Title: The Haunted Wood
Weinstein, Allen (1999) and Alexander Vassiliev. The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America – The Stalin Era. New York: Random House
UB271.R9 W45 1999
- Espionage, Soviet–United States–History.
- Spies–Soviet Union.
- Spies–United States.
- United States–History–1933-1945.
Date Updated: December 9, 2015
Book review by Joseph E. Persico.
In December 1948, the legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow went on the air to deplore the death of Laurence Duggan, a former State Department official seemingly hounded to suicide by the Communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee, whose members included Representative Richard M. Nixon. Murrow’s outrage might have been tempered if he had possessed the information about Duggan that is revealed in The Haunted Wood, by Allen Weinstein, the founder of the Center for Democracy in Washington and Moscow, and Aleksandr Vassiliev, a journalist and a K.G.B. alumnus.
While once-unimaginable collaborations among writers from opposing trenches in the cold war are not all that uncommon today, this work has a special power. During a two-year window of opportunity (or of lowered guard), Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the successor to the Soviet Union’s K.G.B., allowed the authors access to thousands of secret documents from the Stalin era. Much of what they found is not new—and yet it is.
The experience of reading The Haunted Wood is rather like looking into the new edition of a book from which half the pages had previously been torn out. What emerges most sharply is proof of the guilt of certain Americans whose spying for the Soviet Union has been the subject of debate for over half a century. Laurence Duggan, for example, may have been driven to suicide by the HUAC Red hunters; but one document the authors unearthed in Moscow reveals how a Soviet defector was murdered to protect the identity of Duggan, whose espionage “take” in the 1930s occasionally went directly to Stalin.
Similarly with Alger Hiss. For decades, the truth about the Hiss-Whittaker Chambers case had been obscured by its symbolism. To both liberals and conservatives, as Weinstein and Vassiliev put it, “the protagonists assumed the status of icons in the demonologies and hagiographies of their opposing camps.” In an earlier work, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (1978), Weinstein, possessing far less evidence than is now available, traced his odyssey from believing in Hiss’s innocence to accepting his guilt as a Soviet agent. Now the most die-hard Hiss apologist will find it daunting to explain away a document the authors discovered in the K.G.B. files revealing that Hiss and his ring were awarded Soviet decorations for providing military information going back to 1935.
Indeed, the book consists in great part of swatches of actual quotation from the files of the K.G.B. and its predecessors during what the authors call the “golden age” of Soviet espionage (1933-45). The files document Soviet spying by Representative Samuel Dickstein of New York, so greedy that his handlers gave him the code name “Crook.” The material from the file on Martha Dodd, the daughter of the American Ambassador to Germany in the 1930s, reads better than most spy thrillers: the beautiful and reckless Dodd, known socially to President and Mrs. Roosevelt, gave her all, sleeping with Nazis or whoever could provide useful intelligence to her Soviet spymasters.
Michael Straight, a wealthy American blue blood recruited for Soviet espionage at Cambridge University along with Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Harold (Kim) Philby and Anthony Blunt, went directly to an unwitting Roosevelt for help in wrangling a job that would position him conveniently for Soviet spying. Serving in America’s own World War II intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services, and close to its chief, William J. (Wild Bill) Donovan, was Duncan Lee, a descendant of Gen. Robert E. Lee, and another Soviet recruit. Lee always denied the charge, yet a K.G.B. file reveals a Soviet agent boasting of Lee’s value as a source, noting that all O.S.S. intelligence “from Europe and the rest of the world . . . comes through his hands.” Still another file documents the Soviets’ strategy to tap Lauchlin Currie, a top Roosevelt White House aide who became a source of intelligence to Moscow.
None of the foregoing names are new to accusations of espionage. But in the past many escaped opprobrium, shielded by the notion that they were victims of anti-Communist hysteria. The Weinstein-Vassiliev discoveries in the archives of the opposition camp tear away that shield.
All the above penetrations, however, pale before the all-time Soviet espionage triumph, the piercing of America’s most zealously guarded secret of the war, the development of the atomic bomb—fittingly code-named ENORMOZ by the Soviets. The activities of Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, David Greenglass, the Rosenbergs and many others have long been chronicled. What is new here is the view of their manipulation from the Soviet side and evidence of even deeper penetration of the Manhattan Project than previously suspected.
The authors found in the archives of the K.G.B. a virtual hemorrhage of Allied atomic secrets. An anonymous donor left a bundle of top secrets practically on the doorstep of the Soviet Consulate in New York. A still-unidentified “Tina,” a Communist working for a British firm, revealed to the Soviets the metals used to make the bomb. “Fogel,” the code name for an American who was never caught or identified, delivered to his controller plans for plants and equipment employed to construct the bomb. Another document reveals Soviet paranoia, with Moscow prodding its agents in the United States to work harder because the Americans intended “to maintain a complete monopoly on ‘Enormoz’ and to use the [atomic bomb] for aggressive purposes against us.”
The K.G.B. archives further detail Moscow’s nearly total control and orchestration of the failed worldwide public relations campaign to save Julius and Ethel Rosenberg from the electric chair for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. And the authors’ probing in Moscow finally lays to rest long-bruited suspicions about the loyalty of the scientific chief of the Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Files they found suggest that he was a “secret member” of the American Communist Party, and make clear that he was indeed a target of Soviet operatives—Oppenheimer “represents a very large interest for us.” Yet Weinstein and Vassiliev uncovered no shred of evidence that he ever spied for the Soviet Union.
The hardest part of these revelations to accept, at least for those of us who deplored the overzealous Red-hunting of the late 40s and early 50s, is that the hunt rested on more substance than we cared to admit, the phony posturing of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy aside. Still, one question lingers. What prompted so many privileged American intellectuals—a Hiss, a Duggan, a Straight—to become seemingly mesmerized servants of an authoritarian spy service? “Soviet intelligence files,” the authors conclude, “document the mixture of accidental encounters, underlying ideological beliefs, romantic antifascist views and Soviet persistence.” One finishes The Haunted Wood with a sense that the romantic antifascism, coupled with a romanticized Communism, produced a potent political narcotic. To be an economist for the Farm Security Administration might lack glamour, but to toil for the F.S.A. and also to be a spy! Now there was excitement, heightened by membership in “an elite . . . secretive club fighting for a noble ideal.”
Of course, critics may charge that it is all a fraud. Could not the Russians have fabricated incriminating documents and then fed them to eager researchers? But to what end? Why would Russian intelligence operatives have concocted and buried these files until only the impossible-to-predict collapse of the Soviet Union brought them to light? Further supporting the validity of the documents is the fact that many of the messages in the K.G.B. archive were matched by the authors against outgoing messages that the Soviets radioed from the United States to Moscow during the war, transmissions intercepted and broken through an American code-cracking triumph called VENONA.
It has been said that all World War II histories written before the revelation of Ultra, the British success in breaking German codes, are incomplete. The work of Weinstein, Vassiliev and their colleagues mining the Soviet lode begins to approach the significance of an Ultra. Histories of Soviet-American relations written without benefit of Soviet secret files now available are, to some degree, books with missing pages.
Joseph E. Persico, The New York Times (January 3, 1999). Joseph E. Persico, a historian, a biographer and the collaborator on Gen. Colin L. Powell’s memoir, is currently writing a book on World War II espionage.