Sep 14

This is a summary of our recently posted review of “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.”  You can find the unabridged version here.

“Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America” marks the sixth collaboration between John Earl Haynes, a historian in the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division, and Harvey Klehr, a professor of politics and history at Emory University. Like several previous Haynes and Klehr books, “Spies” is published by the Yale University Press. It lists Alexander Vassiliev as its third co-author, and is based on the notes that Vassiliev, a former KGB agent, took on KGB files that were shown to him in the 1990s. This is the second go-round for these notes, which were also used a decade ago as the source material for “The Haunted Wood” (Random House, 1999), a book co-authored by Vassiliev and Allen Weinstein, who recently retired as Archivist of the United States. “Spies” purports to confirm the earlier book’s conclusion that Alger Hiss and others accused of espionage during the McCarthy period were in fact guilty. Haynes and Klehr also claim that Vassiliev’s notebooks contain a great deal of information that didn’t appear in “The Haunted Wood” – information which confirms that Hiss was guilty as charged, and shows that the KGB net also ensnared such surprising figures as Ernest Hemingway and the journalist I. F. Stone.

The book has attracted a number of positive reviews from both conservatives and liberals. Writing in The New Republic, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum says that Haynes and Klehr “have usually stuck to the documents, the evidence, the facts” in their historical works and do not write polemically. She adds that “Haynes, Klehr and Vassiliev are well within their rights in titling their chapter ‘Alger Hiss: Case Closed.'”

On the other hand, critics of the authors’ work have found their approach more ideological than historical and their tone polemical, vindictive, and prosecutorial. Historian Amy Knight, for example, debunked many of the authors’ arguments in a review she wrote for the Times Literary Supplement in June 2009. “The main purpose of ‘Spies,’ it seems, is not to enlighten readers,” she writes, “but to silence those who still voice doubts about the guilt of people like Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, I.F. Stone and others.”

In fact, the documents shown to Vassiliev are in no way definitive in their assertions about Alger Hiss, and the arguments based on them by Haynes and Klehr, when held up to the light of day, are no more convincing or compelling or final or airtight or unassailable than the anti-Hiss arguments previously advanced by Weinstein. Much of the evidence cited by Haynes and Klehr can actually be viewed from a totally different perspective, as exculpatory. Unfortunately, this fact will escape reviewers who aren’t familiar with the details of the tangled arguments used against Hiss.

“Spies” has already provoked controversy of a different sort, relating to the diverging stories Vassiliev has told about his note-taking process and to the book’s provenance. The issue is not so much the authenticity of the documents shown to Vassiliev, but rather whether he was deliberately shown only certain files of a relatively routine, trivial and often gossipy nature. This is a separate issue, however, that will be dealt with elsewhere;  our primary concern is the accuracy of the conclusions that Haynes and Klehr draw.

Despite these objections, “Spies” does have one great virtue: it carefully reassembles in a single chapter most, if not all, of the charges raised against Alger Hiss over the better part of the last quarter century (the so-called “new evidence”). It therefore provides a rare chance to see how comprehensively unconvincing the full case against Hiss actually is – both the original allegations and the second-generation accusations – and to show the flimsiness and illogicality of each individual piece of “evidence.”

Our review focuses on the first chapter of “Spies,” in which the authors lay out their arguments for declaring the Hiss Case “closed.”

The major arguments made by the authors are:

1) Vassiliev’s notes prove that Hiss talked to self-confessed former spy Hede Massing about recruiting their mutual friend, Noel Field, into the Communist underground. (Massing made this claim at Hiss’s second perjury trial; Hiss denied it.)

2) The notes connect Hiss with another alleged Soviet agent, former Treasury Department official Harold Glasser. This link adds further weight to the accusation that Hiss was “Ales,” a Soviet agent whose code-name first became public when Soviet wartime intelligence cables decrypted under the US government’s top-secret Venona operation were released by the National Security Agency in 1995.

3) Hiss’s name appears in Soviet files and in correspondence between Moscow and its agents in New York in a way that indicates that Hiss was an agent of Soviet military intelligence (the GRU).

At first glance, a number of the documents referenced in Vassiliev’s notebooks and quoted by Haynes and Klehr would appear – if examined in isolation – to implicate Hiss. None of these allegations can be substantiated, however, once they are analyzed within a more comprehensive context that takes into account other already known and available sources of information. As our review sets forth:

1) Hiss could not have recruited Noel Field for the Communist underground when the documents said he did because Field wasn’t even in the country at the time. This information, first gleaned from State Department files, has long been available to researchers – but is not even mentioned in “Spies.” This is just one of many contradictions between what the Soviet files allege and the statements on record made by Hede Massing, Field himself and Field’s wife. Since none of these discrepancies are explored or even acknowledged by the authors, most readers wouldn’t know that they conflict with the public record. But, in fact, the conflicts are so numerous and so serious that, instead of confirming Massing’s story, a more even-handed treatment would actually raise serious doubts about the account she gave to the FBI, her sworn testimony before the grand jury, at the Hiss trial, and before Congressional committees, and the narrative she put together for her autobiography, “This Deception.” Yet Haynes and Klehr accept this narrative as an authoritative source, without so much as a second glance.

