A Covert Life: Jay Lovestone: Communist, Anti-Communist, and Spymaster
The revolutionary certitudes of the young Jay Lovestone—born Jacob Liebstein in Lithuania in 1897—have a bizarre, antique ring now, only a decade after his death. Lovestone became a citizen and changed his name in 1919, the year he helped to found the American Communist Party. A tireless political infighter and street debater, he was ferocious with opponents—for example, the writer John Reed, famous for his firsthand account of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World, whom Lovestone attacked as “the so-called proletarian who lives on a sumptuous estate in Westchester.” Reed was dead within a year, buried in the Kremlin wall and added to the calendar of Communist saints. Lovestone’s road would have more twists and turns, but not yet. In a speech in Chicago, the center of the Russian-born, Russian-speaking radicals who dominated the new party, Lovestone celebrated “the inestimable progress made by the Communist Party of Russia.” Spouting this sort of stuff seems craven now, but in 1923 Lovestone like many others still sounded full of ingenuous hope and high spirits.
The Communist spirit has given tongue to the tongueless millions…. The sun never sets on the lands where Communist hearts beat in unison…. The Soviet government stands today as the granite foundation of the Communist system.
Illusions of this magnitude don’t die in five minutes. Twenty years later a young machinist for the army, training for duty overseas, bought the Communist romance entire and confided to his wife in a letter that he had “been reading a lot of books on the Soviet Union. Dear, I can see how farsighted and intelligent those leaders are. They are really geniuses, every one of them…. I believe that every time the Soviet government used force they did so with pain in their hearts….”
But instead of being shipped to the European theater, as he expected, the young machinist was transferred in the fall of 1944 to the high desert of New Mexico, where he was enjoined to secrecy and put to work making parts for models of a new kind of bomb. The geniuses in Moscow knew about this project, referred to it in secret communications as “ENORMOZ,” and authorized Alexander Feklisov, a Soviet intelligence officer attached to the consulate in New York City, to attempt to recruit the machinist as a spy. The pitch was made by the machinist’s brother-in-law, already a spy for the Soviets, who, using the third person, wrote for Feklisov a report in December 1944 describing how a first discussion had gone:
…Julius [the brother-in-law] inquired of Ruth [the machinist’s young wife] how she felt about the Soviet Union and how deep in general her Communist convictions went, whereupon she replied without hesitation that, to her, socialism was the sole hope of the world and the Soviet Union commanded her deepest admiration…. Julius then explained his connections with certain people interested in supplying the Soviet Union with urgently needed technical information it could not obtain through the regular channels and impressed upon her the tremendous importance of the project in which David [the young machinist, husband of Ruth] is now at work…. Ethel [Julius’s wife and David’s sister] here interposed to stress the need for the utmost care and caution in informing David of the work in which Julius was engaged and that, for his own safety, all other political discussion and activity on his part should be subdued.
Feklisov passed on this report to Moscow, where a predecessor of the KGB filed it away (page 16 of Volume One of File 86191). Some fifty years later Alexander Vassiliev, a former officer in the KGB, retrieved the document, along with a great deal of other material quoted in The Haunted Wood, one of a number of recent books about Soviet espionage in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, some (like The Haunted Wood) written with the cooperation of Soviet intelligence authorities, and some not. Vassiliev’s coauthor (it is not clear how the writing was shared out) is Allen Weinstein, best known for his previous book Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, first published in 1978 and revised in 1997. The title comes from a poem of W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939,” in which the “haunted wood” is the arena of conflicting loyalties where left and right, Communist and Fascist, East and West prepared the ground for the Second World War. Weinstein picked his title and began planning his book twenty years ago, then set the project aside.
Waiting was a good idea; the collapse of Soviet communism and the end of the cold war cracked open the door into the Soviet intelligence archives and made available documents which have illuminated and sometimes even definitively settled many old controversies about the guilt or innocence of people accused during the 1950s of having spied for the Soviet Union—the Rosenbergs, Julius and Ethel; their colleagues Al Sarant and Joel Barr, who disappeared when the Rosenbergs were arrested and surfaced decades later in the Soviet Union, where they were respected scientists living under new names; the State Department official Alger Hiss and his wife, Priscilla; the Treasury Department official Harry Dexter White, who died of a heart attack shortly after being accused; numerous officers of America’s wartime intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), including Duncan Lee, a close friend and associate of the OSS chief, William Donovan; Hiss’s fellow State Department official Lawrence Duggan, who committed suicide (maybe) shortly after being questioned by the FBI; Lauchlin Currie, an aide to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who moved to South America in 1950 and later renounced his US citizenship; and many, many others.
Most denied, some stoutly, some with a shrug, that they had ever spied for the Soviet Union, but a few confessed, like Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, who successfully bargained for immunity for his wife, Ruth; Elizabeth Bentley, who went to the FBI in 1945 and described in detail her work as a courier for Soviet intelligence officers running nets in New York and Washington; and, most notoriously of all, Whittaker Chambers, who pointed the finger at Alger Hiss.
Many of the documents quoted in The Haunted Wood are supported or confirmed by Soviet cables sent to Moscow by Soviet intelligence officers at the time. Beginning in 1946 code-breaking predecessors of the National Security Agency managed to decrypt wartime cables sent mainly from the New York consulate to General Pavel Fitin, the chief of the foreign intelligence directorate in Moscow. Eventually something over two thousand of these cables were read, sometimes in whole but more often in part, revealing an espionage assault on the United States of stunning scope and alarming success. Over the years the code-breaking effort was given many code names by the Americans—JADE, BRIDE, DRUG, and (in 1961) VENONA, the name that stuck. The word has no meaning. When the VENONA project was finally ended in 1980 many thousands of cables collected during the 1930s and 1940s were still unread, and slightly more than half of the 349 persons given cryptonyms by the KGB remained unknown. But even those identified included agents seeded throughout the federal government in Washington, in large corporations and universities, on newspapers and magazines, and in the principal laboratories which built the first atomic bombs.
