Blogs > HNN > Robert Justin Goldstein: Review of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America By John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev (Yale University Press, 2009)

Jun 16, 2009 11:31 am

Robert Justin Goldstein: Review of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America By John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev (Yale University Press, 2009)

[Robert Justin Goldstein is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Oakland University and Research Associate, Center for Russian & East European Studies, University of Michigan. He is the author of American Blacklist: The Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations (University Press of Kansas, 2008).]

The Haynes/Klehr/Vassiliev (hereafter Haynes) volume contains a great deal of highly valuable scholarship within a massive tome consisting of over 40 pages of prefatory matter, 550 pages of main text and 90 pages of footnotes. Despite raising massive and extremely troubling methodological, historiographical and, sometimes, judgmental questions, it is unquestionably a major contribution. In general, this reviewer finds it convincing, and certainly a book which anyone interested in the post-World War II Red Scare cannot ignore.

Some disclosure is required here: I have a very slight acquaintance with co-author Harvey Klehr, who recently did me a great kindness by loaning me some research materials, even though he surely knew that my political views and scholarship are probably often at odds with his. I also have a very modest, but less slight, acquaintanceship with Ellen Schrecker, perhaps the most prominent historian of the post-World War II Red Scare, with whom Klehr and Haynes have been involved in a sort of academic cold war for many years. In an earlier joint book, Early Cold War Spies (Cambridge University Press, 2006), which in general I find quite reliable, Klehr and Haynes let their ideological bias and personal pique explode--rather than “peak” through--when (on page 22) they ridiculously declared that Schrecker’s leading study Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, Princeton University Press, 1999, was a “broad academic denunciation of any form of opposition to communism,” which are all “conflate[d]” with “McCarthyism.” My own published views and interpretations are sometimes “conflated” with Schrecker’s and are unquestionably far closer to hers than those of Haynes and Klehr, who have written about half-dozen studies of Russian espionage in pre-Cold War America and are certainly the pre-eminent authorities on the subject.

The Haynes volume ultimately amounts to an extended version of “naming names,” with its primary source the second hand account of a former KGB agent (co-author Vassiliev) of his admittedly limited, selected, exclusive and purchased access to alleged KGB records, which were never viewed by his co-authors and are not available to other scholars. On the basis of this second-hand account of access to alleged documents created by the KGB, an organization controlled by the duplicitous, paranoid, murderous Stalinist regime that is the primary target of the well-deserved opprobrium of conservative defenders of American cold war policy and at least some aspects of the post-World War II Red Scare, scores of Americans are effectively “tried” and “convicted” of espionage by the authors, without any possibility of responding to the alleged evidence against them or of cross-examining their generally nameless accusers, especially because in almost all cases everyone involved is dead.

Haynes and Klehr report that they have carefully cross-checked the Vassiliev material against other records (notably the famous “Venona” intercepts of Russian intelligence communications during the 1940s) and they have made the Vassiliev notes available to other scholars. In general I find that this book has an aura of verisimilitude about it and, with some screaming exceptions, I find the authors’ judgments reasonable. Thus, they quite reasonably conclude, for example, on the basis of the Vassiliev material along with the Venona documents, that both Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg were unquestionably espionage agents (Rosenberg’s co-defendant Morton Sobell confessed in 2008 that he and Rosenberg were indeed Soviet agents after years of denying it), while J. Robert Oppenheimer was not, despite numerous attempts by the KGB to recruit him. However, in a few cases they have wildly or irresponsibly leapt without adequate evidence or looking.

Readers should probably verify, but not necessarily trust. Although I found most parts of it believable, I had to continually hold my nose while reading the Haynes book. Espionage is, needless to say, a rather serious charge to level against someone, and to level it against dead people who obviously cannot defend themselves, on the basis of evidence which is usually from nameless people who cannot therefore be questioned even in the unlikely prospect that they are not dead themselves, is very troublesome. It’s even more troublesome because, even if one assumes that the Vassiliev notes --- which are by far the major basis for the Haynes book ---- accurately reflect the KGB records that he was given selective access to, they are not available for independent examination and the records themselves, like so much FBI material, could well be a mix of accurate information, half-truths and utter fantasy, especially since Stalin’s police state practically required KGB agents to report spectacular achievements if they wanted to save their jobs and perhaps even their lives.

Moreover, in the vast majority of instances the alleged KGB records allegedly accessed by Vassiliev (I keep using alleged because even though I believe he did access KGB records, who knows for sure?) refer to alleged American espionage agents by code names and deciphering their real identities is ultimately at the heart of the Haynes book. As already indicated, I think Haynes and Klehr are generally reputable and responsible scholars. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that some of their book is simply far too confident and cocksure, given the chaotic and often stupid nature of KGB activities and records as reported by Vassiliev. Aside from the repeated use of bad detective story/juvenile passwords and exchanges by which KGB and American espionage agents supposedly identified themselves to each other, in case after case the Haynes authors conclude that the same alleged American espionage agent was identified by different cover names and that the same cover names were used for more than one agent. In some instances they report that neither they nor the FBI could determine who the coded names referred to, while in others they declare that the FBI (in its Venona materials) misidentified the cover names while they have got them right or that they have identified the “real” persons although the FBI could not. Just to further confuse things, in many cases the Haynes authors report that the targets of failed KGB recruitment efforts (including Oppenheimer, Walter Lippmann and Ernest Hemmingway) were nonetheless assigned cover names and that individual KGB agents (and who knows who the sources for most of the Vassiliev reports were?) fabricated at least one alleged American agent.

