The Spies Who Loved Us?

The Spies Who Loved Us?

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.


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.

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.

It is unclear whether all these people considered themselves spies. In their cables to Moscow, the Russians may well have been hyping their own work, portraying as “agents” unwitting sources who just thought they were discussing policy or trading information with friendly diplomats and political allies. The party’s top US spymaster, Jacob Golos, and his courier-girlfriend, Elizabeth Bentley, tried to keep their Washington informants in the dark. They feared that these people might stop supplying information if they found out it was destined for the KGB instead of the party or the Comintern. Understandably, the Russians scoffed at such misgivings. They claimed that many of their US sources knew exactly whom they were working for and were, one Soviet operative boasted, “very proud of this fact.”

The information these people supplied usually fell within one of two areas: technical and scientific, or political. A separate corps of specially trained Soviet operatives handled the scientists and technicians. Although the penetration of the atomic bomb project was the greatest achievement of Soviet espionage, the Russians did little to produce it. In fact, until Klaus Fuchs and other informants essentially showed up on its doorstep, the KGB had been so unsuccessful in contacting Manhattan Project scientists that the head of its San Francisco station in charge of the recruiting operation was called home in disgrace.

In the political area, the KGB’s representatives were under similar pressure for results. Moscow was particularly insistent on having sources within the top circles of the US government. Accordingly, the KGB cultivated well-connected people like Martha Dodd in the hopes that, despite their disappointing record as informants, their ties to the Roosevelts and other prominent officials might eventually pay off. The Russians’ eagerness for high-level contacts made them fair game for con men. Not only did the KGB pay New York Congressman Samuel Dickstein thousands of dollars for inside information he never delivered, but for nearly twenty years it backed the projects of a minor Hollywood producer named Boris Morros, who promised access to prominent politicians and celebrities while secretly communicating with the FBI.

Nonetheless, the KGB did get a lot of political and economic information. Throughout the early forties, its more mundane sources were providing thousands of pages of material about such matters as US military production, postwar economic planning and the state of official thinking about the USSR. Still, Moscow remained unsatisfied. Time and again, KGB headquarters pressed its Washington bureau to dig for gossip, to unearth the “machinations, backstage negotiations, intrigues, all that is done before this or that decision of the government becomes known to everybody,” and to recruit people who could influence policy as well as explain it.

It never did. Despite its formidable reputation, the KGB was, in Weinstein’s words, “far more contentious, chaotic, and confused than previous accounts by both Russian and Western writers would suggest.” Stalin’s purges wiped out many of its best operatives, including both Dodd’s lover and the first head of the New York station. By 1940 so many people had been called back to Moscow that the KGB’s American apparatus was essentially out of service. Even when a new crop of Russian agents arrived on the scene during World War II, they got little help from home. The authors evince considerable sympathy for the harried Soviet operatives who, caught between Moscow’s incessant demands for quality “deliverables” and their own and their agents’ justifiable fears of exposure, were just trying to do their job.

Their American contacts did not make that job easy to do. Relations between the KGB’s professionals and the idealistic amateurs they worked with were often strained. The Russians fretted constantly about the sloppy “tradecraft” of their American sources–and with good reason. The information they got was often vague or out of date; half the documents that one of Bentley’s people photographed were completely unintelligible. Worse yet, some Americans did not conceal their politics. They risked exposure by combining their undercover work with open participation in left-wing activities. Even under the relatively tolerant regime that prevailed in Washington during World War II, being identified as a Communist could cost someone a job, as two of the KBG’s most dedicated and energetic agents, Julius Rosenberg and Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, discovered to their handlers’ alarm.

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.”

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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