The encounter began in Central Europe, just as had the two earlier conflicts, with the Soviets pressing to expand their dominion in the wreckage of previous regimes. In 1949 Communists triumphed in a civil war in China, and instantly the conflict was global.
With the National Security Act of 1947 the United States had brought its armed forces under unified direction, established a National Security Council "to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign and military policies relating to the national security," and also created a Central Intelligence Agency to provide "national intelligence" to the President and agency heads that was to be "timely, objective, independent of political considerations, and based upon all sources available to the intelligence community."102 In time the CIA's mission would expand to include para-military operations.
The legislation can be seen as one feature of a more general rationalization and modernization that was occurring within American Government at this time. It was a recognition that the United States had become the preeminent world power and would be managing conflict, and very likely engaged in warfare, around the world for an indefinite future. A vast peacetime military establishment began to take shape. (After instant demobilization in 1946!) To respond to the threat in Europe, recognizing that if the Soviets were to invade western Germany the United States would inevitably be involved in the aftermath, we chose to become engaged in advance, helping to shape the North Atlantic Treaty. For the first time in history, we entered a peacetime alliance committing us to war if others were attacked.
In 1955 the Soviets organized the Warsaw Pact and the symmetry was complete. Central Powers vs. Allied Powers, Axis Powers vs. Allied Powers, Warsaw Pact vs. North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The extraordinary fact of the final stage of this Hundred Years' War is that warfare never broke out between the major contesting powers. Proxy conflicts of all sorts did occur. United States forces saw action. Still, this time, global confrontation did not result in global war.
The reason, of course, was the atomic bomb, and the strategic thinking that commenced with the onset of the atomic age. It is for others to say, but surely American strategic doctrine, with the key concept of "second strike" as the key to nuclear stability, achieved just that. But beyond strictly nuclear affairs it is perhaps not too early to suggest that American statecraft--and yes, that of the Soviets also--had evolved. Things had been learned; no party ever reached irrevocably too far.
In the meantime, however, ideological conflict raged, as did efforts to gain strategic or tactical advantage through espionage or subversion. In most of these events we observe the uniformity formulated by the political scientist James Q. Wilson. Organizations in conflict become like one another. Both parties organized alliances, built strategic forces and conventional forces, cultivated dissent among adversaries, as much as possible denied them information, and built up intelligence forces of unprecedented size, scope, and global reach. It could be said that the Cold War brought two innovations to the armamentarium of the great powers: strategic nuclear forces and intelligence services.
We have seen that the Soviet attack in the area of intelligence commenced just after the First World War, and was hugely successful during the Second World War. The Soviets even infiltrated the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), established in June 1942. It would, for example, appear from the VENONA messages that Duncan Chaplin Lee, Special Assistant to OSS Director William J. Donovan, was a Soviet agent.
Lee, of the Lee family of Virginia, was a 1935 graduate of Yale University. He then spent three years as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford--dangerous years--returning to Yale for law school. Thereafter he joined Donovan's law firm in New York, and in July 1942 joined the OSS. He appears regularly in the KGB cables that began to be intercepted in 1943, and thereafter were decrypted by those involved in the VENONA project.
The complicity of Alger Hiss of the State Department seems settled. As does that of Harry Dexter White of the Treasury Department. White, the closest advisor to Secretary Henry J. Morgenthau and later Assistant Secretary, headed the American delegation to the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944, which shaped postwar financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
And so to an irony that only now begins to emerge. It would appear that by the onset of the Cold War the Soviet attack in the area of espionage and subversion had been blunted and turned back. There would be episodic successes in the years to come, but none equal to earlier feats. New York of the 1930s. Los Alamos. Some unions. The State Department. The Treasury Depart-ment. By the close of the 1940s, Communism was a defeated ideology in the United States, with its influence in steep and steady decline, and the KGB reduced to recruiting thieves as spies.
At this distance it is difficult to conceive the intensity of Communist conviction in the 1930s. In the 1940s the critic Robert Warshow would write in Commentary magazine:
But with the defeat of Nazi Germany, it became easier to accept the reality of Soviet totalitarianism. The worldwide economic crisis of the 1930s passed. An increasing number of American Communists openly broke with the Party--as, for example, Louis Francis Budenz, managing editor of the Daily Worker. In 1946, Budenz broke with the Communist Party and commenced to publicly identify Party members--much as Chambers, Bentley, and others would do in Congressional testimony beginning in 1948. None of this took place without controversy, but the charges held up well enough; in the main they would seem to have been true.
