Recollections of the Cold War often invoke a time of heightened fear, when innocent lives were destroyed amidst the irrational fear of Communist subversion. In this narrative, Sen. Joseph McCarthy is the main villain. Typified as a bumbling liar and rightwing opportunist, the term McCarthyism has gained acceptance in American political dialogue as a synonym for political slander and suppression.
George Clooney’s recent Hollywood hit, Goodnight and Good Luck, is the latest example of the usual storyline: As McCarthy unleashed a “witch hunt” during a terrifying period of “anti-Communist hysteria,” only the brave journalists of yesteryear managed to defeat the tyrant. Largely as a consequence of McCarthy’s legacy, suspicions and accusations of Communist infiltration in American society are generally perceived as the anachronistic ranting of paranoid, or worse, avaricious conservatives.
Leaving aside the particulars of McCarthy himself, it is worth taking a fresh look at the issue of Communist espionage in America. Last month marked the 11th anniversary of the public release of the Venona Project. Venona consisted of a series of Soviet messages, mostly between the years of 1942 and 1945, which were decrypted by American and British intelligence agencies. The project was so secret, even Presidents Roosevelt and Truman were unaware of its existence. Venona revealed astonishing insights into the vast Communist underground operating at the highest levels of government. Despite the fact that the intelligence community publicly released Venona through a congressional commission chaired by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D.-N.Y.), it received a scant level of attention in the press. The New York Times, for instance, has yet to run a single front-page article on Venona.
The general lack of interest in Venona is particularly remarkable in historical context. Since the end of WWII, the issue of Communists and fellow travelers in the United States wrenched the nation apart and shaped the political fault lines which arguably remain today. While anti-communism inspired diverse factions on the American right to coalesce in defense of freedom against communism, the issue divided the left between anti-Communist liberals on the one hand, and progressives who looked to communism, and by extension, the Soviet Union, as a model of a just society. In the context of this political landscape, a series of high-profile espionage cases took on center stage and embroiled the nation. The trials became metaphors for the intellectual and moral divides of the era. While Communist defectors inspired the American right to launch an aggressive campaign against suspected Soviet spies in the United States, the left defended the accused with equal fervor, forcefully seeking to discredit the testimony of defectors.
For instance, when former Soviet spy Elizabeth Bentley accused more than 80 Americans, some in high levels of the government, of Communist espionage, critics derisively labeled her the “Blonde Spy Queen,” and roundly dismissed her testimony as the “imaginings of a neurotic spinster.” As late as 1994, just one year before the public release of Venona, The Nation, maintained that Bentley was “hardly a reliable informant,” and an “alcoholic who embraced both fascism and communism before she turned professional and converted to Catholicism.”
Similarly, when Chambers testified in front of House Un-American Activities Committee against Alger Hiss, critics maligned him as a mentally ill liar and perverse homosexual, whose disheveled figure and “bad teeth” were continually remarked upon. Even after his conviction, Hiss, FDR’s adviser at Yalta, became a martyred hero on the left and proclaiming Hiss’s innocence became something of a loyalty oath for the left. Upon delivering his first speech after prison at Princeton University, Hiss received a standing ovation. In 1972, the Massachusetts Bar made Hiss the first lawyer ever re-admitted following a major criminal conviction. Bard College even has a chair in his name, the “Alger Hiss professor of social studies,” (currently occupied by a Marxist). Furthermore, as late as 1992, the Washington Post ran a news item stating three times that there was “no evidence” that Hiss was a Soviet agent. A similar story can be told about the Rosenbergs, who were executed for passing secrets on the United States nuclear program to the Soviets.
Now, with the release of Venona, we know the truth:
- Alger Hiss operated as a Soviet spy under the cover name “Ales” (Identified by Chambers)
- Harry Dexter White, assistant to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, principal architect of the Morgenthau Plan, and closely involved with establishing the IMF and the World Bank, operated as a Soviet agent under the cover name “Jurist.” (Identified by Bentley)
- Lauchlin Currie, White House economic adviser to FDR during WW II and high level American representative to China after the war, operated as a Soviet agent under the cover name “Page.” (Identified by Bentley)
- Julius Rosenberg, operated as a Soviet agent under the cover name “Liberal.”
The list goes on and on…
Yet despite providing conclusive evidence on the facts of high profile espionage cases, Venona is nevertheless tantalizing in what it does not reveal. It does not explain what motivated intelligent and highly educated Americans to betray a country which had conferred upon them the highest accolades. Perhaps even more troublingly, it cannot account for why an entire generation of leftists staked its legitimacy on defending these traitors. As the political fault lines between left and right similarly break down in America’s new war, the question is timely now as ever.