July 23, 2003

Marking My Beliefs to Market: Soviet Espionage in America: Harry Dexter White

Somebody or other wrote:

Yet some... do not find it easy, even twenty-five years after the Levine memoir appeared, to credit everything he wrote. Levine reminds us, for example, that in 1939 [Whittaker] Chambers also informed [Adolf] Berle that Assistant Secretary (later Under Secretary) Harry Dexter White of the Treasury was collaborating with the Soviet underground. Three years ago the Venona documents appeared confirming White's discussions with his Soviet controller in parked cars and on park benches. Even so, the former deputy > assistant secretary of the Treasury [that's me] has intimated... that he finds the proof insufficient. It would appear that the sequelae of the last generation's culture wars still make it difficult to examine Soviet espionage in America purely as a historical problem.

I would reply as follows: I'm trying to examine Soviet espionage in America purely as a historical problem. It's hard.

Before VENONA, I used to think that the case against Harry Dexter White deserved the Scottish verdict: Not proven. I used to think that in large part because of Whittaker Chambers. Coming from a Democratic political family (some of whose members used to be strong supporters of Helen G. Douglass, smeared as an agent of the Kremlin by Nixon) the fact that Chambers could write of Nixon in terms like: "My children have caught him lovingly in a nickname. To them, he is always 'Nixie,' the kind and the good, about whom they will tolerate no nonsense..." is sufficient to conclude that Chambers was either mendacious or mad. Kind? Good? Nixon? Chambers is either a liar, or a most unreliable witness.

And then there is that interesting passage early in Witness (pp. 33-34) in which Chambers says that espionage is not really the issue:

The first impact of this blueprint of Communist penetration is likely to be shock at the espionage revealed. That is not the important point.... The deeper meaning of the Soviet underground apparatus... was the fact that they were a true Fifth Column, the living evidence that henceforth in the 20th century, all wars are revolutionary wars, and are fought not only between nations, but within them.

The men and women Communists and fellow travelers who staffed this Fifth Column were dedicated revolutionists whose primary allegiance was... to a revolutionary faith and a vision of man and his material destiny....

Neither power nor money moved them. Nor was adventure a factor.... Faith moved them, as, in the final conflict, only equal faith can overcome them.

The terrible meaning of the Washington apparatus is that, even in the United States, that stage of the revolution of our times has been reached, "that decisive hour".... very late in the night of history, and in the life of nations.... Security shatters... because the men naturally trusted with the keys and combinations are themselves the conspirators.

The picture is of a Harry Dexter White who, when The Day comes, will lead the submachine gun-armed Red Guards through the tunnel from the Treasury to the White House--someone whose every move and every policy position is calculated to bring closer the final economic crisis of capitalism, the greatest depression, and the overthrow of the constitution of the United States by force and violence. That's not Harry Dexter White: if there is to be a pantheon of those whose actions created the institutions that saved capitalism and set the stage for the world economy's post-WWII thirty glorious years, White certainly belongs in it.

So before VENONA, I thought it was more likely than not that Chambers was smearing White because White was a left-leaning guy who liked the Russians, and thus had no business working for the U.S. government in the Age of the Apocalypse.

After VENONA, I clearly have to go through an agonizing reappraisal. The conversations in which the NKVD agents ask White to defect, and he pleads to be allowed to remain in place because his exposure would damage all adherents of the New Deal, strike with overwhelming force. My personal guesses now are that there is a 70% chance that White knew he was a useful espionage asset, that there was a 20% chance that White thought he was just passing useful information on to an ally (and never mind formal classification requirements) just as Averill Harriman passed on useful information to Britain all the time, and a 10% chance that something weirder is going on.

Posted by DeLong at July 23, 2003 06:16 PM | TrackBack

Comments

I don’t understand where any reasonable doubt about Alger Hiss comes from. For one thing, a jury convicted Hiss of perjury concerning his relationship (or lack of) with Chambers. If Hiss is a liar, then Chambers must be telling the truth, as they directly contradict each over of material facts concerning Hiss’ espionage activities. You don’t even need Venona. If you read “Witness” or Tanenhaus’ biography of Chambers, you will understand why Chambers fingered Hiss. The chances are within epsilon of 100% that Hiss knew he was a valuable intelligence asset for Stalin, do you think Hiss was simply naive? No, Hiss was a committed ideological communist. I might add that you don’t get to declassify documents and pass them on to anybody, friend or foe. You can go to jail for doing that as Jonathan Pollack found out when he passed secrets to our ally Israel.

Posted by: A. Zarkov on July 23, 2003 08:20 PM

I think you are probably right. But there is the "Nixon Problem." Suppose H.R. Haldeman had carried out Nixon's orders in 1970, and had had people burglarize and then firebomb the Brookings Institution, leaving behind evidence that it had been done by Weatherman left-wingers with some ties to the Democratic Party.

Would you now be saying that you don't understand where any reasonable doubt about the Weathermen's responsibility for the terror-bombing comes from? You might well be.

That's a problem...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on July 23, 2003 08:29 PM

Had Haldeman carried out such an order, Hiss would still be guilty. Nixon merely exploited Hiss’ crimes; he did not cause them. For Hiss to be innocent, we need to posit an all-encompassing conspiracy, too encompassing to be credible. Moreover, had Nixon perpetrated such a monstrous conspiracy, he would likely have been caught. Faking evidence is extraordinary difficult as we know from Locard’s Principle of Exchange: “… anyone who enters the scene both takes something of the scene with them and leaves something of themselves behind.” I think the myth of Hiss’ innocence persists because he never confessed.