The immense intellectual task of reading the Soviet traffic, consisting of five-letter groups encrypted with a technique called “the one-time pad,” is described in VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, a history of the project recently published by two leading scholars of American communism, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. The Soviet cables for the most part concerned basic housekeeping questions involved in the running of spies, and they alerted Moscow authorities what to expect in the full reports sent by the slower but more secure means of the regular diplomatic pouch. Nevertheless, the cables often provided enough corroborating evidence—travel plans, the pregnancies of wives, professional associations, and the like—to identify the cryptonyms of agents, once messages could be read.
It was slow going at first but by the summer of 1947 enough material had been decrypted to interest counter-intelligence officers of the FBI, and a year later a Soviet spy handling FBI documents in the Justice Department, Judith Coplon, was identified and arrested on the basis of VENONA decrypts. She was convicted twice in federal court but both convictions were overturned on appeal. Like other cases based on leads obtained from VENONA materials, Coplon’s prosecution made no mention of Soviet cables, in court or out, in the hope of keeping the breakthrough secret from the Russians. It is now known that this hope was vain; in the spring of 1950 investigators identified an officer in the Armed Forces Security Agency, William Weisband, as a spy for Moscow—possibly the individual referred to in VENONA traffic as “Link.” He was never prosecuted but the assumption at the time that he had warned the Soviets about VENONA is confirmed in The Haunted Wood by Soviet documents, including one from 1948 which credits Weisband with delivering “a large amount of very valuable documentary material concerning the work of Americans on deciphering Soviet ciphers….”
Within a few years VENONA material had put the counterintelligence sleuths of the FBI and the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) on the trail of many Soviet spies, including the British diplomat Donald Maclean (“Homer” in the VENONA traffic), whose defection to the Soviet Union deeply implicated his friend Kim Philby (possibly “Stanley”); the German physicist Klaus Fuchs, who had been part of the British team working on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos; Harry Gold (“Goose,” “Arnold”), a courier identified by Fuchs; David Greenglass (“Caliber,” “Bumblebee”), whose confession eventually sent his sister and brother-in-law, Ethel and Julius (“Antenna,” “Liberal”) Rosenberg, to the electric chair; Theodore Alvin Hall (“Mlad”), another Los Alamos physicist, who was never prosecuted and remained unknown to the general public until declassification of the VENONA project in 1996; Frank Coe (“Peak”) and Solomon Adler (“Sachs”), Treasury officials both of whom moved to China and died there; and—in a typical chain of identifications—Amadeo Sabatini (“Nick”), who implicated Jones Orin York (“Needle”), who told the FBI in April 1950 enough about his meetings with an agent for the Soviets he knew as “Bill” to allow identification of William Weisband, thus closing the circle. It was then that Weisband was fired by the Armed Forces Security Agency, and the Soviet ability to monitor the VENONA project came to an end.
Like cable traffic in general the VENONA messages were short and to the point to minimize the chore of encrypting and decrypting communications. They do not offer the sort of long, explicit, circumstantial accounts of spying activity required for an open-and-shut case. Of all those accused of spying for the Soviets, Alger Hiss put up the stoutest defense, convincing many in the 1950s that he had been slandered by Whittaker Chambers and thereafter maintaining a position of sorrowing innocence until the day he died. The case has long ceased to have any importance to counter-intelligence investigators, but the political battle over the original charges, concluding with a perjury conviction and jail term for Hiss, had a major part in the anti-Communist fervor referred to generically as “McCarthyism,” after the Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, who raised the issue to fever pitch with a charge in 1950 that hundreds of Communists were harbored within the government.
As a spy hunter McCarthy was a complete failure. His elastic numbers, never the same two days running, were much derided at the time; he never found even a single genuine Communist in the government; none of those he named recklessly during his hour on the stage was ever proved to have been a spy; and none of them appear in the VENONA traffic or the documents published by Weinstein and others. A rough-and-tumble demagogue of a certain raffish charm, McCarthy never really understood the chapter and verse of Communist spying, much less the subtler play of left-right ideological struggles, which tempted many liberals of the time to deny overheated right-wing charges of subversion with counterclaims that the “Red Menace” was all being trumped up by the FBI.
In the heat of the moment, when Chambers’s charges had first become public, leading officials like Dean Acheson and President Truman had both defended Hiss, a position they would soon know enough to regret. But those regrets they kept mainly to themselves, and Hiss posed for years as the archetype of persons unjustly charged in what was criticized as a Republican witch hunt. Still, despite McCarthy’s failure to back up his charges he managed to flourish for a time in a climate of suspicion that Hiss wasn’t the only Soviet spy with a claque of defenders and that the government was hiding something. At the same time, counterintelligence professionals knew McCarthy was thrashing around in the dark, but many of them also knew directly or through the grapevine that the FBI was in fact trying to identify hundreds of cryptonyms.
