World's" False Secrets
WILLIAM A. REUBEN
SECRET WORLD OF AMERICAN COMMUNISM. By Fridrikh Igorevich
Firsov, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. Yale University
Press, New Haven. 348 pps. $25.
if progressives had not in recent years been battered and
bludgeoned enough already, we now learn that J. Edgar Hoover,
Senator Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Elizabeth Bentley, Whittaker
Chambers & company really got it right: all Communists
are/were actual, or wannabee, Russian spies. We also learn
that during the Cold War years (and even before) hordes of
leftists were abroad in the land, stealing "our"
atomic secrets (and God only knows what else) for delivery
to Joseph Stalin.
recent days, this message has been dunned into our ears by
such opinion-makers as William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will,
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Theodore Draper, Michael Thomas,
Edward Jay Epstein and David Garrow in the pages of The
New York Times, The New Republic, Commentar, Wall Street Journal,
The National Review, the "McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour,"
and lots more (without a dissenting voice to be heard anywhere).
all-out blitz has been fueled by "The Secret World of
American Communism," written by Professor Harvey Klehr,
of Emory University, John Earl Haynes, of the Library of Congress,
and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, formerly of the Comintern Archives
in Moscow at the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study
of Documents in Recent History. The authors claim to have
put together a "massive documentary record" from
the hitherto secret Comintern archives, revealing "the
dark side of American communism." These documents establish,
they say, proof both of "Soviet espionage in America"
and of the American Communist Party's "inherent"
connection with Soviet espionage operations and with its espionage
services; and that such spy activities were considered, by
both Soviet and the American CP leaders, "normal and
assertions are not all that different from what J. Edgar Hoover
(and his stooges) were saying half a century ago. But what
reinforces the authors' statements are not only the documents
from the Russian archives they claim to have uncovered, but
also the imposing editorial advisory committee assembled to
give this project an eminent scholarly cachet. This editorial
advisory committee consists of 30 academics whose names are
listed opposite the title page. They include seven Yale University
professors, along with professors from Harvard, Columbia,
Stanford, Chicago, Brandeis, Southern Methodist, Pittsburgh
and Rochester universities. There are also an equal number
of members of the Russian Academy of Sciences and of officials
of various Russian archives.
in the book are 92 documents offered by the authors as evidence
of what they say is the United States Communist Party's continuous
history of "covert activity." These documents, according
to Professor Steven Merrit Minor in The New York Times
Book Review, reveal that American Communists "relayed
atomic secrets to the Kremlin" and also support the testimony
of Whittaker Chambers and others that the American Communist
Party was engaged in underground conspiracies against the
American Government. The authors also say that the documents
suggest that those "who continued to claim otherwise
were either willfully naive or, more likely, dishonest."
actuality, many of the documents are ambiguously worded or
in some sort of code known only to the senders and recipients.
They often contain illegible words, numbers and signatures;
relate to unidentifiable persons, places and events; and are
preoccupied with bookkeeping matters, inner-party hassles
or with protective security measures against FBI and Trotskyite
spies. Most importantly, not a single document reproduced
in this volume provides evidence of espionage. Ignoring all
evidence that contradicts their thesis, the authors attempt
to make a case relying on assumption, speculation, and invention
about the archival material and, especially, by equating secrecy
with illegal spying.
book's high points are sections relating to what the authors
call atomic espionage and the CP Washington spy apparatus.
As someone who has carefully examined the archives at the
Russian Center, and who over the past four decades has studied
the trial transcripts of the major Cold War "spy"
cases, I can state that "The Secret World of American
Communism," notwithstanding its scholarly accouterments,
is a disgracefully shoddy work, replete with errors, distortions
and outright lies. As a purported work of objective scholarship,
it is nothing less than a fraud.
this context, certain facts ought to be noted:
The Moscow archives contain no material relating to
these key figures in the Cold War "spy" cases: Ethel
and Julius Rosenberg, Morton Sobell, Ruth and David Greenglass,
Harry Gold, Klaus Fuchs, Elizabeth Bentley, Hede Massing,
Noel Field, Harry Dexter White, Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers,
Colonel Boris Bykov and J. Peters. In my possession is a document,
responding to my request, and dated October 12, 1992, signed
by Oleg Naumov, Deputy Director of the Russian Center for
the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History,
attesting that the Center has no files on, or relating to,
any of the above-named persons.
Despite the authors' assertion that the documents in this
volume show that the CPUSA's elaborate underground apparatus
collaborated with Soviet espionage services and also engaged
in stealing the secrets of America's atomic bomb project,
not one of the 92 documents reproduced in this book supports
such a conclusion.
The authors claim the documents corroborate Whittaker Chambers'
allegations about a Communist underground in Washington, D.C.
in the 1930s, and while the authors concede that Alger Hiss's
name does not appear in any of the documents, they assert
that the "subsequent documentation has further substantiated
the case that Hiss was a spy." Yet, not one document
from the Russian archives supports any of these damning
total of 15 pages in "Secret World" have some reference
either to Hiss or Chambers. By my count, these contain 73
separate misrepresentations of fact or downright lies. For
example, the authors claim that J. Peters "played a key
role in Chambers' story" that Hiss was a Soviet spy.
