Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Harvey Klehr, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of Politics and History at Emory University. He has written a dozen books on American radicalism and Soviet espionage, a number with John Haynes. The latest book is Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, published by Yale University Press.
FP: Harvey Klehr, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Klehr: Thank you: it’s a pleasure to talk with you again.
FP: Your new book has extensive new information on previously known or suspected spies. Tell us a bit about this new evidence.
Klehr: Our co-author Alexander Vassiliev is a former KGB officer who was given unprecedented access to KGB files in the 1990s. He made more than 1100 pages of very detailed notes, often quoting entire documents. He then prepared summary chapters for his collaborator Alan Weinstein. The summary chapters were vetted by a declassification committee before Weinstein saw them and were the basis for The Haunted Wood. Vassiliev, who left Russia before the book came out and is now a British citizen, had the original notebooks sent to him several years ago and they are the basis for our new book. They are a treasure trove.
FP: How about revelations about a number of previously unknown spies.
Klehr: We were able to identify scores of previously unknown spies. The most startling was an engineer named Russell McNutt, who worked at Oak Ridge during WWII. He was the spy cover named Fogel from the Venona decryptions that American counter-intelligence had never been able to identify. McNutt, it turns out, had been recruited for atomic espionage by his good friend Julius Rosenberg. He was never exposed, although the FBI did question him briefly, became the chief engineer for Gulf Oil, built the town of Reston, VA, and retired to a swanky country-club he built in the North Carolina mountains. He died a year ago.
We also identified the British atomic spy code-named "Eric" who was the KGB's major source on the effort to build a bomb for much of 1942 and 1943. He was an Austrian exile named Englebert Broda. And there are many more: James Hibben, the head of one of the divisions of the Tariff Commission, Stanley Graze, who served in the OSS and later was indicted by the US Government for being involved in Robert Vesco's fraudulent securities activities and fled to Costa Rica, Henry Ware, an economist and the grandson of the founder of Atlanta University, David Salmon, the head of a State Department Division of Communications and Records. The list goes on and on.
FP: Can you give us some details about Soviet espionage trade craft?
Klehr: The Soviets had very elaborate sets of recognition symbols and codes. Contacts were often carrying certain objects and had a "parole" or set of verbal cues that were supposed to be recited. It sometimes did not go well, with either the source or the agent forgetting the words or neglecting to bring the proper object. Sometimes the local station would protest that the meeting place arranged by Moscow was inappropriate. Officers were supposed to take circuitous routes around, say, New York, jumping on and off buses and subways, to shake surveillance. But some KGB officers were lazy and caused problems. While the KGB was a very effective spy organization, one surprise was that it made lots of mistakes. But perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise. Its officers were human beings and so were its sources. Spy organizations rarely operate as smoothly and effectively as the textbook version.
FP: Tell us a bit about how Soviets destroyed their own successful spy rings in the late 1930s, rebuilt them during WWII and then saw them destroyed again in the late 1940s.
Klehr: From 1932 to 1937 the KGB built up a very successful network of spies in the United States. It had sources in the State Department, Justice Department, Treasury, in a host of scientific laboratories, and a variety of journalists, including I.F. Stone. It had recruited a US Congressman - even if he was ultimately a disappointment - named Samuel Dickstein of New York. But then, Stalin launched his purge of the security services. The KGB station chiefs in the US were recalled and shot. Most of the KGB officers serving here suffered the same fate or were sent to the Gulag. A few knew what was coming and defected. As a result, by 1940 the KGB had a bunch of inexperienced officers. One report complained that most of them could not speak fluent English. That meant it had to cut off contact with most of its sources. In the midst of this paranoia, it even persuaded itself that most of the sources were FBI plants or useless. So, it effectively destroyed its networks.
