on May 3, 2001
This book, jammed with information that's only come to light in recent years, tells a number of fascinating stories.
For starters, there's the story of an intellectual adventure. Venona was a small group of government employees who, with fearsome gobs of skull-sweat and toil, decrypted thousands of secret communications sent between Soviet embassies and Moscow during and immediately after World War II. The messages used an encryption scheme so complex that it would be a challenge to crack even with today's technologies. But teams of Americans and Brits--mostly female, as it happens, although there were plenty of brilliant men--were able to decode them with little more than pencil, paper, and brainpower.
Venona is also a story of terrible treachery. Independently corroborated by data from the Soviet and Comintern archives, the Venona decryptions confirm things that were once controversial. For example: the American Communist Party was a puppet of Moscow that eagerly engaged in criminal activities. Julius Rosenberg and Algier Hiss were guilty. Literally hundreds of Communist agents deeply infiltrated American government at the highest levels. And the Soviets also had a substantial subversive presence within the American labor movement and in many elite segments of American society.
Venona is also a story of Western bumbling. For years, naive American officials ignored or dismissed suggestions that there was any Communist threat. Several times this resulted in tragic losses now painfully visible in retrospect.
Perhaps most damning of all, Venona is a story of how obsession with secrecy can be costly. The Soviets became aware of Venona shortly after the war ended. They completely overhauled their systems, and the Venona project decrypted no valuable communications after the mid-to-late 1940s. This more than anything is what makes Venona fodder for discussion and debate.
From a conservative perspective we can understand why Venona was kept secret: Even after Venona's cover was blown, the Soviets could not know everything the US had managed to decrypt. For years after the Soviets found out about Venona, US counterintelligence was still able to make valuable use of Venona information.
But even when we knew the Soviets had discovered Venona, we refused to reveal so much as a single scrap of their decryptions to the public--even when such revelations would have helped convict traitors or eased public fears. Throughout several Democratic and Republican administrations, everything about Venona and what it had uncovered remained surrounded by a dense cloud of secrecy.
While the Venona secrets would seem to corroborate the worst and most paranoid fears of 1950s McCarthyism, the truth is arguably the reverse: because of information Venona uncovered, the US and most other Western governments did a thorough housecleaning in the years immediately after World War II. During those same years most of the leaders of the American labor movement also performed some housecleaning, and Communism lost its chic appeal in much of elite society. This was all BEFORE Joe McCarthy went off the deep end. Had at least some of the Venona messages been revealed to the public after we knew the Soviets had caught on, congressional anti-Communist investigations, had they happened at all, might well have been conducted in a more honest and responsible manner. In any case, years of pointless debate between conservative and left-wing intellectuals would have been avoided. And countless stereotypical Hollywood portrayals of anti-communists as paranoid and irrational probably wouldn't have happened.
Because ultimately, Venona confirms that people were right to suspect and fear the Communists. But it also demonstrates that by the 1950s, Soviet infiltration had become a manageable problem rather than a screaming crisis.
That excessive care with secrets can be just as destructive as carelessness with secrets has been argued rather passionately by former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was in large part responsible for the release of the Venona information, and who wrote this book's introduction. After reading it, it's hard not to see his point.
Harvey Klehr (Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History at Emory University) and John Earl Haynes (20th Century Historian for the Library of Congress) do a fine job of not only relaying the Venona information, but of showing how it is independently corroborated by information now available in the archives of the former Soviet Union and the Comintern. But if their workmanlike prose is easy enough to read, the sheer number of players, events, and their interactions that are covered are sufficiently dizzying that a "Dramatis Personae" section at the start of every chapter might have been helpful!
It's not light reading. On the whole, however, this book is a must-have reference to anyone interested in the history of the 20th Century.
on September 5, 2000
Venona was the cover name of a top secret US government project that from the 1940's to the 1980's intercepted and decoded Soviet government messages all over the world. Venona gave numerous facts about Soviet espionage from some 3000 messages. Venona was officially revealed in 1995 The Soviets got hints about Venona, but thought their codes were safe.
Learning details about spies, the US government often did not prosecute, since it would alert the Soviets that their codes were being broken. Instead the FBI often maneuvered to keep spies away from sensitive positions by stopping promotions or having people fired. Often when a spy was brought to trial, the government still held back evidence. Therefore, many spies were never convicted, or got off easy. This gave ammunition to leftist public opinion who claimed "McCarthyism". The book details hundreds of spies/cases such as Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, the Manhattan Project, ... just to name a few.
