The National Security Agency has released the Venona program’s decryptions of cables between Moscow and New York during the cold war. It says they close the door on claims that Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were innocent. But is there reason to be skeptical?
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 underway in various media.
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 30s and 40s. 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 20th-century American history.” The evident enthusiasm with which Haynes and Klehr approach this endeavor may account for their frequent exaggerations and excursions into the 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.