Peters played no role in Chambers' story about espionage.
Chambers said that the key figure in his espionage activities
with Hiss was a Russian named "Colonel Boris Bykov,"
a character whose identity the FBI spent years futilely trying
authors claim Chambers testified he worked in the Communist
underground in the 1930s with groups of government employees
who "provided the CPUSA with information about sensitive
government activities." In fact, Chambers testified to
the exact contrary on 12 separate occasions.
to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and their case can be found
on five pages. In those pages, by my tally, are 31 falsehoods
or distortions of evidence. For example, the authors say the
Rosenbergs' conviction was for "involvement in...atomic
espionage." In fact they were convicted of conspiracy,
and no evidence was ever produced that they ever handed over
any information about anything to anyone.
authors also say the Rosenbergs were arrested as a result
of information the authorities obtained from Klaus Fuchs,
which led to Harry Gold, who led them to David Greenglass,
who implicated the Rosenbergs. All of these statements are
based on an FBI press release. In fact, no evidence has ever
been produced that indicates that Fuchs, Gold or Greenglass
ever mentioned the Rosenbergs before their arrests.
one other "spy" case, that of Judith Coplon, against
whom all charges were dismissed, the authors in typical contempt
of official court records write that "there was not the
slightest doubt of her guilt." In comments running no
less than half a page, they invent a scenario of the Coplon
case that contains 14 outright lies and distortions. For instance,
the authors say she "stole" an FBI report and she
was arrested when she handed over' the stolen report "to
a Soviet citizen." All these statements are false; in
her two trials, no evidence was ever adduced that she ever
stole anything or that she ever handed over anything to anyone.
the space of a book review, to detail all the fictions piled
into "Secret World" is utterly impractical. Three
examples will have to suffice to demonstrate the authors'
brand of scholarship:
The late Steve Nelson, a onetime CP official who is referred
to many times by the authors, is thus characterized, on page
230: "After World War II, U.S. officials charged that
he was involved in Soviet spying, including atomic espionage."
a charge was once made against Nelson by the Republican-dominated
HUAC. Following two weeks of secret hearings at the beginning
of the 1948 presidential election campaign, HUAC, on September
27, 1948, issued a 20,000 word report charging that the Democratic
Party was indifferent to Soviet espionage. It named Nelson
as the pivotal figure in an atom spy network that was allegedly
operating in the United States.
equate the thoroughly discredited HUAC with "U.S. officials,"
as do the authors of "Secret World," is bad enough,
but much worse is ignoring what was actually said by U.S.
officials. This came by way of a statement issued that September
by the Department of Justice. These U.S. officials
branded the HUAC report as utterly without merit, an exercise
in "political gymnastics," issued by a "politically
minded Congressional committee with one eye on publicity and
the other on election results." Of course, neither Nelson
nor any of the others named as members of a Soviet atom spy
ring was ever charged with any such crime.
The name of Earl Browder, who was head of the American Communist
Party from 1930 until he was deposed in 1945, runs through
the entire book. All the episodes of espionage alleged in
the book occur during his watch. Asserting that no CPUSA participation
in Soviet espionage could have been conducted "without
approval" from Browder, the authors state flatly that
he "was himself no stranger to Soviet intelligence"
and was "fully cognizant" of Communists' involvement
in spying for the Soviets, "including atomic espionage."
his death, Browder repeatedly and categorically denied all
such charges, but except for a passing reference, nowhere
are those statements included in the book. He even denied
them in 1950 before the Tydings Committee and was never charged
The Hiss case and the story told by Whittaker Chambers about
the Washington underground together make up the high point
not only of "Secret World" but of most of its reviews
as well. The only documentary support in the entire
volume for the authors' unqualified conclusion as to Hiss's
guilt and Chambers' truthfulness is offered in Documents 32
and 33, neither of which is from the Comintem archives.
32 is the text of a one-paragraph extract - undated, unsigned,
without salutation or any indication of the sender or recipient
- said to have been sent by Ambassador William Bullitt to
R. Walton Moore, Assistant Secretary of State. It offers generalized
comments about events in Europe, together with Moore's comments
said to have been sent to an unidentified third party. Document
33 is the printed text of an unsigned, chatty letter, dated
October 19, 1936, said to have been sent to President Roosevelt
by William Dodd, U.S. Ambassador to Germany, offering generalized
opinions about the state of affairs in Germany. Neither document
was marked secret or classified.
"Secret World," no explanation is offered as to
how or when or through whom the originals of these documents
wound up in the hands of the authors in Moscow. Yet they claim
that these two exhibits provide "direct evidence"
in support of Chambers' story about Hiss and the Washington
underground. Actually, the only thing it provides "direct
evidence" of is that, as scholarship, this book is worthless.