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First Things

Books in Review

Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America and The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—The Stalin Era

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 93 (May 1999): 53-57.

Old Ghosts

Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. By John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. Yale University Press. 475 pp. $30.

The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—The Stalin Era. By Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev. Random House. 402 pp. $30.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Bacevich

To label the period after 1945 "The Cold War" is to misconstrue the ideological contours of our times. In the decades following the Second World War, Americans found themselves embroiled in not one but at least two cold wars. The seemingly more dangerous of the two—the political and military struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union—ended abruptly in 1989. With amazingly little fuss, the Soviets simply gave up. They abandoned their empire. When in short order their country began to disintegrate, they could barely rouse themselves to protest. It soon became apparent that this cold war—the contest between democratic capitalism and Marxism–Leninism—had effectively resolved itself years earlier. Somewhere along the line, the long–suffering peoples of the Soviet Union had concluded that their revolution had been a cruel hoax not worth defending.

The second cold war, a conflict within the United States and throughout the West generally, has proven to be more durable. Already by the 1930s, belief that the antidote to capitalist repression and exploitation could be found only on the radical left had become an article of faith for leading members of the intelligentsia. For these self–styled progressives, the Bolshevik experiment in utopia provided both inspiration and model. In the West, revolution acquired an allure that persisted long after it had lost its appeal among those who actually lived under regimes erected on its principles.

Waged in highbrow journals or behind the scenes in labor unions, editorial offices, movie studios, and faculty clubs, this internal cold war has not attracted as much public attention as its external counterpart. There was, however, one exception: from the late 1940s to the early 1950s, a succession of exposés, spectacular trials, and headline–grabbing congressional investigations of domestic communism convulsed the nation and transformed the American political scene. The individuals raised to prominence by these events—Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, to name only a few—almost immediately assumed iconic status. As individuals, they might be heroes, villains, or simply unlucky bystanders, depending upon one’s political point of view. Yet it was as protagonist in a drama of surpassing moral and political significance that each would henceforth be remembered.

According to the left, the essence of that drama went like this: ambitious, unscrupulous politicians (like Nixon and McCarthy) abetted by neurotic and duplicitous informers (like Chambers and Bentley) victimized innocent citizens (like Hiss and the Rosenbergs) whose only "crime" lay in their commitment to working for a more humane and genuinely democratic order. The result was national hysteria and the de facto suspension of civil liberties for anyone hesitating to enlist in the anti–Communist crusade.

An odd collection of bedfellows—conservatives, Cold War liberals, and a few anti–Stalinist radicals—offered a different and more sinister interpretation. In their eyes, the "victims" of the anti–Communist crusade were not innocents. They were instead agents of Joseph Stalin, engaged in a conspiracy to subvert the existing constitutional order while promoting, by whatever means, the interests of the Soviet Union, even, and perhaps especially, at the expense of the United States. In this interpretation, the story was one of deception, treason, and betrayal.

These controversies of the forties and fifties remained contested terrain for years afterward. Yet with no small amount of skill, the left succeeded in setting the terms of the ensuing debate. In the literature, this became the period of the "Second Red Scare," a label implying paranoia and intolerance. The term McCarthyism, initially a reference to witch hunts and smear tactics, became an all–purpose code word used to place out of bounds questions about the implications of being a Communist Party member or fellow traveler. Despite the efforts by a few historians to show that some Americans actually were complicit in Soviet espionage, the impression prevailed that the controversies of the period had unnecessarily and irreparably harmed the American political system. In sophisticated quarters, at least, the anti–anti–Communists had secured the moral high ground.

By all rights, these two invaluable books should change all that. Venona, the product of two American historians, and The Haunted Wood, a collaboration of an American historian and a Russian KGB operative–turned–journalist, provide crushingly authoritative answers to questions that have lingered since the days when the charges and countercharges hurled by ex–Communists and alleged Communists riveted the nation’s attention. How prevalent was the treason committed by Americans on behalf of Stalinist totalitarianism? How pervasive was Communist influence in American government? Above all, who told the truth and who lied? In putting these issues to rest, the authors of these two volumes make it possible at long last to move on to new questions more relevant to the age in which we now live.

The two accounts cover much the same ground but in ways that complement rather than duplicate. The Venona project, subject of the study by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, was a highly classified government effort to decrypt messages between the Kremlin and Soviet agents in the U.S. during the Second World War. During the period 1942–1946, as a result of production shortcuts undertaken due to the duress of war, Soviet codes, theoretically unbreakable, contained a fatal flaw. In 1943 American analysts identified this flaw. Through painstaking work, they managed by 1946 to decipher portions of transmissions that American intelligence had intercepted. That endeavor continued into the 1970s, by which time the National Security Agency (NSA) had deciphered in whole or in part nearly three thousand Soviet messages.

The Venona project did not by any means provide a complete picture of Soviet espionage in the United States. Despite the best efforts of the NSA code–breakers, many intercepts from the 1942–1946 period remain unbroken. Even during that period, U.S. military intelligence managed to intercept only a fraction of the encoded message traffic between Moscow and its intelligence operatives in Washington and New York. Above all, Soviet encryption procedures used before 1942 and after 1946 avoided the defect that Venona had exploited. Such caveats notwithstanding, Venona produced an intelligence bonanza, as was immediately evident when the project, long a closely held secret, and its findings were finally declassified in 1995.