2) In strikingly similar fashion, Haynes and Klehr’s allegations about Harold Glasser also ignore published information that contradicts the documents shown to Vassiliev. The authors’ claim, for instance, that Glasser was a member of Whittaker Chambers’ Communist underground group was disputed both by Soviet intelligence agent Elizabeth Bentley and by Chambers himself. While both Glasser and Hiss told authorities that they knew each other, Haynes and Klehr exaggerate the extent of this relationship to prove that Hiss was “Ales” – an identification that the FBI itself ultimately doubted. This information comes from the FBI files and points up one of the basic flaws (and ironies) in the premise of “Spies”: that anything the authors happen upon in Vassiliev’s notes is somehow treated as more reliable than information coming from other sources – including the FBI. Because they are building a case rather than digging for the truth, Haynes and Klehr give more weight to the documents referenced in the notes solely because, on the surface, they seem damaging to Hiss. (This is made clear when they express doubts about the only KGB document mentioned in the book that suggests that Hiss was not a spy.)

Furthermore, by accepting at face value whatever was stated in some particular Soviet document, they presume that the writer of that document was simply a diligent Russian uniformed officer or civil servant with no ulterior motive – no axe to grind, no self-interest to promote. Moreover, they assume without even seeming to notice it that the writer of any chosen document invariably had firsthand knowledge of the person or subject he or she was writing about. These assumptions repeatedly fall apart when the content of the relevant documents is subjected to the kind of careful scrutiny it merits – instead of being given a free ride simply because, taken at face value, it might implicate Hiss. Again and again, more careful examination reveals deep discrepancies between these Soviet files and key American trial and Congressional testimony, or FBI interviews, or commonly accepted and undisputed facts in the Hiss Case. (The great irony here – it has to be repeated – is that by omitting what the FBI turned up, Haynes and Klehr seem to be implying that the FBI’s findings can’t be trusted. This point of view is uncommon, if not unheard-of, in conservative books.)

Herein lies the true danger of “Spies”: Because the issues detailed here are never considered by the authors, readers unfamiliar with the minutiae of the Hiss Case (a large majority of readers) will have no idea from reading “Spies” that there are such numerous, frequently occurring and troublesome problems with the source material being relied on, as well as with the interpretations to which it is subjected.

3) Alger Hiss’s name does appear in several Soviet intelligence documents referenced by Vassiliev, but so do the names of many people who were not Soviet agents. Most of the references to Hiss in the documents shown to Vassiliev relate to the allegations Hede Massing reported to her Soviet handler. And while the authors claim that a list of agents supplied to the Soviets by Victor Perlo, a government economist, implicates Hiss, that document actually supports the case for Hiss. It’s particularly interesting to note that although Allen Weinstein, Vassiliev’s collaborator on “The Haunted Wood” and a firm believer in Hiss’s guilt, was given access to “the Perlo list” more than 10 years ago, he chose not to discuss it in his book.

Weinstein also abstained from citing another KGB document that Haynes and Klehr claim proves Hiss’s guilt — a list of alleged American sources compiled by a KGB officer named Anatoly Gorsky. An analysis of “the Gorsky list” shows that, contrary to what is said in “Spies,” the most compelling conclusion that can be drawn about Gorsky’s inclusion of Alger Hiss in his hastily drawn-up, 1949 list of “failed” Soviet agents in the United States is this: that internal evidence shows the section of the list in which Hiss’s name appears was largely culled not from firsthand KGB reports but from publicly available material – including 1948 and 1949 American newspaper accounts of the charges against Hiss. Haynes and Klehr’s accounts of this information also ignore more recently disclosed and contradictory evidence from GRU files, information that was already in the public domain when they were writing their book.

Specifically, the newly disclosed GRU information undercuts much of Chambers’s many stories about himself and about Hiss. Although Haynes and Klehr fail to incorporate what the GRU records say into “Spies,” it’s clear that this information too has come to their attention, because they used it – but got it wrong – at a 2007 Washington, D.C. Symposium on Cryptological History. At that forum, the authors stated that, based on GRU files, Hiss not only was “Ales” but was also a spy code-named “Doctor.” (The same allegation was repeated this year by the late Eduard Mark at the Woodrow Wilson Center conference. For more on the conference, see the June 2, 2009 entry in this blog’s archives.) This is demonstrably false, and while not repeated in “Spies,” it illustrates how eager and even reckless Haynes and Klehr can be whenever anything comes their way that either might make Hiss look bad or might add another name to the long list of people they accuse of having cooperated with Soviet intelligence. This hasty and irresponsible approach to scholarship is made abundantly clear by an allegation “Spies” both includes and trumpets: that career State Department official David Salmon was a paid Soviet agent. As with Hiss, the authors again choose to ignore directly contradictory, exculpatory evidence.

The authors also downplay the importance of the vast amount of Soviet intelligence information that Vassiliev didn’t get to see: the KGB personal files of key officials and agents mentioned in “Spies,” for example, as well as any files at all from military intelligence. Yet despite the many discrepancies in the information put forward, and the mountains of information still missing from the picture, they blithely pronounce that Vassiliev’s notes “unequivocally identify Hiss as a long-term espionage source” – and, with appalling overconfidence, declare the Hiss Case “closed.”

Our full review explains why on both of these counts the authors are wrong.

One Response to “Is “Spies” Fact or Fiction?”

  1. Lewis Hartshorn says:

    I recall a post by Susan Butler, editor of the FDR-Stalin letters, on H-Net’s H-Diplo in which she wrote, July 29, 2003:

    “I interviewed Vassiliev several years ago, I know he never saw a document or reference to a document supplied by Hiss in Soviet files because that was the question I kept asking him. In spite of a picture caption in ‘The Haunted Wood’ that says Hiss provided critical documents, Vassiliev admitted to me that ‘I never saw a list of documents provided by Hiss.’ He aslo told me ‘I don’t like this ideal of putting real names in the brackets because this is not what the documents said.'”

    Does “Spies” drop the pretense that Hiss “provided critical documents”?

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