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The Historiography of Soviet Espionage and American Communism:

from Separate to Converging Paths


“International Communism and Espionage” session, European Social Science History Conference March 2006, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr


            In the 1940s, 1950s, and later a large segment of the American public assumed a significant connection between the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA) and Soviet espionage.  This view dominated public and political discourse in the immediate post-World War II decades.  After the 1960s public support for this assumption declined but remained strong.  Among scholars, however, Soviet espionage and American communism were distinctly separate activities and linkage between the two was seen as weak or nonexistent.  As a consequence, there was little overlap between the historiography of the two fields of study.  This paper will review these separate historiographic traditions and how in the late 1990s the two partially merged and appear likely to remain linked for the foreseeable future.


The Historiography of Soviet Espionage in the United States

            Given the intense public and governmental concern about Soviet espionage in the early Cold War it is not surprising that a vast literature on the subject has accumulated.  What is surprising, however, it that very little of it has been written by historians, political scientist, or others trained in professional scholarship.  Journalists, popular writers, and polemical advocates produced most of the books and essays on Soviet espionage in America, along with a considerable body of memoir and autobiographical writings by people involved in espionage or internal security.[1]  Some of this literature is highly useful and insightful.  A few example are: A Generation on Trial: U.S.A. v. Alger Hiss (1960), a balanced and thorough review of the Hiss-Chambers case by Alistair Cooke, a British journalist and long-time observer of America; Whittaker Chambers’ darkly powerful autobiography Witness (1952) regarding his role in Soviet espionage and his relationship with Alger Hiss; Red Pawn: The Story of Noel Field (1950), journalist Flora Lewis’s remarkably discerning reconstruction of Field’s strange journey from Soviet spy in the Department of State in Washington to imprisonment in a Stalinist jail in Budapest as an American superspy; and retired FBI agent Robert Lamphere’s The FBI-KGB War (1986) revealing story of FBI counter-intelligence operations.[2]  Nonetheless, little of this journalistic, memoir, or advocacy literature, even at its best, held to scholarly standards of documentation and analysis.

            Prior to the 1990s there were, in fact, few scholarly books on the history of Soviet espionage.  Many academics no doubt shied away from the issue because of the scarcity of primary sources and sensationalistic aspects of the topic.  David Dallin’s Soviet Espionage provided a thorough and judicious summary of what was known in 1955.  Not himself an academic, Dallin’s personal interest in Soviet espionage drew him to gather much of what was publicly available into a Yale University Press book.  But in the latter half of the 1960s an increasingly hostile academic community dismissed Dallin’s book on the grounds that most of his evidence consisted of the testimony of defectors and exiles and the results of congressional and FBI investigations.  Such evidence was increasingly distrusted, and Dallin’s Menshevik past was taken as reason for skepticism as well.[3]   

            Herbert Packer’s Ex-Communist Witnesses (1962) reflected the developing academic consensus.  He subjected the testimony of leading defectors from Soviet espionage and the Communist Party to a skeptical examination that assumed their testimony was suspect unless unimpeachable documentary corroboration was readily available.  Given the unavailability of Soviet intelligence agency archives and his distrust for congressional committee and FBI investigations, that standard disposed Packer to dismiss Elizabeth Bentley’s testimony about several CPUSA-based networks of Soviet sources in the U.S. government with the judgment: “no witness’s story is better calculated to inspire mistrust or disbelief than Elizabeth Bentley’s.  The extravagance of her claims about her espionage contacts, the vagueness of her testimony about the content of the secret material that she allegedly received, the absence of corroboration for most of her story, and above all, her evasiveness as a witness, all combine to raise serious doubts about her reliability.”  David Caute was even less nuanced in The Great Fear: the Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower; he painted Bentley as an unbelievable liar.  Professor Athan Theoharis, a prolific and influential historian of the history of FBI internal security operations, also summarily dismissed Bentley as “a disgruntled ex-radical” and judged that her story was “unsubstantiated” and “lacked credibility.”[4]

            Neither Theoharis nor Caute found the testimony of others defectors or the FBI’s voluminous investigatory files any more persuasive about widespread Soviet espionage.  Caute judged concern about espionage and communism in the early Cold War as nothing more than “hysteria” and “collective delusion” and emphasized “there is no documentation in the public record of a direct connection between the American Communist Party and espionage during the entire postwar period.”[5]   It was symptomatic of the dismissal of the seriousness of Soviet espionage by scholars that Caute’s The Great Fear and Theoharis’s many books on FBI operations were not really about Soviet espionage.  One does not write a history of what one believes to have been largely mythical.  Caute, Theoharis, and others, consequently, wrote not about Soviet espionage but about McCarthyism and what they regarded as manufactured anti-Communist panic about a non-existent link between the American Communist party and Soviet espionage, with the latter treated as insignificant in extent or importance.[6] 

            While the overwhelming majority of academic books and essays on internal security and communism minimized or dismissed Soviet espionage and either asserted or implied that those accused of espionage were likely innocent, there were a few that swam against the tide.  Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: the Hiss-Chambers Case (1978) and The Rosenberg File (1983) by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton dealt with the two highest profile espionage trials of the Cold War.[7]   In the post-Watergate world, with Richard Nixon, Hiss’s nemesis and a leading political anti-Communist, disgraced and the FBI under attack for illegal activities, the belief that Hiss and the Rosenbergs had been framed hardened in academic writing and spread into the broader culture, particularly among the cultural elite and the media.  But Weinstein and Radosh and Milton presented thorough examinations of the evidence, both the original trial testimony and later releases of massive FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act, which confirmed their subjects’ guilt.  Both books withstood angry assaults: there were hostile reviews, nit-picking of details, sweeping (and undocumented) claims that FBI files could not be trusted, and lawyerly arguments that certain damning evidence, even though true, should not have been admitted into evidence under this or that esoteric rule of criminal trial procedures or that prosecutorial misconduct should void the convictions even if the accused were guilty.  Notably, however, no scholars produced a comprehensive response to either book.  No historian went over the huge body of evidence that Weinstein, Radosh, and Milton reviewed and wrote a scholarly book setting out the case for the innocence of Alger Hiss or Julius Rosenberg.[8] 

            While Perjury and The Rosenberg File made an impression on the scholarly world, each focused on a single case.  Even though a logical conclusion was that Soviet espionage might have been more serious than the prevailing consensus, its full scope remained shrouded.  And, despite the lack of competing comprehensive scholarly books taking a contrary stance, a still-significant number of historians continued to insist that Julius Rosenberg and Alger Hiss were innocent.  Nor did the two books stimulate other professional historians to a greater interest in studying the history of Soviet espionage.  Despite her central role in persuading the American public that Soviet spies had thoroughly penetrated the government, there was no scholarly biography of Bentley.  Nor did scholars produce an in depth study of the defector Louis Budenz, the convicted spies Jack Soble and Judith Coplon, the complex Amerasia affair, or the Gouzenko case in Canada with its American implications.  No historian attempted to update Dallin’s 1955 survey of Soviet espionage.  Prior to the 1990s and the collapse of Soviet communism, writing about the history of Soviet espionage in America in the Stalin era remained largely the province of journalists, popular writers, and memoirists.  The prevailing academic consensus at the end of the 1980s, while shaken by Perjury and The Rosenberg File, remained committed to a minimalist view of Soviet espionage and saw little involvement by the CPUSA.  The entirely separate historiography of the American Communist movement sustained and supported this belief.