Once the Nazis attacked the USSR, there was a desperate rush to rebuild the networks. New station chiefs were dispatched to America and more experienced agents sent over. Because the KGB wanted and needed immediate results, it became very dependent on the American Communist Party networks of clandestine communists in Washington being run by Jacob Golos. These networks had lots of government employees and turned over tons of valuable information. The Soviets very much wanted to take direct control of these people but Golos resisted them. After he died in 1943, his lover and successor, Elizabeth Bentley, was gradually forced to turn them over to the Russians. The KGB fretted that these networks lacked proper conspiratorial structures, that everyone in them knew everyone else and discussed their espionage activities together. It wanted to restructure them and began to do so in 1944 and 1945. But Bentley, aggrieved at being pushed aside, went to the FBI in 1945. Kim Philby quickly let the KGB know and it immediately began recalling vulnerable officers to Moscow and shutting down its networks to protect the sources. That was one reason the FBI was never able to catch any of the people she named in the act. But it did mean that from late 1945 to about 1947-1948, the KGB's networks in the United States were largely moribund.
FP: What does the new information tell us about McCarthy and McCarthyism?
Klehr: McCarthy was right about the large issue of subversion. There had been extensive, widespread and damaging Soviet espionage directed against the US government. And, virtually all of the people involved had gotten away with it. McCarthy also did identify a handful of those who had worked as Soviet spies - Gerald and Stanley Graze, Franz Neumann, Mary Jane and Philip Keeney, Robert Miller - although most of these people had left the government by the time McCarthy made his charges. But many others he named do not appear to have been spies. I think that McCarthy's scattershot charges and failure to distinguish between spies, communists and fellow travelers damaged the anti-communist cause. Although he later rescinded his absurd claim that Owen Lattimore had been the top Soviet spy in the United States, that sort of hyperbole enabled lots of people to dismiss the whole issue as a witch hunt or the product of a demagogue. There had been security risks and spies in the government, but McCarthy's grandstanding made it possible for some of them to pretend to be victims instead of what they were.
FP: You have been attacked both by left and some on the right. Share with us the nature of these attacks. And the denial still continues on the most obvious proven cases doesn’t it? (i.e. Hiss)
Klehr: Well, the most vicious attacks have come from the left. With this book, almost the entire focus of leftist ire has been I.F. Stone. With earlier books, we got a lot of flack from defenders of the Rosenbergs and Hiss. The Rosenberg defenders have given up the ghost. The admission this past winter by Morton Sobell that he and Julius had been spies has finally finished them off. In Spies we name a few new members of the Rosenberg ring and show that Ethel was also involved, albeit in a minor way. The Hiss defenders have been pretty quiet, even though we have a chapter in which we quote KGB documents that name Hiss as an agent. But Stone's outing sent folks like Eric Alterman and Don Guttenplan into a frenzy. Even though we note that Stone was a minor agent, they are unable to face the fact that such an icon could have consciously worked with the KGB.
On the right, we have been attacked in the past by some people for being too critical of McCarthy. Stan Evans, whom I like and respect, still wants to defend McCarthy's record. Ann Coulter attacked us for criticizing McCarthy, suggesting that we were bowing to pressure from the academic left, a charge that is just absurd, given the way those folks think about us. Herb Romerstein is convinced that Harry Hopkins was a Soviet spy and we have found no evidence to support that. And I am sure that some people on the right will not like our conclusion in this book that Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos project, was not a Soviet spy. The evidence is quite overwhelming. The KGB desperately tried to recruit him, thought it could since he had been a secret member of the CPUSA, and failed to do so. There are numerous memos lamenting its inability to make contact with him.
John Haynes and I have based our arguments on the facts and on documents. We certainly have political and ideological leanings - anyone who has read our book In Denial knows that we do not pretend to be ideologically neutral l- but this book and our other books written for Yale University Press - The Secret World of American Communism, The Soviet World of American Communism, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America - are works of history, not ideology. And the growing historical consensus is that virtually all those accused of being Soviet espionage agents - including Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and those named by Elizabeth Bentley - were in fact Soviet spies.
FP: Harvey Klehr, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.