- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2006

The late Richardson Dilworth, long the mayor of Philadelphia, liked to deflect speculative media questions by remarking wryly, “IF we had some ham, we could have some ham and eggs, IF we had some eggs.” One of the “if” questions debated at tedious length during the Vietnam War was whether the United States should have sided with Ho Chi Minh in August 1945 and prevented the return of the French colonial government.

Such was certainly the view of several field officers in the Office of Strategic Services who found Ho and his ragtag forces to be valuable allies in the last months of the war with Japan. The story is well told in The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War against Japan (University Press of Kansas, $34.95, 435 pages, illus.), a thoroughly researched, tautly written account by Dixee R. Bartholomew-Feis.

A history professor at Buena Vista University in Iowa, she skillfully mined OSS records in the National Archives. Even those familiar with the history of the war will delight in the new material she brings forth.

Ho’s close links to the USSR were no secret to United States intelligence. He spent a decade in Moscow as a young man, and later roamed Europe on behalf of the Communist International, or Comintern. The OSS director, Col. William J. Donovan, took a pragmatic view about working with communists, saying he wanted a broad range of allies — “temporary, vacillating, or conditional.” OSS did not make policy; its goal was “the earliest possible defeat of the Axis.”

Overhanging the OSS mission was the reluctance of the United States to help the French regain control of a colonial holding which it had sorely abused for decades, and from which it had been ousted. Indeed, as Ms. Bartholomew-Feis notes, Ho was far more valuable in terms of creating agent networks and rescuing downed fliers than were the French, whose sole interest was restoration to power.

Late in the war, French leader Charles de Gaulle even hinted darkly that he might align with the post-war Soviets should the United States strip away colonial holdings — a threat as silly as it was empty.

I have only one quibble, a minor one. Ho’s particular champion in OSS was a British-born journalist named Charles Fenn, who came to the United States as a teen and eventually gained citizenship. As Ms. Bartholomew-Feis writes, “both critics and admirers alike credit Fenn with helping to make Ho Chi Minh the undisputed leader of the Viet Minh in 1945.” But was Fenn truly an impartial observer?

In his own OSS memoir, published in 2004 by Naval Institute Press, Fenn stated that before entering the military, he was “left of center” politically and even worked for a communist newspaper. Ms. Bartholomew-Feis bowdlerizes the latter connection, noting only that he worked for a publication with “left-wing politics” before the war.

The difference is significant. That Fenn became a champion of a Comintern agent raised my eyebrows. An accident of history, or did he go into OSS with the assignment of finding and supporting Ho? We will never know.

In the end, Washington policy-makers opted to support the French, Ho fell out of favor with the United States, and you know the rest of the story.

A connoisseur of obtuseness about Soviet espionage at the start of the Cold War must search far to top a howler uttered by Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King during the crisis evoked by Russian code clerk Igor Gouzenko in September 1945.

Gouzenko walked out of the Soviet embassy in Ottawa with cables and other documents fingering more than a dozen Canadians working for both the KGB (then known as the NKVD) and the GRU, Red Army intelligence, including a member of Parliament, Fred Rose, and the atomic scientist Alan Nunn May.

With the war barely ended, King worried about creating a political fuss over the spying because he feared roiling Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. In reporting to Parliament, King said he considered going to Moscow to talk personally to Stalin, who he said might not even have known of the spying.

King declared, “What I know, or have learned of Mr. Stalin from those who have been closely associated with him in the war, causes me to believe that he would not countenance action of this kind on the part of officials of his country.” (Rose was in the chambers as King spoke; a jury conviction later sent him to prison for six years.)

And in a formal note to Moscow, King said he was “very interested in maintaining cordiality and friendship with the Soviet Union.” That a man of King’s political stature could profess to be unwitting of the tightness with which Stalin ran the USSR is staggering.

That laugher aside, very little is added to our knowledge of the Gouzenko matter in Amy Knight’s inanely titled new book, When the Cold War Began (Carroll & Graf, $27.95, 368 pages, illus.).

She did gain access to archives of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), which oversaw the Gouzenko case. But the scope of the Soviet spying was exhaustively explored in a 733-page report by a Royal Commission issued in 1946 — and on rereading this dusty volume, I confirmed that it contained much damning material that Ms. Knight chose to ignore, for whatever reason.

Instead, she has written an angry riff on how the Canadians mishandled the case, and how the U.S. Congress and FBI used Gouzenko to touch off an “anti-communist witch hunt.” The later phrase alone suggests her viewpoint.

She contends, for instance, that the scores of documents that Gouzenko stuffed under his shirt and spirited out of NKVD files contained no significant secrets. She does not seem to comprehend that what Gouzenko produced was only a sampling of years of spying. Further, the Royal Commission report makes plain that numerous other USSR spy rings flourished for years.

She wonders whether the “harm that was done to the west by those who did spy justified the widespread abuse of individual rights, the vast expenditures of public resources, and the shattering of many innocent lives.” (The veteran CIA officer Hayden Peake tartly commented a few months ago, in an internal Agency publication, “It is clear that she prefers letting the spies spy.”)

And she skirts very closely to academic dishonesty in a passage concerning the Alger Hiss/Whittaker Chambers case (one of her examples of a “witch hunt”). As is well known to students of the Hiss case, Chambers initially denied being an espionage agent.

Ms. Knight writes, “Then suddenly, in November 1948, after many private meetings with Richard Nixon, Chambers came up with films of documents and papers alleged passed to him by [Harry Dexter] White and Hiss in early 1938.”

Her insinuation is transparent. What she does not relate is that Chambers produced the documents (the famed “pumpkin papers”) to defend himself against a libel action brought by Hiss, not because of the importuning of Nixon.

In the end, courts in Britain and Canada convicted seven persons of charges related to spying; several others, including the atomic spy Nunn May, pleaded guilty (he was jailed for six years). The Royal Commission summed up the case very well: “There can be no doubt in our minds that these attempts, very often successful, to obtain here secret and confidential information cannot be qualified as casual or isolated.”

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]

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