- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

Let us dash once and for all the quaint notion still cherished by all too many “liberals” that the Soviet spy rings of the 1940s and 1950s were harmless attempts to benefit a wartime ally of the United States. The truth is far more grave, as revealed in two startling books that show the reach of Soviet espionage:

Michael Straight, the only American recruited as a member of the notorious “Cambridge Ring” — Philby, Burgess, Maclean et al — was the guiding spirit of Henry Wallace’s third-party campaign for the presidency in 1948. His family’s magazine, The New Republic, which he edited, was arguably the most influential organ of the American left during this period. And he did intelligence odd jobs for the Soviets for decades. The story of Straight’s perfidy is detailed in Last of the Cold War Spies by Roland Perry (Da Capo, $27.50, 377 pages).

Two relatively obscure outriders, Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, of the “Rosenberg Ring” — named for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for atomic espionage in 1953 — evaded arrest and fled to the Soviet Union, where they were instrumental in creating Moscow’s version of “Silicon Valley, using information stolen from the American labs to build the USSR’s first advanced weapons system.” Their remarkable story, based in large part on extensive interviews with Barr, is contained in Engineering Communism by Steve Usdin (Yale, $40, 320 pages, illus.)

Straight’s dual role as Soviet agent and confidante of high-level Democratic political figures — his contacts included President Roosevelt and the First Lady — began to unravel in 1963 when President Kennedy nominated him for an arts position that required a security clearance by the FBI. Alarmed that the bureau knew his secret, and fearing exposure, Straight volunteered to agents that the KGB recruited him in 1937, when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge. The Soviets hoped that Straight, scion of a wealthy and politically-wired family, could parlay his connections and friendships with the Roosevelts into a job at the White House. That failed; Straight ended with a menial job at the State Department and as a minor Administration speech writer. He would insist to the FBI that he broke contact with the KGB in 1941.

He lied. In fact, he continued meeting Soviet contacts, and he took on the role perhaps even more valuable to Moscow than conventional espionage, that of a well-placed “agent of influence.” Articulate and wealthy, Straight followed Moscow’s dictate in nudging the American left towards the communist line. His major coup was as intellectual mastermind of former Vice President Henry Wallace’s noisy (and fortunately, futile) 1948 campaign for the White House for the Progressive Party.

There was also the sin of omission. Straight knew that his Cambridge-era comrades, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, worked in the British Embassy in Washington in 1950, and were positioned so they could pass on information concerning U.N. strategy in the Korean War. A third agent, Kim Philby, ran the British intelligence mission. Straight claimed — with no substantiation — that he threatened Burgess with exposure if he did not get out of government within a month. No whistle was ever blown. The three British traitors remained active.

One of Straight’s more audacious feats came in the 1960s, when a Soviet handler, one Barkovsky, tasked him with photographing and mapping an area in Colorado where the Kennedy Administration planned a massive, shock-protected military headquarters for use in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. Straight dutifully developed a cover story of researching a historical novel set in the area and did the Soviets’ bidding. As Mr. Perry writes, “Should there be a nuclear encounter, the Soviet military had plans to destroy the bunker and its surrounds” and adds: “Straight maintained his usefulness to the KGB cause by putting an anti-American, pro-Soviet spin on major issues. Amnesty International, which was often anti-federal government, was an obvious vehicle for this.” Straight pumped money in the group from his family’s Whitney Foundation. “With its genuine altruism and humanitarian aims, the organization provided a vehicle for Straight consistent with the strategies of political protest that he had involved himself in for more than 30 years.”

The acute irony of the Straight story is that he survived the 1963 “confession” and managed to find an arts position in the Nixon Administration — chiefly because the Mudge Rose law firm in New York, from whence came both the president and Attorney General John Mitchell, had long represented his family.

Mr. Perry, an Australian, relies heavily upon interviews with intelligence veterans from both the United States and Britain, as well as interviews with former KGB officers. An engrossing story, and a disturbing account of how the Soviets managed to coopt a large chunk of the American left.

Most accounts of the Rosenberg Ring skip past engineers Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, devout communists who managed to flee the country in 1948 just before the FBI definitively identified them as Soviet spies. (Clues came in the so-called Venona intercepts of Soviet intelligence traffic.) All that was known was that they found sanctuary in the Soviet Union, and worked in defense labs.

Mr. Usdin’s book tells the rest of the story: How the two men rose to the upper ranks of the Soviet scientific community, to the point where they convinced Nikita Khrushchev to build the equivalent of a Silicon Valley near Leningrad. And, unlike many Westerners who defected to the Soviet Union, they integrated themselves into Soviet society and led productive lives — even though they chafed under “a dysfunctional system that crushed innovation and stifled independent scientific or artistic expression.”

Mr. Usdin, a Washington writer on science policy, encountered Barr — who initially used the name “Joseph Berg” — while on assignment in Moscow in 1990. He eventually learned his true identity, and the two men became fast friends. (Barr even lived with Mr. Usdin and family during trips to Washington.) Nonetheless, he does not gloss over Barr’s value to an adversary of the United States. He makes plain that he and Salant, along with Morton Sobell and Rosenberg, gave the Soviets technology that was “extremely valuable to the USSR, especially during the early years of the Cold War.” For instance, Barr built the first Soviet radar-guided antiaircraft gun, used with deadly efficiency against American planes in Vietnam. (He would claim that he never intend to “put the United States in peril,” but wished only to help communism thrive in Russia so that one day it would spread to America.)

Amusingly, Sobell, who served heavy prison time for espionage, tried to dissuade Mr. Usdin for writing on a “sensitive” topic because revealing what Barr and Salant did would not “serve the ‘cause.’” Mr. Usdin wisely ignored the old lefty and thus we have a splendid account of a major espionage story.

Joseph C. Goulden’s 18th book, “The Money Lawyers,” will be published in January. His e-mail address is JosephG894@aol.com.

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