The Magazine

Spies Like Us

Chapter and verse on Moscow’s campaign to subvert America

May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By RONALD RADOSH
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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. 

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