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Exchange with Arthur Herman and Venona book talk

Joint Herman and Haynes Book Talk, February, 2000, Borders Book Store, Washington, D.C.

[Comment After Arthur Herman discussed his book:

Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator]

                Let me say to start that the publication of Arthur Herman’s book has made my life easier.  For a number of years Harvey Klehr and I have been denounced for attempting to rehabilitate Joseph McCarthy, something we had not done.  Now with Arthur’s book out with its defense, albeit a qualified one, of McCarthy, people can denounce Arthur for what he did rather than Klehr and me for what we did not do.   Arthur, my thanks to you for diverting so much flak.

                I think Arthur Herman’s book does an excellent job of correcting the excessive, indeed hysterical demonization of McCarthy that has been typical of far too many historical accounts.  I do not, however, share Herman’s positive appraisal, qualified though it is, of McCarthy.

                In my view the American Communist party was a real danger to American democracy in the context of the early Cold War.  Its chief threat was that of political subversion, not espionage.  It is difficult to imagine that the political mobilization necessary for America’s commitment to the early Cold War would taken place had Communists and their allies retained the influence they had achieved in the labor movement and the broad New Deal coalition. 

                But from 1946 to 1950 a internal civil war took place within labor and liberal political institutions over the direction of postwar liberalism.  Initially, the Popular Front liberals of the Progressive Citizens of America appeared to be the stronger, but by 1949 the anti-Communist liberalism of the American for Democratic Action had triumphed.  Initially, it looked as if Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party with its secret Communist leadership might wrest the mantle of heir of the New Deal from a faltering Harry Truman and the Democratic Party.  But after a weak start, Truman reformulated the New Deal domestic program for the postwar era and adopted a policy of confrontation with Soviet policy that transformed him into the greatest of the Cold War liberal presidents.  When the 1948 election was over, Wallace and the Progressive Party had ceased to be a viable alternative to Truman and the Democrats.  And, finally, the last bastions of Communist institutional strength were destroyed when the CIO expelled it Communist-led unions.  By 1950 only remnants remained of the once significant Communist role in  mainstream politics, civic institutions, and the labor movement.  The heroes of this, and they certainly were heroes in my view, were ADA leaders such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., anti-Communist liberal politicians such as Hubert Humphrey and Paul Douglas, and anti-Communist labor leaders such as Walter Reuther and Philip Murray.

                 Soviet espionage also had been significant, but again, not all, but much of this was gone by 1950.   The largest Soviet World War II espionage networks had been destroyed or neutralized in the wake of Bentley’s defection in 1945, the leads into Soviet espionage provided by Venona to American counter-intelligence, by the FBI’s full-court press against the CPUSA, and President Truman’s loyalty-security program for government employees.   Soviet espionage continued, and there is a good deal we do not know about what continued in the late 1940s, but the level appears to have need considerably reduced.  Oddly, some commentators have advanced the argument that since Soviet espionage was reduced in the late 1940s, there was no need for the government’s anti-Communist measures.  This truly puts the cart before the horse.   If Truman had not established a government employee loyalty-security program that removed Communists from positions of trust, if the FBI and other government authorities had not infiltrated, harassed, and prosecuted the CPUSA, if labor unions, liberal political bodies, and other civic and private groups had not made Communists unwelcome in their institutions, then the KGB and GRU would not have changed what had up to that point been highly successful methods of operations.  They abandoned use of the CPUSA not because they had ethical objections to this strategy or because the CPUSA had developed moral objections to it either.  Soviet intelligence abandoned use of the CPUSA for espionage because it had become risky.  Had the U.S. government not adopted these policies, the KGB, GRU and CPUSA would have happily continued as before.

                But the policies were continued, and by 1950 the shockingly high level of Soviet infiltration of U.S. government agencies that had existed during World War II was largely gone.  And, at the same time, politically an anti-Communist consensus prevailed not only in the Republican Party but in the Democratic Party and the major institutions of liberalism. 

