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The Spies Who Loved Us? | The Nation

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The Spies Who Loved Us?

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An equally serious problem were those who tried to back out of the enterprise. For most of these people, doubts about the Soviet Union reinforced their own fears of exposure. Moscow had little sympathy for such tormented souls. For years after State Department official Laurence Duggan tried to break his connection with the KGB, the Russians continued to badger him for material, insisting, in the words of a 1942 cable from Moscow, that "we have a right to demand from him at present at least valuable oral information on the most important issues." As the peremptory tone of that message reminds us, espionage was no child's game, and the KGB was not a warm and fuzzy institution. Even if it could not always enforce its orders in this country, the desire for unquestioning obedience remained, as exemplified by a 1938 demand that one of its potential spies "be taken care of and, most important, educated, made our man, have his brains rebuilt in our manner."

About the Author

Ellen Schrecker
Ellen Schrecker is the author, most recently, of Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Little, Brown).

Agents who endangered the operation risked something worse than cranial reconstruction. Although his Russian collaborators acknowledged that Jacob Golos was the "main pillar" of their intelligence network, they disliked his refusal to let them contact his sources. They suspected him of Trotskyism and tried to lure him to Moscow, where he could be arrested. The US government got to him first, prosecuting him in 1940 for being an unregistered foreign agent. But even then, he would not surrender his agents. His lover, Bentley, gave the KGB an equally hard time when she took over the operation after Golos's death in November 1943. Her handlers worried that her emotional instability and poor tradecraft might expose the whole network and, at one point, even thought of importing a Russian agent to marry her. By the fall of 1945, suspecting that she was in touch with the FBI, they were talking about poisoning her.

Bentley's defection in November 1945 ended the "golden age" of Soviet espionage. The KGB immediately cut off all contact between its operatives and their American sources and recalled most of its people to Moscow. Within a few months, just as the cold war was beginning to heat up, the Russian spy rings were out of business. The man who took over the KGB's Washington station in 1946 had no American contacts and was reduced to summarizing material from the press, which, knowing little English, he could barely read. A few years later, the Russians tried to reactivate their contacts and find new ones, but thanks to Bentley and Venona, most of their former sources were under suspicion and could no longer provide useful information even if they had wanted to. Nor was the isolated and beleaguered Communist Party in any position to supply new recruits. Instead of active espionage, therefore, the KGB devoted itself to a mopping-up operation that tried to keep former agents from cooperating with US authorities.

There is considerable irony in the fact that just at the moment when it became axiomatic to treat all American Communists as potential Russian spies, the threat of that espionage had all but disappeared. The normal security procedures of the FBI and the rest of the counterintelligence establishment had effectively wiped out the underground Communist apparatus within the federal government. The onset of the cold war and the decline of US Communism insured that it would never be reconstituted. As Weinstein acknowledges, the KGB's American agents belonged to a unique political generation of Communist Party members who could convince themselves that helping the Soviet Union was the best way to fight fascism. When US Communism lost its momentum, the KGB lost its ability to attract volunteers; its future spies would have to be paid.

So what are we to make of this saga? It cannot, of course, be considered definitive until both the Russians and the Americans fully open their archives. And even then we may never know the whole story, for most of the Americans who collaborated with the KGB have yet to give their side. Although some of these people (and there are few of them left) will now admit to party membership, their failure to explain their undercover activities forces us to view what they did and why they did it either from the perspective of the FBI and its ex-Communist witnesses or else from that of the KGB. By stonewalling, these men and women simply reinforce the demonized stereotypes that still haunt so many discussions about Communism and the cold war.

Weinstein, to his credit, is surprisingly nonjudgmental, viewing the Communist spies as antifascist romantics drawn into the espionage underground by misguided idealism. By emphasizing the disordered personal lives of many American agents, Weinstein hints at another interpretation, one that would have been right at home in the fifties, when mainstream scholars treated sympathy for Communism as a sign of emotional distress. But it cannot have been so simple. Such a focus unnecessarily depoliticizes people who, if nothing else, must have considered themselves supporting actors in a major world drama.

How large their roles were remains unclear. Except for the obvious contributions of the Manhattan Project spies to the Soviet nuclear program, we know little about how the information these people gave to the KGB affected Soviet policy or harmed US interests. And, in any event, Weinstein demonstrates that whatever threat to the United States such espionage may have posed, it was gone by the time it became the main justification for the McCarthy-era purges. It may well be that the greatest damage the KGB inflicted on American society was not the filching of official secrets but the provision of a rationalization for the most widespread and the longest-lasting episode of political repression in our nation's history.

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