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Cloak and Dagger: On Espionage and Intelligence Services. Part One (October 2020): Hiss, Chambers, and Spy Mania in the 1950s

Christopher C. Lovett

John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev’s collaborative effort Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America details the extent of Soviet espionage in the US in the 1930s and 1940s. Similarly, Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev’s The Haunted Wood, and Katherine A. S. Sibley’s Red Spies in America: Stolen Secrets and the Dawn of the Cold War, review the NKVD’s American espionage apparatus at its height. Not only did the Soviets seek military secrets on Enormous, the Soviet codename for the Manhattan Project, but they penetrated the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Department of State, the Treasury, and the Justice Department. The Russians also either duped or recruited journalists for information, as Steven T. Usdin explains in Bureau of Spies: The Secret Connections between Espionage and Journalism in Washington. The Soviets used friendly journalists and also planted agents in the offices of leading American pundits, such as Walter Lippmann and Drew Pearson. Sometimes, as Haynes and Klehr discovered, the relationship was more complex, as in the case of I. F. Stone, who told his Soviet contacts in September 1944 that he was more useful to them without being recruited, and remained faithful until the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Not even Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 could break his faith in the Kremlin’s cause.

In 1943, as the Soviets advanced through Eastern Europe and American codebreakers worked diligently to decipher German and Japanese codes at Arlington Hall, a former girls’ school outside Washington that became the center for the Signal Intelligence Service, Colonel Carter W. Clarke created a Russian Section to begin deciphering 25,000 Russian signal intercepts, codenamed Venona. This had not been done since Herbert Yardley decrypted secret messages between Moscow and Bela Kun, a Bolshevik in Budapest, in 1919. In Secret Messages: Codebreaking and American Diplomacy, 1930–1945, David Alvarez traces the early history of American signals intelligence operations, complementing Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, by Haynes and Klehr. American scholars were initially unaware of Venona, until CBS News journalist David Martin vaguely hinted at it in Wilderness of Mirrors. Martin’s revelations of American cryptanalysts breaking intercepted Soviet NKVD codes sparked a new wave of scholarship, particularly the Haynes and Klehr study, as well as Nigel West’s Venona: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War. Stephen Budiansky, a national security journalist, places Venona and American signal intelligence in a wider context in Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War against the Soviet Union.

As Haynes and Klehr detail, Venona exposed the Russian penetration of the Manhattan Project in 1946. Key cryptanalyst at the Russian desk, Meredith Gardner made the singular breakthrough, which exposed his colleague William Weisband, a Russian translator, as an NKVD agent. Before Weisband was arrested he alerted the Russians. A year before this break came in Venona, the FBI discovered that sensitive intelligence materials appeared in an issue of Amerasia, a journal of Asian affairs. The FBI conducted a mass raid on the journal’s office, arresting the editor, foreign service officers, and an OSS officer, and confiscating papers highly critical of nationalist China. Harvey Klehr and Ronald Radosh’s The Amerasia Spy Case: Prelude to McCarthyism covers this long-forgotten scandal, which slipped from memory when the charges were dropped.

The same year, spy Elizabeth Bentley walked into the FBI field office in New Haven, Connecticut, with a story to tell. Kathryn S. Olmsted’s academic account Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley, Lauren Kessler’s popular biography Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era, and Bentley’s own volume Out of Bondage: The Story of Elizabeth Bentley, recount her tale. After leaving college Bentley joined the CPUSA, eventually transitioning to the underground and taking on a courier’s role with the NKVD. She was tasked with visiting Washington and collecting information from various spy networks. When her lover and spy handler Jacob Golos suddenly died of a heart attack, the rezidentura in New York took direct control of his network. Fearing that the NKVD would kill her, Bentley turned to the FBI. The FBI initially thought Bentley was hysterical and had fabricated her story until it matched newly decrypted NKVD messages from Arlington Hall showing that Judith Coplon, codenamed Sima, was an agent working for the FBI. Marcia Mitchell and Thomas Mitchell relay Coplon’s story in The Spy Who Seduced America. Other notable accounts of compromised spies include R. Bruce Craig’s Treasonable Doubt: The Harry Dexter White Spy Case on White, codenamed Jurist, who was a close adviser to FDR; and Gary May’s Un-American Activities: The Trials of William Remington. Remington, a minor treasury official, was convicted for perjury and was murdered in prison, as May details. 

Too sensitive to expose in open court, Venona was used in only two criminal proceedings, the Rosenberg and Remington cases, beginning a series of major espionage investigations that shocked Americans. Haynes and Klehr chronicle those issues in their concise volume Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials That Shaped American Politics, explaining the effect espionage had on American politics for generations. Venona demonstrated that the Soviets had recruited a wave of Americans to spy on their country. For instance, Philip Keeney, a librarian at the Library of Congress, and his wife Mary Jane were two people exposed by Venona. Like so many others, they were not tried criminally, but rather in the court of public opinion. Rosalee McReynolds and Louise S. Robbins narrate the Keeney case in The Librarian Spies: Philip and Mary Jane Keeney and Cold War Espionage. 