The authors tells how the book came about. The basics of Venona. What the codes looked like. In detail how they were constituted and broken. Then its off to numerous "cases". Typically a person or "ring" is reported on a couple of pages. Some cases cover whole chapters.
FACTS / OPINIONS
Filled with facts of the Soviet operations. Such as birth names, KGB/GRU internal cover names and cover names used in the US. The book gives dates, cities, US Business', government offices and political organizations. We see the orders the KGB gave, who recommended who to sensitive posts, how much money changed hands... The authors stays with the facts and gives almost no opinions, but some background. The book is not about telling stories, so often we get facts without "punch-lines". Venona does not explain everything, and open ended cases are presented as well. Then the book sometimes speculates in a couple of possible scenarios referring to other facts. Fact and speculation are always easy to separate.
The text is sober and easy to read. The authors always gives clear and open references. We learn only a little about the personal lives and feelings of the spies. Except for their basic motivation. Which are the usual black-mail, ideology, greed, personal vendetta,...
The sheer number of spies is staggering. They were everywhere. Including the top of the US government. It makes you wonder how much of what the Western World did, actually was controlled from Moscow. The book makes it easy to understand how all the weapons of mass destruction we develop comes back to haunt us.
on May 26, 1999
The authors have done a very convincing job of tying the Venona communiques to actual Soviet spies working in the US before, during and after WWII. Its revelations that high administration officials in the executive branch was a real shocker, and that these so-called "brain trusters" thought and anti-democratic communism could co-exist with American democracy is proof how how we should always be wary of the "intellectural elite". Regardless of how you feel about communism, there is no doubt that these American spies cared more about the ideals of communism, didn't see the reality of Stalin's totalitarian state, and obviously felt the American system was so bankrupt, it would never recover from the depression. I was also saddened that the Roosevelt administration was so concerned about the Nazi threat, that it would accept Stalin and his similar tactics. We see that many who were admired by the intellectuals were really spies who were more than willing to sell out their country for a money. And there is no question that Julius Rosenberg was very aware of what he was doing. Makes you wonder, in light, of the current Chinese spy scandal. This opened up, for me, a whole area of history, which until now, has been approached hysterically and ideologically, rather than based on original documents, as the authors have done here.
on September 2, 2004
This is a scholarly history without the flash, trash, hype, and jive of journalism. The authors had access to the decrypt of Soviet messages from the 1941-1945 period as well as the Soviet espionage archives and the FBI archives. They explain in detail how they obtained their information and then described the activities of Soviet agents. At the end is a list of about 450 people who were Soviet agents. For those of you who are not interested in the historic details, the bottom line is that everyone who was publicly accused of being a Soviet agent was one. Senator McCarthy was right and the professors and journalists were wrong.
I also recommend The Venona Secrets : Exposing America's Cold War Traitors by Herb Romerstein if you want more detailed information from an experienced espionage agent of the time. This other book, available here on Amazon, will tell you many more interesting things.
on March 20, 2006
In his book, A People's History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn described the Communist Party of the United States of America as a Party "known to pay special attention to the problem of race equality." Zinn said very little about communist espionage in the United States, and instead emphasized the roles of communist activists in the labor movement and the civil rights movement. Zinn is characteristic of leftist American historians who are quick to describe the Red Scare as an assault on civil liberties and ignore the very real threat posed by radical groups in the United States. Unfortunately for scholarship, their paradigm is regarded as mainstream.
John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr have produced a scholarly work that forces the reader to rethink the notion of the American Marxist as a benign reformer. Decoding Soviet Espionage uses hard evidence gleaned from decoded past Soviet diplomatic traffic to expose the espionage of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Theodore Alvin Hall, Harry Dexter White, Armand Hammer, Lauchlan Currie and literally hundreds of others. Haynes and Klehr prove that the members of the CPUSA regularly stole technology and information from their employers: private industry and the Federal Government. Moreover, they had absolutely no moral qualms about doing this, since they regarded the Federal Government and private corporations as illegitimate, repressive organizations that would soon be replaced by a revolutionary utopia. Haynes' and Klehrs' thesis is convincing and compelling.
Although an anti-communist bias becomes quickly apparent, Haynes and Klehr manage to establish a neutral, scholarly tone throughout the book and avoid falling into a shrill ideological chorus. In fact, the book gets four stars because in some places the analysis drags, as though it was a raw data report.