The cryptonyms of some Soviet spies appear dozens of times in the VENONA traffic, but not so with Hiss. The primary reason is that Hiss was part of a network run by the Soviet military intelligence organization, the GRU, while the VENONA traffic consists almost entirely of KGB cables. But investigators concluded that the “Ales” mentioned in a decrypted cable of March 30, 1945, was in fact Hiss. Described as “the leader of a small group of the NEIGHBORS’ probationers”—i.e., the GRU’s agents, Hiss was said by the KGB author of the cable to have been spying “continuously since 1935.” Following the Big Three conference at Yalta a month earlier, the March 30 cable reported to KGB headquarters, “Ales”/Hiss stopped off in Moscow where he “and his whole group were awarded Soviet decorations” by Andrei Vyshinsky, Stalin’s chief prosecutor at the show trials of the 1930s.
Investigators believed that “Ales” was Hiss because after he had been at Yalta, he had stopped off in Moscow; other evidence showed that Hiss began spying for the Soviets in 1934, and he was believed to have been working for “the neighbors”—i.e., the GRU. In any event, the March 30 cable is not proof that Hiss was a spy, just useful supporting evidence. Whether Hiss is mentioned in other VENONA cables still unread is of course unknown, and no GRU intelligence files about Hiss or any other spy have been released. But much additional evidence about Hiss’s involvement with the Soviets has turned up since the voluminous and explicit claims by Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley in the 1940s, claims which no serious scholar of the subject any longer dismisses.
In the mid-1930s, when the Soviet spy networks were being organized in Washington and New York, the GRU and the KGB occasionally crossed wires and approached the same people as potential spies. One such imbroglio occurred in April 1936, when Alger Hiss attempted to recruit a State Department officer named Noel Field on the eve of his departure for an important conference in London. In a report to Moscow, the KGB agent Hedda Gumperz Massing, who was herself busy recruiting both Noel Field and Lawrence Duggan, another State Department official, gave a long and detailed account of the Hiss-Field conversation in which she referred to Hiss by name since of course she did not know his GRU code name. Hiss was soon in hot pursuit of Duggan as well. Allowing the agents of one service or net to learn the identities of those in another breaks one of the cardinal rules of espionage tradecraft, and the frequency with which it happened among Soviet spies in the US helps to explain the rapid collapse of the whole effort once Bentley and Chambers began telling the FBI where to look and whom to look at.
But in 1936 the Soviets were still trying to maintain compartmentalization, and Hedda Massing’s boss, the illegal rezident, or station chief, Boris Bazarov, warned Moscow that a catastrophe was brewing. In a document quoted in The Haunted Wood, with true names inserted in brackets in place of code names, Bazarov described something akin to a French farce:
The result has been that, in fact, [Field] and Hiss have been openly identified to [Lawrence Duggan]. Apparently [Duggan] also understands clearly [Gumperz’s] nature. and [Gumperz] and Hiss several months ago identified themselves to each other. Helen Boyd, [Duggan’s] wife, who was present at almost all of these meetings and conversations, is also undoubtedly briefed and now knows as much as [Duggan] himself…. I think that after this story we should not speed up the cultivation of [Duggan] and his wife. Apparently, besides us, the persistent Hiss will continue his initiative in this direction.
The persistent Hiss soon acquired a KGB code name of his own (“Lawyer”) and appears in other KGB reports from the US, including one from yet a third Soviet spy-runner, Itzhak Akhmerov, who reported in May 1936 that
a brother organization’s worker connected with [Hiss] knew [Gumperz] well…. This brother worker, whom we know as “Peter” [in fact, Joszef Peter, a Hungarian working for the GRU as handler of the Hal Ware group in Washington, which included Hiss]…at one of his rare meetings with [Gumperz] told the latter: “You in Washington came across my guy [Hiss]…. You better not lay your hands on him….”
Soviet spy networks can be nightmarishly difficult to map out. Information is always partial, case officers come and go, there are many names and code names (often more than one of the latter for each spy), their paths cross in unexpected ways, some play vital roles for years, others appear and disappear like a mouse peeking from a hole in the wall until it sees a cat. Soviet nets of the 1930s are especially difficult because the names that made the biggest news at the time (Hiss, Chambers, Rosenberg) may have been only relatively minor players, while others, barely glimpsed in the documents and confessions which chance brought to the FBI, may have been central. Above all, the Soviets were astonishingly active, aggressive, and successful; the 349 cryptonyms extracted from the VENONA traffic—most standing for agents or “trusted contacts” but some referring only to targets of interest—may be matched by as many more in the unread traffic, and the GRU cables of the same period, still almost entirely unread, might contain as many more again.
The long-version field reports sent by diplomatic pouch, not to mention the actual raw files themselves, in their row upon row of metal shelves, filling floor upon floor of the vast Russian secret service headquarters in huge highrise buildings of surpassing monotony in the Moscow suburb of Yasenevo, must describe a still-vaster web of contact, probe, retreat, and connection as intricate as the arteries, veins, and capillaries that carry blood throughout the human body. But once one has said that, which is roughly equivalent to having said that the task of writing a comprehensive history of Soviet espionage is beyond fallible man, it is nevertheless true that anyone who wants to know what Hiss and his friends were up to can find a rich, convincing, and vivid report in The Haunted Wood and VENONA. If many questions remain only partially answered there is yet enough to allow us to conclude clearly and simply that while the excesses of McCarthyism may be fairly described as a witch hunt, it was a witch hunt with witches, some in government, some not.
The espionage prosecutions of the early 1950s led to the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, sent a handful of other spies to jail for varying periods, and prompted another handful to disappear into the Communist world to escape arrest. But most of the Soviet spies active in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, even if they were identified, suffered nothing worse than surveillance, questioning by the FBI, or the loss of a job. Many other people, entirely guiltless, were subjected to a great deal more.