The Historiography of the American Communist Movement

            Pride of place as the first scholarly/academic treatment of American communism belongs to Gordon S. Watkins of the University of Illinois for his essay, “Revolutionary Communism in the United States” that appeared in 1920.  Watkins presented a narrative of the split of the “Left Wing” from the Socialist Party in 1918-19 and the founding of the Communist Party of America and the Communist Labor Party in 1919 as the Left Wing itself split into competing factions.  It was a thorough survey based on a close reading of the radical press as well as the leaflets, statements, and proclamations put out by the various groups and individuals involved.  Given that the events covered had occurred only one or two years earlier, the article appropriately appeared in the American Political Science Review rather than a history journal.  David Moses Schneider’s “The Workers’ (Communist) Party and American Trade Unions” (John Hopkins University, 1927) was the first academic doctoral dissertation on the subject.[9]   Not surprisingly, neither work gave any attention to espionage.  So far as we know, until the final years of the 1920s Soviet intelligence agencies had only a transitory and limited presence in the United States.  To the extent that agents of Soviet military intelligence, GRU, or the foreign intelligence arm of the KGB operated in the U.S., they were largely engaged in low-level industrial espionage and monitoring (occasionally disrupting) the activities of political and ethnic refugees who had fled the Bolshevik victory in the Russian civil war.[10]  The Communist International maintained a strong presence and Comintern agents used many of the same techniques of conspiracy and cooperated with Soviet intelligence, but the Comintern largely engaged in covert political organizing and subversion, not espionage in a conventional sense.[11] 

            Until the late 1950s historically oriented writings by academicians with scholastic documentation and intended for a scholarly audience such as that of Watkins and Schneider were few.  The story of American communism was not as yet “history.”  Only in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the Fund for the Republic sponsored the ten-book “Communism in American Life” series did any significant volume of scholarly books emerge.[12]   

            The authors of these pioneering books faced the difficult reality of limited documentary source material.  Little was available, apart from newspaper stories and the records of congressional investigations.  Formal FBI reports and statements of findings were used, but not the underlying investigatory files; those would not be made public until the 1970s and the Freedom of Information Act.  Historians who wanted additional primary material had to obtain it themselves.  Theodore Draper, in particular, was indefatigable: interviewing scores of ex-Communists, gathering internal party documents from expelled party leaders like Earl Browder, and rummaging in long-forgotten Communist pamphlets and publications.  Draper, however, was exceptional in his success in unearthing primary material.  A number of the volumes in the series suffered from the limited availability of archival documentation and the dearth of supporting monographic studies of particular incidents and controversies.  Nonetheless, many of the books uncovered fascinating material and remain useful as well as pioneering works.  In particular, Draper’s two volumes, The Roots of American Communism and American Communism and Soviet Russia, laid out the political and organizational history of the CPUSA to 1929 with a detail and understanding still not surpassed.

            Most of the authors were left-of-center and all shared an anti-Communist perspective.  Many were democratic socialist or New Deal liberal veterans of bruising battles with Communists and their allies in trade unions, intellectual organizations and political groups while some had gone through the CPUSA and learned to distrust it.  The only comprehensive one-volume history of the CPUSA written in this era, Irving Howe and Lewis Coser’s The American Communist Party: A Critical History, although not part of the same series, shared its interpretive stance, reflecting the authors’ prior Trotskyist battles with the staunchly Stalinist CPUSA.  Similarly Max Kampelman’s The Communist Party vs. the C.I.O.: A Study in Power Politics (1957), was not part of the “Communism in American Life” series but expressed the same sensibility, reflecting Kampelman’s experience in the late 1940s as a young liberal battling Communists for control of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.  American Communism in Crisis, 1943-1957, a thoughtful, poignant 1972 book by Joseph Starobin, former foreign editor of the Daily Worker who left the CPUSA and took up a new career as an academic historian, adopted a similar viewpoint.[13]   All of these books argued that the American Communist party was subordinate to the Soviet Union, possessed a totalitarian ideology, could not by its nature be a ‘normal’ participant in a democratic polity, and had no legitimate place on the democratic left.

            Nonetheless, the anti-Communist perspective of this pioneering generation of historians of American communism (whom we term “traditionalists”[14] for reasons of historiographic simplicity) did not extend, with a few exceptions we will discuss, to an interest in the links between the CPUSA and Soviet espionage.  Howe and Coser’s influential The American Communist Party: A Critical History, dismissed the subject as unworthy of serious attention by devoting all of two sentences to it, writing:

Since the days of Whittaker Chambers’ confessions and Alger Hiss’s trial much has been said and written about the infiltration of American Communists into the Roosevelt administration.  Very probably the extent of that infiltration has been exaggerated, though there can be little doubt that Communist spies and agents found their way into the Office of War Information, the Office of Strategic Services, and the Treasury Department.[15]

And that was the extent of their discussion of the matter.  Nor did Starobin discuss espionage, even though he was writing about an era during which the CPUSA was deeply involved with Soviet intelligence agencies and several prominent Party officials, including Browder and Steve Nelson were publicly accused of ties to them.  

As for the “Communism in American Life” series, seven of its ten books ignored the issue of espionage, in large part due to their focus on aspects of American communism irrelevant to spying.[16]   Three volumes of the series, however, did take up the issue.  David Shannon did not include a great deal of detail about espionage in The Decline of American Communism but wrote, “there is overwhelming evidence in the public record of Soviet espionage in the United States before and after 1945.”  He mentioned a number of Soviet spies who had been convicted, noted either their membership or ideological sympathy for communism, but cautioned that there was still “no direct connection between the American Communist Party and espionage for the Soviets.”  Shannon admitted that “this is not to say that there was no link,” only that it was not on the public record.  He reproduced a letter he had written to the FBI seeking information and J. Edgar Hoover’s response citing national security reasons for not providing any.  Shannon concluded his three-page discussion by commenting that, given the CPUSA’s ideological fealty to the USSR, it was logical to assume that there were links.[17] 

Earl Latham’s The Communist Controversy in Washington, also part of the “Communism in American Life” series, discussed the major espionage cases (Bentley, Hiss-Chambers, Amerasia, the Rosenbergs, and others) of the 1940s and 1950s at length.  But Latham was less concerned about the history of the American Communist movement than the political controversy in Washington over communism.  While he noted growing academic skepticism about a number of the cases, Latham clearly thought there was substance to the espionage charges, but he only incidentally linked Soviet espionage with the CPUSA.  The Communist Controversy in Washington was more a history of political anticommunism and McCarthyism than of American communism.  Additionally, by the time Latham’s book appeared in 1966 the tide had turned in the academic world, and his acceptance of the validity of many of the government’s charges about Soviet espionage was falling out of scholarly fashion

The other “Communism in American Life” author to deal with espionage was Theodore Draper.  His first volume on the political and organizational history of the CPUSA, The Roots of American Communism dealt with the origins and first years of the CPUSA and ended in the early 1920s.  Not surprisingly, Soviet espionage played no role in this book in as much as the new Soviet state was as yet hardly in a position to mount intelligence operations in North America.  In his second volume, American Communism and Soviet Russia, the Communist International loomed large but Soviet intelligence barely registered, largely a reflection of the minor and largely transitory operations of Soviet intelligence in the United States.  However, at the end of the 1920s Soviet intelligence agencies began to increase their attention and investment in American operations, and Draper made note of it.  Out of his 534 pages of text, he devoted five and a half pages to Nicholas Dozenberg, the first American Communist party official known to have been assigned to Soviet espionage work.  The CPUSA handed Dozenberg, then a mid-level party officer, over to the GRU in late 1927; he worked for Soviet intelligence in the United States and abroad until 1939 when American authorities arrested him on a false passport charge; he made a partial confession and was imprisoned for a year. 

Draper’s conclusion to his summary of Dozenberg’s espionage career emphasized that it was not typical and that it contradicted the major focus of the Party:

Except for a tiny minority, the Communist membership has devoted its efforts to gaining mass influence with means that have been blatantly nonconspiratorial.  If the Communist movement is regarded as merely or even primarily a conspiracy, it is paradoxically the most public and self-publicized conspiracy of all time.

