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Historians' Muted Response to the Vassiliev Papers Is Surprising

The recent public release, in defiance of the Russian government, of 1,115 pages of notes from the KGB archives has received a surprisingly muted response from historians. The notes, taken by Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB officer, over a two year period, are a treasure trove that could and should be revitalizing the study of early Cold War espionage. The Vassiliev notebooks constitute the most wide-ranging, detailed source of information about the KGB's activities in America immediately before, during and for the decade after World War II, and will remain so unless and until Russia decides to open its intelligence archives. In contrast to most of the voluminous notes Vasili Mitrokhin, a KGB archivist, smuggled out of Russia, the Vassiliev notebooks along with English translations have been released and are freely available on the Internet.1

Rather than explore the extraordinary new insights into Soviet espionage Vassiliev's notebooks provide, most commentary about the notebooks, as well as reviews of a book based on them, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press, 2009), has followed the familiar contours of stale, decades-old debates over McCarthyism. The dust stirred by seemingly interminable scuffles between anti-Communists and anti-anti-Communists continues to obscure the study of Soviet espionage in America two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

The public discussion of the Vassiliev notebooks has largely centered on three themes. Two involve the guilt or innocence of cultural icons, Alger Hiss and I.F. Stone. The third argument is broader in scope. It is the suggestion that the now irrefutable evidence that hundreds of American Communists spied for the USSR is less important or interesting than the abuses committed by anti-Communists in the 1950s, and that documenting real espionage somehow validates Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts.

The attention to the Vassiliev notebooks' new information about Hiss is tedious, but inevitable. This is a controversy that should have died 30 years ago and hasn't only because of the efforts of a small, vocal group that is absolutely convinced that Hiss was an innocent victim. No amount of documentation, including the fact that documents Vassiliev copied unambiguously identify him as a Soviet agent, can persuade these true believers otherwise.

The furor over Stone was equally predictable, given his status as a hero to generations of progressives and the attacks that McCarthy and company leveled against him in the 1950s. There is still a great deal of uncertainty about Stone's relationship with the KGB in the decades after World War II, but the Vassiliev notebooks make it clear that he was a witting Soviet agent from 1936 - 1938. This has provoked some of the legions of the deceased muckraking journalist's admirers to question the authenticity of the notebooks and to cast aspersions on the integrity of the authors of Spies, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Vassiliev.

Stone's collaboration with the KGB could be excused as an over zealous manifestation of anti-Fascism, and his lifelong cover up of his collaboration with the intelligence service of a totalitarian dictatorship as embarrassment over a youthful indiscretion. But these are precisely the kinds of rationalizations and excuses that Stone found intolerable in the public figures he regularly skewered. The fact that Stone, a man who built his reputation by tenaciously exposing hypocrisy and relentlessly pointing out politicians' hidden agendas, had early in his career put the interests of the Soviet Union ahead of those of his readers is difficult for many, especially those whom he inspired to become journalists, to accept. It seems that for Stone's defenders, admitting that their hero was a Soviet agent for at least two years in the late 1930s would validate the accusations McCarthy leveled at him in the 1950s.

Beyond debates about Hiss and Stone, several reviews of Spies have asserted that the Vassiliev notebooks, and the activities they document, are of little consequence because they merely rehash previously known information about espionage cases that were of no historical significance. The contention is that while historians who ridiculed the notion that the U.S. government was riddled with Soviet spies during and immediately after World War II were wrong, it doesn't matter because most of the purloined information American Communists sent to Moscow was inconsequential. Writing in the London TimesLiterary Supplement, Amy Knight asserted that even if American agents obtained and sent valuable secrets to Moscow in the 1930s and 1940s, Stalin's regime was incapable of using intelligence to make rational decisions.2 This argument was also on display at a conference organized by the Cold War International History Project to discuss the Vassiliev notebooks.3

If the notebooks were, as readers of most of the reviews of Spies would think, primarily about Hiss and Stone, critics would be correct to dismiss them as being of little importance. Although Stone's participation in Soviet espionage puts his career in a new light, it doesn't even merit a footnote in the context of the events that were reshaping the globe in the mid 1930s. Hiss was tried and convicted long ago, first by a jury that found him guilty of perjury and later by historians who unearthed clear evidence of his espionage. The Vassiliev notebooks do little to answer the sole remaining important question about Hiss, that is, whether and how the information he provided the Soviet Union harmed American national security.  

The Vassiliev notebooks, and Spies, however, have an enormous amount of valuable material that has nothing to do with Hiss or Stone. The documents show that there were many more spies in the United States than had been previously known, and more important, that some of them inflicted more damage to national security than has been realized. Vassiliev's notes are also valuable because they exonerate many individuals who have been accused of treason, most notably Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific leader of the Manhattan Project.

While the ability of the Soviet Union to accurately interpret and effectively exploit political intelligence is open to debate, the Red Army and Soviet military industry, as well as their allies and clients in totalitarian regimes around the world, undeniably benefited from espionage conducted in the United States during the 1940s and early 1950s. The most dramatic, but by no means the only, example is the acceleration of the Soviet atomic weapons program.