Decoding Soviet Espionage should be required reading in any course about the Cold War era in U.S. History.
on August 6, 2000
Speaking as someone who taught US History in California schools for a short time, I can attest that this book reveals facts that reverse much of what is taught in our high schools.
As an example, the case of the Rosenbergs being convicted of espionage is explained as an extremist reaction that had no legal merit. This book exposes the truth that the Rosenbergs were deep in the network of soviet espionage that has existed since the 1920s.
Its amazing to read the stories of agent after agent that worked in nearly every level of American government. From the most sensitive to the most politically charged events... a soviet spy was not far.
The techniques and style of soviet espionage leaves one looking at todays situation and thinking, if that is what the soviets did then, imagine what China, North Korea, Iraq or Syria could be doing now.
If you have any interest in espionage, its history or how nations deal with each other, you can't afford to leave this off your must read list.
on December 1, 2000
This is really two books in one: The first is a slim, but absolutely fascinating, volume about "Venona," the code name for the program in which approximately 3,000 extremely-secret cable messages sent by KGB agents in the United States to the Soviet Union were deciphered and translated from Russian between 1946 and 1981 by American counterintelligence authorities. The other is a rather conventional survey of Soviet espionage in the United States in the 20th century and its purported connection to the American Communist Party. At the very end of the book, authors John Early Haynes and Harvey Klehr assert that, "from 1942 to 1945[,] the Soviet Union launched an unrestrained espionage offensive against the United States." The now-indisputable fact that a state at war spied aggressively on one of its own allies is at the heart of this book.
According to Haynes and Klehr: "This book describes Soviet espionage in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. It concentrates on operations during World War II, the most aggressive and effective phase of Soviet activity." The authors write: "Venona decryptions identified most of the Soviet spies uncovered by American counterintelligence between 1948 and the mid-1950s." Haynes and Klehr report that Klaus Fuchs, Julius Rosenberg, and Donald Maclean, among others, were Soviet spies identified through Venona documents. However, the authors make the controversial assertion that their book "shows how the success of the wartime espionage offensive rested on the extensive base prepared in the 1930s by the Communist International and the American Communist Party." In law school, students are taught to beware of this false maxim: "After, therefore, because." In other words, the fact that one event follows another in time does not necessarily mean that the first causes the second. I am skeptical of the implication that the activities of the American Communist Party in the 1930s caused, or even contributed to, the success of Soviet agents in the United States during World War II.
The first chapter, entitled "Venona and the Cold War," which seeks to place the deciphered messages into historical context, is splendid. The most intriguing section of this chapter, in my opinion, revolves around a counterfactual: What would have happened if Soviet agents had not succeeded in penetrating the Manhattan Project, as a result of which the Soviet Union had not developed its atomic bomb until after Stalin's death in 1953. According to Haynes and Klehr: "It is doubtful that Stalin, rarely a risk-taker, would have supplied the military wherewithal and authorized North Korea to invade South Korea in 1950 had the Soviet Union not exploded an atomic bomb in 1949." That is not quite a revelation, but it is a very interesting idea. And Chapter 2, which describes how the Soviet code was broken, is a great detective story, as well as an excellent introduction to the world of counterintelligence. As Haynes and Klehr write, the United States' National Security Agency had the worldwide resources "to attack the Soviet cipher," and its efforts, although laborious, proved to be a brilliant success. According to the authors, in addition to many other benefits: "Venona provided the FBI and the CIA with crucial information about the professional practices and habits of Soviet intelligence. agencies....Young [Soviet] intelligence officers who show up often in Venona continued to serve with the KGB into the 1980s." Haynes and Klehr also write: "Soviet cryptographic officials had great confidence in the unbreakability of their one-time pad and appear to have done little about early reports of attacks upon it." According to the authors, Venona was eventually exposed by Soviet agents, including the notorious H.R. "Kim" Philby, a senior British intelligence officer stationed in Washington, D.C., who had access to Venona information until the summer of 1951 and later defected to the Soviet Union. The first 60 pages or so of this book are positively riveting. (So is the appendix in which Haynes and Klehr provide an annotated list of 349 "U.S. citizens, noncitizen immigrants, and permanent residents of the United States who had a covert relationship with Soviet intelligence that is confirmed in the Venona traffic." Alger Hiss's name appears on this list, and it is now virtually impossible for any reasonable person to deny Hiss's connection with the Soviet Union's intelligence apparatus.) I would enthusiastically recommend this book just for its presentation of the Venona material. It was as interesting as anything I have read about the Cold War in quite a long time. The text which follows the Venona chapters is less compelling. Haynes and Klehr's description of the "American Communist Party underground," various espionage networks, and the Soviet Union's "friends in high places" is interesting but only confirms what has previously been published. I suspect that the authors realized that this ground had been plowed before because, for instance, they only devote about five pages to Hiss, the accusations against whom have been the subject of several books, both pro and con. But the chapters entitled "Military Espionage" and "Industrial and Atomic Espionage" are well worth reading.