Enter the Federal Bureau of Investigation. By the Second World War it had begun to deal with espionage, in that case of the Axis powers. In November 1945 Elizabeth Bentley informed the FBI of her activities as a Soviet courier, which in turn led to renewed interest in Chambers. In late August or early September 1947, the FBI was informed that the Army Security Agency had begun to break into Soviet espionage messages. The FBI proceeded to identify the cover names used in the Soviet dispatches. Thus, Theodore A. Hall, a 19-year old Harvard physicist at Los Alamos in 1944, was code named "MLAD," Russian for "youngster." By 1950, the FBI, working with the Army, knew Hall to be the "MLAD" identified in the VENONA messages.
In 1936 the FBI began infiltrating the Communist Party itself, typically using disillusioned Party members as agents.104 In short order, the Party itself was useless as a source of Soviet recruits. Very likely the Soviets came to realize this early on and began looking elsewhere for spies. The period of organized effort--more or less based in an American political party--to infiltrate the American Government in the interests of a foreign nation ended almost as abruptly as it had begun.
This "Brief Account" has attempted to search out uniformities in America's encounter with foreign espionage and domestic treason that began early in the 20th century. One pattern is that of learning. We have remarked that NATO arose from the United States' understanding that it was no longer possible to stay out of a major European conflict. Might once have been; was no more. That realization was central to the avoidance of the "world wars" of the first two phases of the Hundred Years' War.
Now we encounter further examples of what could legitimately be called learning. Faced with the facts of espionage and treason, this time the American Government did not lose its head. The Communist Party of the United States of America was there. Its leaders and many of its members were guilty of all manner of misfeasance and violence. The incitement to hysteria was considerable indeed. Palmer Raids, internment camps, deportations, ethnic demonizing (anti-Semitism not least), a general shredding of civil rights--all those were possible during the Cold War. Each had forebears. Virtually none actually happened.
This may appear a provocative judgment. By the late 1940s there was a great agitation in the land about Communists and "comsymps." As early as January 1947 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned of infiltration in a publication Communists Within the Government: The Facts and the Program (not all the facts within which were wrong). Next came Congressional investigations, notably those associated with Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Careers were damaged, of this there is no doubt. But compared to the earlier outrages, the society, notably the Government, responded with comparative restraint. Again, there were casualties, but compared to the provocation. . .?
In 1948 former Vice President Henry A. Wallace, now a presidential candidate, announced that he would name Harry Dexter White as his Secretary of the Treasury. (White died of a heart attack before the election and one week after denying any espionage activities before the House Un-American Activities Committee.) Wallace lost the election; President Truman did not send him to prison.
The more singular fact of the fairly rapid discovery of Communist espionage and Soviet agents in the United States is the relatively muted response of the United States Government. For every spy, every traitor tried for espionage, there would be another left untroubled and untried. In March 1949, Judith Coplon, a 27-year old official of the Justice Department, was arrested and charged with theft and distribution of secret Department documents and with conspiracy. Her convictions in two separate prosecutions were overturned on procedural grounds, but the effort had been made. (And one could assume that Coplon was of no further use, and her trial put others on notice.)
Then the following year, it was discovered that William Weisband, cipher clerk and translator, had informed the Soviets of the existence of the VENONA project. The Soviets now knew that we were "reading their mail." We knew that they knew. They could not know just how many messages, or which messages had been decoded, but we could not know how much they did know. And so into the house of mirrors. But, as noted, Weisband was not prosecuted for espionage. (He was sentenced to a year in jail for failing to respond to a subpoena, but the Government's knowledge of his treason apparently was not revealed until its publication in a 1990 book co-authored by a high-level KGB defector).105
A more striking contrast can be seen in the treatment of atomic spies. As noted, in January 1950, in the United Kingdom, Klaus Fuchs confessed to espionage while part of the British team at Los Alamos; his activities had turned up in the VENONA files. He implicated Harry Gold as his courier. Gold in turn implicated David Greenglass, who implicated his brother-in-law Julius Rosenberg, formerly of the Army Security Agency. The Rosenberg prosecution, including that of Julius' wife Ethel, now commenced.
But at this time our attention again is drawn to 19-year old Theodore A. Hall. As noted earlier, by 1950 both the Army and the FBI knew that Hall was the "MLAD" referenced in several VENONA messages. It is hard to know with certainty exactly what happened next; most of the FBI files remain classified. It appears that Hall denied any illegal activity during questioning by the FBI. In any event, even assuming that a court case could have been built against Hall, the Government was evidently unwilling to pursue one if it would have meant revealing the existence of the VENONA project.