Whittaker Chambers was one of the Soviets’ initial recruits. When he later started to doubt communism, Walter Krivitsky advised him to inform the public of his story of Soviet espionage. In 1939, Chambers warned Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle of Alger Hiss’s treason, repeating his allegations to the FBI in 1942. Chambers was a complex informant, as he himself recounted in Witness, published in 1952. Essayist and journalist Sam Tanenhaus re-created these complexities in the biography Whittaker Chambers, using previously undisclosed KGB materials and other FBI records to explain this complex man. In fact, the Hiss and the Rosenberg cases, combined with the fall of China and the Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949, began a spy mania that helped contribute to McCarthyism and made Richard Nixon a hero in Republican circles.

Across the border in Canada, Igor Gouzenko, a code clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, defected with his family in September 1945, with the assistance of William Stevenson’s British Security Coordination, informing authorities that Moscow was involved in a massive espionage operation against the US and Canada. The documents he provided implicated Fred Rose, a leading Canadian labor organizer, as a Soviet asset. David Levy details Rose’s espionage activities in Stalin’s Man in Canada: Fred Rose and Soviet Espionage. Amy Knight, a leading Russian historian, explains the importance of Gouzenko’s defection in How the Cold War Began: The Igor Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies. She chronicles how Kim Philby, the Soviets’ most valuable agent in British Intelligence, informed the Kremlin of the Americans’ discoveries while the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police embarked on their search for spies, keeping them one step ahead of American law enforcement. Gouzenko himself detailed his defection in This Was My Choice. His disclosures were later confirmed by Meredith Gardner at Arlington Hall, igniting the FBI hunt for those implicated.

Robert Lamphere, the FBI’s liaison with Arlington Hall, led the search for the Soviet agents inside the US government, particularly the atomic spies revealed by Venona decrypts. After retiring, he recounted his experiences in The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent’s Story, focusing on the arrest and trial of the Rosenberg network. Howard Blum’s In the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught Russian Spies imparts the chain of events (breaking Soviet codes, tracking down leads) that led to Julius Rosenberg and his wife Ethel. Although Ethel Rosenberg was not a spy and did not have a cryptonym, unlike her husband (known as Liberal and Antenna), she must have been aware of his espionage activities. Steven Usdin goes further in Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley, detailing how agents Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, part of the Rosenberg network, escaped and helped Khrushchev develop the Soviet electronics industry that would be used against Americans during the Vietnam War. 

Unfortunately, too many Americans do not know the complexities of the case and how the Rosenbergs and their accomplices were arrested, tried, and convicted. Before recent revelations, an earlier generation could only read Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir’s 1965 volume Invitation to an Inquest, which sympathetically presented the Rosenbergs as victims of the Red Scare, making them a cause célèbre for a generatioInn. Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton reexamine the Rosenberg case in their updated volume The Rosenberg File. Using Venona decrypts and recently opened Soviet records, they reveal that Julius was a spy, but not Ethel.  

First to be uncovered by the Rosenberg case was Klaus Fuchs, a nuclear physicist and German émigré who worked for the British on the Manhattan Project, and one of the atomic spies. In Klaus Fuchs, Atomic Spy, Robert Chadwell Williams explores Fuchs’s career and commitment to the Soviets, including his confession, arrest, and eventual return to East Germany upon his release. Next, using materials from Venona and leads from Fuchs, Lamphere discovered Fuchs’s courier, Harry Gold, whose espionage career is documented in Allen M. Hornblum’s The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atomic Bomb. Once apprehended, Gold implicated David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, who became the star witness in the case. Greenglass’s recruitment and subsequent testimony is available in Sam Roberts’s The Brother: The Untold Story of the Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair. After the Cold War, Alexander Feklisov, one of Julius Rosenberg’s handlers, recounted the entire case in The Man behind the Rosenbergs, reiterating that Ethel was not an asset. This makes the Eisenhower administration’s decision to administer capital punishment especially troubling.

What most Americans did not know was that there was no secret to the atomic bomb; concealing fission was impossible. After the Germans had already split the atom and Roosevelt decided to build an atomic bomb, Leslie Groves of the Manhattan Project and American intelligence sought to discover how far German physicists had come in building an atomic weapon. Jeffery Richelson, in Spying on the Bomb, chronicles how the US surveilled Nazi efforts and concludes that Hitler was never serious about the practicality of such a weapon. On the Soviet side, David Holloway, a leading Soviet expert, provides insights into the Soviet nuclear weapons program from its beginning to the decision to place Levrenti Beria, NKVD chief, in charge of the program, in Stalin and the Bomb. Holloway argues that the information provided by Fuchs allowed the Russians to build a Soviet weapon much sooner than Americans had anticipated. Richard Rhodes provides an excellent overview of the history of the atomic bomb in The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Other important examinations include The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War, 1945–1950, by Gregg Herken, a leading authority on atomic weapons programs, covering how Americans perceived atomic weapons as a way to coerce the Soviets, and Fred Kaplan’s The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, on the role of atomic weapons in American diplomacy and war planning.