In their final chapter, entitled "Soviet Espionage and American History," Haynes and Klehr candidly concede: "While the Venona cables document Soviet penetration of the American government, they are of less assistance in determining how much damage Soviet spies did to American security." My own conclusion is that, while Soviet espionage in the United States may not have been widespread in the middle decades of the century, when Soviet spies were successful, as in their penetration of the Manhattan Project, the damage was enormous. Haynes and Klehr appear to concur: "The major exception to the lack of specific knowledge bears on atomic espionage....Espionage saved the USSR great expense and industrial investment and thereby enabled the Soviets to build a successful atomic bomb years before they otherwise would have." Like most good history, this book is a cautionary tale: One lesson clearly is that the United States cannot be too careful about protecting the security of its nuclear weapons and related technology.
on August 1, 2003
A great man once took up the cause of defending our nation against the most terrible enemy we had ever known. For this, we was hounded and slandered relentlessly by the Left, his associates gay-baited, his very name made a malediction for generations to come. But was he right?
Definitive evidence shows that Joseph McCarthy was right to an extent even he could not have imagined. Venona describes the ultra-secret code-breaking project begun by Carter Clarke of the US Army Military Intelligence division and later run by the National Security Agency. Through incredible persistence and ingenuity, we managed to intercept and decode secret communications between Moscow and its embassies in America. The work that went into this effort is astounding, and even though we managed to decrypt only a tiny fraction of that traffic, the information that we obtained showed that the United States government was infiltrated to the highest levels.
Roosevelt was not even made aware of the Venona project because his personal aide Lauchlin Currie was a Soviet spy. The director of the International Monetary Fund, Harry Dexter White, was a Soviet spy. Alger Hiss, assistant to the Secretary of State and advising Roosevelt at Yalta, was a Soviet spy.
If American liberals didn't think that Communist Party members were potential recruits, the KGB certainly did. Beginning in 1942, the Soviets abused our war-time alliance to stage an all-out espionage assault on our territory. Hundreds, literally hundreds of CPUSA members were active spies. Haynes and Klehr conclude that one-seventh to one-third of OSS employees were Soviet agents. Venona clearly shows that CPUSA operations were not directed by its nominal leader but by Moscow. After the end of World War II, the CPUSA tried to expand its base by allying itself with the Democratic Party but reversed under direction from Moscow.
But KGB operations on American soil were not limited to spying alone. Defectors from the USSR who jumped ship seeking refuge here were kidnapped from American soil and restored to the Soviet Union. The CPUSA also provided invaluable assistance to the assassins sent to kill Trotsky in Mexico.
Disinformation campaigns were mounted to affect public opinion of the USSR. The KGB used journalists to influence editorial policy as well as obtain inside information. Stephen Laird would report in The New Republic the Polish elections as being free and fair, a view not shared by many of his colleagues. Journalist I.F. Stone, hailed by the elite when he spread the lie that the United States started the war in Korea, was on the KGB payroll. In France, the Communist party ran a campaign of defeatism toward the German invasion.
The naivety and apologetics of some of the Soviets' supporters is beyond belief. Open Communist sympathisers and spies were fêted by the social elite. Academicians readily took up the cause of KGB spies, assassins, and traitors. Books written in the 70s about Senator McCarthy still exculpate people whom we know beyond the shadow of a doubt were Soviet spies. While Laurence Duggan is often described as an innocent victim driven to suicide after relentless FBI interrogation, he was in fact Soviet a spy who saw the jig was up. Ironically, Maurice Halperin, a spy who escaped arrest, became disillusioned first by Soviet and then Cuban Communism and eventually settled in Canada.
But also politicians on the Left showed bad judgment. The State Department convinced Roosevelt to return as a goodwill measure to the USSR, uncopied, code books that were found in Finland and that would have had fantastic intelligence value. Truman ignored the Venona evidence and dismantled the OSS after World War II, reversing himself in 1947 fearing Republican charges of laxity. Further interesting is learning how the persistence of Richard Nixon helped expose more spies, and that the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover actually protested the internment of Japanese during World War II.