Because the KGB had actively recruited agents from the ranks of the American Communist Party, a pall of suspicion fell over the radical left generally and many hundreds of people who had never told the KGB so much as the time of day found themselves hounded by self-appointed watchdogs, blackballed from work in Hollywood or academia, hectored by congressional committees, and pressed under threat of contempt charges to reveal the names of friends, fellow travelers, and chance acquaintances who had been members of the Communist Party, or only transient supporters of “left-wing causes” like an end to the lynching of blacks in the American South or the defeat of Fascist armies during the Spanish Civil War.
This broader assault upon the American left—what most historians and people who lived through it mean by the term “McCarthyism”—really was a witch hunt, and it had little effect on the success of Soviet spying in America. That had already been brought to an end by the Soviets themselves following the discovery that American code-breakers were reading the VENONA traffic and the confessions of defectors like Elizabeth Bentley, Whittaker Chambers, and the Soviet GRU spy Igor Gouzenko in Canada. The rule of thumb in spying is better safe than sorry; when an operation is compromised the spy-runners cut their losses and write off everything connected to it. By the middle of the 1950s the Soviet Union was essentially without clandestine assets in the United States; friends everywhere had been replaced by friends nowhere.
In the remaining decades of the cold war, nevertheless, the Soviets recruited a great many new spies, some of them brilliantly successful like Aldrich Ames, but they never again achieved the breadth and depth of penetration of American society and government of the 1930s, so far as we know. But even with this proviso, always important, what we know now includes the extraordinary wealth of operational detail contained in six cases of notes and files brought out of Russia in 1992 by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) with a retired KGB archivist named Vasili Mitrokhin. Born in 1922, Mitrokhin joined the KGB in 1948 and after foreign assignments with the First Chief Directorate was transferred in 1956 to the archive where he spent the rest of a quiet life handling files and moving down an entirely solitary road toward a kind of principled inner resistance and exile.
In 1972 Mitrokhin was given the job of packing up First Chief Directorate files in the KGB’s Moscow headquarters, a massive turn-of-the-century building called the Lubyanka, and shipping them to the KGB’s new quarters in Yasenevo. Over a ten-year period he personally checked some 300,000 files, each devoted to a separate case and some running to many volumes. But missing, Mitrokhin discovered, were nine volumes on the fate of Communist Party leaders, KGB officers, and foreign Communists living in Russia during the Stalin years. They had been destroyed in the early 1960s on the orders of Nikita Khrushchev.
Distressed by what he had learned of the nature of the Soviet regime, and perhaps fearing further efforts to rewrite history by purging the files, Mitrokhin began to take notes on the documents which passed through his hands—strictly forbidden, of course, and highly dangerous. These he took home and hid under the mattress in his Moscow apartment; then he transferred them to a dacha in the countryside, and finally, in 1992, he carried them with him by train to one of the Baltic countries where he, his family, and his six cases of materials were picked up by the British SIS.
“Case” is an elastic word. It can re-fer to anything from an ordinary case of wine to a crate as big as an old-fashioned steamer trunk. But on the evidence of The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, written by the well-known historian of British intelligence Christopher Andrew with the help of Mitrokhin’s materials, the Russian was lugging some very big boxes. This is not Andrew’s first exploration of Soviet intelligence history: in 1990, with the assistance of an earlier Soviet defector to the British, Oleg Gordievsky, Andrew published a 775-page tome which seeded a comprehensive account of the KGB and its predecessors with nuggets of new material provided by Gordievsky. The new book does the same thing again but with substantially more nuggets, returning to the early days of the Cheka in the 1920s and marching forward, case by case and country by country, to Mitrokhin’s retirement from the KGB in 1984.
One strength of The Sword and the Shield lies in the fact that the narrative is based almost entirely on new material from the Soviet archives, enriching stories long familiar to cold war scholars. With few exceptions, what Mitrokhin brought was the bare skeletons of cases and operations—names, dates, places, and code names—invaluable raw material for counterintelligence analysts, but impenetrable by ordinary mortals. Andrew incorporates the new Mitrokhin material into a brisk, useful, and comprehensive history of Soviet intelligence activity which, as a book, has only one serious flaw: it is printed in minuscule type more usually found in the listing of ingredients on bottles of patent medicines, which is made even more laborious to read by the narrow gutter and margins of the page. The 135 pages of notes and bibliography in the back of the book are in type smaller still and will require the assistance of a magnifying device by all but the very young. Presumably this economy saved the publisher a few bucks, but it was a signal disservice to an important book which will be consulted by scholars for many years to come.
By the universal but coarse measure of the significance of a book on espionage—the number of spies exposed—The Sword and the Shield sets something of a record. Chief among those exposed was Melitta Norwood, codenamed “Hola” by the KGB when she was recruited in Britain in 1937. Now eighty-seven years old and living quietly in the London suburb of Bexleyheath, the unrepentant Norwood worked for the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association in London in the 1940s, where she had access to important technical information on the construction of atomic bombs. Reference to Norwood is also made by Weinstein and Vassiliev in The Haunted Wood under the code name “Tina,” which appears as well in a VENONA cable of September 1945. Neither “Tina” nor another British spy reporting on atomic matters, “Eric,” is identified by Weinstein and Vassiliev. Beginning in 1942 “Eric” was handled by the Soviet intelligence officer Vladimir Barkovsky, and much of the ten thousand pages of material “Eric” provided actually consisted of photostatic copies of American atomic research reports which the British had obtained just as Barkovsky and the Soviets did—by stealing them from an ally (the United States).
