In the parlance of espionage history, the term “The Great Illegals” has especial resonance. The reference is to the small band of agent-handlers who worked for Stalin’s Soviet intelligence apparatus during the 1920s and beyond, not necessarily spying on their own, but servicing and directing those who did. The record shows that they performed well, enabling the USSR to build a between-wars intelligence machine that infiltrated the highest levels of Western governments, including the United States and Great Britain (remember the infamous Philby ring?), stealing military and diplomatic secrets hither and yon.
Their collapse came with stunning rapidity in the late 1930s, when these previously trusted handlers were recalled to Moscow during the Great Purge, when Stalin’s paranoia ruled supreme. Those who obeyed the call vanished. Those who resisted were tracked down and killed — for instance, Alexander Orlov, who managed to reach the United States before falling victim to a staged “suicide” in a Washington hotel, and Ignace Reiss, brutally murdered in the French countryside.
Among those who dutifully trotted off to their fates, true believers to the end, was the American Isiah “Cy” Oggins. The story of this pitiable dupe is vividly told by Andrew Meier, in “The Lost Spy: An American In Stalin’s Secret Service” (Norton, $25.95, 402 pages). A former Moscow correspondent for Time, Mr. Meier gained access to Soviet files on Oggins, as well as dossiers in other countries; he also tracked down a long-lost son in upstate New York who retained a few fading memories of his father’s odyssey.
Born in 1898, to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Oggins was among the uncountable idealists who in the 1920s eschewed capitalism. After graduation from Columbia University, he met and wed a communist firebrand named Nerma Berman, She wrote for the Daily Worker, agitated for the release of “political prisoners” and apparently wooed Oggins across the line separating idealism from radicalism. He joined the Workers Party of America, as the Communist Party, USA, was then disguised, and off they went to Europe, vanishing into the misty shadows of the espionage underworld.
Oggins slipped in and out of cover roles. In Paris, “a ghostwriter,”he was the “rich American abroad.” (His true mission, Mr. Meier believes, was to keep tabs on the refugee Romanovs and other anti-Red Russians.) In Berlin, as a faux student, he perhaps played a role in a Soviet scheme to counterfeit Western currencies. In China, he was an “antiques dealer” who worked to bring the Chinese Communists under Soviet control.
It was in the latter role that Oggins came a cropper. His immediate superior fell under suspicion of being a double-agent. Ergo! Oggins, too, must be a traitor. So he willingly obeyed a summons to Moscow, sending his wife and small boy to the United States. He was arrested in 1939 and sentenced to five years in prison.
Here commences the sickening part of Mr. Meier’s account. Word leaked from the gulag about the presence of an American prisoner. That he was being held should have been reported to the U.S. Embassy. Demands for information and refusals sailed back and forth.
Washington entertained no illusions as to why Oggins was abroad in the first place. Sumner Wells, the undersecretary of state, cabled the Moscow embassy, “It is possible that he has been acting for years as an agent of a foreign power or an international revolutionary movement.” Nonetheless, “the failure to report his detention should not be ignored.” Sending him home would cost $1,200. The wife (who earned $25 a week in New York) came up with $450. Sympathetic embassy officers, including Charles Bohlen and Llewellyn Thomas, agreed to pay the balance. But then the Soviets said Oggins had died. Embassy officers reported at the time that the Soviets were not about to free someone who knew the horrors of the gulag. Given the wartimedesire not to offend Stalin, the United States did not make an issue of Oggins’s case.
Oggins’ son seemingly did not know the full story, complaining to Mr. Meier, “The government just let Dad sit in a Soviet jail and rot.” He blamed “red-baiting Congressmen.” The record shows otherwise.
Not until 1992 did the truth emerge from Soviet files. Oggins’ dossier contained a photo of a cadaverous man, the product of years of brutality. Documents showed that he had been used as a guinea pig for testing of curare, a poison long used in South America, to determine whether the substance could be detected in a corpse after death.
The administering “physician” — I use the quotation marks deliberately — reported “cyanosis and death with symptoms of suffocation while retaining complete consciousness. Death was excruciating, but the man was deprived of his ability to shout or move while retaining complete consciousness … death … ensued within ten to fifteen minutes. . ..”
One dislikes criticizing another writer’s organization. But Mr. Meier’s decision to present his narrative in non-chronological fashion, skipping back and forth, resulted in a jumble of a book that I frankly found highly confusing. Nonetheless, “The Last Spy” deserves one’s attention because it points up once again how well-meaning “revolutionaries” can end up with burned fingers — or worse — if they insist on sticking their fingers into the fire.
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A far less efficient spy was the German agent who Thomas D. Schoonover calls “Hitler’s Man in Havana: Heinz Luning and Nazi Espionage in Latin America” (University Press of Kentucky, $29.95, 218 pages, illus.). I’ve been reading espionage nonfiction for decades, and I do not recall encountering a more hapless figure than Luning.
Born in 1911, Luning found himself shipped off to Latin America as a young man because of some tangled family connections. When war approached, he wished to avoid military service because he detested the Nazis. Chiefly because he spoke Spanish, he ended up in the German intelligence service. He was stationed in Havana, his chief mission being to supply intelligence on Western shipping.
Alas, poor Luning. He could not assemble a radio, so he had no way to communicate what meager fare his “network” of two agents acquired. His lack ofsympathy for the Nazis suggests he did not approach his job with enthusiasm. And the Cuban security police snatched him up in a hurry.
Although the Cuban justice code did not permit the death penalty, authorities decided to shoot him anyway so that they (and the FBI, who worked Cuba) could claim an anti-sabotage success.
Mr. Schoonover offers a highly speculative argument that Luning served as the model for the title character of Graham Greene’s novel “Our Man in Havana,” concerning a con man who passed off vacuum cleaner diagrams as missile secrets. Perhaps, but even the fictional character was not as out of place as was this bumbling German.
• Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894@ aol.com.