                Enter, then, Joseph McCarthy.  McCarthy in my view threatened that anti-Communist consensus.  He attempted to make anticommunism a partisan weapon.    Senator Joseph McCarthy painted the New Deal as part of a disguised Communist plot and depicted Truman administration leaders Dean Acheson and George Marshall as participants in a Communist conspiracy.   There is no basis in Venona or in the Soviet archives for implicating Acheson or Marshall as participants in a Communist conspiracy or for describing either the Roosevelt or the Truman administrations as the instrument of a Soviet conspiracy.  To be sure, some officials, including some very high ones, in those administrations displayed naivete toward Soviet espionage, and internal-security policies until the late 1940s were notably weak but there is no evidence that would justify McCarthy’s charge of administration complicity.  There were, indeed, some government officials, including a few senior ones, who betrayed the United States by assisting Soviet intelligence, but these persons were betraying Roosevelt and Truman and their administration colleagues as well as betraying the nation as a whole.

                Normal democratic politics cannot proceed when one side in a partisan battle regards the other as the enemy of fundamental values.  Sometimes it is true that one force in a polity does threaten the fundamental values, or the foundation rules of democracy itself, or the institutional existence of other groups, and when that happens with major political forces one has a genuine systemic crisis and outcome may be civil war, as it was in 1861 when Southern political leaders felt that the policies of the newly ascendant Republicans threatened slavery, an institution then fundamental to Southern society.  Or it may be true but the political force that threatens fundamental values is a not a powerful one and can be marginalized, as American Communists were in the late 1940s,  while leaving the major participants in democratic politics largely unaffected.  But sometimes it isn’t true, and we have a crisis generated by demagoguery and malign partisan zeal when one side falsely or mistakenly attempts to paint the other as illegitimate.  In my view that is what McCarthy attempted to do, and is why I view his role as a negative one. 

                He did not succeed, and did not even come close.  As I said earlier, I do not regard McCarthy as some sort of monster who terrorized the nation and seriously threatened its democratic value.  Rather than the Great Satan he is depicted as in many histories, he was a minor devil.  In my view the new evidence in general vindicates the broad anti-Communist consensus of American politics in the late 1940s and 1950s but does not vindicate Joseph McCarthy in the particular.     


Comment regarding Venona


                                In 1992 Harvey Klehr and I published a history of the Communist Party, USA entitled The American Communist Movement: Storming Heaven Itself.  In this book we spent only a few pages on espionage.  We did put forward evidence that American Communists had assisted Soviet espionage against the United States.  But the limitations of the evidence then available made us cautious in our broader judgment.  We wrote that:

”Ideologically, American Communists owed their first loyalty to the motherland of communism rather than to the U.S., 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 C.P.  The 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 Communist Party chiefly as an instrument of espionage or a sort of Fifth Column misjudges its main purpose.”

                But within months of publishing that statement we were in Moscow to examine the long closed records of the Communist International (known as the Comintern) and the files of the CPUSA itself.  What we found there led  to the opening in 1995 of the Venona documents here in the U.S.  Venona consists nearly 5,000 pages of decoded cable traffic between Soviet intelligence officers in the U.S. and some elsewhere with their superiors in Moscow.  At that point  Klehr and I realized that scholars now had available a massive array of documentation on Soviet espionage in the early Cold War.    In addition to Venona and the Moscow archival material, over the last decade a vast accumulation of FBI and U.S. government agency had become available under the Freedom of Information Act or routine retirement of records to the National Archives.  All of this allowed a reappraisal of information that had long been available from court actions and congressional hearings back in the 1940s and 50s.

                The result of this reappraisal is this book Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America.  In this book we significantly modified what we had written earlier.  As we determined based in the new evidence that not a “few” as we wrote in 1992, but of hundreds of American Communists had assisted Soviet espionage in the United States, as we read the deciphered messages showing regional CPUSA officials, members of the party’s most powerful body, the Political Bureau, and the very head of the party itself knowingly and purposely assisted Soviet spies, it became crystal 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 USSR through political means.  But, it is also emphatically true that in addition to promoting communism through political means, the CPUSA was in addition a Fifth Column in the Soviet Cold War against the United States.

The Main Contours of Soviet Espionage

                It is now possible to see that Soviet intelligence operations in the U.S. fell into several different phases.  During the first phase, from the late 1920s through the 1930s, Soviet intelligence emphasized industrial-technical espionage as well as the use of American territory for staging intelligence operations in other nations.  As in other areas, the Soviets relied heavily on ideological sympathy as a source for industrial spies.   In the 1930s Communist party membership became largely native-born, and more educated people joined, including a segment of scientifically and technically-trained professionals.  American Communists regarded the capitalist corporations they worked for as morally illegitimate institutions.  Consequently, when Soviet intelligence officers approached and asked that the scientific secrets of these corporations be shared with the Soviet Union few, none that we know of, had any moral objections. 

