The Vassiliev notebooks, American elites, and Cold War espionage

Since the end of the Cold War we have learned a great deal more about how American and British elites—government officials, diplomats, journalists, scientists, academics, engineers—spied for the Soviets, and how surprisingly widespread this activity was. Nearly twenty years after the collapse of Communism, revelations about espionage by well-placed Westerners on behalf of the KGB* or Soviet military intelligence continue to emerge.

A rich source for Cold War historians on this Soviet penetration has been once-secret intelligence files copied by two former KGB officers: Vasili Mitrokhin (who left for the West in 1992) and Alexander Vassiliev, who was provided access to the agency’s archives in the pre-Putin era. Vassiliev’s notebooks have served as a foundation for two books, The Haunted Wood, authored by Allen Weinstein and Vassiliev, and the just published Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by Vassiliev and two leading scholars of American Communism, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. (A full review of Spies can be found here.)

The donation of the Vassiliev notebooks to the Library of Congress, and a consideration of the findings in Spies and other recent research on Soviet intelligence operations in the U.S., prompted a May 21-22 conference sponsored by the Cold War International History Project held at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. The conference attracted leading Cold War historians, including experts on the Alger Hiss case (R. Bruce Craig, Eduard Mark, G. Edward White), the extended Rosenberg spy ring (Ron Radosh, Steve Usdin), and Soviet atomic espionage (Gregg Herken, Robert S. Norris).

Some in the revisionist camp also attended, including Hiss defender Jeff Kisseloff, who critiqued the conference on Blogging Hisstory, and two biographers of the radical journalist I.F. Stone—D.D. Guttenplan, author of the just released American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone, and Myra MacPherson (All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone )—who challenged the assertion in Spies (first broached in an excerpt in Commentary magazine) that Stone had been an active Soviet agent in the 1930s, with the code-name “Blin” (Russian for “Pancake”), acting as a courier and talent spotter.

I.F. Stone and the KGB

The question of Stone’s relationship with the KGB provoked the most heated exchanges at the conference. (In one of the more humorous moments, Vassiliev pronounced himself “bewildered by the interest in I.F. Stone.”) Was the radical journalist simply exchanging gossip and information with sources who happened to be Soviet intelligence officers, as his defenders claim? Or was he consciously working under the direction of the KGB? Journalists such as Kim Philby, Whittaker Chambers, and Hede Massing stood at the center of several 20th century espionage cases, and this was not by chance. Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev note in Spies that the KGB targeted journalists for recruitment—an internal report listed 22 journalists working for the agency in the 1930s, with only engineers/scientists (49) providing more agents. The authors add:

The KGB recruited journalists in part for their access to inside information and sources on politics and policy, insights into personalities, and confidential and non-public information that never made it into published stories.

Spies asserts that Stone worked for the KGB from 1936-1938, and cites a key passage from a May 1936 letter to Moscow as proof: “Relations with Pancake have entered the channel of normal operational work.” In a presentation on the second day of the conference, journalist Max Holland summarized his Journal of Cold War Studies essay on Stone’s encounters with Soviet intelligence, and concluded that Stone had indeed performed intelligence functions for the KGB in the late 1930s. As for Stone’s career post-1938, Holland reviewed the few references to Blin/Pancake in intercepted Soviet cables (decrypted as part of the U.S. Venona counterintelligence effort), and comments made in 1992 by KGB operative Oleg Kalugin that appeared to implicate Stone. Holland’s conclusion: there is no hard evidence suggesting further KGB operational control of the radical journalist after 1938.

Holland also considered a different, and somewhat provocative, question. To what extent did Stone’s contact with Soviet intelligence, both covert and overt, influence his writing over the course of his life? At given points in his career, did he consciously retail KGB disinformation? Or did Stone’s radical views simply, and naturally, correspond to the Stalinist line?

It is a complex question: Holland found that Stone embraced doctrinaire Comintern positions on the Spanish Civil War and the Great Terror, but remained doggedly independent in calling for American intervention against the Nazis (even during the Hitler-Stalin pact). Yet Stone’s 1952 The Hidden History of the Korean War, which parroted Soviet propaganda in blaming a U.S. conspiracy for starting the Korean conflict, seems suspect in light of what we now know. Did the KGB encourage Stone to write The Hidden History of the Korean War? The book’s obvious bias led Richard Rovere of The New Yorker to categorize Stone as “a man who thinks up good arguments for poor Communist positions.” After Stone’s public break with Stalinism in 1956, however, Holland found Stone pursuing an anti-establishment journalism with no signs of outside influence.

Yet Stone remained remarkably quiet about the high-profile espionage cases of the late 1940s and 1950s, according to Holland. Stone was notably silent about the Hiss case (“perhaps it cut too close”) and Stone confined his commentary on the Rosenbergs to questioning the fairness of their death sentence (never directly addressing their guilt or innocence). Had he not been conflicted about his own past, what might have Stone contributed to the discussion about the extent of Soviet control of the American Communist Party and its implications for national security?

