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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cold War Spying Out of the Bag

The study of Cold War espionage is shifting from the realm of speculation to the reality of archives.

Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev's The Haunted Wood (reviewed in The Moscow Times on Feb. 20) reports, straightforwardly and unsensationally, on what the NKVD archives confirmed: that an extensive Soviet spy network operated inside the United States. John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr's Venona: Soviet Espionage in America in the Stalin Era reviews the VENONA intercepts, some 2,900 deciphered communications between the NKVD, the KGB predecessor, and its American informants, many of which match documents Weinstein and Vassiliev found in Moscow. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Secrecy: The American Experience reconstructs the climate of the times that made so many Americans willing to work for Soviet intelligence.

Taken together, these volumes provide an excellent basis for reassessing the role of Soviet espionage in early Cold War history.

The most striking revelation is not the confirmation that Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were spies, conclusive though that evidence now is. It is rather how many other spies there were. Haynes and Klehr list 349 American citizens or aliens residing in the U.S. who show up in the VENONA intercepts as having secretly provided information to Soviet intelligence prior to and during World War II. Since American cryptanalysts deciphered only a small percentage of the messages that went to Moscow during those years, there could well have been many more informants. Not all of these people were in sensitive positions: some were booksellers, school teachers and shipping clerks; one was even an unsuccessful producer of Hollywood musicals. But there was also a senior administrative assistant to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Laughlin Currie), an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury (Harry Dexter White), a top State Department official (Lawrence Duggan), a Congressman (Samuel Dickstein) and a brilliant young physicist (Theodore Hall), who decided on his own, at the age of 19, to provide Russians with information on the atomic bomb.

Although some of these spied for cash, most did so for ideological reasons. With the prospects for democracy and capitalism bleak during the 1930s, the Soviet Union evoked admiration among Americans on the Left for creating a new economic order while resisting fascism.

But ideology alone was not enough. The success of Soviet espionage also reflected the enormous effort the NKVD put into recruiting and managing its agents. It was, in every sense, a full-service spy organization, with capabilities that ranged from murder and kidnapping to financial subsidies, marriage counseling and even matchmaking for lonely, but promising, informants.

Shifts in the official Soviet-American relationship do not appear to have affected these operations; if anything, they increased during the years of wartime cooperation against Nazi Germany. One expects espionage directed against adversaries, but this was espionage against an ally, and it occurred on a massive scale.

It is still too early to say with any precision what Stalin learned from his spies, or what he did with the information. We know enough, though, to identify the kinds of intelligence the NKVD sought, and generally got.

The most important had to do with the Manhattan Project (known to Soviet intelligence as ENORMOZ) to build the atomic bomb. It is clear now that there were several separate penetrations of security at Los Alamos, so that the Russians were able to double, and even at times triple, check the data they received.

A second priority was industrial espionage. The spies were technological magpies, stealing trade secrets relating to armaments and munitions, aircraft and navigation equipment, chemicals, photography, telecommunications, medicine, eavesdropping devices, even cosmetics.

The third target was military and political intelligence. We can safely assume now that Stalin had excellent sources of information regarding British-American military planning, and that he also knew that Roosevelt and Churchill would not contest the creation of a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

The new materials may help to explain something else that has puzzled historians over the years: Why did the United States, once difficulties began to develop with the Russians, shift so quickly to a policy of containment? One possible reason is that, with VENONA, some American officials had the means of measuring the depths of Soviet distrust and hence of estimating what it was going to mean for the post-war era.

But how many Americans really knew about VENONA? President Harry S. Truman was briefed on its substance but not its source; as Senator Moynihan points out, he may well have confused the VENONA-based intelligence with the far less reliable reports with which FBI director J. Edgar Hoover tended to swamp him. The FBI chose not to use VENONA evidence in prosecuting Hiss and the Rosenbergs, lest this reveal to the Russians that their codes had been compromised. And yet Moscow almost certainly knew this. One of its agents was himself a VENONA code-breaker, and in 1949 the Americans invited a special guest to tour Arlington House, the location outside Washington from which VENONA operated - he was none other than British spy Kim Philby.

Why then, Moynihan wonders, could VENONA not have been revealed at the time? Would this not have provided a means of distinguishing real from imagined spies, thereby undercutting Joe McCarthy, who, it turned out, never fingered any real spies? Might not McCarthyism itself have been avoided if the basis for the government's charges against Hiss, the Rosenbergs and the other spies had been made clear? Perhaps.

VENONA could certainly have been acknowledged decades ago with little or no damage to personal security. Only an official culture of secrecy, a subject on which Moynihan is both eloquent and passionate, prevented this. Whether greater openness would have constrained McCarthyism, though, is another matter.

Be that as it may, these accounts do clearly move the subject of espionage into the mainstream of Cold War studies. And surely there will be more revelations to come.

"Venona," by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. Yale University Press. 475 pages. $30. "Secrecy," by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Yale University Press. 262 pages. $23.

John Lewis Gaddis is Robert A. Lovett Professor of History at Yale University. The full version of this article first appeared in the London Times Literary Supplement.