Like Hugo's fictional Inspector Javert, historians Haynes and Klehr are dogged in the pursuit of their quarry--American communists who betrayed their country through covert relationships with the KGB in the 1930s and 40s. Nevermind the fact that the Statute of Limitations has long since expired on these crimes, or that the characters themselves were long ago swept into the dust bin of history, the historians have devoted their careers to exposing the perfidy of secret communists, and to hauling their corpses, time and again, before the court of public opinion. It is the historians' investigative spadework and their constrained sense of justice at long last being served which provides the narrative drive to "Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America."
Much of the evidence presented in the book is drawn from the notebooks of the Russian journalist Alexander Vassiliev. In 1993 Vassiliev was granted limited access to the KGB's operational files for the 1930s and 1940s. His transcripts of pages from these files would eventually fill 8 notebooks comprising more than 1000 pages. Summaries of the documents were used in writing the book "The Haunted Wood (1998)," which Vassiliev co-authored with Allen Weinstein. In a lengthy introduction to "Spies," Vassiliev tells the story of his notebooks and his defamation suit against the publisher Frank Cass. He also paints a sympathetic portrait of the American spies, whom he views as heroes, which helps to counterbalance the more severe portrait painted by Haynes and Klehr.
The authors open the book by revisiting the Hiss case in a chapter subtitled "Case Closed." Aside from conspiracy theorists for whom there exists no untainted Hiss evidence, it seems impossible not to agree with the authors' contention that Hiss was a committed communist and a Red Army (GRU) source until his exposure in 1948. Some of the evidence in this chapter was documented earlier by Vassiliev in the "Haunted Wood," and the lengthier treatment given here by Haynes and Klehr fully corroborates the sixty-year-old testimony of Hede Massing and Whittaker Chambers. The authors cite new evidence from the KGB files of Michael Straight and Lawrence Duggan which confirms Hiss's bona-fides as a GRU agent. They also argue persuasively, using both Venona and Vassiliev material, that Hiss was the agent cover named JURIST, LEONARD, and ALES; and they supply the likely identity of the party worker, cover named PAUL, who became Hiss's liaison with the GRU following Whittaker Chamber's defection.
For readers interested in the atom-bomb spies, the book is a treasure-trove of new information. The Venona decrypts exposed the damaging Los Alamos spies MLAD (Theodore Alvin Hall) and STAR (Saville Sax), but researchers were unable to identify all the people behind the cover names in the decrypted Soviet cables. The masks have now been ripped from the faces of these spies. The authors reveal the name of PERS/FOGEL, an engineer recruited into espionage by Julius Rosenburg; the name of QUANTUM, a foriegn scientist who, in exchange for money, delivered atomic information to the Soviet Embassy in Washington D.C.; the name of ERIC, a refugee Austrian physicist at the Cavendish Laboratory who provided atomic research to the Soviets in Great Britain; and the name of RELE/SERB, the crippled Spanish Civil War veteran who supplied technical data on sonar. After sifting the evidence, the authors conclude that Robert Oppenheimer was a concealed member of the CPUSA in the late 30s, but that he distanced himself from the party and did not supply information to the KGB. Unfortunately, Vassiliev was granted access to only a single file pertaining to atomic espionage and the authors can shed no new light on the continuing debate about whether the Soviets obtained the secret of the hydrogen bomb from penetration agents.
The chapters on the U.S. government and the OSS corroborate the testimony of Elizabeth Bentley, the "Red Spy Queen," and supplement the voluminous FBI "Silvermaster File." The names of many heretofore unknown secret KGB agents are also revealed. Certainly two of the most interesting and colorful are LEO, an immigrant journalist, and WILLY, the Director of the Bureau of Indexes and Archives at the State Department. This mercenary pair engaged in a racket selling copies of State Department cables to the KGB for money. When they pretended to recruit a third agent and asked the KGB for a larger sum, their greed was discovered. The pair had a falling out and their names disappear from the KGB files, though in a curious twist of fate, WILLY would later appear as a government expert in the Hiss case. The authors expose spy after spy and it is by this slow, mounting presentation of evidence that the reader is led to the conclusion that far more Americans, operating on a far larger scale than had been previously imagined, conspired with the KGB in the 1930-40s. The apparatus employed Americans as couriers, talent spotters, watchers, journalists, bagmen, legitimate fronts, photographers, and agent handlers. There were hundreds of Americans who secretly abetted Stalin's KGB.
To meet the needs of Stalin's policy of forced industrialization, the KBG actively recruited spies with technical/scientific information. Some acted as paid informants, while others, such as the Rosenburgs, were motivated by ideology. The past two decades have not been kind to Rosenburg defenders. In 1995 the Venona decrypts identified Julius as the Soviet spy with the cover names LIBERAL and ANTENNA; in 2001 Alexander Feklisov, the Rosenburg's Soviet handler, published "The Man Behind the Rosenburgs;" and in September 2008 Rosenburg accomplice Morton Sobell, after decades of denial, confessed that he was an active participant in Julius's spy apparatus. Haynes and Klehr add to our knowledge of the Rosenburg apparatus by exposing the agents PERS and TUK, and by pointing out that Rosenburg agents YAKOV, METER, and HUGHES delivered an extraordinary cache of classified technical information to the Soviets. The only reasonable act left in this drama is for the Russian government to admit that the Rosenburgs were Soviet spies and to build a monument in their honor.
The book is arranged as a series of topically related biographical sketches and one criticism of Haynes and Klehr is that they do not provide enough context for readers unfamiliar with the ideological landscape of the 1930s. The book does not help us to understand why so many Americans joined the communist party in the 1930s and why a number became witting agents for the Comintern, GRU, and KGB. And it also does not give a clear explanation as to why many of these same people abandoned their communist faith in the years prior to McCarthy's speech at Wheeling. It is ironic that the fortunes of the KBG in American were at their lowest ebb at precisely the moment when the 1950's "Red Scare" began. Readers can gain a greater understanding of the milieu by seeking out Vivian Gornick's "The Romance of American Communism" or Whittaker Chamber's autobiography "Witness."
For many years, "Spies" will remain the definitive history of the golden-age of Soviet espionage in America.