The material gathered by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, if acquired by less exotic means, is no less compelling. As a result of a 1993 agreement between Random House, SVR (Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the successor to the KGB), and a cash–hungry association of retired KGB agents, Weinstein and Vassiliev paid for access to KGB operational files from the 1930s and 1940s. Yevgeny Primakov, now Russia’s prime minister but then its intelligence chief, instructed the SVR archivists to provide only selected files; despite this limitation, The Haunted Wood tells a devastating story.

A too brief summary of the findings offered by the two books would include the following points. Prior to and during World War II, the Soviet Union orchestrated a sustained campaign of espionage and subversion directed against the United States. Several hundred Americans, variously motivated by revolutionary romanticism, ideological fervor, or sheer venality, enlisted in that campaign. Some served the Soviet Union as spies, others as controllers, couriers, mail drops, or talent–spotters. Beginning with the New Deal, members of this Soviet–controlled apparatus infiltrated deep into the agencies of the federal bureaucracy. Entrance of the United States into World War II only increased the opportunities for espionage so that, for example, even the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime predecessor of the CIA, had well over a dozen Soviet agents on its payroll.

Stalin’s agents rose to positions of prominence in the U.S. government: Alger Hiss, Laurence Duggan, and Noel Field (all State Department), Harry Dexter White (Treasury), Lauchlin Currie (assistant to President Franklin Roosevelt) routinely passed highly sensitive information to the Soviet Union. So too did many other lesser known or still unidentified figures scattered about from the War Department to defense industries. (Indeed, by 1944, a well–placed Soviet agent in the U.S. government had already tipped off his handlers as to the existence of the Venona project.) Internal security for the Manhattan Project was particularly lax. With Julius Rosenberg playing a vital role, American spies provided crucial technical information that accelerated Stalin’s program to acquire the atomic bomb. For its part, the Communist Party USA routinely aided and abetted these efforts and accepted covert financial subsidies from the Kremlin in return. The party’s assertion that it was independent of Soviet control was fraudulent.

As with periodic allegations of presidential infidelities, it might be argued that none of this is really new. In fact, the findings contained in Venona and The Haunted Wood qualify as genuinely significant on several counts. First, they suggest that Stalin never viewed his wartime partnership with the United States as other than a temporary marriage of convenience. Given the scope and intensity of Soviet covert offensive, it becomes evident that the Cold War began not in postwar disputes over Germany and Eastern Europe but, as Haynes and Klehr write, as "a guerrilla action that Stalin had secretly started years before." The belief that more generous or forthcoming American policies, informed by a sympathetic understanding of Stalin’s security concerns, might have averted the Cold War is an illusion.

Second, these two accounts establish beyond any reasonable doubt that witnesses such as Chambers testified truthfully when sounding the alarm about Communist subversion. Diehards will still contend that Hiss was innocent or that Julius Rosenberg was framed, much as some adamantly insist that Oswald did not act alone or that James Earl Ray did not assassinate Martin Luther King. At some point, the accumulation of evidence permits us to dismiss such people as crackpots. We are now well past that point with regard to the most controversial spy cases of the 1940s and 1950s.

Third, Venona and The Haunted Wood show that espionage at the behest of the Soviet Union was much more extensive than previously recognized. To dismiss it as the handiwork of a few misguided souls is to understate the problem by an order of magnitude. The existence of a network on such a vast scale effectively demolishes the notion of "McCarthyism before McCarthy"—the thesis advanced by some scholars that internal security reforms instituted by the Truman Administration after World War II were irrational, unnecessary, and motivated by political expediency. The gist of this argument is that Truman ignited the anti–Communist mania that McCarthy himself exploited shortly thereafter. In fact, Truman was responding to a serious threat that his predecessor had allowed to fester. That response was prudent and necessary, just as the larger American effort to contain the Soviet Union was prudent and necessary.

These conclusions do not justify or excuse the demagoguery of Senator McCarthy and his acolytes. They do not constitute a defense for every action taken under the rubric of eliminating subversion. (Ethel Rosenberg offers a case in point. That she was complicit in her husband’s spying is beyond dispute; her offenses did not justify execution, however.) Nor should Venona and The Haunted Wood be read as suggesting that every American who flirted with communism or fell prey to an infatuation with the Soviet Union was guilty of treason. Indeed, these accounts deserve attention not because they offer an opportunity to settle old scores but because they provide a vehicle for moving beyond a debate that has long since outlived its usefulness.

Only by exorcising the ideological ghosts that have haunted national politics for the past half century will Americans rediscover the nexus of the issue that gave the domestic cold war significance in the first place: the threat posed by a radically materialist philosophy that in the name of "liberation" would snuff out even the possibility of authentic freedom. As was the case when the United States faced off against the Soviet Union, the ultimate question today turns on whether and how man relates to God. "At every point," observes Whittaker Chambers in Witness, "religion and politics interlace, and must do so more acutely as the conflict between the two great camps of men, those who reject and those who worship God, becomes irrepressible." By exorcising old ghosts, these two histories permit us to redirect our attention to the new fields on which that conflict continues.

Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of International Relations at Boston University.

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