He then, however, made a straightforward observation about recruitment of spies from the American Communist movement: “a certain type of politically motivated spy is more likely to be found by Soviet espionage agencies in the Communist movement than anywhere else.”  But, again reacting to polemical charges by right-wing anti-Communists of the early 1950s, Draper warned against generalizing about this phenomenon:

This simple fact is sometimes absurdly exaggerated and oversimplified to mean that every non-Russian Communist should be regarded as at least a “potential” Russian spy.  This caricature is based on a theoretical abstraction, not on the real people who for a multitude of reasons and in different periods of social stress have gone in and out of the Communist movement....  The Russians could have had no illusions about the political risks that the imposed on non-Russian Communist parties by tying them into Russian espionage networks.  They recognized the dangers by taking special precautions to withdraw their agents from party work and by maintaining liaison with a single member of the Secretariat at the very top of the party hierarchy.  Increasingly they faced the problem of balancing the benefits that might accrue to Soviet intelligence agencies from recruiting a few Foreign Communists against the harm that might befall an entire party if the tie-up were to leak out.[18]

Draper’s remarks, which noted the existence but minimized the extent and significant of espionage ties between the CPUSA and Soviet intelligence, served as a guide and model for later historians who dismissed charges of extensive CPUSA cooperation with Soviet intelligence in the 1940s.  Those who cited or accepted his judgment, however, often ignored his cautionary words that limited his observations to a specific time period:

At first the harm far outweighed the benefits in the Russian estimation.  But as the foreign parties lost caste in Moscow, as the Russian security and intelligence agencies entrenched themselves in power, and as Stalin felt more sure of himself, the balance shifted in favor of the benefits that would accrue to the Soviets’ secret agencies.[19]

Draper’s chronological distinction between the CPUSA relationship to espionage in the period he wrote about, the 1920s, and what followed in the 1930s and 1940s was often overlooked. 

Beginning in the late 1970s a significant number of scholarly essays, doctoral theses, and books appeared on American Communist history.  In part this outpouring of academic interest was made possible by the growing availability of archival materials such as personal papers, organizational records, memoirs, and government records made accessible by the passage of time and the Freedom of Information Act.  Additionally, however, a large cohort of former “New Left” activists of the late 1960s and early 1970s entered the academic world and a number gravitated to American communist history in hopes of finding historical answers for the frustrations and failures of their own political movement, seeking a sense of historical continuity or models for a renewed radical political agenda.  The interpretive approaches in this new wave of American Communist historiography were diverse.  A few authors criticized the CPUSA from the left for insufficient revolutionary vigor.[20]  Some displayed strong Communist partisanship and their accounts reflected the CPUSA’s own self-perception of its history, only in academic dress.[21] 

The predominant stance, however, was benign admiration for the Communist movement but with enough friendly criticism as to avoid unalloyed partisanship.  These “revisionists,” to distinguish them from Draper and the “Communism in American Life” traditionalists, were fervent critics of anticommunism.[22]  They saw Communists as the key element in the dynamism of the CIO and the spark behind most of the significant radical and liberal reform movements of the 1930s.  Revisionist scholars produced hundreds of essays and dozens of books on an astounding array of topics: Communist influence on folk music, drama, poetry, and various literary figures; Communist activity among Jews, Finns, Italians, blacks, Mexicans, and Slavs of various sorts; CPUSA support for sharecroppers in Alabama and Arkansas, grain farmers in Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota, and dairy farmers in New York; Communist influence on social gospel Protestants, professional social workers, and socially conscious lawyers; Communist influence in sports; and Communist activities in the labor movement.  This body of research demonstrated a significant Communist role in certain areas of American life, a role once rarely acknowledged in standard histories of the United States in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.[23]

Taken as a whole, this literature was strong on periphery and weak at the core.  Individual Communists working in particular settings were discussed in detail, while the Communist party itself remained in the background as only a vague presence.  The revisionist literature depicted a Communist movement in which local autonomy, spontaneity, and initiative were the norm, and orders from the center, if issued at all, were ignored.  This literature often conveyed the impression that there were two Communist parties.  One consisted of the CPUSA headquarters in New York, to which the revisionists attributed the regrettable part of Communist history: subordination to Moscow, support for Stalin‘s purges, the embrace of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, contempt for political democracy, and a fervent belief in Marxism-Leninism.  The other Communist party, the “real” party in the eyes of the revisionists, consisted of idealistic rank-and-file Communists who rooted themselves in the wants and needs of the workers inspired by the populist traditions of the American past, and who paid little attention to Earl Browder in New York and even less to Joseph Stalin in Moscow.

Most of the articles and books dealt with a limited geographic area, a small time span, a single incident, a specific ethnic or racial group, a particular union, or some other limited aspect of Communist history.  Although the revisionist writers claimed that local Communists habitually disregarded the CPUSA‘s orders, their work did not provide sufficient evidence to back up this claim.  One of the leading revisionists, Maurice Isserman, acknowledged the misleading impression that could be conveyed by the multitude of specialized studies: “It would be a mistake to regard the Communist Party at any point in its history as if it had been simply a collection of autonomous, overlapping subgroupings of Jews, Finns, blacks, women, longshoremen, East Bronx tenants and baseball fans, who were free to set their own political agenda without reference to Soviet priorities.”[24]

Indeed, the CPUSA was not organized on a congregational basis.  In its heyday it was highly centralized, rigidly disciplined, and run by a full-time paid bureaucracy whose top echelons were all closely vetted, approved, and, in many cases, hand-picked by Moscow.  Most revisionists failed to heed Isserman‘s sensible note of caution.  Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, they continued to produce articles and dissertations in which American Communism was portrayed as an amorphous movement similar to the chaotic New Left of the late 1960s.

Many revisionists also took a decidedly (and intentionally) parochial approach to American Communism.  Transnational historiography was not part of their agenda.  Only a few bothered to deal with the links between the CPUSA and the USSR.  Most of the revisionists regarded Soviet Communism as largely irrelevant to the story of Communism in the United States.  In light of the primacy of the Soviet Union in the minds of American Communists, the lavish attention devoted to Soviet affairs in the CPUSA‘s press, and the constant repetition of “lessons” from the Soviet experience by American party officials and organizers, this lack of interest in Soviet Communism borders on the bizarre.

Given their indifference to Soviet-linked matters and their insistence that the American Communist movement was an expression of native American radicalism and its ties to the USSR were largely ritualistic, it is not surprising that the revisionists gave little attention of Soviet espionage.  As with several of the books of the “Communism in American Life” series, some of this lacuna is due to the particular part of the history of American communism examined.  One would hardly expect Soviet espionage to turn up in Robin Kelley’s book on Communist organizing among black Alabama sharecroppers.  However, while most revisionist studies were highly localized or pursued a narrow subject, some took a broader view.  Fraser Ottanelli’s The Communist Party of the United States: From the Depression to World War II and Isserman’s Which Side Were You On?: The American Communist Party During the Second World War examined the party from 1930 to 1945, including the period we now know to encompass the most intense Soviet espionage involving the CPUSA, and both books were silent on the subject.

