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2005 NSA Cryptologic History Symposium

"VENONA and Cold War Historiography in the Academic World"

by Harvey Klehr

27 October 2005



          The collapse of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites and the subsequent opening of a variety of once-closed archives have led to an enormous expansion of fascinating new material for military, diplomatic and political historians of the 20th century.  Those of us whose field of interest is domestic American politics have not been unaffected.  As a result of a deluge of documents and files detailing the history of the Communist Party of the United States, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought in Spain and the Communist International, among others, there has been renewed interest in the role of the American left in recent American history.  The release of the Venona documents just over ten years ago and nearly simultaneous access by a handful of scholars like Allen Weinstein to summaries of KGB files prepared by Alexander Vassiliev or Christopher Andrew to Vasili Mitrokhin’s KGB archive have resulted in a stunning expansion of our knowledge of the scope and significance of Soviet espionage.


          When new archives become accessible, historians are usually eager and enthusiastic to mine their riches and exploit the insights they offer into the past.  The Venona material was as rich and significant a trove of documents as one could imagine but professional historians have not reacted with universal enthusiasm to this material.  To anyone who has followed the story of the political and ideological conflicts that have roiled the academic world in the past decade, the varied reactions to Venona should be no surprise, but they might well be depressing.


          As I assume most people in this room are aware there have been a number of books using the Venona material.  From my own admittedly biased perspective, the Klehr-Haynes Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, Nigel West’s Venona and Mortal Crimes, Romerstein and Breindel’s The Venona Secrets, and David MacNight’s Australia’s Spies and Their Secrets have laid out with admirable clarity the story of Soviet espionage.  When supplemented by Weinstein and Vassiliev’s The Haunted Wood, and Andrews The Mitrokhin Archive these books provided a thorough grounding in the topic, whatever differences of interpretation and nuance among them.


          As John Haynes and I explained in our book, In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage, not all historians of this era or topic were in agreement.  The study of American communism has been a contentious area, with wildly differing interpretations about the independence and autonomy of the CPUSA.  The issue of anti-communism and the McCarthy era has generated intense debate with charges that it represented a witchhunt and responses that there was a significant internal security threat.  So, the Venona material was sifted through deeply held ideological prisms. 


          Apart from those who have written the afore-mentioned books on Venona, I would identify three different kinds of responses to the material from those who had previously argued the case for the relative autonomy of the CPUSA and a view of the McCarthy era as an age of paranoia.  The first, exemplified most prominently by Maurice Isserman, is a recognition that Venona changed the game.  Whatever differences he still has with historians like John Haynes and myself about the American Communist party, Isserman is too good and honest a historian to ignore documentary evidence.  Originally, he thought that the CPUSA’s involvement in Soviet espionage was only sporadic and ad hoc, but as more and more evidence accumulated, he agreed that there was no question but that scores of American Communists had cooperated with Soviet espionage agencies with the approval and assistance of the Party’s leadership. 


          The second response is to doubt the credibility of the Venona material.  One of the first examples came at an earlier Cryptologic History Symposium (1997) when Professor Brian Villa of the University of Ottawa claimed with no evidence that the United States government had lied about when the decoding of Venona occurred and there was a second, still-hidden Venona project that contained the real story.  But Professor Villa, who never pursued that line of thought, was not the last to suggest that Venona was a hoax.  Professor Bernice Schrank of Memorial University in Canada valiantly if incoherently argued for the Rosenbergs’ innocence by suggesting that the NSA had doctored the Venona messages, although her examples only showed that she did not understand the process by which messages were decrypted, declassified or disseminated.  Professor Norman Markowitz of Rutgers University, a proud, self-confessed member of the Communist Party of the United States, similarly labeled the decoded cables “discredited” before pronouncing the Rosenbergs victims of a government frame-up in a volume of the prestigious American National Biography series, a standard reference source found in most libraries.


