The Nation Persists in Espionage Denial
By John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr
Few issues have generated as much scholarly dishonesty as the study of communism and, more recently, the revelations from once-closed Cold War archives about Americans who spied for the Soviet Union.
In 2003 we published In Denial, which discussed how an embarrassingly large number of academics denied, minimized, avoided noticing, or, the last resort, justified Soviet espionage against the United States as well as such Stalinist mass murders as the Great Terror and the Katyn massacre. It was bad enough that such deplorable history was written prior to the 1990s. But our outrage was prompted by the sad spectacle of supposedly trained historians continuing to distort evidence from Russian and East Bloc archives that contradicted their biases.
And it still goes on. One conclusion we have reached is that many of those who continue to write historical nonsense about Soviet espionage and communism are not consciously dishonest. It is not a matter of their knowing the truth and lying about it (although there is some of that). More frequently, we are dealing with intellectual “true believers,” ideological zealots who are mentally incapable of accepting or processing information that undermines their historical world view. To use a metaphor coined by the historian Aileen Kraditor, it is as if they wear special glasses that can only see what conforms to their world-view. Information that contradicts their fiercely held view is denied, explained-away, or, most often, simply ignored.
A recent example of espionage denial is James M. Boughton’s review of Benn Steil’s The Battle of Bretton Woods, published in The Nation magazine. A former Indiana University professor and historian of the International Monetary Fund, Boughton has long denied that Harry Dexter White ever cooperated with Soviet espionage; a section of In Denial was devoted to exposing his fallacious arguments. Similarly, The Nation has a long history of refusing to accept that such left-wing icons as White, Alger Hiss, or Julius Rosenberg could be guilty as alleged. Not until 1995 did it offer a concession about Rosenberg, although even then it resisted the claim that he was a major atomic spy. While The Nation has published letters-to-the-editor objecting to its distortion of history, such communications cannot lay out in detail just how mendacious its authors are and how much evidence they ignore.
Steil’s book examines the differing approaches of the British economist John Maynard Keynes and White toward construction of a post-war international financial regime, and the resolution of their disagreements at Bretton Woods (the American White mostly carried the day). Steil notes White’s espionage, but that is, at best, a tertiary theme in his book. Anyone reading The Battle of Bretton Woods and expecting an espionage thriller will quickly find himself enmeshed in a sophisticated history of the institutional evolution of international finance and economic theories that try to make sense of that history. Whatever its merits (which seem to be minimal), Boughton’s criticism of Steil’s economic history is not our concern or expertise.
Boughton roundly denounces Steil, however, for noting that Harry White was not only the chief architect of the post-WWII international financial system but also a Soviet spy. Contrary to Boughton’s silly claim that Steil presents the IMF as a “Communist plot,” the author generally treats these as two separate strands of White’s life, just as he keeps Keynes’s homosexuality at arm’s length from Keynes’s views on international monetary exchange.
As we noted in our 2003 critique of Boughton, there was more than ample evidence then that Harry White had begun to cooperate with Soviet intelligence in the mid-1930s and continued that cooperation until at least 1945. Subsequently, in 2004 Bruce Craig published an admiring biography of White that was harshly critical of his detractors. Yet even Craig realized the evidence of White’s espionage was too powerful to ignore, and conceded in the end what an espionage denier like Boughton is reluctant to admit: Harry Dexter White consciously provided information to Soviet intelligence and was involved in “a species of espionage.” Although Craig went on to both minimize White’s espionage and justify it, he clearly saw that outright denial was a lost cause.
Since that time even more archival evidence has come to light, corroborating and adding considerable detail to White’s career as a Soviet intelligence agent. The chief additional source is Alexander Vassiliev’s handwritten notebooks, with their extracts and summaries of KGB archival documents about Soviet espionage in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. (The notebooks in the original handwritten Russian and translated into English along with a detailed index can be found at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project’s virtual archives; the originals are held in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress). It is no surprise that in his 2013 Nation review, Boughton does not even hint of having any familiarity with the Vassiliev notebooks. To a denier, contrary evidence is often invisible.
Before looking at the new evidence Boughton ignores, his mistakes and false statements about the old evidence are worth revisiting.
In his autobiographical Witness, Whittaker Chambers stated that in the mid-1930s White was a source in his Soviet military intelligence network, which encompassed mid-level government officials who were secret members of the Communist Party USA or sympathizers with it. At that time, White was a rising monetary official in the Treasury Department, which, overall, was not involved in issues of much interest to the Soviets. White was valued more for his talent and potential than for his actual productivity.