While revisionist predominated in the l970s and 1980s, a few historians reasserted a critical view of the American Communist movement and depicted it as totalitarian in ideology, antidemocratic in practice, and subordinate to Moscow in all essential matters.  These critical scholars were often referred to as “traditionalist,” “orthodox,” or “Draperian.”  As representatives of that school we expressed its central credo in The American Communist Movement: Storming Heaven Itself:

Every era in the history of the American Communist movement has been inaugurated by developments in the Communist world abroad.  The Russian Revolution led to the formation of the first American Communist party.  Soviet pressure led to the abandonment of an underground Communist party.  Comintern directives led American Communists to adopt an ultrarevolutionary posture during the late 1920s.  Soviet foreign policy needs midwifed the birth of the Popular Front in the mid-1930s.  The Nazi-Soviet Pact destroyed the Popular Front in 1939, and the German attack on the Soviet Union reconstituted it in 1941.  The onset of the Cold War cast American Communists into political purgatory after World War II, and Khrushchev‘s devastating exposé of Stalin‘s crimes in 1957 tore the American Communists apart. . . . Within the limits of their knowledge, American Communists always strove to do what Moscow wanted, no more, no less.[25]

Like the first generation of “traditionalists,” these latter day traditionalists were ambiguous about the CPUSA’s relationship to Soviet espionage.  Unlike the revisionists, who were silent or simply dismissive of the subject, traditionalist historians gave the matter serious but brief attention.  Harvey Klehr’s 1984 book, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade, discussed the espionage work of American Communists Nicholas Dozenberg, Juliet Stuart Poyntz, Elizabeth Bentley, and Whittaker Chambers and noted the involvement of the CPUSA’s underground arm in obtaining false American passports.  But the discussion, while noting CPUSA involvement in espionage, was short: less than a page in the text of a 511 page book, although further discussion and elaboration in the endnotes consumed an additional two pages.[26]

In 1992 we jointly authored a one-volume history of the CPUSA: The American Communist Movement: Storming Heaven Itself.  Published just after the Cold War had ended, just after the USSR had dissolved, and just as the archives in Moscow were opening, it was our last book of an era that was ending, although at the time we were unaware of just how drastically the archival environment would change and the effect it would have on our interpretive stance.  We noted the evidence that then existed that American Communists had assisted Soviet espionage against the United States, taking two page (cumulative, out of 210) to summarize the espionage charges that had surfaced involving Juliet Poyntz, the journal Amerasia, Elizabeth Bentley’s testimony, the Hiss-Chambers affair, and the Rosenberg trial.  We commented that these “revelations of Soviet espionage” were “usually factual but sometimes given exaggerated importance.”  As to the relevance of Soviet espionage to the history of the CPUSA, we disputed Louis Budenz’s charge that every American Communist was a potential spy:

Ideologically, American Communists owed their first loyalty to the motherland of communism rather than to the United States but in practice few American Communists were spies.  The Soviet Union recruited spies from the Communist movement, but espionage was not a regular activity of the American party.  The American Communist party promoted communism and the interests of the Soviet Union through political means; espionage was the business of the Soviet Union’s intelligence services.  To see the American party chiefly as an instrument of espionage or a sort of Fifth Column misjudges its main purpose.

In our conclusion we further remarked, “American communism was not a secret conspiracy or a clandestine arm of Soviet intelligence, although it had aspects of both.  Espionage was a sideshow to the party’s main activities, but the periodic surfacing of shadowy links between American Communists and Soviet intelligence served to confirm in the public mind the movement’s anti-American character.”[27]  We would shortly seriously modify our views.


A New Era

In 1992, the same year that The American Communist Movement appeared, Harvey Klehr made his first trip to Moscow to examine Comintern records at the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI).  John Earl Haynes followed in January of 1993 to examine CPUSA records at the same archive.  We went as historians of American communism.  We did not go as historians of Soviet espionage.  Our field, the history of the American Communist movement, was well separated from the history of Soviet espionage.  Nor did we have any special interest in espionage or any expectation that we would find records relating to espionage.

As we hoped and expected, we found rich and highly useful material on the history of the American Communist movement in Moscow.  The records of the Comintern’s Anglo-American secretariat, its American commission, and the personal secretariats of Dimitrov, Marty, and Kuusinen as well as the CPUSA’s own headquarters’ records provided a wealth of primary material on matters that had long been obscure due to shallow documentation.[28]  We also found material we did not expect to find in the records of the Communist International, including:

(1) A series of 1943-1945 communications between Pavel Fitin, chief of the foreign intelligence arm of the KGB, and the Comintern discussing the backgrounds of a number of American Communists.  The persons Fitin inquired about included many of the persons Elizabeth Bentley identified as having been member of her CPUSA-based espionage networks that were turned over to the KGB in 1944.

(2) Similar communications between the Comintern and Soviet military intelligence, the GRU, regarding American Communists, including references to a covert CPUSA group in Washington assigned to “informational work,” a party euphemism for intelligence gathering of some sort. 

(3) A 1940 report from Earl Browder, chief of the CPUSA, to Georgi Dimitrov of the Comintern, about an offer of service to the Soviet Union made to Browder by a senior exiled French politician.  A covering note on the report, which came to Moscow via KGB channels, showed that Lavrenti Beria, head of the KGB, thought the report important enough to send copies to Stalin and Molotov.  Years later, British counter-intelligence identified Pierre Cot, the politician in question, as having been successfully recruited by the KGB in World War II. 

(4) A 1942 communication via the KGB from Eugene Dennis, the CPUSA’s number two man, about the insertion of American Communists into the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II predecessor to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.  This partially corroborated a claim by the Communist defector Louis Budenz that Dennis had arranged infiltration of the OSS and that the infiltrators later worked for Soviet intelligence.

(5) A late 1939 order from the Comintern to the CPUSA to identify and turn over to the Soviets two secret members of the CPUSA who had respectable journalistic or business cover for clandestine work in Scandinavia in connection with the just launched Soviet attack on Finland.  This corroborated 1955 testimony by Winston Burdett, then a veteran American journalist, that early in 1940 as a young reporter and secret Communist he had been recruited via the CPUSA into Soviet espionage.  Burdett testified that using his cover as an American foreign correspondent he had gone to Sweden and Finland and later elsewhere in Europe, all the while reporting to the KGB.  (Burdett later broke with the Communist movement and the KGB.)

Keep in mind that we were not looking for espionage related material: all of these findings were pure chance.  Indeed, we had paid so little attention to Soviet espionage matters than when we first saw the messages from Pavel Fitin to Georgi Dimitrov we had no idea who Fitin was.  The messages themselves were on plan paper without an institutional letterhead, and it was only after we checked through the indexes of some books on Soviet history that we realized Fitin was General Fitin of the KGB. 

The subject of one of Fitin’s inquiries, Judith Coplon, also brought an obscure American code-breaking project known as “Venona” into our research.  Coplon, an analyst working in the Foreign Agents Registration section of the U.S. Justice Department, had been arrested in 1949 in the act of handing over some of those files to her KGB contact, Valentine Gubitchev.  Tried and convicted of espionage twice, she escaped punishment when appeals courts voided the convictions on technical grounds.[29]  In his 1986 memoir, retired FBI agent Robert Lamphere related that the FBI had been alerted that Coplon was a Soviet spy when the National Security Agency deciphered a 1944 KGB message about her.  Lamphere claimed that similar deciphered messages had led the FBI to identify Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass and Julius Rosenberg as participants in atomic espionage.  But he provided few details about the project.  In his 1981 history of American code breaking journalist David Martin had also discussed a highly secret American project that had provided key evidence leading to several Soviet spies in the atomic bomb project, a finding affirmed by historians Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton in their history of the Rosenberg spy case.  Other histories of espionage gave the NSA project a name: Venona.  In addition to the Fitin inquiry about Coplon, the Browder repot on Pierre Cot also connected to Venona.  Peter Wright, a retired British MI5 officer, reported in his 1987 memoir that deciphered messages of the Venona project had led British security officials to identify Cot as a Soviet agent.[30]

The Venona-related material in an open Russian archive helped to nudge the American intelligence community to declassify the Venona material in 1995.  Long held in strict secrecy, the Venona project had been closed down years before.  For some time a few intelligence professionals had been pressing to have the Venona material released, both to enable the NSA and FBI to collect plaudits for one of the most successful counter-intelligence operations in American history and to set the historical record straight about Soviet espionage.  In 1995, shortly after our first book using the Moscow documents, The Secret World of American Communism, was published, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Democrat, N.Y.) invited us to testify before the newly established “Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy” which he chaired.  During the hearing, we urged release of the Venona material and Moynihan asked his fellow commissioner John Deutch, director of the CIA, to look into the matter.

