The Rise and Fall
of the KGB in America
By John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev
Yale University Press.
650 pp. $35
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Reviewed by Paul Davis
Ian Fleming, a British naval intelligence officer during World War II and the author of the James Bond spy thrillers, once noted that on occasion a news story would "lift a corner of the veil" and reveal the real world of espionage.
Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America lifts much more than a corner of the veil. The book is based on the notebooks of Alexander Vassiliev, a Russian journalist and former KGB officer who was given unprecedented access to KGB files for three years.
From 1993 to 1996 Vassiliev transcribed, extracted, and summarized thousands of KGB archival documents. His notebooks, totaling more than 1,115 pages, provide a number of revelations that John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr detail in this new historical account of Stalin-era Soviet espionage in the 1930s and 1940s.
Haynes and Klehr, the authors of Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America and other books on Soviet spies, have the expertise and authority to judge the historical significance of Vassiliev's notebooks. They also have the skill to chronicle the era in this huge book.
According to Vassiliev's notebooks, more than 500 Americans assisted Soviet intelligence during this period. The book names names, identifying Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and journalistic icon I.F. Stone, to name but a few.
The book also clears the name of atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was long suspected of being a Soviet spy. The KGB pursued him, but Vassiliev's notebooks indicate that Oppenheimer was not a spy.
Author Ernest Hemingway also is named in the notebooks. Spies details how he "toyed" with KGB officers but never provided them with any significant information. Although the Soviets were unhappy with his account of communists in the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls (in which Hemingway chronicled atrocities committed by both sides in the conflict), he remained an object of interest to the KGB.
The book offers chapters on the spies involved with the Anglo-American atomic-bomb project; the journalist spies; the infiltration of the U.S. government; the infiltration of a World War II intelligence organization, the Office of Strategic Services; and the spies involved in technical, scientific, and industrial espionage.
There is an entire chapter on Alger Hiss. One can finally conclude from the evidence here that Hiss, the former State Department official who went to prison for perjury in 1950, was, indeed, a Soviet spy. "Case closed," the authors conclude.
Despite the successes of Soviet intelligence, such as stealing the secrets of the atomic bomb, the authors dispel the popular myth that the KGB was a near-superhuman organization.
"Influenced by the documentation of the extensive and even breathtaking number of Americans who had aided the KGB, many commentators emphasized the proficiency of Soviet intelligence," the authors write. "These revelations should not be minimized or avoided. The KGB reach extended in many directions and touched many more Americans than historians believed. Nevertheless, it is also important to understand that along with its strengths, there were also limitations and failings."
The authors also suggest that the KGB's successes were due largely to the inadequacy of U.S. counterintelligence until the end of World War II, when the FBI finally pursued Soviet espionage vigorously.
"Espionage is a secret business," the authors write in conclusion. "It is rare that the agents engaged in it or the agencies they serve speak honestly and openly about what they have done because the incentives to lie, dissemble, and continue to deceive are so strong for all concerned."
The authors declare that Vassiliev's notebooks offer the most complete view of KGB triumphs, methods, failures, and frustrations as the Soviet spy agency strove to obtain U.S. secrets during a crucial historical period.
This is an important book for students of history and espionage.