At a dinner in Moscow in 1997 Barkovsky, at eighty-four frail, diminutive, and short of breath, told a table of eight (which included me and my friend Joe Finder) that he was a mechanical engineer by training and was completely at sea during his first meeting with “Eric,” who plunged directly into a discussion of atomic cross-sections. Barkovsky tried to beg off, promising another meeting with an intelligence officer who knew physics. But “Eric” refused, insisted Barkovsky was the man for him, and told him to obtain a copy of Applied Nuclear Physics by Pollard and Davidson and study it. (“I still have it,” said Barkovsky.) Gently pressed for additional details about “Eric,” whom he did not name, Barkovsky demurred. “I am forbidden by Article Nineteen,” he explained, referring to the Official Secrets Act. So far as I know, “Eric” remains unidentified.
The identification of Melitta Norwood made the biggest noise in the press when Andrew’s book was published last fall, but she was not alone. Other spies brought to light, partially or fully, were “Hunt,” a spy recruited by Norwood but still unidentified by British authorities; “William,” a trade union official who worked for the Russians in the 1970s; the British policeman John Symonds, who served as a roving agent for the KGB; and the American Robert Lipka, a clerk for the National Security Agency now serving an eighteen-year prison term for spying for the Soviets in the 1960s. Numerous others, revealed in Mitrokhin’s notes and known to authorities, are identified by Andrew only with code names—long lists of code names. Sometimes Andrew notes that they cannot be identified “for legal reasons,” like “Grum,” a “leading Irish Communist” approached by the KGB in 1977, and the French journalists called “Nant,” “Veronique,” “Jacqueline,” and “Nancy” by their Soviet case officers. “A majority of both agents and trusted contacts” on another list of thirty Soviet agents active in the United States in the 1970s, Andrew says in a footnote, “are identified by name.” Are the authorities preparing to pounce? Andrew does not say, leaving the guilty parties to fret and worry, if they are still alive.
The real importance of Andrew’s book is not to be found in the three-day wonder of uncovered spies, however, but in the sheer weight of accumulated detail which reveals a madly compulsive Soviet overreliance on clandestine means for conducting its foreign policy, maintaining social and ideological control at home, and acquiring the technological infrastructure of a modern state. For decades it all seemed to work, until Mikhail Gorbachev began to tinker with the system, hoping to breathe the pink back into the wheezing body of communism. He might have addressed his efforts to the waxen cadaver of Lenin with greater success. The anti-Soviet hostility of client states in Eastern Europe, the alienation of ordinary Russians from the Communist regime, a position in the world based entirely on military might, and the reality of a barely functioning economy helpless to compete in world trade were the reverse of the coin—an illusion of monolithic control and legitimacy on one side, police and mirrors on the other.
The Sword and the Shield relates the dark history of the Soviet obsession with inner resistance and foreign enemies. Few nations have ever been subjected to such ferocious and generally effective methods of domestic control, and none has gone further to suppress what was true. But of some charges, Andrew says, the Soviets must be presumed innocent. “There is no evidence in any of the files examined by Mitrokhin,” he writes, that Yuri Andropov, the KGB chairman who stopped at almost nothing to destroy Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, played any role in the attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II in Rome in May 1981. Nor, Andrew says, do Mitrokhin’s six cases of notes suggest that major Soviet spies in the United States and Britain remain undiscovered.
We may, therefore, reasonably conclude that now, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have before us roughly the whole story. Detail remains to be filled in but, Andrew suggests, what has long appeared to be the case really is the case—the romantic allure of the great social experiment in Communist Russia ran aground soon after the end of the Second World War, and the role of the Soviet Union in the world for the remaining decades of the cold war depended on a vast military and intelligence effort aimed abroad, at the price of stagnation and impoverishment at home.
The evidence for the scale of that effort is amply documented in The Sword and the Shield, but the explanation for its initial success and ultimate failure are more easily seen in the other books here under review. When Alexander Feklisov returned to Moscow after the war, he attributed his success with the atomic spies Ruth and David Greenglass to the fact that “they are young, intelligent, capable, and politically developed people, strongly believing in the cause of communism and wishing to do their best to help our country as much as possible.” Also “politically developed” was Theodore Alvin Hall, a young physicist who volunteered to spy for the Soviets in November 1944 (exposed in the VENONA traffic but never prosecuted); Morris Cohen, recruited by the KGB in Spain in 1938 and described by one of his case officers as “exceptionally honest, developed, politically literate”; and members of the spy nets in Washington who “are reliable compatriots, highly developed politically.”
But “politically developed” did not mean innocent. The brilliant “illegal” (that is, an agent without official diplomatic cover) Arnold Deutsch, who helped to recruit and run the notorious British spies known as the “Cambridge Five,” expressed a kind of contempt for the rich young American Michael Straight, who was recruited by Anthony Blunt in the late 1930s. Straight, Deutsch reported, “sometimes behaves like a child in his romanticism. He thinks he is working for the Comintern [the semipublic worldwide organization of Communist Parties dominated by the Soviet Union], and he must be left in this delusion for awhile.” What “politically developed” really meant was the capacity to believe that Moscow was always right. The State Department official Lawrence Duggan, a romantic in the manner of Straight, proved in 1937 that politically he was still developing when he told his case officer, Norman Borodin, that he
cannot understand events in the USSR…the disclosure of Trotskyite-fascist spies in almost all branches of industry and in the state institutions embarrass him enormously. People he has learned to respect turn out to be traitors to their motherland and to the socialist cause…all this seems to him a “remote, incomprehensible nightmare.”
Duggan wanted to know what would happen to him if the secrets he was turning over to the KGB crossed the desk of one of these spies for the British and the Germans? A spy in the KGB “seems…impossible, but two months ago the same could have been said about the nine [arrested Soviet] generals…. He repeats again and again: he cannot understand it, he is embarrassed, he cannot sleep.”
