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The Plot Thickens

A Covert Life: Jay Lovestone: Communist, Anti-Communist, and Spymaster

by Ted Morgan
Random House, 402 pp., $29.95

1.

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.

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