Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era
by Lauren Kessler
HarperCollins, 372 pp.
THE STORY OF ELIZABETH BENTLEY -- the disillusioned Soviet agent who revealed the extent of Moscow's penetration of the American government, and who was rewarded for that with decades of insult -- represents one of the most extraordinary episodes of the Cold War.
Her allegations about the Soviet agents in Washington have now been corroborated by public release of the Venona decryptions, the secret Russian communications intercepted by Western military analysts at the time.
But, as the subtitle of Lauren Kessler's interesting Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era shows, we still haven't gotten away from the old picture. In reality, Elizabeth Bentley had little to do with Senator Joseph McCarthy, and she cannot be blamed for the events that followed on her revelations. The fact crying out from Kessler's fine account of Bentley's journey is that few people of responsibility and authority were prepared to admit, in the aftermath of World War II, the extent of Soviet duplicity toward America.
Elizabeth Bentley appears to have been a product of the Depression and the sudden expansion of Sovietophilia in American intellectual and political life. Although the full circumstances of her recruitment remain mysterious, she joined the Communist party in 1935 at age thirty. Four years later, she was working undercover in a fascist propaganda agency, the Italian Library of Information, from which she was suddenly fired for her pro-Soviet associations. But in 1938, she had been introduced to a leading Soviet intelligence official, who became her lover as well as her operational chief. This was a man in his late forties, first known to her as "Timmy," a strangely childlike alias, but who is better known under the pseudonym "Jacob Golos."
Golos was a veteran of the radical Left. His name derived from his involvement with a pro-Bolshevik daily newspaper published in New York, Russky Golos or The Russian Voice. Kessler misses that Golos was born Jacob Raisen in Ukraine in 1890, a fact included in the indispensable Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. Jacob Golos ran a front operation called World Tourists, Inc., which arranged visits by foreigners to the Soviet Union. The prominence of Golos in socialist politics, ethnic Russian affairs, and, in effect, an official Soviet travel agency, demonstrates the absurdity of one of the favorite clichés of anti-anti-Communists, holding that Communist party activists were invariably kept away from secret work for the various networks dedicated to intelligence and repression.
Bentley was already, when she met Golos, an associate of fearsome Stalinists. Kessler refers to her previous handler, "F. Brown," but has apparently not found out that "Brown" was also known as "Alpi," an Italian Communist widely considered to be of the terrorist persuasion, fully capable of ordering and carrying out murders. Bentley herself was involved, in a subordinate position, in the plot to murder Trotsky, which was micromanaged by the Soviets from the United States.
In the Venona messages, Bentley was designated with the name umnitsa, meaning "clever girl" or "good girl." But after Golos died of a heart attack in 1943, her favorable reputation with her Soviet handlers began unraveling. In 1941, Golos had set up a commercial forwarding enterprise, called the U.S. Service and Shipping Corporation, with Bentley as one of its officers. With Golos's demise, she was assigned to other spy bosses, who demanded that her informants and operatives be turned over to more direct supervision. Stalinism required Soviet citizens to assume responsibility for handling American assets, without people like Bentley in an intermediary position. In retrospect, this was somewhat natural; a great number of the spies were unstable dilettantes who could not be expected to serve with the discipline men like Golos had acquired in years of conspiratorial activity. Indeed, the indiscretions of some of the agents and their associates had made Moscow suspicious of their capacity to remain effective.
But, as Kessler writes, "Bentley was hurt and angry and scared at the turn of events, and she often lashed out verbally at her Russian handlers." She had clearly begun to recognize the Soviet network as the criminal gang that it was. The situation deteriorated further, and soon her controllers were denouncing her to their bosses as "hostile, unreliable, and untrustworthy," in Kessler's account. There was serious discussion in Moscow about the need to remove her to Soviet territory, if not to simply kill her. But the top spies decided she still had some uses. Meanwhile, U.S. Service and Shipping had also come to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, other clandestine networks had been busted, and, in a situation of increasing insecurity and anxiety, it comes as no surprise that in 1945 Elizabeth Bentley decided to turn herself in to the FBI.
She soon denounced an extraordinary roster of Communists who had gained high posts as federal officials. Their ranks included Harry Dexter White, an undersecretary of the Treasury, and Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, an economist born in Russia, who had been known as a Soviet hatchetman on the West Coast and who had risen to leading responsibilities in the Treasury and Commerce departments. Others ranged from Duncan C. Lee, a top staffer in the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, to William Remington, a leading employee of the War Production Board.
She also declared that she had run the group of agents that included the atomic spy Julius Rosenberg. In this narrative, the names keep coming. The most startling and disturbing item in this book is the disclosure that Moscow was informed of her defection within three weeks of her first interview with the FBI, thanks to Kim Philby, the British liaison to United States intelligence, based in London, and perhaps the most notorious of all such traitors.
Polemicists who now look back in shock at the vulnerability of the Roosevelt administration to this subversion, and who react by charging the whole Democratic and liberal elite of those times with complicity in treason, simply demonstrate their lack of a historical sense. Most Americans were as surprised by the Soviet infiltration as their later counterparts were surprised by the attacks of September 11, and the caution of the Truman administration in reacting to the ugly facts is understandable.
Elizabeth Bentley achieved real status as a historical personage in 1947, when she described the activities in which she had participated before a New York grand jury. She was quickly labeled "the blonde spy queen," and, as in the case of Alger Hiss, attitudes toward her became a benchmark of "progressive" and "reactionary" sympathies. Kessler calls the section of Clever Girl describing the ensuing details of Miss Bentley's biography The Ruin. Indeed, her service to the American cause brought her little beyond obloquy. Never again did she gain stable employment or enjoy a position of public respect. Although the FBI stood by her, many anti-Communists eventually considered her a cranky burden, and to all who wanted to believe the best about American leftists and their ideals, she was a figure of evil.
Elizabeth Bentley died in 1963 in obscure and painful circumstances. Although Lauren Kessler has done her best to defend her subject's honor, the weight of American popular memory remains against her. No one who reads Lauren Kessler's Clever Girl will come away satisfied that America did right by those who put loyalty to country ahead of personal interest -- nor will anyone be inspired to emulate her.