                In the late 1930s and 1940 the KGB also used the U.S. as one of several staging areas for multiple KGB plots to murder exiled Soviet leader Leon Trotsky, then living in Mexico.  Indeed, American Communists played a key role in infiltrating Trotsky’s eventual killer into Trotsky’s household in Mexico City.  American Communists were also central to the KGB efforts, ultimately unsuccessful, to free the murderer from a Mexican prison .  

                While it was then a secondary concern, in the mid-1930s Soviet intelligence began its first operations aimed at American governmental agencies, particularly the Department of State.    By the end of 1936 at least four mid-level State Department officials were delivering information to Soviet intelligence: Alger Hiss, assistant to Assistant Secretary of State Francis Sayre; Julian Wadleigh, economist in the Trade Agreements Section, Laurence Duggan, Latin American division; and Noel Field, West European division. 

                The next phase of Soviet espionage came in the early 1940s, after the Nazi attack on the USSR in June 1941 and American entry into the war in December.  The USSR became a major recipient of American military aid and thousands of Soviet military officers and technicians entered the U.S. to assist the aid program.   Scores of Soviet intelligence officers were also among the personnel arriving in America.  With these officers and their American helpers the Soviet Union waged an unrestrained espionage offensive against the United States from 1942  to late 1945.   

                Soviet recruitment of  sources within American intelligence agencies, particularly within the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency was particularly impressive.  The highest ranking of these recruits was Duncan Lee, counsel to General William Donovan, OSS head.  Lee, however, was extremely cautious and less productive than such KGB sources as Maurice Halperin and Donald Wheeler, both in the OSS Research and Analysis division.  There were at least fifteen Soviet agents inside the OSS, with the actual number probably around twenty.

                The Soviets also developed about twenty sources within the U.S. State Department and other wartime foreign relations agencies.  The two most senior had first been active in the 1930s,  Alger Hiss and Laurence Duggan.  A number of Soviet spies connected to American diplomacy were identified only by code-names in Venona.  Their real identities were never determined.  They may have continued to spy in the post-war period.   American counter-intelligence officials spent years interviewing and examining the backgrounds of hundreds of American diplomatic personnel trying to attach a real name to the code-names of these people but failed.

                The U.S. Treasury hosted nearly a dozen Soviet sources, including one of the most important, Harry White, assistant secretary of the treasury and the second most influential official in the department.  One of White’s contributions to Soviets was that of protecting Soviet espionage networks.  Gregory Silvermaster headed an extremely large Soviet espionage apparatus.  While nominally remaining on the employment rolls of the Farm Security Administration, Silvermaster arranged  in 1942 to be detailed to the Board of Economic Warfare.  The transfer, however, triggered objections from military counter-intelligence that suspected was a hidden Communist and regarded him as a security risk. 

                Silvermaster denied any Communist links and appealed to Under Secretary of War Robert Patterson to overrule the security officials.  Harry White contacted Patterson and told him that suspicions about Silvermaster were baseless.  Lauchlin Currie, a presidential aide who also cooperated with Soviet intelligence, personally phoned Patterson and urged a reconsideration of Silvermaster’s case.  Patterson chose to trust these highly-placed persons and overruled military counter-intelligence.  His naive decision facilitated the work of a man who headed one of the most productive Soviet espionage rings and provided substance for the postwar Republican charge that high officials in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations aided Soviet espionage against the United States.

                One could go on and on listing the many dozens of Americans who knowingly and consciously assisted Soviet espionage in the 1930s and 1940s.   In Venona we concluded that there were more than four hundred.

                Soviet intelligence agencies were able to call upon the assistance of these extraordinary numbers of American because during the 1930s and up to 1946, they could rely on the help of the CPUSA.   The American Communist movement was not just a recruiting ground for Soviet intelligence.  It also functioned as an auxiliary to Soviet espionage.  Earl Browder, the general secretary of the CPUSA from 1930 until 1945 supervised his party’s cooperation with the KGB and GRU with the active assistance of a dozen high-level party officials and numerous rank-and-file members.   A 1946 KGB memo gave Browder personal credit for KGB recruitment of eighteen agents, including several highly valuable ones.