What was really happening to Duggan, of course, was political development in the wrong direction. He was “embarrassed” because the Moscow charges of Trotskyite conspiracy were in fact preposterous. As the Great Terror deepened, Duggan became elusive and difficult; in time he quit spying but never entirely broke with the Soviets and apparently never admitted to himself the true nature of the regime he had served. The FBI and the Soviets were both pressing hard in late 1948, and it is impossible to be certain whether he jumped from his sixteenth-floor office window or was thrown out. Either way, it was a lack of political development that killed Duggan.
The first generation of ideologically committed Soviet spies for the most part never wavered in their loyalty to Moscow during Duggan’s “nightmare”—the Moscow Trials which publicly accused, convicted, and condemned old Bolsheviks by the score, heroes of the revolution all. But the leading figures accused of conspiracy with Leon Trotsky to murder Stalin, overthrow the regime, and betray Russia to capitalists in Britain and Germany were only the first selective harvest of victims in what became one of the great political cataclysms of history. Leading members of the Communist Party were the first to go (and the first to be rehabilitated by Khrushchev in 1956), but they were followed by countless thousands of officials at all levels of Soviet society, and then by millions of ordinary people, all charged with entirely imaginary crimes. How many of the victims were executed (typically with a bullet behind the ear in a prison basement) and how many died of overwork and semi-starvation in the labor camps can never be known, but the total number of dead was many millions.
Barkovsky told us in Moscow that one reason a relative youth like himself got such a plum job running spies in London, away from the wartime deprivations of Moscow, was the fact that the body of older, more experienced intelligence officers had been stripped to the bone by arrest and execution. Among them were at least ten KGB officers who had served in the United States in the 1930s and were recalled for arrest, a summons they obeyed despite knowing what awaited them at home. Others, like the New York station chief Gaik Ovakimyan and Jacob Golos, the case officer who managed Elizabeth Bentley, saved themselves by the simple expedient of putting off return through one excuse after another until the worst of the purge was over.
But more typical was the fate of Theodore Stephanovich Mally, a Hungarian captured by the tsarist armies during World War I and freed by the Bolsheviks, who recruited him to the Communist cause and a career in the running of spies. Mally remains a shadowy figure even to scholars of Soviet espionage. He performed his most important job during the two years (1935-1937) he spent handling the Cambridge Five in London. William Duff, a retired foreign counterintelligence specialist for the FBI, took an interest in Mally’s career and fate and set himself the task of documenting his life, a huge effort that took Duff from Mally’s birthplace in Hungary, to Paris and London where he served, and finally back to Moscow where he disappeared from view in November 1937. Much of Mally’s life is still unknown, but the character of the man emerges clearly in Duff’s wonderful book, A Time for Spies, which recounts the life of an ordained priest who traded the Church of his youth for the New Jerusalem promised by the revolution.
In Paris in 1937, summoned back to Moscow for reasons he understood perfectly, Mally tried to explain his decision to submit to Elizabeth Poretsky, whose husband had worked for Soviet intelligence in Spain. It wasn’t complicated really, he said. He felt guilty. During the Russian Civil War he had taken part in wholesale massacres of civilians; the memory of the crying of the women and the children continued to haunt him. Later he participated in the arrest of peasants for trifling offenses during the great famine of the early 1930s. The sentence for stealing a small bag of potatoes: execution. “I could not bear to live in the Soviet Union any more,” Mally told Poretsky. “I had to run away somewhere….” His refuge was London, where he ran spies, Kim Philby among others, to serve the country he had fled. Like many others, Mally had given his life to serve the cause; now his services were no longer enough, and the Party wanted his life. “Don’t you see that I must go back to be shot? Shall I hide now also?”
Poretsky did not see that at all. She was trying to save the life of her husband, Ignace Reiss, also threatened with arrest and execution. In this she failed; the Soviets hunted him down in Switzerland and left his body by the roadside. But Mally, as Duff relates, went back to Moscow. The cooperation of former KGB officers helped Duff to establish the outline of Mally’s final year. After many months of interrogation during which he was “beaten”—that was all Duff could learn: he was “beaten”—Mally was convicted of spying for Germany at a trial he did not attend, and where he had no lawyer to represent him. The sentence on September 20, 1938, was death; and the execution, as was Soviet custom with other tortured yet loyal agents, was carried out on the same day in a basement execution cell of the Lubyanka.
Much additional information on Mally’s career can be found in The Crown Jewels, a history of Soviet operations in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s by the prolific writer on intelligence history Nigel West, with the assistance of Oleg Tsarev, a former KGB officer who is well known to all writers with an interest in Soviet intelligence services. The KGB’s foreign department assigned many intelligence officers to serve in both Britain and the United States, and the rich account provided by West and Tsarev of the recruiting of the Cambridge Five also touches on the career of Michael Straight, along with those of other Americans later active in Washington and New York. It also includes new information on the cases of Ignace Reiss and Walter Krivitsky, whose defections began the unraveling of Soviet intelligence networks and ultimately led to the American spy scandals of the 1950s. But while West and Tsarev help to explain how the KGB fabricated a charge of spying for the Germans against Mally, they fail to convey the fatalism and guilt which made him return to Moscow for a bullet in the back of his head.