Espionage can present profound dilemmas as regards prosecution. In this period, anything told to a jury would be learned by the KGB, at a time when large issues turned on preventing the KGB from knowing what we knew. This dilemma was doubly so when dealing with an Allied government. In October 1949, the British spy Kim Philby arrived in Washington as British intelligence liaison to the U.S. intelligence community. Part of his responsibilities involved receiving VENONA material which the U.S. was providing to the U.K. In April 1951, a decoded VENONA message showed that Donald MacLean, who had served as Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Washington in 1944 and 1945 (and returned in 1947 to work on atomic energy issues), was "HOMER," a Soviet spy. Surveillance of MacLean commenced in order to obtain evidence independent of VENONA, as the U.S. and U.K. did not want to reveal publicly the existence of the project, but MacLean defected to Moscow with Guy Burgess in May 1951. Albeit the U.S. Government knew that Weisband had passed on this information more than two years earlier!
What we observe here is "tradecraft" of a high order, but also a fairly routine example of organizational behavior. Secrets are assets to an organization. It is rare for secrets to be shared with another organization, save as exchange. It is difficult at this distance to establish just how widely the VENONA project, for example, was known within the American Government. Sharing with British intelligence was one thing; we may assume the British gave something in return. But could the White House? Not necessarily. The State Department? Almost assuredly not.
Very well, what about the newly created Central Intelligence Agency? New, yes, but, again, by common understanding successor to the Office of Strategic Services.106 How many associates might Duncan Chaplin Lee have had? Of these how many might have made the transition to the successor organization? Was it worth the risk? Evidently not. As best as these events can be reconstructed, it would appear that the Army took a good long look before it decided it could trust the Central Intelligence Agency with secrets about Soviet espionage.
The Army may be assumed to have another problem in sharing its secrets. It is entirely reasonable to conjecture that at this time in the United States a good many persons just would not have believed them anyway. Part of this was plain innocence. As remarked, most Americans had no encounter with Communists or Communism. Further, this was manifestly the case with many of the more prominent anti-Communists of the time. There was a cultural conflict: anti-Communists were perceived by some as elitists protecting bastions of corrupt privilege, and by others as vulgarians hurling groundless accusations. It is well also to keep in mind that the United States Army itself was under attack. Most notably, as when Senator McCarthy accused George C. Marshall of treason.107
Just as the period of a serious Communist "attack" ended precipitously in the late 1940s, so did the period of domestic agitation and alarm. The Rosenbergs were executed in Sing Sing Prison on June 19, 1953. There was a harsh injustice here. Ethel Rosenberg was an accomplice, not a principal. Still, the Government had not asked for a death sentence; a Federal judge took it on his own to impose it.
By now, Dwight D. Eisenhower had been elected President; somewhat in parallel with the succession of Harding, a kind of normalcy returned to government. In December 1954, Senator McCarthy was censured by the Senate and matters settled down.
Looking back, however, we see more clearly the dilemma of secrecy in Government. By 1950, when it was learned that Weisband had revealed the existence of the VENONA project to the Soviets, the United States Government possessed information which the American public desperately needed to know: proof that there had been a serious attack on American security by the Soviet Union, with considerable assistance from what was, indeed, an "enemy within." The fact that we knew this was now known to, or sufficiently surmised by, the Soviet authorities. Only the American public was denied this information.
The circumstances were surely extenuating. The Government knew some parts of the story: what did it not know? If innocent persons were being harassed and worse by a political mob-- and many were--so might equally innocent persons be devastated by the release of government information that incriminated a good many persons, not all of whom were guilty, and for certain not found guilty by a jury?
Anyone knowledgeable of the Communist apparat could have predicted that the Government "secrets" would be attacked as spurious and contrived. The dilemma was awful, save that none of the principals involved seems ever to have doubted the wisdom of withholding the secrets. Much remains classified to this day. The Soviet Union has ceased to exist, but some of the divisions in the American polity from that encounter remain, and the new revelations brought a measure of recognition still very much needed.
102 U.S. Statutes at Large 60 (1947): 495. National Security Act of 1947.
103 Robert Warshow, "The Legacy of the 30's: Middle-Class Mass Culture and the Intellectuals' Problem," Commentary (December 1947): 538.
104 Whitehead, FBI, 158-61.
105 Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 373- 74.
106 The successor to the OSS was the Central Intelligence Group (CIG), a "clearinghouse" body headed by the Director of Central Intelligence. Subsequently, the CIA was established in 1947.
107 Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, America's Retreat from Victory: The Story of George Catlett Marshall (New York: Devin-Adair, 1951).
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