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Cloak-And-Dagger Days

ISSUE:  Spring 2000
The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—The Stalin Era, by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev. Random House. $30.00.

There are probably those who still believe in the innocence of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs or feel strongly that it was wrong for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to present an honorary Oscar to Elia Kazan. Kazan had informed on eight old friends from the Group Theater who, along with him, had once belonged to the Communist Party. Kazan in his autobiography was not contrite in regard to “naming names” to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. In fact, Kazan on different occasions stated that the Communist Party was bent on subverting the United States, and believed that he was doing his patriotic duty by informing on his friends, who later were blacklisted in Hollywood. More recently Arthur Schlesinger Jr.raised the question as to whether informing on the Ku Klux Klan or Neo-Nazis would elicit the same sort of opprobrium as that attached to those who exposed the machinations of the Communist Party during the McCarthy period.

Those on the left, who are still fighting these battles, will not like The Haunted Wood.The authors mount an impressive array of recently released documents from both American and Soviet sources to show conclusively that such controversial and polarizing figures as Alger Hiss, Julius Rosenberg, and Harry Dexter White were indeed Soviet espionage agents. The Soviet Union actively recruited Amerleans in all kinds of sensitive areas of public life to serve their interests, and when former Communists like Whittaker Chambers and Elia Kazan realized the danger of Stalinism, they did not hesitate to inform on their former comrades.

For decades many on the left charged that Alger Hiss, an advisor to President Roosevelt at Yalta, and the holder of many prominent positions both in and out of government was framed by Whittaker Chambers, and a cabal of anti-Roosevelt conservatives, who sought to discredit the New Deal by accusing Hiss of being part of a Soviet espionage ring. Similarily, the Rosenbergs had their defenders, who believed that Julius and Ethel were innocent of the charges that they had passed on secrets about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.

The Haunted Wood should bring closure to these arguments. The fact is that the Soviet Union from 1933 to 1945 operated an espionage ring in the nation’s capital which included many highly placed government officials, including Alger Hiss. In making their case, the authors have benefitted from the release in 1995—96 of the Venona cables, which included 2,900 translated intercepts sent by Soviet agents in the United States to the Soviet Union about their intelligence efforts during World War II.Similarily, Allen Weinstein, the author of Perjury, the landmark book about the Hiss case, and Alexander Vassiliev, a Russian journalist, and a former member of the KGB, also drew on recently declassified KGB papers. The result is a riveting history of how Moscow converted agents in the United States to uncover secrets for the Soviet Union. High on the Soviet list was information concerning the building of the atomic bomb. But the Soviets were also after much more, including information about American economic plans after the defeat of Germany, documents concerning the production of the B-29 bomber, and the B-32, data on American apportionment of aircraft to the USSR in the event it declared war on Japan, and so on.

What were the motives that led so many bright people to risk their careers in behalf of the Soviet Union? For many of those Jews who were recruited for the espionage ring, the preeminent reason had to do with the anti-Nazi stance of the Soviet Union. For others, Jews and non-Jews alike, the idealism associated with the Soviet experiment to create a better world, shorn of prejudice and social and economic injustice, was enough to attract them to communism. For true believers like the Rosenbergs, espionage activity was justified because the United States and Great Britain were holding back information from their ally, the Soviet Union, about the development of the atomic bomb. Still others espoused a blind faith in the superiority of a Communist society, whose values differed from the materialism of the United States. Unlike recent disclosures about government employees, such as Aldrich Ames (CIA) and the Walker family (Navy), who sold information to the Soviets, payment for intelligence information was rarely a motive for enlisting in the Soviet cause. As the authors inform us;

Soviet operatives in the United States discovered … that their most reliable American sources were not those who demanded payments for the theft of specific information or documents, but those individuals driven by an ideological belief in communism and the Soviet experiment.

This is not to deny that some of those recruited for espionage activity were paid. The authors reveal that the Soviets had even recruited a member of Congress. For Congressman Samuel Dickstein, who represented the Lower East Side in Manhattan, cash was the primary motive for his passing on government secrets to the USSR.In fact, Dickstein was so emphatic about being paid for his “services” that the Soviets assigned him the code-name “Crook.”

Soviet successes in infiltrating government agencies included the Office of Strategic Services (the WWII predecessor of the CIA), the State Department, the Agriculture Department, the Treasury Department, where Harry Dexter White held an important policy making position, the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace (Hiss), some labor unions, and even efforts to recruit the former VicePresident, Henry Wallace. But its greatest achievement was the penetration of Los Alamos, whereby the information the USSR received from its agents probably expedited the building of a Soviet atomic bomb by several years.

It turns out that Whittaker Chambers was telling the truth, Alger Hiss lied, and the Rosenbergs (at least Julius) were guilty of passing on secrets to the Soviet Union. Case closed? Certainly it is for the motion picture industry. The unanimous vote of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to present Kazan with an Oscar for his body of work may well be seen as a watershed event, when Hollywood finally put an end to its own Cold War, and faced up to the reality that Stalinism was no better than Nazism.

There will be those who will argue that the information disclosed in The Haunted Wood cannot be the definitive account of Soviet espionage in America, because not all of the KGB files have been declassified, and that the files of the Soviet military intelligence service are still closed to researchers. Nevertheless, unless one is inclined to believe that the present Russian government is engaged in a wholesale disinformation campaign, the present work is sure to become the definitive history of Soviet espionage in America during the Stalin era.


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