Sunday, May 17, 2009

By John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev
Yale University Press, $35, 637 pages

Welcome to what should — but probably will not be — the final toppling of two long-defended icons of the American far left: the Soviet agent Alger Hiss, and the agent of influence I.F. Stone.

Despite long-standing evidence of their servitude to communism and the USSR, both men retain noisy claques of admirers who seem beyond the reach of reason. Now they are brought to bay in what is, in my opinion, the best single volume ever written on the subject of Soviet espionage in the United States.

Nor can the authors be dismissed as moon-howling rightists, a favored defensive ploy of the defenders — the Hissites and the Stoned, for lack of other terms. John Earl Haynes is a distinguished scholar at the Library of Congress. Harvey Klehr is a professor at Emory University. These men are arguably the best informed persons on their subject of anyone in the country, private or official. Alexander Vassillev, a former KGB officer turned journalist, gained access to previously closed KGB archives as part of an aborted book deal between Soviet intelligence veterans and Crown Publishers.

Mr. Vassillev took notes. Oh, but did he take notes — 1,150 pages of them, jammed into three thick books, that he squirreled away after the Crown-KGB book collaboration went belly up. The delicious irony is that a leading Hissite, New York lawyer John Lowenthal, started the skein of events leading to the new disclosures discrediting his idol.

(Corrected paragraph:) Mr. Vassillev collaborated with scholar Allen Weinstein on the “The Haunted Wood,” which satisfied most objective readers that Hiss worked for Soviet intelligence while at the State Department. Lowenthal (now deceased) wrote a nasty piece challenging Mr. Vassillev’s honesty in Intelligence and National Security, prompting a libel suit. In pressing his case, Mr. Vassillev produced his documents, which contained much damning evidence about Hiss. Mr. Vassillev refused a monetary offer of settlement, insisting on an apology, that the journal publisher declined. The court ruled against him. In due course, he hooked up with Mr. Haynes and Mr. Klehr for the book at hand. Ah, seldom has revenge been so sweet.

Let me caution you: “Spies” is heavy reading, even for someone versed in USSR espionage. It is a mare’s nest of code names and multiple identities, facts piled atop facts and names upon names until a reader pauses to shake.

Concerning Hiss, the first smoking gun, of many, is a KGB document dated April 1936, in which Soviet agent Hede Massing tells of a conversation with Noel Field, another agent. Field had sought to bring Hiss into a ring run by the GRU, Red Army intelligence. Hiss is identified by his full name. Massing quotes Field that Hiss “informed him that he is a Communist, that he has ties to an organization working for the Sov. Union, and that he is aware Ernst [Field] has ties as well; however, he fears that they are not robust enough and that his knowledge is probably being misused.” As the authors write, “There is no parsing or convoluted argument that can be advanced to avoid the unambiguous identification of Alger Hiss in a 1936 KGB document by his real name.…”

Hiss appears time and again in similar documents. For instance, Victor Perlo, in a March 1945 report to the KGB, lists Hiss (and brother Donald) as among 14 persons who worked with Soviet intelligence. A 1948 memo by another Soviet spymaster lists Hiss — again, by his full name — as being an agent compromised in the postwar years. Much exhaustive evidence is offered to confirm that Hiss indeed was the “Ales” mentioned as a Soviet agent in intercepted intelligence cables after the 1945 Yalta Conference, as revealed in the Venona Tapes.

Two words end the chapter that strips away any remaining veneer of Hiss’ innocence: “Case closed.”

Candor compels a disclosure re: I.F. Stone. We had limited professional and social contacts in the late 1960s, when I was leaving daily journalism. I read his newsletter, and although I realized that the anti-war pieces he wrote presented a highly selective version of information, I admired his tenacity. But any warm feelings I had evaporated when research on a book led me to his “The Hidden History of the Korean War,” a shameless regurgitation of Soviet propaganda blaming South Korea for starting the war, at the urging of U.S. “imperialists.”

Thus, I was not surprised in the 1990s when former KGB Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin revealed that the Soviets had worked so closely with Stone in the 1930s that they gave him a codename, “Blin,” the Russian term for “pancake.” (The term showed up later in the Venona papers as well.) The hateful hounds of the far left, several of whom had worked for Stone’s newsletter) brayed loud denials.

But “Spies” documents that Mr. Kalugin was on target concerning Stone. He first appears in KGB files in a 1936 report from Frank Palmer (“Liberal”), identified as “part of the same New York community of pro-Communist radical journalists as Stone.” Palmer had been a KGB agent for years, and he was given the OK to recruit Stone. He succeeded, for as he reported a month later, “Relations with ‘Pancake’ [Stone] have entered the channel of normal operational work.” Those last three words denote that Stone had crossed an important Rubicon, from source to spy.

As Mr. Haynes and Mr. Klehr report, based on numerous KGB reports, “Stone assisted Soviet intelligence on a number of tasks, ranging from doing some talent spotting, acting as a courier by relaying information to other agents, and providing journalistic tidbits and data the KGB found interesting.” The files are silent on whether the Hitler-Stalin pact caused Stone to break with the Communists, but he rebuffed attempts to return him to the fold in 1944 by saying the KGB approach “had been made with insufficient caution and by people who were insufficiently responsible.” Stone added, wistfully, that “he would not be averse to having a supplementary income.”

The authors conclude, “That Stone chose never to reveal this part of his life suggests that he knew just how incompatible it would be with his public image as a courageous and independent journalist. His admirers … need to re-evaluate his life and reconsider some of the choices he made.” Fanaticism dies hard.

The section on journalists should surprise conservatives of a certain generation. According to the documents, among those on the Soviet payroll, briefly, in the early 1930s, was Robert S. Allen, then with the Christian Science Monitor, and later a partner of columnist Drew Pearson. Allen lost an arm in the war, and returned to find that Pearson had cast him aside. His last years (he died a suicide in the 1970s), Allen wrote a fiercely anti-Communist column. Other revelations confirm what the FBI long suspected but could never prove. For instance, engineer Robert McNutt (“Persian”) gave the KGB information on construction of the Oak Ridge nuclear facility but refused to move there, ending his usefulness. He rose through the ranks of Gulf Oil and by the 1970s he was vice president of Gulf-Reston, developer of the planned community in Virginia. And, if you desire some spice, check out Martha Dodd Stern, daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, whose bed hosted a veritable United Nations of lovers.

I’ve reviewed intelligence books for decades. “Spies” is truly the best read yet.

Joseph C. Goulden is finishing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is

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