Chambers noted that White was not a CPUSA member but ardently sympathized with the Soviet Union; he cooperated with the Communist underground on his own terms and was not under party discipline. He did, however, provide information both in oral briefings and in written summaries. Chambers hid one of White’s summaries together with material from his major source, Alger Hiss, in 1938 when he dropped out of espionage work. The hidden material was Chambers’s so-called “life preserver” to discourage the Soviets from retaliating against him after his defection. In 1948 Chambers produced the summary during his clash with Alger Hiss. The White memorandum consisted of four sheets of letter-sized yellow paper, handwritten in pencil in White’s own hand. Three pages were written on two sides and the fourth on only one, with material dated from 10 January to 15 February 1938.
What did Boughton say about this? First, he dismissed Chambers outright as one of the “notorious fabulists” whose testimony about Soviet espionage should never be given any credence. This despite the fact that all the archival evidence that has become available about Soviet espionage since the end of the Cold War corroborated Chambers’s account. When National Security Agency released the Soviet intelligence cables decrypted by its “ VENONA project,” for example, the official introduction to what is regarded as one of the most valuable and reliable documentary source of Soviet intelligence noted, “The VENONA decrypts were . . . to show the accuracy of Chambers’s . . . disclosures.”
As for the papers written in White’s own hand, Boughton opined: “Chambers dramatically produced a microfilm for the FBI, dubbed the ‘Pumpkin Papers,’ literally pulling it out of a pumpkin on his farm in 1948. The film contained, among other items unrelated to White, images of four pages of lined paper on which White had scribbled notes on various topics. Anyone who has worked in a bureaucracy like the Treasury Department would recognize these pages as the kind of notes taken during the meetings that consume so much of an official’s day.”
Boughton got everything wrong in this statement. The papers were not on microfilm, they were real hard-copy, and they were not pulled out of a pumpkin. White’s memoranda was part of the collection of espionage material from 1938 that Chambers lawyers delivered to Alger Hiss’s lawyers in response to a discovery motion by the latter in Hiss’s slander suit against Chambers. In the historical literature this collection is often referred to as the “Baltimore papers” due to their being produced at a legal discovery meeting of Hiss and Chambers’s lawyers in Baltimore. (Both sets of lawyers quickly agreed to hand the papers over to the Department of Justice.) The “Pumpkin Papers,” meanwhile, were an entirely separate collection of material on microfilm later turned over to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, film that Chambers had melodramatically hidden for one night in a pumpkin.
As for Boughton’s claim that the pages contained only routine notes—the summary, in fact, covered a wide variety of issues: State Department reports about Swiss financing of Japanese economic projects in Manchuria; the bomb-proofing of Japanese oil storage sites; diplomatic reports about a possible French alliance with the USSR against Germany; and the gist of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau’s conversations with President Roosevelt on economic policy toward Japan. At the time White held a senior but nonetheless mid-level position at Treasury—he was director of the Division of Monetary Research. As such, “It is difficult to fathom any purpose in the line of official duties for which White could have put together this disparate collection of news in a single memo,” as the historian Allen Weinstein has written. It easy to fathom, however, why a Soviet intelligence source would prepare such a memo.
Elizabeth T. Bentley was another former Soviet agent who, like Chambers, was a witness to White’s participation in Soviet espionage—in Bentley’s case, during the years 1942-1944. Boughton disparaged her as a “notorious fabulist” too and declared that “Even the FBI had serious doubts about her credibility.” It is true that when Bentley first confessed to the FBI in the fall of 1945, counterintelligence agents, who had no clue about her role as the supervisor of several rings of Soviet sources, wondered if she was a nut confessing to imaginary crimes. But after hearing her out and checking her story, within weeks the agents were convinced of her authenticity and launched a major investigation of the “Gregory” case, to use the FBI’s code name for the massive investigation that followed. Subsequently, the FBI never wavered in its judgment that Bentley was an utterly reliable informant on Soviet espionage. No less than three independent scholars who have explored the relationship between Bentley and the Bureau found that the FBI’s confidence in her authenticity and reliability remained firm after the initial skepticism. Only in the denial land of Boughton’s imagination does the unqualified characterization that the FBI entertained “serious doubts” about Bentley’s credibility persist.
