William A. Reuben (1995)

In a review entitled “Secret World’s False Secrets,” published in Rights magazine in 1995, journalist and Hiss-case expert William A. Reuben disputes claims that Soviet spies permeated the American Communist Party.

Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, The Secret World of American Communism (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995).

As if progressives had not in recent years been battered and bludgeoned enough already, we now learn that J. Edgar Hoover, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Elizabeth Bentley, Whittaker Chambers & company really got it right: all Communists are/were actual, or wannabee, Russian spies. We also learn that during the Cold War years (and even before), hordes of leftists were abroad in the land, stealing “our” atomic secrets (and God only knows what else) for delivery to Joseph Stalin.

In recent days, this message has been dunned into our ears by such opinion-makers as William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Theodore Draper, Michael Thomas, Edward Jay Epstein and David Garrow in the pages of The New York Times, The New Republic, Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, National Review, “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” and lots more (without a dissenting voice to be heard anywhere).

This all-out blitz has been fueled by The Secret World of American Communism, written by Professor Harvey Klehr, of Emory University, John Earl Haynes, of the Library of Congress, and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, formerly of the Comintern Archives in Moscow at the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents in Recent History. The authors claim to have put together a “massive documentary record” from the hitherto secret Comintern archives, revealing “the dark side of American communism.” These documents establish, they say, proof both of “Soviet espionage in America” and of the American Communist Party’s “inherent” connection with Soviet espionage operations and with its espionage services; and that such spy activities were considered, by both Soviet and the American CP leaders, “normal and proper.”

Such assertions are not all that different from what J. Edgar Hoover (and his stooges) were saying half a century ago. But what reinforces the authors’ statements are not only the documents from the Russian archives they claim to have uncovered, but also the imposing editorial advisory committee assembled to give this project an eminent scholarly cachet. This editorial advisory committee consists of 30 academics whose names are listed opposite the title page. They include seven Yale University professors, along with professors from Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Chicago, Brandeis, Southern Methodist, Pittsburgh and Rochester universities. There are also an equal number of members of the Russian Academy of Sciences and of officials of various Russian archives.

Reproduced in the book are 92 documents offered by the authors as evidence of what they say is the United States Communist Party’s continuous history of “covert activity.” These documents, according to Professor Steven Merrit Minor in The New York Times Book Review, reveal that American Communists “relayed atomic secrets to the Kremlin” and also support the testimony of Whittaker Chambers and others that the American Communist Party was engaged in underground conspiracies against the American government. The authors also say that the documents suggest that those “who continued to claim otherwise were either willfully naive or, more likely, dishonest.”

In actuality, many of the documents are ambiguously worded or in some sort of code known only to the senders and recipients. They often contain illegible words, numbers and signatures; relate to unidentifiable persons, places and events; and are preoccupied with bookkeeping matters, inner-party hassles, or with protective security measures against FBI and Trotskyite spies. Most importantly, not a single document reproduced in this volume provides evidence of espionage. Ignoring all evidence that contradicts their thesis, the authors attempt to make a case relying on assumption, speculation, and invention about the archival material and, especially, by equating secrecy with illegal spying.

The book’s high points are sections relating to what the authors call atomic espionage and the CP Washington spy apparatus. As someone who has carefully examined the archives at the Russian Center, and who, over the past four decades, has studied the trial transcripts of the major Cold War “spy” cases, I can state that The Secret World of American Communism, notwithstanding its scholarly accouterments, is a disgracefully shoddy work, replete with errors, distortions and outright lies. As a purported work of objective scholarship, it is nothing less than a fraud.

In this context, certain facts ought to be noted:

  • The Moscow archives contain no material relating to these key figures in the Cold War “spy” cases: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Morton Sobell, Ruth and David Greenglass, Harry Gold, Klaus Fuchs, Elizabeth Bentley, Hede Massing, Noel Field, Harry Dexter White, Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, Colonel Boris Bykov and J. Peters. In my possession is a document, responding to my request, and dated October 12, 1992, signed by Oleg Naumov, Deputy Director of the Russian Center for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History, attesting that the Center has no files on, or relating to, any of the above-named persons.
  • Despite the authors’ assertion that the documents in this volume show that the CPUSA’s elaborate underground apparatus collaborated with Soviet espionage services and also engaged in stealing the secrets of America’s atomic bomb project, not one of the 92 documents reproduced in this book supports such a conclusion.
  • The authors claim the documents corroborate Whittaker Chambers’ allegations about a Communist underground in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s, and while the authors concede that Alger Hiss’s name does not appear in any of the documents, they assert that the “subsequent documentation has further substantiated the case that Hiss was a spy.” Yet, not one document from the Russian archives supports any of these damning statements.

