Red Harvest: The KGB in America | The Nation


Red Harvest: The KGB in America

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Less than three months after his vindication in court, John Lowenthal died of cancer. As for Alexander Vassiliev, his assets didn't come close to covering his opponent's £70,000 costs. Surprisingly, the verdict barely registered in the press. Even Express Gazette, the Russian tabloid whose London bureau had obtained Vassiliev's British visa, seemed to have lost interest. The last story I can find with his byline was in 2004--an article linking the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary 2 with the Titanic. The headline is "Ship of Fools."

About the Author

D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan, who writes from The Nation's London bureau, is the author of American Radical: The Life and Times of I...

Also by the Author

From the very beginning, the magazine has shown an eagerness to suck up to power.

The referendum result may have settled the question of Scottish independence. But the cost of winning it was to expose the ramshackle nature of the whole country’s constitutional arrangements.

It was Alger Hiss who rescued Vassiliev. Unwilling to let his brother's work be forgotten, David Lowenthal, an emeritus professor of geography at the University of London, discovered some of the Vassiliev documents connected with the Hiss case among John's papers and made them available to historians. One document, titled "Failures in the USA (1938-1948)," was a December 23, 1949, memo from Anatoly Gorsky, the Soviet station chief in Washington, listing ninety-two people who, through their links to known defectors such as Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, had been compromised. Besides the presence of such well-known names as Alger and Donald Hiss, what made the Gorsky memo so fascinating was that it listed code names--of the kind that littered the VENONA decrypts--and names "in clear."

When John Earl Haynes, a historian at the Library of Congress and the author, with Harvey Klehr, of Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (1999), put the Gorsky memo on his website in early 2005, Vassiliev got in touch. Though he hadn't produced them during the trial, Vassiliev now seemed to have spirited all eight of the notebooks he'd compiled for The Haunted Wood from Moscow to London, where Haynes and Klehr flew to meet with him. With a grant from the Smith Richardson Foundation, a generous supporter of conservative causes, translations were commissioned. Those notebooks--their authenticity vouched for only by a man who couldn't persuade a London jury--form the basis of Spies, which claims not just finally to reveal "the motives of Americans who spied for Stalin" but decisively to resolve "specific, long-seething controversies."

It is impossible not to savor the irony of an alliance between two paladins of cold war triumphalism and Vassiliev, a man who, raised amid the squalid hypocrisies of the Brezhnev era, not only writes that "It was my dream to be a Soviet spy" but then goes on, with evident satisfaction, to note: "The vetting process started, and I was 'clean': no Jews in either my background or my wife's, no relatives abroad, already a member of the Soviet Communist Party." And it would be reckless to ignore the question of Vassiliev's circumstances in assessing the evidence he and his collaborators have assembled. Or to take on trust the Stakhanovite feat involved in transcribing or summarizing thousands of documents by hand in a period that, in Vassiliev's account, began in early 1994, slowed down significantly by mid-1995 and ended in January 1996--while also supposedly managing to write draft chapters of The Haunted Wood and transfer his notes and drafts onto floppy disks. But it would also be dishonest to pretend that most of us, offered the chance at a similar lode, whatever the caveats, would be so fastidious as to simply walk away.

If we look past Haynes and Klehr's blistering ressentiment and assume, as I shall for the remainder of this essay, that Vassiliev's notebooks are as represented, what do they tell us about the KGB, the Soviet Union and the astonishing cast of Americans--some of them Communists but many of them not--who interacted in various ways with the Soviet state, its clandestine organs and the American Communist Party? First, that very few of those described as "traitors" by Haynes and Klehr saw their actions as in any way inimical to the interests of the United States. (Vassiliev made this point repeatedly during the 2003 trial.) They may, of course, have simply been "in denial," but it is striking how often, in the relatively small fraction of Vassiliev's 1,115 pages of notes included in Spies, that even Americans like Julius Rosenberg, who engaged in the witting supply of classified information under the acknowledged direction of agents of a foreign power--a better definition of "spy" than any you will find in this book--were nonetheless careful to make clear their primary loyalty to the United States. Indeed, the later lives of a number of those "exposed" for the first time in Spies, having escaped the attention of McCarthy and his epigones, read like variations on the American Dream: Russell McNutt, an associate of Julius Rosenberg, became chief engineer of Gulf Oil; Bernard Redmont served as dean of Boston University's journalism program; Henry Ware went on to advise the Boy Scouts and to found the Reston, Virginia, Useful Services Exchange, a widely emulated barter network; Gerald Graze headed CUNY's research arm before joining the National Institutes of Health.

Spies never explains why we should believe KGB officers, pushed to justify their existence (and expense accounts), when they claim information comes from an elaborately recruited "agent" rather than merely a source or contact. The Haunted Wood cites a July 1941 report from Konstantine Umansky, the Soviet ambassador, on a conversation with Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, who asked "on my personal behalf to give me and Roosevelt the heads of German agents in the U.S." because the FBI was doing such a lousy job--letting Moscow know that Morgenthau and perhaps FDR didn't have confidence in J. Edgar Hoover. Haynes and Klehr don't mention this incident, yet they condemn Morgenthau's deputy Harry Dexter White for his own back-channel diplomacy. White was certainly a "source" of information. Indeed, there are official accounts of his contacts with the Soviets in American and Russian diplomatic archives. Spies quotes a 1944 memo from Vasily Zarubin, the KGB New York station chief, complaining that "'Jurist' [White] is rough around the edges and a lot of work has to be done on him before he will make a valuable informant. To date he has reported only what he deemed necessary...." White vociferously defended himself before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in May 1948; three days later he was dead of a heart attack. Interestingly, Vassiliev's first draft of this material, buried in Weinstein's papers at Stanford, bore the title "Istochniki v Vashingtone"--in English, simply "Sources in Washington." Though closer to the truth, that clearly wasn't dramatic enough for Weinstein--or Haynes and Klehr.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size