According to my count (and to the authors’ credit, they provide plenty of evidence that can be used against them), in about three dozen cases the same alleged American espionage agent was given, at one time or another, more than one cover name, while in a dozen instances the same cover name was used, at one time or another, for more than one agent. Thus, the Haynes authors recount that cover names “Mary” and “Jack” were each used for three different agents, that Lippmann and Oppenheimer were assigned the same cover names as actual agents, and that Hiss and admitted spy Klaus Fuchs were each assigned at least three different cover names. Thus, Hiss was reportedly designated as “Jurist,” “Ales,” and “Leonard,” while “Jurist” was also used (along with “Richard” and “Reed”) for Harry Dexter White, even though Hiss and White are identified as Soviet agents operating during roughly the same periods--and both “Richard” and “Reed” are also reported to have been used for yet other agents!

If, despite all of these instances that are likely to make careful readers (and very careful reading is required here!) somewhat dubious of the self-certain undertone of the Haynes authors, in some cases their judgment seems highly doubtful or even outrageously irresponsible. Thus severe doubts have been raised in other early reviews of this book about the extremely thin evidence used to “convict” famed journalist I. F. Stone of espionage, which seems to be the only instance in which the Haynes judgments have thus far been subjected to searching scrutiny (the Stone material also appears in the May, 2009 issue of Commentary under the title “I. F. Stone, Soviet Agent--Case Closed” but is severely criticized as thin to non-existent in the June 5 American Prospect and the May 25 and June 22 issues of The Nation).

Moreover, there are several instances in which people are named or smeared based on fleeting references in one alleged KGB document reported by Vassiliev, or even on the basis of nothing whatsoever. I have chosen not to repeat the specific names in most such instances (such as the completely irrelevant--regarding possible espionage--passage in which the wife of a named prominent American general is reported to have cheated “with gusto” on her husband). But, to give one egregious example: in the same chapter which “convicts” Stone, entitled “The Journalist Spies,” it is clearly suggested, if not quite stated, that the deceased left-wing journalist George Seldes, the longtime editor of the independent newsletter “In Fact,” was an espionage agent, yet absolutely no evidence or examples of any kind are produced to support this.

One of the more bizarre targets of Soviet espionage reported on by Haynes involves massive spying on the American Socialist Workers (“Trotskyist”) Party (SWP). The authors report (pp. 480-81):

“By 1942, the American Trotskyist movement, never a significant force, was in dire straights. . . . [It] never amounted to more than a few thousand members, had minimal financial resources, and had only a minor role in the trade union movement. Yet even where the KBG lacked enough officers to service valuable political and technical spies, it dispatched additional personnel to America to recruit and supervise sources and agents aimed at this weak threat. It devoted considerable resources to neutralizing and destroying it, sending in infiltrators to report on its activities, steal its documents, coerce its members, and harass its activists.”

This all seems true, and truly bizarre, but it also seems bizarre that the Haynes authors fail to point out that the FBI was engaged in the same activities against the SWP, which appeared to increase even as the group faded into total obscurity during the 1950s, eventually leading to a widely publicized lawsuit won by the SWP in 1986 in which the FBI conceded that, over the years, it had infiltrated the SWP with 1,300 informers, including 40 who held SWP offices, and burglarized SWP offices on almost 200 occasions.

In the end, what is the significance of the Haynes book? Clearly they establish that the American federal government was infiltrated by a large number of espionage agents controlled by the KGB during the pre-Cold War period, the vast majority of whom were American Communist Party members or intense sympathizers (on the other hand, well over 99% of CP members had no involvement in or knowledge of espionage activities, and the vast majority were not the mindless Russian-controlled automatons as so often portrayed--as they demonstrated by quitting the Party in droves out of boredom, disgust at the Party’s ideological dogmatism, revulsion at revelations about the Stalinist dictatorship, lack of time for the CP’s incessant demands or well-founded fears about American government repression of dissidents).

But there is nothing really fundamentally new about the revelations in the Haynes book or other recent publications on similar topics, since by 1950 anyone reading the newspapers knew plenty about widespread Russian espionage in the U.S. (due to the massively-publicized confessions and/or convictions of Elizabeth Bentley, Whittaker Chambers, Klaus Fuchs, Nathan Silvermaster, Henry Wadleigh, Harry Gold, David and Ruth Greenglass, and Igor Gouzenko, plus the case of Judith Coplon and others who have faded into history). Haynes and Klehr were nonetheless accurate in suggesting in their Early Cold War Spies book that, to a considerable extent, these early pre-WWII revelations became effectively “forgotten” due to the scholarly focus on the excesses of the post-World War II Red Scare during the four decades or so after 1955. Certainly the Haynes authors (and others), in this and earlier books, have filled in many blanks and connected many dots, and probably the Yale University Press release accompanying the publication of Spies is correct in claiming that the new book “provides the most complete account yet written of Soviet espionage in America in the 1930s and ‘40s.” But I’m still holding my nose.

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