Just two months after the secrecy commission hearing, the first release of Venona materials took place at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on July 11, 1995.  Over the next two years the National Security Agency released the remaining messages, about 3,000, amounting to more that 5,000 pages of text.  In 1999 we published Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, showing that during World War II, Soviet intelligence agencies exploited the wartime alliance with the United States as an opportunity to launch a wide-ranging espionage offensive against the U.S.  Other researchers also published books based on the Venona documents with similar conclusions.[31]

Other writers used the decoded Venona messages along with some sparse KGB material coming out of Moscow to illuminate specific cases.  In Bombshell Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel discussed the atomic espionage of a young Harvard physicist, Theodore Hall, whose cooperation with the KGB was made public by Venona.  Venona also prompted reconsideration of Elizabeth Bentley.  Not one but two biographies of Bentley appeared: Kathryn Olmsted’s Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley and Lauren Kessler, Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley’s Life in and Out of Espionage.  Both concluded that while in her latter years she may have embellished occasionally, her testimony regarding Soviet espionage was largely accurate.[32]

Nor was Venona the only evidence that emerged on Soviet espionage in the United States.  A slice of KGB material became public in 1999 with the publication of The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America--the Stalin Era, the fruit of a short-lived program whereby the SVR, Russian successor to the KGB, authorized limited access to the KGB archive by teaming a western historian, Allen Weinstein, with a former KGB officer, Alexander Vassiliev.  Separately, Vasili Mitrokhin, a former KGB archivist, defected to Great Britain with a treasure trove of archival notes.  Together with Britain’s leading historian of espionage, Christopher Andrew, he published The Sword and Shield: the Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB.[33]

Venona as well as the material provided by Vassiliev and Mitrokhin showed the CPUSA functioning as an auxiliary to Soviet intelligence.  Venona messages alone identified several hundred American Communists, including a few highly placed in the government, who cooperated with Soviet intelligence.  They confirmed Bentley’s claims that her espionage networks had originated as a CPUSA espionage operation.  They reinforced other evidence that most spies were dedicated Communists whose motive for spying was ideological.  Earl Browder, Eugene Dennis and other senior CPUSA officials were not only aware of cooperation with Soviet intelligence but supervised it, promoted it, and ordered subordinate party officers to assist.  Browder himself even assisted in recruiting a number of sources for the Soviets.  A 1946 KGB memo credited him with personal involvement in recruiting eighteen agents for the KGB as well as additional ones for the GRU.[34]  The party assigned senior cadre as liaison with Soviet intelligence.  KGB officers also met directly with other party officials whenever it was expedient.

The CPUSA performed a number of tasks for Soviet intelligence.  In the 1930s, it ran a very large operation producing fraudulent American passports for use by the Comintern and Soviet intelligence agencies.  Additionally, party officials acted as talent spotters, suggesting likely sources and recruits for Soviet espionage.  A large number of the couriers and sources the KGB and GRU developed in the 1930s and early 1940s were first brought to the attention of the Soviets by the CPUSA.  When the KGB targeted someone as a possible recruit, it often called upon the CPUSA to assist in vetting the potential agent by providing background information and personal data Soviet intelligence wanted in order to evaluate a possible agent.  The CPUSA also furnished safe houses: apartments and homes of Communists where KGB officers could meet privately with their sources and couriers for lengthy debriefings.  Additionally, the CPUSA arranged American business fronts for Soviet intelligence officers operating throughout the world.  Using secret members of the party who worked for various American corporations, KGB and GRU officers roamed the world with credentials as salesmen for American photographic supply and electronic equipment companies, commercial agents for American import/export firms, and as talent scouts for Hollywood movie studios.  The CPUSA’s work as an auxiliary to Soviet intelligence acted as a “force multiplier,” to use an American military term.  The party relieved professional Soviet intelligence officers of many espionage tasks that were necessary and vital but time-consuming, tedious, and routine and allowed the professional spies to maximize their time on high productivity espionage tasks.

After Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, the CPUSA moved beyond its role as an auxiliary to Soviet intelligence to undertaking actual espionage operations under its own supervision.  Jacob Golos, the chief liaison between the party and the KGB, organized several large networks of secret Communists who worked as mid-level officials in a variety of U.S. government agencies in Washington.  These networks sought out military, diplomatic, and political information of interest to the Soviets.  Golos' assistant and courier, Elizabeth Bentley, collected the information and Golos then passed it to the KGB, although he also gave his party superior and old friend, Earl Browder, copies of political information of interest to the CPUSA itself. 

The KGB was not entirely happy that so extensive a portion of its operations in America was outside of its direct control.  But Stalin’s purge of his security services in the late 1930s had eliminated most of the professional intelligence officers who had worked in the United States and had created an impressive array of sources and networks.  In the early 1940s the Soviet services had to send new officers, young and inexperienced, to America to resume contact with these sources and rebuild the abandoned networks.  Added to the tremendous increase in workload caused by the onset of war, these self-inflicted wounds had severely overburdened Soviet intelligence.  Under the circumstances both the KGB and GRU welcomed all the help they could get from Golos and the CPUSA.  They might quibble and worry about violations of ideal espionage tradecraft but were not in position to do much more.  Further, Golos himself had been a pre-revolutionary Bolshevik and had long-standing ties to the KGB, earning him a measure of trust.  By the end of 1943, however, the KGB and GRU stations in the U.S. were fully staffed, their officers had gained experience working in America, and they set about bringing his networks under direct professional Soviet control.  When Golos died of a heart attack in late 1943, his assistant, Elizabeth Bentley, came under increasing pressure to turn his sources over to the KGB; by the end of 1944 she had been pushed aside and the CPUSA-based networks Golos and she had built had all been shifted to direct KGB control.[35]

By the late 1990s the new evidence of American Communist complicity with Soviet espionage was so overwhelming that it was obvious that our 1992 view that “espionage was not a regular activity of the American party” and was no more than a “sideshow” to the party’s history needed serious revision.  In Venona, we stated our revised view as follows:


as we read the deciphered messages showing that regional CPUSA officials, members of the party’s most powerful body, the Politburo, and the party chief himself knowingly and purposely assisted Soviet spies, it became clear that espionage was a regular activity of the American Communist party.  To say that the CPUSA was nothing but a Soviet fifth column in the Cold War would be an exaggeration; it still remains true that the CPUSA’s chief task was the promotion of communism and the interests of the Soviet Union through political means.  But, it is equally true that the CPUSA was indeed a fifth column working inside and against the United States in the Cold War.[36]

Despite the enormous risks involved, the CPUSA leadership was willing and eager to devote significant resources and their own political and legal lives to the service of Soviet intelligence.

Nor were we the only historians of American communism who had to partially retool themselves into historians of espionage in order to integrate the espionage story into the CPUSA’s history.  James Ryan’s 1981 dissertation on the life of Earl Browder gave little attention to the matter of espionage.  But when Ryan’s book version appeared in 1997 he had been to the Moscow archives and Venona messages had started to be released.  Espionage, nearly ignored in the 1981 dissertation, now received serious attention.  And in 2002, with Venona and Vassiliev’s material available, Ryan published an essay, “Socialist Triumph as a Family Value: Earl Browder and Soviet Espionage” that focused on Browder’s role in Soviet espionage.  Similarly, Vernon Pedersen whose writing in the 1980s gave scant attention to espionage, in his 2001 history of the CPUSA in the state of Maryland integrated into it the involvement of Maryland party cadre in espionage activities of Whittaker Chambers in Washington in the mid-1930s.[37]

