Guilty as Charged

Friday, April 30, 1999

It is hard to imagine a sadder group of people than the children of Americans who spied for the Soviet Union. I am thinking of the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the son of Alger Hiss, and now Harry Dexter White’s two daughters, who in a recent letter to the New York Times Book Review rebuke a reviewer for referring to their father, a high-ranking Treasury official under Roosevelt and Truman, as a Soviet agent.

What a tragedy the end of the Cold War has been for the kids and grandkids of the spies. How do they talk to their children about Grandpa and Grandma? If there were today a glorious Soviet socialist paradise, treason at least might be rationalized: Father tried to help create a better world. But history has rendered its verdict on Stalin’s American agents: They served a monster, their so-called socialism was a fraud, and the USSR? Gone forever. Until a few years ago, the Rosenberg sons toured the land proclaiming to friendly audiences their parents’ innocence. Then the National Security Agency declassified what have become known as the “Venona” transcripts, secret messages between Soviet KGB officers reporting on their American informants in the 1930s and 1940s, intercepted and decoded by American cryptanalysts.

These decoded messages confirmed what had already been proven in American courtrooms, namely, the treachery of Hiss and the Rosenbergs. But worse was yet to come for the true believers. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Soviet KGB archives suddenly became accessible to sophisticated students of the communist movement in America. These archives confirmed and amplified what Venona had shown. Through his American spies, Stalin in effect had installed a giant bugging device that let him listen in to the White House, the Treasury and State Departments, the Manhattan Project, the office of Vice President Henry Wallace, and the Office of Strategic Services, our wartime intelligence agency. And, yes, Harry Dexter White was one of those spies.

The daughters of White (who died in 1948, just prior to a scheduled appearance before a congressional committee) charge that the New York Times reviewer, Sam Tanenhaus, “vilified” their father as a Soviet agent on the basis of unsupported allegations of a 1945 Russian defector, Igor Gouzenko. Tanenhaus, an editor of the New York Times op-ed page, is the author of a well-received biography of Whittaker Chambers, who with Elizabeth Bentley was the first to identify White as a Soviet spy in the late 1940s.

Despite the protestations of the White sisters, the evidence against their father is not based on Gouzenko’s revelations. In their new book Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, Harvey Klehr and John Haynes argue that of some fifty Americans known to have spied for Stalin (many more have never been identified), Harry Dexter White was probably the most important agent. The Venona intercepts revealed that at the 1945 conference in San Francisco founding the United Nations, White met with a Soviet KGB officer and informed him of the U.S. negotiating position on a number of issues. (White’s KGB code name was at various times “Lawyer,” “Richard,” and “Reed.”) Another KGB message noted that White was thinking of resigning his high Treasury post and entering the private sector because he needed more income to pay one of his daughter’s college tuition. White was regarded as so important to the Kremlin that his handlers proposed to pay the tuition so White could remain at Treasury.

Further evidence of White’s treason, gleaned from Soviet archives, is found in a book by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—the Stalin Era. Weinstein’s Perjury was the definitive account of Alger Hiss’s career as a spy; Vassiliev is a former Soviet journalist and KGB operative. According to the book, White assisted Harold Glasser, a Treasury executive and KGB spy, “in obtaining posts and promotions at Treasury while aware of his Communist ties.” Because of White’s backing, Glasser survived an FBI background check. In sum, there can be no doubt that “Harry Dexter White was a Soviet agent,” as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan pronounced with finality recently on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

It will not be surprising, though, if his daughters keep protesting his innocence. As Saul Bellow once said, “a great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.”