                Many of the KGB’s sources in this period regarded themselves to be under CPUSA as well as Soviet direction.  In early 1945, Akhmerov, the KGB illegal officer, sent a long cable to Moscow discussing the large Silvermaster apparatus.  Akhmerov noted that “it is doubtful whether ... [the KGB] could get same results as ... [Silvermaster].”   He told Moscow that “it costs ... [Silvermaster] great pains to keep ...  [the American sources] in line.  ... [Silvermaster] being their leader in the CPUSA line helps him give them orders” and added “that our ... [KGB officers] would not manage to work with the same success under the CPUSA flag.”  The productivity of the CPUSA-based networks supervised by Akhmerov is illustrated by KGB records of the numbers of reels of microfilm of U.S. government documents delivered to Moscow via Akhmerov: 59 in 1942, 211 in 1943, 600 in 1944, and 1,896 in 1945. 

Closing the Barn Door

                 To use the jargon of Cold War espionage, in the 1930s and early 1940s there was only limited “compartmentalization” between the CPUSA and Soviet espionage.  The organizational blending of these different aspects of the Communist movement allowed the Soviet Union to maximize its return on the assets it possessed.  But after World War II when American authorities belatedly paid attention and the FBI began an aggressive investigation, the vulnerability of this arrangement also became clear.  An organization as large as the CPUSA had too many areas of weakness.  Many party-linked espionage operations were exposed and neutralized by American counter-intelligence in the late 1940s and 1950s.  And the CPUSA itself became tainted with disloyalty.

                Some in the KGB saw it coming.  In late 1944 two senior KGB officers, Stephan Apresyan of the New York KGB station, and Vladimir Pravdin, a KGB officer who worked out of Washington, sent cables to Moscow criticizing each other’s performance but also disagreeing over KGB tactics.  Apresyan denounced Pravdin for believing that “without the help of the ... [American Communists] we are completely powerless.” Apresyan argued that “it is ... untrue that without ...  [Browder] we are ‘powerless.’” While “we shall have to have recourse to the ... [American Communists] ... they ought not to be the one and only base especially if you take into account the fact that in the event of ... [Thomas Dewey’s] being elected [U.S. president] this source may dry up.”  Apresyan lost that particular argument.  Dewey was not elected in 1944, and the KGB was able to continue to use the CPUSA as an auxiliary, but the reprieve ended in 1945. 

                In August 1945 Elizabeth Bentley turned herself in to the government.  The Soviets quickly closed down the networks with which she worked and withdrew from the U.S. those KGB officers whom she knew.  On the heels of Bentley’s defection came Igor Gouzenko, a GRU cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Canada who disclosed information about Soviet espionage both in Canada and the U.S..  By the end of 1946 evidence indicating large-scale Soviet espionage operations in the U.S. had grown formidable.  Further, the external context had also changed.  American expectations that Europe would be reconstructed as democratic and independent nations as promised in the Atlantic Charter, the Four Freedoms, and the Declaration of Liberated Europe, soon ran into the reality of Stalin’s policies in Central and Eastern Europe.  The Truman administration shifted in fits and starts towards a policy of confrontation with Soviet foreign policy and also shifted from a policy of indifference towards Soviet espionage to active hostility.  Secretary of State Byrnes quietly eased Alger Hiss out of the State Department in 1946.  That same year the FBI began notifying senior administrators of security concerns about those several score persons identified by Bentley who still worked for the government; most were forced to seek employment in the private sector or found their jobs abolished.   President Truman issued an executive order setting up a loyalty program for federal government employees.  Then in 1948 the Truman administration indicted the leaders of the CPUSA under the sedition sections of the 1940 Smith Act.  Later the Truman administration would undertake prosecutions of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs.  The 1944 fears of KGB officer Apresyan came true.  The CPUSA dried up as a base for Soviet espionage once the administration got serious about internal security and authorized the FBI and other security agencies to vigorously pursue Communists.

Espionage, the CPUSA, and Postwar Anticommunism

                The massive size of the Soviet espionage offensive in World War II, the role of the CPUSA as an auxiliary to espionage, and the extent to which the CPUSA remained under the control of an antidemocratic hostile foreign power are fundamental to understanding the postwar anti-Communist era in American politics.