The most prominent revisionist, Maurice Isserman, also recognized the need to integrate espionage into the history of the CPUSA.  He initially expected that the revelations from the Russian archives required only limited modification of his prior views.  “For my own part,” he wrote, “what has always interested me in the history of the C.P.U.S.A. had been the conflict between the ‘democratic, populist, and revolutionary’ beliefs of individual Communists, and its decidedly undemocratic purposes and conduct imposed on the party from abroad.” (Emphasis in original.)  Reviewing The Secret World of American Communism in 1995, Isserman thought it demonstrated only “ad hoc, amateurish and sporadic” participation in Soviet espionage by American Communists and believed that we had confused the party’s clandestine efforts to protect itself from government infiltrators with espionage.[38]  But as more information appeared, he adjusted his views, and in 1999 noted that the new evidence makes “it abundantly clear that the Soviet Union recruited most of its spies in the United States in the years leading up to and during World War II from the ranks of the Communist Party or among its close sympathizers -- an effort in which top party leaders were intimately involved.”[39]  By this he still didn’t mean he was adopting the traditionalist position.  Rather, he indicated:

The “new” history of American Communism and what might be called the new history of Communist espionage need not be mutually exclusive, let alone antagonistic, historical inquiries.  If this reviewer were to rewrite “Which Side Were You On?” today [his 1992 book], it would certainly be influenced by the revelations contained in books like “Venona” and “The Haunted Wood.”  By the same token, some of the concerns and themes raised by the new history of American Communism are not irrelevant to those who seek to decipher the mixture of faith and breach of faith that created a romance of the clandestine among some American Communists during World War II.[40]

Taking his own advice, Isserman wrote an essay entitled “Disloyalty as a Principle: Why Communists Spied.”  Coming, as this did from a historian whose book on American Communists in World War II had nothing on espionage, it represented an honest and commendable attempt to grapple with the evidence and integrate espionage into the history of American communism.  He sketched out two different types of Communist loyalties that provided motives for spying, represented respectively by Peggy Dennis and Walter Bernstein.  Dennis, a lifelong Communist militant and wife of Gene Dennis (head of the party from 1945 to 1959), was never a spy.  But her commitment to the USSR was typical of one kind of Communist, as Isserman wrote: “the Soviet Union was her real homeland, while life in the United States was a kind of unfortunate exile she had to endure until the great day came when American workers overthrew their own oppressors.”  Isserman illustrated a second type of Communist loyalty with a quotation from screenwriter and party member Walter Bernstein: “I believed in antifascism and international solidarity and brotherhood and the liberation of man, and the Soviet Union stood for all of these. . . . I was in the grip of a new kind of patriotism, one that transcended borders and unified disparate peoples.”  Isserman was inclined to think that most of those recruited to espionage were motivated by such a “romantic anti-fascism.”[41]

Ellen Schrecker, author of a number of revisionist books on McCarthyism and anticommunism acknowledged, “it is clear that some kind of espionage took place during the 1930s and 1940s” and “as the evidence accumulates, it does seem as if many of the alleged spies had, indeed, helped the Russians” and allowed that most of the spies were Communists.  But then she wondered:

Were these activities so awful?  Was the espionage, which unquestionably occurred, such a serious threat to the nation’s security that it required the development of a politically repressive internal security system?  It may be useful to take a more nuanced position and go beyond the question of guilt or innocence to ascertain not only how dangerous the transmission of unauthorized information was, but also why it occurred.  Because espionage is an issue that carries such heavy emotional freight, it is usually treated in a monolithic way that overlooks distinctions between different types of spying and different types of spies.

She then provided a rational that accepted the self-justifying motives that both the spies and the CPUSA itself would have found congenial:

The men and women who gave information to Moscow in the 1930s and 1940s did so for political, not pecuniary reasons.  They were already committed to Communism and they viewed what they were doing as their contribution to the cause . . . [and] it is important to realize that as Communists these people did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism; they were internationalists whose political allegiances transcended national boundaries.  They thought they were “building . . . a better world for the masses,” not betraying their country.[42]

What Schrecker’s apologia for Soviet espionage illustrates, however, is that the integration of the story of Soviet espionage into the history of domestic American communism also requires integrating it into the history of domestic American anticommunism.  The days when historians could dismiss public and government concern about Communist espionage as manufactured hysteria about something that did not exist are gone.

There are still historians who have refused to accept the new evidence about espionage either on the entirely unsupported grounds that the Venona messages and similar evidence are forgeries or CIA disinformation or on the basis of tortured and improbable readings of the documents themselves.  The former are cranks whose conspiracy theories discredit themselves.  The latter include James Boughton, official historian of the International Monetary Fund, and Roger Sandilands of Strathclyde University who have ardently defended Harry Dexter White and Lauchlin Currie in the face of clear and convincing documentary evidence of their espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.[43] 

The new evidence neither justifies nor excuses the excesses of domestic American anticommunism ordinarily subsumed under the label McCarthyism.[44]  But it does require a more complex and nuanced understanding of domestic American anticommunism than many historians in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were willing to provide.  It means separating sensible, rational, and entirely justifiable anticommunism and internal security policies from genuine excesses such as the fervid partisan charges by Senator McCarthy that Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Secretary of Defense George Marshall were part of a Communist conspiracy.

We are not the only historians who feel that the new evidence of CPUSA participation in Soviet espionage requires a rethinking of the history of domestic anticommunism and the long civil war within liberalism over the matter.  David Plotke, an historian of American liberalism[45] recognized that it impacted his field in an interesting progression of reviews of our books.  He agreed that in The Secret World of American Communism we had demonstrated “the political dishonesty of the CPUSA, its uncritical dependence on the Soviet leadership, and its hostility to democratic norms.”  But he thought, “the effort to indict individuals and especially the CPUSA as an organization for criminal conspiracy [in regard links to Soviet intelligence] is on balance not successful.”  We were guilty of using evidence in “a naive way” and while “future research may prove them [us] right … in trying to make their strongest charges stick, the authors reach too far.”[46]

A subsequent review of The Soviet World of American Communism had a change in tone and commented that we “make their [our] point powerfully” and “the reliance of the CPUSA on Soviet political leadership was indiscriminate,” consequently “the ferocious and unquestioning attachment of CPUSA leaders to their Soviet allies makes espionage appear more comprehensible.”[47]  Next reviewing Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, Plotke wrote, “the authors provide enough evidence” to “change one’s view of the character of American communism” and “Venona and the authors’ prior volumes have changed the debate about American communism.”  He commented, “evidence for substantial Communist involvement in Soviet espionage during the Poplar Front years . . . suggest that Popular Frontism was a partial, cynical, and unprincipled shift by CPUSA leaders.  Venona thus links the spectacular post-World War II failures of the communist left in the United States to its shallow and opportunistic notions of popular democratic politics” and “Venona causes problems for any effort to identify and honor a distinct Popular Front Left whose rejection of American policies was judicious and independent.”  He went on to observe that it “raises important issues that are contemporary as well as historical” and cited the need to consider what it meant for McCarthyism and “the reluctance of the post-Vietnam Left to recognize the extent of CPUSA corruption.”[48] 



The once widely separated historiographies of Soviet espionage and American communism have moved closer together.  Historians of domestic American communism and anticommunism must grapple with the CPUSA’s deep involvement with Soviet espionage being part of the story.  Not, of course, the whole story or even most of the story, but very definitely a significant part of the story.  And more broadly, historians of American politics in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s have to reconsider what was at stake in the civil war within liberalism in the late 1940s over the role of Communists and Popular Front liberals in the New Deal coalition as well as the context of the politics of anticommunism in that era. 

Similarly, historians of espionage need to broaden the scope of their study to encompass the era prior to what one might call the “high Cold War” of the 1950s and later, when espionage was largely the business of professionals.  In the 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s there was a fuzzy overlap between clandestine Comintern and CPUSA political work and KGB and GRU espionage.  Communists, many with no training as professional intelligence officers, moved back and forth between open party work, covert subversion, and secret intelligence operations.  The firewalls erected by professional intelligence officers in the 1950s between Communist party activities and Soviet intelligence did not exist.

