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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New and Old Spy Tales, 1933 to 1953




The Haunted Wood, as its subtitle spells out, is a history of Soviet espionage in the United States during Stalin's dictatorship. More exactly, the book covers the period from about 1933, when the Roosevelt administration first gave diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union, to about 1953, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's execution marked the end of the most active period of Soviet spying in America.


Based on previously secret KGB files, the narrative takes the Soviet perspective, breaking the period down into the New Deal years, when Stalin's agents in the United States developed contacts in the Roosevelt administration; the time of World War II, when military secrets, especially those pertaining to the atom bomb, became the focus of espionage; and the beginning of the Cold War era, when events conspiring against the Soviet operation (the defections of Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers, the exposure of Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenberg ring and the rising clamor of American anti-Communism) brought spying activities largely to a halt.


Some of the stories are familiar: Bentley, Fuchs, the Rosenbergs, Michael Straight, Alger Hiss and Chambers. Others are obscure: Laurence Duggan, a "Communist romantic'' who spied from the State Department in the 1930s, grew troubled over Stalin's purge trials and ended up committing suicide; Boris Morros, a "Hollywood hustler'' who talked the Russians into setting him up in a music-publishing business and then double-crossed them by becoming an FBI informer; and the story of how during World War II the American Office of Strategic Services and its Soviet counterpart, the NKGB, "concluded an agreement to exchange information and establish close liaison,'' an agreement that, not surprisingly, they found difficult to carry out.


Some of the material is intermittently absorbing: J. Edgar Hoover's battle with General William J. (Wild Bill) Donovan, the head of the OSS, over exchanging OSS and NKGB official representatives (Hoover argued, correctly, that Soviet intelligence's main purpose was spying); the Soviet Union's obsession with Leon Trotsky's potential influence on American operatives, even after the "Old Man'' had been murdered in 1940; or the lengths to which agents would go to identify one another when meeting: At Fuchs' first meeting with his New York contact in 1944, he was to stand holding a green book and a tennis ball, look for someone wearing gloves and holding a third glove, and respond to a request for directions to Chinatown by saying, "I think Chinatown is closed at 5 p.m.'' It eventually occurred to Moscow that this ritual "could easily draw everyone's attention.''


"The Haunted Wood'' will appeal most of all to readers thoroughly familiar with the previous record of Soviet espionage. (The authors, Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, have provided an extensive bibliography.) Such readers will appreciate the nuances resulting from the dovetailing of the respective stories and the many fascinating insights into the psychology of Soviet agents. Readers less familiar with the record will find much of the material fragmentary, convoluted, badly shaped, dryly written and, all in all, an exercise to make the eyes glaze over.


But what all the foregoing leaves out is that the value of the book depends as much on its framework as it does on its contents, and the mounting of the frame of "The Haunted Wood'' is by and large unsatisfactory. We know the title comes from a line in W.H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939'': "Lest we should see where we are,/ Lost in a haunted wood, ...'' We know that Weinstein is the author of "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case,'' which concluded that Hiss was a spy. We know that Vassiliev is a former KGB agent now working as a journalist and that Vassiliev did the archival research and translating of the raw documents while Weinstein wrote the final English-language manuscript.


But what about the sources? The authors say in their introduction that the book is based on "substantial and exclusive access to Stalin-era operational files of the KGB and its predecessor agencies,'' on "a great deal of additional and important unreviewed KGB material'' that "reached us informally from other, non-KGB sources during our research'' and on 40 of the 2,900 Venona cables ("translated intercepts sent by Soviet agents in the United States to Moscow about their intelligence efforts during World War II'') that were released in 1995-96.


But what exactly does this mean? It is self-evident from the book's text that the sources exclude the files of the GRU (the Soviet military intelligence), for which Hiss is supposed to have been an agent, and that the KGB archives represent only a fraction of the secret records of the Stalin era. So how extensive and authoritative is the documentation? The authors offer no overview or perspective on their sources. As for Venona, no background or explanation of the program is offered until late in the book, and even then we are not told how authoritative these cables are.


One symptom of the book's somewhat limited perspective is the extensive recapitulation of the Hiss-Chambers case. This turns out to be based not on KGB files but on Weinstein's earlier study, "Perjury,'' on Sam Tanenhaus' biography of Chambers and on Venona and other Soviet cables referring to an agent called Ales, whom the authors assure us is actually Hiss although they don't summarize the reasoning that led analysts to this conclusion.


It is not that you mistrust "The Haunted Wood.'' Its tone is dispassionate and nonargumentative. It doesn't seem to be grinding any particular ideological axe but simply to be laying out a documentary record for the reader's edification.


The authors freely admit that their book is not "a definitive history'' but only a glimpse into the Soviet archival record. Still, the lack of perspective on the sources remains a continuous nag. It makes an already unfocused story seem lacking in urgency and very nearly fuzzy. Had the authors offered an introductory overview of the place of their documentation in the larger picture, the authority of their text would have seemed a good deal more compelling.


"The Haunted Wood: Secret Files from the Soviet Perspective" by Allen Weinstein with Alexander Vassiliev. Random House. 400 pages. $30.00.