Books: Jerrold and Leona Schecter's Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History





Mr. Radosh, professor emeritus of history at Queensborough Community College and CUNY Graduate Center, is author of Commies: A Journey through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left.

It is the claim of Jerrold and Leona Schecter, a husband-and-wife journalist-historian team, that the Cold War was made up "sacred secrets," that is, critical intelligence operations carried out by major nations, in particular by the Soviet Union. These operations were of such vital importance that they virtually demand a rewriting of history, because much of what has been written fails to consider the meaning and effect of these intelligence campaigns.

Sacred Secrets is the latest in a reevaluation of the impact that Soviet espionage had on our past, particularly during World War II and the Cold War. The Schecters' work builds on that of previous authors, especially on Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes's interpretation of the Venona decrypts in their 1999 study, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America and Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev's revelations surrounding Soviet espionage in The Haunted Wood.

In their telling, the Schecters provide new information about how widespread the Soviet espionage network was. If true, their reporting--especially the revelation that J. Robert Oppenheimer was a Soviet asset--will change our central assumptions about the Cold War. Sacred Secrets is a historically accurate account not only of how that espionage effectively hurt America's national interest but also of how it served the interests of the Soviet Union. While many Americans have assumed that those accused of spying for the Soviets were victims of false charges brought by McCarthyites, the truth is that most of them were guilty of what they had been charged with. The Venona files and Soviet archives established that Alger Hiss, Laurence Duggan, Lauchlin Currie, William Remington and others working in the U.S. government had been Soviet agents or sources of information for the Soviets, as Whitaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley had charged. The Schecters add to this by providing new details about Soviet espionage success, and they put to an end any claim that, if espionage had occurred, it was of little effect and no harm.

Two episodes are of immense importance and show the extent to which the Schecters have mined valuable information from the KGB archives. Since the release of Venona, we have known that Harry Dexter White, assistant secretary of the Treasury and the formulator of the so-called Morgenthau Plan for postwar Germany, was a major Soviet asset. Critics have argued that it made no sense that White could have been a Soviet agent because he was a major player in creating the International Monetary Fund.

The Schecters look at White and his efforts before the start of World War II to encourage the U.S. to pursue a policy that would counter Japanese expansion, which would keep Japanese troops under pressure in China and therefore clear of Soviet borders near Siberia. The goal was simple: to aggravate strained negotiations between the U.S. and Japan. Formally, White was not a Soviet agent but what the authors call a "star," with satellites working around him who gave the data he supplied to the Soviets. Thus his memoranda to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. was handed to the Soviets by actual Soviet agents in Treasury, including Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, Victor Perlo and others.

Under the pretext of supporting peace and friendly relations with the Soviets, White introduced "Soviet goals into Treasury Department initiatives," for the purpose of gaining support for the "Soviet policy of averting a Japanese invasion of Siberia." That policy led not to peace but to a provocation that led the Japanese to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor. Stalin's ultimate goal, the Schecters emphasize, was to try to provoke war between Japan and the U.S., to prevent Japan from striking the Soviet Union and hence to promote Soviet interests in the Far East.

In Sacred Secrets, the authors also tell the story of how, in 1944, White developed the policy of giving the Soviets printing plates that enabled them to print unlimited amounts of occupation currency in the Eastern zone of Germany. On the face of it, the providing of plates could be justified as part of the reparation for Soviet suffering at Germany's hand during the war. But the Schecters make it clear that Gen. George C. Marshall was opposed to this plan because it would interfere with the Allied currency. But White moved ahead after he received instructions to do so from the NKVD center in Moscow, and the marks flooded the Russian zone and created a black market and inflation throughout Germany.

"White's efforts to provide unlimited occupation currency for the Red Army was another thread in the tapestry of service he wove on behalf of the Soviet Union," the Schecters write, noting that White also gave Stalin "direct access to a broad range of information and high-level thinking." It was similar to the role that Hiss played at Yalta, meeting each day with the Soviet military intelligence agent and giving him American positions on unresolved issues in advance of negotiations, before they were to be discussed by Stalin, Churchill and FDR, thereby helping Stalin impose his iron curtain on Eastern Europe.

