By Jefferson Flanders

It’s the rare work of historical scholarship that also makes news but Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press) by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev has accomplished just that, provoking headlines around the world with its revelations of Cold War Soviet espionage.

Based both on KGB* archival material glossed by Vassiliev (the “Vassiliev notebooks“) and extensive research by the authors, Spies has outed several agents who spied for the Soviets in the 1930s and 1940s, including physicist Engelbert Broda, who passed vital atomic secrets while working for the British; engineer Russell A. McNutt, who was recruited by Julius Rosenberg for atomic espionage; and U.S. government officials James Hibbens, Stanley Graze, and Henry Ware, among others.

In their heavily footnoted 704-page opus, Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev also seek to resolve some lingering historical questions: they reaffirm that Alger Hiss did indeed spy for the GRU (the chapter on Hiss caused Cambridge historian David A. Garrow to write in Newsweek that “the book provides irrefutable confirmation of guilt”), they argue that physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, while a secret member of the American Communist Party, did not pass Manhattan Project secrets to the Soviets, and they reveal that the KGB considered using Ethel Rosenberg as an agent independently of her husband, suggesting that she was more deeply entangled in spying than her defenders would care to admit.

That radical journalist I.F. Stone assisted the KGB in the late 1930s as an information source, talent spotter, and courier has proven to be the most controversial claim in Spies. Several of Stone’s biographers (D.D. Guttenplan, Myra McPherson) as well as left-of-center journalists (Eric Alterman, Todd Gitlin) challenged that assertion, arguing that Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev had jumped to unwarranted conclusions about Stone’s relationship with Soviet officials. Stone was engaged in nothing more than trading political gossip with his Russian sources, they argued, and questioned the substance of the case against Stone.

Yet the key KGB documents presented in Spies, coupled with later references in decoded Soviet cables, strongly suggests that Stone was under the operational control of Soviet intelligence from 1936-1938, and that his involvement went well beyond that of a journalist working his sources. (Max Holland’s Journal of Cold War Studies essay on Stone and the Soviets provides more detail and context, none of it helpful to Stone’s defense). While Spies does not accuse Stone of espionage, only of working for the KGB, a journalist who covertly assists a foreign intelligence service betrays some of the basic tenets of the profession (independence, transparency, integrity). Can Harvard’s Nieman Foundation continue to award the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence without some reservations?

Some argue that if Stone assisted the KGB, it was only a reflection of his commitment to fighting fascism. But do these “noble intentions” mitigate his actions? What of an American journalist of the 1930s with isolationist views sharing information with German intelligence in the hopes of keeping the U.S. out of any European conflict? Would that also be acceptable? Collaborating with the intelligence agency of a totalitarian power should be beyond the pale for any journalist. Further, the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 resulted in close cooperation between the Abwehr, Gestapo, and the KGB, which meant that information passed to the Soviets in the late 1930s may very well have ended up in Berlin.

The historian as detective

The findings in Spies reflect painstaking historical detective work—comparing the Vassiliev notebook materials with Venona intercepts, FBI agent reports, and other historical records, to identify American agents, couriers, and sources for the KGB.

Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev unearthed some amazing stories, none more bizarre than that of Stanley Graze, a former OSS operative and State Department official who went from handing intelligence reports to Moscow Center in the 1940s to assisting swindler Robert Vesco in defrauding American investors in the 1960s. At a cocktail party in Costa Rica in 1976, Graze told a Soviet agent that his spying had been “most interesting, fruitful and beneficial to the cause of world peace.”

Other Americans, famous and obscure, were all too willing to help the KGB: Ernest Hemingway flirted with Soviet intelligence but never engaged in any clandestine work; journalist Bernard Redmond, later Moscow bureau chief for CBS and dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, became a source for the KGB in the late 1940s; and Martha Dodd Stern, the daughter of the American ambassador to Germany, saw herself as a left-wing Mata Hari but her casual sexual liaisons made the puritanical comrades nervous.

By telling these stories, Spies chronicles the decades-long love affair many American intellectuals had with Communism and how ideological fervor blinded them to the true nature of Stalinism. Despite the Great Terror, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Katyn massacre, the establishment of the Iron Curtain, and the never-ending purges in Moscow, many still kept faith, many remained willing to spy against their own country.

The historical significance

In the end, did this Soviet penetration of British and American political elites matter? Did the presence of Soviet agents in the corridors of power in the West change the course of history? Did it prolong, or extend, the Cold War? As the extent of Soviet espionage becomes clearer, its greater significance is also emerging.

It was the “XY line,” the KGB term for scientific, technical, and industrial espionage, where Soviet efforts bore the most fruit. As Spies relates, and historian Steve Usdin and others have documented, Soviet spying in the U.S. successfully focused on stealing technical and military secrets. As Spies concludes in assessing the performance of KGB operatives in pursuing the XY line:

…The scientific and technical data they transmitted to Moscow saved the Soviet Union untold amounts of money and resources by transferring American technology, which enabled it to build an atomic bomb and deploy jet planes, radar, sonar, artillery proximity fuses, and many other military advances long before its own industry, strained by rapid growth and immense wartime damage, could have developed them independently.

What was the benefit to Stalin of having well-placed agents and sources in the corridors of American and British power providing political intelligence? Laurence Rees in World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West notes that Soviet agent Harry Dexter White pushed for the Morgenthau Plan for demilitarizing Germany and conjectures that advocacy was at the behest of the Soviets (although Morgenthau’s scheme was eventually discarded as too punitive).

It’s now clear that Stalin knew the negotiating positions of the Allies in advance of the Yalta, Potsdam, and San Francisco conferences, and that knowledge may have helped Moscow. But a strong argument can be made that it didn’t matter—the failure of Anglo-American policy toward the Soviet Union stemmed primarily from the misreading of “Uncle Joe” and his intentions by Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and, initially, Harry Truman. The flawed notion that the Allies could “do business with Stalin” in Eastern Europe had more to do with the shape of the post-war world than any covert assistance to the Kremlin by Western spies.

Countering espionage

Spies should be required reading for those responsible for countering espionage against the United States. One stark lesson: members of the elite (government officials, diplomats, journalists, scientists, academics, engineers), who on the surface should have no reason for spying, are often responsible for the most damaging betrayals. Attending the “right schools” and knowing the “right people” is no guarantee of loyalty: the American agents serving Stalin included Rhodes Scholars, numerous Ivy Leaguers, and others drawn from the ranks of the privileged “best and brightest.” During the Cold War years covered by Spies (roughly 1930-1950) most spied for ideological reasons, although other factors (the narcissistic thrill of wielding secret power, or a hidden resentment of authority) also played a part.

Just weeks after the publication of Spies came allegations that two members of the Washington’s contemporary elite, Walter Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn, spied for the Cubans for nearly three decades. Myers, a graduate of Brown and Johns Hopkins, came from a privileged background and yet embraced the leftist causes of the 1960s.

Did State Department officials know of Myers’ political radicalism and counterculture lifestyle, including a police drug raid on his South Dakota home, (risk factors for espionage which Ginger Thompson of the New York Times’ quickly uncovered) before granting him top-secret clearance? Did the vetting process surface other troubling signs of an erratic or narcissistic personality? That Myers, hired as a State Department analyst, was an open admirer of Neville Chamberlain’s policies of appeasement toward the Nazis adds a comic, but fitting, touch to this disturbing tale of lax security.


* I use “KGB” to describe the Soviet foreign intelligence service and “GRU” for Soviet military intelligence, although both had several name changes during the 20th century.

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

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