Stone’s reputation has been badly damaged by the revelations in Spies; Holland’s essay raises further questions about the nature of Stone’s relationship with Soviet intelligence after 1938. Concealing a secret past hardly fits Stone’s iconic public image of an independent journalist committed to openness and transparency, but it would have been natural for Stone to want his association with Soviet intelligence to remain hidden. One Venona intercept highlighted Blin/Pancake’s fear of exposure—while he was open to collaboration, he didn’t want to “spoil his career.” What was the psychic cost of Stone’s decades-long deception? How may it have shaped Stone’s journalism? These intriguing questions may never be answered.

Alger Hiss and “Ales”

If some ambiguity remains about the depth and breadth of Stone’s involvement with the KGB, it’s hard to find any remaining ambiguity in the case of American diplomat Alger Hiss. As Spies notes, the Vassiliev notebooks provide additional confirmation of what Whittaker Chambers long maintained and Allen Weinstein’s book Perjury confirmed: despite his protestations of innocence, Hiss spied for the GRU during the 1930s and 1940s. (A prominent New Deal liberal, Hiss was accused in 1948 by Chambers of spying for the Soviets, and convicted on a related perjury charge in 1950.)

In his presentation to the conference, historian Eduard Marks knocked down a theory advanced by Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya in The American Scholar and embraced by die-hard Hiss defenders: that former journalist Wilder Foote—not Alger Hiss—was “Ales,” the code name for an American State Department official spying for the Soviets. (I’ve previously written about the holes in the Bird/Chervonnaya thesis in “Wilder Foote and ‘The Mystery of Ales’.“)

Mark drew on the Vassiliev notebooks and other research to conclude (as does Spies) that Hiss alone fit the profile of Ales drawn from cables sent on March 5 and 30, 1945 by the KGB station chief in Washington, Anatoly Gorsky. Gorsky had informed Moscow on March 5 that Ales was in Mexico City with a State Department delegation. Bird and Chervonnaya documented that Hiss was in Washington that day, therefore, they maintained, eliminating him as a candidate for Ales. They argued that Foote, who had remained in the Mexican capital, had to be the Soviet agent.

The Bird/Chervonnaya theory presumed that Gorsky was relaying information he knew to be accurate. Yet in his remarks Mark pointed to Gorsky’s confusion about the whereabouts of Hiss’ handler (“Ruble”/Harold Glasser) as proof that the Russian was not particularly well-informed. Mark added that Hiss had been listed by the State Department as part of the Mexico City delegation on March 5. Gorsky was mistaken: he was reporting about GRU agents, not KGB-controlled ones, so his information was second-hand, and faulty. Finally, Mark found no facts during his research to support the Foote-as-Ales theory, which, it is fair to say, resembles magical thinking more than it does serious historical inquiry.

The question of closure

Many previously unanswered questions about Cold War KGB espionage have been resolved by the Vassiliev notebooks and subsequent research. Spies has “outed” a number of Soviet agents and has provided greater specificity in the Hiss and Rosenberg cases.

Yet there remains much we don’t know. Revelations about Soviet spying have continued to emerge. In 2007, Russian intelligence officials honored George Koval, “the spy who came in from the cornfields,” a previously unknown GRU agent who had infiltrated the Manhattan Project. In 2008, 91-year-old Morton Sobell admitted that he and Julius Rosenberg had been Soviet agents during the 1940s. Near the end of 2008, an American scientist at the Los Alamos weapons lab who had betrayed the secrets of the hydrogen bomb to the Soviets in the 1950s was identified by Robert S. Norris as Darol Froman.

In May, Germans learned that the West German policeman, Karl-Heinz Kurras, who killed a left-wing demonstrator in 1967 with “the shot that changed Germany” and ignited violent radicalism, was actually an East German Stasi agent. While Kurras has denied he acted as a provocateur, some have suggested that the history of German extremism in the late 1960s and 1970s may need to be rewritten. Further, the head of the Stasi archives reports that there are many East German secret police files yet to be examined.

The history of Cold War espionage is incomplete. There are questions still to be resolved. What do the full KGB and GRU archives contain? What further connections might historians make if granted access to the files? Are there other members of the British or American elite who betrayed their country? Are there covert agents yet to be identified? Have the GRU’s files on Walter Krivitsky, George Koval, Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss and other agents been preserved? What might that information add to our knowledge of Soviet espionage in the 20th century?

Unfettered access to the Soviet archives would, no doubt, give us a clearer picture of the extent of betrayal of the Western democracies by some of its elites. As the Vassiliev notebooks have demonstrated, some of what we learn will cause a rethinking and reappraisal of Cold War history. With a resurgent Russia, that is as it should be, for as G.K. Chesterton once observed, we can be almost certain of being wrong about the future, if we are wrong about the past.


*For the purposes of this essay, I use “KGB” to describe the Soviet foreign intelligence service and “GRU” for Soviet military intelligence, although both had several name changes during the 20th century.

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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3 thoughts on “The Vassiliev notebooks, American elites, and Cold War espionage

  1. I am a 8th grade teacher in NC and came across your site while researching some information about the cold war for my class this year. I just wanted to thank you first of all for the great information and articles about the cold war, and let you know about a site we are putting together for teachers.

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