Dismissing the Venona documents as frauds or forgeries is, however, not terribly productive.  There is too much information, too many veterans of the project to attest to its methods and history and too much corroboration of its major findings by retired Soviet intelligence officers, once-closed Russian archives and other sources.  Instead, some historians who find the information revealed by Venona to be unpalatable have tried to suggest that, while the documents are genuine, they are not necessarily accurate.  KGB agents, it is alleged, were busy telling their Moscow superiors what they wanted to hear and boasting about non-existent sources within the American government.  Thus, Anna Kasten Nelson of American University is confident that “Agents tend to tell their superiors what they want to hear” and Scott Lucas of Birmingham University in England discerns “the tendency of any intelligence officer to exaggerate, for political superiors, the number and importance of agents they are controlling.”  And Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva University repeats the same charge.  None offered any evidence. 


The most determined effort to read Venona messages to exonerate a Soviet source is provided by Roger Sandilands of the University of Strathclyde, a biographer of Lauchlin Currie.  Sandilands attempted to parse the Venona messages implicating Currie to demonstrate his innocence.  By providing implausible readings of each of the messages, wrenched out of context and divorced from other evidence about the operations of Soviet espionage, Sandilands offers what he himself describes as a “fanciful, but not completely implausible conjecture” that Currie was either indiscreet with his friends or an authorized back channel to the Soviets although the two conjectures are logically contradictory. 


James Boughton, formerly of Indiana University and the official historian of the International Monetary Fund also adopted the argument for indiscretion.  In response to the fifteen Venona messages dealing with White, including those in which he provided the Soviets with American bargaining positions and details about how far the US was willing to go on issues related to the Polish government-in-exile, Boughton concedes only that “White was indiscreet in discussing policy issues with the Soviets” during meetings that “were a regular and important part of White’s official duties at the U.S. Treasury throughout the wartime period.” When White met with Vladimir Pravdin, a KGB officer working as a Tass correspondent prior to the UN meeting in San Francisco and offered tactical advice on how to deal with American proposals, Boughton sees only “frank discussions with a Russian journalist (who was actually a KGB agent).”  When White conveys information to the Russians via Greg Silvermaster, Boughton is reassured that it was normal for White “to keep his Soviet contacts apprised” of relevant official activities, as if Silvermaster, a secret Communist and a spy, was the normal conduit for official information to be passed to Soviet officials.  And then, there is the Venona message in which a KGB officer reports meeting White, who warned that any exposure of his activities could lead to a political scandal, lamented that there was no suitable place to meet in the future and proposed “infrequent conversations lasting up to half an hour while driving in his automobile.”  Boughton thought all of this was nothing more than a “means of keeping an ally informed of pertinent developments” as if it was normal practice during wartime to meet with a foreign official while driving about Washington to evade surveillance.


If one response to Venona has been to ignore or deride it and another has been to seek benign explanations for its damaging revelations, a third has been to accept that it has confirmed the involvement of hundreds of Americans with Soviet intelligence but to seek to stop discussing the matter or reinterpret the meaning of espionage.   


Ellen Schrecker claimed in 2001 that nothing found in recently opened archives required “that the past 30 years of scholarship will need to be rewritten.”  She recently changed her mind in a hostile review of In Denial in which she confessed that “enough evidence about the KGB’s espionage operations had accumulated to convince most historians in the field, myself included” that more than 100 American communists had spied for the Soviet Union, including Alger Hiss, Julius Rosenberg and most of those accused by Elizabeth Bentley.  After this backdoor admission that she and much of the historical profession had been wrong for more than thirty years, she quickly concluded that it is in bad taste to ask why or to suggest that historians might have been driven by an ideological or partisan cause.   These issues are “redolent of political antiquarianism,” Schrecker argued at a panel at the American Historical Association and she urged historians to move one since the Cold War is over.  Scholars should stop obsessing about espionage and study the CPUSA’s other activities and their “impact on the rest of American society.” Such a bizarre plea-  the McCarthy ear that Schrecker has made her life work is also over- is actually confirmation that she is uncomfortable with the implications of the Venona material for her own blinkered view of the past.


