Given the currently aggressive behavior of Vladimir Putin—positioning Russia to recapture some her lost empire—we’d be wise to reflect on whatever lessons we can learn from the Cold War. As archives have opened to historians during the past two decades it has become obvious that Communist agents effectively infiltrated and impacted America throughout the 20th century. In Stalin’s Secret Agents: The Subversion of Roosevelt’s Government (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., c. 2012), M. Stanton Evans (a veteran journalist) and Herbert Romerstein (formerly the head of the Office to Counter Soviet Disinformation at the U.S. Information Agency) document the degree to which USSR agents both secured information regarding this nation and also helped shaped her policies. As Whittaker Chambers personally witnessed: “‘In a situation with few parallels in history, the agents of an enemy power were in a position to do much more than purloin documents. They were in a position to influence the nation’s foreign policy in the interest of the nation’s chief enemy, and not only on exceptional occasions, like Yalta (where Hiss’s role, while presumably important, is still ill-defined) or through the Morgenthau plan for the destruction of Germany (which is generally credited to [Soviet agent Harry Dexter] White but in what must have been the staggering sum of day to day decisions’” (p. 7).
When Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill secretly met and signed the Atlantic Charter inn August 1941, they committed their countries to seeking “no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the people.” During the course of the war they were joined by Joseph Stalin in strategic conferences—especially Teheran and Yalta—to discuss and plan for the future; they also reiterated the ideals of the Atlantic Charter. Yet in retrospect it is obvious that Stalin intended to capitalize on military victory to promote the Soviet agenda in Asia and Eastern Europe. The guns of war had barely cooled before Russian troops occupied Poland, East Germany, and Hungary; then Mao Tse-tung took control of China. Grasping the import of this process, Churchill lamented “that ‘after all the exertions and sacrifices of millions of people, and of victories of the Righteous caused, we will not have found peace and security and that we lie in the grip of even worse perils than we have surmounted’” (p. 19).
Unfortunately for millions of people around the globe, FDR and his associates ignored experts on Soviet affairs such as George F. Kennan and saw this process not as “something to be combated, deplored, or counterbalanced, but rather an outcome to be accommodated and assisted” (p. 19). He generally sided with Stalin rather than Churchill in making Big Three decisions. Importantly, the authors say: “Not to be omitted in this context was the presence in the White House of Mrs. Roosevelt, who had around her a coterie of youthful leftists and was a point of contact for outside forces who took a favorable view of Moscow, the American Communist Party, and all manner of pro-Soviet causes” (p. 22). One of Roosevelt’s closest aides, Harry Hopkins, gladly acknowledged that Russia would fill the vacuum left by a defeated Germany and dominate Eastern Europe; to him: “‘Since Russia is the decisive factor in the war, she must be given every assistance and effort must be made to obtain her friendship’” (p. 19). This certainly seemed to be FDR’s approach in Tehran and Yalta, where he said “‘of one thing I am certain; Stalin is not an imperialist.’ And at a post-Yalta meeting, the President observed to his presumably nonplussed cabinet that as Stalin early on had studied for the priesthood,’ something entered into his nature of the way in which a Christian gentleman should behave’” (p. 21).
That President Roosevelt could so naively misjudge Stalin cannot be attributed to his patently failing health early in 1945 when the Big Three met at Yalta (a resort on the Crimean coast). Rather, he relied on a handful of trusted advisers to draft the documents and craft the accords to which he assented. Above all, he singled out Alger Hiss to be at his right hand and it is obvious that Hiss played an important role in the conference. The papers of Edward Stettinius Jr. (the then just-appointed Secretary of State) reveal Hiss’s activity. Working on his own autobiography soon after the war, Stettinius would frequently tell the historian helping him to “‘See Alger Hiss about this’” (p. 45), since he had put together the background papers used by the State Department at Yalta. A veteran bureaucrat, Hiss understood how to direct the flow of information (or disinformation, as the case may be) in ways amenable to himself.
