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.