The second and perhaps most important revelation in Sacred Secrets concerns Oppenheimer, the fabled chief of the Manhattan Project. The revocation of Oppenheimer's security clearance in 1953 by the Eisenhower administration because of the scientist's past communist affiliations and the lies he told to Army security in the early 1940s has been viewed as a major capitulation to the McCarthyites. Oppenheimer's defenders have argued that his opposition to development of an H-bomb led them to use his past affiliations against him and thus remove his voice from the ears of policymakers and members of the Atomic Energy Commission.

The authors quote Oppenheimer in a 1948 interview in which he referred to his brief flirtation with communism as stemming from a humanitarian concern. "Most of what I believed then," he said, "now seems complete nonsense, but it was an essential part of becoming a whole man." By the war's end, Oppenheimer was seemingly an anti-communist, and it appeared that his access to classified material was being taken from him without consideration of his service to the nation. What Sacred Secrets reveals is virtually a bombshell and will become highly contested and debated.

It has been long known that Oppenheimer's wife and his brother Frank were both Communist Party members and that, like other intellectuals of his time, Oppenheimer was sympathetic to the Communist movement. Yet his service to America was deemed essential if an A-bomb was to be built, and it was with knowledge about his past that he was allowed to head the top secret atomic lab at Los Alamos.

But the Schecters offer the proof that Oppenheimer himself was a Communist Party member well into 1942, after which time he was ordered by the NKVD to drop his membership and go undercover. Soviet documents prove that Oppenheimer functioned as a major Soviet asset, agreeing to hire communist scientists who would ferret out secrets for the Soviets and meeting with the NKVD's resident in San Francisco, Gregory Kheifitz, to whom he reported secret information. As the writers reveal, "from the first meeting between Kheifitz and Oppenheimer in December 1941, through the early months of 1942 while the Manhattan Project was being organized and Oppenheimer was preparing to move to Los Alamos, the American Communist Party underground and Soviet intelligence were enlisting Oppenheimer's cooperation to obtain atomic secrets."

Indeed, the authors reproduce in their appendix the actual document from Soviet archives, dated Oct. 2, 1944, received and signed by NKVD head Lavrenti Beria, referring to Oppenheimer as a "member of the apparatus of Comrade Browder" who, at the request of Kheifitz, "provided cooperation in access to research for several of our tested sources including a relative of Comrade Browder." Then, working through Maj. Vasili Zarubin of State Security and his wife, also an NKVD officer, they befriended Oppenheimer's wife and, through her, convinced Oppenheimer to hire "antifascists of German origin," which paved the way for the hiring of Klaus Fuchs by the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer also placed young communist scientists in the other three major government research labs, and they in turn gave Soviet couriers secret documents pertaining to the development of atomic weapons from uranium. Much of the atomic espionage--details of which are not to be found in Venona--took place through Soviet residents and from couriers working through a Soviet safe house for illegals, operated out of Zuck's Drugstore in Santa Fe. Run by Kitty Harris, a courier for atomic secrets, Zuck's was purchased by the NKVD as a support center to arrange Leon Trotsky's assassination in 1940.

The authors also challenge those who have asserted that President Harry Truman did not know about Venona and suggest that, had their revelations been made known, the witch hunts of the 1950s might never have taken place. They reveal that the FBI struggled with whether to let Venona be used as the basis for prosecutions and decided that to do so would be disadvantageous both legally and logistically. They challenge former U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's assertion that no one past the rank of Gen.Omar Bradley knew about Venona, and they cite interviews with Oliver Kirby, deputy director of the Russian code-breaking program, establishing that Truman had been informed of Venona by Secretary of Defense James Forrestal. Truman, they write, distrusted the Venona findings and worried that their contents would "open up this whole Red Panic again."