Soon after the Soviet’s developed their weapon, the father of the American atomic weapons program, J. Robert Oppenheimer, came under suspicion of either prior communist affiliations or atomic espionage. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin examine Oppenheimer’s life in American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. They believe that although he was a member of left-wing groups and many of his associates were affiliated with the CPUSA, Oppenheimer was not an active member. But how did Oppenheimer respond when his longtime friend Haakon Chevalier told him of Russian advances in pursuit of atomic knowledge? Priscilla McMillan, an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, views Oppenheimer as the victim of a right-wing and anti-communist smear campaign in The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race. Gregg Herken adds new light to the charges and countercharges around Oppenheimer in his groundbreaking book The Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller. Herken believes that Oppenheimer became a prisoner of his own duplicity, concealing his past and not being completely forthcoming with investigators. Additionally, Haakon Chevalier details his friendship with the famous physicist in Oppenheimer: The Story of a Friendship.

It may never be known if Oppenheimer was a communist or a Soviet spy, since Leslie Groves concealed Oppenheimer’s past to win the war, which later contributed to Oppenheimer being stripped of his security clearance in light of potential atomic espionage. Only later, when formerly closed files were opened, would Americans discover some of the more egregious Soviet agents who had infiltrated Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project, such as Ted Hall. Hall was never charged, and as revealed by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel’s Bombshell: The Secret Story of America’s Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy, his information was more beneficial to the Soviets than anything provided by David Greenglass or Klaus Fuchs. Only recently have Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes identified additional Soviet spies, brothers Stuart and Oscar Seborer (code-named Godfather and Godsend), who, before they defected, provided even more critical information about the bomb while working at Oak Ridge and Los Alamos, both sites central to the Manhattan Project. In fact, Oscar even provided the Russians with the detailed mechanics of the bomb’s trigger mechanism. 

Of course, as the Soviets penetrated the Manhattan Project with numerous agents, there are certainly many others whose identities may never be known. One who was acknowledged posthumously by Vladimir Putin in 2007 was the Iowa-born George Koval, who grew up in the Soviet Union and later illegally reentered the US as an adult to spy for the GRU. While in the US, he was drafted into the US Army and assigned to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. His story is detailed in Svetlana Lokhova’s The Spy Who Changed History: The Untold Story of How the Soviet Union Stole America’s Top Secrets.

The Alger Hiss trial was the other legal proceeding that highlighted Soviet espionage in the US. After confrontations between Hiss and Whittaker Chambers in August 1948, Hiss proceeded to sue Chambers for defamation, leading to the discovery of the Pumpkin Papers, classified materials hidden in a pumpkin on Chambers’s farm, including four documents in Hiss’s handwriting. Because the statute of limitations for espionage had expired, Hiss was charged with perjury and, after two trials, convicted and sentenced to five years. For the American Right, his conviction was a sign of the suspected subversion of FDR’s New Deal, while for the Left, Hiss was a victim of paranoia and trumped-up charges, particularly forgery by typewriter. For a generation of Americans, the Chambers-Hiss case became as polarizing and controversial as the Sacco-Vanzetti case had been roughly twenty years prior. Alistair Cooke, a journalist with the BBC, wrote about the Chambers-Hiss case in A Generation on Trial: USA v. Alger Hiss. Upon his release from prison, Hiss continued to proclaim his innocence and defended himself in his lawyer-like response In the Court of Public Opinion.

While Venona remained closed and the Soviet archives remained inaccessible to scholars, Hiss could continue to proclaim his innocence. However, Allen Weinstein’s 1978 landmark study Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case concluded that Hiss was guilty on the basis of available contemporaneous evidence. After formerly classified materials became available, Weinstein published a revised edition in 1997, reinforcing his initial conclusion. Hiss’s defenders responded quickly. John Cabot Smith sought to refute Weinstein’s claim in Alger Hiss: The True Story, but the release of the Venona materials in 1995 exposed the Hiss subterfuge. Authors Christina Shelton, a former defense intelligence analyst, and G. Edward White, a law professor at the University of Virginia, both recount how Hiss engaged in espionage and how and why he deceived so many who sought to defend him in Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason, and Alger Hiss’s Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy, respectively. Susan Jacoby digs even deeper in Alger Hiss and the Battle for History, reviewing the case in light of the political environment of postwar America. In her view, Hiss’s trial was a fight over both national security and civil liberties.

Works Cited