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Spies: The KGB in the United States

In Spies: The Rise and Fall of The KGB in America, historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr teamed up with former KGB member and journalist Alexander Vassiliev to illustrate the phenomenon of Soviet Espionage in the United States from 1930s till the end of the Second World War, using documents Vassiliev accessed in the KGB archive. Haynes and Klehr recently corresponded with Jonathan Mok for GlobalComment, discussing the book and the history behind it.

Can we talk about why this book was written? What were some of the challenges of writing it?

The USSR conducted extensive espionage operations in the United States in the decades leading up to the Cold War, and hostile American public reaction to revelations in the late 1940s about the extent of that espionage played a significant role in shaping public and government attitudes in the opening years of the Cold War. Consequently, an accurate account of Soviet espionage assists in more fully understanding the history of that period.

The chief challenge of a reliable historical account of Soviet espionage in this period has long been the paucity of archival documentation. The investigative files of security agencies such as the FBI, trial transcripts, and testimony before congressional investigative committees are useful but only tell part of the story. The continued closure to research of the leading Soviet intelligence agencies has been a major barrier to a more accurate account. But the combination of the release by the American National Security Agency of some 3,000 deciphered KGB cables (mostly 1943-1946) and, more importantly, the 1,115 pages of Alexander Vassiliev’s transcriptions and summaries of KGB archival documents allow a much more comprehensive account.

It is still early to say too much about the reception of the book. But those specialists in espionage history who have had the opportunity to examine the book and its underlying source, Vassiliev’s notebooks, are impressed. The June issue of the prestigious Journal of Cold War Studies carried five articles by leading historical specialists all based on Vassiliev’s notebooks. The articles themselves were earlier presented as papers at a heavily attended conference in May at the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. There is, of course, a shrinking group of academics who loudly insist on the innocence of Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg, dismiss Soviet espionage as a vastly exaggerated myth, and desperately seek to keep doubt alive by explaining away the new evidence rather than, as is a historian’s job, to explain the evidence.

In the current academic climate, does it sound politically-incorrect even just to try to explain the motives of someone like McCarthy?

There is a widespread misunderstanding about Joseph McCarthy’s role in bringing Soviet espionage to the attention of the public. He was, in fact, a Johnnie-come-lately to the issue. He was not publicly identified with the issue until 1950, when he made exaggerated charges that the Truman administration had failed to remove security risks from the State Department. But the issue of Soviet espionage had been a public matter for several years by that point.

Senator McCarthy did not take up the Communist/espionage issue until 1950, and his chief use of it was as a partisan club to accuse key leaders of the Truman administration of being participants in “a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” McCarthy’s charges against Acheson and Marshall were utter nonsense without documentary support then or now. Senator McCarthy’s contribution to the anti-Communist cause was negative due to his wild exaggerations and use of the issue for partisan purposes.

Did the KGB attempt to infiltrate either the Republican or Democrat Party? Any links between the KGB and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and American Federation of Labor?

None of our research has shown any KGB interest in the ACLU or the American Federation of Labor. The KGB did recruit several of its engineer spies from the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians, a tiny union of the Congress of Industrial Organizations led by secret members of the Communist Party. FAECT’s role, however, was chiefly that of a recruiting pool because many Communists with engineering and scientific degrees joined it.

Nor did the KGB target either major political party as an organization. It did recruit for a few years in the late 1930s on a monetary basis (not ideological sympathy) one corrupt member of Congress, Representative Samuel Dickstein (Democrat-New York). The KGB also provided secret campaign funds to William Dodd, Jr., an already recruited KGB agent, for Dodd’s attempt to unseat an incumbent Democratic House member in the Democratic primary in 1938, but Dodd was defeated. The KGB also recruited one congressional staff member who was a useful source of information for some years, Charles Kramer. But with the Republicans taking control of Congress in 1946, Kramer lost is congressional staff position and never returned to U.S. government service.

In the book, confirmed spies such as Alger Hiss and Alfred Dean Slack were Ivy League graduates or well-known universities such as Wisconsin-Madison. These people were part of the most educated group in the country back then. What factors drove great men and women to the Communist Party?

Communism was never a mass movement in the United States, and public sentiment was generally hostile to it. But in the 1930s a small segment of young professionals from elite and Ivy League backgrounds were radicalized by the economic deprivations of the Great Depression and the emergence of Nazism and Fascism in Europe.