In his subversive activities Hiss clandestinely carried on the more public work of pro-Communists (if not staunch Communists) such as John Reed (a journalist who championed the Bolsheviks), Raymond Robins (a confidant of Lenin and Trotsky in the early days of the revolution), Armand Hammer (a businessmen with close connections to the Soviets), and Walter Duranty (a New York Times correspondent now proven to have been a Soviet agent who deliberately misinformed readers about the Stalin-orchestrated famine in the Ukraine). In the 1930s Hiss linked arms with Soviet agents such as Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley and worked to abet the Communist cause. As FBI special agent Guy Hottel asserted, in his 1946 memo to FBI Director Hoover: “‘It has become increasingly clear in the investigation of this [Bentley] case that there are a tremendous number of persons employed in the United States government who are Communists and who strive daily to advance the cause of Communism and destroy the foundations of this government. . . . Today nearly every department or agency of this government is infiltrated with them in varying degree. To aggravate the situation, they appear to have concentrated most heavily in those departments which make policy, particularly in the international field, or carry it into effect . . . [including] such organizations as the State and Treasury departments . . .’” (p. 100). These charges, Evans and Romerstein show, can be amply documented with materials now available in the archives.
Aiding the Communist cause during the Roosevelt years were “friends in high places” such as Vice President Henry Wallace, who in 1948 would run for President as the candidate of “the Communist-dominated Progressive Party” (p. 113). More importantly, FDR’s “longtime aide and crony, Harry Hopkins” adroitly promoted the Soviet cause; indeed, during “the war years, Moscow had no better official U.S. friend than Hopkins” (p. 113). A social worker by vocation, he used his positions to funnel money not only to needy Americans but to assist the Soviet Union as well. Under the rubric of the Lend-Lease program, for example, he sent the Russians thousands of pages of documents containing information on such things as uranium and heavy water basic to the atomic weapons being developed at Oak Ridge, TN. When the Polish government in exile demanded an inquiry into the notorious slaughter of Polish officers in Russia’s Katyn Forest, Hopkins joined Moscow in vehemently opposing any investigation. This brutal massacre is now historically demonstrable. During the war Hopkins often opposed Churchill and assailed the British for their imperialism and colonialism and often spoke highly of Stalin. Conversely, he often spoke highly of Stalin. At the Yalta Conference, Hopkins loyally supported Stalin and his agenda. In the judgment of Ian Yeaton, one of the best-informed and experienced American officials dealing with the USSR and China, “‘From our first meeting I considered him disloyal to the trust that had been imposed on him. After learning of the manner in which he high handedly handled security at our end of the Alaska Siberian [Lend-Lease] pipeline, I changed it to perfidious or traitorous, if you like’” (p. 133).
Though less openly pro-Soviet than Hopkins, Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau pursued many policies Stalin supported, in part due to the presence of Harry Dexter White and other Russian agents (named in the Venona decrypts) on his staff. Morgenthau thus argued, in what is known as the “Moregenthau Plan,” for punitive measures (including “unconditional surrender” and the destruction of Germany’s industrial base) as the war wound down. White and his associates even discussed shooting large numbers of German soldiers as they surrendered—at Teheran Stalin said 50,000 Germans should be promptly shot when the Allies prevailed. They also discussed conscripting Germans to work in Russia as “reparations,” and such was certainly done as the Russians prevailed in Eastern Europe. Apparently “slave labor for Russia had to be sanctioned by the United States to keep from offending Moscow” (p. 190). Sadly enough: “there isn’t any doubt that forced-labor-as-reparations was approved at Yalta” (p. 191).
“Stalin’s coup in Asia” was also facilitated by his agents working within the American government. In his meetings with the Soviet dictator, FDR (Churchill, importantly, was not involved in these discussions) “agreed to vast array of benefits for Moscow: sanctioning Soviet control of Outer Mongolia, ceding to Russia the southern part of Sakhalin Island north of Japan and the Kurile chain that stretches between Japan and Russia, plus de facto control of seaports and railways in Manchuria, the main industrial zone and richest part of China” (p. 200). FDR made such concessions despite the fact that Russia had done nothing of consequence to assist in the war against Japan in the Pacific! The Asia protocol secretly providing for all this was “written verbatim by the Russians. The go-between in this was Averell Harriman” (p. 207), a wealthy businessmen who had promoted American investments in Russia and was quite close to Harry Hopkins. In the authors’ opinion, FDR embraced “postwar plans crafted for him by Harry White and other Soviet secret agents” (p. 208) that ultimately placed China under Stalin’s control.