Moreover, Truman believed that communist infiltration of the government could not have been widespread. Indeed, when told that Venona files had identified White and Hiss as agents, Truman worried that the news was "likely to take us down." By not making Venona public, Truman delayed the Red panic, the Schecters write, and "allowed his political enemies to take control of the issue and magnify it for their own ends." Truman's fear was that Venona was the equivalent of a time bomb "that could explode and destroy the party of the New Deal in the 1952 election."

The remainder of Sacred Secrets concerns events not directly related to the book's thesis. Some material is interesting but remain peripheral, such as how the authors obtained and published Khrushchev's diaries and the role of the mysterious Soviet journalist and agent Victor Louis. The authors unnecessarily retell the already well-known stories of the Hiss case and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case, and they end their book with boilerplate about the war against terrorism and the need for intelligence in our new struggle. All of which is not relevant to the point of their book and might best have been omitted. Despite these irrelevancies, the main story they tell is essential for our understanding of how Soviet espionage affected our country.

This article first appeared in the June 30th 2002 issue of the Los Angeles Times in the Sunday Home Edition and is reprinted with permission of the author.



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Vince Treacy - 4/12/2005

I just asked this question to Kai Bird a few minutes ago on an online discussion at the Washington Post. i think it should be shared with readers of History News:

Washington, D.C.: What about the new book "Sacred Secrets" that alleges that Oppenheimer was a soviet espionage asset and asserts there is a KGB document stating this? Is that true? What is your view?

Kai Bird: We think the Schechters allegations are flat out wrong.

The few documents available from Soviet archives suggest that NKVD officials knew that Oppenheimer was working on “Enormoz”—their code-name for the Manhattan Project. They thought of him as a possibly sympathetic fellow-traveler or even a secret member of the American Communist Party—and so they were particularly frustrated that he seemed to be so unapproachable.

The notion, however, that Oppenheimer could have been recruited as a spy is simply farfetched. There is no credible evidence linking him to espionage. Two Soviet era intelligence documents mention Oppenheimer’s name. A October 2, 1944, memorandum written in Moscow by NKVD deputy chief Vselovod Merkulov and addressed to his boss, Lavrenty Beria, seems to implicate Oppenheimer as a source of information about “the state of work on the problem of uranium and its development abroad.” Merkulov claims, “In 1942 one of the leaders of scientific work on uranium in the USA, professor Oppenheimer unlisted [nglastny] (sic) member of the apparat of Comrade Browder informed us about the beginning of work. At the request of Comrade Kheifets…he provided cooperation in access to the research for several tested sources including a relative of Comrade Browder.” But there is no evidence to support any of these claims and no evidence that Kheifets ever met Oppenheimer. On close examination, however, it quickly becomes clear that Merkulov was making this claim only to inflate the credentials of his San Francisco agent and save Kheifets’ life. In the summer of 1944 Kheifets had been suddenly “recalled for inactivity” back to Moscow. Facing allegations that he was a double agent, Kheifets understood that his life was in danger. By floating the claim that he had developed Oppenheimer as a source of information on the American bomb project, Kheifets saved his position and his life.

Furthermore, another Soviet-era document directly contradicts the October 1944 Merkulov memo. Notes taken in the Soviet archives by a former KGB agent, Alexander Vassiliev, report that in February 1944 Merkulov received a message describing Oppenheimer. “According to data we have, [Oppenheimer] has been cultivated by the ‘neighbors’ (GRU-Soviet military intelligence) since June 1942. In case Oppenheimer is recruited by them, it is necessary to have him passed to us. If the recruitment is not realized, we must get from the ‘neighbors’ all the materials on [Oppenheimer] and begin his active cultivation through channels we have…brother, ‘Ray’ [Frank Oppenheimer], also a professor at the University of California and a member of the compatriot organization but politically closer to us than [Robert Oppenheimer].”

This document demonstrates that by early 1944 Robert Oppenheimer had not been recruited by the NKVD to serve as a source, an agent or a spy of any sort. And, of course, by 1944 Oppenheimer was living behind barb-wire in Los Alamos and it was well-nigh impossible for him to be recruited while Groves and his Counter-Intelligence boys had him under twenty-four hour surveillance.

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