Decoding Soviet
Espionage in

John Earl Haynes,
Harvey Klehr

The United States began collecting diplomatic messages of other countries shortly before WWII. In 1943, came the first attempts to decode those to and from our ostensible ally, Russia. Unlike German and Japanese messages, the Russian code was almost unbreakable --- being encoded as it was a "two-part" ciphering system with a "one-time pad." (The heavy coding was indicative of a country whose main operating system was terror, fear and paranoia.)

It wasn't until after the war that enough of the messages had been read enabling us to feed our own paranoia. They revealed that the Soviets had and were continuing to draft and train spies in America, were operating an espionage system that had penetrated into the upper levels of the White House, and, most ominously, our experimental military and atomic bomb facilities.

According to Haynes and Klehr, insiders such as Whittaker Chambers passed along proof of the workings of the Comintern to American intelligence services, but the information was generally ignored. After all, Russia and the United States were allies in the war against the Germans. In the post WWII tensions, enough of the messages released to top officials by Venona convinced the powers that be that the agents of the Soviets represented a genuine threat to our national security.

The fact that there was intensive Soviet spying in the United States throughout the 30s and 40s is heady stuff. For those of us who lived in the early days of the Cold War, it brings back sharp and troublesome memories --- names of people who, many of us were convinced, were being pilloried by what we thought of as a witch-hunt: most especially, Julian and Ethel Rosenberg and Alger Hiss. How depressing to learn now that their innocence was most probably a delusion, that their information-seeking on behalf of the Russians is not only probable but proven, and that the hysteria of those years had no little basis in fact.

There were, apparently, hundreds of spies operating in the United States. They were alarmingly successful in transmitting diplomatic, military and atomic secrets to Moscow. The confirmation of this comes from several sources: not only from the documents of the Venona project itself, but KGB records now being released by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. To lay to rest any lingering doubts that we old conspiracy-theory haters may have, Haynes and Klehr list three key proofs:

  • Origins of the historical documents are incontrovertible. "Chief cryptanalysts, linguists, and investigators in the project are known," they report. Some have made themselves available to historians. "Venona could only be a forgery if it had been supported by a massive conspiracy involving hundreds of people," they explain.
  • There are simply too many sources that prove the Venona information is the real McCoy, so to speak. These include "voluntary statements from defectors from Soviet intelligence, reluctant testimony from persons under legal compulsion, and candid discourse gathered by listening devices, as well as information available in published works." In addition, there is the presence, now, of "a range of public and private archives."
  • Soviet-era intelligence archives are being opened, and the 1999 book, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America --- The Stalin Era confirms not only the information extracted by Venona, but identifies sixty-seven people who were known to be involved in espionage.

We who lived through those public thrashings of so many years ago carry about many painful memories, keyed by words like HUAC, McCarthyism, "5th Amendment Communists," "Internal Security," "traitors in our midst" --- as well as names Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Elizabeth Bentley, Whittaker Chambers. If Haynes and Klehr are to be believed, it is possible that the secrets the Russians received from their intelligence sources had a profound effect on the character of the Cold War, and that all those ghastly people like Joe McCarthy, John Rankin, Martin Dies, Westbrook Pegler, and J. Edgar Hoover were basing their brutish activities on some form of reality. The pain is that it may be true --- the agony is that the methodology that McCarthy, Hoover et al used was made all that much more urgent by a true threat, one that the rest of us could scarcely believe.

§     §     §

Venona with all its plodding, contains some real surprises. A KGB code book discovered in Finland was handed over to our espionage service (the OSS) in 1944; at the behest of the State Department and through the offices of FDR, this was returned to the KGB, no copies being kept. This probably set the stage for an extraordinary act of arrogance by the United States military: that the very existence of the Venona Project was hidden from President Truman (the Commander-in-Chief of the military) by decision of the Army Chief of Staff.

There is too the revelation that Harry Dexter White, Assistant Director of the Treasury Department, was personally able to keep a delivery of badly needed gold from the Chinese Nationalists to support their toppling finances, and that this reneging probably did much to defeat the Nationalists in their war with the Communists in 1948. In addition, we are told that the Russians were able to retain half of Poland (the result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939) because a certain Lauchlin Currie, Administrative Assistant to FDR, revealed to the KGB that the president would not oppose it, no matter what he said in public. (Rep. John Rankin of Mississippi, a bibulous segregationist, actively protected Currie when he was fingered before the HUAC because he, Rankin, was convinced that "the New Deal, liberalism, racial equality, and communism [was] a Jewish conspiracy," and knew well Russia's grim record with regard to its Jewish nationals.)

The book Venona is fat, probably too much so, and contains a lengthy appendix of those who "had covert relationships with Soviet Intelligence Agencies." Names are named, as that awful Joe McCarthy used to say (there are 349 of them). Some that are listed seem a bit on the edge. To claim that I. F. Stone was guilty of "flirting with the KGB" and could be considered as a "fellow traveller" (oh that phrase!) seems rather irresponsible. Any journalist worth his salt will communicate with the devil himself if he thinks that there is information that he can use for the benefit of his readers. I. F. Stone was no fool. He talked with anyone who came his way, KGB operative or not. I met with him once merely by calling the number of his "Weekly" and asking for an appointment. He was a good man, and would loath the cant that would pin one to the wall for merely talking to the enemy.