As the authors conclude their treatise they lament the fact that many documents dealing with the Cold War are still inaccessible. They’ve just dropped into what George Orwell labeled the “memory hole” so characteristic of modern bureaucratic states. FBI files dealing with communist activities within the U.S. government “are still heavily ‘redacted,’ with page after page of information blacked out by official censors” (p. 249). Clearly “there has been a deliberate cover-up of crucial information reflecting the extent of the pro-Red penetration and the policy effects that followed” (p. 250). Thus we have barely begun to understand the full thrust of “Stalin’s Secret Agents” and their role in shaping American history. But now we know at least three things. First, it’s demonstrable “that Communist and pro-Soviet penetration at the American government was extensive, involving many hundreds of suspects, and that by the era of World War II and early stages of the Cold War reached up to significant levels” (p. 254). Second, these infiltrators powerfully shaped American foreign policy in pro-Soviet ways. And third, this “occurred because Soviet agents preyed on the credulity of officials who were ignorant of Communist methods and apparently had no interest in learning” (p. 255).
“The net effect of these converging factors was a series of free-world retreats, as pro-Communist forces triumphed in a host of European countries during the earliest stages of the Cold War, followed by the fall of China to Communism a few years later. These events would be a prelude to Marxist conquest elsewhere, in places as disparate as Indochina; the Latin American states of Cuba and Nicaragua; African nations, including Zimbabwe and Angola; and numbers other cases of like nature” (p. 255). In short, much of the massive human suffering during the past half-century can be traced back to the effective work in America of Stalin’s Secret Agents!
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For four decades Allen Weinstein, The Archivist of the United States from 2005-2009 and earlier a distinguished professor at several prestigious universities, has researched and written detailed studies of Alger Hiss. In his most recent edition (the third) of Perjury: This Hiss-Chambers Case (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, c. 2013) he adds yet more damning evidence proving Alger Hiss’s Communist ties and activities. When Weinstein began his research, 40 years ago, it was fashionable to dismiss Joseph McCarthy’s accusations as “Red baiting” and defend the integrity and patriotism of Alger Hiss, ever the golden boy for upper-crust socialites. It was also fashionable to denigrate and defame Whittaker Chambers, the man who presented evidence that Hiss was, indeed, a Soviet spy. Trendy liberals in the ‘50s “were well disposed to believe Hiss’s version of events. His innocence was a matter of faith, if only because Chambers, [Richard] Nixon, [J. Edgar] Hoover and others on the anti-Communist right were his political enemies. Hiss’s fate symbolized for young liberals the quintessence of McCarthyism, its paranoid fear of any public figure to the left of Dwight Eisenhower” (p. 3). Senator McCarthy was indeed too heavy-handed and irresponsible in some of his charges, but he was clearly correct regarding Communist infiltration of the American government.
As the decades have passed, it has become clear to any fair-minded analyst that Whittaker Chambers was right! Evidence accruing from Russian archives and Soviet memoirs demonstrate “Hiss’s complicity as an agent” (p. 1). “Decades after Alger Hiss had left government, new evidence would emerge from both Soviet and U.S. intelligence sources that reinforced the likelihood that he had maintained a link with Soviet Military Intelligence operatives beyond the 1930s and throughout World War II” (p. p. 386). We now know, for example, that Noel Field (with his wife Herta close friends of Alger and Priscilla Hiss), who sought asylum in Hungary after WWII, named Alger Hiss as a fellow Communist underground agent in the State Department during the mid-thirties: “Field said that he had been involved [while at the State Department] and that Hiss was the other one involved’ after he joined the department” (p. 218). “Field freely conceded his prior involvement in espionage for the Soviet Union in 1954 statements made to Hungarian State Security officers,” admitting that: “‘From 1927 gradually I started to live an illegal life completely separate from my official life . . . [committing] espionage for the Soviet intelligence service’” (p. 219). Elaborating, Field told the Hungarian interrogators that Hiss “had also been active in working for the Soviets during this period: ‘[I]n Fall 1935 Hiss at one point called me to undertake espionage for the Soviet Union. . . . I informed him that I was already doing such work’” (p. 219).