Mally went back, Lawrence Duggan committed suicide or was murdered, the Rosenbergs went to the electric chair rather than confess, Alger Hiss spent the last fifty years of his life denying that any of it had happened at all. Jay Lovestone, on the other hand, was smart enough to get the picture. His faith that communism spoke for the tongueless millions came under strain as soon as he ran into Stalin. In 1929, in Moscow with a ten-man delegation seeking an end to Stalin’s meddling in the direction of the American Party, Lovestone very nearly became an early victim of the Lubyanka. “For scabs,” Stalin said when Lovestone refused to accept a Comintern decision, “there is plenty of room in our cemeteries.” But Lovestone managed to slip out of the country.
Back home he and ninety followers, henceforth excoriated as “Lovestoneites,” were expelled from the Party. For a dozen years he tried to build an alternative to the CP-USA but he had no money, his Independent Labor League never had more than five hundred members, and his faith in the cause withered away. When Whittaker Chambers told Lovestone in 1938 that he had been invited to Moscow to receive a decoration, Lovestone told him: “You’ve been decorated twice before. This is one decoration you don’t need.” Lovestone broke first with Stalinism, then with communism after Stalin’s judicial murder of Bukharin and betrayal of the Spanish Loyalist cause, finally with Marxist class analysis when it tried to argue that Hitler’s war was only a quarrel among imperialists.
But Lovestone’s whole life was politics; he could not live without a cause, and he found one in 1944 when George Meany of the American Federation of Labor gave him a job running the AFL foreign department and an open mandate to support the free democratic trade union movement wherever it was threatened. Half hidden behind the scenes, for thirty years Lovestone and his ally Irving Brown fought the Communists around the globe, backed by Meany and funds supplied by the CIA.
That much has been public knowledge for years. What Ted Morgan brings to the story in A Covert Life is a rich and detailed account, filled with unfamiliar characters and new material, of Lovestone’s break with communism, his central role in preventing a Stalinist takeover of European labor unions following World War II, and his relations with “the fizz kids” (Lovestone’s term) at the CIA—the director from 1953-1963, Allen Dulles; the chief of clandestine operations, Frank Wisner; and above all the chief of counterintelligence, who personally handled “the Lovestone account,” James Jesus Angleton. “The fizz kids” were hyperactive in the 1950s and 1960s and they caused much harm—overthrowing governments in Iran and Guatemala, organizing the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, intervening in a sometimes blundering way in the politics of countries like Italy and France. But the CIA also slipped secret funds to political parties, cultural institutions, and labor organizations that were hard-pressed by Soviet-controlled organizations flush with “Moscow gold.” The CIA bitterly resented Lovestone’s independence, always anathema to an intelligence organization, but Lovestone was on the payroll for twenty years, and by Morgan’s account it got value for money.
Morgan’s is one of the most important and original books in many years about American politics, about the politics of communism in the middle decades of the century, and about the role of the CIA in the political struggles of the cold war. But Morgan’s book does not simply get all that straight; it is also a delight to read, leavened by Lovestone’s pungent character and the astonishing liveliness of some of his colleagues—his sometime girlfriend and political operative Pagie Morris; his agents in Europe and the Far East; the former OSS chief William Donovan; the enigmatic and driven Angleton; and a whole host of others who enjoyed his loyalty and friendship or endured the lash of his combative wit. Morgan has a great talent for narrative, and his longish book does not read long. In his lifetime Lovestone got one great thing right, and he got it right early enough to help do something about it—Soviet communism was a threat to free institutions and ordinary human values and given an inch would take a yard. Lovestone also got one thing wrong—the date when communism ran out of steam. He missed that by a couple of decades and spent the last part of his life worrying that a new generation was too naive to recognize the threat. Lovestone’s old age was neither temperate nor attractive. But what he got wrong was smaller than what he got right and Morgan’s book is a fine corrective to the many books written on the assumption that everything important was done by officials in Washington and Moscow.
Traditional historians have been slow to tackle the secret side of history. At the top of the list of important factors either slighted or missing entirely, in Christopher Andrew’s view, is “SIGINT”—intelligence jargon for signals intelligence, which means broadcast communications of all kinds, but most importantly encrypted communications that code breakers have managed to read. The best-known examples are ULTRA (the British success in reading German machine-generated codes during World War II), MAGIC (the American success in reading Japanese naval communications), and VENONA. Andrew argues that SIGINT and other aspects of intelligence activity are overlooked partly because of “over-classification of intelligence archives”—that is, the addiction to secrecy, common in all countries but fanatically defended especially in Britain—and partly because of “what psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’—the difficulty all of us have in grasping new concepts which disturb our existing view of the world.” Just what Andrew means by “cognitive dissonance” here is not entirely clear, but I think he means that historians, like other people, don’t like to admit that they have been wrong.
The history of McCarthyism offers a fine example of dogged persistence in the defense of old interpretations, which fail to be integrated into the story of what we have learned about Soviet espionage since the end of the cold war. After all his bluster, McCarthy himself never found any spies, but Chambers, faced with Hiss’s libel suit, made charges of espionage that have turned out to be true. Not all the victims of McCarthyism were harmless idealists of the left.
It is the Hiss case in particular which is central to the unfolding of what came to be called McCarthyism, and to the tortured treatment of it by many historians now. An important factor in the escalation of McCarthyism from an aberration to a genuine crisis of democracy was the denial (mostly by the left), and the furious response to that denial (mostly by the right), of what was characteristic of many So-viet spies of the 1930s and 1940s—they were of the left generally, they supported liberal causes, they defended the Soviet Union in all circumstances, they were often secret members of the Communist Party, they were uniformly suspicious of American initiatives throughout the world, they could be contemptuous of American democracy, society, and culture, and, above all, their offenses were too often minimized or explained away by apologists who felt that no man should be called traitor who did what he did for the cause of humanity. Once the dust of the big spy scandals settled, however, the KGB concluded that it had been a ghastly mistake to recruit agents from Communist Party ranks, and they quit doing it. But the fact that some Soviet spies could in part be identified by their politics, and the embarrassed denial of that fact by liberals who shared some of their political goals, helped turn a spy scandal into a searing schism in American political life which has not entirely healed yet, fifty years later.