Boughton also attempted to discount White’s well-documented relationships with associates who were identified later as secret Communists and Soviet spies. These were nothing but guilt by association, according to Boughton. In his review he wrote “White had several friends and associates who were involved with the US Communist Party. He certainly knew they were sympathetic to communism and the Soviet Union, and he seems to have been indifferent to their political views and activities.”
While testifying before a congressional committee in 1948, however, that was not White’s story. He vehemently denied knowing or even suspecting that any former associates had Communist sympathies. If Boughton’s judgment is taken at face value—that White “certainly knew they were sympathetic to communism and the Soviet Union”—then at the very least he perjured himself.
The lengths to which White went to protect secret Communists, in and of itself, suggested that he wasn’t as naïve as he claimed to be in 1948. One of his subordinates at the Treasury Department was Harold Glasser, both a secret Communist and a Soviet spy. In December 1941 the Secret Service, the Treasury Department’s investigative arm, forwarded a report indicating that it had evidence of Glasser’s involvement in Communist activities. The report went to Harry White, nothing happened, and Glasser was able to continue his espionage.
Another White associate was Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, a government economist. Silvermaster had been a secret Communist since the early 1920s, and organized a Soviet espionage network of extraordinarily large size during World War II. Indeed, White himself was one of the agents in Silvermaster network. In 1942, Silvermaster faced security scrutiny after transferring from the Department of Agriculture’s Farm Security Administration to the Board of Economic Warfare (BEW). Neither agency came under the jurisdiction of White’s Treasury Department (by this time White had risen to the post of assistant to the Secretary of the Treasury). White nonetheless contacted Under Secretary of War Robert Patterson and told him that suspicions about Silvermaster’s Communist leanings were baseless. Consequently, Patterson overruled military counterintelligence and allowed Silvermaster to take the job at the Board of Economic Warfare.
Two years later, after Silvermaster’s BEW tenure ended (by then BEW had merged into the Foreign Economic Administration), he sought to return to the Agriculture Department. There were security concerns about him although no adverse action had been taken against Silvermaster despite two probes. White intervened again on his behalf, and Under Secretary of Agriculture Paul Appleby endorsed Silvermaster’s return to USDA employment.
An undergraduate writing a term paper who exhibited such an embarrassing pattern of errors, omissions, and misstatements would surely earn a stern lecture on the need to report accurately on facts, and to include evidence that contradicted one’s thesis, if only to attempt to refute it. Boughton is unashamed by such scholarship, which probably explains why when an entirely new tranche of archival information about White became available in 2009—the Vassiliev notes—his response has been to ignore it.
Rather than write a detailed narrative of what the Vassiliev notes reveal and/or confirm, attached is a summary excerpting nearly all of the information relevant to Harry Dexter White that is to be gleaned from the VENONA decryptions and the Vassiliev notebooks.
The overlapping evidence from independent sources clearly implicates White as a long-standing Soviet source. The excerpts make mincemeat out of James Boughton’s claims, revealing him to be either incompetent or suffering from ideological blindness. That White was fearful and hesitant, reluctant at times to give the Soviets everything they wanted, or had prickly relations with his main American connection to the KGB were all true. That he was not a spy is nonsense. Any reasonable scholar, reviewing all of these documents, would conclude, as we have, that White knowingly, consciously, deliberately, and covertly cooperated with, facilitated, and assisted Soviet espionage operations.
John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr are members of Washington Decoded’s editorial board and the authors of many seminal works on espionage and American Communism, including most recently (with Alexander Vassiliev) Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).
 Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, “Cryptic Answers,” The Nation, 14–21 August 1995, 152-153.
 James M. Boughton, “Dirtying White: Why Does Benn Steil’s History of Bretton Woods Distort the Ideas of Harry Dexter White?” The Nation, 24 June-1 July 2013, 44. The same issue of The Nation that carried Boughton’s review featured a review by Steve Wasserman of Black Against Empire, a new book about the Black Panthers . Wasserman’s unsparing review was everything Boughton’s failed to be: honest, and because it was honest, gripping. Steve Wasserman, “Rage and Ruin: On the Black Panthers,” The Nation, 24 June-1 July 2013, 35-40.
 R. Bruce Craig, Treasonable Doubt: The Harry Dexter White Spy Case (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 14, 263.
 Boughton, “Dirtying White,” 44; Hayden B. Peake, “Afterword,” in Out of Bondage: The Story of Elizabeth Bentley (New York: Ivy Books, 1988); Kathryn S. Olmsted, Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Lauren Kessler, Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley’s Life in and Out of Espionage (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).
©2013 by John Earl Haynes & Harvey Klehr