Most spies illustrated in your book had Jewish background. Example include Harry Gold, Charles Kramer ( Charles Krivitsky) and Maurice Halperin. Do you find a relationship between American anti-Semitism and the large number of spies being Jewish?

Certainly there were a number of Soviet sources who were Jewish, but there were plenty who were not. For example, of the spies in the State Department noted above (Hiss, Field, Straight, Duggan, and Wadleigh) none were Jewish and one of the unexpected finding of Spies, the long hidden identity of the Soviet atomic spy hitherto known only by the cover name “Pers,” was Russell McNutt, a Kansan of old-stock Ango-American origin.

There was also an evolution of attraction to the American Communist party. At its founding, Slavic immigrants from Eastern Europe dominated the movement. But by the mid-1920s the largest ethnic group in the American Communist party was Finnish Americans. In the 1930s the party’s ethnic makeup shifted again with Jews constituting the largest group.

While receding, there continued to be widespread anti-Semitism in American society at the time combined with illusions that communism in the USSR had ended anti-Jewish prejudice likely contributed to the attraction of a minority of Jews to the Communist Party. Concern about the violent anti-Semitism of the rising Nazi movement in Germany further reinforced this attraction. This also coincided with the second generation of Jewish immigrants obtaining higher education, particularly in technical fields, and during World War II the KGB recruited a number of its technical/scientific spies from young Communist engineers of Jewish background.

Did Soviet spies inside the American government try to influence American foreign policy in the Middle East?

In the period dealt with in Spies, the 1930s and the 1940s, the Middle East was a very low priority to the KGB stations operating in the United States, and there is no documentation of any KGB interest in influencing U.S. policy toward that region in that era.

The book ends in the context of the 1950s. Had the KGB made attempts to establish a spy network inside American soil after that? For example, did the KGB try to recruit spies during the waves of Soviet Jewish immigration to the United States from the late 1970s onward?

After the 1940s, while there continued to be occasional recruitment of Soviet spies on the basis of ideological sympathy, most Soviet espionage recruits were motivated by more traditional means: money, resentment against superiors or other personal grievances, thirst for adventure and intrigue, and occasional sexual blackmail. Given the overwhelming anti-Communist and anti-Soviet attitudes of Jewish immigration from the USSR to the United States in the 1970s and later, it is extremely unlikely that there was any significant KGB recruitment from that group.

What kind of lessons would you perhaps like your readers to take away from the book?

Ideological spies present a particularly disturbing challenge in a country where citizenship has never been defined by blood and heritage— with the partial exception of blacks and Native Americans—but by commitment to a set of democratic ideals. Citizens accused of allegiance to a foreign power have engendered outrage, whether it was Aaron Burr, allegedly seeking to dismember the Union, or German-Americans suspected of disloyalty during World War I. But those who have rejected the principles of the Constitution for another vision of government have earned particular wrath. No era of American life saw so many accusations of espionage and covert activities on behalf of a foreign country as the decade after World War II.

The McCarthy era has long since attained iconic status in American history as the symbol of paranoia about “reds hiding under the beds.” Although the postwar attack on the CPUSA preceded Senator McCarthy’s rise to prominence, the picture of a relentless governmental persecution of a perhaps annoying but ultimately harmless movement is regularly invoked as an object lesson in the erosion of civil liberties.

Most American Communists were not spies; the KGB did not need or want the CPUSA’s fifty-to-sixty thousand members as agents. But the documents in Vassiliev’s notebooks make crystal clear that the CPUSA’s leadership in the 1930s and 1940s willingly placed the party’s organizational resources and a significant number of its key cadres at the service of the espionage agencies of a foreign power. The CPUSA as an organized entity was an auxiliary service to Soviet intelligence. Dozens of its members working for the American government or employed in scientific research handed over information, sometimes with the full knowledge that they were serving the Soviet Union, sometimes comforting themselves that they were only informing the CPUSA leadership, and occasionally willfully deceiving themselves about the ultimate destination of the material.

It was no witch hunt that led American counterintelligence officials to investigate government employees and others with access to sensitive information for Communist ties after they became cognizant of the extent of Soviet espionage and the crucial role played in it by the CPUSA, but a rational response to the extent to which the Communist Party had become an appendage of Soviet intelligence.


Jonathan Mok

Jonathan Mok lives in Hong Kong. He reviews music and literature. Some of his chief interests include American and Middle Eastern politics.

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