It is difficult to realize now just how deeply the assumptions of both left and right penetrated American society during the McCarthy years. I still remember the night when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed. I have to look up the day and year—Friday, June 19, 1953—but the moment itself is vivid. I was a Boy Scout, twelve years old, attending a regular troop meeting in the gym of the Siwanoy School in Pelham, New York. Sing Sing prison, where the Rosenbergs were scheduled to be executed at eight o’clock, was also in Westchester County and the whole troop—twenty or thirty kids—believed that so much power would be drained by the electric chair that the lights in the gym would dim. The moment came and went but the lights did not dim. For a few moments we believed they had been spared, but word soon circulated from a radio report that they died on schedule.
I regret to say that none of us, at twelve and thirteen, saw anything wrong with executing genuine atom spies. But I remember very clearly that several of my friends “knew” the Rosenbergs were innocent. This was not something they heard from their parents, believe me. They knew it the same way I knew that the atomic bomb had been invented in a secret laboratory beneath Yankee Stadium. At a certain point in my teens, after I began to take an interest in politics, I discovered that now I also “knew” the Rosenbergs were innocent, just as I “knew” that Alger Hiss had been unfairly accused by the repugnant liar Whittaker Chambers and unjustly sentenced to jail. These were never important, bedrock beliefs to me—just features of the political landscape, facts I had breathed in, things I “knew.”
Years later, as a young reporter for the United Press in New York City in the late 1960s, I had occasion to call Alger Hiss on the phone. There had been some development in his efforts to rehabilitate himself—a court had said yes or no, I no longer remember the details. But I remember something curt and irritated in his voice which nevertheless conveyed the pain suffered by an innocent man wrongly accused. He sounded like a man running out of patience with the world for taking so long to grasp the truth of his innocence.
A few years later I read Weinstein’s Perjury. The experience was something of a shock. The case was not even hard. What Whittaker Chambers had claimed was true, and it was convincingly and obviously true by the time Hiss went to jail for perjury. Hiss’s denial, and his persistence in it for decades, and his support in it by so many otherwise smart people, was one of the great intellectual contortion acts of history. The evidence now, following the publication of VENONA and The Haunted Wood, is simply overwhelming. What it shows is that Hiss was one of a number of young, brainy, overexcited converts to communism hurrying about Washington in the 1930s recruiting others to serve “real, existing Socialism” in the Soviet Union for high-minded reasons which should not have survived the opening days of the Moscow Trials, but somehow did.
No “Hiss file” has been released by the Russians, but he is one of the established cast in the routine communications of Soviet spy-runners—his name or code name turns up in many documents quoted in The Haunted Wood. What continues to astonish and bewilder me now is why Hiss lied for fifty years about his service in a cause so important to him that he was willing to betray his country for it. The faith itself is no problem to explain; hundreds of people shared it enough to do the same, and thousands more shared it who were never put to the test by a demand for secrets. But why did Hiss persist in the lie personally? Why did he allow his friends and family to go on carrying the awful burden of that lie?
The huge volume of material recently published about Soviet espionage, in which Hiss of course plays only a minor supporting role, is not just interesting, as all secrets are interesting, at least for the day of their first publication. It also has important implications for the history of the century, and for the failure of the Soviet experiment which almost spanned it. But more narrowly it helps to explain the crisis of McCarthyism, which was fueled not only by the discovery of spies but by the denial of spies. The plain fact is that the Russians were running a good many spies in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, that they recruited them from the ranks of the left, that they ran them to steal secrets, and when they got caught at it they went to ground and waited for a better day.
Of course some on the left had no illusions—former Communists like Lovestone and Richard Rovere, and former Trotskyites and ADA liberals, such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., as well as labor leaders such as Walter Reuther and David Dubinsky. But many on the American left were slow and grudging in admitting first the truth and then the significance of any given spy case. Some attacked all efforts to peel open the extent of the problem as a witch hunt, and bitterly resisted the inference that it never could have happened if the social idealism of the 1930s had not been hijacked by Moscow.
Once the new evidence is frankly faced no one can write the history of McCarthyism and the early cold war without taking into account that the hunt for spies was based on the fact that there were spies—lots of them; that those spies began with an idealism shared by a significant minority of the American people; and that the defensive response of many American liberals not only was wrong on the facts, but also exacerbated the suspicions of the right, making it easier for demagogues to argue that progressive causes and treason somewhow went hand in hand.
Some of the historians who claim the McCarthy era for their territory have been slow to take up this necessary task. Whenever they read the slightest suggestion that they have been sitting on their hands too long they fly into collective action, sizzle the phone lines with faxes and e-mail, and draft a public letter claiming that the offending book or essay is filled with errors too numerous and profound to mention, and protesting furiously that they are being asked to hand Joseph McCarthy a posthumous victory. Maybe the old claims that it was all a witch hunt were wrong on some minor factual matters, they concede, but at that time, in that climate, under those pressures, with those enemies, it was not wrong to be wrong.
They should relax. The proposition is straightforward. The ordeal of McCarthyism was only in part about Reds under the bed. It was also about the extraordinary success of the Soviets in penetrating America’s government; we know a lot about it now that we didn’t know at the time, and we should get on with figuring out why things unfolded as they did before the Russians further thicken the stew by telling us who was hiding behind the other half of those 349 cryptonyms.