The Man Behind the Rosenbergs Again

man-behindI recently decided to reread this book by retired KGB agent Alexander Feklisov with Sergei Kostin hoping to better understand why Americans were willing to spy for the Soviet Union during World War II. Communism and “the worker’s paradise” of the USSR was a lure during the crushing poverty created by the Great Depression. There was also the belief by some that Communism was the only viable protection from Fascism, although the mutual defense pact signed by Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union confused some of those people. Many of the people recruited by the Soviets were American Jews who were children of Russian immigrants. They were convinced that the United States should share any useful technology with the Soviet Union as an ally in the war against Hitler. Feklisov saw those people as “anti-Fascist activists” who were heroes and not spies.  Feklisov managed large networks of American spies, and his book provides insight into their motivations.

Feklisov mentions that many U.S. politicians weren’t friendly to the Soviet Union. Harry Truman as a Senator expressed the point of view about the conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union, that “…if Germany is winning we must help Russia; if Russia was winning, the help should go to Germany.” The first prize for bluntness would go to the New York Daily News, which published a cartoon depicting the USSR and Germany as two snakes fighting each other. The caption read, ‘Let’s let them eat each other’.” Feklisov portrays FDR as being a moderate whose attitude toward the USSR, which was “…bearing the brunt of the war efforts, was favorable.” 

Feklisov mentions several times in the book that the FBI became more interested in monitoring Soviet activities after the Battle for Stalingrad. There is no explanation except to quote “…one of the leaders of the OSS: We haven’t even finished with one enemy and another one sprouts up on the horizon.”

The book begins with an interesting description of Feklisov’s life in the Soviet Union as a youngster and his eventual acceptance into the INO, or Soviet Foreign Intelligence. He is sent to the United States and spends four years sending and receiving messages without being involved in espionage. He is a capable and loyal employee and he eventually enters the world of the “illegals” with the assignment of recruiting spies from the many Americans who sympathized with the Communist and Soviet cause.

Feklisov’s selection and advancement in Soviet intelligence was enhanced by the remarkable fact there were few older agents when he began his training. Feklisov was surprised there “…was only one older officer in our section…” He “…later learned that the Stalinist purges had not spared the intelligence services. The leadership of the INO had been decimated as much as the Red Army by the end of the 1930s.” It is difficult to understand Feklisov’s dedicated loyalty to the Soviet system after such a revelation.

Feklisov gives a much different picture of the effectiveness of the FBI than I’ve read in other accounts. He mentions that many of his leaders “…were quickly identified by the FBI and forced to leave the United States.” He mentions the FBI numerous times in the book, and indicates those agents often made it quite difficult for Feklisov and his network of spies to perform without extreme care. “The priority for the FBI was to locate and destroy enemy espionage networks, and in a few short months the Americans arrested hundreds of spies and sent many foreign nationals into internment camps.” They had also managed to place monitoring devices in the phones of Feklisov and many others that allowed monitoring anything said in the room.

For those who think Julius Rosenberg was wrongly executed as a Soviet spy, Feklisov describes how Rosenberg provided the technical description of a radio device that allowed anti-aircraft defenses to distinguish between friendly and enemy aircraft. At the beginning of 1944 he provided blue prints and spare parts for the proximity fuse manufactured by Emerson Radio. “The proximity fuse had been designed to make the shell explode at a short distance from the target…” On December 24, 1944 Feklisov and Rosenberg met and exchanged Christmas presents. Feklisov gave Julius a watch, Ethyl a high-end purse, and their son Michael a teddy bear. Rosenberg (his nickname was “Libi”) gave Feklisov a working model of the proximity fuse, which the Center “…had designated as being a priority in intelligence gathering…” The “…Council of Ministers of the USSR created by emergency decree a special laboratory and factory to produce these devices…the fuse was quickly put into production and thanks to it, the American U2 reconnaissance plane flown by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Sverdlovsk on May 1, 1960.” Ethel Rosenberg is said to have never engaged in any spying. She was an ardent Communist and married to a spy, but her execution is questioned by almost everyone.

Feklisov is unapologetic that information from his spies, including Klaus Fuchs, allowed the construction of an exact duplicate of the Trinity, or “Fat Man” nuclear device. The Soviet duplicate was called “Joe-1” by the Americans as the first Soviet atomic test. Feklisov writes that he believed Harry Truman would have launched an atomic attack against the Soviet Union if the Soviets had not ended the U.S. monopoly on nuclear weapons.

Feklisov details his relationship with Klaus Fuchs after Fuchs completed his work and spying on the Manhattan Project and returned to England. Fuchs, code name “Rest” had provided most if not all of the information the Soviets needed to build their own atomic bomb to Harry Gold, nickname “Raymond,” code name “Guss” (goose). That information included the design of the explosive lenses for the implosion weapon. Fuchs once told Feklisov, “I hope your baby is born soon,” referring to the first Soviet atomic bomb. He also said “I shall always be indebted to you.” Feklisov observed, “He was obviously alluding to our victory over the Nazis.”

Igor Guzenko, the GRU cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, defected in September 1945 and provided a list of Soviet spies. Elizabeth Bentley, a courier for two Washington D.C. spy networks then turned herself in and provided the FBI an extensive list of Soviet spies. Liberal journalists made fun of Bentley as a “frustrated spinster” and named her derisively the “Red Spy Queen.” However the information began leading to more and more agents, and one was Klaus Fuchs. The defections of Guzenko and Bentley resulted in the dismantling of the extensive Soviet espionage system.

The book closes with a description of how Feklisov claims he had a major role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis by passing information on the Soviet position to the journalist John Scali.

The main information I found in rereading the book was Feklisov’s continual insistence that people like the Rosenbergs were heroes for being “anti-Fascist activists.” He credits the Soviet spy networks with preventing World War III. “During the era of deterrence, reestablishing strategic balance was extremely important.”

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