Posted by: A. Zarkov on July 23, 2003 11:04 PM

Probably...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on July 23, 2003 11:31 PM

The problem with using something like the Venona intercepts as evidence is that it is all hearsay. I don't meant to be unduly legalistic when I say this, but the reason we distrust hearsay as evidence is that second-hand accounts are often untrustworthy. Do you think Soviet agents always reported the objective truth to their government? Isn't it possible that their reports were "spun" to make the agents look more successful and effective?

Posted by: rea on July 24, 2003 05:14 AM

>> Do you think Soviet agents always reported the objective truth to their government? Isn't it possible that their reports were "spun" to make the agents look more successful and effective?<<

Yes...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on July 24, 2003 07:13 AM

ALL the evidence supports Chambers story. Virtually none supports Hiss. Chambers knew what happened to Hiss's old car. Chambers knew about the Prothonotary Warbler. Chambers knew hundreds of details about the Hisses. He had physical evidence. Other former Communists also named Hiss.

The evidence isn't as mountainous against White, but it's still there. And White definitely did influence Morgenthau's policy (White wrote his memoranda to FDE) toward Japan. Policy that couldn't have been better designed than to promote war with Japan, and thus relieve Russia from having to fight the Axis on two fronts.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on July 24, 2003 08:04 AM

Can anyone link to the damning evidence on White from Venona? I've browsed through the NSA archives, and while it certainly seems that White spoke to a KBG informant on occasion, there isn't much I've found to suggest he was passing on sensitive information.

I'm skeptical of claims he was intentionally in the bag simply because he fought so hard against Unitas and the Keynes Plan.

Posted by: trevelyan on July 24, 2003 09:32 AM

trevelyan, Venona is indeed tedious going, and the bulk are still not decoded. Here's the cable where the KGB offers to pay White's ("Richard") daughter's tuition:

http://www.odci.gov/csi/books/venona/b71.gif

But, you don't need Venona for damning evidence against White. Chambers produced 4 pages of handwritten notes (identified as HDW's handwriting) given to him in 1938, from the Pumpkin Papers stash.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on July 24, 2003 02:13 PM

Aside from the physical evidence, Hiss's own story does not add up. Hiss admitted knowing Chambers, but said he was merely a part-time lodger and they never even talked politics. Now we know that Chambers was an underground Communist agent, trying to acquire data and recruit other agents from within the government. Hiss is a government official with (at the least) leftish friends. Why is Chambers lodging with Hiss? Did Chambers deliberately choose to seek lodgings with a leftish State Department official in order to scrupulously AVOID the subject of politics?

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on July 24, 2003 08:17 PM

The interesting question for me is whether White's actions as a policymaker were in any way controlled by Soviet Russia. This seems very unlikely. Wouldn't the Venona decodes show some evidence of briefings? Shouldn't there be positions White took in the Bretton Woods negotiations that can't be explained as those of an American patriot? White may have been a traitor out of conviction but I can't believe he was really an agent under discipline.

More generally, Stalin's purges of the late 1930s killed off the intelligent, cosmopolitan agents, often Central European Jews, the "great illegals", who might have understood what Keynes and White were arguing about. (See Andrews and Gordiev, History of the KGB). The KGB of the 1940s was staffed by provincial Russian careerists who probably thought that US and British government policy was of no importance as it was dictated by shadowy cabals of financiers. They live in a simple black-and-white world of conspiracies and would not have known how to brief White had they wanted to or he been willing.

It's a wonderful irony that in the long run White - who wanted Soviet Russia to prosper - and Keynes - for whom the long run didn't matter - built the institutions that played an essential part in destroying Soviet Communism in fifty years. The hall of the IMF should have a suitable plaque of thanks to the KGB.

Posted by: James Wimberley on July 29, 2003 03:47 AM

Poor Mr. Delong seems to be in such a quandry: having for so long hinged it all on those Nixon kooks on the loopy Right (always with some degree of truth attached), he now must wrestle with the real truth that the "Big Fat Idiot" Chambers might have been more than just on the right side of history all along, but that he was on the right side of the truth as well.

Dread!

But alas, even Truman knew what was goin' down, folks. And this ain't some member on the "vast right-wing conspiracy" makin' this charge, but a former member of the mainstream media, in a book endorsed by none other than lefty Strobe Talbott.

In case you haven't heard, let Bob Novak clue you all in:

http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/002/830wsuop.asp

Enjoy the pain, Mr. Bradford, you all have been covering this thing up way too long as it is. Get over it.

Marc S. Lamb

Posted by: Marc S. Lamb on July 31, 2003 03:37 PM

Poor Mr. Delong seems to be in such a quandry: having for so long hinged it all on those Nixon kooks on the loopy Right (always with some degree of truth attached), he now must wrestle with the real truth that the "Big Fat Idiot" Chambers might have been more than just on the right side of history all along, but that he was on the right side of the truth as well.

Dread!

But alas, even Truman knew what was goin' down, folks. And this ain't some member on the "vast right-wing conspiracy" makin' this charge, but a former member of the mainstream media, in a book endorsed by none other than lefty Strobe Talbott.

In case you haven't heard, let Bob Novak clue you all in:

http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/002/830wsuop.asp

Enjoy the pain, Mr. Bradford, you all have been covering this thing up way too long as it is. Get over it.

Marc S. Lamb

Posted by: Marc S. Lamb on July 31, 2003 03:39 PM
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