A VERY PRINCIPLED BOY: THE LIFE OF DUNCAN LEE, RED SPY AND COLD WARRIOR
By Mark A. Bradley
Basic Books, $29.99, 333 pages
Behind a carefully tended patrician facade, OSS officer Duncan Lee hid secrets that could have put him either in prison or on the gallows. While working as a trusted aide to OSS director William Donovan, he spied for the Soviet Union, using his keen mind to memorize top-secret documents and pass information orally to a courier for a Soviet espionage ring.
Lee’s betrayal of his country in time of war was all the more remarkable because of his lineage. Two of his ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence. Another was Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. His strongly religious parents served as missionaries in China when he was born.
So what went wrong with Duncan Lee? Mark A. Bradley, a former CIA officer now with the Justice Department, explores his life in one of the best espionage books to cross this desk in years. The government’s unwillingness to use information gleaned from intercepts of Soviet intelligence cables meant that Lee never was formally charged — but his protestations of innocence proved to be as false as his public persona.
A Yale Law School graduate and a Rhodes Scholar, Lee began his career at William Donovan’s prestigious Wall Street firm. However, personal flaws emerged during his student days. Yale classmate Walter Pforzheimer (later a founding father of the CIA) commented that Lee had the sexual prolificacy of a “silkworm.” Thus began a life of chronic philandering that continued even when he was married with five children. His seemingly endless string of bedmates included a woman who was both a Soviet espionage courier and a secretary to the influential columnist Walter Lippmann.
More importantly, Lee was a secret communist. Mr. Bradley suggests that the leftist wife he met during his Rhodes period led to him joining the Communist Party in 1939. He stunned his parents by writing, “I find the Communist Party a far nearer embodiment of what I regard as genuine Christianity than any organized church.” He vowed to eschew “ineffectual armchair pinkness,” thus working for the party’s Soviet-controlled secret underground.
When war began, Lee followed Donovan to Washington and took a position in an OSS secretariat responsible for handling field reports. His importance was revealed in a Soviet document dated Sept. 8, 1942, which boasts of a source code-named “Kokh” in the OSS. The cable states that “agent reports from Europe and all over the world go through him. He chooses among them and shows them to Donovan for his consideration.” Code-breakers could not decipher the cable and identify “Kokh” for several years, so Lee remained undetected.
A cautious Lee would not take documents from the OSS office, relying on his memory to recite key details of the cables to a Soviet courier named Elizabeth Bentley when they met regularly in his apartment on Dent Place in Georgetown. (A contemporary spy, Alger Hiss of the State Department, was not as careful: documents he pilfered led to him being jailed for perjury.)
A government blunder also helped shield Lee. When a former New Haven, Conn., landlady heard that Lee had received an Army commission, she told the FBI that both Lee and his wife were active communists who regularly received bundles of Red literature. Mr. Bradley surmises that the FBI was flooded with wartime security-clearance cases and no priority was given to a case involving a supposed U.S. ally.
Lee’s world cracked when Bentley defected from the Soviets and gave the FBI details on a host of Soviet spies she had serviced as a courier. In appearances before the House Un-American Activities Committee and a grand jury, Lee admitted knowing Bentley casually, but hotly denied her spy charges. His supporters denounced Bentley as a “crazy woman” who nursed a grudge because Lee and his wife cut her off socially.
During this period, code-breakers finally determined how to read the intercepted wartime Soviet intelligence messages — known as the Venona cables since their public release in 1995 — and Bentley’s charges proved on-target. As Mr. Bradley writes, “Twenty-nine Americans she named as Soviet spies appeared in the NKGB’s intercepted traffic. One of them was Duncan Lee.”
However, the government chose not to let the Soviets know of the vulnerability of their signals, so the Venona gleanings remained top-secret. Thus, the cables could not be used to charge Lee with espionage.
In an attempt to burnish his tarnished reputation, Lee suddenly became an ardent cold warrior. Aligned with the legendary lawyer Thomas “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran, Lee did much of the legal work to create what became the CIA’s proprietary air arm, Air America.
Mr. Bradley correctly sniffs that Lee acted for motives other than patriotism. “To keep J. Edgar Hoover’s agents from knocking on his front door or the HUAC’s investigators from slapping another subpoena into his hands, Lee had cloaked himself in the mantle of anticommunism it allowed him to dry-clean his conscience.”
Did the secrets Lee stole do any harm? Mr. Bradley gives an emphatic “yes.” Lee alerted the Soviets to Allied strategies in negotiating with Stalin over post-war strategies in Eastern Europe, “especially with those nations’ pro-Western politicians who were in great danger once they found themselves behind the Iron Curtain.”
Lee fled the United States and lived in his last years in Bermuda and Canada, doing legal work for an insurance company, and drinking heavily. His wife tired of his constant affairs, divorced him and married a man 17 years her junior. Lee protested his innocence until the end, writing for his sons a “memoir” that tried to explain the charges against him. In the end, even his sons were unconvinced of his innocence. The family gave Mr. Bradley documents used in the book.
Perhaps Lee’s only solace was that Donovan never denounced him, commenting only that he was a “very principled boy.” A five-cloak, five-dagger read.
Joseph Goulden’s 1982 book, “Korea: The Untold Story of the War,” is being published in a Chinese-language edition this summer by Bejiing Xiron Books.
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