This book by Michael J. Sulick has the subtitle, “Espionage from the Revolutionary War to the Dawn of the Cold War.” Sulick was a former director of the CIA’s clandestine service, and his book describes how “…nations large and small, from Russia and China to Ghana and Ecuador, have stolen the most precious secrets of the United States.” The book describes thirty of the most famous espionage cases. The introduction discusses a subject that continues to be importance: government monitoring of communications to uncover potential terrorist threats versus freedom from government intrusion into our daily lives. “America’s susceptibility to the threat of espionage…developed, ironically, from the very qualities that catapulted the nation to superpower status and made it a symbol of democracy: an exceptional geography and a tradition of individual liberties. These attributes shaped American attitudes toward national security and bred both disbelief about the threat of espionage and a distrust of countering it at the expense of these cherished liberties.”
I’ve always had the question as to why U.S. citizens would spy against the country. The author explains that the massive Soviet espionage efforts before and during World War II were assisted by the ravages of the Great Depression. “Americans disillusioned with capitalism were lured by the utopian promises of communism and swelled the ranks of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA)…Communist sympathizers attracted by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies flocked to work in the new administration and willingly supported the Soviet cause by passing government secrets. When irrefutable proof of widespread Soviet espionage eventually surfaced, the highest levels of the US government still refused to believe the senior officials of the Roosevelt administration were Soviet spies.” Many in the liberal media expressed “…a highly suspicious distrust of government efforts to combat spying, viewing them as intrusiveness and even persecution of its citizenry.” The focus often was on what was seen as the excesses of McCarthy instead of the revelations from Chambers and Bentley, two Soviet spies who turned and provided lists of spies in the government. The book accurately describes that much of the media could or would not accept their stories until irrefutable proof became available years later.
The book begins with descriptions of spying during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Recruiting spies during both conflicts by both sides was easy because there were citizens loyal to one side or the other scattered throughout the citizenry. Washington D.C. was a “southern city,” which made it incredibly easy for the Confederates to find supporters willing to report on Union plans.
Examples of Civil War spies begin with Alan Pinkerton, who used his detective agency to support the Union and on at least one occasion to protect Abraham Lincoln from an assassination plot. Timothy Webster is described as “The Chameleon Spy” who was a successful Pinkerton spy who was eventually discovered and hanged. Rose Greenhow was a Washington socialite who was loyal to the Confederacy and provided information from a network of associates who were socially active among high Union officials. Rose was discovered and deported to the South. She drowned while smuggling gold bars in a blockade runner that capsized in a squall. Lafayette Baker was perhaps the most hated spy. It was said that, “It’s doubtful if Baker in any one thing told the truth, even by accident.”
There is a section about espionage during the World Wars, but my focus centered on the last two sections that describe Soviet espionage before and during World War II. Trusting Americans marveled at the newsreels of industrialization in the Soviet Union as the United States struggled with the Great Depression. It was easy for the Soviets to recruit Americans as spies, although I doubt most of them knew that Lenin had referred to them as “useful idiots.” The Communist network achieved a thorough penetration of every key agency of the executive branch, State, Treasury, Justice, all the military services with the one exception of the Coast Guard, and relief agencies. As far as we know there was only one member of the House of Representatives who was a paid Soviet spy. He was Samuel Dickstein, Democrat from New York, who later was appointed to the New York State Supreme Court.
Stalin’s decision to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler changed many things. It disillusioned many members of the Communist Party and caused the US government to begin actively hunting for communists. The US Army began collecting enciphered Soviet messages. Meredith Gardner and a team of cryptographers at Arlington Hall had a break in 1944 when they discovered that the Soviets had become so overwhelmed with messages they began to reuse “one-time pads,” which were impossible to break. By the summer of 1946 the project, which was called “Venona,” had deciphered a 1944 message that included the names of scientists working on the development of the atomic bomb who were Soviet spies. The relatively small percentage of messages eventually deciphered (a bit over one percent) identified 349 covert agents, 180 by name. Many of the agents were high-ranking government officials who had been previously exposed but whose cases had been politicized by liberals as being bogus charges to embarrass the administration. All doubts should have been removed on September 5, 1945 when Igor Gouzenko, a GRU code clerk in Canada requested asylum and provided information about large networks of Soviet spies in both Canada and the U.S.
A few spies were tried and convicted. One famous case involved State Department official Alger Hiss. He was convicted of perjury in his second trial and sentenced to five years in prison despite his repeated denials that the documents in his hand writing and typed on his home typewriter were valid. Hiss maintained his innocence to his death, which was consistent with what was taught as a part of the “tradecraft’ for Soviet agents. Hiss was the senior State Department official with FDR at Yalta where much of the fate of Eastern Europe was decided for post World War II.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were both eager advocates of communism. The “Rosenberg Ring” provided information about the high explosive lens used in the implosion atomic bomb. The spy trial of the Rosenbergs opened in March 1951 in a highly charged atmosphere of anti-communism. The prosecutor strived for the death sentence to pressure Julius into a plea bargain in return for a lighter sentence and a favorable disposition in his wife’s case. Julius remained unshaken and he and his wife, who was said to only have served as his secretary, were executed.
Theodore Hall is listed as the “Atomic Bomb Spy Who Got Away.” Hall was a scientist at the age of eighteen on the Manhattan Project. He had become a communist in college and sought a way to pass information to the Soviets. He managed to meet an NKGB agent and passed numerous secrets. His spying wasn’t uncovered until many years later, and he was never tried. He would only acknowledge “mistakes in his youth.”
The activities of George Koval, a Soviet citizen, were not uncovered until he was posthumously honored in 2007 by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with the nation’s highest civilian award. The award recognized Koval’s contribution to the Soviet Union’s development of the atomic bomb.
This is a good book for people interested in the history of spying against the United States. However, my favorite book about Soviet spying continues to be “Venona.”