The Spies' Secrets Revealed

When the U.S. established diplomatic relations with the U.S.S.R. in 1933, Soviet intelligence agencies immediately assigned professional spies to the new embassy and consulates. Suddenly, American secrets began flowing to Moscow. The Soviets took advantage of both U.S. ignorance about espionage and, even more, American communists' blind loyalty to Russia's socialist ideals. Some American recruits, like State Department communications chief David A. Salmon, handed over reams of classified information simply for the money. But most who signed on with the KGB or the GRU—Soviet military intelligence—held a principled desire to aid the communist cause abroad as well as at home.

The rough outlines, and some details, of the Soviet's remarkable 1933–45 success have been known for more than a decade, but now a richly detailed new book, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America by historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, offers a remarkable portrait of the KGB's efforts—drawn largely from the KGB's own files. This achievement is possible only because Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB agent, was allowed extensive access to the raw espionage files for two years in the mid-1990s as part of a commercial book project that came to only partial fruition. Vassiliev spent those years copying transcriptions, extracts and summaries of KGB memos and reports into eight handwritten notebooks that he later spirited out of Russia following his own move to Britain.

Among espionage historians and -intelligence agency veterans, Spies is a very big deal; this week the Smithsonian Institution is sponsoring a two-day symposium on the book's revelations and Vassiliev's notebooks. For some "unsolved"-controversies—such the one about State Department executive Alger Hiss, who was convicted of perjury for denying his Soviet spying—the book provides irrefutable confirmation of guilt. On others, such as whether physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the project to design and build the first U.S. atomic bombs, worked with the KGB, Haynes and Klehr come to the opposite conclusion—"the case for Oppenheimer's innocence of the charge of assisting Soviet espionage is overwhelming: the case is closed."

But if Spies is unlikely to please ideological purists of any stripe, its cumulative revelations paint an indelible picture of how more than 500 American citizens assisted Soviet intelligence during the 1930s and 1940s. The book offers extensive new evidence about Julius Rosenberg's wide-ranging KGB espionage efforts and identifies for the first time an important Rosenberg recruit, engineer Russell A. McNutt. While Rosenberg, along with his wife, Ethel, was executed in 1953 for his cooperation with the Soviets, McNutt, who died in 2008, was living in blissful retirement when Haynes and Klehr called him for comment in 2007. Unsurprisingly, McNutt refused their request.

Spies is chockablock with poignant individual tales, none more compelling than that of Laurence Duggan, a preppy Harvard graduate who headed the State Department's Latin American division for most of the 1930s. An ideological communist, Duggan was continually frightened that his spying would lead to personal ruin. In December 1948, FBI agents arrived to interview Duggan about his Soviet ties; shortly thereafter, by complete happenstance, a KGB agent whom Duggan knew phoned and left a message asking to renew his contact. Five days later the 43-year-old Duggan jumped out of his 16th-floor office and died on a mid—Manhattan sidewalk. He left behind a widow and four children. While Spies is a powerful reminder that decisively important history some-times remains hidden for decade upon decade, it also shows us that spy stories often involve not just exciting dramatic yarns, but real human tragedies.