--- Ignacio Schwartz

The Race to
The White Continent

Voyages to
The Antarctic

Alan Gurney
The ships had grotesque names --- Infernal, Vesuvius, Fury, Beelzebub, Terror, and Erebus --- the last being the dark and gloomy passage to hell. It was during the 1830s that France, England, and America sent expeditions to find the Antarctic, and, it was hoped, to land, to see what it had to offer. One American, Cleves Symmes, said that the earth was hollow, "habitable within, containing a number of solid concentrick spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles 12 or 16 degrees." He went on, "I engage we find warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals if not men..." He travelled widely, and his flamboyant speeches helped to influence the U. S. Congress into appropriate monies for investigation of the southernmost regions.

What the various explorers found was something else again. The sailing boats were not prepared for the fog, the hurricane force winds, the towering icebergs, being caught up in what one terrified explorer wrote was like a

    "Steam Engine in a large factory that sets all the machinery in motion," the moving parts in this case being icebergs, growlers, and floes. "An ocean or rolling fragments of ice, hard as floating rocks of granite." At one point everyone thought the battering so ferocious that the ships would be holed and sent to the bottom.

Conditions aboard boat could be so onerous that on one journey, the explorers were "driven from their cabins by voracious cockroaches that ate leather and skin from feet and even drank the inkwells dry." Food? Joseph Banks wrote of the bread served aboard boat,

    Our bread indeed is but indifferent, occasioned by the quantity of Vermin that are in it. I have seen hundreds nay thousands shaken out of a single biskit. We in the Cabin have however an easy remedy for this by bakking it in an oven, not too hot, which makes them all walk off, but this cannot be allowed to the private people who must find the taste of these animals very disagreeable, as they every one taste as strong as mustard or rather spirits of hartshorn. They are 5 kinds, 3 Tebebrios, 1 Ptinnus and the Phalangium cancroides; this last is however scarce in the common bread but was vastly plentiful in white Deal biskit as long as we had any left.

Why did people put up with such horrors to go to the one place in the world which offered nothing but ice, cold, fog, frostbite, terror and penguins? Wealth --- of course: it was thought that new whaling grounds could be found (it was the oil of whales that kept the mid-19th Century world greased and lighted). Adventure? That too. Most of all, it was the spirit of competition between nations to find new lands to exploit.

It turned out to be a bad business for most who made the journey, but Gurney makes it a treat for the reader next to his warm fire. He is an amiable writer, and this volume is jam-packed with facts about sailing ships, what they carried, how they maneuvered, and the personalities of those who invested in them and captained them. We especially recommend his casual descriptions of the sea-going world; of, say, the 19th Century New York Harbor, with its

    forest of masts, of bowsprit and jibbooms stretching over jostling crowds of spitting, bristle-chinned roustabouts and longshoremen, cursing draymen, drunken sailors, stall owners pushing wheelbarrows loaded with bags of oysters and clams, luggage-laden porters shouting a way for elegantly dressed gentlemen fastidiously flicking canes at the more noisome objects in their paths, loungers on bollards, clerks and bookkeepers gulping gin and oysters, pickpockets and thieves.

If you travelled to England on one of the regular packetboats, it would take sixteen to eighteen days, and if you went first class,

    you had fresh eggs from the hen coops, fresh milk from the cow stabled over the main hatch, fresh meat from the pigs and sheep penned on deck under the longboat. Travel steerage, and you brought aboard your own bedding, food, utensils.

Those who suffered the most on the exploratory trips were, of course, the common sailor who lived in dark, dank, smelly, rat-infested quarters, and who, even when returned to shore, would end up in a port where he could "drown his sorrows, have his picket picked, or collect a dose of the clap or the pox with equal facility."

--- Fred Longwether

Joan Didion
(Modern Library)
Many years ago, Joan Didion was elected as the interpreter for those of us who couldn't figure California. We thought we needed a critic/reporter who could tell us what was going on in the Haight, explain Charles Manson and Howard Hughes, unravel murder mysteries in unlikely places like San Bernardino and Lancaster, reveal the truth about that extension of California, Las Vegas.

Didion was the one: she served as translator, explainer; it was she who dug into the entrails to tell us what was really going on. When she was at her best, she wrote like a dream; even when she was at her worst (snippish, snarly and cruel) there was always a line or two to capture and bemuse one.

With this volume, Modern Library is reissuing the first of her essays, the ones that gained her fame after her novel, Run River. For the best of the bunch, one could ask for no more than the tribute to John Wayne. We have the fantasy tough guy pitted against a not-so-tough guy dying of cancer. Didion tells of her affection for him born of Saturday afternoon movies when he loomed tall in the saddle, where she first saw John Wayne,

    Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, "at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow."

