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The Spies Who Loved Us? | The Nation

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The Spies Who Loved Us?

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I still kick myself for not having saved the short story I wrote for composition class in seventh grade in which I described how the Russians took over my small suburban community. The story ended with a knock on the door and the secret police dragging my father out of the house, chanting, "NKVD, NKVD..." For a child acculturated in the cold war liberalism of the early fifties, the acronym of the KGB's predecessor was the scariest thing in the world. Nothing, therefore, symbolizes the end of the cold war as much as the discovery that those fearsome Russian agents bumbled as often as they killed or stole state secrets. Such, in part, is the message about Soviet espionage in the United States that emerges from Allen Weinstein's limited excursion into the KGB's archives.

About the Author

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

In 1993 Weinstein's publisher paid an organization of former KGB agents an unknown sum of money to grant Weinstein and his collaborator Alexander Vassiliev "substantial and exclusive access to Stalin-era operational files" of the KGB and its predecessors (to avoid confusion, referred to here simply as the KGB). Vassiliev, a former KGB man himself, then hunkered down in the reading room of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, the KGB's successor organization, to analyze and take notes on whatever tidbits his ex-colleagues decided to proffer. After two years, the Russians had second thoughts, stopped releasing materials and shut down the operation.

This sort of research is not the kind that inspires confidence within the scholarly community (especially given Weinstein's refusal to let other historians see the material he collected for an earlier book on Alger Hiss). Besides the ethical questions that buying exclusive access to official archives raises, it will be impossible to replicate--and thus check up on--the authors' research. Since they were not allowed to see the finding aids for the files, they were (and we are) completely at the mercy of the KGB's gatekeepers, whose principles of selection are unknown. In addition, because no photocopying was permitted, other scholars cannot verify how accurately the documents were transcribed and interpreted. Nor will they be able to identify those materials elsewhere, for the notes do not contain such basic information about the documents as who wrote them, for whom and when.

We must, therefore, take Weinstein's account of Soviet spying in the United States on faith. Perhaps he is purveying the product of a massive disinformation scheme involving thousands of forged documents created by a seamless, leakless network of Russian and American agents dedicated to historical fabrication; but it is hard to imagine why such a project would have been undertaken and much easier to assume that Weinstein's material is probably the real thing. As such, it corroborates information that has come from the admittedly contradictory testimony of such ex-Communist informants as Elizabeth Bentley as well as from the files of the former Communist International, or Comintern, and the Venona decrypts, the texts of wartime cables between KGB headquarters and its US representatives that were intercepted and deciphered by the FBI and National Security Agency.

Neither the Venona decrypts nor Weinstein's KGB files settle every case or prove that all the Americans they implicate knowingly sent secrets to Moscow. The charges against Alger Hiss, for example, still rest primarily on the stories of Whittaker Chambers. Until the former Soviet military intelligence agency that Hiss supposedly spied for opens its archives, we will have no direct corroboration of Chambers's allegations. Nonetheless, the growing accumulation of indirect evidence does seem to indicate that Hiss was up to something, even if the case is by no means closed.

For those of us who have long viewed US Communism as a wildly contradictory movement that sought domestic reform while flacking for the Soviet Union, Weinstein's story reinforces that assessment. During the thirties and forties, Soviet intelligence recruited about sixty US citizens, most of them Communists. These people (and there were certainly others as well, including an unknown number who worked for Soviet military intelligence) provided Moscow with an abundance of secret political and military information that, at the very least, sped up production of the Russian atomic bomb by at least two years. Although Weinstein's account of Soviet espionage is fragmentary and episodic, the picture that emerges from the KGB's internal correspondence is that of an operation riddled with tension and mistrust.

Financial rewards were peripheral. Although a number of the KGB's agents, mainly in the field of industrial espionage, got paid for their efforts, most of the men and women who delivered information to the Soviet Union did so for political reasons. They were people in or near the Communist Party who believed that their undercover work was furthering the cause to which they were committed. Some volunteered on their own, either by making contacts through the party or, as the young physicist Theodore Hall did, by approaching the Russians directly. Others were recruited, often by friends or political comrades. Martha Dodd, the randy but idealistic daughter of the US ambassador to Germany, was literally seduced into the espionage business by a Soviet diplomat. The CP's general secretary Earl Browder was a key talent scout, routing volunteers to the KGB and identifying secret party members who might be of use.

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