American Diplomacy

April 2000

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Decoding Soviet Espionage in America
By John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr
(New Haven and London:
Yale University Press, 1999.
Pp. xiii, 487. $30 cloth.)
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Rorin Platt
Other reviews in this issue:

Uncle Sam: Supreme Guardian of the Saudi Crown
Hermann Fr. Eilts on Parker T. Hart's Saudi Arabia and the United States: Birth of a Security Partnership:
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The Arabists: WASP Missionaries to Arabia
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The Great Game: A Duel of Intriguing Imperialists
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The American Metternich Remembers Realpolitik
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The Cold War's "Smoking Gun"

By Rorin M. Platt

Did the Cold War actually begin  during the Second World War? Was the Roosevelt administration riddled with Communists, fellow travelers, and Soviet agents? Were the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss Soviet spies or innocent victims of anti-Communist hysteria aimed at discrediting the New Deal? Was the American Communist party (CPUSA) a fifth column for Soviet intelligence? Was Communism a real threat to American security? Did Senator Joseph McCarthy fabricate a “Red Scare,” which produced the darkest chapter in America history?

Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, scholars have been able to examine declassified documents from American and Communist archives, which have enabled us to answer these questions. The most closely guarded secret of the Cold War and most revealing of these sources, the Venona Project, was concealed within the bowels of the National Security Agency (NSA) until 1995. It is comprised of nearly three thousand decrypted telegraphic cables U.S.-based Soviet agents sent to Moscow during World War II.

In VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, the two preeminent authorities on American Communism, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, provide the first comprehensive examination of these files, which constitute one of U.S. counterintelligence’s greatest achievements. Haynes, Twentieth Century Political Historian at the Library of Congress, and Klehr, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History at Emory University (author of The Heyday of American Communism), are co-authors of other works in Yale University’s “Annals of Communism” series: The Soviet World of American Communism and The Secret World of American Communism. They also co-authored The American Communist Movement.

Benefiting from Venona as well as material from the archives of the Comintern and the Soviet and American Communist parties, this detailed, thorough description of Soviet espionage in America demonstrates how the Venona transcripts became the “touch-stone” of U.S. counterintelligence. Using the decrypts, the FBI and CIA were able to corroborate testimony from defectors like Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers. Indeed, Venona decryptions identified most of the Soviet agents the FBI and MI-5 (British counterintelligence) arrested between 1948 and the mid-1950s. Venona confirmed the guilt of the atomic spies, Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall, and Julius Rosenberg. Most importantly, the authors believe that Venona “provide(s) a solid factual basis for” “the widespread public consensus. . . that Soviet espionage was serious, that American Communists assisted the Soviets, and that several senior government officials had betrayed the United States.”

The Venona Project began in 1943, when code-breakers in the Signal Intelligence Service (later designated the NSA) began to analyze coded Russian cables to verify rumors of secret Nazi-Soviet peace talks. After World War II, the NSA expanded its operations and moved to Arlington Hall in northern Virginia, where its cryptanalysts began to document evidence that an extensive, “unrestrained” Soviet espionage campaign against the U.S. had originated during a war in which Washington and Moscow were allies.

Haynes and Klehr make a convincing case that the first “shot” of the Cold War was fired in 1942, when Stalin’s ideologically-motivated agents began to penetrate nearly every important agency of the U.S. government. A significant number of them occupied high-level positions in the White House, Congress, Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Manhattan [atomic bomb] Project, and departments of State and Treasury. Exploiting the lax internal security of the Roosevelt administration, they were able to send Moscow a vast amount of diplomatic, military, scientific, and industrial secrets. National security was most severely damaged with the theft of America’s atomic secrets, which gave Stalin information on the atomic bomb’s design, assembly, and detonation. Consequently, he developed Russia’s nuclear arsenal much sooner and more cheaply than he otherwise would have.