This process has already begun.  Andrew and Mitrokhin’s The Sword and the Shield, is a book on Soviet espionage, not Communist history, but noted the quantitative and qualitative difference that occurred in Soviet intelligence operations when American security agency pressure on the CPUSA in the 1940s forced it out of the espionage business.  Katherine Sibley’s 2004 Red Spies in America: Stolen Secrets and the Dawn of the Cold War gave party officials such as Steve Nelson a major role.  And Steve Usdin emphasized the centrality of the Communist party and Communist ideology in his story of the espionage careers of Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, two electrical engineers in Julius Rosenberg’s espionage apparatus in Engineering Communism.  Usdin demonstrated that Rosenberg and other members of his apparatus were not professional intelligence officers or even recruited by professional intelligence officers, but enthusiastic Communist amateurs who only later came under KGB supervision.[49] 

The evidence of Communist espionage that has become available since 1992 has not by any measure been fully digested or comprehended by historians.  And additional new archival evidence becomes available every year.  This is a field where much remains to be learned and much remains to be debated and discussed.


Return to Responses, Reflections and Occasional Papers  //  Return to Historical Writings







[1]. For a comprehensive bibliography of this literature, see chapter 30, “Espionage,” of the on-line “American Communism and Anticommunism: A Historian’s Bibliography and Guide to the Literature” (2005) at: < >.

[2]. Alistair Cooke, A Generation on Trial: U.S.A. v. Alger Hiss (New York: Knopf, 1950); Whittaker Chambers, Witness (New York: Random House, 1952); Flora Lewis, Red Pawn: The Story of Noel Field. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965); Robert J. Lamphere and Tom Shachtman, The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent’s Story (New York: Random House, 1986).

[3]. David J. Dallin, Soviet Espionage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955).  Dallin and Boris Nicolaevsky’s 1947 Forced Labor in Soviet Russia (New Haven: Yale University Press) had been a pioneering study of the Soviet labor camp system, well received in the academic world at the time, but again in 1960s it was retroactivley discredited among most American scholars due to its use of defector testimony and Dallin’s Menshevick origins.  Indeed, Dallin and Nicolaevsky’ 1947 book was so thorough erased from American academic memory that the appearance of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in the mid-1970s came as a unexpected shock. 

[4]. Herbert L. Packer, Ex-Communist Witnesses: Four Studies in Fact Finding (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1962), 222; David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977), 56.  Caute was a journalist and writer rather than a professional historian, nonetheless The Great Fear had a detailed scholarly apparatus and was widely used as a text and source by American scholars. Athan G. Theoharis and John Stuart Cox, The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 222, 250.

[5]. Caute, The Great Fear, 21, 54.

[6]. Among Theoharis’s other works that minimize Soviet espionage and any link with the CPUSA are: Athan G. Theoharis, Seeds of Repression: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of McCarthyism (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971); Athan G Theoharis, “The Truman Administration and the Decline of Civil Liberties: The FBI’s Success in Securing Authorization for a Preventive Detention Program,” Journal of American History 64, no. 4 (March 1978); Athan G. Theoharis, Spying on Americans: Political Surveillance from Hoover to the Huston Plan (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978) Athan Theoharis, “FBI Surveillance During the Cold War Years: A Constitutional Crisis,” Public Historian 3 (Winter 1981): 4–14; Athan G. Theoharis, ed., The Truman Presidency: The Origins of the Imperial Presidency and the National Security State, ed. Athan G. Theoharis (Stanfordville, N.Y.: E.M. Coleman Enterprises, 1979).  Two books that Thoharis edited also brought together more than a dozen American academics who shared the view that Soviet espionage was minimal and American Communists had little to do with it:  Robert Griffith and Athan G. Theoharis, eds., The Specter; Original Essays on the Cold War and the Origins of McCarthyism (New York: New Viewpoints, 1974); Athan G. Theoharis, ed., Beyond the Hiss Case: The FBI, Congress, and the Cold War (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982).  Two of the many books with a similar approach are: Robert Griffith, The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate (Lexington: Published for the Organization of American Historians by University Press of Kentucky, 1970); Alan D. Harper, The Politics of Loyalty: The White House and the Communist Issue, 1946–1952 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Pub. Corp., 1969).

[7]. Allen Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (New York: Knopf, 1978); Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1983).

[8]. There were a number of polemical or journalistic non-scholarly defenses of Hiss or the Rosenbergs:  Fred J. Cook, The Unfinished Story of Alger Hiss (New York: Morrow, 1958), a book-length polemic by a far-left journalist arguing that Hiss was innocent of all charges; Alger Hiss, In the Court of Public Opinion (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1957), Hiss’s own brief for the defense that takes a legalistic approach more concerned about the admissibility of evidence than the validity of the evidence and refrains from offering a counter-narrative to that of Chambers; William Allen Jowitt, The Strange Case of Alger Hiss (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1953), by a British jurist who adopts the role of advocate for the defense and argues that the evidence against Hiss was perjured or faked; and John Chabot Smith, Alger Hiss: The True Story (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), a journalist who maintains that Hiss was innocent and advances a number of possible conspiracies, several contradictory, to account for the evidence against Hiss.  The only comprehensive examination of the evidence on the Hiss case comparable to that which Weinstein provided was by the writer Sam Tanenhaus whose biography of Whittaker Chambers also concluded that Hiss was guilty, Sam Tanenhaus, Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1997).  The principle Rosenberg defense book was Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), by two hard left journalists.

[9]. Gordon S. Watkins, “Revolutionary Communism in the United States,” American Political Science Review 14, no. 1 (February 1920); David Moses Schneider, “The Workers’ (Communist) Party and American Trade Unions” (dissertation (1927) published as a book, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1928).

[10]. The KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti or Committee for State Security) and its foreign intelligence arm have a complex organizational history.  The predecessors to the KGB, which came into existence in 1954, include the Cheka (All-Russian Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counterrevolution and Sabotage), GPU (State Political Directorate), OGPU (United State Political Directorate), NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs), GUGB (Main Administration of State Security), NKGB (People’s Commissariat of State Security), MGB (Ministry of State Security), KI (Committee of Information), and MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs).  For simplicity, throughout this paper the term KGB will be used to designate these various predecessor organizations.  Similary, the foreign intelligence arm of Red Army and, later, Soviet Army military intelligence will be referred to as the GRU (Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravleniye or Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet General Staff).  To make it more complicated, 1937-1938 and again in 1947-1949, GRU and KGB were briefly merged.

[11]. On the ties and overlaps between Comintern covert operations and Soviet intelligence, see David McKnight, Espionage and the Roots of the Cold War: The Conspiratorial Heritage (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2002).

[12]. The Fund for the Republic was a private foundation headed by the former president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins.  The books of the series are: Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (New York: Viking Press, 1957); Robert W. Iversen, The Communists & the Schools (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959); David A. Shannon, The Decline of American Communism: A History of the Communist Party of the United States Since 1945 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959); Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia (New York: Viking Press, 1960); Clinton Lawrence Rossiter, Marxism: The View from America (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960); Ralph Lord Roy, Communism and the Churches (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960); Nathan Glazer, The Social Basis of American Communism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1961); Frank S. Meyer, The Moulding of Communists: The Training of the Communist Cadre. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1961); Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961); Earl Latham, The Communist Controversy in Washington: From the New Deal to McCarthy. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966).

[13]. Irving Howe and Lewis A. Coser, The American Communist Party: A Critical History, 1919–1957, assisted by Julius Jacobson (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957); Max M. Kampelman, The Communist Party Vs. the C.I.O.: A Study in Power Politics (New York: F. A. Praeger, 1957); Joseph R. Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 1943–1957 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972).

[14]. On the groups of “traditionalist,” “revisionist,” and “neo-traditionalists” in the historiography of domestic American communism, see: John Earl Haynes, “The Cold War Debate Continues: A Traditionalist View of Historical Writing on Domestic Communism and Anti-Communism,” Journal of Cold War Studies 2, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 76–115; John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, “The Historiography of American Communism: An Unsettled Field,” Labour History Review [Great Britain] 68, no. 1 (April 2003).