After acknowledging that Venona demonstrates widespread espionage by American communists, Schrecker offered an ex post facto rationalization: they “did so for political, not pecuniary reasons… 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 worlds for the masses,’ not betraying their country.” Schrecker has complained that Haynes and I are misinterpreting her work; she is only describing the motives of the spies not condoning their activities.  But, anyone who contrasts Schrecker’s account of those whom she admits spied with her evaluation of those who exposed them (Elizabeth Bentley- “not a reliable informant,” unstable and alcoholic,” and “slightly hysterical”- or Whittaker Chambers, to whom she is equally contemptuous), will not doubt that Schrecker is making moral judgments.


Victor Navasky wanted to parse the concept of espionage.  “There were a lot of exchanges of information among people of good, many of whom were Marxists, some of whom were Communists, some of whom were critical of US government policy and most of whom were patriots.  Most of these exchanges were innocent and were within the law.  Some were innocent but nevertheless were in technical violation of the law.  And there were undoubtedly bona fide espionage agents- on both sides.”  Not only can Navasky not point to any information flowing from Soviet scientists and government officials to Americans as part of this exchange- what secrets were the KGB agents passing on to Harry White and Ted Hall? - he does not provide any details about American spying on the Soviet Union during World War II.


Several historians have concluded that Soviet spies actually served the interests of the United States and humanity by helping to prevent World War III.  Michael Parrish of the University of California San Diego endorsed Ted Hall’s rationale for giving the USSR atomic bomb secrets, that it prevented an American monopoly of nuclear weapons.  “Who is to say that Hall’s decision and those of Fuchs, Morris Cohen, Rosenberg and the others who gave atomic secrets to the Soviets did not contribute significantly to what John Lewis Gaddis has called ‘the long peace’ that followed World War II?  Would the United States have been as prudent in times of crisis in the absence of Soviet nuclear weapons?  The world has not been a kinder and gentler place since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.”


Athan Theoharis of Marquette University also minimized the damage done by spies.  He pooh-poohed the KGB and Venona records as largely consisting of trivial surveillance of Trotskyists, White Russians and other Soviet enemies.  As for the spying aimed at technological and military secrets, he opines that “the information about U.S. industrial productivity and military strength provided by the Silvermaster group- the numbers being overwhelming- might have deterred Soviet officials from pursuing an aggressive negotiating strategy.” 


The most sophisticated effort to rehabilitate Soviet spies is Bruce Craig’s biography of Harry Dexter White, Treasonable Doubt.  Craig admits that “there remains little doubt that Harry Dexter White was involved in a species of espionage.”  He accepts the stories of Bentley and Chambers about White’s cooperation with their rings and acknowledges that White gave oral reports, written summaries and actual documents to KGB agents.  But he is reluctant to call what White did espionage, referring to “what have come to be considered ‘spy’ operations.”  Craig believes that White was so distressed by Harry Truman’s hard-line policies towards the Soviet Union and so intent on advancing the cause of American-Soviet friendship that he began to meet directly with KGB agents in 1945, although his argument ignores White’s long cooperation with Soviet intelligence going back to 1938.  When called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to answer the charges of Bentley and Chambers, White lied, Craig argues, to protect his friends, the Democratic Party and the cause of world peace, although he had no compunction about lying to the FBI and to those friends and superiors, including Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and Presidents Truman and Roosevelt who had trusted his integrity and loyalty.  Craig concludes that when White died, “he knew that his was a life that had been fully and fruitfully lived” and no reader of his book will doubt that he shares that positive judgment.


As this very brief summary suggests, many in the academic community have responded to the Venona revelations with a mixture of defiance and denial, a reaction that should depress anyone who wants to obtain an accurate view of the American past.  Two years ago, I looked at how American history textbooks used in high schools were treating the Venona material.  Several widely used texts, including some commonly employed in advanced placement courses, continued to treat the internal security threat posed by Soviet spies as a cynical ploy developed by the American government and not only refused to accept the guilt of the Rosenbergs or Alger Hiss, but insisted that there was no credible evidence about them even today.  Others have made pro forma acknowledgment of the new evidence but have yet to consider what the enormous Soviet espionage directed against the United States means for our efforts to understand the post World War II world and American anti-communism.  Fortunately, however, the documents and their significance cannot be hidden away again and efforts to minimize them or apologize for those they expose will continue to run head-first into those stubborn little facts that ultimately constrain foolishness.  



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