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April 1999

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The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—The Stalin Era.
By Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev. (Random House, 1998. 402 pages. $30.)

Red Scare or
RED MENACE?

by Rorin M. Platt

WAS THE GOVERNMENT infested with Communists and Soviet agents during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt? Was the Communist menace a real threat or a “Red Scare?” Was State Department official Alger Hiss a Soviet spy or an innocent victim of anti-Communist hysteria designed to discredit New Deal liberalism?

For decades, these contentious questions formed the fault line of American politics. Yet, for all the sound and the fury, the debate over these issues reflected opinion rather than fact, ideology rather than evidence, because the pertinent documents remained classified. With the end of the Cold War, scholars have been able to examine recently declassified documents from American and Communist archives, which reveal that a significant number of those accused of Communist affiliations and espionage were indeed members of an American Communist Party subsidized by Moscow and recruited into its network of agents and sources. More than a few of them penetrated the top echelons of the U.S. government, including high-level positions in the departments of State and Treasury, Office of Strategic Services, White House, Congress and Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project.

The most recent, albeit not definitive, scholarly contribution to the new Cold War historiography was based on an unprecedented arrangement between Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service and Random House. The latter agreed to pay the association of retired KGB officers for American historian Allen Weinstein (author of the definitive Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case) and former KGB officer-turned-journalist Alexander Vassiliev’s exclusive access to thousands of previously classified documents from the operational files of the KGB and its precursors during the Stalinist era.

In The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America — The Stalin Era, the authors provide “a more complete and accurate account of Soviet intelligence
[operations] than the one found in the existing literature of both countries.” Much of this “inside history” was corroborated by another recently declassified source—the VENONA files, thousands of intercepted telegrams American-based Soviet agents sent to Moscow during World War II.

This detailed, carefully documented and convincing story describes—for the first time—Moscow’s own account of how its primarily ideologically motivated American agents were able to procure a prodigious amount of invaluable scientific, economic, political, military and diplomatic information between 1933 and 1945. Soviet intelligence was especially interested in: American industries’ scientific and economic secrets that would benefit the industrialization of the USSR; policy documents concerning German and Japanese military threats against Russia; information on Trotskyites and (czarist) Whites living in the United States; data on American industrial, military and atomic weapon production; information on pro-Nazi groups in the United States; and documents concerning American foreign policy in Europe and the Far East.

A disproportionate number of Stalin’s agents were Jews of Eastern European descent who embraced Communism as the most effective weapon against Nazi Germany. For many idealistic American anti-fascists eager to gain élite status in the Communist underground, “scientific socialism” was an attractive alternative to Depression-era capitalism. Few of these true believers accepted payment for their services. Even after the Moscow purge trials and Nazi-Soviet Pact, only a handful defected, renounced Communism, or confessed their treachery.

The Haunted Wood is more than a significant piece of scholarship. It is also a dramatic, intrigue-laced narrative that describes the often eccentric personalities and motives of those who betrayed their country. Those agents who made this the “golden age” of Soviet espionage in America included Communist romantics who were troubled by Stalin’s bloody purges and 1939 pact with Hitler: They included:
  • Laurence Duggan, Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s personal adviser for Latin America, who provided the NKVD (Soviet intelligence) with confidential diplomatic cables, including one from William Bullitt, America’s ambassador to Moscow; reports on Nazi and fascist activity in Latin America; and State Department personnel information before falling to his death after being questioned by the FBI.

  • Michael Straight, an intimate family friend of President and Mrs. Roosevelt who was recruited into Soviet intelligence by members of the Cambridge (University) spy ring while he was a student there. The FDR protégé used his position at the State Department to provide the NKVD with an armaments report and list of potential recruits.

  • Duncan Lee, descendant of Robert E. Lee and protégé and trusted aide to OSS chief William J. Donovan, who became the NKVD’s most senior source in American intelligence; Lee informed Moscow of the impending D-Day invasion in 1944.

Not all of Stalin’s spies were so selfless:

  • Boris Morros, the “flamboyant” Hollywood producer-director and agent- turned-FBI informer placed Soviet agents in need of cover identities in Paramount offices overseas and used NKVD-approved funds to finance his music publishing company.

  • Samuel Dickstein, the New York congressman whose NKVD handlers
    code-named “Crook” due to his greedy compensation demands, gave Moscow information on fascist groups in the U.S. and war budget materials. He lived to regret his instrumental role In establishing a committee (later renamed the House Committee on Un-American Activities) to investigate fascist and Nazi groups in the United States after it shifted its attention to Communist organizations.

  • Martha Dodd, the libidinous daughter of America’s ambassador to Nazi Germany who enjoyed a passionate affair with a Soviet intelligence officer while providing Moscow with confidential embassy, State Department, and White House information, including her father’s correspondence with FDR and Hull.

Weinstein and Vassiliev validate the guilt of the more infamous Cold War traitors such as Alger Hiss, who gave Soviet military intelligence State Department documents concerning German-American trade negotiations, Washington’s response to the Sino-Japanese War, and diplomatic cables, including Ambassador Bullitt’s despatches to Hull regarding German and Japanese threats to American and Soviet interests in Europe and the Far East. The authors also confirm that Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall, and Julius Rosenberg—with the knowledge of his wife, Ethel—supplied Moscow with information on the atomic bomb’s design and assembly which accelerated production of Stalin’s nuclear arsenal. While the evidence reveals that Manhattan Project chief J. Robert Oppenheimer was probably a “secret member” of the Communist Party, there is no conclusive evidence that Soviet efforts to recruit him were successful.

Paradoxically, by the 1950s, when McCarthyism was at its height, Stalin’s spy network in the United States had already been crippled due to the end of the Russian- American wartime alliance; the heroic defections of former couriers Igor Gouzenko, Elizabeth Bentley, and Whittaker Chambers; and improved FBI counterintelligence. “In the end,” the authors conclude, “the enduring legacy of those Americans who sacrificed country for cause in ‘the haunted wood’ remains one of inglorious constancy to a cruel and discredited faith.” One hopes that future revisions of this superb volume will more fully assess just how much damage these traitors did to their country.


As noted in the Editor’s Corner, Dr. Rorin M. Platt lectures in history at Peace College in Raleigh, North Carolina. His primary research interest lies in the field of international affairs. Review published in the News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) Jan. 31, 1999. Republished by permission.

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