[15]. Howe and Coser, The American Communist Party, 434.

[16]. Draper, Roots; Glazer, Social Basis; Aaron, Writers; Glazer, Social Basis Iversen, Schools; Rossiter, Marxism; Roy, Churches; Meyer, Moulding.   Kampelman, writing about the role of Communists in the CIO, also had little reason to consider the issue. 

[17]. Shannon, The Decline of American Communism, 78–81.

[18]. Draper, American Communism, 213–14.

[19]. Draper, American Communism, 214.

[20]. See, for example, Staughton Lynd, “The Possibility of Radicalism in the Early 1930s: The Case of Steel,” Radical America 6 (December 1972); John Gerassi, “The Comintern, the Fronts, and the CPUSA,” in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism, in New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism, ed. Michael E. Brown, et al. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993).

[21]. Examples are: Gerald Horne, Black and Red: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944–1963 (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1986); Gerald Horne, Communist Front?: The Civil Rights Congress, 1946–1956 (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press and Associated University Presses, 1988); Gerald Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare: Ben Davis and the Communist Party (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1993); Roger Keeran, The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980).

[22]. The one exception to this is a small body of Trotskyist-oriented historians who accept the Trotskyist critique of Stalinism.  See, for example, Bryan D. Palmer, “Rethinking the Historiography of United States Communism,” American Communist History 2, no. 2 (Winter 2003).

[23]. Among the major revisionist works are: Maurice Isserman, Which Side Were You on? the American Communist Party During the Second World War (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1982); Harvey A. Levenstein, Communism, Anti-Communism, and the CIO (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981); Steve Rosswurm, ed., The CIO’s Left-Led Unions (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992); Fraser M. Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States: From the Depression to World War II (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991); Paul Lyons, Philadelphia Communists, 1936–1956 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982); Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983); Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); Michael E. Brown, et al., New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993).  On the revisionist view of the historiography, see: Maurice Isserman, “Three Generations: Historians View American Communism,” Labor History 26, no. 4 (Fall 1985): 517–45.

[24]. Isserman, “Three Generations,” 538.

[25]. Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, The American Communist Movement: Storming Heaven Itself (New York: Twayne, 1992), 4, 179.

[26]. Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 138, 161, 440–41.

[27]. Klehr and Haynes, American Communist Movement, 56, 107–08, 135, 180–81.

[28]. With this material we produced two books, Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, The Secret World of American Communism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) and Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Kyrill M. Anderson, The Soviet World of American Communism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).  Additionally, we arranged for the U.S. Library of Congress to microfilm the CPUSA records (fond 515) for placement at the Library of Congress and other major American research libraries for research use.  We also assisted in the Library of Congress joining the Incomka Project for the digitalization of Comintern records, including those of the Anglo-American secretariat, and their availability at the Library of Congress and other institutions.  The results have been renewed vigor in the history of American communism with scores of new books, essays, theses, and dissertations appearing.  The historiographic debate has also been drastically altered with the traditionalist interpretation that we espouse tremendously strengthened while revisionist views have been chastened.  But that historiographic debate is not the subject of this paper and can be followed elsewhere: Haynes, “The Cold War Debate Continues” and John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, In Denial: Historians, Communism, and Espionage (San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 2003).

[29]. The opinion of one of the appeals court noted that while legal rules required the conviction be voided, Coplon’s “guilt was plain.”

[30]. Lamphere and Shachtman, The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent’s Story, 78–98; Radosh and Milton, The Rosenberg File (1983), 130; David C. Martin, Wilderness of Mirrors (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 39–45; Christopher M. Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story of Its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev (New York, NY: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1990), 373–76, 446–47; Peter Wright and Paul Greengrass, Spy Catcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer (New York: Viking, 1987), 239–45.

[31]. John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); Nigel West, Venona: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War (London: HarperCollins, 1999); Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel, The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America’s Traitors (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Pub., 2000).

[32]. Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, Bombshell: The Secret Story of America’s Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy (New York: Times Books, 1997); Kathryn S. Olmsted, Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Lauren Kessler, Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley’s Life in and Out of Espionage (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).

[33]. Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America--the Stalin Era (New York: Random House, 1999); Christopher M. Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

[34]. Weinstein and Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood, 305–06.

[35]. On the CPUSA’s role in Soviet espionage see: John Earl Haynes, “The American Communist Party as an Auxiliary to Espionage: From Asset to Liability,” paper presented at 2005 Raleigh International Spy Conference  [–11–05.aspx] (Raleigh, NC, 2005).

[36]. Haynes and Klehr, Venona, 7.

[37]. James Ryan, “Earl Browder and American Communism at High Tide: 1934–1945” (Ph.D. diss., Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 1981); James G. Ryan, Earl Browder: The Failure of American Communism (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1997); James G. Ryan, “Socialist Triumph as a Family Value: Earl Browder and Soviet Espionage,” American Communist History 1, no. 2 (December 2002); Vernon L. Pedersen, The Communist Party in Maryland, 1919–57 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001).

[38]. Maurice Isserman, “Notes from Underground,” The Nation, 12 June 1995, 846, 848, 850–56.

[39]. Maurice Isserman, “Guess What - They Really Were Spies,” Forward, 29 January 1999, 11.

[40]. Maurice Isserman, “They Led Two Lives,” New York Times Book Review, 9 May 1999, 35.

[41]. Maurice Isserman, “Disloyalty as a Principle: Why Communists Spied,” Foreign Service Journal 77, no. 10 (October 2000): 29–38.

[42]. Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1998), 166, 178–79, 188.

[43]. James M. Boughton, “The Case Against Harry Dexter White: Still not Proven,” History of Political Economy 33, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 219–39; James M. Boughton and Roger J. Sandilands, “Politics and the Attack on FDR’s Economists: From the Grand Alliance to the Cold War,” Intelligence and National Security 18, no. 3 (Autumn 2003); Roger J. Sandilands, “Guilt by Association? Lauchlin Currie’s Alleged Involvement with Washington Economists in Soviet Espionage,” History of Political Economy 32, no. 3 (2000): 474–515.  Other examples continued disregard for clear evidence of espionage by academics include: Bernice Schrank, “Reading the Rosenbergs After Venona,” Labour / Le Travail 49 (Spring 2002): 189–210; Norman Markowitz, “Rosenberg, Ethel, and Julius Rosenberg,” in American National Biography, Vol. 18 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 879–81; William E. Pemberton, “Hiss, Alger,” in Encyclopedia of U.S. Foreign Relations (Vol. 2), ed. Bruce W. Jentleson and Thomas G. Paterson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 195; Ellen Schrecker, ed., Cold War Triumphalism: The Misuse of History After the Fall of Communism (New York: New Press distributed by W.W. Norton & Co., 2004).

[44]. Harvey Klehr, “Was Joe McCarthy Right?” paper presented at 2005 Raleigh International Spy Conference  [–11–05.aspx] (Raleigh, NC, 2005).  See also John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, “Soviet Espionage and Communist Subversion in the United States in the Early Cold War: What Do We Know?” paper presented at  Eisenhower Center for American Studies “McCarthyism in America” conference (National Archives, Washington, D.C., 2000).

[45]. Plotke is the author of: David Plotke, Building a Democratic Political Order: Reshaping American Liberalism in the 1930s and 1940s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[46]. David Plotke, “Review of The Secret World of American Communism,” Political Science Quarterly 111, no. 4 (Winter 1996–97): 730–32.

[47]. David Plotke, “Review of The Soviet World of American Communism,” Political Science Quarterly 114, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 173–75.

[48]. David Plotke, “Review of Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America,” Political Science Quarterly 115, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 289–92.

[49]. Andrew and Mitrokhin, Sword and the Shield, 148; Katherine A.S. Sibley, Red Spies in America: Stolen Secrets and the Dawn of the Cold War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004); Steven Usdin, Engineering Communism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005).