The authors claim that Americans identified by the Venona transcripts to be Soviet agents were members of the Moscow-controlled CPUSA, an “auxiliary” of Soviet intelligence, whose active collaboration facilitated Stalin’s espionage offensive against the U.S. Fueled with an “ideological affinity for the Soviets,” these idealistic Marxist-Leninists betrayed what they considered a “morally illegitimate” American capitalist system. Few defected or renounced Communism, even after Stalin’s purges and 1939 pact with Hitler.

According to the Venona decryptions, Stalin’s agents included:

  • Lauchlin Currie, senior White House aide to FDR, who alerted the NKVD (Soviet intelligence) to FBI investigations of its top agents.
  • Martha Dodd, licentious daughter of the American ambassador to Berlin, whose passionate affair with the first secretary of the Russian embassy included passing confidential diplomatic correspondence to Moscow.
  • Alger Hiss, chief of the State Department’s Office of Special Political Affairs, who accompanied Roosevelt to Yalta in 1945 and chaired the founding conference of the UN. This senior assistant to the secretary of state gave Soviet military intelligence diplomatic cables concerning Axis threats to Soviet security.
  • Laurence Duggan, head of the State Department’s Division of American Republics and the secretary of state’s personal adviser for Latin America, who gave the NKVD Anglo-American plans for the invasion of Italy.
  • Michael Straight, a family friend and protege of President and Mrs. Roosevelt who was recruited into the NKVD by Soviet spy Anthony Blunt while attending Cambridge University.
  • Harry Dexter White, assistant secretary of the Treasury, U.S. director of the IMF, senior adviser to the American delegation at the founding conference of the UN, who facilitated employment for Soviet sources in his department.
  • Harold Glasser, vice-chairman of the War Production Board and assistant director of the Treasury’s Office of International Finance, who gave the NKVD a State Department analysis of Soviet war losses.
  • Gregory Silvermaster, a Treasury economist whose spy network provided Moscow with prodigious amounts of War Production Board data on arms, aircraft, and shipping production.
  • Victor Perlo, chief of the Aviation Section of the War Production Board whose spy ring supplied the Soviets with aircraft production figures and included a Senate staff director.
  • Judith Coplon, Justice Department analyst who alerted Moscow to FBI counterintelligence operations.
  • Duncan Lee, descendant of Robert E. Lee and senior aide to OSS chief William J. Donovan, who became the NKVD’s senior source in American intelligence; he divulged secret OSS operations in Europe and China.
  • William Weisband, NSA linguist who informed Moscow that the Venona Project had deciphered its messages.

While Haynes and Klehr acknowledge that there were “sensible [security] reasons” for keeping Venona secret (so secret that even President Truman lacked direct knowledge of it), they argue that “This decision denied the public the incontestable evidence afforded by the messages of the Soviet Union’s own spies.” Proof of Soviet espionage and “American Communist participation” based on the testimony of defectors was “inherently more ambiguous than the hard evidence of the Venona messages.” If Venona had been made public, they maintain, government investigations and prosecutions of Communist party members would have been more defensible. The guilt of the Rosenbergs would have been indisputable and the innocence of secretaries of state Dean Acheson and George C. Marshall would have been clearly established. Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Communist background and indifference to possible Soviet infiltration of Los Alamos (until 1943) would have been verified, but so would Moscow’s failure to recruit him as an agent.

Paradoxically, the success of the Venona secret has skewed our understanding of the Cold War. Haynes and Klehr are correct to note that those histories of the Stalinist era that belittle the Soviet threat have indeed “perpetuated many myths that have given Americans a warped view of the nation’s history.” Hopefully, these invaluable Venona files will help us see more clearly just how much of a threat Soviet espionage and Communist subversion posed to American security. The much-desired opening of all Russian intelligence archives dealing with this period would go far in doing just that.  

An earlier version of this review appeared in the June 1999 issue of the Foreign Service Journal. Republished with permission.


Rorin M. Platt teaches history at Peace College in Raleigh, NC, and serves as book review editor for American Diplomacy. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of this journal.

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