A total of 15 pages in Secret World have some reference either to Hiss or Chambers. By my count, these contain 73 separate misrepresentations of fact or downright lies. For example, the authors claim that J. Peters “played a key role in Chambers’ story” that Hiss was a Soviet spy. Peters played no role in Chambers’ story about espionage. Chambers said that the key figure in his espionage activities with Hiss was a Russian named “Colonel Boris Bykov,” a character whose identity the FBI spent years futilely trying to establish.

The authors claim Chambers testified he worked in the Communist underground in the 1930s with groups of government employees who “provided the CPUSA with information about sensitive government activities.” In fact, Chambers testified to the exact contrary on 12 separate occasions.

References to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and their case can be found on five pages. In those pages, by my tally, are 31 falsehoods or distortions of evidence. For example, the authors say the Rosenbergs’ conviction was for “involvement in … atomic espionage.” In fact they were convicted of conspiracy, and no evidence was ever produced that they ever handed over any information about anything to anyone.

The authors also say the Rosenbergs were arrested as a result of information the authorities obtained from Klaus Fuchs, which led to Harry Gold, who led them to David Greenglass, who implicated the Rosenbergs. All of these statements are based on an FBI press release. In fact, no evidence has ever been produced that indicates that Fuchs, Gold or Greenglass ever mentioned the Rosenbergs before their arrests.

Discussing one other “spy” case, that of Judith Coplon, against whom all charges were dismissed, the authors in typical contempt of official court records write that “there was not the slightest doubt of her guilt.” In comments running no less than half a page, they invent a scenario of the Coplon case that contains 14 outright lies and distortions. For instance, the authors say she “stole” an FBI report and she was arrested when she “handed over” the stolen report “to a Soviet citizen.” All these statements are false; in her two trials, no evidence was ever adduced that she ever stole anything or that she ever handed over anything to anyone.

Within the space of a book review, to detail all the fictions piled into Secret World is utterly impractical. Three examples will have to suffice to demonstrate the authors’ brand of scholarship:

  • The late Steve Nelson, a onetime CP official who is referred to many times by the authors, is thus characterized, on page 230: “After World War II, U.S. officials charged that he was involved in Soviet spying, including atomic espionage.”

Such a charge was once made against Nelson by the Republican-dominated HUAC. Following two weeks of secret hearings at the beginning of the 1948 presidential election campaign, HUAC, on September 27, 1948, issued a 20,000 word report charging that the Democratic Party was indifferent to Soviet espionage. It named Nelson as the pivotal figure in an atom spy network that was allegedly operating in the United States.

To equate the thoroughly discredited HUAC with “U.S. officials,” as do the authors of Secret World, is bad enough, but much worse is ignoring what was actually said by U.S. officials. This came by way of a statement issued that September by the Department of Justice. These U.S. officials branded the HUAC report as utterly without merit, an exercise in “political gymnastics,” issued by a “politically minded Congressional committee with one eye on publicity and the other on election results.” Of course, neither Nelson nor any of the others named as members of a Soviet atom spy ring was ever charged with any such crime.

  • The name of Earl Browder, who was head of the American Communist Party from 1930 until he was deposed in 1945, runs through the entire book. All the episodes of espionage alleged in the book occur during his watch. Asserting that no CPUSA participation in Soviet espionage could have been conducted “without approval” from Browder, the authors state flatly that he “was himself no stranger to Soviet intelligence” and was “fully cognizant” of Communists’ involvement in spying for the Soviets, “including atomic espionage.”

Until his death, Browder repeatedly and categorically denied all such charges, but except for a passing reference, nowhere are those statements included in the book. He even denied them in 1950 before the Tydings Committee, and was never charged with perjury.

  • The Hiss case and the story told by Whittaker Chambers about the Washington underground together make up the high point, not only of Secret World but of most of its reviews as well. The only documentary support in the entire volume for the authors’ unqualified conclusion as to Hiss’s guilt and Chambers’ truthfulness is offered in Documents 32 and 33, neither of which is from the Comintem archives.

Exhibit 32 is the text of a one-paragraph extract – undated, unsigned, without salutation or any indication of the sender or recipient – said to have been sent by Ambassador William Bullitt to R. Walton Moore, Assistant Secretary of State. It offers generalized comments about events in Europe, together with Moore’s comments said to have been sent to an unidentified third party. Document 33 is the printed text of an unsigned, chatty letter, dated October 19, 1936, said to have been sent to President Roosevelt by William Dodd, U.S. Ambassador to Germany, offering generalized opinions about the state of affairs in Germany. Neither document was marked secret or classified.

In Secret World, no explanation is offered as to how or when or through whom the originals of these documents wound up in the hands of the authors in Moscow. Yet they claim that these two exhibits provide “direct evidence” in support of Chambers’ story about Hiss and the Washington underground. Actually, the only thing it provides “direct evidence” of is that, as scholarship, this book is worthless.