Those of us who grew up in the age Saturday afternoon movies would ultimately want to go beyond Hedda Hopper, even beyond the stuffiness of New Yorker profiles --- and we found in the likes of Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion writers who could fool with the language ("Saw the walk, heard the voice") and interject bits of themselves in the tales and somehow put us in the same room with John Wayne and the beginning ... and at the ending.

In this case, it means being present at the shooting of his last film, number 165, in Mexico City, The Sons of Katie Elder. And although we scorned the formulas that made him famous and rich, we can be still touched by the omega: "It did not seem possible that such a man could fall ill, could carry within him that most inexplicable and ungovernable of diseases."

This twelve page paean to that romantic idol is a marvel, the contrast of the cool words being shot for the screen and the not-so-cool portrait of a man on the set, dying, surrounded by Las Vegas types and their commonplaces,

    They communicated by sharing old jokes; they sealed their camaraderie by making gentle, old-fashioned fun of wives, those civilizers, those tamers. "So Seņora Wayne takes it into her head to stay up and have one brandy. So for the rest of the night it's 'Yes, Pilar, you're right, dear. I'm a bully, Pilar, you're right, I'm impossible.'"

    "You hear that? Duke says Pilar threw a table at him."

Not a word about what is killing him. And why should there be? He was, after all, the one who said "A man's gotta do what he's got to do;" one who told interviewers, "How many times do I gotta tell you, I don't act at all, I re-act." When he announces his sickness, he says, at one point, "I licked the big C." Although he didn't, we wanted to believe that somehow, pistols in hand, he had flung open the hospital doors and came out shooting down all the bad guys, within and without.

§     §     §

Her John Wayne piece is Didion at her best. She is on the set with those natural cynics --- actors --- and she doesn't have to act, just re-act. There are further writings about strange California murders, and Howard Hughes, and travelling to Guymas. But she's not so good with the Haight-Ashbury in 1967, and she's at her worst with Joan Baez.

Why? It's probably that despite the joy that came out of that Summer of Love --- laughing and singing and dancing naked and "be-ins" and all those foolish noisy trips we took --- if you looked, and looked hard enough, you'd find dingbats, people shooting smack, kids feeding acid to their kids, people saying genuinely stupid things like, "You can get a high on a mantra...but I'm holy on acid."

These were juveniles, we were juveniles --- we did and said juvenile things. If you were Didion, and wanted to look hard enough, you went beyond the facile reporting of Time magazine ("hippies scorn money --- they call it bread...") to find the uglies which could be found all over the place if you wanted them to be.

This take on Haight-Ashbury is the title story of the volume, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Even from her vantage point --- up there in the air somewhere --- it does seem a bit of overkill to equate kids doing and saying stupid things to that famous line out of Yeats' "The Second Coming,"

    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats wrote out of the despair of so many of Europe going mad, going straight towards the apocalypse of World War II. This is a far cry from kids doing PCP or dropping acid, or worse, offering it to Didion: "Norris says it would be a lot easier if I'd take some acid." How does she respond? "I say I'm unstable." Some of us might venture the opinion that it would have been a lot easier on all of us if she had done what Norris told her to do.

If she did so, she might have lost some of the well-contained anger that powers her writing, leads her to describe with gratuitous and probably unnecessary irony Joan Baez and her Institute for the Study of Non-Violence.

If you and I had to put up with Didion sitting in our living-room, recording our conversations for a few days, we'd probably say something as silly as, "Frankly, I'm down on Communism," or "Burning draft cards doesn't make sense, and burning themselves makes even less" --- which gives Didion the chance to snarl,

    To encourage Joan Baez to be "political" is really only to encourage Joan Baez to continue "feeling" things, for her politics are still, as she herself said, "all vague."

She quotes from one of the singer's concert programs, "My life is a crystal teardrop. There are snowflakes falling in the teardrop and little figures trudging around in slow motion. If I were to look into the teardrop for the next million years, I might never find out who the people are, and what they are doing." Silly? Perhaps. Sentimental? No doubt. But it gives Miss Priss a chance to fire off one of her most obnoxious put-downs,

    Although Miss Baez does not actually talk this way when she is kept from the typewriter, she does try, perhaps unconsciously, to hang on to the innocence and turbulence and capacity for wonder, however ersatz or shallow, of her own or of anyone's adolescence.

"When she is kept from the typewriter..." "...however ersatz or shallow..." At these moments, we want to suggest that Ms. Didion just cool it.

We have our own fond memories of Joan Baez. In our contacts --- both in public and in private --- we found a lady of direct honesty: one who sincerely loathed violence, one who seemed unmoved by all the offers that could have turned her into just another commercial. We remember especially being truly touched by her personal war against war. It makes us wonder why Didion wants so badly to make her appear as a simple-minded dolt.

The answer is, we suspect, the same reason that she tells Norton, "I'm unstable." Or, to pull a title from one of the less interesting essays, I just can't get that monster out of my mind. The Didion monster. The one that has forced her, over the years, to turn a bit mean-spirited around the edges. The same one that can make her write like an angel (sometimes) but the one that turns fear into anger, makes her feel like she is going around the bend. And it's not that bend in the river "where the cottonwoods grow."

--- Lolita Lark

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