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Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America
Review by Benjamin L. Landis
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John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev; Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, Yale University Press: New Haven, CT, 2009, ISBN 978-0-300-16438-1, 548, $24.00

In the opening sentence of their preface, the authors John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr ask, “Is there anything new to be learned about Soviet espionage in America?”  The answer is, of course, a resounding “Yes,” as they then demonstrate in the 500 plus pages of their text.  Is their work the definitive history of KGB espionage in the United States?  No.  Nor can it be, as they themselves admit.  “Frustratingly, archival information regarding intelligence and counterintelligence activities from the 1930s onward continues to be tightly held and parceled out in a miserly fashion.”  One can say, however, that this book is as definitive a look at that history as we can hope for “until the likely far off day when Russian authorities open up the KGB’s archives for independent research.”

What gives this Spies its aura of historical authenticity and its aspiration to be “the most complete look at Soviet espionage in America we have yet had or will obtain” until the floodgates will be opened to Soviet archives?  The answer: Alexander Vassiliev.  Before plunging into the story itself the reader should definitely read the Preface and the Introduction.  In the latter, Mr. Vassiliev, journalist and former KGB officer, explains how he was able to obtain access to KGB files and to prepare transcripts of KGB documents, which he later was able to take out of Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union.  His story is as fascinating as that of the Soviet agents and American spies whose activities are described in the Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev text.

The book is based to a large part on the facts reported by Mr. Vassiliev in his notebooks. The reader has every right to be very skeptical of the veracity and authenticity of what he reported.  Messrs Haynes and Klehr certainly were.  They had previously authored three other books on Soviet espionage and Communist activity in the United States.  They were very familiar with the existing literature on the Soviet espionage covered by Mr. Vassiliev’s notebooks.  As they explain in the Preface, they tested Mr. Vassiliev’s transcriptions thoroughly and became convinced that they were authentic.  And so they have given us, with the collaboration of Mr. Vassiliev, as complete a history of KGB espionage in the United States from the 1930s to the early 1950s as we are likely to have in our lifetimes.

Messrs Haynes and Klehr are historians and they have written a serious history.  The stories they recount are dramatic, melodramatic, oftentimes tragic, but they write with a historian’s detachment and matter-of-factness.  Yet their telling is never bland, never dull.  And the story they tell is fascinating.  The reader is swept along, caught up in the tidal wave of Soviet espionage, captivated by the personalities of the Soviet KGB officials and the American spies..  The chapter titles indicate the various currents: “Alger Hiss: Case Closed”; “Enormous: The KGB Attack on the Anglo-American Atomic Project”; “The Journalist Spies”; “Infiltration of the U.S. Government”; Infiltration of the Office of Strategic Services”; “The XY Line: Technical, Scientific, and Industrial Espionage”.

In a conventional history with the title “The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America” a historian would have most probably concentrated on the organization of the Soviet espionage structure in the United States and on the actions of the members of that structure in developing and managing networks of spies.  However, lacking access to the KGB files that would permit the writing of a conventionally organized, top-down history, the authors have, of necessity, adopted a bottom-up approach to their theme of rise and fall.  They concentrate on the individual American spies recruited by the Communist Party, by Soviet officials, and voluntarily by the spies themselves.  This technique renders their history more personal, less organizational, less procedural, and consequently more fascinating, more telling, and, yes, more agonizing.  It is the story of a moment in American history when well meaning Americans for ideological reasons were willing, even eager, to betray their country for another in the belief that this latter country represented the fulfillment of the ideal human destiny.

One of the narrative techniques used by the authors that enhances considerably the impact of their story is the humanizing of these American “traitors” by telling the reader who they are, whence they came, what were their social, professional, and marital relations, what were their personalities.  This is a history, not only of the rise and fall of the KGB in the United States, but also of the psychological anguish that coursed through American society in the 1930s and 1940s.  Almost all of the American spies were ideologically motivated.  The authors cite only two who were motivated by money, one of whom was unfortunately, a Congressman.  They were from every stratum of American society: the wealthy, the privileged, the intellectuals, the well educated, the not well educated, the middle class, the poor, native-born, immigrants.  Amazingly and happily the authors could identify only one African-American spy.  The individual stories of these “lost” Americans make captivating and thought-provoking reading alongside the basic tale of the ups and downs of Soviet espionage in America.

In addition to its essential theme, the book finally puts to rest, or anyway, it should put to rest, the Alger Hiss story.  The very first chapter is devoted to him and proves conclusively that he was, in fact, a Soviet spy.  It also proves that Robert Oppenheimer was never a Soviet spy, although the authors recount the strenuous efforts made by the Soviets to recruit him.  It also ends, or should end, any doubt about the guilt of the Rosenbergs.  The book details the effectiveness of the spy network that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg managed.  It also shows how unaware or unbelieving the American government was to the penetration of Soviet espionage throughout sensitive sectors of American society and government.  It is difficult, if not almost impossible, to believe today that Whittaker Chambers, that much maligned bearer of bad tidings, as early as 1939 advised the Department of State that Alger Hiss was spying for the Soviet Union.  It was not until almost 10 years later that he was finally brought to justice.  Given the psychological atmosphere that developed in American society during the Cold War, and that is perpetuated today, it is also very difficult to realize that the FBI took almost no interest in the possibility of Soviet espionage until the late 1940s and then primarily because certain spies gave up their allegiance to the Soviet Union and turned themselves into witnesses against their former comrades.  John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr expose all of these phenomena, as elements in their description of the rise and fall of KGB espionage.

In their concluding chapters they make two very important points.

In Chapter 9, “The KGB in America: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Structural Problems” they show that the real-life KGB did not live up to its romantic reputation as “a near superhuman organization, staffed by skilled officers carrying out sophisticated schemes designed by clever Moscow overlords…” They conclude from the case studies of the Soviet espionage efforts that comprise the substance of their book: “The KGB was not a ten-foot tall superman.  In the world of intelligence, it was surely a strapping six-footer, but one that tripped over its own shoelaces from time to time and occasionally shot itself in the foot.  And in the late 1930s, it turned into a paranoid schizophrenic who heard voices telling it to cut off its limbs, and it proceeded to do just that.”

Nonetheless, in their concluding chapter the authors also make the very important point that “…Soviet espionage in the United States changed history.  The espionage-enabled rapid acquisition of the atomic bomb emboldened Stalin’s policies in the early Cold War and contributed to his decision to authorize North Korea’s invasion of South Korea.  Soviet espionage also led to the loss of America’s ability to read Soviet military communications and ensured that the Korean invasion was a surprise for which American forces were unprepared.”


author  Benjamin L. Landis retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel after a 27-year career that included service with the Military Assistance Advisory Group at the U.S. embassy in Paris and as Senior U.S. Liaison Officer with the French Forces in Germany. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and the French Army Ecole d’Etat-Major, and has an MSA from The George Washington University.  After retirement, he was Director of Administration and Finance for several major law firms in Washington. He is the author of Searching For Stability: The World in the Twenty-First Century.

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