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.