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Red Harvest: The KGB in America | The Nation

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Red Harvest: The KGB in America

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Spies does flesh out our knowledge of "Enormous"--the Soviet effort to penetrate American atomic research. Moscow's persistent campaign to "turn" J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Oppenheimer's even more determined rebuff to each approach, is laid out in fascinating detail (though the authors seem to have gone out of their way to ignore Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's account, based on American archives, of the same campaign from a different perspective in American Prometheus, their Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Oppenheimer). Spies is invaluable in another way: it tells us what the SVR wants the West to know. This is apparent not only in what we are told: that the KGB successfully recruited scores of Americans; that it was the KGB and not Soviet physicists (or publicly available scientific information) that broke the US atomic monopoly; that the subsequent failures of Soviet intelligence after 1945 were due not to the self-immolation of Stalinism but the treachery of a few American turncoats. It is also apparent in what's left out: the granular detail of who reported which information at what time to whom--and even more important, the use made (or not made) of that information by policy-makers in Moscow.

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...

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Reading Vassiliev's digest of Soviet documents gives us a pretty good idea of Moscow's view of the world: treacherous, conspiratorial and subject to sudden seismic shifts (such as the Nazi-Soviet Pact or the campaign against Earl Browder, the only genuinely popular leader the CPUSA ever had). But this is also very much a view through the keyhole, and though every bit as titillating as such views often are, at best it offers a very partial (and much distorted) Soviet perspective on a much more complex American reality.

* * *

The charge that I.F. Stone, the legendary investigative journalist and onetime Washington correspondent for this magazine, was a paid agent of the KGB has been a staple of far-right smear tactics since the early 1990s. Such attacks have in the past rested on two equally shaky legs: the on-again, off-again testimony of Oleg Kalugin, a retired KGB general who implicates Stone every time he has a book to sell (and then issues a "clarification" explaining that Stone was merely a contact, not a spy, after each episode); and the purported identification of Stone with "Blin," the Russian word for "pancake" and the code name of an American journalist who figures in three of the messages between KGB agents in the United States and Moscow decoded under the VENONA project. Kalugin, a skillful self-publicist who once tried to peddle the idea that the Soviets detained American POWs in Vietnam long after the end of the war, doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. But the VENONA messages are real, albeit problematic: the National Security Agency long resisted releasing the Russian texts, and the English versions in the public domain include a great deal of tendentious annotation, much of it apparently the work of Robert Lamphere, the FBI's liaison to the project. They are also ambiguous--not least about the apparently simple matter of Blin's identity.

The first mention of Blin occurs in VENONA 1313, a message from New York to Moscow dated September 13, 1944, summarizing the so-far-unsuccessful efforts of Vladimir Pravdin, a Tass correspondent in Washington, to meet with Blin, who "occupies a very prominent position in the journalistic world and has vast connections." Blin next appears in VENONA 1506, an October 23, 1944, update from New York ascribing Blin's reluctance to the fact that he "had three children and did not want to attract the attention of the KhATA [FBI]." It is noted, however, that Blin "earns as much as 1500 dollars a month but, it seems, he would not be averse to having a supplementary income." When these two messages were first decoded in the 1950s, there was considerable disagreement within the FBI about Blin's identity. Lamphere based his identification on the fact that Stone had three children and was Washington correspondent for PM, the left-wing New York daily, as well as The Nation. But what really clinched it for him was VENONA 1433, an operational report from New York to Moscow, which noted that Pravdin "is studying Joseph Barnes and I. Stone, who for the time being is avoiding [him]."

Not all of Lamphere's colleagues were convinced. The FBI's Washington field office noted that Blin was described as "earning as much as 1500 dollars a month," while "the income of Stone...was considerably less than that." (In 1944, Stone's combined salary was $975 a month.) The New York field office was even more skeptical, arguing that Blin "must have been a person whose true pro-Soviet sympathies were not known to the public and his associates." New York concluded that "I.F. Stone would not appear to be identical with [Blin]" and suggested that "Ernest K. Lindley was perhaps a better suspect." (Lindley was a Newsweek Washington bureau chief who died in 1979.) Two other factors tend to rule out Stone. First, as probably the most persistent and high-profile critic of J. Edgar Hoover in Washington, he had no hope of avoiding the FBI's notice. Also, the message naming I.F. Stone "in clear" was transmitted on October 10--between the two messages referring to Blin.

None of this mattered to Hoover, who, delighted to have this gadfly in his sights, authorized making Stone the target of a full-blown espionage investigation. Hoover's men opened his mail, tapped his phone, rifled through his garbage and subjected him and his family to daily surveillance--without finding a scrap of evidence that Stone was anything other than the unrepentant, and independent, American radical he seemed. Nor did it matter to Haynes and Klehr, who in Venona simply parroted Lamphere's identification of Blin without bothering to analyze the evidence. Yet even Haynes and Klehr were forced to concede "there is no evidence in Venona that Stone ever was recruited by the KGB." Now in Spies they claim to have proof that Stone "was a Soviet spy" who "was a fully active agent" over a period of "several years."

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