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Cables Coming in From the Cold | The Nation

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Cables Coming in From the Cold

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Nearly four years ago, soon after the initial public release by the National Security Agency (NSA) of its long-secret Venona archive--decoded Soviet intelligence messages transmitted by telegraphic cable to and from Moscow during World War II--we predicted in these pages that "historians of the cold war will be examining these documents...for a long time." We should have added, "and arguing about their implications." Today that argument, which is essentially over the history of the McCarthy era, is well under way in various media.

About the Author

Miriam Schneir
Miriam Schneir's most recent book is Feminism in Our Time: The Essential Writings, World War II to the Present (Vintage...
Walter Schneir
Walter Schneir is writing a political memoir that details investigations of the Rosenberg case in Prague and Moscow.

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There's good reason to be skeptical about the government's Venona releases and the claim that they are the final word on the cold-war espionage cases.

Also by the Author

There's good reason to be skeptical about the government's Venona releases and the claim that they are the final word on the cold-war espionage cases.

Thus the New York Times reported last fall in a major Week in Review piece titled "Witching Hour: Rethinking McCarthyism, if Not McCarthy," that the release of the Venona archive "has unleashed a flood of scholarship" and engendered a growing controversy among cold war historians of the left and right. Several days afterward, a lead editorial in that newspaper, "Revisionist McCarthyism," cautioned, "Beware the rehabilitation of Joseph McCarthy. Armed with audacity and new archival information, a number of American scholars would like to rewrite the historical verdict on Senator McCarthy and McCarthyism." Time magazine, on the other hand, weighed in recently, asking, "Was McCarthy on the right track?" a piece in which it observed that Venona "demonstrates beyond argument that the Soviet penetration into American life, government, science and industry...was deep, thorough and hostile." And William F. Buckley has seized the moment for a novel, The Redhunter, based on the life of his longtime hero, McCarthy.

The latest contender is John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr's Venona, a wide-ranging survey of the Venona project and Soviet espionage in the United States during the thirties and forties. Haynes and Klehr, who concluded in several previous books that the American Communist Party lacked any redeeming features, here set themselves a far broader objective: to demonstrate that the information derived from Venona "may change the way we think about twentieth-century American history." The evident enthusiasm with which Haynes and Klehr approach this endeavor may account for their frequent exaggerations and excursions into never-never land of pop history. Thus they speculate that by enabling the Soviet Union to produce an atomic bomb sooner than was otherwise possible, the spies may have caused the Korean War and "the killing and maiming of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians."

The authors also claim that by early 1947 the Venona decrypts were an important influence on the Truman Administration, leading the President that year to institute the loyalty program and create the Central Intelligence Agency. But they offer no shred of proof for this sweeping assertion, and newly available evidence, cited in Secrecy by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, strongly suggests that Truman was kept in the dark about the Venona project. Again without citing any source, they describe dramatically how US fliers during the Korean War were imperiled by superior Soviet MIG-15 jet fighters built with know-how provided to the KGB by William Perl, a US aeronautical engineer. However, the MIG-15 did not utilize espionage technology, according to US Air Force historian Dr. Richard Hallion, though it did benefit from an important foreign contribution: a Rolls-Royce Nene high-performance jet engine sold to the Soviets by the British.

None of this alters the fact that Venona is an important and fascinating archive well worth studying. Taken as a whole, the archive reveals much. No reasonable person who examines all the relevant documents can doubt, for example, that in World War II Washington some employees of government agencies were passing information that went to the Russians, that the American Communist Party provided recruits for Soviet intelligence work or that Venona yielded clues that put investigators on the trail of Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, David Greenglass, Julius Rosenberg and others. It is when the decrypted messages are studied individually that problems arise. The question is not one of authenticity; the authors argue convincingly that the documents are not forgeries. The difficulties, rather, are related to accuracy. Is Venona a reliable source? The answer, in a nutshell, is yes and no.

Haynes and Klehr would disagree. Although they pay lip service to the idea that the Venona documents might have weaknesses as historical sources, they fail to enumerate any, and starting from the first chapter, they vouch for the archive's complete trustworthiness. They confidently describe the messages as "hard evidence" and "incontestable," and assert that because of their "inherent reliability" they "provide a touchstone for judging the credibility of other sources." Given this ringing endorsement, one is naturally curious why such "hard evidence" was never used in court or, until recently, made available to the press and public. The answer given by the authors is a tired old story: that the NSA did not want the Russians to know the extent of its success. Like all cover stories, of course, this one hides an uncomfortable truth, as revealed in a recently released 1956 FBI report. Its emergence was a fluke. Senator Moynihan recounts in Secrecy that after he complained to FBI Director Louis Freeh about the bureau's stonewalling on Congressional requests for Venona material, Freeh ordered his "personal staff to sweep the basement" and soon turned over a batch of FBI reports on Venona, including the 1956 one. Declassified without fanfare earlier this year (because of the FBI's mistaken belief that it had been "referenced" in Moynihan's book), the formerly top-secret report has gone unnoticed, this being, we believe, its first public airing.

On February 1, 1956, Alan H. Belmont, the FBI's number-three man, distributed to the inner circle of the bureau's leadership the only known government analysis ever prepared on the reliability of the Venona decrypts. Belmont's purpose was to consider the possibility of using the decoded Venona material as prosecutorial evidence in court.

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