Military and technical espionage revealed for the first time in the Vassiliev notebooks killed American soldiers on the battlefields and in the skies above Korea.

For example, Vassiliev's notes show that William Weisband, an American Communist who worked as a translator for U.S. Army code breakers, gave the KGB information that almost certainly influenced the course of history -- and resulted in the deaths of thousands of American soldiers. This conclusion is based on notes Vassiliev took on page 75 of his "Black notebook," including the following verbatim excerpt (translated into English) from a KGB file about Weisband, who was assigned the cover name Zhora:

In a single year, we received from “Zhora” a large quantity of highly valuable doc. Materials on the efforts of Americans to decipher Soviet ciphers and on the interception and analysis of the open radio correspondence of Sov. agencies. From materials received from “Zhora,” we learned that as a result of this work, Amer. intelligence was able to obtain important information about the disposition of Soviet armed forces, the production capacity of various branches of industry, and the work being done in the USSR in the field of atomic energy.4

As John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Vassiliev point out in Spies, this is evidence that Weisband alerted the USSR to one of the most important intelligence triumphs of the early Cold War. In 1946, U.S. Army code breakers working for the National Security Agency (NSA) broke the radio codes used by the Soviet armed forces. "Two years later the NSA was reading Soviet military logistics traffic almost as soon as the messages were sent," Spies reports. "By tracking the movement of Soviet military equipment and supplies, American military commanders and the president could confidently judge Soviet military capabilities, separate Stalin's diplomatic bluffs from serious threats, and spot preparations for invasions or attacks that needed serious diplomatic or military attention."

It is often impossible to draw a straight line from an intelligence leak to a specific action taken by an adversary. Remarkably, because of the Vassiliev notebooks, it is not necessary to speculate about how the USSR used Weisband's intelligence about NSA code breaking.

On the basis of materials received from “Zhora”, our state security agencies implemented a set of defensive measures, which resulted in a significant decrease in the effectiveness of the efforts of the Amer. decryption service. As a result, at pres. the volume of the American decryption and analysis service’s work has decreased significantly.5

This text explains why by the end of 1948 the Red Army had changed its codes, shutting down a vital window into Soviet military activity. If it had remained open, starting in the spring of 1950 the U.S. would have noticed massive shipments of military supplies to North Korea, providing advance notice of plans to invade South Korea. In the best case, instead of sending ambiguous diplomatic signals that emboldened Stalin to allow the North Koreans to launch the war, knowledge of the imminent invasion would have prompted the U.S. government to take steps to persuade the Soviet leader that the adventure was too risky. At a minimum, access to signals intelligence would have prevented the complete surprise that caused devastating losses early in the conflict, and would have given U.S. forces a continuing tactical advantage.

The Vassiliev notebooks also shed light on the impact the Rosenberg ring had on the Korean war. Combined with declassified FBI files and other sources, the Vassiliev notebooks make it possible to construct a detailed timeline of Julius Rosenberg's espionage ring that reveals that it provided the USSR with detailed information about hundreds of weapons systems, including many that were developed too late for use in World War II that were used in anger for the first time in Korea.6 These weapons, such as land- and air-based radar, the proximity fuse, analog computers for aiming antiaircraft artillery, and jet airplanes, were the core military technologies of the early Cold War.

The Rosenberg espionage ring provided information that could have been used against American troops in Korea. The notebooks reveal that when Soviet intelligence officers contacted Rosenberg in July 1948 after a two-year hiatus, they were surprised to learn that he had kept his network intact and had continued to collect technical intelligence.7

The eleven agents in Rosenberg's network in the summer of 1948 included agents who had access to specifications about American aircraft and radar that were later deployed in Korea -- specifications that would have been invaluable to Soviet military planners and weapons designers. The fact that Soviet engineers had some success in Korea jamming American radar, a practice that endangered the lives of American pilots and ground troops, can almost certainly be attributed to information provided by members of the Rosenberg ring.

Certainly, it would be better and easier to construct accurate historical accounts of Cold War espionage in America if Russia decided to open parts of the KGB archives to researchers. Anyone who expects that to happen anytime soon should not bother consulting the Vassiliev notebooks. For the rest of us, they are an invaluable resource.


1 Mitrokhin's notes have served as the basis for two books about Soviet espionage, The Sword And The Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB and The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World: Newly Revealed Secrets from the Mitrokhin Archive, both by Christopher Andrew. It is impossible to discern which information in the books is taken from the Mitrokhin material and which is based on Andrew's research. Some of Mitrokhin's notes and all of the the Vassiliev notebooks are available at www.cwihp.org.

2Leonard, by Amy Knight, Times Literary Supplement, June 26, 2009, pages 8-9

3 A video of the second day of the conference on Alexander Vassiliev's Notebooks and the Documentation of Soviet Intelligence Operations in the United States, 1930-1950 is available at http://www.wilsoncenter.org

4 Available at http://www.wilsoncenter.org

5 Available at http://www.wilsoncenter.org

6 See: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/cwihp/rosenberg/ for a web-based timeline of the Rosenberg case with links to primary source documents