During one of the most high-profile spy cases in U.S. history, onetime State Department official and accused Communist spy Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury based in part on several rolls of film found inside a pumpkin on a Maryland farm. In 1975, when the film was declassified, one roll was revealed to be completely blank; another contained such mundane information as manuals for military parachutes and fire extinguishers. Hiss claimed until his death in 1996 that the evidence known as the Pumpkin Papers vindicated him, but his claims often fell on deaf ears.
Despite decades of FBI scrutiny, frenzied Red scares, blacklists, loyalty boards, and show trials aimed at ferreting out Communist infiltration, many, perhaps most, of those who acted in the service of the Soviet Union never had a Pumpkin Papers moment. But newly released documents from U.S. and Soviet archives show that hundreds of people, from the famous to the obscure, crossed paths with Soviet intelligence during the pre-World War II years. They include the country's most famous physicist, Robert Oppenheimer, novelist Ernest Hemingway, and civil servants like Hiss. There were journalists, too, like Walter Lippmann, I. F. Stone, and Bernard Redmont, a former correspondent for U.S. News who has been denying spying allegations for more than a half century.
In the two decades since the end of the Cold War, various archives in formerly Communist countries, from Georgia to East Germany, have been opened to historians, who have eagerly pored over their files in the hopes of fitting more pieces into the Cold War's most vexing jigsaw puzzles. (It is an unfortunate irony, some scholars note, that some of the best Cold War documents come from abroad rather than from the United States, where they are still classified.)
A new history of Soviet espionage in the United States during those critical pre-World War II years takes full advantage of a brief peek at one of the crown jewels of Cold War history, the brown and green file folders of the KGB's American Department. Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press) was written by a pair of American Cold War scholars, John Haynes and Harvey Klehr, and a former KGB officer and journalist, Alexander Vassiliev.
For a tantalizingly brief two-year period in the early 1990s, Vassiliev was given access to Stalin-era KGB files in order to write about KGB operations. The new book shows how the Soviets went about the business of spying, its failures and successes, and, most interestingly, the names of the Americans from whom the KGB received information.
Since Vassiliev wasn't able to take the originals outside the archive, he filled more than 1,100 notebook pages with the text and marginal notes of thousands of KGB files, often verbatim. Years later, he smuggled the notes out of Russia. Last month, Vassiliev donated the original notebooks to the Library of Congress. The project is not without controversy, partly because researchers have had access only to the notes which Vassiliev, a former Russian spy, took but also because the copies are often the only piece of evidence against those fingered as spies, most of whom are long dead.
But the Vassiliev notebooks are just one piece of the spying puzzle. In 1996, the National Security Agency released voluminous records of the top-secret Venona Project, including many partially decoded Soviet cables detailing spying. Because the cables used code names to shield the identities of KGB sources, they were of limited use to U.S. intelligence. What's significant about the newly released Vassiliev documents is that they contain both the code names from the Venona cables and the actual identities.
A final confirmation? The most famous person who crops up in the new book and accompanying documents is Hiss, who had been convicted of perjury because of the Pumpkin Papers but was never convicted of more serious crimes.
The material in the Vassiliev notebooks corroborates the suspicion that Hiss was a longtime agent of Soviet military intelligence. That echoes the findings of Venona Project analysts, who concluded years ago that the code name "Ales" in the intercepted Soviet cables was "probably Alger Hiss."
The KGB files also corroborate that Julius Rosenberg, who was executed for espionage in 1953 along with his wife, Ethel, was indeed a Soviet agent.
Other Americans are vindicated by Vassiliev's KGB notes. For instance, they say that Robert Oppenheimer continuously refused to help the KGB, much to Moscow's frustration. After a public investigation into his loyalty, Oppenheimer lost his U.S. security clearance. Like many other accused "Red sympathizers," he spent the rest of his life defending his reputation. The Vassiliev documents concur with numerous other sources that show it was other scientists and technicians on the atomic bomb program who helped the Soviets develop a nuclear weapon.