Weinstein begins his presentation with events in 1948, when Elizabeth Bentley testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Bentley, labeled the “Red Spy Queen” by the press, said she had frequently delivered documents from American officials to Russian agents. She named names—Lauchlin Currie, one of FDR’s chief aides, and Harry Dexter White, former assistant secretary of the Treasury, “chief architect of the World Bank and, after 1946, director of the International Monetary fund” (p. 14). In addition to Bentley, Whittaker Chambers appeared before the Committee, delivering still more distressing details, especially regarding Alger Hiss, a graduate of Harvard Law School and law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, well-know by FDR insiders such as Dean Acheson (who later became President Truman’s Secretary State). Hiss could hardly have occupied any higher standing in society, and his demeanor demonstrated an aristocratic character. As one of the young idealists joining to advance the New Deal, Hiss had joined the State Department in 1936, attended the Yalta Conference, and helped establish the United Nations. He was clearly the protégé of Secretariesy of State Stettinius and Acheson. When brought before the HUAC he absolutely denied any truth to Chambers’ accusations—a denial that would persist for the rest of his life and be largely believed by the progressive establishment.
In time, however, it became clear that Chambers spoke truthfully and that Alger Hiss was significantly involved in the Communist movement. Indeed much of what Chambers subsequently wrote, in his classic and eminently worth reading memoir Witness, is confirmed by Weinstein. In the Committee’s final report, the “HUAC left little doubt as to credibility: ‘The verifiable portions of Chambers’s testimony have stood up strongly; the verifiable portions of Hiss’s testimony have been badly shaken’” (p. 68). To fill in the historical picture, Weinstein provides extensive and insightful biographical portraits of both Hiss and Chambers, including considerable evidence that the men and their wives were indeed “friends” for several years. The contrast could hardly be more vivid. What the two shared was a commitment to Communism—a “Soviet America” according to Chambers.
With painstaking attention to detail, Weinstein shows how Hiss was deeply involved in spy ring activities during the ‘30s and, when interrogated by the FBI in 1948 and testifying before grand juries and congressional committees, consistently lied. He perjured himself! In time he would be indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years in prison for perjury. Despite the evidence, Hiss continually declared himself innocent of any wrongdoing, and he was supported by legions of friends and political allies. Dean Acheson, for example, said “‘that whatever the outcome of any appeal which Mr. Hiss or his lawyers may take in this case I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss’” (p. 529). Thenceforth significant sectors of the Democrat Party, the media, and academia refused to turn their backs on Alger Hiss. Indeed many of them made defending him something of a sacred cause. As a Columbia University philosophy professor declared: “‘Even if Hiss himself were to confess his guilt, I wouldn’t believe it’” (p. 540). Once released from prison, he cultivated “a new clientele in the 1960s and 1970s among college audiences, faculty and students, both in this country and in England. He became a steady, if unspectacular, fixture on the university lecture circuit , and with each brief burst of renewed interest in the case he reiterated his polite but firm claim of innocence” (p. 556). Despite his criminal record, he gained re-admission to the bar in Massachusetts. “Revisionist” scholars, riled by the Vietnam War, found in Hiss an icon for their anti-anti Communist fervor and (as an innocent victim of McCarthy-style persecution) he enjoyed a significant rehabilitation in such quarters. He died still protesting his innocence.
Whittaker Chambers, on the other hand, became something of a celebrity in conservative political circles. William F. Buckley and his National Review, welcomed Chambers’s essays. Unlike “the relaxed and amiable Hiss, Whittaker Chambers ‘bore witness’ to his version of events after the trials with a mixture of public discomfort and private despair” (p. p. 558). His 800 page Witness became an instant best-seller and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection for May 1952, quickly meeting his pressing financial needs. It also elicited praise from “leading European ex-Communists like Arthur Koestler and Andre Malraux, the latter writing: ‘You have not come beck from hell with empty hands’” (p. 561). He died in 1961.
As a diligent historian, Weinstein consults all available documents, knows intimately the secondary literature regarding the case, and makes considered judgments regarding Hiss’s activities. Admittedly, only readers truly interested in the case will have the patience to peruse the entire text, with its almost hour-by-hour accounting of the facts, but they cannot but be impressed by the diligence with which the author has accumulated and presented his material.