fighter planes, and blueprints of the Lockheed P-80 jet fighter, and his data were used to jump-start Soviet jet fighter development, surprising the U.S. Air Force in Korea when it faced Soviet MIGs. At the same time, HKV go out of their way to show that, contrary to what some have argued, J. Robert Oppenheimer, despite having been a member of the American Communist party, did not spy for the Soviet Union.
The third major revelation is the solid identification of leftwing journalist I. F. Stone as a Soviet agent. For decades, Stone’s admirers have depicted him as an independent, free-spirited journalist, unafraid to go after sacred cows, beholden to no one but his own conscience. His opposition to Cold war foreign policy, and his influential writings in opposition to the Vietnam war, made him a hero in the 1960s to the emerging New Left, and to a future generation of journalists and writers. The KGB files now firmly establish that, during 1936-38, Stone signed on as a full-fledged KGB agent. There is simply no more room for doubt. As the New York KGB station agent reported in May 1936, “Relations with ‘Pancake’ [Stone’s KGB name] have entered ‘the channel of normal operational work.’” For the next few years, HKV write, “Stone worked closely with the KGB” as a talent spotter and recruiter. He also worked with the American Communist Victor Perlo who, while an economist at the War Production Group, also led a Soviet espionage apparatus and compiled material for Stone. “That Stone chose never to reveal this part of his life,” write the authors, “strongly suggests that he knew just how incompatible
it would be with his public image as a courageous and independent journalist.”
While the proofs about Hiss, the Rosenberg network, and I. F. Stone are more newsworthy, Spies is also a comprehensive look at how the Soviets saw espionage in America as a key part of building the Soviet Union’s military and industrial infrastructure. Those who have always believed it was conspiratorial slander to talk about Communist infiltration of the federal government may be surprised to learn how thorough the KGB was in planting its agents in key agencies. The list includes not just Alger Hiss and his brother Donald but people such as Harry Magdoff in the Department of Commerce, Abraham Glasser in the Justice Department, David Wahl in the Federal Energy Administration and then the OSS, Gerald Graze in the Civil Service Commission, Harry Dexter White at Treasury, William Remington in the War Production Board and Council of Economic Advisors, Lauchlin Currie and Laurence Duggan in the Department of State—and many others. But there are limits to what espionage can accomplish. The effectiveness of the Soviet networks collapsed just as the Cold War began, and when the KGB desperately needed intelligence. It was the 1945 defection of Elizabeth Bentley that led Soviet intelligence to close down almost all of its American operations, and to dissolve and deactivate its agents. Bentley had run party-based KGB networks in the government, and when she went to the FBI, her defection “was by any measure a catastrophe.” Everything that the KGB and GRU had put together during the war years had to be abandoned:
By the time the FBI began to watch them or came to interrogate them, Bentley’s American agents had their excuses and cover stories thought out and their cries about political persecution of progressives well rehearsed.
The most striking fact to emerge from Spies “is that a remarkable number of Americans”—more than 500— “assisted Soviet intelligence agencies.” We still do not know the identities of all of them. Despite HUAC, the FBI, and Senator McCarthy and his associates, many were questioned, but few were prosecuted and fewer convicted. Some have argued that, although the Soviets may have spied against America, they did little harm. The KGB files reveal, however, that stolen scientific and technical data helped the Soviets wage the Cold War, build an atomic bomb, and deploy “jet planes, radar, sonar, artillery proximity fuses,” and other armaments long before they could have done so on their own. Soviet espionage in America gave Stalin the confidence to give Kim Il Sung the go-ahead to invade South Korea in 1950.
HKV also show that, even though most American Communists were not spies, the files indicate that “the CPUSA’s
leadership in the 1930s and 1940s willingly placed the party’s organizational resources and a significant number of its key cadres at the service of the espionage agencies of a foreign power.” The American Communist party “as an organized entity was an auxiliary service to Soviet intelligence.”
Joseph McCarthy was wrong in many of his accusations, but those American anti-Communists who saw the Communist party as a genuine threat to our national security, and who worked to keep their members out of government, were right. They were not witch-hunters, and the search for Communists in government was “a rational response to the extent to which the Communist party had become an appendage of Soviet intelligence.”
Ronald Radosh, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is coauthor of The Rosenberg File, and, most recently with Allis Radosh, of A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.