Although the FBI at times was really on the ball in investigating espionage, they had great difficulty obtaining convictions because of the inability to use intelligence evidence in court, or even indictments because of the State Department's desire not to upset relations with the Soviet Union. Even after having actually witnessed Judith Coplon handing over state secrets to a KGB agent, that evidence was ruled inadmissible. Many spies were never punished at all for their crimes.
The Rosenbergs were not only spies themselves but actively recruited their own network which did horrifying damage to our national security. They handed over designs for advanced jet engines, radar systems, and the highly advanced 'proximity fuse'. When they were arrested, two members of their ring (Alfred Sarant and Joel Barr) immediately escaped to the USSR where they received fantastic benefits not accorded to ordinary Soviet citizens. They founded the Soviet microelectronics industry and created the first Soviet radar-guided anti-aircraft missle system which became highly successful against the United States during the Vietnam War. Of course, the Rosenberg ring allowed the Soviets to develop the atomic bomb and terrorize the free world for the next half a century. In his memoirs, Khrushchev thanked the Rosenbergs for their sacrifice to the Communist cause.
Haynes and Klehr proffer the suggestion that the penalties against convicted spies might have been less severe had the Venona evidence been made public at the time. Given the extent of damage that was done to our national security I find this difficult to believe, but in any case it is ludicrous to expect the United States to surrender its most valuable intelligence source to exonerate traitors.
Oh, and the KGB code name for Julius Rosenberg? 'Liberal'.
Spying is the everyday word for the fancier word espionage. The main thing is that we know every side does it. Everyone is trying to get an edge on knowing what the other is doing. So, why does it matter what the now defunct Soviet Union was doing in its spying efforts during World War II? Simply, it is because it still plays a part in our current political debate. Our super secret efforts in developing the atom bomb were compromised; this is certain. There is still debate how much of our diplomacy was compromised at the end of World War II, particularly at Yalta, by agents who were sympathetic to the USSR while having sworn loyalty to America and its Constitution.
During World War II, the United States was able to intercept encoded Soviet messages. They were supposed to be encoded in one time ciphers that were almost impossible to break in the age before super computers. Fortunately for America, the Soviets were sloppy are reused the cipher pads and better still, we were able to get our hands on a pad that was supposed to have been burned.
Much of the material was not decoded until after the war, but all of it was kept classified under the made up name Venona (as well as others). The program was ended in 1980 and the first public disclosures in 1995 (although there were books and articles on the program before that release of documents).
This book is an excellent summary of the program and what was learned from the program about key events that remained in the public debate for decades. Was Elizabeth Bently telling the truth about her spying? Yes. Was Whitakker Chamber telling the truth about Alger Hiss? Yes. Was Harry Dexter White, an assistant secretary of the Treasury and influential in the New Deal, working with the Soviets? Yes. Was Julius Rosenberg a spy? Yes. Was Ethel? Probably not more than an accessory to her husband's work.
There is much more in this very readable and informative work. Another book to read on this subject is "The Venona Secrets" by Rommerstein and Breindel. "The Haunted Wood" by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev is also quite good.
on November 10, 2006
The subject of this book is a shocking fact of American history that, for reasons inconceivable, has been thoroughly neglected by the historical community for more than a decade. The secrets uncovered through the VENONA Project and presented here by Haynes -- all of them factual -- dramatically re-cast American Cold War history, so much so that any American, regardless of political orientation, should and will be shocked by the story Haynes tells.
"VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America" reveals that, all along, the intelligence community had incontrovertible proof of the Rosenbergs' guilt, and that Alger Hiss was unquestionably a Soviet spy. Countless others -- whose guilt has been debated for decades, or outright dismissed by nearly every serious historian as just one more "McCarthy-ite" lie -- were known from the very beginning to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, though the government withheld the proof to keep VENONA a secret.
This is the story of what was by far the most pervasive and disturbing infiltration of the United States government by hostile foreign elements in history. It is also the story of by far the most important counter-intelligence initiative the United States has ever undertaken. Both of these stories were forgotten and needed to be told. All Americans owe Haynes a debt of gratitude for what he has done here.
The truth of the book's claims have been established by the Moynihan Commission, and can be personally verified by any member of the public per the official declassification of VENONA in 1995.